Bridging Eastern and Western Buddhism

Reviewed by Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer, San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 2005

San Francisco, Calif. (USA) -- Buddhism is not a religion of the Word, and thank God for that. Judaism has its Torah, Christianity has the Gospels and Islam its Koran, but the Middle Path prescribed by the Buddha comes with no required reading. It's supposed to be about meditation and mindfulness. It's a path of right action, right intention, right speech, right concentration and right livelihood.

Buddha never claimed to have talked to God nor to have received any divinely inspired words from his Higher Power.

So if Buddhism is not about words, why do these two books -- "Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America" by Wendy Cadge and "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World" by Pankaj Mishra -- keep staring at me from my night table, getting buried by other books but refusing to go away?

Lying is not advised for those on the Buddhist path, so let me confess that I had a hard time getting through these books.

Practicing the Taoist philosophy of wu-wei, or nonaction, I did not select them for review. They came down from my Higher Power, the editor of The Chronicle Book Review. It was a wise pairing, as both Cadge's treatise and Mishra's offering explore the differing view Western converts and Asian-born Buddhists have on this major world religion.

Like most converts, Western Buddhist practitioners take their religion seriously, devoting countless hours, weeks or months to vigorous meditation regimes. They try to train the mind to empty itself of the clutter and clatter of ordinary consciousness.

As Mishra notes in "An End of Suffering," the Buddha "rejected the abstract speculation popular then among Brahmin philosophers about the nature of reality and soul.''

"He had spoken instead of ordinary human experience: of how neither the individual self nor the world is stable, how our desire for things innately impermanent makes for frustration, turning life into perpetual discontentment, and how human individuals could achieve liberation, nirvana, by freeing themselves from greed, hatred and delusion.''

Later in his book, Mishra calls the Buddha "an acute psychologist" who "offered a moral and spiritual regimen that led to nothing less than a whole new way of looking at and experiencing the world." Perhaps, but most Asian American Buddhists (and Buddhists in Asia) seem perfectly content to let their monks do the hard work of this moral and spiritual regimen.

Rather than sitting cross-legged on the floor all day, suffering through hours of painful knees and aching backs, Buddhists who are born Buddhist are more likely to make offerings at the temple, light some incense and spend a few minutes praying for good luck.

Of these two books, Mishra's work is the better read. Born into the Hindu faith in northern India in 1969, Pankaj Mishra is a fine young writer. His book "The Romantics" won the Los Angeles Times' Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.

His search for the meaning of Buddhism begins in 1985 with a teenage pilgrimage to Lumbini, the Indian town where the Buddha was born in the sixth century B.C. His book meanders from there to Mashobra, a small Himalayan village where Mishra studies ancient Buddhist texts, contemplating their relation to Dostoevsky, Marx and Nietzsche.

Along the way, in the late 1980s, he crosses spiritual paths with Helen, a young Bay Area woman living in Benares. Helen lived near Mishra in an alley in the old city. He notices her walking around with her long blond hair tied in a ponytail, smiling and nodding at boys playing cricket on the cobblestone paths.

When they finally meet, Mishra is entranced by her "open white face, frank stare and quick smile."

"We spoke of literature,'' Mishra writes. "She told me of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and the row of bookstores in Berkeley.'' Helen invites Mishra to come up to her room to talk about Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. Mishra, of course, has more in mind than a meditation on the Beat poets. Unfortunately, Helen has a boyfriend back in the Bay Area, a wiry young man who would soon pay a visit to Benares.

A few years later, Mishra hears that Helen has shaved off those golden locks and taken vows as a Buddhist nun. In late 2000, they meet again when Mishra comes to San Francisco for a Zen meditation retreat.

Helen is still a nun and dressed in maroon robes when they wander into a downtown Starbucks and order chai, the sweet, milky tea they once shared in rickety stalls back in Benares.

Later, they have dinner at Helen's parents' home in Sausalito, a luxurious place overlooking the bay and a marina crammed with million-dollar yachts.

Over a vegetarian meal served with ciabatta bread from a nearby Buddhist bakery, Helen's mother explains how she, too, was getting into meditation. A friend suggested it as a good alternative to psychotherapy.

Mishra tries to control the resentment that arises in him when he thinks of the many Western seekers who come to India "indulging their privilege -- the unique license offered to them by the power and wealth of their countries -- to be whatever they wished to be: Buddhists, Hindus, Missionaries, Communists.''

"An End to Suffering" has its moments, but what slowed me down was Mishra's tendency to veer off on intellectual tangents, along with his inability to decide whether he's writing a memoir, travelogue or philosophical treatise.

Then there's "Heartwood," Wendy Cadge's meticulously researched comparison of two Theravada Buddhist communities on the East Coast.

Cadge, an assistant professor of sociology at Bowdoin College, offers an ethnographic study of Wat Phila, a temple of Thai immigrants outside Philadelphia, and the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, a meditation center for Western Buddhist practitioners near Boston.

Both centers come out of the school of Buddhism known as Theravada, or "the way of the elders," a form practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand and other parts of South East Asia. Cadge estimates there are between 500,000 and 1 million Theravada Buddhists in the United States, most of them born into Southeast Asian families in the United States.

There are also thousands of mostly Caucasian practitioners of a form of Theravada Buddhist meditation called vipassana. It has been popularized by the Insight Meditation Society, founded in 1975 by Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg. Kornfield, a former Peace Corps volunteer in South Asia, later co-founded Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, a popular retreat in the coastal hills near Woodacre. Cadge's conclusions about the Buddhism practiced by the Cambridge converts certainly applies to Spirit Rock, which has emerged over the past decade as one of the nation's leading Buddhist centers.

"While consciously moving away from the monks, temples, rituals, and other aspects of what some call the cultural trappings of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, many convert Theravada Buddhist practitioners nevertheless worked over the past thirty-five years to preserve and pass along the essence of the Buddha's teachings in the United States.''

"Convert" may not be the right word for many of the meditators who retreat to Spirit Rock or the dozens of other vipassana centers that have sprung up across the country. Many of Cadge's interviewees stop short of calling themselves Buddhists. They prefer "Christian with a Buddhist practice, " or "Ju-Bu," a term coined to describe American Jews who embrace Buddhist meditation.

"Heartwood" provides a thorough analysis and comparison of "imported" and "immigrant" Buddhism, though Cadge's writing style may appeal more to sociology students than spiritual seekers.

My suggestion to those seeking an understanding of the two Buddhisms in America is to go experience a Sunday afternoon on the 1900 block of Russell Street in Berkeley. At 1911 Russell St., you will find scores of Thai immigrants crowding into the backyard of Temple Mongkolratanaram for a noontime feast of Thai food and boisterous conversation.

Above the din, in an upstairs flat converted into a makeshift temple, you may find a Thai family presenting the monks with a plastic laundry basket filled with bottles of Calistoga fruit juice, rolls of paper towels and other household supplies.

Just a few doors up the street, at 1929 Russell St., you may find a few dozen veterans of the spiritual counterculture filing into the rustic elegance of a traditional Japanese meditation hall. Once inside the zendo of the Berkeley Zen Center, you may see these "serious" Buddhists sitting atop round black cushions, backs straight, facing a white wall.

Read books on Buddhism, or meditate on Russell Street?

What would Buddha do?

Title: Heartwood
The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America
By Wendy Cadge

Title: An End to Suffering
The Buddha in the World
By Pankaj Mishra