Real Conservatives

A little over a month ago, I got an email from Kusala Bhikshu’s Urban Dharma devoted to an article by Bhikkhu Bodhi titled: How will the Sangha fare in North American Buddhism? (You can also link via Abhayagiri.) Now after tearing through a backlog of work and mending a dislocated elbow, here are my thoughts.

First off, I really appreciate Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article because he raises questions that really do need to be addressed, and he did so very respectfully. He asks the question, Are there forces at work that might actually undermine the survival of Buddhist monasticism? While he characterized different approaches and responses as either conservative or liberal, he emphasized that he was not taking a stand with one camp or another.

Presented are four main issues that threaten the continuity of the monastic Sangha in North America. First (leveling of distinctions), Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that in America, you don’t have to be a monk to be an expert on the Pali Canon and a devout practitioner. Second (spiritual secularism), what American Buddhists want out of Buddhism is different than what traditional monks teach. Third (social engagement) American Buddhists want their religious figures to be more involved in social and political causes. Fourth (religious pluralism) many American Buddhists bristle at the notion of a Buddhism that has an exclusive monopoly on spiritual truth, and they also feel it should be compatible with other religious practices.

But I doubt that these four issues truly represent a threat to the Sangha. Of course, I admit to harboring some reservations that are also shared by others, such as the worry that secularism may undermine Buddhist rectitude. There is also the sentiment that Westerners don’t appreciate quite understand the monastic Sangha as much as they should. But I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

It takes time for monasticism to take root. When I was growing up (I’m still young, so this wasn’t long ago) most temples lacked a sima (as is still the case) and so ordinations took place on the water. Buddhism’s been in the United States for over a hundred years, and we’ve only just elected our first Buddhist Congresspersons. For some reason, Western Buddhists expect everything to sprout up like Starbucks and CVS. They expect Buddhism to take root and prosper. Dare I say… they feel entitled to it. Now.

As I mentioned above, Bhikkhu Bodhi presents the tug-of-war as conservatism versus innovation. This basic frame of the problem alludes to a broader and deeper dilemma: the assumption that extant forms of Buddhism are conservative. If conservative means not wanting to change, then I’ll happily suggest that it’s the Western liberal Buddhists who are the real conservatives. After all, the issues that Bhikkhu Bodhi raises are almost completely about Western Buddhists being unwilling to stop clinging to their Western Romanticist perspectives.

Western Buddhists want the teachings, but not the freedom of the monkhood. They don’t want to bother with notions that seem to clash with science, but they’re willing to accept that they can overcome all suffering. They want true happiness, but they think that politics will help them get there. They don’t want to accept Buddhism as the true way to the end of suffering, but they still want to take Refuge. As I’ve said countless times before, it’s not about you making Buddhism better, it’s about Buddhism making you better.

Maybe I’m an idealist, but I believe that the roots of a devout Sangha, including both monks and laypeople, already exist in the United States. I have a lot of faith in reform movements such as the Dhammayuttika Order, where the reform is to hew to the texts in spite of external pressures, rather than to give into them.

Now, not everyone lives up to the ideals they commit to, but that’s not say there are no well-practicing monks and nuns in the West. These monastic role models in turn have their devoutly practicing followers. While this sub-Sangha may not make up the majority of the Buddhist community, they provide a solid basis for the future. It is their innovation, their willingness to practice and change themselves that will keep the Dharma alive amidst Western conservatism.

3 comments

  1. Justin says:

    All throughout this awesome article of yours I could see a thread, “practice the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma.” Some Western Buddhists will catch on and some won’t. The ones that do will be the standard bearers for the next generations. It’s been like that since the Buddha became enlightened and established the Sangha and I have faith that it will continue in that manner.

    I agree with you that the roots of the devout Sangha are already alive and well. Ajahn Thanissaro is a prime example as far as I can tell but I’m sure there are many others out there who are unsung heros, both lay and ordained. I remain hopeful as well. This was a great review of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s little piece. I wish you well now.

  2. Just a quick point–I don’t think the issue of monastics in the West is about “appreciation” or a lack thereof from the lay community. Instead, I think the issue is a lack of understanding about the continuing importance of all four folds of the Four Fold Assembly–lay and monastic alike. But maybe I’m just playing with words.

  3. arunlikhati says:

    Justin: Thank you for your comments. It’s easy for me to talk approvingly of Thanissaro Bhikkhu because he lives here in Southern California, and it’s easy to visit his temple regularly. I also believe is not alone in the modern Sangha.

    Ven. Rinchen Gyatso: Thank you for your correction too! I’ve very, very slightly modified my post accordingly. Hopefully any readers will be able to see the link between your comments and my attempt at a revision. Thank you also for posting about it on your blog. I enjoyed reading it!

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