Big Bhuddhies Bag Barbs

Busy schedule this week. Had another post planned for today, but it’s not quite ready. I was not intending to blog anymore about the Garrison Institute Teachers Council conference. I always sort of regret posts like that afterwards. For one thing, I start to feel that I am too opinionated and then I begin reflecting on Nagarjuna and the emptiness of views etc. Also I have a feeling that readers may not care that much to read about whatever it is that’s sticking in my craw. On the other hand, I remind myself that I am not blogging to please other people but really to give myself an outlet for expression.

I’m doing an update on the Garrison Institute situation since it is sticking in my craw. Why? Because I am Buddhist and I’m an American. American Buddhism matters to me.

So, without further ado, here’s the latest: James Ford, one of the attendees, posted a list of the participants. You can see it here. Ford seems to have a rather cavalier attitude about the whole thing.

Out of the 230 names, I am familiar with only about 28 or so. Some of their teachings resonate with me and some don’t. Nonetheless, they’re more or less the “usual suspects.” Most of them have been around for awhile and they know each other, which just makes it look more like a club than a council.

Conspicuously absent are any Nichiren folks. Regardless of what your opinion is of that tradition, they have played a major role in the development of Western Buddhism. Same goes for Pure Land. Personally, I don’t think much of Pure Land, but it was the first Buddhist tradition to come to America. There are probably other groups who have been excluded, but I can’t think of who they are right now.

Apparently this event has been in the planning stages for several years, so they can’t really blame it on an oversight. Not unless they want to look incompetent. I know some invitees declined the invitation. That may be a factor. At the same time, I think representatives from the SGI and Nichiren Shu would be eager to participate in a conference like this.

If you want a complete run down from A to Z, albeit a critical one, go here. Be prepared: it’s like way long. (I should talk.) The last two comments on that blog I found very interesting.

Anyway, I’m not being critical because I am jealous or resentful because I was not invited. I’m just a small fry. No, I am critical because I think – I know – we can do better. We talk a lot about no-self and having no attachments and so on, yet in my humble opinion, there is far too much ego involved. So many teachers want to be stars. Make a name for themselves. That’s why we have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Elite. Aloof. They better start being more responsive to the people.

But the people, too, have to climb down from their high horses and realize that Buddha-dharma has no obligation to cater to their likes and dislikes.

We all need to just get over ourselves.


15 thoughts on “Big Bhuddhies Bag Barbs

  1. I have now read several posts on this whole thing, and I really don’t know what to think. Mostly, I believe that even if these folks wanted to “shape Buddhism behind our back,” they really won’t (and/or can’t) follow through on such a thing. But you’re correct that it’s a group that basically has represented sections of the convert Buddhist community for awhile now, and as usual, little or no attempt to branch out towards Asian-American and Asian immigrant Buddhist sanghas has been done.

    1. I agree, Nathan. In my experience large conferences rarely accomplish much in terms of decision making or action taking. They could have a limited impact if they did want to shape things, I suppose. It’s mainly the appearance and the attitude behind it that bothers me the most, as well as it being the same old crowd, ignoring other significant groups, etc.

      I’ve only seen the posts that I mentioned here. Are they others? If so, where?

  2. I’m sorry you don’t think much of Pure Land, but that’s OK. Thank you for being considerate about whether we are included, I appreciate that. For the record, two of our ministers will be present, Harry Bridge and Kiyonobu Kuwahara. A couple of other Buddhist Churches of America members were invited, but had scheduling conflicts and had to decline. And there is at least one Nichiren Shu minister attending, Myokei Caine Barrett. We wish all the attendees good luck, and much happiness to all who do not attend as well. Namo Amida Butsu.

    1. Well, I stand corrected and happily so! Thanks for your comment and this update, Jeff. I know who Myokei Caine Barret is, I must have missed her on the list. She is the first female priest in the Nichiren Shu tradition I believe.

      It’s the concept “other-power” behind Pure Land that I don’t care for. As far as Japanese Pure Land goes, I actually have a high regard for the people, the churches, the clergy, and the high level of scholarship within both branches. I’ve been to Nishi Hongwanji here in Los Angeles many times and it is always a pleasurable experience. Rev. Nori Ito of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple came to my home to speak to my dharma group some years ago.

      I am very happy to hear that representatives from BCA were invited and will be attending.

      1. I don’t think she is the first female priest in Nichiren Shu–I _think_ there have been others before her. At least, I assume there have been! But she might well be the first female American one, I don’t know of any previous ones. I have to admit this isn’t my area of expertise. Maybe another reader will chime in helpfully.

        Other power confuses a lot of Americans, who often view Buddhism through a partially-discarded Christian filter. But as far as Pure Land Buddhists are concerned, it is self power that is the real problem. There is no substantive self, as the Buddha pointed out. Ergo, all is other, even that which we claim as aspects of the self. We seek to release our egoistic death-grip on those things we mistakenly claim as self, which we do (perhaps paradoxically) by relaxing into ourselves and trusting in the process of the Dharma to work on us (this is the other power personified in the story of Amida). Or as one famous Shin peasant put it: “There is no self power. There is no other power. All is other power.” Actually, Dogen probably said it best: “To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” That’s what other power means. But there’s 10,000 Dharma doors, no reason why this one has to be your cup of tea. I’m glad that you’ve had positive interactions with our tradition, I hope your future ones are likewise pleasant.

        By the way, I’ve always thought your title “The Endless Further” was very evocative.

        1. Thanks, Jeff. I’m glad you like my blog title. I’m kinda partial to it myself.

          Now don’t get mad, but I couldn’t disagree with you more about self/other power. To me, you are taking the idea of ‘self’ literally, or viewing it only from the standpoint of the ultimate truth. According to Nagarjuna, in the ultimate truth there is neither self or other. They are both empty. If you don’t take Pure Land philosophy literally, then it just seems very convoluted.

          I’ve had experiences with many Pure Land adherents, and whether they are Chinese or Japanese, they all tend to believe that Amida is real and that if they take faith in him, they will be reborn in the Western Paradise. The problem is that Amida is not real and there is no Western Paradise. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said many times, the Pure Land is right here. I do not have much experience with how Westerners view this. Still, it strikes me as unnecessarily going around the mulberry bush, when self-power is more direct and clears away all the things that prevent us from uncovering our Buddha Nature, which from the viewpoint of Dogen’s Zen and most of Mahayana is the real goal.

          1. That’s OK, no offense taken. All of this is language and concepts pointing at that which is beyond language and concepts Some language and concepts work for some people, while other language and concepts work for other people. All of Buddhism is upaya, with no exceptions.

            Nagarjuna is honored as the first of the seven Pure Land masters in Jodo Shinshu, so his thought is something I’m quite familiar with. In fact, it underpins Jodo Shinshu, which is the largest form of Buddhism in Japan. Although I can’t claim to have his level of insight, I certainly agree with his philosophical points. There is neither self nor other. I don’t personally know any Buddhists of any sect who would disagree, though I suppose there may be some somewhere.

            The Western Paradise is a skillful means: Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, is absolutely clear that it is in fact nirvana and not some sort of physical reality. The same goes for Amida: Shinran explains that Amida is Dharmakaya, the reality of things as they are. That is why his hymns go on and on about how Amida is inconceivable, inexpressible, beyond all concepts, perfect liberation, etc, and why he constantly uses terms like limitless light shining throughout the entire universe (i.e. not confined to the Western quarter, as if the universe had one) and the great boundless ocean of Dharma that embraces all things without discrimination when describing Amida. He also explains that Amida, seemingly out there when setting out on the path, is actually the same as one’s own buddha-nature. As Nagarjuna says, there is neither self nor other. We just use words and concepts to walk the path, but they’re all rafts.

            These ideas are all mainstream in the Buddhist Churches of America, the main form of Jodo Shinshu in the United States (the same goes for Canada). They are not controversial in Japan, where I’ve spent a lot of time. But Jodo Shinshu is a big tent, we accommodate literalists, symbolists, and all manner of folks in-between or on side paths.

            I used to practice self powered Buddhism. I found that it made me more egoistic even as it told me I was transcending the self. So I lost my faith in self powered Buddhism (the constant scandals by supposedly enlightened Zen masters and lamas helped change my mind too). Turning to Pure Land made me a much better Buddhist, or least a more honest one. But if self power works for someone else, and they avoid the trap of “the stink of Zen,” then I feel strongly that we should support them on their path. Zen, Tibetan, Theravada–they’re all wonderful. We’re all in it together. Thanks for the dialogue!

          2. You’re right, we are all in this together and that’s why we should try to work together. That’s also why when people are sincere, even if I don’t agree, even if I have doubts as to whether or not it is actually Buddhism, I don’t denounce anyone as heretics, etc. as some do, and you probably know who I mean.

            I don’t have Nagarjuna’s level of insight either. Sometimes I am not sure I understand him. Yet, to be honest, I have never seen anything in his major works that would seem to lend itself to a Pure Land interpretation. I know its claimed he was a Pure Land proponent, but there are a lot of claims. I have never been so sure that his famous quote about Pure Land being the easy path was a complementary remark.

            It’s been years since I’ve delved into this subject, so I may be on shaky ground, but I think it is safe to say that Shinran, despite his intricate logic, believe in Amida in a literal sense, and certainly the kind of faith we’re talking about is the strong belief in a saving force outside of yourself, which essentially is a monotheistic kind of faith. It’s all based on the mythological concept of Mappo, the degenerate age, along with the belief that people are inherently evil or ignorant and completely incapable of pulling themselves up by their boot strings, so to speak.

            Like you said, it’s not my cup of tea. Why put an intermediary (Amida) between you and your Buddha Nature? Why bypass all that and tap into it directly? But, hey, if it works for you, then more other-power to you. 🙂

  3. Just for the record: two representatives from SGI-USA were present at the conference. Our practice is based on the Lotus Sutra and we are not affiliated with the Pure Land sect.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kathleen.

      Who were the SGI-USA representatives?

      I don’t think anyone suggested that the SGI and any Pure Land sects are affiliated.

      1. Hi, I was one of the two SGI representatives who were invited for the first time to this meeting. I did encounter some confusion between people thinking that Pure Land and Nichiren/SGI were affiliated. That’s okay since I learned a lot about other traditions/practices as well.

        1. That’s great Kathleen. I’m glad you were able to attend. Most of all I am happy that you got a chance to learn something about other traditions. As a former SGI member, I know that the organization tends to exist in a sort of a bubble and views other traditions if as heretical or inferior etc. While I have concerns about the SGI, I certainly think that others could learn something from them, especially in how to create a sense of community within sangha.

          What I meant before that I don’t think you saw any confusion about affiliations here. If someone would have suggested it, I would have corrected them. Thanks for your comments.

          1. Yes, I learned a lot and I think there could be learning and dialogue in both directions. At this conference, those dialogues took place informally, at meals or on walks but perhaps they are the most meaningful and lasting, rather than a panel presenting their views.

  4. Hey David: Just to set the record straight, the Council wasn’t just for heavy-hitters. I was invited, and I’ve been out of the mainstream for some thirty years. I tried to find out how my name came up, but nobody seemed to know. I got the feeling that it was at random, in which case the fact of certain people not being invited was perhaps also random. They did announce that they limited invitations to the Garrison’s capacity.
    The main purpose was to break down walls and cross boundaries, and that it did quite effectively. It was a relatively eclectic bunch, though it certainly wasn’t a measured and precise proportion of each and every flavor of Buddhism; I’m not quite sure how you could do that. I don’t blame anyone for having hurt feelings, but I don’t think there was anything nefarious behind it.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Stephen. You’re right, it appears that it wasn’t just for heavy hitters and some of the groups who I thought at first were unrepresented actually were invited. Still, it did seem to be lacking in racial diversity. Check out the Angry Asian Buddhist blog for that. He did a good job at charting the participants.

      I didn’t suggest that there was anything nefarious behind it, only that the closed door appearance of the event could lead to that conclusion, and that since nefarious plans are often hatched behind closed door, it is better to be as transparent as possible. So transparency was my initial concern, and still is. But since I am such a small voice, I don’t think very many people heard that, and of course, elsewhere the whole thing was hijacked by outcry over Brad Warner’s un-invitation or lost invitation or whatever it was. I think there’s a good lesson in that about how one’s celebrity can really get in the way.

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