Cycle of Exchange   

As Buddhism Becomes More Popular   
Fragments and Short Essays
A group (eventually) of pieces too small or fragmentary to have their own sections. Please select from the list of contents.

Cycle of Energy - Cycle of Exchange

Ray Lynch writes of the performances of the Renaissance Quartet, "When we were completely 'on' and sensitive to each other, and the audience was absorbed, a ‘cycle of energy' was created around the event that was really remarkable. . . "

This is a familiar process for artists - especially those in the performing arts. But I think, somehow, that this cycle of energy is potential in every human interaction. Is that really so? What is its source - and purpose (insofar as anything has a purpose - or perhaps not purpose but direction, as water flowing downhill has a direction.) I think when I interact with someone, we can create this cycle of exchanged energy - it happens when we each have something to give, and choose to give it. The root of such an exchange and of the desire to give, really, is appreciation, each of us for the other. Ultimately, it is a manifestation of love - that is, the sense of the value of the other's very being that engenders the urge to contribute to him or her. I think we all desire - even crave this. We also fear to give it - we fear the loss to ourselves, and the vulnerability that allows such an exchange. But this energy, by its very nature only increases with being given - and this of course is the secret to the cycle of exchange. Each moment of giving strengthens and increases the cycle.

My intuition is that the ground of this exchange - appreciation, love - is what Buddhism calls bodhicitta, a concept which adds emptiness into the equation. Ultimately, bodhicitta is emptiness that manifests (when it does) as compassion; it is the essence of enlightenment. Those rare beings in whom the capacity for this exchange has become fully activated, who can always interact in this way, are, by that, in paradise themselves; they are like deities. They are also fully present to their own emptiness - they are transparent - and so recognize themselves as clear lenses through which this energy can pass and be focused. It becomes focused on those who are not (yet) transparent; it warms them; sometimes it even burns them - but in all, it illuminates the ground within. It helps them to move toward their own transparency, when the opaque becomes clear, and forms, empty but apparent, turn as flimsy as distant rainbows.

But in practical day-to-day terms, giving this energy to others is not a simple matter, nor is the transparency that makes the process possible. The full, experiential, awareness of emptiness lived day to day and moment to moment is what creates this transparency, and anyone hoping to act from that ground or base must be completely free of anything other than this emptiness. Just as a person struck by lightning may survive if he is not wearing anything like a watch or belt-buckle that can hold and focus the lightning's energy, so, the person who wants to live in this energy exchange must be clear - not obstructed with possessions, and images of himself.
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As Buddhism Becomes More Popular

Uh oh. Buddhism seems to be showing itself above the horizon of common perception in the West. Today I read in an internet article, "as many as 4 million Americans now practice Buddhism, surpassing the total of Episcopalians." Yikes. More of us than of Episcopalians. Now actually this may not be as impressive as it sounds: a friend of mine who has Episcopalian roots tells me that there never were all that many, and their numbers are declining. Nevertheless, it points to Buddhism's growing visibility.

On one level this could be good - I mean, I think Buddhism is great, and don't want to follow anything else myself; I've watched Buddhism improve the lives of people who practice it, and I consider it a great benefit to everyone. From that point of view, the more the merrier. But on another level, I cringed as I read this statistic - greater visibility will bring with it some negative consequences. The article in which this claim appeared is a perfect example of what I fear. Written by a widely published journalist, John Horgan, it is loaded with misconceptions and unwarranted assumptions and ends in a very depressing conclusion. Apparently Horgan's investigation was motivated at least to some extent by what he thought was Buddhism's "de-emphasis of supernatural notions such as immortal souls and God." He appears to have been looking for something that would square with science and "modern humanistic values." And Buddhism fails him. It does not fit the structure he set up for it. He ends by concluding, "all religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests." Bummer. (If you are interested, you can read the entire article here. And a detailed response is here.)

I am really considering Horgan's work not in itself but as an example of the problems are beginning to arise as Buddhism becomes conspicuous on the American and western religious scene. The superficiality of Horgan's article reflects a western tendency to insist that things fit into our conceptual structures. It also has to do with our view of knowledge as the acquisition and analysis of facts, and nothing deeper.

Horgan speaks of learning about Buddhism by "taking a meditation class and … talking to (and reading books by) intellectuals sympathetic to Buddhism." This is no way to really discover what any religion is - and it is evident in Horgan's article that he is writing about something that he does not understand at all, and with which he has apparently had very little actual contact.

So this is one of the problems that I see. As Buddhism becomes better known here, there will also be more of these 'experts' who have collections of facts and opinions, but no experience. They will explain Buddhism to whoever will listen, and sell their books to whoever will buy them. Sadly that may be a lot of people who will then think they have some understanding of Buddhism. Straight ignorance would be easier to deal with and less harmful.

The other problem is the appropriation of Buddhism by scholars as more academics are drawn to this field of study. Here the western scholarly principle of 'objectivity' is added into the mix, and also works against real understanding - actually prevents it - because it eliminates the most important method of coming to know Buddhist teachings, and that is through introspection and personal experience.

So there will be Buddhism as understood in academia and in the media, and then Buddhism as understood by those who practice it. This divide is not too great at the moment, because Buddhism has not attracted too much attention. But that is changing, and I am concerned that this divide will grow.

I see this now in Christianity where the image of Jesus that emerges from the past decades of biblical scholarship is dependant on so many technical studies and contradictory and tendentious theses that he is far beyond the reach of ordinary believers. And at least some academics think that their work discredits the Christ who is known to believers.

Fortunately for Buddhist practitioners, Buddhist lineages are fairly strong and well defined. The concept of transmission holds an important place in most of the various traditions. In a sense transmission could be described as a stream of subjectivity, of inner knowledge and awareness passed from teacher to student that keeps alive the real meaning of Buddhism. As long as that remains strong, it can definitely stand in opposition to the destructive forces of scientific objectivity and superficial popularization.
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[Page updated 02/20/03]