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Is Buddhism Surviving America?

An interview with Helen Tworkov,
editor of Tricycle magazine
by Amy Edelstein


Helen Tworkov

It was one of the first warm days of spring, and the crab apple trees were in bloom all along Riverside Drive. As I entered Manhattan and crossed the crowded and alive streets of the West Village, I found myself wondering: Who is Helen Tworkov?

We met in the stairwell on the second floor outside of the Tricycle offices, the "smoking annex," where she was perched on a step, finishing a business meeting with her publisher. She shook my hand warmly, looking me straight in the eye. Twenty years my senior, having begun her spiritual quest when I was just learning to walk, Helen Tworkov has lived through many of the critical chapters of American Buddhist history. She was part of the movement that cut the first trails to the East, the movement that made "karma," "nirvana" and "enlightenment" household words.

We first thought of interviewing Helen Tworkov for this issue of WIE because she, like almost no one else, has had a bird's eye view of the evolution of the American Buddhist world. The founder and editor of America's most widely circulated Buddhist review, she has met, written about or practiced with many of the most influential Buddhist teachers of our time, both Eastern and Western. But it was not only Tworkov's unique experience that had piqued our interest. Four years ago Tricycle had published the bold Afterword to the second edition of her book Zen in America, in which she had voiced vociferous criticisms of the watering down of the goal of the Buddha's teachings in America. Her astute insights regarding the assimilation of Buddhism in the West were provocative and illuminating, and she obviously cared passionately about the enlightenment tradition and its future.

When asked how she got involved with Buddhism, Helen Tworkov's eyes brightened; she was still moved by the recollection of what it was that had compelled her to take such unusual risks at such a young age. Agonized by the war in Vietnam and the failure of American culture to provide meaningful answers, she, like others of her generation, had turned toward Asia and Buddhism. In her view, this was a collective movement, a movement for change, a movement to transform what was unacceptable in the society and in the government and, as a logical corollary, a movement to eradicate the roots of that which was unacceptable in themselves.

During this period, Tworkov came across D.T. Suzuki's writings on impermanence and death. "It was so radically different from what my own culture provided," she explains. "It didn't seem mystical or alien; it just seemed real. And you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to get it!" So when she was twenty-two, just after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, she headed for Japan, one of the first Westerners, and one of the first Western women, on the Eastern spiritual circuit.

Tworkov found Japan and the Japanese monasteries intimidating and inaccessible, and discovered little that made sense to her in that very foreign culture. But in spite of this, she stayed in Asia for two years—far longer than she had originally planned—eventually traveling from Japan to Nepal, where she worked with Tibetan refugees. Her experiences with the Tibetans marked her deeply. It was only four years after the brutal Chinese invasion of Tibet, and these were people in exile from their homeland, who had fled destruction, torture and the imprisonment and death of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns. "There was something amazing about working with the Tibetans at that time," she recalls. "Their situation was so rough, and yet they still seemed to be able to access genuine joy and happiness. Given that the refugee camp was filled with individuals who had just seen members of their own families tortured and killed, that was miraculous to me."

Helen Tworkov returned to America in the mid-sixties, by her own account still a "book Buddhist," not knowing how to translate into her own experience the teachings that had captivated her and yet still remained elusive, alien and seemingly only for those born in Asia. By now, the first Japanese teachers had begun touring the States, and only days after Tworkov had returned to the West, The New York Times published a front page article announcing the convergence of hippies in Kathmandu. An exodus began for Asia, but Tworkov had resettled in the West. Some years later she started studying with the great Tibetan master Dudjom Rinpoche. She describes him with deep reverence and affection as perhaps the most enlightened man she has ever met, but—at the same time—one to whom she could find no cultural bridges. "I was inspired by him," she explains, "but I couldn't really learn from him." Eventually, she found herself attracted to the teachings of a native New Yorker, later to become dharma heir [teaching successor] to Taizan Maezumi's Zen lineage, Bernard Glassman. Even at the time, she thought it ironic that she would be studying Zen after her experience in Japan. But the shift, she explains, was not so much from Tibetan Buddhism to Zen Buddhism as from Asian teachers to American teachers. With Glassman there was no language barrier, and she didn't have to build any social or cultural bridges. But though her American teachers could speak the same language and understand her cultural background and questions, it is to her Asian teachers that she looks when recalling those individuals she has known who had authentic "awakened mind," who were "holders of the transmission" in the truest sense of the term and who, because of who they were, could communicate a real and palpable sense of what she calls "the unknowable and unthinkable" to their students.

In her Afterword to Zen in America, Tworkov describes the rarity of the enlightened perspective, and succinctly and unflinchingly articulates her observations about how the significance of enlightenment has been minimized in American Buddhism. We were struck by her impassioned critique and her willingness to question, in a way that few others have dared to do, what is being taught as the path to awakening in many contemporary American Buddhist institutions. And we were excited and even relieved to have come across her views, for we had begun to arrive at similar conclusions ourselves while putting together this issue of WIE, and had been wondering—were we missing something essential?

Published in Tricycle under the title "Zen in the Balance: Can It Survive America?" Tworkov's Afterword provoked a loud uproar in Buddhist circles. In it, she unreservedly criticizes a Buddhism that has lost its real dharma heirs, that has "co-opted enlightenment to add to a materialistic and self-serving lifestyle," and that views the goal of enlightenment as an obstacle to, rather than as the purpose of, spiritual practice. Although she refers primarily to the denigration of enlightenment in American Zen, her reflections on the idiosyncratic influences of American culture on contemporary Buddhism in general are insightful and hard-hitting. We were very interested to find out if she felt her critique applied equally to the other Western schools of Buddhism. If she saw the same dissipation of the goal of awakening and cynicism about the potential for radical personal transformation that she had observed in American Zen, then what, we wanted to ask her, did she see as the future—and for that matter the present state—of Buddhism in America?

Tworkov's firsthand observations of the coming of age of American Buddhism have led her to think deeply about the fallout from the failure of many teachers to uphold moral values, and about the tenacious independence and individualism, perhaps particular to Americans, that she terms "libertine antagonism to authority." Both of these factors, she believes, have served to diminish the role, purpose and value of awakening among Zen Buddhists. In her Afterword, she responds unequivocally to this phenomenon, describing how "the quest for enlightenment has been derided of late as [a] romantic and mythic aspiration." She laments the "denigration of enlightenment" as a "grievous and perhaps peculiarly American misinterpretation" of some of the great Zen masters' teachings about the goal of the spiritual path. And in contrast to this view, she holds up the passion for change that brought Buddhism to America in the first place: "The original enthusiasm . . . was not just for personal discovery, but for the possibility of developing an appreciation for the unknown in an excessively cluttered society—it was an effort to break ground for new possibilities."

Speaking with Helen Tworkov was a genuine pleasure and raised important questions about the kinds of effects our materialistic and gratification-oriented culture has had on what has traditionally been a renunciate tradition. Her personal involvement in the maturation of Buddhism in America offers us a view of our society and its influence on spiritual seekers that is penetrating and provocative, and which leaves us with the question: Is Buddhism surviving America?


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This article is from
Our Advaita and Buddhism Issue


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