So, who am I, publishing this stuff? And what on earth do I think I’m doing?
Short answer: I’ve been thinking and wondering, in recent years, about the role of relationship in Buddhist practice, both early and contemporary. Somewhere in that topic there might even be a book to be written. Since I just don’t know, I decided to start by aggregating and sharing my thoughts and discoveries in a public place where others could respond. And then, to see what happens.
Longer answer: I currently live in the greater Chicago area. Most of my paid work is technical writing and editing. I have, in the past, worked as a freelance editor, website designer, college professor, designer and builder of custom furniture, geological drafter, house painter, legal assistant, retreat center cook, et cetera.
I’ve been involved in meditative practices of one kind or another pretty much all of my adult life. I began practicing vipassana in 1998. Rather slowly, I have come to recognize the Buddhadhamma as my primary map in the world.
In the early 2000s I discovered the Pali Nikāyas, and I resonate strongly with Anālayo’s statement that his practice really took off when he began serious study. Access to the suttas, plus the greater precision that has come from a little Pali study, have made a surprisingly strong difference both in my practice and in how I see the world.
Some while back, I completed a doctoral program (PhD Notre Dame 1994) working with the religions and texts of late antiquity from around the eastern Mediterranean basin. A revision of my dissertation on the Coptic Gnostic “gospel” according to Philip was published by E. J. Brill in 1996. Although I am not now academically employed, I inevitably approach the record of early Buddhism with the tools and perspectives of historical and critical scholarship. I am wondering what use or uses I might put that scholarly training to, in this new area.
As for the relational emphasis of this site: I found the Religious Society of Friends in my teens; since then I have gained a good bit of experience with Quaker approaches to group decision making and other “discernment interactions.” It was my interest in these Quaker forms of interpersonal practice, and the experience of developing an adult curriculum based on them, that led me to Greg Kramer’s Insight Dialogue practice, at a time when I was also discovering some other facets of Buddhism.
I was involved with Insight Dialogue from 2001 until about 2013: as a retreatant, in online practice, editing and writing, and facilitating group practice. It was working to help shape and polish these presentations of interpersonal practice in relation to the eightfold path that tipped me off to how important relationship must have been in the circle around the Buddha.
What had I been thinking, before that? I guess I imagined that people listened to the Buddha much as people at a very large retreat today listen to a dharma talk—and that, in a similar way, they then attempted to apply whatever they understood of what they heard: in silence, inside the privacy of their own skulls, and without specific feedback. This scenario of one-way teaching is seldom, in the contemporary world, enacted in an exclusive way, yet the tendency toward it seems widespread. It describes a very narrow pipeline of communication, with little possibility of checking the accuracy of what has been received. We would not willingly use such a narrow channel of communication to teach any other skill—driving or cooking, cutting a dovetail joint or editing a manuscript. These are extremely challenging conditions for the handing on of any practice!
The challenges inherent in this narrow pipeline of transmission suggest a question: could alternative ways of learning, or supplementary channels of communication, be possible for something as inward as meditation? The suttas are full of examples of oral teaching and solitary practice—examples that, on the surface, seem to parallel the contemporary retreat situation. Yet they depict those practices as grounded in a network of talking, questioning, remembering out loud, and comparing outcomes and understandings. These supports are largely lacking to contemporary meditators. The ways that meditation has been taught in the 20th and early 21st centuries do not simply replicate how the Buddha or his disciples taught—and some of the differences may fall in just the places where our culture renders us least able to see clearly.
For these reasons, I have begun a small investigation into how the Pali record depicts the circle around the Buddha: specifically, how relationships and forms of interaction within that original circle supported the quest for enlightenment. And into certain topics that show both an interpersonal approach and some potential for real liberation. And into what we might learn from it all.
Many streams of my life seem to flow together into this topic: meditative spiritual practice, interpersonal approaches to meditation, the scholarly study of ancient texts, the joy of finding a reliable map. I intend this web site as an expression of that confluence and of that joy.
[You can go here to learn about the sutta for which this web site is named.]