The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien – Behind the Scenes in Zen-dom (book review)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications) is an ambitious attempt to accomplish two key approaches in understanding Buddhist history. as our perspectives of Buddhism have broadened (and hopefully also deepen). First, the re-telling of Buddhist history is marked by a dropping off unexamined stories as we acknowledge and cope with its romanticization and impact of its appropriation by the West. Second, as we become more aware of the complex intersectionality of our inner and outer environments, aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practices that may not address the issues in our times are being deeply questioned.

Academic and popular press publications in the last few years have been sharp examinations of what we think are the roots of Buddhism and reshaped what we believe are its principles. Author/scholars like David McMahan, Erik Braun, and Ann Gleig have provided incisive and insightful challenges to Western views and uses of Buddhism. Ira Helderman and Candy Gunther Brown have brought attention to naivete in thinking that the complex religious and sometimes political field of Buddhism can be neatly flipped into Western psychological practices with impunity.

This is a time of choppy waters and sudden storms whether one is a historian, researcher, practitioner, or student of Western Buddhism. In this context, O’Brien’s book is a brave one, especially if we place it in the lineage of previous authors who tried to make sense of the fables and enduring mythology of Zen history.

In the introduction, she confronts head-on the muddiness of Zen history, the knowledge we prefer to have avoided: broken lineages, (purposely?) muddied history, dogma, assumptions of a linear progression from Theravada to Mahayana – even the assumptions that the latter is the evolution away from a less developed form of Buddhism. Of course, there’s also the erasure of the feminine lineage, the wise women of Zen. (While searching for the published books on Zen women, I happened across this blog, Zen Women.) This is a lot to take on and I’m tentative about saying that O’Brien, despite being a scholar in the field, does it all to the degree that is required. Then again, I doubt any historian committed to a transparent investigation of several thousand years of the history of anything could do full justice to the topic.

The first two chapters offer a rich and complex story of Buddhism and then Zen. More particularly, it places “The Six (or so) Patriarchs” in the context of a wildly developing region whose political capriciousness is as much Zen-ish as are the teachings and teachers who cooked in that broth. When O’Brien describes Zen as it made its way through China’s geography and political turmoil, the going gets a bit rough. There’s too much to put into the chapters and the interactions become complex. It’s not a criticism of the author as an acknowledgment that trying to convey this part of history as a thick understanding is difficult for reasons that lie in the modern mind.

First, we do love our thin slices of Zen history, the dramatis personna and their perplexing statements of our quality of mind. The wild, often inebriated teachers, chopping off arms and fingers, cutting up felines and making perplexing exits with slippers as hats have appeal far more than the emperors, concubines, and their progeny who stymied or advanced Buddhism.

Second, we love a linear, logical progression in both our lives and those of others. We also love a Just World where the good are rewarded and bad punished. That it contradicts all manner of understanding of Buddhism in general and karma, in particular, is a cheap delusion. The messiness of Buddhism’s history means no one has the right view but it is, itself, a Right View. And that in turn means, we need to stop waving our mind flags and get down to the real work of Buddhist practice.

O’Brien has made a valiant effort and the challenge of getting through the middle part of the book is a personal one. I am too much a fan of the brazenness of Ikkyu and the morose Dogen. So, I do encourage you, Dear Reader, to persist through to the last chapter, Zen in the Modern World. Or perhaps, start there at the finish. If we can tolerate a different view of our perspectives of our present history, moving back in time may not be so discomforting. (Spoiler: O’Brien thankfully does not give the current cultism of secular or what a colleague calls “bubblegum mindfulness” any space. I’m grateful!)

Book Review: American Dharma by Ann Gleig

Book Cover American dharma by Ann GliegJust when I thought I had caught up with the winding path Buddhism took from Siddhartha to Asoka to Buddhist Modernism via McMahan and Braun, American Dharma adds another step in the evolution of Buddhism in the West. Author and scholar Ann Gleig brings an incisive and insightful examination of Buddhism’s adaptation, shapeshifting, and co-creation by Western perspectives of its root philosophy. In fact, Gleig’s reading of this path (as with McMahan and Braun) questions whether there was ever a root philosophy. And that takes us directly to the anxiety-provoking thought: Is Buddhism only what we decide it is?

Here, I need to disclose that Gleig includes our work in confronting the misconceptions of the psychologized form of Buddhism called Mindfulness. More specifically, my colleagues and I have attempted to address the self-identification of Mindfulness-Based Interventions/Programs (MBIs) with Buddhism/not Buddhism. (I will forebear jokes about self/not-self.) Gleig is generous in covering our concerns that MBIs while attempting valiantly to siphon in Buddhist concepts and practice, fall short of what is required to be Buddhist teachings in spirit if not exactly in design. I’ll have more to say about that further down.

For now, let’s take an overview of Gleig’s incisive thoughts about Buddhism and the shapes it took in Western culture. Drawing from McMahan’s and Braun’s extensive work, Gleig carefully describes the cultural (and political) imperative that shaped Buddhism from the time of Ledi Sayadaw which placed meditation at the heart of Buddhist practice. The passing on of the torch is traced further from U Ba Khin, Mahasi Sayadaw and their own students, with the most influential being Goenka who (aling with Thai Forest monks) eventually influenced the American phalanx of Buddhism: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein and the founding of the East and West Coast Insight Meditation Societies.

Gleig explores, with a remarkably balanced perspective, the explosion of Buddhist-based practices with Chapter Two: From the Mindfulness Revolution to the Mindfulness Wars. This is a particularly important chapter because it lays out the reality that it doesn’t matter whether we have subverted Buddhism to support our Western consumer-mind. If we have yet to address issues of disadvantage that are misogyny, racialization, and abuse, Buddhism qua mindfulness is only a mirror of our corrupted values. And, it becomes a weaponized approach to maintaining the status quo. This topic of disenfranchisement is powerfully explored in Chapter Five: The Dukkha of Racism, Gleig unmasks the attempts to change “racial rearticulation” which is

the acquisition of the beliefs and practices of another’s religious tradition and infusing them with new meaning derived from one’s own culture in ways that preserve the prevailing system of racial hegemony (From Cheah quoted in Chapter One).

Chapter Five is sad to read yet from the undertones of disappointment in our limitations to understand how we hurt each other through erasure, there is some hope that with pain comes insight into the suffering caused. Personally, I deeply resonate with “The Empty Seat” (that painful space left on either side of me when I sit at any table – meeting, gathering, socializing) and felt seen by the reading of it.

But back to Chapter Two where Gleig addresses the surge of mindfulness in its multitudinous forms of psychological programs, wellness movements, and “woo-vending”, a fantastic term coined by Philip Theofanos in his article here. The central criticism of mindfulness as a secularized and psychologized process (not practice) is repeatedly that “ethics are stripped” from its content. I’m stepping out of the container of this review by inserting my ongoing stance to this criticism: ethics are both implicit and explicit in the teachings of mindfulness. Dare I say in teaching anything. As such, the battle lines of ethics-protectors (ethics must be included in MBIs) and ethics-dismissives (ethics are implicit in MBIs or would be oppressive to teach) are missing the point. It’s impossible to teach any concept without immediately hoisting the flag of one’s inclinations as well as value-ridden approaches, and that requires full transparency (see Gunther Brown’s chapter in this linked page) as well as self-awareness. However, there is much gold to mine in the hills of conflict, even if generating that conflict is somewhat in conflict itself with the essence of Buddhist thought. And that essence is living a life that is congruent in its intention to do no harm and to test one’s actions against its consequences.

One interview mentioned in Gleig’s impressive references is between Edo Shonin and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Although Gleig uses it to support the view that secular/psychologized mindfulness has value, the interview points directly to the many reasons the discussion of MBIs are so confusing. Kabat-Zinn, both in this interview and innumerable other sources continually dances between “it’s Buddhist” and “it’s not-Buddhist” – I would add there is a hint of “it’s not-not-Buddhist” too. However, this chapter is worthy of a careful read if we hope to understand the convulsive route secular mindfulness has taken to ensure it doesn’t offend anyone.

Of course, the most reliable evidence we have that ethics-in or ethics-out requires more than posturing is this evidence of sexual predators within Buddhist communities. Chapter Three: Sex, Scandal and the Shadow of the Roshi is an excellent dissection of yet another way Buddhists fail to see their dismissal of secular/psychologized mindfulness because of its “stripping away of ethics” begs the question. Further, the connection Gleig makes between Buddhist Romanticism and Buddhist Modernism is crucial to understanding the reasons Western Buddhism has taken on the allure of self-help and the mantel of psychology. This is also covered in Chapter Four: Meditation and Awakening in the American Vipassana Network where we meet the varied branchings out of the vipassana practices into addiction, pragmatism, emotional and relational health, and so on.

In Chapter Seven, aptly titled From Boomers to Gen X, Gleig sets the stage for future generations. Noting the heavy lay slant in the Gen X cohort of young teachers, I wonder about the possible loss of historical memory of what Buddhism is and how Buddhism is to become (though they just need this book to ensure fidelity to the path). However, despite its efforts to rise above the previous generation’s missteps, it was noted in the first gathering of Boomer/Gen X teachers that Gen X may be creating its own blindspot of a “progressive America”. Time will tell.

In all, Gleig has dug deep and carved thick slices of understanding the historical evolution and societal forces that created Buddhism.America. It’s a powerful and unstinting gaze leveled at our misunderstanding of how Buddhism came to be in the West and what it represents in American culture (I can include Canadian culture to some degree because so much of where we train and what we learn comes from south of the 49th parallel). This is a book for the person who wants to strip away the illusion that is currently Buddhism so that they can discern whether it’s self-improvement, awakening, or therapy that they seek.

For the academics of MBI trainers, the look on your students’ and trainees’ faces is worth gold when you talk about the long and winding road that is Western Buddhism! I’ve already made it required reading for my University of Toronto course on Buddhist Mindfulness approaches to Mental Health!