When we enter into a Buddhist path of life, whatever the entryway – meditation, study of the teachings, serving community, ritual – we learn to bring the Buddha home. The more at home Buddha is in us, the more vibrant and profound our spiritual life will be. In my own life of Buddhist practice and exploration, coming home has been multifaceted. Through mindful breathing, I’ve come home to body and the nurturing energy of breath. I’ve come home through bowing to myriad expressions of Dhamma. I’ve come home to nurturing inner environments of loving kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion. I’ve come home to a deepening sense of truth through study of core teachings. I’ve come home to Nature, while living in a southern Thai forest monastery and now at a Dharma refuge in southwest Wisconsin. I’ve come home to emptiness-freedom, a home so spacious there is room for everyone.
At first, home is cluttered with our various fears, unhealthy habits, aggressions, ambitions, alienation, confusion, and other egoisms. As spiritual life gains confidence, strength, depth, and breadth, we relate to Buddha with increasing clarity and directness. Perhaps we have in mind the transcendent Buddhas of some traditions, the artistic Buddhas of devotional practice, or, in my case, attempts to find out about and imagine the historical Buddha. What sort of being was this Awakened One? How might a young warrior from a tribal people in the foothills of the Himalayas plunge radically into the realities of birth, aging, death, and human suffering in order to find peace and spiritual freedom?
Increasingly, Buddha is one’s own growing sense and experience of being awake. A mindful moment. A shedding of egoism. A truly authentic connection with people, trees, or social structures of suffering. In whatever ways we are capable of, Buddha comes into our home. Familiarity grows. Faith grows. Devotion and commitment grows. Increasingly, Buddha is at home in our inner home. Bringing Buddha home is a deeply felt inspiring refuge.
Yet, there is another side to this beautiful process, which plays out in whatever form of patriarchy, whatever power structure, we live in. I learned Buddhism within the collision between Thailand’s feudal, military dominated patriarchy and “modern” crony capitalism with its severely constrained democracy. I grew up in and now am back within American consumer capitalist patriarchy ridden with racism, suppressed class struggle, addiction to war, and ecological exploitation. Whatever forms of power over we have grown up and lived in, there will be norms concerning gender, sexuality, race, class, physical strength, education levels, seniority, and wealth. These norms inevitably manifest within our religious institutions, organizations, and groups, as well as within each of us. Such manifestations are even more insidious when they are unexamined, ignored, and denied.
Consequently, we find that we don’t simply bring Buddha home, which is healthy and vital. We domesticate Buddha, too. The unhealthy forces that we’ve internalized limit Buddha within their unhealthy parameters. We’re born into this world ignorant, due to the human condition rather than any fault of our own. Consequently, we develop predilections towards greed, hatred, fear, and delusion, even before we are able to be mindful of them. As these forces and tendencies play out in us, they domesticate Buddha. These forces shape how we conceive of, imagine, and represent Buddha, for example, overwhelmingly male Buddha images. In Thailand, the most beautiful Buddha images have androgynous features and some gender ambiguity, yet are recognizably male. The legends speak of a prince, even though historically and archeologically that is an impossibility. A male prince with beard who leaves wife and child, might have appealed to men, especially those who had become monks. I’ve seen a rubber dashboard Buddha listening to a cell phone.
As the traditional narratives grew, they portrayed lifestyles different from the original wandering friars of Buddha’s own time. The monks became settled, institutionalized men with privilege, though paying lip service to or ritualizing a lifestyle of homeless wandering. The original bhikkhus, more friars than monks, were marginal to society. As Buddhism became mainstream in various cultures, the wanderers settled as monks, monasteries acquired property, and homelessness became a status rather than a renunciation. Further, such institutions were often co-opted by political elites, for example, by bestowing royal titles. With such spiritual materialism, depth is lost. Corruption accumulates like rust.
Whoever we are, we imagine, tell, and impose our version of Buddha. Such Buddhas begin to serve not awakening, but institutional power, male power, the power of economic elites, or whatever ego-serving power we have. These are amplified by media controlled by only partially modernized feudal patriarchies in certain countries and the Silicon Valleys and Wall Streets of countries like ours.
Given these two trajectories, one vitally important and the other almost impossible to avoid, a huge challenge faces anyone seeking genuine liberation, truth, and peace. The challenge as I see it is how to integrate a healthy Buddha homecoming with liberating Buddha from domestication by power and the forces of greed, anger, fear, and delusion. Conventionally oriented minds may not be able to handle a simultaneous bringing home in a spiritually valid way with liberating from domestication.
Conversely, in the deeper reaches of spirituality, concepts become shaky and squirmy. We find paradox, not in reality, but among our confused ideas, thoughts, theories, beliefs, and positions. As I see it, to be fully at home with Buddha is also to accept Buddha who is fully alive and necessarily undomesticated, a bit wild, even feral.
While I have focused on forms of domestication closest to my own life, we in North America can recognize other forms of domestication around us.
- White people appropriating the legacy of yellow and brown people.
- Men appropriating for the sake of a softer patriarchy.
- College educated folks appropriating Dhamma fed by generations of Asian rice farmers.
- Western Buddhists appropriating Buddha-Dhamma into our individualistic consumerism.
I also meet activists who often, out of woundedness, whether personal or identification with the woundedness of others – people, communities, ecosystems – make demands on others without sensitivity and compassion for what they are actually capable of at the time. We all operate under constraints, especially our basic ignorance concerning our true nature. When criticism, however evidence based, is mixed with anger, however understandable, the result is seldom constructive. Self-righteousness is always intolerant even when criticizing intolerance.
This is a messy, thorny dilemma, requiring deep compassion, sensitivity, and contemplation. To be both fully at home in our spiritual life and tradition, with its all too human organizational and group structures, yet, serving Undomesticated Buddha, requires relinquishing any attempt to define Buddha for others, let alone impose our Buddha on others.
Free Buddha so that we may be free.
Santikaro Upasaka is a founding member of Think Sangha, a community of socially engaged Buddhist thinker-activists that has given special attention to the ethical and spiritual impact of consumerism and militarism. He is the founder of Liberation Park, a modern American expression of Buddhist practice, study, and social responsibility in Wisconsin.