Among the many blessings listed by the Blessed One in the maṅgala sutta is “Living in a suitable land” (patirūpa desavāsa). One can interpret that metaphorically (suitable conditions) or more literally as a suitable land. This post is about the latter.
Indeed the land in which we live can profoundly impact our Dharma life. Those who live in America can be fully satisfied that we are met with such conditions.
Perhaps most important of all is the aspect of coming into contact with the teachings of the Blessed one. Tibetan Buddhism explains one of the requirements of this – just having a human life – with the analogy of the golden yoke. But even having that, there is wide dispersion in the ease with which you can practice in a particular land.
The US constitution itself has ploughed the soil well
Through the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the very first amendment, the constitution has expressly made sure nothing gets in the way of a new religion. Buddhist practice in any meaningful numbers is an arrival in this land much after the state was established. Yes, Christianity too was a new arrival in this land. But let’s remember that it would have been far too easy for the religious faith of the new majority to have simply been made the law of the land. This has happened time and again – is still prevalent in many countries and other religions are not given the same status or allowed to grow and be available to people who are willing to give it a try – and that includes countries where that privileged position is occupied by Buddhism. It was the nearly unique position of the founding generations, having tasted what religious persecution feels like in the old land that urged them to keep the new land free for all religions yet to arrive.
In fact, a similar environment of the free and (mostly) respectful, but vigorous exchange of ideas and room for new ones to arise is where the Dharma arose in the first place – India of the mid first millennium BCE. Contrast that good fortune with lands where people of different religions are not allowed to pray together, not allowed to meditate at all and in some cases, even subject to intimidation and violence.
I remember from about ten years ago, someone saying that Americans change religion as easily as changing breakfast cereal. To some this might indicate a lack of depth of practice, but I think this idea that your religion is not assigned to you at birth or that you aren’t considered a rebel and troublemaker for adopting another has been helpful for the Dharma to flower in many hearts.
It’s also a land that does not have disdain for religion – unlike some places and societies where irreligion is fashionable or required.
A land of immigrants
Being a land of immigration has been phenomenally helpful in the development of the Dharma. The beginnings of American Buddhism are certainly from communities in Asia who brought their practice with them. Not only did they bring it along, they had to alter and adjust the practice to suit their American lives. The difficulties they faced were tremendous and are well covered – even touched upon in another post in this blog.
The presence of teachers and communities
Some parts of the US, like the Bay Area, have phenomenal access to Dhamma communities. Of course, as in any profession, not all who teach are actually teaching the Dharma and one has to choose wisely and all that, but imagine the difficulty of being in a land where there are none!
There is also the blessing of being present in a fortunate time: This is a time when once you come into contact with an area of exploration, and that includes the Dhamma, you can learn more about it with a few finger taps, engage in discussion with other learners, ask questions and interact with teachers – whether in text, speech or even visually – right from your home!
The sight of monastics
I can’t even begin to tell you how inspiring it is for practice to see monastics living their lives, setting an ideal for the lay folk, just like in the time of the Buddha. Not only do I get to see this sight I never saw growing up, I also get to see a number of lay people interacting with them and many of these lay Buddhists are familiar with interacting with monks (per point above regarding immigration), providing them with support, knowing how to learn from them. I think of these lay folks as a freshman might regard a junior or senior – keenly watching for example.
The willingness to go to the ends of the planet to learn more about what you think worthwhile
It’s argued that this quality of “going all out” is in abundance in America. I tend to agree. A whole wave of Buddhist influence in North America is through people who either encountered the Dharma while in Asia or even expressly went there to spend years or decades learning with masters. While I do have some irritation with the fact that in some minds, the teachings passed down by these students of the masters is considered the real American Buddhism and “modern” while that brought by Asian students of the masters of the same previous generations is not… I am thankful for them too. I came into contact with the Buddha’s teaching through just such channels. They have greatly broadened the visibility of the Dharma to the population. Another phenomenon that came with this wave: the prominence of lay teachers.
The clear recognition of some forms of dukkha
Different cultures tend to be blind to different forms of dukkha they endure. Whatever our society is blind to, one thing that’s fairly widely accepted in the US is that we’re pretty stressed, dissatisfied, and that some of our pursuits are quite exhausting. Most agree on this, even if there is plenty of disagreement on whether such pursuits and dissatisfaction with the status quo are a good thing or bad. And that’s great. It’s much harder for a person who does not recognize being in the grip of greed, hatred, delusion and suffering to realize they need the Dhamma.
With being in a leadership position in technology and innovation comes the unenviable burden of being the first to meet new forms of dukkha. Social media is a fairly recent example, but there have been others for some time now, reminding us all the time that liberation from dukkha is a goal and undertaking of its own. It’s not going to come by making progress on other matters of physical comfort or entertainment.
Knowing that this is a home for the Dharma
Perhaps to me the most important aspect of living in America – in contrast to most other places is the feeling of being at home, regardless of where you come from. To cite a speech in 1988 from one of our former presidents, which is included in the little handbook that every naturalized American gets at their oath ceremony:
“America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’?”
This is as true for faiths and practices as it is for persons. Never mind that reality is lagging behind ideals. Never mind that there are many Americans who don’t subscribe to these ideals. Or who think you’re not really an American at all. But if *you* do subscribe to this ideal of the US and understand the country this way, then it should gladden your heart to know that in due time Buddhism will be as much of an American religion as any other. Remember that in some countries, the laws actually privilege some religions and can’t merely ignore those who will never accept the full status of your faith. Buddhism will not be considered a foreign import any more than Christianity is considered a foreign religion in, say Europe. This is in contrast to the pessimism that some hold regarding the future of Buddhism in America, that the Dharma is Anti-American, which I contend is based on some ideas of what the American ideal is and who Americans are and what American culture is. Unlike many other countries (and from the presidential quote above), there is no conceivable test for being a real American other than, well, legal citizenship. Whatever I happen to believe or practice, is by definition, an American belief or practice. Not the American practice, but an American practice. Buddhist cultures in America are American cultures.
Is this the only suitable land? Far from it, but we’re in great shape too! Nor is much of what I say here unique to Buddhism – it’s true for all faiths, from Catholicism to Pastafarianism.