For many of us western practitioners, a connection to the Buddhist tradition involves a certain longing. The yearning we feel is an emotional urge to deepen our participation. For me, some part of it is sadness, knowing that I live in a pluralist cultural tradition where Buddhism trails the mass consciousness, and will never be a dominant strain in society. I know that its full expression is in the East, in places far from home. When I do visit Asia, I love to immerse myself in the Buddhist experience, hanging out at temples and viewing the sea of smiling Buddha faces. Being a Buddhist in the West at this period of time is being a pioneer. A benefit is that we can resonate with people from other time periods who were also in the forefront of helping Buddhism integrate into a new culture. However, it is sometimes a lonely effort despite the support of our sanghas. We are young in our manifestation, and there is much to do in order to sustain and strengthen our foundation.
Depending on our connection and our individual drive to develop an authentic Buddhist expression, there are many different approaches we can take. Many of them could be called unconventional, because they may not rigidly follow any current tradition. It is not about making up a new Buddhism, but is finding expressions that are best suited to our own temperament. Asian teachers can be most helpful in introducing their wisdom traditions, but sometimes their cultural context is not well suited to our needs. The task is thus to create a hybrid, as has happened in all cultures where Buddhism made the leap to become meaningful for a new group of practitioners. The effort at producing a hybrid can be messy at times, and for some people an area that is fraught with fears of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. However, these changes are happening under our noses whether we like them or not. The effective way to deal with the situation is to get involved, and according to our maturity, speak or act with whatever tools we have gathered over the years as budding Buddhists.
For me, this means wanting to build stupas and temples as an inspiration for the faithful. The actual building project is also a community building exercise and helps cement the tradition for future generations. It is a hand-in-glove situation, the actual physical temple being a source of amazement and satisfaction, resulting in more temples being built. The broader the base of support, the more that these structures will be built and serve as a pan-Buddhist resource. As it has evolved in the west, such efforts have begun as a church building exercise. As the tradition advances, these places can be even more communal, a resource for all Buddhists, irrespective of their denomination.
This is an important point, and I make it because I have found myself seeking a result that is as pan-Buddhist as the current situation allows. I feel that all of us western Buddhists are involved in an experiment to create an authentic experience that differs in form compared to what has preceded us in Asian countries. It is not yet clear how this will manifest, but it is certain to involve many new forms that are deviations from current culture-bound traditions. This is something to celebrate, because it means we are taking the tradition into our hearts and making it ours. This needs to happen in order for it to survive and flourish in our demanding culture, where we perpetually dismantle anything that doesn’t contribute to the results we are after.
This can be a rallying cry, for now is the time to be creative with new forms, as Buddhism has taken root in our culture by the gift of enlightened Asian teachers. Our western secular tradition is guiding the way, reminding us that divisions are not necessary, that we do not need to be tribal in the exclusion of others, that we need to be inclusive, not exclusive. The same can be true for our houses of worship. As much as possible they need to speak to all the Buddhist faithful. In doing this, it keeps the doors open to others who are not Buddhist, allowing them easier access in their curiosity. These places can inspire everyone in this age, as we are all becoming more aware of the need for sacredness. An open-minded non-Buddhist could thus see the value of these places without feeling they need to belong.
So I say, be bold and embark on new projects without fear of stepping on someone’s toes or heading down a path that is not recognized. It is never a solo journey anyways; we will have much help and advice along the way. Asian Buddhist teachers are almost universal in their praise of passionate practitioners stepping out on their own to lead building projects. They, just as much as we, want to galvanize the energy for building places of worship. Our teacher may have a vision of their own clear path they wish to manifest, and this may be the direction to go. Also possible is that we may see an important form or process to incorporate, and that our expression becomes dominant. Many different approaches are possible, depending on the people involved, and who is contributing the various resources necessary for the project.
Temple building is one of the most exciting and satisfying events a spiritual or religious person can participate in. Every moment spent in this effort can be filled with altruistic intent. Every gesture can help focus the attention on the compassionate activity that is the primary motivation. Joining others engaged in this process means that we are meeting others on an elevated spiritual level. Our vibratory resonance can thus be lifted on a sustained basis and we can feel more inspired in our daily lives. This is spiritual evolution.