a Society for Wider Understanding of Buddhist Tradition
Point of departure
A cultural resource
In the flood of electronic stimuli, in the rush to perform, it is hard to keep your head. What are we doing to ourselves? Is there a better way to live?
Where to look for guidance? Which cultural resources may be useful? Might there be something in Buddhist tradition?
Many of us think so. We would like to understand it better, this immense and varied body of practical wisdom. We would be happy to make better use of it in our lives. We are keen to collaborate in this endeavour.
That is how So-Wide has come about. For a history, see here.
The aim is to support an open process of exploration — open-minded, open-hearted, open-ended. So-Wide seeks no fixed answers, and offers none.
Help along the way
We suffer and see others suffering. So we look for ways to alleviate suffering, possibly even to remedy the causes. We explore all therapeutic options — psychological and/or philosophical, spiritual and/or religious. That is commonly how people come to this tradition. Or, sometimes, the journey is less direct. Society is in trouble; there is a widespread sense of needing to take a new turn. Whatever field we may work in — business or healthcare, education or politics, charity or academia — we sense an urge to think and operate in fresh, more human ways, and we look outside our specialist field for resources to help us do so.
One way or another, many people start to explore Buddhist tradition. Then some may read and visit widely, drawing on various different patterns of practice and thinking. Some may instead immerse themselves in a particular, living tradition. For many, it is a bit of both: we just work with what comes to us, from whatever source. We all look for ways of thinking-and-feeling, of framing and developing our experience, that will help us on our way — and we try to cultivate wisdom and compassion so that we may perhaps make a contribution.
Together, we form a contemporary version of what in the Buddha’s time was called the cātuddisa-bhikkhu-saṅgha, roughly “the association of those, from the four corners of the earth, who are looking to share.” As in those days, we may at times form together into closer groupings but there is also room for people who share but do not walk in step. A wide and loose association can encompass those who often need to go their own road.
Study and practice
We work on ourselves. No one else can do your practice for you. Equally, it is sometimes good to put heads and hearts together. For instance when it comes to thinking and studying.
Some of us may at times feel that practice is all that matters, even that study gets in the way, for deep meaning is not to be pinned down, and in the end words fail. There is truth in that — study without practice is not helpful, and study may crowd practice out. Still, practice without study is also unhelpful. Words and concepts do not by themselves get you anywhere much, but we cannot just wish them away. Study has its place; and the fruits of study may grow when shared.
After all, some of the difficulty we each confront is rooted in unhelpful assumptions inherited from the culture that has formed us. So, some of the work we do in deconditioning ourselves is work that others will be doing, too.
Also, as we try to sort our own lives out a bit, we may recognise that the collective consciousness is messed up, too. Individually, there is not much we can do about that; collectively there may be.
So, study is worth the effort, and it can be a common effort.
It takes some studying, Buddhism.
The tradition comes to us in unfamiliar, ancient languages, in categories that are hard to pin down in contemporary terms.
But we can get a feel, if we work at it. This can be enjoyable and fulfilling.
Contemporary Asian Buddhism may take a bit of adjusting to, too. It comes from societies that long operated on assumptions unfamiliar to us — societies, whose recent history is also different from ours.
It is much the same for some Asian people, too. When raised in a high-tech environment, it can be quite an effort to come to terms with one’s own cultural heritage.
Inhabitants of the global village, we have the opportunity to reconcile diverse linguistic, conceptual and cultural systems. People have done as much before — when the tradition passed from India to China, for instance, it had to be reimagined for the new context.
Wherever Buddhism has spread, the resources that it offers have been reconfigured. We post-industrial people, too, need to find our way.
We shall find it better together.
We can practice, study, travel and attend to teachers. We can try to build helpful habits of body, speech and mind. And we can talk together and support one another.
In the end, as the man said, we must each be our own light, our own refuge. Meanwhile, we can be friends upon the way.
Direction of travel
There is no single right answer, not to speak of anyway. We need no perfect, abstract system, no ‘correct understanding of Buddhism’, but we could do with some ideas of where and how to focus, and some interpretative frames to apply. Then we can just keep at it, in the here and now.
Here and now we are the products of intensive education. We are educated to be rational and empirical. When we engage with Buddhist tradition, we will naturally want first to understand it in those terms. We will consider the evidence.
That is not a bad place to start. There is nothing wrong with a rigorous appreciation of facts. Then we can look for meanings that grow from and go beyond the facts — ideas we can feel, about how we process experience, and how we can live in the moment with less greed, fear and confusion, more wisdom and compassion.
Study and practice can be mutually reinforcing. That is why it makes sense for practitioners and scholars to cross-fertilise.
Practitioners can think about how to get the best out of scholarly inputs, and perhaps also about ways to feed back into the scholarly process. Scholars can benefit from making their productions accessible, generating feedback and learning to read it, (and may also find that experience of practice can help in addressing technical issues). For more on this, see here.
The media pester us with problems — problems of success and failure, of ecology and economics, of health and of families, of business and education, and on and on. We need to preserve some free space inside.
If you have a safe place inside to set out from and to fall back on, then you also stand to make a contribution, however modest, in addressing troublesome social realities. To see how, the first step is to explore those realities in their own terms.
We need no easy, feel-good generalisations. It is about getting into the nitty-gritty of existing social realities.
How to behave from moment to moment, physically, verbally and mentally? How to behave in a way that will help us to come to terms with what is happening, inside and outside, to steady ourselves and to go forward in good heart? How, on that basis, to take in complex details? How, in particular, to then see where specialist thinking gets stuck? For more on this, see here.
We and our world are dominated by narrow specialisms. Our culture is good at focusing in on restricted areas, closed systems. We work out clever ways to reach precise goals and implement them proudly — then notice, with comical distress, the knock-on effects that appear elsewhere… then say we didn’t mean that to happen, discount the inconvenient reality and carry on.
Surely we can learn to drop the blinkers, to escape from the enclosure. Can balance our close-focus capabilities with a wider perspective, wide enough to take in us ourselves — how we sometimes manage to do what we are capable of, and at other times tie ourselves in knots.
You get a wider perspective when you look from a distance. For that you need to step back. We can stop looking with our eyes and instead look through them.
We can balance our outward focus with a sense of inwardness. Can build a habit of working with subjective experience, of going with the grain of our humanity.
When lost, we can allow ourselves to find our place again. When stuck, we can stay with it patiently until something comes to us.
We can balance our drive for mechanical perfection with a willingness to let go and trust ourselves. Can match our society’s talent for generality and abstraction with a sensitivity to the personal and momentary.
Words don’t point to absolute, fixed realities. Identities are not set in stone. We can step out of the petrified forest and float on the stream.
The overall context is wide, so wide. It is there for us, even though it cannot be neatly packaged. Who wants a package, anyway? We just want to find a pathway through, and follow it. Out into the wide, so wide…