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.


8 thoughts on “Transparency Should Be The Hallmark of Western Buddhism

  1. Most conferences organised by established international institutions are not open for any comers. They too have guest lists of which they do not digress. Generally they announce their event, and afterwards they leave press releases saying that all went very succesfully. But generally the public at large never hears about what is said, discussed or intended were it not for an informed or uninformed journalist here and there. Most of these conferences have become ritualistic, a “must do” at the occasion of wesak or any other marker on the calendar.

  2. The Garrison Institute may not be well known in your part of the country, but it’s a well known venue here in New York. It’s a retreat and conference center concerned with interaction between contemplative traditions and global and social issues. It’s also a lovely retreat venue — a converted catholic monastery — and Buddhists of all traditions utilize is as such. Over the course of the year there are week long retreats by well known Insight Meditation teachers, Vajrayana teachers, and Zen teachers as well as contemplatives from non-Buddhist traditions. I guess its sectarian neutrality and beautiful grounds and setting make it an excellent place for the meeting you’re describing. As far as not revealing the list of attendees, I’m not sure any organization ever releases a list of everyone attending a conference. It’s different than a list of conference presenters. My guess is that this is not a meeting where decisions will be made, but a meeting where teachers from diverse traditions will discuss issues of mutual importance. It’s kind of like a Buddhist Davos, maybe. While I agree with you that transparency and diversity are both important issues, I can’t help feeling you’re giving the Garrison folks (and the Buddhist Geeks) an unnecessarily hard time. None of these guys are instant arhats or money-grubbing Buddhists, and outside of SGI, most Buddhist groups have their significant diversity problems. So while I’m with you on the issues, I wonder whether you aren’t being a bit unfair to these two groups in particular. Just sayin’.

    1. Appreciate your thoughts, as always, Seth. I’m just sayin’, too. The problem here is, as mentioned in the post, the event has being described in a way that could be construed to mean that decisions will be made. Now, as you say, that is probably not the case, but we don’t know. I understand that most conferences do not publish lists of attendees, only presenters and so on, however this case seems a bit different. I just think in the spirit of transparency and openness it would be nice if they published a list of the teachers they’ve invited. I suspect it would be highly revealing. 230 teachers is quite a large group. Apparently, this is not just some small, quiet little gathering. Like I said, it’s their conference and they can do what they want, but if they were really concerned about the communities they purport to serve, I think those communities would be better served with more openness.

      I am well aware that most Buddhist groups suffer from a lack of diversity. It’s due mainly, I think, to the fact that they just haven’t learned how to make dharma more accessible. It makes no sense to perpetuate this lack of diversity when you have an chance to make a difference. When you’re planing an event and you have an opportunity to reach out to diverse groups, but you don’t, and then when it is pointed out, you respond defensively and rather maliciously, without giving any consideration to the issue, I think it says something about the mind-set of the individuals involved. The people associated with BG may not be money-grubbers, but they do seem to be of the instant-guru variety and I don’t have much regard for that.

  3. Wow – power rant. I haven’t heard anything about this conference before now. It’s kind of strange looking at that website listing. Makes me wonder what this “council” is, and what their goals are.

    I think the clergy comment from Brad is coming from his sort of anarchical side. He’s always railing at the structures, and I think he truly believes we’d be better off without most of them. I disagree, but I resonate with his desire to poke at the staleness of some of our organizational stuff.

    1. Um, not sure what you mean by power rant . . . I think I must have been channeling Dennis Miller last night, something I have been loathe to do ever since he revealed himself to be a right-wing reactionary . . .

      Well, I guess we will be left wondering what the council is and what their goals are until we see the article after the fact in Shambhala Sun.

      I agree with you about Warner. I like to rail at structures, too, although not as much as I used to. That’s perhaps why I can’t help but like him.

  4. “Hot on the heels of the controversy over the lack of diversity at the Buddhist Geeks’ upcoming conference, comes another gathering raising some eyebrows.”

    Can it be a controversy if you are linking to your own post?

    Although I agree that there is a lack of diversity in many western groups, I think it’s also instructive to consider that maybe “diversity” isn’t so much interested in western buddhism. Blaming the organizations for this is like blaming the wilderness that 98% of all backpackers are caucasion.

    1. Well, I think a controversy is a controversy regardless of hyperlinks.

      The wilderness is not responsible for the ethnic make-up of those who backpack, however organizations like this do have some responsibility for helping to perpetuate lack of diversity, whether they are conscious of it or not. And perhaps those who see this lack of diversity and do not speak out about it are just as responsible.

      Although now that I think about it, I don’t think BG can be considered a bona fide “organization”

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