Thick As A Brick

A good overview here of where Western Buddhism is at these days. Personally, I find it refreshing to run across someone able to look at things objectively, without an axe to grind, and without rewriting history and/or trying to create a new –ism.

According to the Sunday Leader, “The U.S. and some Indian politicians believe now is the moment to publicly pressure Sri Lanka to address rights abuses committed by its military at the end of the country’s 26-year war against the Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009.” At the United Nations Human Rights Council to be held in Geneva next week, the U.S. is planning to introduce a resolution calling for Sri Lanka to “investigate and punish atrocities.”

Yankee Go Home!

This news prompted hundreds of Buddhist monks to protest in front of the U. S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday. An unidentified monk told reporters, “America is interfering in our country. There are 26,000 to 30,000 Buddhist monks throughout the country who are ready to take to the streets.” Yeah, right. The way I understand this is that ethnic Tamil lawmakers in Sri Lanka have urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to take up this matter. The U.S. is just acting on their behalf.

In the 26 year long civil war between the Theravada Buddhist-backed Sri Lankan government and the Tamil, there were human rights violations on both sides. In 2009, Human Rights Watch issued a report that accused the Sri Lankan army of “slaughtering” and at the same time urged the Tamil Tigers to cease shooting civilians trapped in the war zone “who try to flee.” In other words, both sides have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Last year, the University of Massachusetts released the results of a study which showed that meditation produces positive changes in the brain (here). Now, Science Daily reports “Earlier evidence out of UCLA suggested that meditating for years thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells. Now a further report by UCLA researchers suggests yet another benefit.”

I can’t explain it, you’ll have to read for yourself, ‘cause I’m thick as a brick.

Just close your eyes and listen.


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.


Transparency Should Be The Hallmark of Western Buddhism

Hot on the heels of the controversy over the lack of diversity at the Buddhist Geeks’ upcoming conference, comes another gathering raising some eyebrows. A group I have not heard of before called Garrison Institute, which describes itself as “not-for-profit, non-sectarian organization exploring the intersection of contemplation and engaged action in the world,” is hosting a conference next week billed as 2011 Buddhist Teachers Council or the Maha Teacher Council.

The groups says that the purpose of the gathering is for 230 Buddhist teachers (not an insignificant number) to discuss “a range of topics concerning the future of Buddhist practice in North America, including legacy, succession, lineage, ethics, and ‘how to preserve and adapt the Dharma in new conditions without losing depth.’”

What’s causing some concern is that the conference is shrouded in secrecy. Participants are by invitation only and the institute has not made public a list. I guess it’s top secret. Classified. If you go to the web page for the event (here) they offer very little information.

Well, it shouldn’t be a secret. Not when the agenda seems so large, and when presumably major teachers will be in attendance, and it’s being backed by a major Buddhist publication (Shambhala Sun) and when one of the organizers, who is employed by said publication, announces “I’m personally very pleased to know that all these teachers, from the three major Buddhist traditions that have come to the West, are coming together. Both the Buddhist communities and the people they serve will benefit.”

He may know, but what about the Buddhist communities and the people they serve? If the people benefit, that’s means what happens at the conference will impact them, and I say, that gives them, us, a right to inquire what it’s all about. Why the lack of transparency?

I think that in principle conferences like this are a good idea. However, this is not the way to go about it. Now, on one hand, the Garrison Institute can do whatever it wants and if they want to get some folks together for a gab-fest behind closed doors, that’s their privilege. It may be much ado about nothing, but the way that is described makes it sound like a big deal. Certainly if their aim is to make decisions, draw up rules and principles, and so on about the future of Buddhism in America, then it is a very big deal.

I found out about the conference because a Facebook friend commented on critical remarks Brad Warner made about the conference on his Facebook page. I couldn’t comment on Warner’s link because I am not “friends” with him on Facebook. So I’m commenting here. I don’t dislike Brad Warner, but I don’t want him to think that I am one of his rabid fans. I will say this, he has the courage to speak out,  and although I don’t always agree (as you will soon see), I like that.

So, what exactly does the Garrison Institute hope to achieve with this conference? Because there is no transparency, we are left to speculate. Not a good position to be in, but the only one available to us.

This sort of thing, along with the lack of diversity with such events as the Buddhist Geeks conference, and the proliferation of self-proclaimed Arhats and enlightened teachers, all send off danger signals. These may seem harmless at first blush, but they signify attitudes within certain people that I feel are counter to Buddha-dharma, the kind of attitudes that fester and grow and eventually become poison.

It’s just my opinion, but elitism and secrecy have no place. I believe that Buddhism is about openness and diversity.  I am cognizant of the fact that these two ideals have not been guiding lights in the past. But they should be for the future.

There are  more questions lurking in the background here and more to be said, but I will leave it at this for now.

Since I am on a bit of a rant here, Mr. Warner recently suggested that we really don’t need a Buddhist clergy anymore. It seems this is his solution to the recent teacher-student sex scandals. But the problem is not with “clergy”, it is with people abusing positions of influence and authority. Essentially, there is no real difference between the scandal involving Zen teacher Genpo and the one with John Edwards. If you get rid of clergy, they will just be replaced by some other kind of leadership. Doesn’t solve a thing. The key is to raise new generations of ethical teachers and leaders.

I am becoming more and more concerned about some of the people who consider themselves teachers of Buddhism today. I see people who have been practicing 10 years who announce that they’ve reached enlightenment (not impossible but improbable), or who describe themselves as explorers and mystics yet offer no information whatsoever to validate their claims, or individuals who have a foot in one religious tradition and the other foot in this one. Most disturbing of all are the ones who think Buddhism is a money making opportunity.

Now, here’s a guy who lived a long time ago, and while I believe he made a claim to enlightenment, it was within an institutional context, so I am willing to cut him some slack, because overall he had the right spirit. In Zen Buddhism: a History: Japan, By Heinrich Dumoulin, James W. Heisig, and Paul F. Knitter, we find this:

Dogen did not feel at home in Kennin-ji. Hostilities plagued him with the monastery and persecution by the monks from Mount Hiei pressed from without. He did not feel called to the role of reformer for a community that had gone to seed. Accordingly, in 1230 he chose to transfer his residence to Fukukusa . . .  There, in the country temple of An’yo-in, he was able to teach seated meditation and realization of the Buddha nature through meditation to a growing number of listeners. People of all ages, men and women alike, from all social classes, flooded to hear his lectures and practice with him. He turned no one back and instilled in all the confidence that even in the degenerate age of Mappo people could find peace of heart by attending to the true law of the Buddha . . .

I am willing to bet he didn’t charge for it either.


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