by Stefano Bettera
Everything changes and transforms. To comprehend the forms of the past means to let die the strength of a tradition that is living matter.
The king is dead, long live the king! The warriors of the Middle Ages used to say this when a king died and an heir succeeded him. The successor was different, new, but blood of his blood. Thus, there was guarantee of ’continuity‘ in diversity. It is the normal process of life and a key aspect of impermanence. Everything changes and is transformed to guarantee the continuation of life itself in new forms and with new characteristics, but life remains. This process does not exclude anything, not even Buddhism itself which, like every element of reality, is impermanent, changeable and therefore, unsatisfactory despite the attempt of human beings of every age and at any latitude to transform it into an immortal, perfect, crystallized, well-defined and static object. This betrays, in fact, not only its nature, but the very meaning of Buddhism’s function.
Every spiritual tradition has always come to terms with the need to hand down in a coherent way its own concepts, intuitions, and forms of expression (which includes meanings and languages), as well as the liturgies that help establish spiritual communities. But the risk of preserving or, on the contrary, reinterpreting a tradition without taking into account the element of changeability and fragility is always just around the corner. So is the mistake of trying to ‘refound’ the same tradition, basing it only on certain principles of the teachings while excluding others.
Every vital tradition is a living phenomenon, hot as lava and moldable as clay. For this reason, it needs to be engaged with by men and women who give body and voice to every tradition with their specificity and fragility. In this engagement we relate a vital tradition to our contemporary needs and views. To reproduce a tradition as if it were timeless and to the letter is to adhere to an orthodoxy. This sort of reproduction assumes that the human journey made centuries ago coincides perfectly with our own challenges and paths to a flourishing life. In short, it reflects a certain arrogance.
Listen to the word
It is necessary, instead, to listen and accept the challenge of letting the words that we find in the texts resonate with us, letting ourselves be touched deeply and letting those that are able to speak to our time, to our spirits, emerge from there. Those words must be shaped and made alive, vibrant in our time. This is how a secular reading of Buddhist teachings, as well as of every other spiritual and human path, becomes relevant and powerful. If then, Buddhism, as we have known it in its cultural forms, can be at a standstill, then long live ‘Buddhism’. Or, at least, to a new ’Buddhism‘. The path of traditional Buddhism is rooted in meanings and imagery that for us are obscure and unknowable to the end. This is the cultural aspect. But in the immense heritage of Buddhism we can find its strength and relevance if we are able to look for those words and practices that we know how to listen to and feel close to.
Whether we like it or not, to reduce Buddhism to a detached and repetitive liturgical religiosity, means to keep our heads turned towards the past and also means losing the potential for a sensitive engagement with tradition. A vibrant and living spirituality must be known, lived, and experienced in our bodies, our practices, and our way of being. It becomes a totalizing immersion, the only condition that allows it to be overcome.
One cannot let go of what one does not know and live fully, precisely because, paradoxically, it is equally impossible to know this same experience fully, in a definitive way. Only by accepting this paradox and always standing on the edge of the ravine, experiencing this vertigo, can one take flight. One can look down on the ground that supported us until a moment before and discover its completely new features, seen from up there, yet ancient, familiar.
God lives where you let him in
The words and experiences of those who have taken flight in turn inspire us, guide us, and alert us to dangers. But they cannot spread their wings for us; they can only pass the baton. In one respect, the past says nothing about the time we live in. But without the past, our time would have no depth. So, the roots of the present experience intertwine with those of past experiences to generate in each new generation those who are eager for the challenge to generate a language, perspectives, and set of meanings capable of explaining reality. There is no alternative. An old rabbi once asked his diners: ’Where does God live?’. The guests, taken by surprise, were silenced. So, the rabbi continued, ’God lives where you let him in.’ If we wish to understand the sacred and the sublime of our experience, we can only look to the future and to the mystery of life. So, if Buddhism, in a certain sense, is dead, it is time to cry out with all the strength and courage we have in our bodies ’long live Buddhism’. Whatever it is.