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.