Growing the Dharma: Preface

Hmmm, the hits to this blog are in sharp decline. This is certainly because I have rarely posted in recent weeks, and in fact intend to do no writing until after vassa (rains retreat). Lest this blog realize final liberation before the rest of us, I have come up with the idea of serializing my ebook, Growing the Dharma. So here begins my serialization in bite-size  perhaps weekly segments. Much of this material has appeared on this blog before, which will lead some loyal long-time readers on a walk down memory lane, though never in such a polished and integrated form as in its present re-embodiment.

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework


I’m spiritual but not religious!”

We’ve all heard this statement, generally along with an off-hand dismissal of “organized religion.”

Westerners often see polarity between the personal and the social. We love the lone individualist, including the spiritual virtuoso who boldly takes the path less traveled. We love it when Buddhism exalts that spiritual virtuoso, the light unto himself, the one who retreats from city or village life to explore in solitude life’s questions, an ideal well represented in the life of Buddha himself, who after much travail shattered the constraints to which the common person is subject. We love these guys but we have trouble reconciling them with temple life, the chanting, the bows, the hierarchy, the postures, the robes.

I wrote this booklet because I have become convinced that we Westerners often have little sense of the relationship between the spiritual and the religious, and that we have been limping along in a kind of disembodied Buddhism as a result. In fact the Buddha was not only a great psychologist but also a great social thinker whose vision of the ideal society resulted in what has become the oldest human institution on the planet.

Our misunderstanding begins with a failure to appreciate just how radically different this lone individual who has broken free is from the rest of us. He has broken through not so much social constraints as his own human nature, bursting the limitations of hundreds of millions of years of evolution that have otherwise produced frightened, greedy, hateful and confused beings, and has instead entered the rationalized and ethicized awareness of the Noble Ones. In our misunderstanding we then fail to appreciate the critical importance of the social context necessary, both to produce the conditions in which Noble Ones might arise, and to carry their civilizing influence into the world at large, a social context born with the Awakening of the Buddha and taught by the Buddha, our great teacher, as the Sasana (roughly, Buddhist movement) that has carried the flame of what he discovered to light one hundred generations of Buddhism.

I wrote this little book in order to develop readers’ appreciation of the reach of the Buddha’s thought, to provide a more complete and organic view of what Buddhism subsumes, to describe the groundwork of Buddhism that is all too commonly dismissed in the West as “just religion” even while it is so intrinsic in the East that it hardly bears mentioning. At the same time I hope to develop tools for critically assessing Buddhist traditions, to see at what point the flames they carry begin to sputter, sometimes choked by the accretion of too much religiosity or by the incursion of many other popular notions.

It took me many years to come to the viewpoints represented in this book. As a Westerner, a former academic, not religiously trained as a child, I came to Buddhism initially in its Western manifestations with a rational secular mindset. The supernatural has never been a draw for me. Alan Watts and Stephen Batchelor were early influences on the Path. My early exposure to Western Soto Zen showed me a ritual world that initially made no sense to me at all.

In the end I was curious and open-minded enough to want to get to the experiential bottom of this ritual world, held my nose and jumped in bodily. I trained in the Suzuki Roshi tradition at the San Francisco Zen Center, lived at its monastery, Tassajara Mountain Center, was a founding member of its offshoot in Austin, Texas, where I subsequently ordained, learned almost all the ritual ins and outs and ceremonies, and came with time to appreciate the roles of these things in a particular form of Buddhist practice. Established as a Zen priest, very much concerned with the future of Buddhism in the West, my curiosity and modest reserve of open-mindedness extended to the many ethnically Asian temples found in Texas, California and elsewhere, which felt to me intriguingly different from Western centers.

Somehow innately interested almost from the beginning in monastic practice I also began studying the Vinaya, the traditional monastic code that goes back to the Buddha and a recognized pillar for Buddhism throughout Asia – except in Japan, in whose tradition I had ordained. I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years but still clinging to worldly ways had many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the Monastic Sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynch pin of the Sasana. The conclusion seemed inescapable to me that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West! It never has anywhere else, it will not here.

I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it!”

I ordained as a bhikkhu (full monk) in Burma, lived there for over a year and have been living here at a Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas now for a number of years. Living embedded in a devoutly Buddhist Asian culture and one that is decidedly pre-modern, inhabiting a world full of magical forces and tree spirits, has given me an appreciation for Buddhism’s rare ability to blend with elements of folk culture, and yet at the same time retain its full integrity, particularly in the minds and lives of its most adept and respected representatives.

Were this an academic work I would at this point in the Preface thank the various foundations and institutions that have supported me during the process of research and composition. As a monastic that support is constantly there along with the freedom to structure my time and energy as I feel benefits the Sasana. Therefore I would like instead to thank the many donors and supporters of the Sitagu Buddha Vihara in Austin, Texas (USA), and of the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara in Maplewood, Minnesota (USA) and the Calgary Myanmar Temple (Alberta, Canada) and of the monks and nuns who have lived there. Your devotion inspires me. I want to thank Alan Cook and Kitty Johnson for proofreading and Prof. Tom Tweed for commenting on earlier draft and encouraging me to extend and consolidate certain metaphors.

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Austin, Texas, USA
July, 2013

19 Responses to “Growing the Dharma: Preface”

  1. Sophia M. Says:

    “Although it is available here in pdf format, it seems to enjoy few hits, perhaps because of its massive (111 pp.) size.”

    I’ve been reading it. But as for commenting, I’m not sure.
    Do you intend to change your opinion, depending on what people may comment on the book?
    Otherwise, there’s little point in saying much, other than perhaps accolades.
    And we’re back at the crippled – and crippling – social aspect of Western Buddhism …


  2. Sophia M. Says:

    I don’t mean to be rude. My omission of etiquette is deliberate. I couldn’t say anything critical to someone whom I have addressed with “Sir,” “Venerable” or “Bhante.”

    In Buddhism, there is a pressure to keep in line with the etiquette, and this can effectively prevent any open communication, especially about delicate topics. This way, things simply remain unaddressed, and people have to either ignore them, or repress them. This is crippling.
    Even more so in the West, where people with an interest in Buddhism are facing many unique challenges, but there is effectively a taboo on talking about them.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Can you give specific examples of the taboos that are preventing people within Buddhism from communicating? I can think of some myself, by the way, but let’s start with yours, if that’s OK, so I can understand where your concerns are coming from.


  3. Luke Says:

    Thank you for presenting your writings in this fashion. Although I haven’t yet read your eBook, I am curious about your discoveries, and I hope to find time to to explore it. I appreciate your concern for the future growth of Buddhism in West/America, and I agree with you, we do need some sort of monastic presence as the Buddha intended, but I don’t feel as drawn towards monasticism as much as the life of a lay person. Which I think most Americans might feel as well. Monasticism in any form(in any religion) doesn’t seem to be very popular or prevelant in American history. But I don’t know that for certain. That doesn’t mean to say as a lay person I don’t crave structure and purity within the traditional sense. I feel as though Buddhism in the west is still growing and fitting to the needs of Westerners, I agree with the former comment, there is crippling aspects of traditional buddhist cultures that still seems very intimidating and foreign. It’s difficult for me not to question the cosmology or history in the scriptures, not that matters, but I feel the buddhist teachings for me have to withstand critical examination… Which they do. I was raised Baptist, so I’ve already had my temple of beliefs shattered, I have to be careful with how I invest my energy.


    • Luke Says:

      And please excuse me for butting into this conversation. But one topic I feel is taboo to talk about is the way in which one comprehends and understands the meaning of a teaching within a Sutta. I am very much unbiased as far as which school I belong to, I resonate with both Theravada and Mahayana thought systems. I like the way Shunryu Suzuki Roshi put it, Theravada practice with Mahayana mind… Or something like that. For example, the different stages of the path, and what exactally it means or why so much emphasis is put on it doesn’t make sense to me, I.e. Srota-apanna, sakrid-agamin, an-agamin and arhat? When just to practice makes more sense instead to get caught up in all these attainments. I have a verse from the Lankavatara, translated by Red Pine that I feel I resonate with.
      “The four boundless meditations / the formless samadhis / the cessation of sensation and perception / none exist except as mind
      The attainments of the Srota-apanna, the sakrid-agamin and an-agamin / also that of the arhat / all are confusions of the mind
      Meditation, meditator, and object of meditation / renunciation and beholding the truth / these are nothing but projections / who knows this achieves liberation. – Lankavatara Sutra
      To me this subject would most likely be taboo and looked down upon if it were brought up at the vihara, and I am genuiney interested in the input of seasoned practioners.


      • bhikkhucintita Says:


        What makes it taboo to talk about how to interpret suttas? I hope it is not taboo, since I write a bit about this in my book (oops).

        I also resonate with much of the Mahayana (and have now more years of training in Zen than in Theravada). I believe there are various ways that the original intent of the teachings have been successfully conveyed, particularly as Buddhism has entered different cultures. In practice there is not much difference between Zen and the Theravada forest tradition, for instance, yet on the surface what is taught is quite different, Zen having early on developed an Taoist mindset and expository style.

        Goals tend to be hindrances in Western Buddhism; we are such a goal-oriented culture. The Buddha recommended a gradual path. He did refer to the stages of awakening that you mention, but my own sense is that this is largely descriptive of the bends and vistas one can expect on the Buddhist path, not as goals to set for oneself. Vipassana seems obsessed with such attainments, but I think that is an entirely modern development. I don’t recommend it.

        I might point out with regard to Burmese monasteries, including our own: The Burmese are not a debating culture. Take care not to even respectfully contradict a senior sayadaw, it would be insulting to them. This is not a Buddhist matter; it is simply a matter of southeast Asian culture. Sri Lankans, for instance, are entirely different, or Tibetans (except maybe within the guru context), and Chinese and Japanese not quite so different. This is an example of how cultural taboos shape communication, one that I (as a Westerner and academic, used to lively interchanges of alternate views) need to be constantly sensitive to.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Hi, Luke.

      Only small or tiny minorities have been personally drawn to monasticism in any Buddhist land or time.

      Many of the issues you raise are dealt with in the book. I am particularly interested in the enormous adaptability of Buddhism as it has moved from culture to culture, which made it the first world religion (and still the only world religion not substantially spread through conquest). Alongside this its remarkable resilience in maintaining the integrity of some essential core. The book is concerned with how this resilience works, what it is that at some level stays the same, and what challenges this thing thereby brings to new cultures.

      I have seen that post-religious stress disorder /can/ be an obstacle in entering the Buddhist path; it is important to realize that the Buddha clarified belief and faith or trust in quite explicit and rational terms.


      • Luke Says:


        Thank you for replying with understanding. After reading your reply’s, I am even more interested in reading your book. And again, I am very grateful to the Monastic aspect of any form of Buddhism, I hope I don’t give the wrong impression. And thank you for clarifying the issue about not debating with the Senior Sayadaw’s, I sensed unease at times when I asked conflicting topics, and I was told by other Sangha members that it wasn’t really a thing to do. It makes more sense that it is more of a cultural issue than a Buddhist issue. I will take extra care to be respectful in those situations, I surely don’t mean disrespect. And I suppose this is where my confusion came from as to whether or not it was ok to debate particularities within Buddhism. I also understand that at times there is a language barrier, even though the Burmese teachers speak English fairly well, I am sure I can be pretty hard to understand at times, I talk fast and ask confusing questions. It helps to have a Western monk at the Vihara, thank you, your appreciated.


  4. Dean Says:

    Greetings Bhante,

    I am very grateful for the compassionate way you employ humor and simplicity to convey profound meanings. I am very interested in possibility of pursuing a monastic lifestyle in the not too distant future. I read your writings very-very closely as a result of that desire. I am currently trying my best to live a simple and moderate life style, so far so good. There are many things I don’t understand in the context of these commentaries to your post here above. But, I do understand simple meditation instructions and I know I feel drawn to Theravada practice principals.

    All this is to say, it is a blessing to hear others talk about Dharma under any circumstances, and I feel nourished by your insights Bhante, please keep sharing. Thank you.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      I am always delighted and moved when someone in the West enters the monastic path. It is a rare, difficult and noble thing to do. Monastics have a critical role to play in bringing the civilizing influence of Buddhism to the West. I think you would bring a useful blend of talents and experiences with you (I’ve been a visitor to your Web site).

      I hope as your thought develops you are in close and frequent contact with monks or nuns. There must be many in NYC. (Bhikkhu Bodhi lives a couple of hours north of you, one of the most inspiring monks on the planet.) Feel free to contact me as much as you like, probably off-line, for advice as your decision develops. It is a big step (like getting married or deciding to raise kids, only different), and should be made with careful deliberation.


  5. Kevin Says:

    Venerable one.
    Thank you for your efforts and teaching all of us to be better sentient beings. If we all followed the Eight Lifetime Precepts, it would make sense to us all, as it does for you. Your work is important to us all and I thank you once more. I downloaded your work when it came out and would like to read in a hard copy format.


  6. Sophia M. Says:


    Thank you for your reply.

    “Can you give specific examples of the taboos that are preventing people within Buddhism from communicating? I can think of some myself, by the way, but let’s start with yours, if that’s OK, so I can understand where your concerns are coming from.”

    First of all, to be clear, Western Buddhism is a very versatile phenomenon, so it is difficult to make generalizations that would apply to all of it.
    Some of the taboos that I have encountered when interacting with Western Buddhists:

    – An authoritarian approach to the Dhamma and to talking about it: “This is the Dhamma, and that is not the Dhamma. I know the Dhamma and you don’t.” Sometimes when talking to Western Buddhists, I have the feeling I’m talking to a fire-and-brimstoner, because they have the same superioristic, bossy attitude. Heaven forbid one should refuse to comply with such a Buddhist – that’s offending an arahant …

    – The “Just do it, and don’t think, don’t feel, don’t talk, just go with the programme. Everything is clear, no need to ask any questions, you already know what to do” approach. How that helps, I do not know, but there are Buddhists who believe it does.

    – The tendency to try to come up with such an interpretation of Buddhism that complies with modern Western culture and Western psychology. This is a big one.

    – A taboo on talking about the no-self vs. not-self controversy and the practical implications of each doctrine.

    – “Kamma and rebirth are cultural baggage.”

    – For some Westerners, hierarchy apparently means one-upmanship and manipulation.

    – Political correctness per Western standards as the measure of Right Speech and goodwill. This means that there is a lot of hypocrisy and passive aggressiveness.

    – Asian supremacism: “The Asians have it right, and all we Westerners can do, is to just shut up and comply with whatever the Asians say and do.”

    There’s more …

    Bottomline, I am interested in these things as I myself am someone who was born, raised and is living in the West, but has an interest in Buddhism. I’ve been trying to find my place and make sense of my interest in Buddhism, which has turned out to be especially difficult, as I don’t feel strongly about any particular existing Buddhist tradition.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      Goodness, that is a bigger list of issues than I bargained for. I am sorry you have had so much trouble finding a compatible place to practice. By the way, where are you located? Are there a lot of options about where to practice?

      In all fairness I cannot advise on you any of the specific issues you raise without having a better idea of its context, hearing the other side of the story, that sort of thing. But I can verify that I have seen most of this. The Western Buddhist landscape is complex: We have virtually every kind of Buddhism from every part of Asia … even right here in Austin, Texas. Centers or their leaders fall on different points of the Westernize … keep-it-traditional continuum. Often the leaders have been trained in one kind of Buddhism with little awareness of the other kinds, if they have much training at all.

      One of the primary purposes of my book is to account for the wide and bewildering diversity Westerners encounter in Buddhism, and to differentiate what needs to be taken seriously and what does not. I think that is your main issue. If you are inspired to keep reading, I would like to know how well it succeeds for you in sorting things out by the end of the book. Particularly be aware of the difference I discuss between “adapt Buddhism” and “folk Buddhism,” which is meant to obviate the need for such categories as East/West, secular/religious, even Theravada/Mahayana. Also look at “trust” and “refuge,” which should not be confused with blind faith, but which for Westerners are necessary to overcome our own cultural accretions, biases, frozen ways of thinking, as we work openly and critically with some very sophisticated, subtle and often surprising teachings.

      With regard to authority and hierarchy. My experience is that many of the culturally specific Asian institutions have not translated well into the West, particularly the guru system (common in Tibet) or the authority accorded to one’s personal teacher (far short of guru worship) in East Asia, often preserved in Western Zen. These have resulted in a surprising number of documented cases of abuse given the small size of Western Buddhism. They do not as a rule, but beware. As Thubten Chodren (American nun in a Tibetan tradition) says, you can give a teacher trust and respect, but you do not have to give up your wisdom (anyway she says something like that). The Buddha envisioned a community that was refreshingly free from hierarchy. He did set up a monastic order, which has been preserved virtually everywhere and has played an essential role in preserving the integrity of adept Buddhism as a locus of informational authority, but he did not set up a command structure. Most traditions have lost that vision to some extent (Theravada experiments with combining sangha with government institutions have, I think, failed spectacularly).

      It is very important to approach Buddhism with a critical but very open mind. There are many things that are quite challenging, and many of these are also critical to preserving the functional integrity of Buddhism. On the other hand, if nothing were challenging, what would be the point? We are a culture in crisis. Nonetheless, we will tend to be like rowdy teenagers until Buddhism has matured in the West, often making unwise assessments and choices. We need to take care.

      Feel free to contact me in more detail about any specific issues. We can take it off-line if they seem inappropriate for a public forum.


  7. Kevin Says:

    I try and Keep It Simple. I was caught up with the whole ” Western ” thing. I dropped out for some time. Now after meeting Bhante a few years ago, things became clearer. I follow the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Lifetime Precepts. I run from anyone telling me how to do it. I no longer want to be attached to what can and does keep me in the dark and harming segment of my life.


  8. Luke Says:

    I would like to add that I think it would be neat to read your eBook in the form of posts/serialization to be able to communicate with other practioners and your self with particular parts and segments. Also, if this may be helpful to others ,I recently studied Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, “Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries”, and found it to be extremely helpful in understanding actual practice within the Buddhist framework. The book contains both Pali and Chinese versions of the Anapanasati, Satipathana, Knowing a Better Way To Catch a Snake, and A Better Way To Live Alone, along with Mahayana Sutras and accompanied with crystal clear commentary.


  9. Sophia M. Says:

    Bhante –

    Thank you for your reply.

    I’m not asking for advice, at least not at this point, so thank you for your offer.

    I think that over the years, I’ve developed both a kind of apathy, as well as determination toward Buddhism. I’m not interested in “being a Buddhist”, I’m mostly just interested in making an end to suffering, and everything is subservient to this purpose. I’m not particularly enthused to be a loner, but I’m getting more comfortable with the prospect that I might have to go alone, at least for some time.

    I’d also have some comments on your approach to trust (and faith) and refuge, but I’d rather post them when the respective chapters are posted on the blog.

    @Luke –

    “I would like to add that I think it would be neat to read your eBook in the form of posts/serialization to be able to communicate with other practioners and your self with particular parts and segments.”

    Yes, I’d like that too.


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