How will you observe Kathina?

Last year’s bhikkhuni ordination in Australia prompted an unprecedented outpouring of support for the Theravada bhikkhuni movement. It was certainly a tipping point. The center of discussion in the wider community has begun to shift from questions about ordination to questions about how to support and nurture the growing community of nuns. This was the first year that the “Theravada Buddhist women’s monastic community has gathered together to observe the vassatime retreat.” Tomorrow will mark their first Kathina ceremony at the Aranya Bodhi Hermitage.

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Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordination in Los Angeles

Recently, a friend of mine received her ordination at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles. She has been a very inspirational figure in terms of her commitment to the Dharma and the community. I attended for most of the ceremony, but had to leave before the final photo shoots to make it home before my early bedtime. Fortunately, she sent me a link to a piece on the ceremony written up by Dr. Stephen Long for the Asian Tribune.

I have had mixed feelings about recent bhikkhuni ordinations. My concerns are less about the ordinations themselves, but of the polarized politics that surround them. I was a bit anxious about attending, but I’m glad I did. At the ceremony this past weekend, I realized that the young children in the audience will grow up in a Buddhist community that includes both monks and nuns, oblivious to the controversy that can at times rip through my generation. Two or three generations down the road, who knows? All the anxieties of my generation (mine included) may be relegated to a footnote in a history text. I wish these newly ordained bhikkhunis all the best blessings and support.

To the limits of Western Buddhism (and beyond)

There’s some interesting discussion going on about Western Buddhism. Scott Mitchell blogs about the problems with a notion of Western Buddhism that’s a simple intersection of “Buddhism” and the “West.” His post was interesting enough for Tricycle to re-blog, followed up with the question of whether it’s even kosher to talk about the “West” at all. Brooke Schedneck writes about Western Buddhist teachers who define themselves in opposition to other Western Buddhists. Most recently, Kyle Lovett satirizes of 15 types of Western Buddhists, with “insular Asian Buddhists” segregated to a spot at the end.

This collection of posts all deal with the struggle of defining Western Buddhism as a singular concept. Scott’s venn diagram harks back to a constant refrain in Buddhist studies—that there is not just one Buddhism, but many “Buddhisms.” Much the same can be said about the “West”—i.e. which West are we talking about?

When used as a geographic demarcation, a term like “Western Buddhist” is simple and straightforward. Any Buddhist denizen or native of a Western locale is a “Western Buddhist”—at least in the case where “Western” refers to the Western world (rather than, say, a Buddhist of Western Australia), including locales on all inhabited continents. With his signature crass humor, Kyle writes in this direction. He points out that Western Buddhists include a vast medley of very different (and potentially) annoying types.

On the other hand, “Western” can have strong cultural—even racialized—undertones. “Western” becomes a proxy for us or them, drawing lines through nations, neighborhoods and even congregations. When defined in contrast to Asian, the designation cuts out the majority of those who have practiced Buddhism in Western nations—individuals like myself.

I doubt there will be any solid ground where we can refer to the “West” and not step on the cultural and historical sensitivities of this term. Nevertheless, people do identify as Western—myself included. Perhaps the paradox is that we cannot refer to Western Buddhism without at the same time compromising our Western ideals, such as democracy, egalitarianism and fairness.

Update: I have no idea why I wrote that last line earlier yesterday, or what I meant by it. The conclusion that I’d rather have added is that it’s important that we challenge our notions of “Western Buddhism.” This term is real and substantial insomuch as individuals use it with deliberate meaning; however, I am very wary of this term’s divisive potential, often wielded as such. The authors above make clear that “Western” is not a straightforward concept, of whom Kyle Lovett most unambiguously makes the point, even amid satire, that one need not draw coarse cultural or ethnic distinctions by the use of “Western.” (18/07/2010)

New Agey Western Buddhism

Will Buckingham mentions the investment of a meditation center in a dowser, bringing up the important question: what’s the relationship between a dowsing and a meditation center?

The answer, from the outside, is obvious: that Western Buddhists are part of a much larger world of curious beliefs, ranging from dowsing to homoeopathy to crystal healing to angel spirit guides, a well-meaning hodge-podge lacking in much rigour and in which it is possible to move seamlessly from talking about the neuroscientific evidence for the benefits of meditation to talking about ley lines, reiki and how to find your shamanic power animal. And in these kinds of situations, it is considered somewhat unseemly to raise questions about pesky things like evidence, or how all this is supposed to work or hang together. It is this hodge-podge that has, over the years, made me increasingly uneasy with the various forms of Buddhism in the West, and the broader cultural context in which Buddhist practice takes place.

Sometimes it seems that Buddhism in the West is a strange cocktail indeed: 1/3 Blavatskyian new age speculation; 1/3 distillation of Buddhist texts; 1/3 psychobabble; and a pinch of science for added flavour (optional). Shake vigorously, warm slightly over the fires of good intentions, and consume. There. Now don’t you feel better already?

The New Age aspect of Western Buddhism is probably (and regrettably) not isolated to the West. I could fill paragraphs of my often awkward encounters with New Age Buddhists of all stripes and colors. In fact, just yesterday I was taking with a friend about a certain group of Buddhists in China who would fall into this category. Though we may find such beliefs and practices unnerving, his conclusion was simply, “As long as they’re not hurting anyone…”

I suppose if I were in Buckingham’s situation, I would just feel a bit uneasy to know my donations were being put towards a dowsing contractor.

Happy New Year!

This blog is officially two years old. Our first post in 2008 marked the Other Lunar New Year. (I write “lunar” although several countries time their celebrations in line with the Gregorian calendar.) I’d like to think of this date as a most auspicious anniversary. As I wrote then:

This festival is widely celebrated in nations that are predominantly Theravada Buddhist, so this theme is both fitting and auspicious for our first post! You may often hear/see this celebration called Songkran in ThailandLaos and CambodiaThingyan in Burma and Aluth Avurudhu in Sri Lanka. This new year is also celebrated in Nepal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, Punjab and Bengal (including Bangladesh). Apparently it’s not as much of a fest elsewhere in South Asia.

Similar posts from the past are here and here. I couldn’t find any writing on this holiday hanging around the anglophonic Buddhist blogosphere—save a background mention in a Tricycle post. Can’t say I’m surprised! It’s a sad and disappointing sort of vindication—if it weren’t for the Angry Asian Buddhist, I wonder how many self-styled “Western” Buddhists would recognize this holiday at all.

Strung Up Buddhists

blessing stringWhat’s that on your wrist?

You get used to hearing this question frequently if, like me, you sport a string bracelet. Tiger Woods has one too, so I’ve heard. I often give a non-response—I wear it because I’m Buddhist—a phrase which is far too often unsuccessful at repelling the dreaded follow-up question: What does it mean?

The string I wear is tied on my wrist by monks, usually following a brief ceremony where blessings and protections are chanted. This simple string has ancient roots that span nations, cultures and religions. But you won’t learn any of that here. I’m just going to tell you what the string means to me.

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Bodhi Branding

A friend passed along a question from a sibling on whether or not bodhi is an appropriate word to include in a professional logo. My short response is, “It’s fine.” I’ve shared the longer reply below.

Bodhi means “enlightenment” in the ancient Indian language of Pali. It’s also the name for the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened as the Buddha. This word has a special spiritual meaning for Buddhists, but it’s also crossed into mainstream English usage with a broader range of associations. Just look at what sort of brands use the term “bodhi”…

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A Vietnamese Mendicant Tradition

Nhu Lai Thien Tu

There were six, if not more toilets at Như Lai Thiền Tự, a Buddhist temple in San Diego. I figured six was excessive—until three coaches of pilgrims pulled up in front. Celebrations for the Lunar New Year continue, and this includes the ancient tradition of temple hopping. Apparently the new year is the best time to make merit—and to wait in a long line to pee.

On any given day, there is very little about Như Lai Thiền Tự to distinguish it from the multitude of other Vietnamese temples across North America. There is a main shrine hall, an ancestor hall—even a special stage set up for Tết ceremonies. Statues of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and classic characters from Chinese Buddhist literature meet you at every turn, always accompanied by a incense holder for the devotee. But this is not your typical Mahayana Buddhist temple.

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Prapañca: a Buddhist Journal

Dr. Scott Mitchell has announced a new online Buddhist journal coming out this June!

Along with the help of some friends, we’re launching Prapañca, a quarterly, online Buddhist journal featuring both original reporting and opinion pieces on a wide variety of Buddhist topics, but also fiction, poetry, and the arts. The co-founders/editors and I are passionate not only about bringing a wide diversity of Buddhist voices to our future readers, we’re also passionate about creating a venue for writers of Buddhist fiction and poetry to showcase their work.

I hope this magazine is able to showcase and promote the otherwise overlooked diversity in the Buddhist community. You can visit the home page here, and the submissions guidelines here. I’m definitely going to submit something!

Modern Contradictions

Over on The Huffington Post, Deborah Jiang Stein asks whether a Buddhist skateboarding monk is “a contradiction or a product of the modern age.” She’s referring to the image of a monk on a caster board at Mount Emei that sparked criticism in China Skateboarding Monk(“Monks should seek quietness and riding a skateboard is such a contradictory thing to Buddhist life”) and humorous applause elsewhere (“What could be a better example of the middle way than balancing on a skateboard?”). You’ve probably already seen this news pop up on the Buddhist blogs (like here, here, here and here). The contradictory aspect of this episode isn’t the monk, but rather the Buddhist community—as evidenced by the range of reactions that appear online.

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