From a Tricycle magazine interview in 2004:

Many teachers who were in that first generation of Western students feel that they do not embody the teachings to the same extent their Asian masters did. Can you say something about that? It’s one thing to teach the practice. It’s another thing to embody it deeply in our own lives. Our Asian teachers were the heirs of twenty-five hundred years of lived tradition and practice. We didn’t grow up with the dharma in our bones like they did. We bring a lot of personal history, self-doubt, self-judgment, and ambivalence to practice. We have to work through a lot on the way, unlearn a lot. Our Asian teachers encountered the dharma with a depth and a breadth that’s going to take us more than this first generation to catch up to.

Where does that leave us? I was talking with Joseph [Goldstein] the other day about Munindraji and about the real sense of loss we feel, for him as a person and as a teacher, and perhaps more importantly, as an inspiration for Western dharma. He got us started. He was the root teacher for a number of us, and it feels like a core piece in the mandala is missing now. We’re on our own. How are we going to manifest the dharma? It won’t be the same way he did, or Dipa Ma did. Munindra actually welcomed that difference. He had a kind of divine playfulness that refused to become codified or standardized. He and Dipa Ma never believed in a one-size-fits-all practice. They rarely taught retreats. They taught each student in an individualized way. They had a great trust in us, as well as in the dharma. They didn’t worry about it becoming corrupted or dumbed down.

As Buddhism becomes more and more integrated into Western culture and Western idioms, we’re moving away from the classical forms of the practice and its traditional goals, anyway. That’s both scary and exciting, a challenge and an opportunity.

Can you give me example of what you mean? Western teachers don’t talk as much about enlightenment now as they did thirty years ago when they first started teaching, nor do they emphasize it. True, there are risks in encouraging students to practice for enlightenment. Enlightenment can be objectified as a goal to be striven for and obtained. It can be embraced unconsciously as a narcissistic ideal. But at the same time, there’s a risk that we will lose the depth and potential transformative power of practice if we aspire to anything less than the end of suffering for ourselves and all beings. We’d be repeating what has happened again and again in Buddhist cultures: enlightenment gets deferred to a future birth because people stop believing they are capable of it now—“in this very life,” as Sayadaw U Pandita says.

If you ask most Buddhists in Southeast Asia, including monks, if they are practicing for enlightenment, most would look at you oddly. Or they’d say, “No, it’s not possible for me, at least not in this lifetime.” They don’t embrace enlightenment as a realistic aspiration for themselves. It’s Westerners who have gone to Asia and have taken up the aspiration for enlightenment in this lifetime and brought it back.

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