Evolution of Practice


My wife majored in Physical Anthropology in college and was required to take a few mandatory Cultural Anthropology classes.  She is more scientifically minded so the “soft” aspect of Cultural Anthropology didn’t appeal to her (we both prefer measuring bones and comparing teeth of long dead mammals rather than the cultures of recent, ancient or dying cultures).  That being said she had a few interesting comments concerning some of the traditions of the Hopi and Navajo tribes.  While I can’t cite actual references I do recall that aspects of modern life become ritualized and conceptualized quickly in their religious tradition.

So, a tradition that began 50 years ago would have the same prominence as one that has gone on for centuries.  They were able to maintain, even through the near destruction of their culture by Europeans and the American Government, a solid foundation of their past as well as create new and growing traditions along the way.

Holding fast to the traditions of the past while simultaneously creating new ones seems like a perfect middle way for me.

It leads me to wonder about the many Buddhist traditions that are alive in the West and how they are changing, both organizationally and individually.  Now, personally, I could give two flying fucks about how an organization is changing with the times.  While many “traditional” Buddhist sects do adopt new traditions in response to changing interests and times (Monastics teaching secular meditation, Shin temples offering meditation classes, less formal Zen centers).  Organizationally, these changes are dull and administrative.  Their reasons for change relate to increasing numbers and attendance.  This is fine and necessary but, in the end, boring.

What I am curious about is how an individual’s practice is changing over time.  My personal practice started as academic, practical and secular (with no hints at a transcendent focus).  As my practice evolved it became slightly more transcendent by broadening out from the “this worldly” to a slightly more “outer-worldly” viewpoint.  Admittedly, my practice is still rather secular but with a more ritualized focus.  My emphasis is on seated and active meditation and mindfulness but I have added nembutsu practice as well as altar offerings, chanting and recitation. 

I still feel that my practice is based in the “traditional” aspect of Buddhism.  What specific “Western” or “Contemporary” element could be included in one’s practice?  What have you added?  Are the older traditions drying up, leaving our practice and focus desiccated and cracked or are they flourishing?  It seems that many times in Buddhist history, pivotal figures have restored some of the vigor of Buddhist practice.  Where are those figures now?

Just wondering.



2 thoughts on “Evolution of Practice

  1. Hey John,

    I think the institutional changes, while appearing boring, actually can give you an idea about how individual practices are changing as well. My guess is, though, that given the slow pace of institutional change, you’ll probably always find new things going on for individuals or small groups first.

    I do think blogging, and other internet sources of dharma, are new elements of practice.

    One thing I’ve found interesting that has been going on at my center is a group of AA folks that have decided to try and merge Buddhist teachings with their AA practices. Given the Christian underpinnings of AA, and other 12-step group, this is a new development. I would hope that, in the process, maybe this merger could move addiction work beyond self-help. However, maybe it will also end up being just that – self-help work.

    • Nathan,

      Institutional changes may help to show how it is evolving on the larger, grand scale but most of the interesting change and adaptation will occur on the smaller scale. An example is that while some Jodo ShinShu churches have adapted meditation as a consistent part of their liturgy, the real interesting change occurs within the households of those practitioners. It is there that they adapt to their own personal preferences and conditions

      I just started to read the 12 Step Buddhist by Littlejohn and it is really engaging in that it presents core Buddhist teachings (nothing dumbed down) as a supplement to a 12 step program. I love it. Core teachings in a secular context. I picked it up from the public library. The only problem is that it is located in the religion (buddhism) category and should in with the rest of the AA material so people can access it.


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