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July 12, 2014 full moon

The Evolving Sangha:

Talking with Jay Michaelson

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Jay Michaelson holds a Ph.D from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a J.D. from Yale. He is currently a visiting scholar at Brown University, where he is an adviser to the Varieties of Meditative Experience project. Jay is affiliated with the Practical Dharma movement and the Contemplative Development Mapping Project, and has done a number of long-term Vipassanā retreats in the United States and Nepal. He is the author of five books, most recently Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism and the Next Generation of Enlightenment. He will teach at BCBS September 19-21.

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Insight Journal: Can you summarize your path to the Dharma?

Jay Michaelson: My path to the Dharma was actually a little unusual. I was a student of religion in my 20s–I now have a PhD in religious studies–and was very interested in mysticism and mystical experience. So unlike a lot of other Dharma practitioners who came in for reasons of dukkha, for me it was more about greed! Greed for pleasant experiences.

I started meditating in the Jewish-Buddhist hybrid tradition, in which I still teach today, and gradually moved over toward Theravadan practice, including several long retreats in the Mahasi Sayadaw lineage and practicing jhāna with Pa Auk Sayadaw and Leigh Brasington. Like a lot of practitioners, my goals have changed over time–hopefully for the better.

IJ: You talk about many aspects of community in your book. What is your sense of where are we in Western Buddhism as regards community?

JM: It’s funny that I have written about, and am now teaching about, community, since I’ve often been a kind of lone-wolf practitioner. One of my interests as a Dharma practitioner is finding peer community–precisely because I’m not very good at following authority and guru-like figures. It’s interesting to me that in the West we seem to vacillate between wanting more and wanting less community. A few years ago you might recall the book Bowling Alone, which talked about how Americans used to bowl in leagues, and now bowl individually or with friends. But just a few years later it was found that bowling leagues, in particular, were making a comeback.

So I think we’re always betwixt and between, the individualistic ideals of America and the natural human desire for community.

IJ: Do we need for secular Buddhism or Western Buddhism to be an "organized religion," per se, or is something less centralized–a community of resource-providers (text, teacher, mentor)–a better approach?

JM: As I talk about in my book, Evolving Dharma, Buddhism as we understand it in the West is a very complicated set of phenomena. There are far more Buddhists who practice Buddhism as a religion in the West than secular Buddhists who are interested in contemplative practice. Most Theravadan Buddhists are not sitting and doing vipassanā retreats all the time This is worth bearing in mind as we decide whether these forms and institutions are necessary, or even useful.

There are some for whom the communal and ritual aspects of organized religion are really essential: sanctifying life passages, building communal bonds, expressing hopes or aspirations, engaging in a tradition of myth, expressing gratitude, and many more. For others, they are not. So I think it really depends on what we’re looking for.

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June 13, 2014
Awareness of Thinking: Recollective Awareness Practice
Talking with Jason Siff

May 14, 2014
Jhāna Practice and True Happiness
Talking with Shaila Catherine

April 15, 2014
Natural Buddhism
By Gil Fronsdal

March 16, 2014
How is the Medium Changing the Message?
By Ken McLeod

February 14, 2014
Buddhist Roots & Ethics
Talking with Lynn Monteiro & Frank Musten

January 15, 2014
Silent Illumination
By Guo Gu

December 17, 2013
New Horizons: Talking with Andrew Olendzki

November 17, 2013
Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, & Compassionate Action
Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison

October 18, 2013
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
a conversation with Joseph Goldstein

September 19, 2013
MIT Meets the Monastery
a conversation with Rajesh Kashturirangan

August 20, 2013
Secular Buddhism: New vision or yet another of the myths it claims to cure?
By Akincano Weber

July 22, 2013
The Essence of Dhamma
By Ajaan Thanissaro

June 23, 2013
Seeing the Āsavas
By Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia

May 25, 2013
Meeting your thoughts at a resting place
By Jason Siff

April 25, 2013
New rivers, new rafts
By Chris Talbott

March 27, 2013
Wheels of Fire: The Buddha’s Radical Teaching on Process
By Kate Lila Wheeler

February 25, 2013
True & False: Dharma After the Western Enlightenment
Talking with Rita Gross

January 26, 2013
Honoring a Life & Legacy in the Dhamma
Talking with Mirka Knaster about Munindra

See Archive page for some older editions.