When my father died in 1968, I was 17 years old. At the time I had no idea what the implications of that would be for me. Looking back on it now, I see that I went looking for a father figure to fill the empty space. Much as I admired my father, it was an opportunity to find an ideal role model.
In 1972, I met Kalu Rinpoche, who had arrived in Canada with a backstory that included 13 years in solitary retreat, being holder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, and being one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s meditation teachers. His demeanour was austere and the content of his teaching and initiations was orthodox Buddhism 101. Not only did he talk the talk, he also walked the walk. He certainly fit the bill for me, and I took refuge with him.
Over the next 15 years, I benefited from teachings and initiations from other Vajrayana teachers, notably Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, Tara Tulku Rinpoche, and Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, and the 16th Karmapa, but especially His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
In 1989, I received the Guhyasamaja Initiation from Tara Tulku Rinpoche. At one point during the second day he said: “Now I’m going to show you the complete meaning of the Dharma, and you’ll see it as plainly as you would see an olive in your hand.” For me, it was like Mahakasyapa seeing Shakyamuni’s twirling lotus. I realized there was nothing further for me to learn on the Dharma path and that I had everything I needed to go forward in deepening my practice. No more unknown unknowns. I had reached maximum adulting. Recently, I joked to a Dharma friend that it’s all been teaching and parenting since then.
So in 1993, when I drove with my two young daughters to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend a White Tara initiation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it was an entirely different type of experience for me. In Madison, I bought some flowers for us to give as offerings. We were told by an organizer that we couldn’t leave them on the stage, but that the floor directly in front of it was OK. We did so. Several thousand people attended the event in a large amphitheatre. Shockingly, not one other person in the crowd thought to bring an offering. Our flowers were the only items at the front.
In 2004, I had the opportunity to help in some small way to put on the Kalachakra initiation in Toronto for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As you can imagine, the Dharma ripples of that event reached far and wide into our collective future.
Now here we are, all these years later, struggling with our crises of global warming, biodiversity loss, two years of pandemic, right wing populist uprisings led by demagogues, and now the supremely tragic invasion of Ukraine. Our civil society is being tested like never before in our lifetime.
Like many of my generation, I have been brought to tears by this deep violent nature of samsara, the degree to which our human nature is dysfunctional and not up to the challenge, and the suffering that is intensifying as our best efforts at social structure buckle. My mindstream, accomplishments, or accommodations don’t amount to a hill of beans under the circumstances, but I can at least offer my voice and effort to public discourse, creating opportunities for folks to be introduced to the Dharma and/or deepen their practice.
There are many themes bubbling to the surface of contemporary Buddhism, and each of us will be drawn to one or another. My aspiration is to show bridges between Dharma and engaged citizenship. This column is one example. It is offered in the same spirit as those flowers from years ago.
Life, as it turns out, has many inflection points. So does our civilization. Each moment offers us a broad landscape of possibilities. The journey of adulting never ends until it does. I’m now a grandparent, and Dharma friends are sick or have died. Samu Sunim, the first Buddhist teacher I met back in 1968 in Montreal, is very sick and will probably not be long with us. We could say the flower is being passed, by each of us, expressing the most we have to offer to the next generations.
Does one ever get to the end of kōan practice or more truly are they traveling companions on our journey? Those Zen stories that so captivated my imagination in the 1960s seem increasingly incomprehensible as I grow older. Put my sandals on my head and walk silently from the room? Cut a cat in half? Hit someone with my gnarled staff? Come up with a blistering quip? I think not.
Some psychologists speculate that when we experience trauma as young people, we become frozen in the life stage we were at when it happens. Our adulting is blocked. But the same can happen with peak experiences. Wouldn’t it be awful for me to have been stuck in the Guhyasamaja moment, unable to integrate that profound experience into all the aspects of my life that would come afterward? That would be what is commonly referred to as Zen sickness.
Over the last decade, I’ve been increasingly involved in the world of Buddhist chaplains. Their work seems to me to be an authentic Dharma path that deserves to move from outlier to central pillar of what it means to be a Dharma teacher.
A few weeks ago—just before Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine—I took part in a group chat hosted by Rev. Alley Smith of the Facebook group Chaplains with Buddhist Formation. One of the participants, Chris Mohr, is a US Army chaplain. Then I read an article in the most recent issue of Tricycle, again from before the invasion, with an article saying that Buddhist spiritual care is “having a moment.” (Tricycle) In Buddhistdoor Global, I read how the Buddhist Compassion Tzu Chi Foundation is helping with humanitarian aid to Ukraine.* What a difference a few weeks can make!
Wouldn’t it be great to go back in time to when hospice work, chaplaincy in universities and colleges dealing with young careseekers, or prison chaplaincy were the biggest problems we had to face! Time once again to take a long hard look at military spiritual care.
I’m also trying to cook up some good trouble with the Buddhist chaplaincy program at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. The goal: a North American Buddhist chaplaincy conference. Stay tuned. Similarly, I’ve been talking with Prof. Frances Garrett, formerly director of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Toronto and now director of the Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health program at that university, about curriculum materials for their various courses.
Could we say Shakyamuni is the ultimate grown-up in the room? What would he say about our current manifestation of dukkha? And what is our best collective wisdom on that subject as Buddhists? One of the things about Buddhism that drew me to it in the first place is the absence of reliance on a particular sacred text that is supposed to take primacy over everything else and demand fealty. Commentary is welcomed and equally valid. And since Shakyamuni Buddha is clearly not in the room, we must turn to those we hold in his stead. Our discourse should be robust. The world is full of competing narratives. Buddhists need to take up space, be heard, lean in. We have a refreshing perspective, but it’s hard to be heard amid the noise.
In one hand we have the increasingly restive disenfranchised, who desperately want to be heard. Gampopa described them as bound by conflicting emotions and primitive beliefs about reality. On the other, we have autocrats, who deal brutally with any narrative that wavers from their orthodox line. Finding the Middle Way is like threading a needle. But it can’t be like finding the key to a magic door that leads to a fantasy kingdom where everything is lotuses and devout disciples living in bliss.
Is adulting the new awakening? What do you have to say on the subject?
I recently completed updating the directory of more than 600 Canadian Buddhist organizations that I host at canadianbuddhism.info. It has been quite a few years since the last one. While the core communities in major cities are strong, there are very few new organizations, with the standout exception of groups in the Plum Village lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh. But while some temple societies have raised enough money to build temples for their communities, many small aspirational communities were unable to achieve their goals and have closed or are simply shells. Organizations with branches in multiple cities have closed some of them. The pandemic certainly hasn’t helped local sitting groups who can’t meet in person.
Back in 2010, I spoke at a Buddhist studies conference at the University of British Columbia on the topic of the Canadian Buddhist presence on the Internet.**
At the time, there were about 400 directory listings. Now, the 600+ figure has shrunk to about 550 again. Still a respectable growth trend for a decade. When I did the first national sociological survey of Canadian Buddhist organizations in 2012, most of the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian communities had no Internet presence at all. Now, many have Facebook pages and groups, but some communities still seem to have no interest in being on the Internet. Most organizations in all lineages have upgraded to https-secured websites and expanded their ability to be reached by email.
In doing the updates, I decided to leave the listings for organizations that are defunct or just shells of charitable organizations registered with the government, but to clearly indicate that they are not active. Aside from providing something of an archive for future Buddhist studies scholars, it’s also a way of celebrating the lives of these organizations. Some remain frozen in time from an earlier incarnation, with websites filled with resources, while others have simply vanished. But they were here.
** Canadian Buddhists on the web Push, Pull & Practice (SlideServe)
Where the Buddhist Chaplains Are (Tricycle)
Highlights From The Survey Of Canadian Buddhist Organizations (Journal of Global Buddhism)
The Sumeru Guide to Canadian Buddhism
Related features from BDG
The Beauty and Grief of Being Alive
Buddhist Spiritual Care
Serving Humanity in Transition: Chinese Buddhism and Spiritual Care in the United States
Death and Equanimity
A Buddhist Chaplain for the Tibetan Community in Toronto