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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, May 21, 2006

when cultures collide

The day is warm, though not so summer-hot as it has been in the past week. Kimmie, in her blue tanktop and gray shorts, bends almost double out on the brick patio to weed and straighten her garden. Our yellow sprinkler sprays glittering streams of droplets into the greenery. Overhead the plywood floor creaks as Robin, recently risen (it's 12:20 p.m.), pads through my just-washed kitchen making herself breakfast. Later the two women will be traveling to Cloverdale to attend a bridal shower of Kimmie's great niece Lynn.

This morning, over coffee, I keyed notes from Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian by Sean Freyne--the first historical-research text I have worked with in months--as well as The Origins and History of Consciousness and Wake Up to Your Life by Ken McLeod, an American Buddhist teacher. My investigation into the mystery of personal identity has brought me, inevitably, back to the Buddhist teachings that I more or less walked away from four years ago.

My copy of the HarperSanFancisco paperback I bought used from Ngodrup (an ordination name which is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit siddhi, meaning "spiritual accomplishments" or realization), a young fellow monk from Saskatchewan at Gampo Abbey. I felt conflicted about buying it from him, since it seems not quite right for any practitioner, but especially a monastic, to part with dharma books. However, after careful questioning, Ngodrup convinced me that he was clear that he wanted to sell the text, at least for the time being. I bought it for $20--money that he no doubt needed.

I already knew that I liked Ken McLeod as a dharma writer, since I had bought and read The Great Path of Awakening, his translation of a commentary on the Mahayana practice of lojong ("mind-training") by the 19th-century Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. McLeod's strength as a dharma teacher shows through in the extended notes at the end of the text, in which he offers pithy summaries of key points of Buddhist doctrine. I started reading Wake Up to Your Life while I was still there at the abbey, and, softened up by my months of living in an environment of meditation and study, I found it powerful and profound.

I was excited by his approach. McLeod had undertaken to write a Vajrayana Buddhist text (he was trained--much more extensively--in the same Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that I was, under the direct supervision of Kalu Rinpoche) using almost no Sanskrit or Tibetan terms. He had translated them all, making no reference to the originals. Indeed, he had done more than this; he had thought through the basic principles taught in all Buddhist systems and come up with his own way of presenting this to a Western audience, as he describes himself (slightly compressed):

In the Kagyu tradition...I immersed myself, learning the Tibetan language, studying the texts, learning and practicing the rituals, and spending seven years in a training retreat. Though powerful, Tibetan Buddhist methods cannot easily be practiced in the classical manner in the context of contemporary American life. So I set about reexamining everything I had learned and practiced.

I came to understand the central role of attention in internal transformative work, and I saw how all aspects of Buddhist practice (and all forms of internal transformative work) can be described in terms of the operation of attention.

This translation of the teachings, without leaning on Sanskrit and Tibetan loan-words, is key, I think, to transmitting them to a new culture in a new time. Too often in translations of Buddhist texts we find statements to the effect that "there is no adequate English equivalent of the word prajna," and so on. While this may be true, it keeps the teachings alien; these terms--and there are many such--provide continual reminders to the student that the teachings come from elsewhere, some place where people's minds appear to work differently, insomuch as they have come up with different words to describe their workings.

We are now in a global melting-pot of ideas and traditions. I am most interested in this, because I believe this situation has an important antecedent in the Hellenistic period just after the conquests of Alexander the Great around 325 BC. Alexander's empire smashed down the bulkheads that divided civilizations, in particular the civilizations of West and East as exemplified by Greece and Persia. Largely as a matter of Alexander's personal policy (one that was not shared enthusiastically by his subordinates), the conquered Asians were not treated as mere subjects of their new Macedonian lords, but were respected for their traditions, institutions, and wisdom. West and East collided, commingled, and reacted with each other.

One of the effects of this, as pointed out by the great scholar of Gnosticism, Hans Jonas, in his The Gnostic Religion, was that ideas necessarily became stripped of their local, cultural content. For an idea to be picked up and regarded as powerful or true by someone from a completely different culture, it must have a universal content and appeal. When Greeks went to Asia, they found gods that reminded them of the gods back home, and felt that they were in fact the same gods being worshipped under different names. The gods became uprooted from their connections to particular locales and took on more universal attributes.

In the same way, today ideas are mixing all over the world. No idea will survive as a universal idea if its expression depends on a particular culture or nationality. Indeed, the world is already too small to accommodate religions based tribal gods claiming to be universal, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. And Buddhism, in my view, will also never take wide hold in the West if it is seen as being culturally Asian. A sorting process is already happening: what is truly universal about Buddhism, and what is merely cultural? What is the true nature of a sentient being's mind, and what is merely an expression of Indian or Tibetan culture?

McLeod's book takes a big step in the direction of discovering the truly universal core of the Buddhist teachings: what speaks to my life, in my language, as well as to a Tibetan's life in his language.

Since my topic is identity, I can't ignore Buddhism, which has been intensively examining this question for the past 2,500 years. I know that the Buddha's answer is that the ego, the "I", does not exist. But I am still studying anyway. I need to find out for myself: what do I think?

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