Something’s been troubling me about this thing called practice. When I first came to Zen, my personal likes and dislikes got in the way. I didn’t like chanting lines in Japanese and Sanskrit, thought there was too much bowing, too many robes, too much mumbo-jumbo. Over time that very practice has helped me to see such “obstacles” for what they are, namely ego-based impediments that have little or nothing to do with living a good life. I’m now grateful for the ethical framework that Buddhism provides. It guides me through the chaos of everyday existence and people tell me that I’ve become more gentle and less judgemental. So far so good.
Recent conversations with friends about someone they believe would “really benefit” from meditating but “won’t come for x-number of reasons” cause me look a little closer at what I take for granted. If it’s such a good thing, this practice, why aren’t more people coming to it? What gets in the way? What turns people away from trying and what, should they give it a try, prevents them from returning? What barriers might we remove to provide freer access?
In a practice that stresses non-duality and inclusivity, I’m struck by texts and images that seem clubby and exclusive. In our city (which is anything but a hotbed of Buddhist activities) meditation opportunities are offered in several flavours, including Tibetan, Shambhala, Vipassana, as well as Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Soto, and Rinzai Zen. Teachers sport such arcane titles as Reverend Master, osho, sensei, rinpoche, venerable, lama, priest, and roshi; others are called elders, monks, shusso, benji, doan, ino, or by given names in Asian languages. Websites refer to proper etiquette (such as when and how to bow, and which foot to put first when entering, how to hold your hands while walking, and so on). Pictures show people wearing special outfits (some crown-like hats), burning incense, bowing to statues, sitting on round cushions while facing blank walls, walking lock-step in close formation, ringing bells, hitting wooden boards, and holding their hands in what may well be prayer. Hello !!
All that so people can sit still and pay attention to their breath?
I know of formally trained teachers who have taken off their robes and offer meditation with little jargon, titles, and ritual. In some traditions, Vipassana (as taught by SN Goenka) for instance, the emphasis is on silent sitting and focusing on the breath: no Buddha images in sight. Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), widely used in American hospitals, teaches patients meditation techniques to help lower blood pressure and improve immune systems. Abundant research attests to MBSR’s benefits, its Buddhist roots are rarely mentioned.
ps: This topic has resulted in a string of thoughtful comments over at Nathan’s blog.