An Open Tradition

by Michael Wenger

Excerpts from a talk at the Hartford Street Zen Center, May, 1998



Reprinted by permission of the author from Issanji, newsletter of the
Hartford Street Zen Center
Fall, 1998

This morning Iíd like to talk about the role of tradition in our practice. What is distinctive about Buddhism as a religion is its great range of teachings, but we also have this saying, "Don't mistake the finger for the moon." Don't mistake the teachings or practices for the direction they are trying to point you in. We each have our stories, family history and tradition, and then there is a tradition you may have chosen. One exciting aspect of Buddhism in America the past thirty or forty years, for those not from Asian backgrounds, is that it wasnít passively inherited. That is true even of our life histories, there is always interplay between where we are and what we choose.
There is a lot of understanding of tradition that can make it into an embalming agent, where itís all an enactment of something that happened before. Where our attachment to what we think of as tradition tries to reify a very alive "virus" into a fixed edifice. Another version, of non-tradition, has people rootless: as if what came before, or will happen in the future, didnít affect them, like a detached entity not connected to the whole of what is going on in the world. Both of these are extreme views. But tradition and transmission is very much alive, and not always quite what we think. That doesnít mean there isn't a tradition. By our study we can find out what our preconceptions of tradition are, then we grope in the dark to see if we can find a way to realize the tradition.

When I first came to Zen Center in the late 60's, there was a great rush to Americanize the Dharma. For example, there was an idea that we shouldnít wear robes, we should wear denim fat pants, as if that was a freedom from a tradition. But could you imagine the tradition now if we had done that? Not that it was a bad idea, but we shouldnít jump over our understanding of modern, American, Asian, Zen, and what all those categories are. We have come a long way since then into looking at that and incorporating cultural forms.

We have a great opportunity now because many forms of Buddhism are coming at once. Traditionally, when you lived in a country, you came into contact with only one or two strains of Buddhism, or some alternate schools. But the whole brush of the tradition, as it comes through many different countries, lineages, and cultural adaptations, is now in front of us. Buddhism always adapts and infects the culture that it is involved in, because itís just what you do, itís how you live your life. So having an open tradition, a tradition that is open to the moment and doesnít deny the past, is very important...

Is tradition a set of understandings or behaviors, or does tradition put you on the stage where your life comes forth? Itís a bit mysterious. Buddhism is a very sophisticated set of teachings and practices that can help us experience "things as it is," but the danger is that we begin to think that the fingers themselves are what is important. Then we either want to eliminate the fingers of tradition or enshrine the tradition. We still had to find our own way. Any tradition may get you in the doorway, out of the sidelines and marginalization in your own life, but it takes our participation and humbleness about what the tradition is. The tradition may be wider or narrower than what we think, it may be longer or shorter, but we should know how it comes to us and how useful it has been.

Of course the tradition changes and we shouldnít be afraid of that. There are points where a tradition or teaching may not be so useful, but that doesnít mean you should get rid of it, because it may be useful at other times. To start from a place of deep appreciation and gratitude for the tradition is very important, to respect the living tradition, and at the same time not be afraid to do something different. What we do here may seem old fashioned or inextricable, but this tradition has produced a body of work, a line of teachers, and a living spark that can ground us into the wideness of the past and present and future.

© Copyright Michael Wenger, 1998

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