Thursday, February 8, 2007

Tricycle: the Buddhist Review

Tricycle: the Buddhist Review

Review by Vishvapani, 1994 – first published in Golden Drum magazine

I have been a reader of Tricycle for over a year now. It comes through the door with a satisfying thunk: over 100 pages looking - and reading - for all the world like a proper magazine. It is informed, intelligent, well-written and Buddhist. In many ways it is an extraordinary achievement with much of the credit going to the editor, Helen Tworkov, a journalist and author of Zen In America. After just two years Tricycle has a circulation of 100,000 and it is on sale in newsstands and shopping malls across the USA.

The magazine's whimsical title announces its nonsectarian stance, the three wheels of the tricycle equating to the three yanas or vehicles of Buddhist tradition. In this spirit it carries articles on all aspects of Buddhism, though with an undeniable emphasis on the Zen and Tibetan traditions which dominate the American scene.

Most impressive of all is the magazine's self assurance. In the pages of Tricycle Buddhism is no longer a fringe religion for drop-outs and ex-drop-outs: it is part of the American cultural mainstream.

There are now up to half-a-million Buddhists of European descent in the USA many of whom discovered eastern religions in the 1960s and, now that they have reached positions of prominence and responsibility, they have |brought their Buddhism with them. Past issues have featured John Cage, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass representing the Manhattan Zen avant-garde; the Dharma bums generation of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder appear regularly; there have been pieces by the American Buddhist writers Peter Matthiesen and Pico Iyer; and there was recently an intriguing interview with Presidential candidate, ex-Governor and Zen afficionado Jerry Brown.

There is a self-awareness and sophistication at work here at which European Buddhists can only wonder, but this has been hard-won and creates its own blindnesses. Behind the confident stance lies a decade of scandals, crises and disillusionment within American Dharma groups. The cases of prominent teachers involved in scandals concerning sex, power and alcoholism have thrown their American pupils back on their own resources. In particular, doubts have emerged concerning the appropriateness of Asian models of organisation and relationships to American life and Tricycle seems to be a deliberate attempt to reframe the context in which Buddhism is understood in America. The magazine is run by lay people and it may be significant that the two principal editors are women. It is eclectic, giving space to whatever is Buddhist and reasonable and smart. It is non-deferential without being irreverent. On the one hand, the editorial eclecticism gives rise to an element of laissez faire and there is always plenty to disagree with. But on the other hand the magazine is prepared to tackle some controversial issues in the Buddhist world (a recent example being a forthright acount the conflicts surrounding the installation of the new Karmapa).

But in spite of its eclecticism, Tricycle has a very distinctive character. At the heart of this is its Americanness it attempts to articulate a distinctively American as opposed to a Western or even contemporary Buddhism. The current issue, for example, includes a piece on Shoyen Saku, an early Zen teacher in America; an article on Buddhism among the Japanese inhabitants of WW2 internment camps; part of a serialisation of Wake Up, a life of the Buddha by Jack Kerouac; and an interview with the magisterial patriarch of American Zen, Roshi Philip Kapleau. These figures are clearly seen as forming a lineage or, at least, a history for American Buddhists. Beyond this there is a peculiarly American attempt to define an indiginous tradition - including Thoreau and even the authors of the American constitution - from which American Buddhism can be said to have emerged.

The most impressive European Buddhists - men such as Lama Govinda and Sangharakshita - possess a stature, erudition and complexity which is the distinctive product of the interaction of Buddhism with European culture and which, I would suggest, is not to be found within American Buddhism, for all its dynamism and creativity.

To a European eye this Americanness can seem baffling and parochial. American Buddhism has been strong on practice but comparatively weak on ideas, in contrast to European Buddhism which has its roots in scholarly and intellectual interest. For all the dynamism and creativity of the Dharma in the USA no American Buddhists have approached the stature, erudition and complexity of men like Lama Govinda and Sangharakshita who have emerged from the interaction of Buddhism with European culture. And behind European Buddhism lies an intellectual hinterland of Buddhist influences and analogues which stretches back to Schopenhauer and beyond. European culture is also a part of the American inheritance and in any case, many of the social conditions obtaining in the US are now present throughout the developed world. So why not show an interest in a broader issue: the development of Western Buddhism to which Europeans have already contributed a great deal?

These limitations expose Tricycle to a number of pitfalls. It is sincerely trying to question the relevance of the forms of Buddhism we have inherited from the East, but in the absence of a critique emerging from Buddhist principles, many of the contributors base their questions upon the values of American liberalism. Feminism, eco-Buddhism and `engaged Buddhism' inform many of the contributions which seek to go beyond traditional expositions of the Dharma. But while it is fine that Eastern Buddhism is being subjected to sassy NYC/West Coast good-sense, what is really needed is that America itself is subjected to the scrutiny of Buddhism. Tricycle is happy to comment on acceptably problematised questions such as euthanasia and abortion, but will it try to develop a critique of such beloved American institutions as the family, Christianity and the various trappings of middle-class American life? Will it seriously challenge the spiritual materialism of the `New Age' or subject to a thoroughly Buddhist critique the views and lifestyles which many American Buddhists have brought with them, unquestioned, into their new religion.

The current issue shows the strengths and weaknesses of Tricycle's approach. Helen Tworkov, on the set of Bertolucci's forthcoming film ‘Little Buddha’ (which seems to have the whole Buddhist world crossing its fingers) is perceptive, ironic and sceptical. But Stephen Batchelor's ‘Letter from South Africa’ appears to have been written because South Africa is a topical and important, even though he has nothing really Buddhist say about it. Kerouac's Wake Up is remarkable only for its famous author - a fairly traditional retelling of the Buddha's life which has the characters speaking bizarre sub-Shakespearean dialogue. It is clearly going to be hard to maintain the standard of the early issues.

It is extraordinarily encouraging to read Tricycle's confident and intelligent writing and to see Buddhism entering a mainstream (even if Europeans will feel that it is not their own). But the mainstream is not the Middle Way and unless the editors take care it may turn out to be nothing more than the middle of the road.

© Vishvapani, 2006

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