Eyes closed and sitting cross-legged on forest green cushions in Andover Chapel, I suddenly feel—very itchy. My mind guiltily contemplates the possibility of scratching my nose, an act which would technically break the meditative state I’m supposedly in and would also interrupt the silence. I would feel better if Andover Chapel at 8:30 a.m. were not this arched-ceiling, hushed-voice space in the Divinity School with green stained-glass windows. It’s all very lovely, but the calm which seems to exude from the wooden crosses and my fellow meditators makes my fidgeting out of place. I have already lost count of my inhalations and exhalations. In a constant battle between rhythmic counting and my flighty mind, the reverberation of the morning bell comes as a welcome sign that half an hour is over.
This daily morning meditation, hosted by the graduate student sector of the Harvard Buddhist Community (HBC) and regularly offered since the mid-1980s, is part of a growing interest in Buddhism on campus and nationally. According to data collected in the American Religious Identification Survey, a study run by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as Buddhist doubled from 1990 to 2001 (0.23 percent to 0.53 percent). While a portion of these numbers comes from the immigrant Asian population, “there has also been a turn toward Buddhism on the part of [non-Asian] Americans,” Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana L. Eck writes in her 2001 book, A New Religious America. The interest in Buddhism in America is mostly fueled by interest in meditation, which many perceive as a trendy and reliable form of stress relief. The image of Buddhism in popular culture is also often linked to what converted-Buddhist Roxanna K. Myhrum ’05 calls the “whole Jack Kerouac form of Buddhism—tantric sex and driving around drinking.” Despite the much-bemoaned supposed lack of these two elements in undergraduate social life, that alone does not account for the many students and other Harvard affiliates who, equipped with sleeping bags and neon lawn chairs, camped out for tickets to the Dalai Lama’s speech on the Friday before classes began. Beyond the Dalai Lama’s celebrity status and the Beat Generation hip factor, Buddhism also appeals to those looking to intellectualize religion. Indeed, at Harvard as in much of America, many converts often find Buddhism appealing for what they perceive as its rationality, its scientific grounding and its openness. It may be a trendy way to de-stress, but it’s also a tradition that encourages cerebral inquiry and has fostered growing academic interest.
“One of the few things Harvard undergrads don’t excel at is doing nothing, not achieving,” says Michael D. Radich, tutor in Mather House and coordinator of the Mather Tranquility Room. Nonetheless, there are a lot of people who work very hard to try to make Harvard students relax. In recent years, numerous University sources, including University Health Services, the Bureau of Study Counsel and the Monday and Wednesday sessions at the Mather Tranquility Room, have offered a space for students to practice meditation.
The gift of calm nothingness should thus be available to people of all religious persuasions. In fact, the Tranquility Room itself was set up by a previous tutor who was Ba’hai, according to Radich, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Buddhist Studies. The room, the very name of which reflects its focus, exists not to spread certain religious or even philosophical beliefs, but to “provide a space for different ways people can step outside and look [at themselves,]” says Radich, “and meditation can do that regardless of whether or not you’re Buddhist.”
Indeed, the central difference between Buddhism in America and in Asia is meditation. Though most Americans may perceive Buddhism as primarily practiced through meditation, that is certainly not the historical case. Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, says that traditionally, “meditation is usually done only by specialized people,” such as monks, nuns and yogis. These specialists typically spend much more time on meditation than most modern lay people. Myhrum recalls a funny conversation from her stay at a monastery in Taiwan, when a bemused nun asked her, “why do you all care so much about meditation?”
For traditional Asian Buddhists, meditation often involves prostration practice, prayer or intense thinking about a certain statement and concept. The forms of meditation that are most popular among students at Harvard, on the other hand, focus on mindfulness: that is, concentrating on the moment and being aware of what is going on in one’s mind. Though that may sound easy, the actual practice of it is very difficult. Cecile McHardy, a trained lama who teaches meditation on Mondays in the Mather Tranquility Room, ascribes to the average human “a butterfly mind, a monkey mind.” This tendency to flit from subject to thought to subject through free associations can make it quite hard to concentrate deeply on any one thing. In some meditation techniques, you are supposed to constantly return to the object of concentration, such as breathing, while in others you are simply supposed to be aware of the path your butterfly mind is taking.
What Americans also find attractive in the meditation most commonly practiced here and in the ideals of Buddhism is the sense that one can affect one’s own destiny. Enlightenment is ultimately something one must achieve for oneself. These basic assumptions of self-reliance and self-empowerment are also intrinsic in modern Western culture and are exemplified by the popularity of self-help books. In fact, these self-improvement books inspired Piyush Tiwari ’05 to begin meditating again. He had practiced Hindu meditation with a music teacher in high school, but it was the self-improvement books his boss suggested he read the summer after freshman year that got him back into the habit. Some of the terminology reminded him of yogi texts he had previously read. “Those are kind of buzz words now in self-help books,” Tiwari says of phrases like “realizing your limits.” And though meditation is most strongly associated with Buddhism in popular American culture, it is also a part of Hindu and Taoist traditions, two other religions with roots and long histories in Asia.
Meditation as popularly practiced in America has amazing effects, according to those who practice it. These individuals often credit the practice with deeply affecting their lives. “My life has completely changed since I started doing it,” Tiwari says.
THE TEXTBOOK VERSION.
The appeal of Buddhism, however, is not just about life-changing meditation practice. It’s also an increasingly popular field of academic study. The Buddhist studies program at Harvard is “expanding rapidly,” Visiting Professor of East Asian Studies and Religious Studies Robert M. Gimello says, pointing out that “there are more professors and graduate students studying Buddhism at Harvard than any other institution in the country.” This interest in studying Buddhism is not a 21st century development. In fact, it goes back to the late 19th century and to some of the men who gave their names to important Harvard buildings. According to Christopher S. Queen, Lecturer on the Study of Religion and teacher of a seminar on American Buddhism, Henry David Thoreau, Class of 1837, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Class of 1821, were very interested in Buddhism and Hinduism, though they were not entirely clear on the difference between the two. Thoreau even translated a portion of a Buddhist text from the French version. A more concrete academic interest in Buddhism was developed by William James. After the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, at which the lectures of two Buddhist speakers were extremely popular, James invited a Sri Lankan speaker from the exposition to come address his psychology class. James introduced his guest lecturer as “a man who represent[ed] the psychology of the future,” Queen says. American academics were already expressing a scientific interest in Buddhism with regard to its psychological theories.
Modern interest in the practice of Buddhism still incorporates that scientific mindset. Many Harvard students who practice Buddhist meditation reiterate their fondness for what they perceive as Buddhism’s compatibility with science. These student practitioners often bring up the Dalai Lama’s stance on Buddhism and science, that “if Buddhism and science don’t agree, we have to follow science.” This institutional willingness to be corrected is refreshing to many, including Myhrum, who spent the summer after her first year of college studying and meditating at a monastery through a Fo Guang Shan program. “I like that Buddhism is not completely in contradiction with modern science,” says Myhrum, who camped out to get a Dalai Lama ticket. She remembers enjoying the solid educational grounding that came from the scientific backgrounds and postsecondary degrees that many of the monks and nuns had. “People raised in scientific, rationalistic circumstances tend to be uncomfortable when religious engagement presses them to consent to viewpoints that will disagree with their ‘rational understandings,’” says Lecturer on the Study of Religion Brian C.W. Palmer, who encounters many of these issues in his class Religion 1529, “Personal Choice and Global Transformation.”
Myhrum, whose parents were Catholic and Episcopalian, often contrasts Buddhism with her original Catholic upbringing. Though she did complete her Confirmation classes, she turned away from a practice she found dissatisfying and overly rigid. “I just found it completely spiritually void and doctrinally bizarre,” the western Massachusetts native says.
Many of Myhrum’s fellow practitioners at Harvard are also drawn to the flexibility they perceive within the Buddhist tradition. They often emphasize the sentiment that the Buddha himself expressed in the Kalama Sutta, a central treatise of Buddhism, that his followers should personally test what they are told and accept it only if they truly see and understand it.
Sean D. Sullivan, a Divinity School student studying Buddhism and a board member of the graduate student dominated Harvard Buddhist Community, describes the phenomenon of making personal choices about all Buddhist beliefs and doctrines as something many Americans do. “I think Americans selectively choose like that—I like this, oh not this, oh that makes sense,” Sullivan says as he pantomimes plucking ideas out of the air. Sullivan personally practices this process of selective screening. “Things like reincarnation and stuff like that, I don’t believe in,” says the Catholic-raised Californian who describes himself as a “pagan Buddhist with Catholic sympathies.”
For Alexander D. Gordon ’04-’05, meditation was what first appealed to him about Buddhism. It eventually led him to take time off from school. He is now living with Buddhist monks at the Gampo Abbey, a religious community in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Gordon had been moderately interested in Buddhism since high school, when he read a book on Zen, but he did not seriously become involved until his junior year of college. “I just gave it a shot,” Gordon says in a phone call from Nova Scotia. Last year he began attending the Harvard Buddhist Community’s Monday meditation sessions in the Mather Tranquility Room, a beige-carpeted corner room with a miniature water-circulator, Middle Eastern rugs and potted trees. In this warmly-lit space, Gordon practiced headstands, shoulder-stands and many meditative awareness exercises under the tutelage of McHardy, a former Bunting Institute fellow. While Gordon did enjoy the gymnastics, which are meant to improve posture and make one more aware of one’s body, he said McHardy, who describes her Buddhist background as the “Tibetan practice lineage,” was the key factor in his continued participation. “It was all Friendly Dragon,” Gordon says, using McHardy’s “play name,” an appellation each person spontaneously coins for himself or herself in the course of a session. Gordon’s own “play name” is “Warm Shoes.” “Have you ever had that experience where you felt like everything was crazy and out of control?” Gordon asks rhetorically, referring to a situation all-too-familiar to most of his peers. McHardy was able to connect with students. “She tapped into that feeling that all Harvard students get from time to time,” Gordon says with wonder. He eventually decided to get away from that feeling and is spending most of his year off in the Shambhala Buddhist monastery where McHardy herself was trained.
Gordon, who identified himself as a Buddhist after a long pause—because it’s “just a label”—is not especially attached to any uniquely Buddhist doctrine. “It’s all very vague—it’s important to be a good person,” Gordon offers as his view of what it means to be Buddhist. “The way I tend to think of it, Buddhists here are like if Unitarians got together and really decided to be serious, they would turn into Buddhist,” says Gordon, who was brought up in the Unitarian Church.
For Buddhists who were not originally Unitarian or some other religious affiliation, the practice of Buddhism can be quite different. Meghan C. Howard ’04 is one such example. Drawn to Buddhism by a Zen text, her parents were Zen Buddhist until she was four, when a Tibetan lama visited Rochester, N.Y. “They were so moved,” Howard says, that they became Tibetan Buddhist and helped set up the local dharma center, which they now run. Howard laughs as she recounts the long hours she spent at the dharma center as a child, saying “[my sister and I were] frustrated with what it was doing to the family...I got really tired [of it].” But childhood frustrations often prove transient and fickle, and Howard is now doing exactly what she got tired of in elementary school. This Quincy resident is writing a thesis on a specific branch of Tibetan Buddhism for her Sanskrit and Indian Studies concentration.
Howard is sometimes disturbed by the picking and choosing that many American Buddhists practice, especially when people use Buddhist doctrine to justify prior beliefs. “If you bring all your baggage with you, rather than using Buddhism to investigate your political beliefs,” you’re not actually subscribing to Buddhism, she says. She does recognize, however, the importance of testing beliefs before internalizing them. “My faith in Buddhism has grown because of testing [what I’m told],” she says. “Otherwise it’s just accumulated knowledge and it’s not useful.” She also does not think that all Buddhists need to believe in reincarnation. “It’s hard to figure out other Buddhist philosophy [if you don’t believe in reincarnation], but no one cares,” Howard says.
PHILOSOPHY OR RELIGION?
Many people circumvent the issue of belief by taking Buddhism out of that realm altogether. Sullivan, who was also attracted by the “mystic aspects” of Buddhism, says, “it’s probably taken [me] 13 years just to see that it’s a religion.” Counter-intuitive as that may sound, it is actually a pretty common sentiment among many who come to Buddhism in adulthood. The most popular way of expressing it is to say, as Henry W. Mak ’06 says, “I’m philosophically Buddhist.” Mak meditates daily and calls the practice “the core of my life,” but that core is based on Buddhist theories of psychology and philosophy.
Such views of Buddhist philosophy as separable from religion are prevalent among Western Buddhist circles and are very much present at Harvard. The Buddhist figure on campus who is most likely to affect students, McHardy, adheres to this view of Buddhism. McHardy’s simple linen garb, joined-palm greeting and the smell of incense that clings to her and anyone who enters her attic apartment set her apart from the t-shirt-and-jeans students who practice Buddhist meditation. Her basic conception of Buddhism is, however, surprisingly close to that of many who have not practiced with this anthropologist. As her large eyes focus on her listener, McHardy speaks slowly and precisely of what Shambhala Buddhism, her lineage, has taught her about itself. “It is about building a secular society, a non-sectarian one,” McHardy says in her British accent. “It is not presented as a belief system.” If Buddhism is not a belief system, then being Buddhist is not mutually exclusive with other religions, allowing Buddhist ethics to “unify the world, unify people beyond religious persuasions,” says McHardy.
While it is all very nice to promote world peace, some argue that with its emphasis on rationality, Buddhism as commonly practiced in America has lost its essence. However, there are also arguments that Buddhism as it was practiced in Asia drowned in the cultural trappings of the region. In these arguments, there is no clear resolution. The place of American Buddhism within the larger tradition is still in flux, and Asian Buddhism is changing with American Buddhism as well. The current situation of Buddhism in the world at large is perhaps best expressed by Gyatso, who says, “The terms and the status of Buddhism are in a state of huge shift.”
Kuenga Wangmo ’04 would, however, disagree strongly with those who think Buddhism can be boiled down to a philosophy. Wangmo is from a place where Buddhism is the official religion—Bhutan, a small country nestled between India and Tibet. For her, the power of Buddhism is more than philosophy. “Philosophy—it’s just reasoning,” Wangmo says while sitting on her bed, over which an image of the Buddha, framed by the traditional white scarf of good luck, is hung. “I don’t know, I don’t think religion works like that. The philosophy is the material, but faith has to weave it.” She recounts a time when she and her mother were walking to a village known for its violent dogs. As they approached the village late at night, they prayed loudly—and “there was not a single bark from the village,” Wangmo says with joyful conviction.
Wangmo tells this story of a concrete benefit of her faith as an illustration of the practical power of Buddhist spirituality. But this story about the silenced yapping of angry dogs that took place half a world away is almost the opposite of how the applicable effects of Buddhist meditation are sold in the U.S. Meditation has become a cure-all for the over-worked, over-extended, yet culturally sensitive American. The important thing to note as meditation becomes even trendier is that the Buddhist religion and secular meditation practice, though very different, are not mutually exclusive.
As Howard, a lifelong Buddhist, says, “Buddhism is happy for people to be involved at whatever level they want.”