Confessions of an Ambivalent Buddhist

Observed by Buddhists all over the world around this time of year, Vesak Day is a day of reflection upon the birth, enlightenment, and death of the historical Buddha. The precise day on which it falls in any given year is determined by the calendar utilized by whichever sect is doing the celebrating. For most, it will be observed this weekend. Here in St. Louis, however, Buddhists of various sects have agreed to gather collectively on the 20th of May.

Vesak Day at Borobudur

I have numerous fond memories of Vesak Days past, many of which have been held on the beautiful grounds of a monastery just west of town, overlooking rolling wooded hills and the Missouri River valley. Vesak Day is a time of meditation, self-reflection, ritual observance, Dharma teachings, and lots of good food and fellowship – in addition to it quite often falling on a sublimely gorgeous spring day.

One of the rituals performed involves the “bathing of the baby Buddha,” a ritual in which practitioners dribble ladles of water or tea over a statue of the infant Buddha – thereby cleansing and refreshing it. As far as rituals go, the symbolism is fairly straightforward; we are cleansing, refreshing, and renewing our practice – quite a meaningful undertaking however you might care to look at it.

For some reason, though, I feel compelled to confess that whenever I’ve performed this ritual I’ve observed within “me” a curious mix of intended sincerity balanced with faint amusement, intimate belongingness shaded with distant socio-cultural curiosity, humility offset by dismissive rationality. What a strange blend! Yes, I’m quite an ambivalent Buddhist at times, aren’t I? I suppose I’ll have to give you some background in order for you to really understand where I’m coming from.

I was raised Christian, and with at least a fair amount of diligence I took to the task of internalizing this faith of my upbringing. Perhaps it’s a foregone conclusion to say that whatever diligence I might have brought to this task was not ultimately successful. My own personal wrestling match between faith and reason ended with faith pinned to the mat and reason raising its clenched fist in victory. Science would be my new religion. Mathematics would be the language of my bible. Ah, but that, too, proved to be a less than satisfactory endeavor. And so it was that Eastern philosophy became my new frontier of exploration – eventually leading me to a regular meditation practice nestled within the context of Dogen Zen. Dogen Zen is the scientific method of religion, after all. Cultivate and verify, he taught his students. For me, this became a way of seeing that was more powerful than the Hubble telescope or any subatomic particle accelerator with respect to enabling me to see the reality of existence.

Fast forward a few years… I’ve declared myself a Buddhist. Indeed, it was Buddhism – through the lens of Dogen Zen – that brought me to this new place of understanding. And what do Buddhists do around this time each year? They observe Vesak Day, of course. Now, before this Dogen Zen practitioner ever attended a multi-sectarian Vesak Day celebration, I’d already sorted through enough of the various Buddhist teachings and practices – teachings and practices that are either attributed to the Buddha himself or inspired by following those who collectively took those teachings to places that no single individual could have possibly taken them in the course of a single lifetime – and I’d decided what “I” believed. I’d decided what “my” practice was all about. This was the mind that I brought with me to that first Vesak Day. And so it was that this disaffected Christian come Dogen Zen practitioner, this scientific method embracing cultivator-and-verifier, lined up alongside my fellow western converts and those who’d grown up in Buddhist households in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, and Sri Lanka – those who’d been “raised Buddhist” – in order to bathe the baby Buddha.

Oh, but perhaps I’ve not yet adequately described the true flavor of the stew of conflicted emotions that “I’d” felt while standing in that line. You see, one of the teachings regarding the Buddha that I’d sorted through at some point in my journey was the following passage compiled and translated by Sherab Chodzin Kohn (1994):

One night during the midsummer festival in Kapilavastu, Queen Mahamaya had a dream. In the dream she ascended a height, and a large and beautiful white elephant with six tusks entered her womb through her right side…. When she awoke, she had a feeling of great well-being and knew she was with child…. Mahamaya’s pregnancy lasted ten months. It was springtime, in the month of Vaishakha, when she began to feel the imminence of the birth…. In the middle of the month, on the full-moon day, Queen Mahamaya was walking in the grove when suddenly she felt heavy and raised her right arm to take hold of a tree branch for support. Just then, as she stood grasping the branch, the bodhisattva was born into the world, instantly and painlessly…. Then the bodhisattva, who already had the form of a small child, took seven firm steps, looked into the four directions, and said, “I am the leader of the world, the guide of the world. This is my final birth.” [other versions have the infant Buddha pointing one hand to the heavens and the other to the earth as these or similar words are spoken.]…. At that time, a great rishi, a seer, named Asita was living alone in the mountains practicing meditation. He saw with his clear sight that a momentous and auspicious birth had taken place somewhere in the world…. (pp. 3-5)

Of course, the similarities between this story and that of the birth of Jesus are striking: the supernatural predestination, the heavenly and non-sexual impregnation, the birth as a king, the witnessing throughout the world by those wise enough to see. Do I believe it? Oh, please don’t make me spell it out for you!

Our Practice

When we speak of our practice, what do we mean? Are we speaking only of those things that we actually do or believe? Are we speaking also of that which we might like to do or like to believe if only our practice were just a little bit deeper? Are we speaking of those practices that are generally engaged in by the group with whom we share the strongest affinity, whether or not we engage in them ourselves; or those things that are generally believed in by the group, whether or not we believe in them ourselves. Are we also speaking of those things that we neither want to do nor want to believe but which we do nonetheless and at least refrain from professing sentiments to the contrary for the sake of unity, cohesion, and harmony? I would venture to say that, on an individual level, our practice is constantly being reinvented. Our ego generally becomes less rigid and our sense of self becomes more fluid as time goes on. Our practice deepens and as it does our way of being in the world becomes transformed. Moment by moment – when we’re paying attention, anyway – we cleanse the buddha residing within us and refresh the practice that is ours. In a similar way our religious organizations are continuously reinvented. Priorities change, membership changes, new beliefs about what constitutes our practice arise. Nothing stays the same, not even the practice of Buddhism.

It is often said, and it appears to be true, that every country that has ever been introduced to Buddhism has adopted it, adapted it, and made it its own. This is taking place before our very eyes, even if we don’t quite grasp what is happening. The Sanshin Zen Community, for instance, when drawing up plans for their practice center in Bloomington, Indiana, chose a Shaker inspired architecture in order to, as I understand it, reflect both the simplicity of Japanese Zen and the reality of practice in a new land with a different cultural heritage.

Shaker Architecture

What will American Buddhism look like in the coming centuries? Will there still be ambivalent Buddhists ladling water over the statue of the baby Buddha (surely I can’t be the only one!), or will all the cultural accretions have been peeled away by then, leaving but a foundation upon which a truly American form will be built? Will American Buddhism eventually become so thoroughly transformed by the skepticism, the rationality, and the disregard for quaint belief and authoritarian dictates characterizing the American approach to life that all of us, whether we even know it or not, will have adopted a practice of cultivation and verification – with all that cannot be verified falling away into irrelevancy? Already, Buddhist teachings related to mindfulness have become so thoroughly subsumed within the realms of psychology and counseling and physical well-being as to have become unrecognizable as religious practice; they have become clinical techniques. Consider Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for instance. Will this process become so utterly complete at some point in time that Buddhism will no longer exist in name but will, nevertheless, be even more influential than ever?

Japanese Zen practice is intimately wedded with monastic practice. I think it bears keeping in mind, however, that for a monastery to have survived for hundreds of years it needed to have solved some very practical problems such as how the practitioners would be fed, how they would be housed, how the facilities would be supported and maintained; in other words, what work would be absolutely necessary for the continuation of life itself – in addition to all those things that we might think of today as practice. Thus, monastic practice was a holistic approach to life/practice, an organic outgrowth of the needs of the community in totality.

American Zen practice is now being formulated in Zen centers and sitting groups and in front of personal altars all over the country. What is our practice – that which we might collectively call American Zen? What will it look like in a hundred years, or five hundred? It is my perspective that, unlike traditional monastic practice, growing organically out of that which was absolutely necessary to the needs of the community in totality, Zen center practice is now heavily influenced by the background and personal preferences and idiosyncrasies of the teacher, the force of personality of certain practitioners and/or the pliability of others. And yet, even as practice becomes less and less about what we (and the entire world) need and more about what some individuals want or think that we all need, we still hear people talk about our practice as if it is writ somewhere in stone.

A successful religion has many “points of entry”. For one it might be an affinity for the study and contemplation of scripture. For another it might be engagement in ritual practice. For one it might be the stillness to be found within prayer or meditation. For another it might be fellowship with like-minded individuals. For one it might be faith or belief or the attribution of meaning. For another it might be joining in the work that has been agreed upon by the community as being important to its continuation or which is of an outwardly charitable nature even as it is rooted in successful inward practice. For a religion to focus on one or merely a few of these to the exclusion of the others merely limits its accessibility. Likewise, when an individual Zen center or sitting group or individual limits practice to only one or a few of these to the exclusion of others, growth potential is constrained.

So, what is our practice, anyway? I haven’t a clue. No, I do have a clue. It is life itself! I’d love to hear conversation take place along these lines, however. Toward that end I humbly submit this post. Regardless of whether we actually discuss anything, though, in one hundred years American Buddhism will have become what it will become, and at the end of our lives our practice will have become what it will become – albeit with far less intentionality.

Happy Vesak Day!

Vesak Day Lantern


Kohn, S. C. (1994). The Awakened One, A life of the Buddha. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Image Credits

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


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