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


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