The project is based on our recognition that the man we know as “The Buddha” developed and taught an understanding of how events unfold in the world and a way of responding to our experience of events that will reduce or end our anguish, anxiety, fear, and frustration, and will increase the level of happiness and well-being in our lives and the lives of others. We believe that we can learn from the Buddha’s teachings how to understand what we experience each day and how to live our lives, here and now, for the reduction of anguish and the increase of happiness. Developing that understanding and those life skills is the purpose of our Gathering.

Our arrival at this point—this point in time and this recognition that the Buddha’s teachings are relevant to the situation we face—is the result of a number of contingent events, occurring on an historical timeline.

The Preservation of the Teachings

Siddhatha Gotama, who awakened to the understanding of how things are and how best to respond to them, and whose awakening (bodhi in the language of his day) entitled him to be called The Buddha (“The One who has Awakened”), taught for 45 years in a culture whose privileged classes were trained in the precise memorization of teachings. His followers, most of whom came from those same privileged classes, were numerous and extremely well organized, and at his death developed a deliberate project of remembering his teachings and passing them along with rather less corruption and interpolation than one might expect to occur with the passage of time. When they were finally written down 300–400 years after the Buddha’s death, and in the many centuries since, the teachings were widely copied and translated into many languages; the result is that we have an exceptionally large body of teachings still extant, and scholars are able to compare those and evaluate them for completeness and authenticity with more assurance than it’s possible to bring to most collection of texts that large and that old.

The Development of Buddhist Religions

Almost from the beginning, the Sangha had many aspects of a religion—rituals, shrines, places of pilgrimage, communal chanting, the development of a mythology, belief in the Buddha’s magical abilities. After the Buddha’s death, those religious aspects proliferated, and the different ways of interpreting his teachings and determining which particular teachings to prioritize continued to diverge. Sects emerged. Each incorporated practices native to the cultures to which it carried the Teachings, and the many different traditions that we identify today as “Buddhist” took form. Each tradition continued the transmission of the original teachings, which became known as the Tipitaka, and each one also added its own texts—extensions or additions to, commentaries on, or expansions of the Discourses in the Tipitaka. Many of those added texts were attributed to the Buddha himself or to his closest followers, and the texts particular to each tradition came to assume more significance within that tradition than the Tipitaka texts themselves. The result of all those emerging and diverging traditions is an enormous body of Buddhist literature. While each tradition’s texts reflect its particular and distinctive emphases and interpretations, almost all of those texts, generously read, contribute to our understanding of the original Teachings and help demonstrate the relevance of those Teachings to almost every circumstance in which we might find ourselves.

The Transmission of the Teachings in a Global Culture

There has probably always been some significant transmission of ideas between Buddhism and the West, but for most of the two and a half millennia since the Buddha’s death, Buddhism was almost entirely an Asian phenomenon. The European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the development of colonialist capitalist enterprises, improved communications technologies, and the dramatic population shifts following two world wars and the collapse of colonialism have all contributed to an unfolding recognition of diverse Asian cultural patterns and phenomena, including Buddhism in its many forms. In the past century, the instantiation of a particular Western variety of Buddhism began to emerge; toward the end of the 20th Century, and with rapid acceleration through the first decade of the 21st, Western Buddhist sanghas have been dropping many of the more obviously religious trappings of the Asian traditions in which they began; they have become more self-consciously secular in their approach both to meditative practice and to their understanding of the Buddha’s Dhamma. Most importantly for our purposes, contemporary Buddhism, and especially Western Buddhism, has been developing contemporary translations of the Tipitaka texts from the Pali Canon that are more accurate and much more readable than earlier translations, most of which dated from 100 years ago or more. Finally, with the help of the Internet, innovative new techniques and tools have been developed for studying the Pali texts and spreading the new translations.

The Influence of Phenomenology and Neuroscience

The philosophical movement known as [phenomenology]( has many historical precedents, but its emergence as a self-conscious approach to discovering the roots of philosophy really began in the early 20th Century with philosophers aligned with Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others. While its many founding fathers and even more numerous adherents differ in their definition of the term, most agree that the phenomenological viewpoint accepts our conscious experience as the starting point for understanding any philosophical question: questions about how things are (ontology), how we know (epistemology), and how to best behave (ethics). I think I’m not over-stretching things to say that there is no philosophical tradition in the past century that has not been influenced by phenomenology. And it also seems pretty obvious that the Buddha’s Dhamma was based on what a modern philosopher would see as a phenomenological understanding of the world. So the rise in the awareness of phenomenology and its increased importance to modern philosophical thinking has, I think, predisposed those who are predisposed to view things philosophically to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously.

Over the same period of time in which phenomenology has taken on importance in philosophy, modern neuroscience has been developing an astounding array of techniques and tools to look closely at the physical and anatomical roots of experience. Of particular relevance to the context in which the Project is emerging is the study that neuroscience has applied to meditation. Studying the brains and behaviors of meditators, both beginning and accomplished, the scientists are converging on an understanding of meditation as a process that alters the way in which the meditator responds to the world: meditators are typically calmer, less prone to anxiety, panic, and impulsive anger; feel less pain, even in physically painful situations; feel more in control of their lives. Fairly dramatic physiological changes are visible in accomplished meditators; scientists see an increase in activity in those areas of the brain involved with the executive function and rationality, and an accompanying decrease both in the brain activity and the hormonal release that triggers impulsive behaviors, such as the fabled (and possibly fabulous) “fight-or-flight” response. And again, what the scientists are finding predisposes those who read their findings to take a fresh look at Buddhism, and especially Buddhist meditative practice.

Western Buddhism

What we’re left with, as persons considering the Buddha’s teachings in 21st Century America, is a phenomenon, “Western Buddhism”, that finds the terminology and rituals taken over from Old World cultures less and less meaningful, and sometimes a little off-putting, while, at the same time, it is re-discovering the teachings at the foundation of all Buddhist traditions. Moreover, it is finding in those most ancient teachings a system of understanding the world and a path of practice that resonate strongly with the most vital traditions of a secular philosophy and the best findings of modern science.

It is in that context that the Project has been imagined and begun.


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