Buddhist history is a history of rebellion.
We can read the history of Buddhism and see essentially the same story told many times.
It started with the Buddha.
Well, that’s probably not true. We could go back and see the Hindu mystics before the Buddha who rebelled against the dominant paradigm. He was certainly influenced by them.
But, for our purposes, we will start with the Buddha just to make things easy.
The Buddha saw the dominant religious leaders of his day. He saw a religious paradigm that was rigid and unequal. He saw a system that was hostile to women and minorities.
And he found this unacceptable.
So, he subverted the dominant spiritual paradigm and created his own. He meditated for a while and had a profound mystical experience, then he tried to share his experience with others. He taught the Dharma to all who would listen, so that they could attain enlightenment, as he had.
He gave teachings for a few decades until he died.
Soon after his death, a religious institution formed around him in order to standardize the Buddha’s teachings and make them efficient. Without him around anymore, they thought they had to be very careful to make sure that only the good teachings were the ones that spread, although not everyone agreed which teachings were good.
But there was a problem. The thing about institutions is that it is very easy for them to solidify and become rigid; to force influence in ways that we feel we need to think in certain strict paradigms.
These paradigms can trap us and sometimes when these institutions become powerful, they attract people who like power.
The Buddha’s ideas were open and free, not closed and rigid. We shouldn’t forget that.
Throughout Buddhist history, we have seen how spiritual teachers responded to these rigid institutions that formed over time. They responded with rebellion—over and over.
The most well known and beloved Buddhist teachers from history became important figures because they saw a status quo that they felt had to be changed.
Vimalakirti was rebelling when he said you don’t have to be a monk to attain Enlightenment.
Bodhidharma was rebelling when he tried to spread authentic Ch’an practice to China, which others said couldn’t be done.
Shantideva was rebelling when he tried to reform Buddhism by writing The Way of the Bodhisattva.
Linchi was rebelling when he said we should never worship the Buddha.
Tsongkhapa was rebelling when he created the school of Tibetan Buddhism that the Dalai Lama leads now.
Dogen was rebelling when he went to China so he could bring a more useful form of Buddhism back with him to Japan.
Ikkyu (my personal hero) was rebelling when he said Buddhism could just as easily be practiced in bars and brothels with the most downtrodden of society as it could in temples and monasteries preaching to the choir.
DT Suzuki and Chogyam Trungpa and Seung Sahn and many others were rebelling when they brought Buddhism to the West. Because people thought it couldn’t be done.
So, what can we take from this?
It can be so easy to get stuck in paradigms. We see a lot of western Buddhism that takes all of its themes and style from Eastern cultures. There’s nothing wrong with using traditional forms, but when we adhere to them strictly, it takes away from the authenticity of our practice.
Why do so many Buddhist groups adhere so strictly to eastern forms?
Can’t we create our own?
Historically, in every culture that Buddhism entered, a different version was created. We can see this in how Chinese forms are different from the Tibetan ones.
Maybe we’re in the process of creating ours now. Who knows?
The Buddha created a map for us to follow to awakening. Everything else was added later and other maps were created in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. These are useful too. These maps are what the practice is really about, not traditions or institutions. It’s the path that matters.
A modern Buddhism must be open, free, and accessible. Our reasons for aspects of the practice must be: because this works.
The should not be because this is the way things have always been.