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.
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.
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)
A meditation teacher once said, “Dharma is free!” to encourage us to share and ask questions about our meditation experience and the dharma. I will admit that his exclamation worked and got our group to open up. Free, as in beer, usually encourages greater demand and fortunately for us, this situation was without the indulgence of the sacking of the commons. But even information and experience has costs, namely the costs associated with memory, transference and time. So dharma is not free as in beer, as appealing as that may sound. In fact, I don’t think it ever was.
The Buddha and his followers found their support from their society, as did many other mendicants such as the Jains. As Ajahn Geoff notes, the Buddha’s society supported their dropouts, those who felt their lives were meant for something other than making do or making money. In fact, he had a huge web of support. His daily alms came from the surplus food of his ordinary lay supporters. Political support and protection came from King Pasenadi. And so appealing was his message to the merchant Anathapindika, that an elaborate park was constructed and donated to the Buddha and his followers, a place that would become the center of his movement while he was still alive.
I still find such support systems here in the states, imported from other countries that have hundreds of years of this kind of history. Wat Metta has a money tree each Thai New Year and Kathina celebration. Ven. Cheng Yen and her penny-pinching house wife followers have a worldwide non-profit relief organization to provide aid to the tired, the poor, and others yearning to breathe free. These are nevertheless still young cultural imports which take root with immigrant populations.
In the same referenced essay, Ajahn Geoff also notes that American society has no ready support system for people with aspirations of samvega. According to the essay, such people who act on these feelings are likely to be relegated to the fringes of society along with other cast-offs who have no use for the economy. There are exceptions to the rule for unproductive members of society: alternative lifestyles such as early retirement extreme and van dwelling; authors who become popular enough to live off the royalties of their writings, and speakers who command exhorbitant fees. But there can only be so many authors before our bookshelves are full and so many speakers before our wallets run dry.
What we do with the surplus of our economy seems to be as important as what we do not do with it. Maintaining the centers and support of dharma is certainly not free, just as arunlikhati and Will Buckingham point out. But if we are working so hard to produce this surplus, what value do we want it to bring for us?
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.
What’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.
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.
On my bookshelf, next to Plato’s Republic and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, are several Buddhism books: The Dhammapada, Buddhism Without Beliefs and In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. On websites like Access to Insight, I can read many excellent and various essays and translations of suttas. And on YouTube, I have hours of Dhamma goodness from around the world. These are all available at my individual convenience at little personal toil. When I’m done or feel too busy, the books are back on the shelf, and the websites (usually) remain, waiting to be picked up again.
This seems far different from the methods of propagation that were available to previous Buddhist cultures that were faced with the limits of physical travel and the travel of information, and were without huge stores of energy like we have. Preserving the suttas and passing them on to the next generation depended on the labor of constant renewal: memorizing and chanting; recruiting, training and integrating new members; and tuning in the teachings to both the standards of the Dhamma and the needs of the community. All this was necessary to continue the teachings lest the Dhamma be swept away in a gap of practice. And these all existed in and were nurtured by the support of community.
Yet, at my fingertips are the ideas of the Dhamma, fully and freely available at any time, most strikingly without the communal milieu that it previously existed in. With our technology, it is possible and easy for Buddhism to transplant its ideas, far and thin, without the community that has previously nurtured and supported it. But the Buddha himself did not exist in a vacuum that he later filled with the Triple Gem. He lived in a culture that promoted the kind of seeking he engaged in, as evidenced the many mendicants he interacted with and the path that he was enabled by his community to follow. The Sangha of support he built and which continues in some fashion to this day speaks to this need for finding our path together.
Where do we find our community of practice? What might this community look like?
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 (“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.
Several Buddhist boycotts have been bubbling up over the past few months. In August, Ethan Nichtern announced his resolution to boycott Whole Foods to protest the CEO’s stance on healthcare reform. Burmese monks announced a potential pattanikkujjana, a boycott on alms from the undeserving in the military. Thich Quang Do, leader of GHPGVNTN (Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam) pressed for Vietnamese at home and abroad to boycott Chinese goods in response to “the grave effects of poor quality and toxic Chinese goods on the health and environment of Vietnamese consumers.” More recently, Ajahn Sujato reports of boycotts on monasteries that oppose bhikkhuni ordination—and also provides his tacit support. And the dismay over the Tricycle article “Dharma Wars” has prompted others to talk of boycotting Tricycle itself.