Buddhist Culture

Mindfulness or Awareness


Roshi opened his talk this week by telling us that he was invited to give a talk at the United Auto Workers conference on “Safety.”  Why would a Zen teacher be invited to talk to a group of auto workers?  A clue could be the name of the conference – “Creating a Culture of Safety.”  Roshi asked us to consider for a moment what a culture actually is.


Tesshin Roshi noted that he has spent a good part of his life outside of the dominant culture.  Whether this was when he was an American in Japan or a Zen teacher in America – he was always a bit of an outsider.  This outsider status has the great advantage of providing an unbiased perspective on the dominant culture.  In other words, being on the outside allows one to deeply observe.  As an example of this, consider that many of our most popular Christmas songs were written by Jewish immigrants.  Why is this?  Perhaps as outsiders, they could really see what people needed at that moment. 


Roshi next asked us to consider the American culture for a moment.  First of all, we must realize that the culture is always changing.  What was acceptable one hundred years ago may not be acceptable today.  Consider something like same-sex marriage.  In the past these relationships were shunned, but now they are more mainstream in our culture.  So, if culture is always changing, is there a foundational essence which does not change?  Roshi noted that a good working definition of culture is a set of beliefs and values on which the majority of people agree on and are stable over time.  In America, there are many different beliefs and values – as we would expect in such a large and diverse country.  However, looking into the matter deeply we can see that this culture puts a lot of value on the individual.  This may express itself in positive and negative ways.  For instance, our sense of political and economic liberty derives from this value of the individual.  However, we may over indulge in this value and descend into mindless consumerism and selfishness.  We can also look to other cultures to see how they contrast.  For instance, other cultures venerate the society and tradition.  This leads to traditions such as respect for elders and a desire for order in society.  


Roshi stopped here and asked the group to consider if there is such a thing as “Buddhist Culture.”  This is a recurrent question – especially in America where Buddhism is a relatively new transplant.  Many American practice centers resist Buddhist forms and liturgy.  They ask, “Isn’t it enough to simply sit?  Aren’t all the forms simply a reflection on Japanese or Chinese culture?”  Many conclude that we do not need these foreign forms in America!  Roshi asked us to think a bit deeper on this.  In his estimation, Buddhist culture is all about attention and wisdom.  Sitting is not the Buddhist culture!  Zazen is a tool we use – but our shared value is being present right here, right now.  


This brings us back to the forms.  Are the forms Buddhist culture – no!  However, if we are to jettison the “foreign forms” we have to ask the question – what tools are we going to replace them with?  If we are to build a house, we can drop our hammers and measuring tapes – but we have to replace them with something else.  Perhaps we move to power tools or even 3D printing – but we need something.  The tools of Buddhism are all about generating “present mind” and wisdom.  This is our culture.  We can use new tools and modify existing tools, but we can never lose sight of what makes our practice work.  


Roshi emphasized this point by noting that details matter.  We pay attention to everything in practice because this attention lessens the power of the ego.  We hold elaborate Oryoki meal ceremonies instead of ordering take-out as the fine details of the meal discipline our wandering mind.  We chant, bow, and perform all sorts of liturgy in order to focus on detail.  Working on details allow us to forget the self – if just for a brief moment.


To emphasize this point, Roshi told a story about when he first started as a student in a Japanese temple at the age of 19.  His first assignment was to wash the windows.  On the first day, he was all mindful about the job and did his best to make the windows perfect.  On the second day, he was assigned to wash the windows again.  He asked, “But sir, I have already done that job!!”  He got this same job over and over again for the entire week.  Finally in frustration, he asked “Why do you keep assigning me this task – the windows are perfect!”  To which the answer was, “Yes, the windows are perfect, but you are not!”  It is not about the windows – it was never about the windows.  The task and the details exist to forge our ability to be present and mindful.  THIS is our Buddhist culture at work.  


Roshi reminded us that adopting this Buddhist culture is central to our practice.  We cannot have one without the other.  He reminded us that this extends to every activity in the Zendo.  How we bow, our posture in Zazen, how we care for the alter.  Every detail is superfluous and a matter of life and death.