Adapting the Precepts According to the Time and Locality

Originally, becoming a bhikkhu was a simple matter. You’d ask, and the reply was “ehi bhikkhu” – “come, bhikkhu” – and that was it. This is consistent with our understanding that upasampada, the rite by which one undertakes the spiritual life, of other sanghas was similar and consisted of merely going before the central figure and saying “I take you as my teacher.”

Somewhere along the line, either during the Buddha’s lifetime or after (I say the latter is more likely) upasampada became a huge complicated process and remains that way today.

Frankly, I am uncomfortable with the whole notion of “ordination” in Buddhism. The Buddha was not “ordained” and since he was not starting a religion, it is safe to assume that he had no interest in founding a “system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique” as one writer, David Brazier in The New Buddhism, has described it. Indeed, that is exactly the sort of thing that by all accounts the Buddha criticized in the Brahman system and to which he offered an alternative.

In the original 18 schools, there was some variation in the vinaya (rules) each followed. The Gobun-ritsu (Mahishasaka Vinaya), which is still extant, put forth the concept of zuiho bini, “adapting the precepts according to the time and locality.” Zuiho is short for zuiho-zuiji, which literally means ‘according’ (zuiho) ‘at any time or as occasion calls’ (zuiji), and bini is the Japanese transliteration of the Indian vinaya.

Painting of Saicho, the founder of Japanese Tendai

I recall reading years ago, probably in an SGI publication, that zuiho bini was one of the arguments Saicho used in his struggle to establish Mahayana ordination in Japan during the 9th century. I don’t know if this is accurate or not. Paul Groner’s book, Saicho, so far the definitive biography on the founder of the Tendai school, does not mention it. Although it’s not possible to have clear picture of Saicho’s entire rationale, I feel sure that it was partially based on an even more fundamental Buddhist concept, said to be taught by the Buddha himself: annica – impermanence – change.

If everything else in the universe is subject to change, then why not the rules and procedures under which Buddhists operate, why must these alone remain static, frozen in time, unchangeable.

And why should change not also include the formation of new institutions?

In Theravada, only fully ordained Bhikkhus can deliver discourses (bana) to the laity. However, there is no reason why Mahayana schools should follow Theravada in anything, and within Mahayana, there is no doctrinal reason that would prevent schools from instituting programs that would certify non-ordained persons to fulfill teacher roles. They do not have to “teachers”; they could be called guides or facilitators. In the Zen traditions, I know there are dharma teachers who are not ordained as priests, but I’m not clear on how that works. It’s definitely something that other Mahayana schools could adopt and all could work either collectively or individually to create more opportunities to develop more teachers.

Another solution is the idea of Buddhist “ministers.” That is the route that I took. Officially, I am a Buddhist minister, allowed to use the title of “Reverend” but not “Venerable” which would apply to a fully ordained Bhikkhu. I prefer, though, to use Dharma Teacher. The only real advantage to the Minister designation that I can see is that it does authorize one to conduct certain rites and ceremonies, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist (such as marriage ceremonies).

There are a few programs for Buddhist Ministers in operation now, including one here in my area that has received some support from an entity called the Southern California Sangha Council, a so-called governing body that really has no authority outside of the Theravada tradition.

I participated in this program as a candidate. It was to be a year-long process, and it was a horrible experience, one that left a bitter taste in my mouth that remains today. There was no structure to the program, no training and sadly, they had no clue. Essentially, they were rubber-stamping individuals based on personality and securing for them an ordination that would be “legit” in the eyes of most Buddhists. Because I clashed with a couple of the strong personalities involved, and I might also say, because of some underhandedness on their part, I was rejected, for which I am eternally grateful.

Training programs must have substance. Otherwise, they’re worthless. And the ways in which training for dharma teachers and ministers can be approached is myriad.

In terms of working within an individual tradition, it would be nice to see the Ch’an/Zen traditions take a lead on this. Realistically, Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen (and perhaps Korean Zen) are the only schools that have a significant enough presence in the West to make any impact. The Nichiren and Tibetan schools are rather insular, and the latter is a bit too fractured, not to mention busy pulling itself into the modern age. Tendai and Shingon are even more closed-off and barely visable here in the US.

To give one example, I don’t know how many Zen centers there are in the US but I feel there must be quite a few. Why couldn’t each one offer a mentoring program to would-be dharma teachers and ministers even if it amounted a single priest or roshi offering individual, personal instruction based on a tradition-wide model? Other traditions could do the same. Eventually it could lead to more expansive and intensive programs.

It might be too much to expect various schools to work collectively in offering training programs, or to be concerned about practitioners outside of their own traditions. However, a few people could come together to form some sort of organization that would offer multi-traditional training, with “apprentice” programs or “student exchange” programs in which a person from one tradition could stay at a center or temple belonging to another tradition for a period of time to learn the practices and doctrines of those schools. Someday I hope to see dharma teachers and ministers with a working knowledge of more than one tradition who could run already existing temples and centers or start dharma/meditation groups that would serve a wide variety of Buddhist practitioners.

Western models for developing religious leaders, teachers and clergy are viable options, based on zuiho bini, which holds that as long as there is no violation of the main tenets and precepts, it is acceptable to adapt to the customs and practices of one’s locality.

You may ask how would it be possible for a layperson that has to earn a living, and perhaps has a family, to just take off and travel across the country to stay at temple for a few weeks or a month or longer, or relocate temporarily in another city to participate in a training program? Well the answer is that if a person has a desire to follow this path they should be willing to make some sacrifices and endure some hardships. As I wrote the other day, teaching is a form of practice. Becoming a teacher should not be a piece of cake.

When Saicho wanted to abandon the Ssu fen lu precepts and adopt the Fan wang precepts for Tendai ordinations, he had to obtain government approval. In the United States, there is no government oversight when it comes to religion. Anyone is free to start a religion, a sect, a domination, a religious school, and within these entities conduct their affairs as they see fit, especially in regards to the manner in which they ordain their clergy. This applies to Buddhism as well. Again, there is no central authority in Buddhism. And the general rule is that once a person is ordained, that ordination is retained whether one stays in the tradition he or she was ordained in or not, unless that tradition later nullifies the ordination. That being the case, there is nothing stopping anyone from leaving their tradition and starting a new one. Even if the ordination is nullified, there are ways to become ordained again.

So if you are an duly ordained Buddhist monk, priest or teacher, and you start a sect, found a school, or form a religious corporation, and you identity whatever it is as Buddhist, and then ordain others as Buddhist clergy, there is no one who has a right to say that it is not Buddhist all the way. You are legal, so to speak, both in secular terms and, as far as I feel, in Buddhist terms.

It is the “going rogue” approach and many may be fearful that it would result in a lack of credibility. Non-traditional ordinations are generally considered invalid. Even Saicho had to scramble to cover his bases and have his monks ordained with both set of precepts in order to maintain legitimacy for the Tendai school. I feel that was unnecessary then and it’s unnecessary now.

The Buddha is said to have refused to appoint a successor or lay down rules for lineages. He said, “Do not know them by their lineage, know them by their deeds.”

I like the non-sectarian approach. I think it is the wave of the future: new institutions for the purpose of providing quality training to teachers, but with a nod of respect to and an eye to preserving many of the traditional aspects. If the established schools gave recognition to these endeavors and even cooperated with them, I think it would be to everyone’s benefit.

The important thing is to maintain the spirit of the teachings, not the technicalities, which must change with time. The purpose of lineage, dharma transmissions, and ordinations as they stand now is essentially to make sure that a qualified person authorizes another qualified person to teach dharma. If that can be achieved in non-traditional ways, what is the harm? And if the spirit of transitioning from one life to another can be maintained when revamping the ordination process, why not?

And if the objection then is that it would lead to unscrupulous characters, fakirs and poseurs going around starting new Buddhist sects, well, that’s happening now, so what’s the difference?

Not all the obstacles are institutional, of course. There are the geographical and financial issues to be considered, how to conduct training and what that training should consist of, the question of vows and precepts, what sort of lifestyle lay teachers should maintain – a thousand and one other areas to be thought over and discussed. This is a vast and involved subject, and no doubt boring to most readers. I have barely scratched the surface, but I will wrap it up.

In China, there were periods when Buddhism was a dynamic and rather liberal movement. During these periods, which coincided with liberal governments, new sects were created, many of which we have never heard about. According to historian Kenneth Chen, in one dynasty there was a system of lay priests, most of whom were village priests, which, unfortunately, died out when the political climate became more repressive. During another period, lay women’s organizations took a leading role in Buddhist affairs. All this says that Buddhism has adapted to the times and the localities in its past, and if it had not, it never would have spread across Asia. And in the midst of adapting, somehow the core principles were preserved.

The only limitations we have are the ones in our own minds. Those involved in online sanghas are using their minds to come up with innovative ways to spread dharma in the modern age. I think it is time for the brick-and-mortar sanghas to do the same.

It is still morning for Buddhism in the west. Let’s seize the day.


Teaching Dharma is a Bodhisattva Practice

I will never forget how at the conclusion of my first experience at a Dalai Lama teaching, I approached some of the monks who were standing outside the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to ask them questions about the teachings and especially about the empowerment ceremony. What did this mean? Why that? Most of them didn’t speak English and the ones who did said they didn’t know. Maybe they didn’t understand my questions, but I suspect they were uncomfortable with me asking questions. I found one Caucasian monk and asked him a few things, which he did seem to know a little about, and then he said, “You ask too many questions.”

I was a bit irritated with that response. In the tradition I was then transitioning from (Soka Gakkai) you were expected to seek out seniors after a dharma activity and gather around them to ask questions, get insight from their years of experience, absorb their wisdom. It was a point of faith. To do that showed that you had a seeking spirit, that you wanted to learn and grow, and that you were not holding onto to some ego thing, thinking you had all the answers. I wanted to say to this monk who thought I asked too many questions just what the hell he thought he was there for, if not to answer questions but fortunately I didn’t. This was my first encounter with “traditional” Buddhism in many years and I had forgotton that most of these people considered it enough to simply be a monk. They felt they had no other obligations beyond that.

That is not enough for everyone. Some Buddhists, especially those in Mahayana traditions, feel that to mentor others is an integral part of the Bodhisattva’s way of life. It’s not a job or a profession or a craft, although aspects of those things are a part of it – it’s a practice. If others do not feel that way, it’s fine. Just that same, I feel there is a real need for teachers and that there should be more avenues open for those who want to follow that path.

Some months ago, I ran across a blogger, a very sincere guy, who had expressed his desire to become a dharma teacher but was a bit frustrated because he was finding it difficult. His is really a typical story. There are not a lot of places that offer training for lay dharma teachers, ministers or priests. In some traditions there is resistance to the notion of lay teachers, and in the traditions that are open to the idea, they often make it difficult. The institutions themselves become obstacles.

Then there is the problem, which would not be a problem at all if everyone joined the 21st century, that women experience in trying to obtain ordination as Bhikkunis, or Buddhist nuns. In my opinion, the way women are treated in a few traditions is tantamount to abuse.

I think it’s high time we faced facts. The traditional institutions of Buddhism are outmoded and too leaden to keep up with a fast-paced modern world. There is no central authority in Buddhism, and Buddhist institutions have no power save what is granted to them by their community of practitioners. For that reason alone, they should be responsive to the needs of the people who support them and to whom, in my way of looking at it, they serve. That is a huge part of the problem right there. Too many monks and priests have the attitude that the people serve them, and I think it should be the other way around.

These institutions have no real credibility.  In Buddhism, for something to be valid it almost always has to be linked back to the historical Buddha. Realistically, though, his time is far too remote for that.

Let’s face it, the history of Buddhism as told in the sutras is almost all bunk. While we will never have a crystal clear picture of what it was like during the Buddha’s lifetime or in the first few centuries that followed, modern scholarship has nonetheless provided us with a more realistic sketch: The Buddha did not intend to create a religion, but rather a community. He and his followers were not monastics, as we understand that word today. They were wandering ascetics. We have learned that most of the Vinaya, the “rules of the Order,” was compiled after the Buddhas passing. “There seems to have been some flexibility in the early Vinaya, which was apparently defined to some degree, but not codified, by the time of the Buddha’s death,” [Andrew Skilton in A Concise History of Buddhism]. Moreover, “the Buddha himself had laid down no regula for the Sangha,” [Dr. Sukumar Dutt, in Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India]. We’ve learned that were likely few pratimosksha (vows or precepts) and they were for the purpose of outlining right conduct and what other rules existed dealt with decision making within the Sangha; and that the lineages and dharma transmissions have huge gaps, contain the names of individuals whose historicity cannot be verified and are based on assumptions that cannot be proved.

Yet,  as they stand on this extremely shaky ground, the monks and priests expect Buddhists to continue to support and follow them even as they exhibit bad behavior and fail to be responsive to the needs of the sangha as a whole.

Nearly a year ago on this blog I suggested that if patriarchal Buddhism continued to refuse to recognize the equality of women, especially in regards to ordinations, then those women who aspire to become Bhikkhunis and dharma teachers should go “rogue” and create new sanghas. I feel this applies across the board. The question is, then, should we be reformers or rogues? I think the answer is both. Actually, rogue is a misnomer because there is nothing to be rogue from, for as I said above there is no central authority in Buddhism to decide what can or cannot be done, except within the framework of individual traditions. But, if we hold our collective breaths and wait for these institutions to reform themselves, I am afraid that all we will get is blue in the face.

Since this post is already long, I will pause here and continue in upcoming posts with some suggestions about how to address these issues both from within the various traditions and from without. Fostering more dharma teachers is a big challenge and I feel the time is now to begin tackling it. As far as the issue of accountability among teachers is concerned, it’s a big problem, and likely it will always be a problem. There will always be monks and teachers who misbehave (a polite way of putting it), but I think there are ways to minimize it. So far, it seems that the present institutions have unable to address this problem adequately. If these Buddhist institutions do not reform themselves or we do not create new insitutions, then I fear that Buddhism will just end up being another form of psychology or self-help, or be absorbed into Western religions, and the only “pure” dharma will a relic, an impotent curiosity of the past.

Teaching dharma is a Bodhisattva practice, and as such, it should be approached out of a sincere desire to help others. It should also have its vows, its sacrifices, and its standards. There should be repercussions for breaking the vows, and because we live in a relative reality and not an ultimate one, sacrifice should not necessarily mean material sacrifice (nor should it mean affluence), and the standards should be high.

If a good man or good woman receives and upholds, reads, recites, writes out or explains and teaches even a single sentence of this sutra . . . You should know that this person is a great Bodhisattva, one who has accomplished unexcelled awakening. Out of pity for living beings, he or she has vowed to be born here and to teach the dharma widely and in detail . . . If, after my extinction, this good man or good woman can teach even a single sentence of this sutra to a single person, you should regard that person as a messenger of the Buddha, sent by the Buddha to do the Buddha’s work.

The Lotus Sutra


Western Buddhism Needs Racial Diversity and Teachers

Western Buddha

Racial diversity is an issue in the development of Western Buddhism that I feel is often ignored. Recently I learned that a Buddhist conference is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles during July sponsored by Buddhist Geeks. Most of you readers are probably more familiar with this group than I am. I understand from my online reading  that it’s a company, half for profit and half not, which basically operates a podcast aimed at “exploring trends in Western Buddhism.”

Well, diversity does not seem to be one of those trends. I don’t mean to beat up on the Geeks as I am sure they are fine people, but I do have some concerns about this upcoming conference which connect to some relevant issues. The conference is tagged with the line “Discover the Emerging Face of Buddhism.” Apparently, that face is decidedly Caucasian, because out of the 19 presenters they have thus far announced, only 3 are non-white. I wonder where are the African-American Buddhists, the Hispanic Buddhists? I know they are out there and some are monks and teachers. Asian Buddhists are also underrepresented as presenters. They are part of the West, too. In fact, here in Southern California where the conference is being held there are probably more Asian Buddhist temples and groups, not to mention teachers, than anywhere else outside of Asia itself. I find it difficult to believe that all Buddhist Geeks could find is one Tibetan and one Japanese guy.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Others have blogged about the sameness of these faces, most notably a fellow who describes himself as Angry Asian Buddhist.

Ironically, the location for the conference is The University of the West in Rosemead, founded by a Asian teacher, Master Hsing Yun, also founder of the Taiwan-based Buddhist order Fo Guang Shan. For some further irony, look at the screen shot from the Buddhist Geeks site: UWest has studies you can afford, but you probably can’t afford to attend the conference there.

The Geek’s conference costs a whopping $400-$500 to attend, which leaves me, and most of the people I know, out in the cold. I realize that conferences of this sort are usually pricey, but I have to wonder about the value of a conference that only the well-heeled can attend and is so lacking in diversity.

Now, they don’t indicate if their conference has a theme or not, but from the tagline you would assume it has something to do with the development of Western Buddhism. Check out some of the topics to be discussed: Lessons From The Interdependence Project, The Mind-Body Connection…The Next Frontier, Meditation by Design, and The Three-Speed Transmission.  My impression is that these are probably the pet projects and topics of the presenters themselves. They don’t seem to be topics dealing with the “emerging face of Western Buddhism”. So, combined with the high price, the whitebread look, there also seems to be a lack of cohesiveness and purpose.

I am concerned that we Western Buddhists, meaning white Buddhists, have the wrong priorities. I’d like to see conferences that focus on the problems real people face in their daily encounters with Buddhism, beyond the practice or philosophical aspects – topics that deal with questions on the minds of “rank and file” Buddhists and not the subjects that a small elite group of teachers and leaders want to discuss. Really, I think one pressing issue is how to wrestle Buddhism from the grip of so-called intellectuals and put it in the hands of the people who could most benefit from the teachings – everyday people.

Again, I want to be fair to the Geeks. I don’t know any of the background or what challenges they might be facing in pulling the conference off. Perhaps this is the best they can come up with, but I hope if they continue with this effort they will strive to do better.

I am waiting for the conference that has topics like these: Bringing Buddhist teachings to more rural areas. Creating better training and certification opportunities for those who want to be dharma teachers. How to start and maintain dharma/meditation groups. Making Buddhist groups more racially diverse. The ethical responsibilities of spiritual teachers. How to relate to traditional Buddhist customs, rites and ceremonies. The question of “cultural baggage”, gender issues and so on.

What the emerging face of Western Buddhism needs more than anything, besides diversity, is teachers. I don’t know how it is in other Western countries, but in the United States there are few avenues open to those who want to be dharma teachers and they are not very good. Perhaps, a degree in Buddhist studies from UWest is one way, but it seems rather limited.

We definitely need more teachers on the ground.  We should to populate the cities and small towns of this nation with qualified dharma teachers, because the best mode of teaching is face to face, in real life, in brick and mortar sanghas, and they should be largely non-sectarian teachers acquainted with more than one tradition so that they can serve a diverse Buddhist community. This is not only a daunting challenge, but to my mind, an absolutely necessary one.

It’s not a gauntlet we pick up out of a desire to proselytize, but simply to make Buddhist teachings more accessible. Nothing wrong with that. We don’t have to become missionaries, but I do think we need to focus on the problem.

Buddhism was not meant to be a purely cognitive affair. Mindfulness should be coupled with action, and not just the politically “Engaged Buddhism” sort of action. We have a opportunity not only to reshape Buddhism so that is truly a living dharma, but also to put it into the hands of everyday people in a much more meaningful way than has ever been done before. We should have a burning desire to reach out to those who suffer the most in our society: the poor, the disenfranchised, minorities. If we can put chaplains in prisons, why can’t we put monks, nuns and dharma teachers in ghettos? It’s not something that can be done overnight, but something to aim for.

Buddhism must never become an instrument of power in the hands of great prelates or priests, however venerable these may be. It must present to all people the simple wisdom and truth of the Enlightened One and of all those great beings who followed in his footsteps and realized it for themselves in order to reinterpret it for their own times.

Lama Anagarika Govinda