“There are only two mistakes one can make on the path, not starting, and not going all the way.” Not the Buddha.
You can awaken fully on the Buddhist path right where you are. Buddhism is as available to middle America as it is to anywhere else.
Buddhism in the United States operates with a particular fact that is not exactly a problem, but it can be kind of suboptimal for ordinary practitioners. Especially in the age of the world wide web, we have available a huge array of sources for Buddhist teaching, including the original teachings of the Buddha himself. This is a great thing, but for practitioners, it can be overwhelming. The Buddha himself was very clear that we all have Buddha nature and the capacity to awaken completely, we just don’t recognize it because we have lived countless lifetimes in which we have covered up our Buddha nature with defilements, which boil down to three: greed, hatred, and delusion.
So imagine that you want to overcome your own greed, hatred, and delusion. If you feel the need to verify that your mind has these characteristics, try meditating. Meditation has the effect of allowing you to start seeing all the unpleasant thoughts roaming around in your mind that you usually don’t notice. Don’t expect meditation to bring peace and happiness, not at the beginning, anyway.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you want to eradicate your defilements, if you want to learn to meditate, how do you do that? As with just about any topic, a Google search for “meditation” produces a plethora of options, potentially bewildering. Prominent American Buddhist Joseph Goldstein tells of himself that he first learned to meditate after a stint in the Peace Corps in the late 1960s. He then returned to the United States and tried to meditate on his own, but found himself hopelessly confused, so he decided he needed a teacher — way before the popularity of the world wide web. He returned to India and ended up at Bodh Gaya, legendary among Buddhists as the place where the Buddha awakened after a night of meditation under the Bodhi tree.
There, Goldstein began his systematic study of Buddhism with the leading Burmese teacher, Anagrika Munidra, whom Goldstein and other students refer to as Munidra Ji. Goldstein thus illustrates our fact that is not a problem, exactly, but can present a difficulty to American students. Obviously, there is nothing blameworthy about the circumstances of Goldstein’s life. He found himself in a particular situation and responded to it in a reasonable and rational manner. Since beginning his study of Buddhism, he has become a leading teacher of Buddhism in the United States. Compassion is a cardinal virtue in Buddhism, and Goldstein acts with great compassion when he explains the teachings of the Buddha, over and over, to all comers in the United States and around the world.
But having graduated from a university in the United States at a time when serving in the Peace Corps in Asia, or anywhere, was an option, then returning to Asia to study Buddhism, is a very particular historical experience that few people can have. Goldstein, like all humans, is unique and has had a unique experience in his life. Again, nothing wrong with that. But Buddhists don’t discriminate. Anyone can be Buddhist. We welcome fellow practitioners. Goldstein would never say so — he has dedicated his life to being a conduit of Buddhist teachings all over the world — but one can see how people with very different historical experiences might wonder if they have to travel to Asia to become Buddhist.
You may travel to Bodh Gaya if you want. You may not study with Munindra Ji, at least not directly, because he died in 2003. But you don’t have to. Lots of people in the United States have become Buddhist, many of them without ever traveling to India at all.
In many western states, Buddhism is the second most common religion, after Christianity.
You might also conclude from Goldstein’s experience that studying with a prominent Asian master is essential, except that Goldstein himself refutes this proposition by happily (or so it seems) serving as a Buddhist teacher in the United States. In some lineages, especially Zen, it is common for senior teachers to have formal approval to teach from their own teachers. Roshi Bernie Glassman was a famous example of an authorized Zen teacher in the United States. Goldstein has no such formal authority from any of his teachers. He just started teaching in the United States and won a following through the power of his message.
This approach is entirely consistent with the message the Buddha himself taught during his lifetime — listen to his ideas, evaluate them for yourself, and, if you find them useful, keep on trucking. This is not to say that there are no fake Buddhists abroad in the land, but with the ready availability of the Buddhist sutras, or the original teachings of the Buddha, it is pretty easy to spot anyone who is making it up.
So, if you want to get started as a practitioner of Buddhism, one thing to do is go visit the nearest Buddhist meditation center. Most cities have several. Pick whatever is most convenient. One good thing about Buddhists is that they do not fight among themselves over which version is the right one. There are some important differences among the schools of Buddhism, but Buddhists are not much into fighting with anyone about anything, and teachers like Goldstein are happy to borrow from any of the schools any idea they find useful. The basic meditation practice is pretty much the same wherever you go.
And there is value in knowing that people who have not traveled to Asia, or studied directly with any Asian teacher, still manage to make substantial progress on the path. It is actually a bit tricky to articulate the point because, especially in Zen, but for all Buddhists, the point of the exercise is not really to achieve anything. In some ways, Buddhism fits well in modern American society, but in some ways, it offers a profound critique of the way most Americans live our lives. In the United States, we tend to focus on accomplishments, on getting results, on completing major life tasks, such as graduating, from high school, or college, or law school, or graduate school, or whatever. Our culture typically gives us repeatedly the message that we are somehow inadequate as we are and that we need to do something or buy something to remedy the lack.
Again, the Buddha said you already have what you need, you just need to figure out that you have it and how to use it.
The Buddha did talk about the Noble Eightfold Path, but this is much more a metaphorical than a literal path. The Buddha himself awakened completely by sitting under a tree, meditating, having resolved not to move until he had achieved total awakening.
So you can get done what you need to do by sitting still. Awakening in the Buddhist sense denotes a profound, enormous change in your subjectivity, in how you perceive and think about the world. You don’t achieve anything or get anything, you just rearrange dramatically what you already have.
The key point is that we boring, middle Americans, with or without a college degree, with or without travel to India or Asia, or even outside the United States at all, can replicate the Buddha’s achievement completely, except that we cannot be the first in the current era because the Buddha already beat us to that one. Not that Buddhists care much about such distinctions. We mostly revere the Buddha for having done what he did — done was what had to be done, as Buddhists like to say — and then spent 45 years teaching and compiling a record that his followers could write down for us to continue using some 2,500 years later.
I know. I have done this. I’m an ordinary, American person who grew up in Oklahoma City and long had the thought that I was, or should become Buddhist, a thought I finally acted on during my second semester of law school. i started meditating regularly at a center in the city where I lived at the time, then took refuge, the formal act of becoming Buddhist, about a year later.
I have written a book explaining Buddhism for beginners that failed of publication for reasons (!). You may download a copy in PDF, MOBI, or EPUB format here. In future posts here, I shall reprint the entire book, a la Dickens.
Please keep reading.