Archive for the ‘Women in Buddhism’ Category

Growing the Dharma: Negotiating the Dharma

November 7, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In another rather long installment we consider the many conversations that constitute the Buddha-Sasana.

Chapter 7. Negotiating the Dharma

The whole world is talking about Buddhism.

People debate points of doctrine in the tea shops of Burma, citing Jataka tales or fragments of scripture remembered from recently attended Dharma talks. Monks pass by their homes on alms round, mindful and dignified, silent until someone poses a Dharmic question. People listen to Dharma talks on-line and buy books by the Dalai Lama in the bookstores of America. Students attend lectures on textual analysis of Buddhist scriptures in the universities of Germany. Tibetan monks debate points of doctrine in the monasteries of Bhutan, clapping their hands together each time they make an incisive point. People show up to pay respects to the nuns in the temples of Taiwan then pose questions about Buddhist life. Punx in Texas pull up on motorcycles at a Buddhist center where they will sit in a circle and relate their personal meditation experiences to other Mohawks, tattoos and pierced noses. Deep in a forest in Thailand, a young monk, after weeks of search, approaches the legendary meditation master he has sought to request instruction. Someone on a subway spots a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in a young woman’s hand and is curious enough to ask.

Just as people expound Buddhism in many languages – Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Thai, Spanish, Malay – they expound Buddhism blended and washed over with elements of many different cultures – Animist, Taoist, Confucian, European Romantic, Materialist. Moreover, Buddhism has always been at the cutting edge of communication technology! Recited for centuries in the monasteries and forests of Asia as their sole means of preservation, the scriptures then rode the wave of inscription chiseled in stone and text brushed onto strips of cured palm leaf. A Buddhist text became the world’s earliest dated published book!1 Today adepts and folks, monks and geeks, run Buddhist blogs, documentaries about Buddhism run on TV, people run to theaters to watch Hollywood movies with Buddhist themes. Buddhist entrepreneurs make a living by offering counseling sessions by telephone.

The sum total of these conversations, projected through time and space, gives form to the Buddha-Sasana, the practice lives of the Buddhist Community, born of the Buddha who first turned the wheel to begin the conversation, who demanded of the monastics that they follow the discipline, who asked of all Buddhists that they find refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and who then let the Sasana loose in the world. These conversations have negotiated the Dharma ever since, producing the enormous variety of traditions we find today, acting out both the adaptability and the resiliency of the Sasana. These are the life-processes of the living, self-regulating organism of the Sasana.

These conversations often get scrappy. They happen within and between Adept and Folk Buddhism, and between each of these and the larger embedding folk culture. As we listen in on these conversations in the twenty-first century, we at first see a Buddhist landscape extremely diverse, dispersed over an impossible range of doctrinal positions, beliefs, practices and rituals, cultural influences, and manifold religious admixtures, with little consensus. These conversations are probably most scrappy as the Sasana flows into a new land and culture, as it is now seeping into the Land of the Fork. Still, there is a consistency, method and direction in these conversations.

I hope to have provided in this book some tools that will take us a long way in interpreting these conversations, particularly in terms of the distinct adept and folk motivations at work, and the relative health of the Sasana. I hope that the individual explorer of this landscape might thereby find a personal dwelling place, somewhere between the mountains of the adepts and the plains of the folk, providing something between a panoramic religious view of the entire unfolding Sasana and the spiritual seclusion of the narrowly targeted Buddhist Path that suits her particular aspirations. Let’s listen in on some of these conversations, both modern exemplars and ancient precedents, to hone our interpretive skills.

The Agents of Negotiation

Buddhism is radical in any culture. It goes “against the stream.” The Noble Ones understand that virtually all progress toward peace, happiness, virtue and understanding that one will make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up or curtailed: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligations like fame and car ownership, self-view, identity, trying to be somebody, partying flirtatiously, and particularly the clinging emotions rooted in greed, anger or fuzzy-headedness. The practice of the Noble Ones has been for them no more nor any less than a long process of disentanglement, strand by strand, from soap-operatic existence, a process of progressive renunciation. The Noble Ones extol Awakening as the highest attainment, one that entails not only the complete eradication of personal desire and aversion as life’s motivating factors and ultimately the elimination of intentional action altogether, the complete relinquishment of the quest for personal advantage. They practice kindness to their worst enemies, for Pete’s sake!

This makes little sense to normal folk. People of virtually any folk culture will scratch their heads and blink their eyes in bewilderment. People of the folk Buddhist culture nevertheless have learned to venerate these radical elements walking among them and have thereby opened themselves to understanding the great truths their lives and teachings might reveal, even if they might not yet quite get it.

There is thereby a chasm of a gap to be negotiated before the civilizing influence of the highest Buddhist principles find their way into the world at large. The Buddhism of the Noble Ones mixes with virtually any general folk culture as oil with water. In the thick of this seismic contradiction of values, nestled between the general folk culture and the Buddhism of the Noble Ones, is Folk Buddhism, in direct dialog with each. If the Buddhism of the adepts is the oil and folk culture the water, then Folk Buddhism serves as an emulsifier, carrying civilizing bubblets of Buddhist wisdom into the society at large.

Folk Buddhism is in a very real sense a kind of “watered down” Buddhism, making means of expression accessible to the folk culture and obscuring the less approachable teachings. Folk Buddhism thereby plays an essential role in making Buddhism culturally relevant and accessible to general society. Folk Buddhism has one foot in Adept Buddhism, because it places its trust and veneration in the Triple Gem, and its other foot in the folk culture, because this, through constant immersion, informs most of its values and defines most of its behaviors. Folk Buddhism is important.

Elucidating the Dharma

The adepts are involved in a certain conversation whose theme is authenticity, its recognition, realization and preservation. The Noble Ones are those who fully realize what is authentically required to reach an initial level of Awakening. They do this through a kind of personal dialog between what they have been taught, on the one hand, and what they have experienced directly through practice, on the other. This is the conversation of ehipassiko, between come and see. The monastics, if their aspirations are sincere (which they are not always), are of perfect refuge; they are willing to come but might not yet see; they thereby turn away from folk influences and toward the influence of the Dharma (or rather Dharma-Vinaya) and the Noble Ones, to fully engage in the conversation of authenticity. However, any layperson can make the same commitment, to be of perfect refuge and thereby to become part of the conversation of the adepts. It is simply a matter of choosing one’s influences.

There has been since the beginning a degree of specialization among the adepts, particularly between come and see. Some have chosen to be purely scholars of the Dharma to the neglect of practice, while others have chosen to emphasize practice (in Theravada Buddhism this is recognized in the distinction between pariyatti and patipatti monks respectively), and others to balance the two. Teachings guide practice even as the experience of practice serves as a corrective of one’s understanding of the teachings. Often new ways of teaching emerge from the reconciliation of teaching and experience, faults are corrected and innovations are introduced. If a tradition produces Noble Ones its scriptures and scholarship cannot be to far away from an authentic Buddhism. With that many people seeing, maps to their vantage points will be preserved or will emerge so that others might come.

Scholarship has always been an important part of the adept conversation and has taken many forms, from memorization of scriptures, to exegesis, to debate. Almost any Adept Buddhist tradition will regard some textual corpus as authoritative, but generally each a different one. Modern scholarship has taken on new roles, including textual analysis to determine the actual ages of texts or of specific passages, comparative analysis to reconstruct the history of texts, and reconstruction of ancient cultural contexts as a way of gaining insight into obscure meanings. Many texts that have been attributed directly to the Buddha for centuries are revealed to be of more recent origin and traditional accounts of the history of the various Buddhist schools have been discredited. These trends frame scriptural corpora in new and insightful ways.

We should not be dismayed when the adepts argue among themselves. First, this a common symptom of corrective pressure, as one way of teaching or understanding is revealed as inadequate. Second, adepts of different schools, of different historical and cultural lines of development, with radically divergent conceptualizations of still authentic teachings, today commonly find themselves in conversation with each other. A similar thing happens when academics of different research fields get together to talk about what should be a common interest, for instance, when philosophers, linguists, psychologists and computer scientists talk with one another about language. Where Noble Ones arise, authentic Buddhism is being practiced and understood.

Nudging toward the Dharma

It is the adepts’ preservation of an authentic Buddhism that anchors Folk Buddhism. Folk members of Buddhist societies traditionally rub shoulders with admirable adept friends, often daily, bringing themselves under their influence. The Buddha asked his monks to enter the villages on daily alms rounds and to store no food in order to ensure that level of contact and dependence. Folks most reliably approach the adepts when they have a question or have been debating with a friend about a matter of Dharma and would like expert advice, or alternatively when they wish to air issues in their personal lives or moral dilemmas. Folks noticing that the adepts, and particularly the Noble Ones, are different from the rest of us and find in their deportment and behavior eye-opening examples of what the Buddha must have been getting at. Adepts may sometimes take the liberty of admonishing folks, as well as each other, when faced with views or behaviors that are decidedly un-Dharmic. Adept Buddhism is an inward force that tends to hold and shape their lives to accord with the Dharma.

Folk understandings and behaviors, on the other hand, can be expected to fall roughly into three groups:

  1. suitable, i.e., wholesome and Buddhism-friendly,
  2. tolerable, i.e., of little consequence to Buddhist functions,
  3. unsuitable, i.e., unwholesome and Buddhism-unfriendly.

The teachers among the adepts are those who cultivate the suitable, rectify the unsuitable, and more than likely tolerate the tolerable. (1) and (2) are both consistent with the Dharma-Vinaya. Even while the noble and pure among the adepts cleanse the Folk Buddhist with what is suitable, at least ideally, the ruffians, marketers and ubiquitous influences among the common people might sully him with what is unsuitable. Suitable are the Refuges, generosity, virtue, kindness, merit-making, an appreciation of the highest aspirations of Buddhist practice, wisdom, refined cultivation of mind and simplicity. Unsuitable are slaying, slaughter, swiping, swinging, swindling and swigging, desire, ire and mire (the triple-fire), excessive exposure to advertising or hate speech, multitasking and shopping ’til dropping. Incessant exposure to adepts invariably shapes values, views, conduct and character.

Most significant among the tolerable factors in the present context are almost all those “cultural accretions” infused with “religiosity” and found in virtually any Buddhist tradition. For example, it is common among the Burmese, representing a fundamentally animist culture, to attribute special powers to monks, and particularly to senior monks of great attainment. Why, just the fact of ordination makes one immune to the scourge of angry tree spirits. The presence of monks on auspicious occasions such as weddings and birthdays, as well as during periods of misfortune, is regarded as enormous good fortune, and people go out of their way to make offerings to monks when a karmic boost is likely to get them past an impending danger. The body of a deceased monk of great attainment will not decompose in the familiar way and when cremated will leave behind crystalline relics that then proceed to multiply. Now, in the “more rational” West such beliefs would be unsustainable, but for reasons of scientific rationalism rather than of Buddhism, that is, for reasons of Western folk-culture. They are tolerable from a Buddhist perspective because they do not conflict with authentic Buddhist functions; in fact they express a well-meaning if exuberant veneration of the Sangha. And so they endure. Neutral elements of Folk Buddhism seem to mix even with Adept Buddhism quite readily. Since Adept Buddhists generally start out as wee Folk Buddhists and in their studies of authentic Buddhism would see no reason to evict these elements, this is hardly surprising. Accordingly we find monks generally offering blessings, consecrating Buddha statues, sprinkling wisdom water on people, engaging in elaborate rituals, even exorcising ghosts as part of their routine tasks, or simply incorporating folk customs and artifacts into the manner of performing various tasks.

In relation to the unsuitable, certainly the adepts constitute traditionally a moral voice, admonishing folks to avoid what is unsuitable: violence, theft, adultery, deceit and intoxication. Monastics are expected to represent, for emulation, standards of conduct in their behavior that exclude what is even mildly unsuitable for the Buddhist: gossip, mindless distraction, backbiting, judgment, anger, etc. Adepts will tend to correct misunderstandings of Buddhist teachings and views that cause harm. Although they traditionally have been tolerant of what in the West would be widely regarded as supernatural or superstitious, on some key points, for instance, with regard to the efficacy of rituals and blessings, they commonly point to psychological alternatives to folk explanations.

In these ways, the Noble Ones bring into a world perpetually insane their civilizing influence, gently nudging the world toward sanity.

Assimilating Folk Practices

Although the adepts have traditionally spoken with great authority, they are not authoritarian. One of the effects of the Buddha’s creation of an absolute daily dependence of the Monastic Sangha on the laity, simply to be able to eat, is that the laity have always served as a check on the monastics, particularly as a check on the behavior of the monastics. When monastics stop living the pure life, when they party, flirt, gamble, drink beer, seek amusements and don top hats, when they, in other words, are perceived to “act like lay people,” then the laity tends to become disenchanted and ceases to provide support.

This also applies when the monastics become too aloof or uptight for Folk Buddhist standards. The Buddha was much concerned about harmony between the two parts of the Buddhist Community, and once relented to Folk Buddhist demands with admirable discretion with words that still echo from yesterchapter, “Monks, householders need blessings.” Blessings, even if not directly efficacious, are an expression of caring that people respond well to. We do the same thing in a secular context when we push medications and home remedies on the ill or allergy-beset in excess of what we would consider sensible for ourselves.

Even in Burma many monks eschew worship of tree spirits and of relics as not pure Buddhism. In one instance a monastic sect that that tried to eliminate pagoda worship and worship of images of the Buddha were met with hostility on the part of a disgruntled laity until the sect disappeared.2 It is easy to see, in contrast, how the give-and-take between adept and folk understandings and practices would tend to broaden the norms of what adepts consider acceptable Buddhism, or even turn what is initially only tolerable into what the adepts themselves teach or promote. The priestly functions of bestowing blessings, or exorcising spirits, with time were performed by monastics in virtually every Buddhist culture. The term doctrinal widening has been used to describe making respectable that which monks formerly viewed with disdain.3 Notice that this does not have to undermine the authenticity of Adept Buddhism; it just produces a chubbier Buddhism that retains Buddhism’s authentic functionality embedded within it.

The Mahayana movement is perhaps the largest-scale example of doctrinal widening as a result of negotiating between Adept and Folk Buddhisms. A laicizing movement, the Mahayana was at one time considered by scholars to be a lay movement against monastic authority. Scholars now recognize it as a movement carried almost entirely by monastics over a period of centuries, partly in order to address the persistent and unmet needs of the lay community.4 Every indication is that the Mahayana sutras, for instance, many of which extol the virtues of exceptional laypeople, were written by monks. Only monks would have the authority to put these across, and hardly anyone else would have the kind of sophistication to compose these.

The path of the bodhisattva, based on the example of the Buddha’s progress from life to life in the Jataka tales, in which he was generally depicted as a layperson of great determination, served to dispel the notion that spending this life as a layperson was spiritually a waste of time. In the Mahayana many of the elements that were attractive to laypeople, particularly devotional practices of veneration or worship along with good works, and assimilated indigenous religious practices, accordingly, became more respectable parts of Buddhist life. It was within the context of the Mahayana, for instance, that reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha or of the Lotus Sutra became established as Buddhist practices.

Often folk features are assimilated into Adept Buddhism from Folk Buddhism that just happen to be suitable to practice or understanding. For instance, when Buddhism came to China it encountered a highly ritualized culture which provided rich resources for the practice of mindfulness, and were taken up with time as an integral, almost essential, part of Adept Buddhism.

Championing Path Practices

Alongside devotional and lyrical folk practices there have also been a number of adept-driven movements to popularize meditation, a high-level Path practice, among a broad and generally non-adept population. The most successful of these in recent years has probably been the Lay Vipassana movement, which started in Myanmar with monastic encouragement, and which has since gone global.

A much earlier movement of this kind was associated with the Lin-Chi (Rinzai) Ch’an (Zen) monk Ta Hui Tsung Kao (1089-1163) who promoted a method that we now call koan introspection. Koans, quizzical interchanges between teacher and student, had been a part of Zen literature and lore for hundreds of years before Ta Hui. The innovation Ta Hui taught was to use the punch lines of koans as meditation objects, a method he promoted as a fast track to Awakening suitable for lay students. Many of Ta Hui’s students were apparently lay scholars and aristocrats who did not have the time and discipline enjoyed by monks for gradual practice.5 Significantly, once koan introspection seemed to produce desirable results, eager monks quickly applied their even greater reserve of time and energy for such concerns, to soar to even greater heights. Koan introspection is now characteristic of Lin-Chi/Rinzai Zen and is often considered primarily a monastic practice.

More recently, Japanese Zen Master Yasutani Roshi (1885-1973) revitalized koan introspection in the establishment of an explicitly lay school called Sanbyo Kyodan that focuses rather single-mindedly on producing breakthrough experiences through intensive meditation. Although this school is marginal in Japan, it has been very influential in North American Zen ever since the publication of Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen.

Sharf observes some characteristic features of such lay meditation movements.6 First, they tend to be single-mindedly obsessed with achieving special “mystical” experienceskensho, satori (breakthrough or “awakening” experiences), jhana (absorption) or sotapatti (stream entry, the first glimpse of Nirvana). Second, they tend to involve constant assessment and verification students’ attainments by teachers, often publicly, and testimonials from successful students to encourage others in their practice.7 Although meditative experiences are referred to in the earliest Buddhist scriptures, they offer little precedent for external assessment as a routine part of a meditative method. Moreover, Sharf points out, independent teachers who evaluate the same student’s achievements seldom agree.

The danger of the emphasis on sudden breakthrough experiences is the loss of the gradual path of personal development of skillful behaviors and thoughts through sustained repetition and rehearsal.8 Sanbyo Kyodan, in particular, has reduced the complex doctrinal, devotional and ethical teachings of Buddhism to a simple meditation practice on the Mu koan. It focuses on cultivating the experience of kensho, the initial experience of Awakening, entirely divorced from its soteriological context.9 Practicing for mystical experiences is analogous to studying in order to pass tests rather than to learn, and seems to have been rare historically among monastics, who have traditionally practiced in a gradual way that integrates with an organic path of development, not for the mystical experiences for their own sake.

Although adepts will generally encourage meditation practice as beneficial, the downside of any single-minded focus, in spite of its gratifying results, is that it does not produce a well-rounded Buddhist. It sacrifices breadth for depth while giving the impression of constituting a complete practice in itself. In the West, for instance, vipassana meditation is commonly taught in a manner completely divorced from its larger Buddhist context, even from its integral role within the Path. Single-minded focus on meditation practice probably bears some kinship to the “easy answer” of a single-minded devotional practice such as reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, except (1) it is not easy – meditation retreats are a lot of work – and (2) one would be hard put to say what the question is that it answers – meditative experiences gain meaning only in the proper context.

Much of this chapter is cautionary. My advice here: Beware of overreaching, of trying to attain something sublime when resources are limited, as they typically are in lay life, lest frustration result. Fortunately, the Sasana thoughfully supports those of high aspiration with an option in which resources are abundant for a well-rounded practice: Entering the Sangha.

Creolizing the Dharma

At the special time that Buddhism enters a new culture, as it did in China in the early centuries of the first millennium, and as it has now begun to in the West, incipient Buddhists must wrap their heads around many foreign concepts but to do so must rely on their indigenous matrix of conceptual, behavioral and affective categories conveyed largely through the folk culture. A kind of hybrid that is only part Buddhist is bound to arise in a process like that which produces a creole language from the absorption of a foreign vocabulary into an indigenous grammar.10

The lifeline to the foreign adepts in early Chinese Buddhism seems to have been tenuous indeed and almost entirely based on the written word, yet an indigenous Adept Buddhism would eventually emerge from the early folk depths. Sharf11 relates that after Buddhists began trickling into China from the Silk Road about the first century CE, early efforts at translating Buddhist texts of Indian and Central Asian origin made use of a largely Taoist conceptual scheme and vocabulary, a system of concept matching (ko-i). Buddhism seems as a consequence to have been commonly mistaken for a form of Taoism in which the Buddha served as a god with certain supernatural powers. There was little evidence that teacher-monks made the long journey into China from Indian or Central Asia in great numbers, nor that any schools of Buddhism were founded by such monks.12 Instead a handful of translator-monks that did arrive set to work producing Chinese versions of scriptures, which then circulated, were read and discussed by and among educated Chinese in the Chinese language, mixed in with apocryphal scriptures of Chinese origin that embedded Buddhist ideas into Taoist cosmology. A very occasional Chinese pilgrim would make the decades-long trip into India and back to train with the adepts and fetch scriptures back. Early Chinese Buddhism was remarkably insular with little in the way of guidance from foreign adepts.

An analogous Western creole developed some seventeen hundred years later under quite different circumstances. In this case the grammatical matrix was largely of Christian Protestant and scientific rationalist origin and the result is in fact commonly called by scholars “Protestant Buddhism.”13 Interestingly the development of this Protestant-Buddhist hybrid began not in Europe or America, but in Asia, particularly in Ceylon and Japan. In both of these nations, Buddhism was challenged to modernize according to Western standards because of Western colonial and imperial pressure. In both of these nations a Western-educated elite was in the making and in Ceylon many Protestant schools had been educating the youngsters for decades. The challenge to these cultures was the presumption of superiority of Western culture in general, along with Western science and technology, and of the non-heathen Christian faith in particular. In these desperate times for a dispirited East, Buddhists with Western educations began to promote the idea of a Buddhism that was compatible with Protestant values yet of superior rationality and of greater compatibility than Christianity with science.

Now, Protestant religiosity, born in response to the excesses of the Catholic Church, typically runs something like this:

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”

“Religious authority, priests, monks, rules, humbug!”

“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”

“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

McMahan14 writes that in accord with the Protestant Reformation:

“… each individual could have unmediated access to God and hence had no need for special places, priests, icons, or rituals. Sacredness began to withdraw from things … and to be pushed to two poles: God himself, beyond the world, and the individual in his or her own faith. This aspect … was then pushed further by scientific rationalism.”

The hybrid that emerged was largely Buddhism scrubbed of its religiosity and thereby spotlessly suitable for scrutiny by the Protestant-influenced West. It was successfully applied in Ceylon in surviving a rising tide of Christian missionary exuberance: In a well publicized series of debates between the “silver-tongued orator” Ven. Mohattivatte Gunananda and most famously the Wesleyan clergyman David DeSilva from the mid-1860’s to early 1870’s, the Buddhist protagonist was able to position his religion as more rational and modern than that of his interlocutor.15 Shaku Soen Roshi of Japan and Anagarika Dharmapala of Ceylon presented and made a big splash at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.16 Dharmapala described Buddhism for his Western audience as,

free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths.17

D.T. Suzuki, at that time a young disciple of Soen Roshi, would help splosh the emerging creole into the twentieth century. Results that might well be attributed in part to this presentation were a renewed confidence for Asians in the strength of their own culture and faith, and an cascade of interest in Buddhism in the West.

Of course, almost any Buddhist tradition could use a good scrubbing and can afford to lose much of its religious muck, but certainly in the hands of many a nursemaid authentic functions have been inadvertently thrown out with the bathwater. This is “spiritual but not religious” plain and simple. The danger is that the Sasana perspective be lost altogether, ironically, for the most irrational of reasons, for looking like something vaguely disagreeable to the framers of the debate. If anything, I hope in this book to have shown that the Sasana is remarkably rationally conceived and implemented to achieve a certain functionality.

Probably most Western Buddhism today, certainly the “Secular Buddhist” wing, is a variant of Protestant Buddhism, much of it scoured to the bone. Sharf expresses surprise that Western Buddhism seems to share the insularity of early Chinese Buddhism, that in spite expanding possibilities of communication in the modern world Westerners read books by each other and only infrequently appraise the fidelity of their understanding against any Asian norms. Sharf wonders if improved contact with India would have really made any difference in the development of Chinese Buddhism.18 The danger of a Buddhist creole is that the resulting Sasana may be a kind of botanical monster missing essential functionality and clinging precariously to existence in a crag … after an initial flash of unprecedented popularity.

Compromising the Dharma

At critical points, elements of the folk culture are really really non-negotiable, where unsuitable values contrary to Buddhist functions are so entrenched in the culture that they cannot be dislodged and must be accommodated somehow within Adept Buddhism. Toe meets stone. We have seen one such point that was reached in China where the core Buddhist value of home-leaving ran right up against the unshakably rock-solid value of family in Chinese folk culture. We saw that the resolution seems to have been a clever side-step, a high point in the annals of public relations: Represent the Sangha as a great big family, with family lineages, heritages and a very long history. Just as a bride leaves one family to join another, so does the aspiring monk leave home to join a Sangha lineage.

Another such point seems to have been reached even at the time of the Buddha or shortly thereafter, and also, I feel confident, entailed a similar clever side-step engineered either by the Buddha himself or later by his close disciples. As far as I can see, gender equality is as fundamental in Early Buddhist thought as caste equality. However, it was inevitable that this way of thinking would stub itself on the rock of patriarchy endemic in Indian folk culture at the time of the Buddha (and up to the present day for that matter). I have written of this elsewhere,19 but let me summarize.

Evidence of the absence of gender bias in the Buddha’s thought is that the Buddha stated that women were as capable of Awakening as men, that he created a women’s Sangha, granting participation in the privileges, obligations, independence and expectation of veneration that that entails, that he took great care in the monastic code to ensure the safety and well-being of the nuns, and perhaps most tellingly to ensure that they do not fall into conventional subservient gender roles with respect to the monks.

However, the Buddha’s great concern would have been the acceptability of this arrangement within the prevailing folk culture and even among his folk following, particularly since the nuns, like the monks, would be dependent on receiving daily alms, and since the kind of independence he secured for nuns would be what in that culture was commonly associated with “loose women.” The resolution was symbolically to put the nuns under the thumb of the monks, without ceding real power to them, through the now infamous Garudhamma Rules. If this analysis is correct, then early Buddhism itself was not pristinely authentic. It was compromised for practical means, to sustain harmony with Folk Buddhism at a critical juncture. The irony is that the Garudhamma that once appeased folk Buddhists at one time and place in history now vexes them in the modern West, like an unwanted fruitcake one cannot graciously dispose of.

A final and common kind of non-negotiable influence on Adept Buddhism is government interference in Buddhist affairs, particularly in Sangha affairs. Emperor Ashoka in the early centuries of Buddhism undertook to reform the Sangha during his reign, which he felt had become corrupted and divided, by expelling wayward monks, or at least allegedly waywardmonks. In the nineteenth century King Yul Brynner of Thailand20 undertook to reform the Sangha, actually creating a hierarchy with government involvement at all levels in Sangha affairs which persists to this day. In ninth century Japan, the government strictly regulated monastic ordination in an attempt to reduce the number of monks, forcing many monks into a lesser non-Vinaya ordination from which it has never recovered. In nineteenth century Japan, a hostile Meiji government reformed the Buddhist clergy substantially by disallowing the requirement of celibacy. None of this is envisioned in the Vinaya and most seem to have in the end disrupted the proper functioning of the Sangha. But, as they say, you can’t fight city hall.

Marketing the Dharma

Professional scientists often disparage their colleagues who are intent to popularize science. The ivory tower and the institutions that support it, the tenure system and the tradition of academic freedom, ensure that scientific results are not biased by popular taste or current affairs, so that scientists remain excellent. The Buddhist adepts cannot afford to be quite so aloof; they are expected to teach the regular folks and make a direct difference in their lives through routine contact. To a limited degree, they should popularize. Yet they also require a similar degree of isolation from popular taste and current affairs lest these draw them away from the authentic teachings of the Buddha. And, in fact, the Buddha specified a degree of aloofness: A series of monastic rules of etiquette ensure that the monastic not teach to someone, for instance, who does not show the proper respect. This is probably at least partially why Buddhism has had a scant history of proselytizing and why monks don’t physically hold forth on soap boxes.

Nonetheless there are sometimes deliberate attempts on the part of adepts or Buddhist leaders to promote the Sasana, a particular movement or institution or simply the welfare of a particular teacher by deliberate accommodation of Folk Buddhist elements. The danger here is that the integrity of authentic Buddhism might be sacrificed. Zen Master Keizan (1268-1325) is widely considered the second founder of Soto Zen after Dogen largely through his success in popularizing the young movement. He continued to scrupulously promote meditation and monastic discipline as taught by the master, yet at the same time syncretized this Zen with folk practices concerning Shinto spirits (kami and ryūten) which could become either protectors of Soto temples or their adversaries. Often Soto priests would actually compete with local village spirits in displays of power, sometimes converting the spirits to the Soto cause. Apparently, over time Soto priests succeeded in this way in occupying many abandoned Tendai and Shingon temples, assimilating spirits and villagers alike into local congregations.21

Many of the accommodations to Folk Buddhism described above may analogously involve deliberate targeted marketing, though one would hope that more often a tolerant familiarity would suffice to inspire folks in their wholesome practices. Doctrinal widening and promotion of devotional and meditative experiences have perhaps sometimes an element of marketing. However, the Buddha certainly set limits on the extent to which monastics were to market themselves personally to the laity: They were allowed no claims of high states of attainment (particularly if false), and were disallowed from making teaching into a livelihood. Teaching could therefore be honest and direct, unbiased by folk understandings.

Yet today we live in a mass marketing consumer culture. Buddhists and would-be Buddhists in the West encounter a media-enabled onslaught of teachings, practices and teachers from which American Folk Buddhists are free, at a cost, to select those that carry most appeal, mixing and matching the various options much as they do features of cars or choice of kitchen utensils. This is the way of the modern marketplace. Teachers and authors correspondingly fall easily into the role of promoting and selling particular practices and teachings as commodities, for a price, taking care how they are packaged and presented, for instance, in the form of popular self-help books, lectures, seminars, CD’s, stage performances and personal hourly consultations. Here in America, where we are used to having it our way, we are offered many flavors of Buddhism: We have “beat,” “punk,” and “geek,” “formal,” your basic “upper-middle way,” and now even “hold the religion!”22 At the same time information – good information – about Buddhism is widely available as never before.

Charismatic teachers who claim personal Awakening and experiences are all the rage in Buddhism, just as they are outside of Buddhism. One highly trained, authorized and “awakened” teacher has developed a remarkable breakthrough to impart “awakening to your true self,” apparently a genuine satori experience in an expensive group context that thereby circumvents the hours on the meditation cushion one would need to get the same experience. Testimonials indicate impressive results that not only rival what the most skilled itinerant tent revivalists are able to accomplish in group settings, but seem to be accessible also by telephone for an hourly fee. Although it is still unclear that this particular technique is an “answer” to anything, that it is now “easy” is certainly a significant breakthrough.

The real danger in entrusting the Sasana to the consumer market is that the market inevitably vulgarizes whatever it sells. The danger is that Buddhism will go the way of fast food, pill popping and televangelism. How can a radical Buddhism, one that teaches the way of renunciation and restraint, and challenges the most fundamental assumptions of the folk culture, avoid becoming commodified, mixed and matched and accommodated into something that has little in common with the Buddhist teachings that once passed quietly from the adepts to the folk, to those whose hearts had opened to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, who encountered monastics on their alms rounds or approached them at their monasteries with questions or simply learned to emulate their demeanor, their behavior, the simplicity of their lives and their kindness?

Losing One’s Head

headLossWe have examined a series of negotiations between Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism. What is striking is that the soapbox of adept Buddhism dominates these discussions; it is, after all, the authority on things Dharmic and in this way Folk Buddhism tends to more or less fall in line behind Adept Buddhism, giving the Sasana its characteristic comet shape. But what happens if there is no Adept Buddhism? The short answer is not surprising: the Sasana dissolves and floats off in a whirl of cultic bubbles. I will call a Folk Buddhism that is not anchored to an Adept Buddhist an Independent Folk Buddhism.

An early example of an Independent Folk Buddhism is found in the history of East Asian Buddhism in connection with mo-fa (in Chinese, mappo in Japanese), the teaching that Buddhism had entered its final stage of decline in which it is harder if not impossible for monastics to maintain discipline, for yogis to attain jhana or for the dedicated and devout to attain any semblance of Awakening.23 Mo-fa led to two divergent attitudes toward practice, short of dismissing this teaching altogether. The first was to intensify one’s efforts to overcome the mo-fa handicap, as Hsin-hsing (540-594) advocated. The other was to lower one’s sights, to make do with practices that would fall short of the aspirations of old, yet would be manageable and of some minimal efficacy. The latter attitude may have encouraged the popularity of Pure Land Buddhism and the practice of calling on the external aid of Amitabha Buddha.

In Japan, Buddhist schools fell definitively on either side of the mappo issue. At one extreme was Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, who considered mappo total nonsense, yet advocated intensification of efforts anyway. Mappo also had little currency in the Japanese Shingon school.24 On the other side were Honen (1133-1212), the founder of Pure Land in Japan and Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282), founder of the school that bears his name. The expected and unfortunate consequence of taking mappo seriously is the disassociation of Folk Buddhism from its Adept Buddhist head, since mappo entails that neither the aspirations nor the example of would-be adepts should be taken seriously. Japan accordingly provides a number of examples of what happens when Buddhism loses its head.

Recall that Pure Land in China was essentially a folk movement within other schools that were themselves under monastic guidance. Under Honen, Pure Land in Japan became a distinct school, the Jodo Shu, in which all scriptures were discarded except the original vow of Amitabha, and adherents were expected to devote themselves to the single-minded practice of nembutsu, recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha, a characteristically folk practice. Honen’s disciple and monk Shinran (1173-1263) decided in 1207 to get married and thereby founded an order of married clergy known as the Jodo Shinshu. For many centuries the Jodo Shinshu would be the bane of the Japanese Buddhist clergy, until a married priesthood became the norm throughout Japanese Buddhism beginning with a Meiji government edict of 1872 that sought to restructure Buddhism in Japan, and succeeded.25

Nichiren similarly advocated a single-minded devotional practice to carry us through the mappo, this time gohozon, a devotional practice based on the second rather than the first Gem, in particular the chanting the name of the Mahayana Lotus Sutra. Out of the Nichiren school arose much of today’s New Buddhism in Japan, sects, such as Soka Gakkai, that have eliminated clergy altogether26 and, as Robert Sharf describes,27 rely for their authority not on lineage, not on any special training or study, but on charismatic lay leaders who claim some special experience, much as ifound n many evangelical or charismatic Christian sects in America that also tend to disappear or splinter with the loss of a leader. The priesthood of the other schools, in the meantime, reserves the right to perform rites and rituals but are generally not expected to provide pristine examples of conduct nor to be adepts or Buddhist virtuosos.28 Such seems to be the lot of Independent Folk Buddhism.

Similar trends have been observed in Sri Lanka where in colonial times an urban Western-educated class had developed that began to hold the Sangha in contempt for two reasons. First, because of its largely of rural origin, it lacked of Western education and awareness of the Western world, and second, the educated elite had learned to map Buddhism to Protestant standards that minimized the role of clergy. The result was the development of lay Buddhism with many of the weaknesses of Protestant Christianity: the creation of sects by charismatic self-authorized individuals, who sometimes claimed to possess special insights and to represent “true Buddhism.”29

Although there seems generally to be a sense in Japan that authentic Buddhism is out of reach, that certainly the priests do not uphold it, Jaffe reports on the resiliency of the monastic ideal in the minds of Japanese Buddhists, for instance, the lack of public arguments in favor of clerical marriage and the continued official but unobserved prohibition of sexual relations for priests within certain schools, such as Soto and Obaku Zen, even while over ninety percent of clergy in these schools is married, along with a widespread nostalgia for monastics. A common attitude is that the clergy should ideally observe monastic practice even if it can’t practically.30

What happens if a form of Buddhism has never had a head? I fear this might well characterize the current reality of Buddhism in the cultural West, and most especially Creole or Protestant Buddhism, as it once characterized early Chinese Buddhism. Whatever adepts there are, are primarily non-monastics, since the entire institutional Sangha of European, American, Australian, etc. ethnicity probably numbers altogether no more than a few hundred. Some of the other adepts are ordained and trained in the priesthood of the Japanese tradition, certified in one way or another through training in Asian traditions, or have advanced academic degrees in Buddhist Studies. Although there are undoubtedly lay teachers of great accomplishment, few of the general Buddhist population know who they might be among the many charismatic self-qualified teachers who claim special insights and who advocate single-minded meditation in the quest for breakthrough experiences. Although there are undoubtedly at least some adepts in the West, the firm anchor that is the role of Adept Buddhism or the Sangha is missing. The absence of a Third Gem is like a boat without a rudder, a car without a steering wheel, a coupon without a store in which to redeem it, a comet without a head. This we would call an Independent Folk Buddhism. Today we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and, I fear, the Market.

Negotiating with the Broader Folk Culture

A challenge to Folk Buddhism is the danger of succumbing to the onslaught of those personal and cultural factors of the wider society that cause the distress and suffering authentic Buddhism is intended to resolve in the first place. Rather than following the direct path advanced by Adept Buddhism, unwary followers of Folk Buddhism may come under distracting or unsavory and opprobrious influences inimical to the teachings, practices and values of authentic Buddhism. Folk Buddhism might begin to assume much of the materialism, acquisitiveness or intolerance from the embedding culture, and in the worst case even think some of this belongs to the Buddha’s teachings! It may even come under manipulation of special interests who exploit Folk Buddhism, for instance, of commercial interests or governments who seek to controlling public opinion to legitimize the illegitimate. It is the Adept Buddhist’s role to tether Folk Buddhism, as firmly as possible, to an authentic Buddhism. It is the Folk Buddhist’s role to tame, as well as it can, the unwholesome influences of the broader society

For instance, in moments of distraction Folk Buddhists may lose their exemption from the allure of the consumer culture, which deliberately stimulates irrational, emotional and delusive aspects of human cognition and subdues clear rational thinking in order to manipulate consumption patterns. From the authentic Buddhist perspective, such consumerism is an, uh, abomination. Modern consumerism is of an order that goes beyond satisfying human need to feeding human greed, which Buddhism teaches will never ever be satisfied and will in fact plunge all those singed by it into bottomless depths of human misery.

Conclusion

In case we don’t yet have enough metaphors floating around: The negotiations of Dharma pull in every direction like unruly horses. The adepts are the charioteer whose arms take up the reins of authority to steer the chariot of the Sasana over an unsteady landscape in the authentic direction, toward the Awakening of the entire society. The reins are implicit in the Triple Gem. The charioteer is there by virtue of the Monastic Sangha and the Buddhist Community that sustains it. The chariot manifests the communal meaning of our practice and understanding. And the Folk Buddhists are passengers hanging on on what will be a rather bumpy ride. This is the Buddha-Sasana.

I can scarcely do justice to the many conversations that constitute the living Dharma, but I hope in this chapter to have given the flavor of some of them and how they can be interpreted in terms of the health of the Sasana, particularly of those at play in the monumental process of merging Buddhism with the folk culture in the Land of the Fork.

1A copy of the Diamond Sutra block-printed in China is dated 868 AD.

2King (1964), p. 59.

3Williams (2008), p. 26.

4See, for instance, Skilton 1990, pp. 96-7; Williams 2008, p. 26.

5Sharf (1995b).

6Sharf (1995a, 1995b).

7In fact if meditation is about evoking special experiences it comes noticeably close to many non-Buddhist religious practices intended to induce ecstatic states, for instance in Charismatic Christianity.

8 Sharf (1995a, 1995b).

9 Sharf (1995a).

10 The use of this creole simile is borrowed from Prothero (1996).

11 Sharf (2001), pp. 1-25.

12 Bodhidharma would be the exception but his story is undoubtedly largely mythical. McRae (2003, Ch. 2) traces the evolution of the Bodhdharma myth in parallel with the development of Ch’an in China.

13 This term comes from Obeyesekere. See Gombrich (2006), p. 174.

14 McMahan (2008), p220.

15 Prothero (1996), p. 95.

16 Fields (1992), Chapter 7 describes this conference.

17 McMahan (2008), pp. 91-7.

18 Sharf (2001), p. 23.

19 Cintita (2013).

20 Sometimes known to historians as King Mongkut or Rama IV.

21 Heine (2008), pp. 83-85.

22 Tweed (2000, Preface) additionally describes the broad influence Buddhism currently enjoys in the fashion and trinket industries.

23 Jaffe (2001), 128-131, Nattier (1992), 90-118.

24 Jaffe (2001), p. 131.

25 Jaffe (2001) provides a comprehensive account of this development, its precedents and its consequences.

26 See Jaffe (2001), p, 231-2 on New Buddhism in Japan.

27 Sharf (1995a).

28 Jaffe (2001), p. 232.

29 Gombrich (2006), pp. 193-201.

30 Jaffe (2001), pp. 234, 240-241.

The Buddhist Child and the Sangha

April 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, April 24, 2013

Traditionally Monastics have played a great and pervasive role in the way Buddhist kids are exposed to Buddhism. Of the three Gems the Sangha is the only that is a living breathing presence. The Sangha exemplifies and teaches and at the same time becomes an object of veneration, generosity and affection for the little Buddhist.

Most immediately the Sangha provides a constant breathing example of what it is to live a Buddhist life. They are walking science experiments, demonstrating with every word and gesture what happens when one lets go, when one renounces everything that common sense says is necessary for felicity, for fun, for fulfillment: they end up being the most joyfully contented people in the village! The Noble Ones serve as a reality check for folk people as they make life’s decisions, and a subversively civilizing influence on the whole community.

The wholesome practice of veneration extends particularly easily to the living Gem and dovetails with the project of satisfying their material needs, which becomes an expression of both veneration and affection. The needs of the monastics are modest but constant, and in fact, according to the Buddha’s regulations, somewhat artificially constant. This puts the devout layperson right at the center of the wholesome practice of generosity (dana), which becomes the lifeblood of the Buddhist community, producing an economy of gifts. The monastics are not allowed to participate in the exchange economy in any case, are sustained entirely from gifts and are at liberty to give immaterial gifts freely. The early communal life centered around the monastics, and later around the monasteries as they commonly become at the same time community centers for the laity.

Through their support of the Sangha as well as the rest of the Buddhist community folk Buddhists develop the joyful feeling of doing their share, of participating fully in bringing the civilizing influence of the Noble Ones into the community and in upholding the sasana to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity for future generations. The relationship between the Sangha and lay community is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, produces the adapts and thereby serves the community.  The Noble Ones are the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come. The community supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together.

It is important to recognize that there is little here in the way of hierarchy. What authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments and is conveyed as wisdom or knowledge and conduct. The Sangha has no coercive power beyond  the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. The laity actually has authority over the Sangha that carries more coercive power: Dissatisfaction with the monastic Sangha can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the integrity of the institutional Sangha.

Because generosity is such a joyful condition, monasteries are very happy places in which kids can learn this fundamental Buddhist value, along with selfless veneration. It encourages community involvement, requires no sophisticated knowledge of Dharma and provides a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. It also opens into an opportunity to rub shoulders with Noble Ones, benefit from their wisdom and advice and begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening. The Buddhist community provides an oasis of sanity in a world otherwise  perpetually spinning crazily out of kilter, out of control.

Lest my promotion of the Sangha be seen as impure horn-tooting mention that it comes not from representing that Gem but the other way around. In fact I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years because my practice leaned me in that way. My name, “Cintita,” which means “good thinker,” was given to me because I thought about this very matter for so long. However, clinging to worldly ways I suffered from many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life or for representing the Sangha well. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the monastic sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynchpin of the Sasana. This meant 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. And so I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it,” and finally ordained.

Now, we have a dilemma: How do we teach a child to venerate and befriend the Sangha, to learn from its way of life and from its teachings, when there is no Sangha at hand? I have a few suggestions:

1. The Sangha is in America, for one, hardly anywhere very far away. However it is mostly in culturally Asian temples. Visit some! Both language and culture may be challenges, but will make it a great experience for kids, like traveling the world with them in tow. Do not be alarmed if what passes for Buddhism does not look familiar; this is folk Buddhism, and will differ from Western folk Buddhism (seem my writings about folk Buddhism). The nuns or monks will almost certainly know a more sophisticated Buddhism, …  but might not speak English. Make contacts, see how it goes. You will learn a lot yourself.

2. Just as kids learn from the life of the Buddha, they can learn from the lives of monks and nuns. The Dalai Lama is a monk and movies have even been made about him. I played Kundun for a group of Burmese-American kids; there were fascinated by it. Zen about Dogen Zenji, or Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter about a fictional monk might also work.

3. Try to find Western monasteries and develop a long-distance relationship with one. Arrange so that your child can make a regular financial contribution; the amount is no issue. Make a project out of it, explain to your child what the money might be used for. Then make an occasional trip to the monastery, offer a meal or find an occasion where people make robe offerings to the monks. Do not be afraid to ask someone about etiquette. Generally there will be times when you can “pay respects” to a nun or monk and meet privately. Ask your child to formulate a question.

Most Western monasteries are not as generously supported as Asian monasteries since support of monks and nuns is not yet integral to our culture. However their needs are very modest; they don’t own boats, nor are they running a bar tab, nor are they trying to put a child through college. I would particularly recommend (all other things being equal) finding a nuns’ monastery to support at a distance. Generally nuns have a harder time of it than monks, not so much in the Far Eastern traditions as in the Tibetan and Theravadin. The unfortunate reason is that in some Asian lands monks are more readily supported than nuns and the Asian monasteries in the West on average more readily absorb Western monks than Western nuns. Certainly if you hear of a monk or nun without monastery affiliation, sometimes living in an apartment or house trailer someone has provided, seek them out and offer to help, even if just a little. The success of the monastic Sangha in the West will depend as much on lay support of monastics as it will depend monastic aspirations taking root in laity.

4. If you happen to live near Austin, Texas, you are in luck. There are two Western monks and many culturally Asian monasteries, including the two we live at. Come visit. Otherwise if you have trouble googling up a monastery near you let me know and I’ll give it a try.

5. Look at the comments below for other people’s ideas and experiences!

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Negotiating the Dharma

March 11, 2013

Uposatha Day, New Moon, March 11, 2012

Chapter 8. Negotiating the Dharma

Buddhism is radical in any culture. It goes “against the stream.” The Noble Ones understand that virtually all progress toward peace, happiness, virtue and understanding one is likely to make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up or curtailed: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligation like fame and car ownership, self-view, identity or being somebody, behaviors like partying flirtatiously, and particularly the clinging emotions rooted in greed or anger. The practice of the Noble Ones has been no more and no less than a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, a process of progressive renunciation. This makes little sense to normal folk.

The Noble Ones extol Awakening as the highest attainment, one that entails not only the complete eradication of personal desire and aversion as motivating factors and ultimately the elimination of intentional action altogether, completely relinquishing the quest for personal advantage. They practice kindness to their worst enemies. People of the folk culture can only scratch their heads and blink their eyes.

For the Noble Ones it is like being surrounded by fools, as if having entered Alice’s looking glass almost everyone around them is intent on doing everything backwards. To go up they go down, to go fast they go slow. To become happy they want. When they get what they want, yet are still unhappy, they think they must therefore need more. When out of greed or hatred someone does harm to another, they respond with hatred, not kindness but hatred. When something burns they pour on gasoline to quench the flames. The Noble Ones can only scratch their heads and blink their eyes.
The Buddhism of the Noble Ones mixes with any general folk culture as oil with water. In the thick of this seismic contradiction of values, nestled between the general folk culture and the Buddhism of the Noble Ones, is Folk Buddhism, in direct dialog with each.

A Variety of Negotiations

It Core Buddhism is the oil and folk culture the water, then Folk Buddhism is the dispersant. It plays a central and difficult role in making Buddhism culturally relevant and accessible. Folk Buddhism has one foot in Core Buddhism because it places its trust and veneration in the Triple Gem, even while it has yet to fully explored the depths of what they have to offer. It has its other foot in the folk culture, which informs most of its values and defines most of its behaviors. Folk Buddhism is thereby in negotiation with radically different systems of thought and practice. Yet this gives Buddhism a significant presence in the society and influence in its affairs.

Folk Buddhism is in a very real sense a kind of watered down Buddhism. Its means of expression are accessible to the folk culture and many of the more obscure or objectionable (from the folk perspective) teachings of Core Buddhism are glossed over or disappear altogether, with some awareness on the part of the Folk Buddhist that they are there somewhere to be learned from the Adepts when the opportunity arises. Folk Buddhism is far less challenging than Core Buddhism and much more reassuring to people’s lifestyles as they are currently constituted. Nonetheless at the same time it helps people over time gently ease toward the path of liberation as it conveys values and practices in the language of the folk culture that reflect or support parts of Core Buddhism.

Core Buddhism is actually mediated by its teachers and representatives, the Adepts. The Adepts are therefore also negotiate with two distinct parties, Core and Folk. It is in the negotiation of the Adept Buddhists with Core Buddhism that the integrity of the local Buddhism can be said to be preserved or to fail. The implicit demand is that Adept Buddhism is authentic, that it is consistent with and inclusive of Core Buddhism.

The structure of this communication is held in place traditionally by the Buddhist community, particularly the Sangha and by the Refuges as we have discussed.

The Adepts’ Conversation with Core Buddhism

This is the most important negotiation of all for without it everything falls apart. Core Buddhism is the standard of authenticity. It is in its conversation with Core Buddhism that the Adepts maintain the ultimate integrity of the Buddhist enterprise. It is the Sangha’s obligation to let the Dhamma-Vinaya be their teacher and I will assume that this obligation extends to the non-monastic Adepts as well. We have seen that what constitutes the Dhamma-Vinaya a moving target: Core Buddhism is an understanding kept in place by scriptural sources, tradition, experience and attainment, dialog among the Adepts and increasingly through scholarship. Noble Ones are its most important arbiters. The integrity of Buddhism is only fully realized in the Adepts’ conversation with Core Buddhism, but as we will see there is a more limited integrity that can be realized in Folk Buddhism as well.

NegotiatingNebulaIt is only to the extent that the Adepts adhere to Core Buddhism, and leave nothing out, that Folk Buddhism is anchored in authentic teachings. If the Adepts preach a corrupted Buddhism, or if there are no Adepts venerated by the Folk Buddhists as the authorities on matters of Dharma, then the comet loses its head and will drift apart as various cultic bubbles in every direction, much like a nova, the remnants of an exploded star. Because the Core teachings of Buddhism are so sophisticated and so radical they are also fragile and vulnerable to mis- and re-interpretation. This is a reason the Buddha instituted the monastic Sangha to ensure that there are Noble Ones and adherents of the Core teachings they preserve, so that Folk Buddhism has an anchor and the Dhamma will not be lost.

Adept Buddhism is the expert understanding as it is presented to the Folk Buddhists. Ideally it manifests Core Buddhism. However the Adept Buddhists are also in conversation with the Folk Buddhist culture and generally were themselves raised as Folk Buddhists. The Adepts have almost invariably throughout history become so through the monastic path. Today in Western Buddhism, on the other hand, lay teachers predominate, or at least those not fully ordained into the Sangha, such as priests in Japanese traditions. In many places the Adepts might in fact have an incomplete or faltering understanding or practice of Core Buddhism, or have altered Core Buddhism in order to accommodate some nonnegotiable features of the local culture.

The Adepts Tell Folks What’s What

A sincere Buddhists will generally take seriously the advice of the Adepts and develop understandings, practices and a way of life partly under the influence of that advice. After a time these factors will fall roughly into three groups:

(1) friendly,
(2) neutral and
(3) unfriendly.

This factors are figuratively friendly, neutral or unfriendly toward Core Buddhism, but more immediately friendly, neutral or unfriendly to the owner of these factors himself, since whether he realizes it or not they correlate with the benefit to their owner as well as to those who benefit from or fall victim to his actions.

In brief, the Adepts advice will be aimed at improving (1) and getting rid of (3), but probably will not concern itself much with (2). The friendly factors either will be as taught by the Adepts or will represent close and sufficient approximations thereto that have been imperfectly understood by the Folk Buddhist. The neutral factors most likely derive from the folk culture but are harmless, and may be shared by the Adept Buddhist, who is likely to have grown up in that culture. The unfriendly factors conflict with Core Buddhism and may arise through the influence of seismically contradictory values that have made there way from folk culture into Folk Buddhism, or simply popular misunderstandings of Buddhism.

The friendly factors generally begin with those learned at a young age in community. Most critical are the Refuges, since these anchor Fold Buddhism in Core Buddhism. Teachings in generosity and virtue may be absorbed, and probably an appreciation of the goal of higher Buddhist practice and an appreciation of the personal qualities of the Buddha and the Noble Ones. For those intent on the Path, wisdom teachings, a meditation practice and a very simple lifestyle that encourages contentment may be acquired and developed. And of course all of this can lead eventually to Adeptness.

The neutral factors include almost all those cultural accretions dripping in religiosity. Often these accrete around friendly factors as well.  For instance, it is common among the Burmese, a fundamentally animist culture, to attribute magical powers to senior monks of great attainment. The presence of monks is generally regarded as enormously good luck and making offerings to monks, particularly offering a meal to monks, is karmically hugely meritorious. Offerings are often made on auspicious occasions such as weddings and birthdays, as well as periods of misfortune when people feel they need a karmic boost.

A Burmese doctor in Texas a specialist in sleeping disorders, was delighted to be able to offer her services for free to a visiting Burmese monk who suffered from sleep apnea, which required that he stay overnight in a specially outfitted room hooked up to various monitors. She was particularly pleased with the auspiciousness that he was the inaugural patient of a new room they had just added to their lab. This was a doctor.

A frequent visitor to our monastery, also in Texas, who likes to come on weekends to prepare food for the monks, was up late one night and spotted a monk standing in the air above one of the new buildings near where the new pagoda was beginning construction. She called other people hither who indeed verified the presence of this monk in the sky, only now he was meditating. It was generally agreed that this monk had teletransported from Burma. A couple of weeks later I heard the story retold and it turned out that the monk in question was our own founder, who lives in Burma, checking out a new construction site.

These are all neutral factors, or even mildly friendly understandings since they may serve to encourage reverence for the Third Gem. Asian Folk Buddhisms tend to embellish the Triple Gem quite a bit, often  turning them from objects of reverence to objects of deep devotion and worship, often wrapping mythology around the objects, stories of supernatural forces and miracles, and in the case of the Buddha a kind of cosmic existence. These embellishments, although often not easily transmitted to dissimilar cultures, nonetheless generally remain close to the function of the Triple Gem in Adept Buddhism in that they serve to enhance the authority of Adept Buddhism, to inspire and make the mind that much more open to its influence.

Although an upstanding member of a dissimilar culture I find in myself a playful enough disposition to enjoy these things — I’ve even been coerced to talk to tree spirits in Texas when there was a concern that they might not understand Burmese. — but I cannot say that I have assimilated them into my world view, nor do I feel obliged to assimilate them. In fact in many cases it is the Burmese monks who correct Folk errant views of the efficacy of rites or rituals by pointing out quite rationally that there is no magic involved beyond the positive mental attitudes then invoke in the beneficiary.

An unfriendly yet common view in Western Folk Buddhism has direct relevance to the broad topic of Religiosity. Not infrequently a Western Buddhist is moved to reject a list of things, almost in the same breath, that are found both in Buddhism throughout Asia and also quite characteristically in much Western religion:

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”
“Religious authority, priests, monks, rules, humbug!”
“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”
“Religious doctrine, poppycock!”
“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

This has developed into a broad-based but not entirely homogeneous movement, often called Secular Buddhism, in which the targets of criticism taken as a whole correspond remarkably closely to what I have heaped under the category “Religiosity.” Also often included in the attack is the notion of transcendence as well the presence of cultural elements of Asian origin in Western Buddhism. It might well be characterized as a collection of pet peeves, since individually Secular Buddhists may be quite tolerant to some “religious” elements and quite biting in their criticism of others.

Furthermore, these pet peeves are often attached to alarmingly vehement assertions that the Buddha never taught such things at all. The view has even been espoused that the Buddha was really a Twenty-First Century man caught in the wrong time and place and that every Asian tradition made a huge muddle of his teachings, but that Twenty-First Century Westerners will finally vindicate them.
This attack on religiosity simply flies in the face of Core Buddhism as I have abundantly attested here and certainly enjoys no scriptural support. They are twaddle and, uh, poppycock. So where did they come from? If they did not come through Adept Buddhism they must have come from Western folk culture.

We don’t have to look far to see the origin of the rejection of Buddhist religiosity. It has “Reformation” written all over it; these are the very things that Protestant Christians objected to in the Catholic Church and sought if not to eliminate altogether at least to challenge and minimize. This Protestant confrontation with the structure and practices of the hugely hierarchical and therefore easily corruptible Catholic Church has a bitter and painful history in Europe, including thirty years of bloody warfare, and has certainly left deep religious scars on Northern European and thereby North American and otherwise geographically situated consciousness.  Of course that particular conflict had nothing to do with Buddhism, which has its own history and radically distinct structure of authority.

This view is unfriendly because it undermines a number of aspects of Core Buddhism, including the institutional Sangha and the structure of the Buddhist community as laid out in the Vinaya, established expressions of respect, Dhamma and the culturally fashioned implementations of Dhamma practices. In short, it is a view with little sense of gratitude for the past nor responsibility for the future.
Folk Buddhists Negotiate with the Folk Culture

A challenge to Folk Buddhism is the danger of succumbing to the onslaught those personal and cultural factors of the wider society that cause the distress and suffering Core Buddhism is intended to resolve. Rather than following the direct path advanced by Adept Buddhism unwary followers of Folk Buddhism may come under distracting or unsavory and opprobrious influences inimical to the teachings, practices and values of Core Buddhism. For instance, Folk Buddhism might begin to assume much of the materialism, acquisitiveness or intolerance of the embedding culture, and in the worst case even think some of this belongs to the Buddha’s teachings!  It may even come under manipulation of special interests who exploit Folk Buddhism, for instance, for commercial interests or as a means of controlling public opinion and legitimizing the illegitimate.

An unfriendly factor that all Western Folk Buddhists encounter in their negotiations with the general folk culture is the culture of consumerism.  Consumerism in some form has probably been a part of almost all folk cultures, but took on a particularly virulent form with the rise of the commercial marketing industry and public relations starting in America in the early Twentieth Century, which developed the art of mass manipulation of human drives to specific ends and has since gone global. It was discovered that desire and craving could be stimulated to increase market demand and that fear and hatred could be stimulated to promote a war or a political movement. Stimulation largely played upon the irrational, emotional and delusive aspects of human cognition rather than upon clear rational thinking, which was discovered to be not only harder to manipulate but in much shorter supply than anyone had ever imagined.

Now, from the perspective of Core Buddhism this is all an, uh, abomination. Modern consumerism is of an order that goes beyond satisfying human need to feeding human greed, which Buddhism teaches will never ever be satisfied and will in fact lead to bottomless depths of human misery. This conclusion is clearly verified in lands like America in the generally feeling of impoverishment even in the midst of wealth, the enormous degree of drug and alcohol abuse, the rate of suicide, the huge market for antidepressants, the ubiquity of daily fear, the widespread unraveling of social networks, the dissolution of  families and the renewed strength of class and racial oppression. And in the presence of so much stuff, we are choking on it. Ultimately this order has produced endless war, poverty for much of the world’s population and brought us to the brink of ecological collapse.

In moments of distraction Folk Buddhists may lose their exemption from the allure of the consumer culture. It is Adept Buddhism’s responsibility to bring the wisdom into Folk lives that recognizes the dangers and encourages the escape from the ravages of consumer culture. In the West many come to Buddhism partly out of an appropriate fear of the consumer culture in which they were raised.
Often historically it is the wider folk culture that succumbs to the onslaught of wholesome Buddhist influences conveyed primarily through the Folk Buddhists. Buddhism has often been regarded as a civilizing force in the world. It is perhaps telling of the popular perception of Buddhism that the British economist E.L. Shumacher, not himself a Buddhist, in considering an alternative to the consumer economy, “economics as if people mattered,” called his model “Buddhist Economics.”

Folks Edify the Adepts

The dialog between the Adepts and the Folk Buddhists also works both ways. Although the Adepts have traditionally spoken with great authority, they are not authoritarian. One of the effects of the Buddha’s creation of an absolute daily dependence of the monastic Sangha on the laity, simply to be able to eat, is that the laity always served as a check on the monastics, particularly as a check on the behavior of the monastics. When monastics stop living the pure life, when they party, flirt, gamble, drink beer, seek amusements and don top hats, in other words, act like lay people, then the laity tends to become disinterested in providing support.

This also applies when the monastics become too aloof or uptight for Folk Buddhist standards. The Buddha was much concerned about  harmony between the two parts of the Buddhist community, once relented to Folk Buddhist demands with admirable discretion with words that still echo from yester-chapter, “Monks, householders need blessings.” In fact even in Burma many monks eschew worship of tree spirits and of relics as not pure Buddhism. King (1964, p. 59) reports of a monastic sect that that tried to eliminate pagoda worship and worship of images of the Buddha and were met with hostility on the part of the laity until the sect disappeared.

There appear at times to be critical points where Core Buddhism does not have its way, where values contrary to Core Buddhism are so entrenched in the culture that they cannot be dislodged and must be accommodated somehow within Adept Buddhism. Toe meets thorn. We have seen one such point that was reached in China where the Core Buddhist value of home-leaving ran right up against the unshakable value that family represented for the Chinese folk culture. We saw that the resolution seems to have been a clever side-step, a high point in the annals of public relations: Represent the Sangha as a great big family, with family lineages, heritages and a very long history. Just as a bride leaves one family to join another, so does the aspiring monk.

Another such point sees to have been reached even at the time of the Buddha or shortly thereafter, and also entailed a similar clever side-step engineered either by the Buddha himself or later by his close disciples. As far as I can see, gender equality is a fundamental principle of Core Buddhism. It was inevitable that it would step on the thorn of patriarchy endemic in Indian folk culture at the time of the Buddha (and up to the present day for that matter). I have written of this elsewhere (Dinsmore, 2013), but let me summarize.

Evidence of the first point is that the Buddha stated that women were as capable of Awakening as men, that he created a women’s Sangha, with participation in the privileges, obligations, independence and expectation of veneration that that entails, that he took great care in the monastic code to ensure the safety and well-being of the nuns, and perhaps most tellingly to ensure that they do not fall into conventional subservient gender roles with respect to the monks. His great concern would have been the acceptability of this arrangement within the prevailing folk culture and even among his folk following, particularly since the nuns like the monks would be dependent on receiving daily alms, and since the kind of independence he secured for nuns would be that commonly associated in that culture with “loose women.” The resolution was symbolically to put the nuns under the thumb of the monks, without ceding real power to them, through the now infamous Garudhamma Rules.
If this analysis is correct then Original Buddhism is not strictly speaking Core Buddhism. It is compromised not according to principle but for pragmatic means, to sustain harmony with Folk Buddhism. This is the function of Adept Buddhism: to adhere as closely to Core Buddhism as possible, to teach according to Core Buddhism wherever possible, but to be willing to compromise when necessary. Sometimes Adept Buddhism must adapt and adopt.  Original Buddhism is the Buddha’s Adept Buddhism.

Neutral elements of Folk Buddhism seem to enter Adept Buddhism quite readily. Since Adept Buddhists generally start out as wee Folk Buddhists and in their studies of Core Buddhism would see no reason to evict these elements, this is hardly surprising. Accordingly we find monks generally offering blessings, consecrating Buddha statues, sprinkling wisdom water on people, engaging in elaborate rituals, even exorcizing ghosts as part of their routine tasks, or simply incorporating folk customs and artifacts into the manner of performing various tasks. If an Adept tradition travels to a culturally distinct land these neutral elements may lose their currency. The Asian teachers that have been particularly successful in transmitting Buddhism to the West, for instance, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Chogyam Trungpa and Thich Nhat Hanh, I speculate, are teachers with a good sense of what is Core Buddhism and what is a cultural accretion. Most Adepts forget. The culturally determined features that they retained even in the West, the clothing, the incense, the bowing, many ritual practices, the rules of etiquette, and so on, by this account would be ones that have been integrated into the functions of Core Buddhism. For instance, when Buddhism came to China it encountered a highly ritualized culture which provided rich resources for the practice of mindfulness, that were then carried along as a part of Adept Buddhism. Western standards of scholarship and pedagogy similarly are already quickly finding their way into Adept Buddhism and into the understanding and interpreting of Core Buddhist concepts with profound and beneficial consequences.

A different kind of influence on Adapt Buddhism has not yet been mentioned: government interference, particularly in Sangha affairs.  Emperor Ashoka in the early centuries of Buddhism undertook to reform the Sangha during his reign, which he felt had become corrupted and divided, by expelling wayward monks, or at least monks of whose waywardness he was advised. In the Nineteenth Century King Yule Brenner of Thailand undertook to reform the Sangha, actually creating a hierarchy with government involvement at all levels in Sangha affairs which persists to this day. In Ninth Century Japan in the government strictly regulated monastic ordination in an attempt to reduce the number of monks, forcing many monks into a lesser non-Vinaya ordination from which it never recovered. In Nineteenth Century Japan a hostile Meiji government reformed the Buddhist clergy substantially by disallowing the requirement of celibacy. None of this is envisioned in the Vinaya and most seem to have in the end disrupted the proper functioning of the Sangha. But as they say, you can’t fight city hall.

When Adepts Make a Desperate Appeal to Folk Buddhists

Professional scientists often disparage their colleagues who are intent to popularize science. The ivory tower and the institutions that support it, the tenure system and the tradition of academic freedom, ensure that scientific results are not biased by popular taste or current affairs. The Buddhist adepts cannot afford to be so aloof; they are expected to teach the regular folks and make a direct difference in their lives. Yet they also require a degree of isolation from popular taste and current affair lest these draw them afield o the core teachings of the Buddha. And in fact the Buddha demanded that aloofness. A series of monastic rules of etiquette ensure that the monastic not teach to someone, for instance, who does not show the proper respect. This is probably why Buddhism has had a scant history of proselytization.

In the late Nineteenth Century there began a particular strong movement among the adepts to bring Buddhism into line with Western tastes, a movement motivated largely by politics, and a movement not of Western origin but of Eastern. The European colonial empires in Asia presented a challenge to Asian culture in general and to the Buddhism in particular and Buddhist adepts most notably in Ceylon and Japan took up the challenge. The challenge was the presumption of the superiority of Western culture in general, along with Western science and technology, and of the Christian faith in particular. These were desperate times for a dispirited East. Buddhist adepts with Western educations began to promote the idea of a Buddhism that was compatible with Protestant values yet of superior rationality and of greater compatibility than Christianity with science. The result was a renewed confidence for Asians in the strength of their own culture and faith, and an explosion of interest in Buddhism in the West. Shaku Soen Roshi of Japan and Anagarika Dhammapala of Ceylon were figures identified with this movement on the Asian side, and D.T. Suzuki took up the banner in the early Twentieth Century. Colonal Oltcutt of America and Rhys-Davids were Western figures who responded favorably to this movement.

This movement certainly provided a big boost for Buddhism around the world. The question naturally arises: Was this movement purely on the level? That is, To what extend did this movement stretch the authenticity of Adept Buddhism? Or an alternative question: To what extend did this movement breath new life into the calcified thinking of Adept Buddhism by opening alternative interpretations of Core principles and fresh options for the implementation of Core functionalities?

In the meantime the media of negotiation have changed radically in the last century. Buddhist teachings once passed quietly from the Adepts to the Folks and the Folks, hearts opened to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, encountered monastics on their alms rounds or approached them at their monasteries with questions or in order to hear Dharma talks, or simply learned to emulate their demeanor, their behavior, the simplicity of their lives and their kindness. The Dhamma was always offered freely, never as a means of livelihood (Once when a layperson declared he was offering a meal in recompense for the Buddha’s offered teaching, the Buddha refused to teach!), and therefore was honest and direct, unbiased by Folk understandings. One’s development as a disciple of the Buddha build organically from community involvement to climbing the stem of intensive practice toward the flower of Nibbana.

Today Buddhists and would-be Buddhists in the West encounter a media-enabled onslaught of  teachings, practices and teachers from which American Folk Buddhists are free, at a cost, to select those that appeal most, mixing and matching the various options much as they do with home furnishings or kitchen utensils. This is the way of the modern marketplace. Teachers and authors correspondingly fall into the role of promoting and selling particular practices and teachings as commodities, for a price, taking care how they are packaged and presented, for instance, in the form of popular self-help books, lectures, seminars,  CD’s, stage performances and personal hourly consultations.

Information, good information, about Buddhism is available as never before. Along with improving standards of eductation this should be a great boon for Buddhism. However the model of dissemination raises questions: Can the disciple of the Buddha develop in a organic way? Can the adepts convey the teachings in a direct, honest and complete way? Can the adepts engaged in the teaching marketplace maintain a clear connection and dialog with Core Buddhism? If the answer to any of the foregoing is “no,” what do we do about it?

The market produces a saleable  Buddhism. This will almost inevitably be a less than radical Buddhism, one that fails to challenge the assumptions of the folk culture in any way that might make too many shoppers uncomfortable. Renunciation and restraint, fundamental Buddhist concepts, will likely be relegated to the fringes of the Folk Buddhist vocabulary and consumerism as a life style will remain unchallenged.

The market produces a piecemeal Buddhism. Buddhist nuggets of wisdom and practice are added one piece at time, for instance, adding a meditation practice much as one would add a regular gym workout or skydiving lessons, without otherwise substantially changing any other parts of one’s life. Just as American homes and lives become cluttered with market products, Folk Buddhist lives become more cluttered with the accumulation of practices and teachings. Progress in Buddhist practice will add but rarely subtract anything. Renunciation (all about subtraction) therefore will find no place, and practices of virtue and generosity little because there would be nothing to acquire. Mixing and matching of freely selected teachings and practices will damage the coherence of  a Core in which all the parts of the practices are intended to work together as a unified organic whole. The piecemeal accumulation of spiritual products will largely exclude plunging boldly into a new way of life or taking on a Buddhist way of being in the world as the defining framework into which the details of one’s life are to be integrated. There is accordingly generally little mention in American Folk Buddhism of faith or vow, nor of aspects of Buddhism as a community project, nor a deep understanding of the Triple Gem. There will be little opportunity for Buddhism to shake one’s life to the core.

The market produces an impersonal Buddhism. When Buddhism is sold, an opportunity for generosity is lost on the part of the seller, and a resource that could be turned to generosity is lost on the part of the buyer. Instead a mutually self-interested exchange takes place. A global market undermines communities in this and many ways.

Conclusions

All over the world people are expounding Buddhism, in tea shops in Burma where people draw on the previous lives of the Buddha in evidence, in lectures at German universities where professors hold forth on text analysis of ancient documents, in paying respects to nuns in temples in Taiwan where questions are posed, in monasteries in Texas where young novice monks receive instruction, not far away in Texas where recent Western enthusiasts sit in a circle and relate their personal meditation experiences to one another, deep in forests where a young monk after weeks of search finds the legendary meditation master and requests instruction, in temples, in monasteries and in pagodas where people recite ancient texts together, in books, in blogs, in recorded Dharma talks, in Hollywood movies, in phone counseling sessions.

Just as people expound Buddhism in many languages — Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Thai, Spanish, French — they expound Buddhism blended and washed over with, and understood in terms of, elements of many different cultures — animist, Taoist, Confucian, European Romantic, Western Materialist, Punk, Geek. All of this shapes and reshapes Buddhism, and over many centuries has produced a rich literature of many alternative selections of sacred texts.

However, none of this generally degrades the integrity of Buddhism because Buddhism has a strong anchor, an anchor secured in the Adepts’ adherence to Core Buddhism, most traditionally in the Third Gem. And the Refuges provide the chain that keeps the ship of Buddhism from going completely adrift. This is what allows Buddhism in spite of its radical message to hang on in almost any cultural context. And it all depends once again on the sun, water, soil and a community with roots in a life of Dharmic purity.

Support our sisters

February 18, 2013

Friends in the Dhamma,

This is an opportunity to support a community of Western Theravada nuns in California. I know most of them personally, and have always been deeply moved by the sincerity of their aspirations and the dignity of their deportment as they endure more than their share of hardship and insecurity. They are now trying to meet the challenge of a matching grant that will allow them to establish a new monastery, having lost their previous home. You can help!

As many of you know nuns have been on an unequal footing with respect to monks for many centuries in all of the Theravada lands and in Tibet. This is due to a variety of historical and social circumstances along with unfortunate interpretations of the early monastic code, that has resulted in the loss of full monastic ordination for women (bhikkhuni ordination), in spite of the Buddha’s original intention. The bhikkhuni sangha is now being slowly revived, primarily in Sri Lanka and in the West, but is poorly understood in lands that have seen no bhikkhunis for perhaps almost a thousand years. Since monastics in America, including Western, still receive support primarily from generous Asian communities, the nuns have been at a disadvantage even here, slipping easily into misfortune.

I look forward to the day will come when Western-American Buddhists are as supportive of the monastic sangha as their Asian counterparts. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to get the ball rolling! …  and at the same time support the aspirations of those most worthy of offerings. The following is a letter  that was sent out recently that describes the needs of this small bhikkhuni community in the San Francisco Bay Area and provides some links to learn more about them. As I understand it, they need to raise $9,000 dollars by Sunday to meet the conditions for the matching grant I hope you will give their needs due consideration. Please email this to people you know, or repost it. Thank you.

In the Dhamma,
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Austin, Texas

Dear friends in the dhamma,

The traditional holiday season is nearly upon us and many of us are planning to visit Aranya Bodhi Hermitage this weekend to celebrate Kathina. As we take this opportunity to enjoy coming together as a community, spending time with our noble monastics, and enjoying the beauty of nature, let us take some time to reflect on the meaning of the season.

This is the time of the year when we practice generosity, the first of the Ten Paramis otherwise known as the Ten Perfections. The practice of giving and what we give is referred to in Pali as dana. The Pali word for generosity is caga, which, incidentally, also means “letting go.” When we give dana with true intention from the heart, we are able to let go of our greed and forget our personal concerns for the moment while we consider the needs of another. In this way, we cleanse the mind. By each act of generosity, we get closer to becoming a truly generous person. The Buddha also mentioned, that the greatness of the gift relies not on the material value but on the depth of generosity from the giver. A small gift offered from the heart of one who has little is of greater value than a more costly gift given without thought from one who has much.

As you know, Dhammadharini has made a commitment to obtain shelter for those monastics who for health or other reasons are unable to live the rigorous lifestyle demanded by a forest hermitage. It is our hope to find such a place in an area that is readily accessible to lay persons so people can easily visit with their children and other family members. This commitment has been enshrined in our Monastery Fund, to which many of you have pledged. Recently, a kind and thoughtful anonymous donor has made a generous offering to the Dhammadharini monastery fund. This donation of $25,000 designated to serve as a downpayment on a monastery in a convenient location is contingent on receiving donations of funds of the same amount within the next three months.

When you are offering gifts this season, I hope you will keep the hopes and dreams of our community alive and remember this fund. If we can all offer what we are able, our vision of a warm and welcoming monastery will manifest soon.

“By giving, one unites friends.” Samyutta Nikaya 1.215

 If you make a donation for the Challenge Grant, don’t forget to write “Match the Challenge Grant” (or something like that :) on your envelope, in the Memo line of your check, or the Note or Dedication line of your electronic donation.

Much metta,

Shari Gent, President

Dhammadharini Board of Directors

Dhammadharini

“Women Upholding the Dhamma”

PO Box 1671, Fremont, CA 94538

 

Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, Sonoma Coast

Email: awakeningforest@gmail.com

Mailing Address: PO Box 16, Jenner, CA 95450, USA

New Message Phone: 1-707-340-4281, Skype “Aranya_Bodhi”

 

The Bodhi House, San Francisco East Bay

now closed ~ new monastery/vihara coming

 

 

Uposatha Day 12/7/2012

December 7, 2012

A new essay:

What Did the Buddha Think of Women?

Buddhism is widely know throughout the world as a religion of peace and kindness. Unfortunately it is  less known as a religion of equal regard for both genders. And in fact many Buddhists throughout the world are taught that women because of their characteristic karmic dispositions are incapable of awakening or of becoming a buddha, at least without first being reborn as a man. Furthermore few women have gone down in Asian history as teachers, yogis and thinkers; the great Indian scholar-monks were all exactly that, monks, and the ordination and transmission lineages tracked in East Asia list one man after another.  The Theravada tradition managed completely to have misplaced its order of fully ordained nuns and the Tibetan never had one, leaving a decidedly lopsided Sangha throughout much of Asia and very limited opportunities for women to receive the support and respect that nourishes the highest aspirations of the Buddhist Sangha.

Moreover the Buddha himself has been commonly implicated in this bias. For instance, although he created a twofold Sangha of monks and nuns, he is said to have done so reluctantly and he clearly did create a degree of dependency of the latter order on the former. He is also reported to have said,

… in whatever religion women are ordained, that religion will not last long. As families that have more women than men are easily destroyed by robbers, as a plentiful rice-field once infested by rice worms will not long remain, as a sugarcane field invaded by red rust will not long remain, even so the True Dharma will not last long.

Nonetheless, that the Buddha would harbor the slightest bit of ill-will toward women flies in the face of the complete awakening of the Buddha, which entails that he was utterly pure of thought, kind and well disposed to a fault, completely without defilement or bias of any sort, toward any living being you may spot. It is true that the authenticity of many of the passages that have been attributed in this regard to the Buddha in the early scriptures has in fact been questioned in modern scholarship. Nonetheless even if we accept these scholarly arguments we can indulge no more than a provisional sigh of relief, for we must then attribute these passages to very early disciples of the Buddha, to monks with the respect and authority needed to shape the already widely disseminated early scriptures, probably to arahants. What gives?

Find out Here!

American Folk Buddhism (16)

July 17, 2012

New Moon, Uposatha, July 18, 2012            Series Index

Psychoanalysis and American Folk Buddhism

The Four Noble Truths are often described in medical terms, in brief: Suffering is the symptom and the Noble Eightfold Path is the cure. Furthermore the causes of suffering that must be addressed are factors of mind. This suggests immediate parallels with Western psychoanalysis and these parallels also inform the popular understanding of Buddhism in the West. It even leads to the popular viewpoint that Buddhism is a kind of psychotherapy.

It should be noted that whereas the European Enlightenment, Protestant Christianity and Romanticism were influences already present in Western culture before there was much awareness of Buddhism, psychoanalysis is hardly a century old and there has been a dialog between it and Buddhism along with other Eastern traditions almost from the start. To a large degree Buddhism has had the opportunity to shape psychoanalysis and that influence has picked up speed with time. William James apparently predicted around the turn of the Twentieth Century that in twenty-five years psychologists would all be studying Buddhism. However in twenty-five years they were all studying Freud, who considered Buddhism, along with all mystical or contemplative religion, a humbug, narcissistic and infantile and beneath the scientific approach he advocated for understanding the human mind. Some of his disciples even considered meditative states a kind of catatonia or dementia. Nonetheless Jung and many of Freud’s other students took an early interest in religious experience and in Buddhism in particular, perhaps initially on the sly, so that the influence of Buddhism seems never really to have gone away. Jung, Fromm and others, most of whom seem to have been conferring with D.T. Suzuki, certainly did much to influence a popular understanding that brought Buddhism and psychoanalysis into close alignment.

I am far from knowledgeable in psychoanalysis nor in its relationship of Buddhism. Just as there are Buddhist adepts whose understanding is generally much more refined than that of Folk Buddhists, there are certainly adepts in psychology whose understanding is much more refined than that of Folk Psychologists and there are also people who are both Buddhist adepts and adepts in psychology who are daily developing a more detailed, and presumably valuable, understanding of the relationship of Buddhism and psychoanalysis than the typical Folk Buddhist or I would be aware of. Of course there is now a extensive literature on this topic. I will confine discussion to those elements of Western psychology that seem to impinge directly on Western Folk Buddhism and whether these are inimical or friendly toward Essential Buddhism.

Emphasis on the Mind. A Buddhism colored by Western psychoanalysis is a Buddhism turned inward, concerned with the mind. This probably differentiates Western Folk Buddhism from most Asian Folk Buddhisms, which tend to be more outwardly directed, toward ritual and community observances, toward lore and toward ethics. This also goes far in according with Essential Buddhism, which is very psychological, very concerned with working with and training the mind even at very subtle levels. I would guess that the inward orientation of psychoanalysis also contributes to the huge interest in meditation in Western Folk Buddhism, in contrast to most of Asian Folk Buddhism. And in fact mindfulness practices in particular seem to have in turn insinuated themselves into modern psychoanalysis shorn of their Buddhist container.

Functions. Traditionally psychoanalysis is about addressing pathologies, and Buddhism in contrast about addressing the things that ail people almost universally. Freud even described the former’s task as removing neurotic misery in order to return people to the common unhappiness that befalls normal people. Buddhism’s primary task in contrast is to produce saints, or at least people with exceptional qualities, qualities of equanimity, kindness, compassion, virtue, penetrating wisdom and absolute humility. Now the function of psychoanalysis has undoubtedly broadened over time, as psychoanalysis has become more broadly dispensed and perhaps as it has come more under the influence of Buddhism, broadened in some instances to what has been described as a science of happiness. However the popular view of psychoanalysis is still oriented around pathology. And the function of Buddhism, especially when regarded as a form of psychoanalysis, has probably narrowed in the popular view accordingly to become something like a cure for unhappiness.

In practical terms people in the West generally come to Buddhism because life has been difficult. When Buddhism is popularly thought of in terms of psychotherapy this makes Buddhism that much more attractive. However then people relate to Buddhism as patients and Buddhist centers become something like hospitals, or at least outpatient clinics. One of the teachers at a meditation center where I once lived once remarked he thought of that center as a hospital; people were there as patients, and impatient for cure. This contrasts markedly with Asian Buddhism communities which are characterized more by a sense of common values, values exhibited by saints, qualities of equanimity, kindness, compassion, virtue, penetrating wisdom and absolute humility. People are not commonly patients in such communities but expect to find role models, kalyanamitta, remarkable people who inspire them to develop such qualities in themselves, perhaps only gradually but occasionally by fully entering a path of intensive practice.

In short, Western Buddhist communities are generally places of cure, Asian are places of refuge. To a great extent this difference is attributable to the way its members enter the respective community, on the one hand because they find life so difficult outside, on the other because they are already born inside. Accordingly Western communities tend to focus on intense practice, while Asian on inspiration and wholesome intercourse with like-minded people. Viewing Buddhism as psychotherapy helps shape the Westerner’s popular relationship to Buddhism and the Buddhist community. Each of these kinds of communities has advantages and disadvantages. Western communities tend to be oriented toward serious practice, but can also be places of frustration and burnout. Asian communities tend to be happy harmonious inspiring supportive family-friendly environments in which more people think about stepping onto the Noble Eightfold Path than actually undertake it.

Contents. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism are both concerned with the development of mind, but psychoanalysis has traditionally had a distinct idea of what that entails. In Freud’s approach this typically involves discovering the roots of psychosis in early childhood trauma or in complex configurations of factors buried in the past. I think this is still part of the popular understanding of psychoanalysis. Buddhism on the other hand is much less concerned with diachronic origins of problematic factors as with simply letting go of defilements as they arise in the present. The Buddhist project is briefly to purify the mind of factors rooted in greed, hatred and delusion, and particularly in an inappropriate sense of self, and to encourage their opposites, generosity and renunciation, kindness and compassion, and wisdom and humility, much like a gardener pulls out weeds and waters beneficial crops without worrying too much exactly where the weeds came from or how their seeds were transported there. In fact from the Essential Buddhist perspective too much attention to past root causes results in an distracted proliferation of self-directed thinking.

Also common in early psychoanalysis and in its modern understanding is the consistent implication of social and cultural norms and constraints in the development of psychosis, as if without these one’s true self would emerge healthy and unfettered. It is easy to recognize the origins of this particular understanding in European Romanticism. There is no counterpart to this role for cultural and social pressures in Essential Buddhism other than to encourage some social norms as healthy and discourage others as unhealthy as determinants along with other innate and acquire tendencies of individuals’ karmic actions.

Secularization. Finally, psychoanalysis and other forms of psychotherapy are often considered the secular counterparts of religion, insofar as they are concerned with psychological and spiritual well-being, yet generally lack the “religiosity,” with its aspects of the sacred, of ritual, of community functions and hierarchy and of ethics and of transcendent aspirations. Essential Buddhism has such religious functions, even if many are less prominent there before they are further enhanced and embellished in much of Asian Folk Buddhism. Therefore regarding Buddhism as a form of psychotherapy reduces the scope of Buddhism’s functions to produce a kind of secularized Buddhism. Certainly psychoanalysis has had an influence in the open advocacy within Folk Buddhism of a “Secular Buddhism” and even in the claim that that is what the Buddha expounded. I doubt that the Buddha gave much thought to he secular-sacred divide that obsesses monderists let alone attention to staying on one side of it.

I’ve written elsewhere on the issue of secularity and religiosity in Buddhism and have had occasion to touch on many aspects of this here. Suffice it to say that psychotherapy generally has no Triple Gem, nor is the capacity of faith and reverence for opening up the full power of practice present, nor is much attention given to community, except for maybe encounter group, as something that embodies and imparts values, and also which provides special support for those who want to get real serious about practice. Perhaps most problematic is that the ethical dimension is largely neglected in favor of personal well-being, whereas everything in Essential Buddhism is imbued with ethics and virtue. Psychotherapy also generally does not reach beyond making this one life more comfortable and toward dedicating this one life to a much greater project as Essential Buddhism encourages.

Conclusion. Almost two millennia ago as Buddhism was beginning to enter China Taoism seems to have provided a conceptual structure and vocabulary that aided in grasping this foreign import. I think however it is an exaggeration to say that that role has fallen to such a great extent to psychoanalysis in the West. Nonetheless psychoanalysis along with the Romanticism that preceded it did, in making the mind important, provide a huge prerequisite for grasping Buddhism’s full foreign import. And yet Essential Buddhism is not psychotherapy, at least in the popular form of the latter, and care should be taken to avoid Folk Buddhist tendency toward conflating the two.

Next week I would like to end this series on American Folk Buddhism with an overview and general conclusions.

American Folk Buddhism (15)

July 11, 2012

Last Quarter Moon, Uposatha, July 11, 2012            Series Index

Social Engagement in American Folk Buddhism.

In response to the American invasion of Afghanistan the Austin, Texas, chapter of the Buddhist Peace fellowship planned a walking meditation for peace. There was a massive anti-war rally already scheduled at a park in Austin, so we intentionally scheduled our walking meditation to take place about one and a half hours later. One of the other BPFers and I also made arrangements to get on the speaker list at the anti-war rally. The people at the anti-war rally heard the usual line up of angry speakers, who also led in chanting:

What Do We Want?”

“No War! “

When Do We Want It?”

“Now!”

When it was our turn, Pamela read a statement that Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh had just made about the war the day before, then I announced our walking meditation for later that afternoon and invited people to participate.

The procedure for our event was simple: Participants walked mindfully from the Capitol steps southward, about four abreast, past Texas State troopers and wandering tourists, the latter often startled to see these odd silent people looming from behind over their shoulders, slowly reached the South gate of the Capitol grounds on 11th Street, then formed a big J as the vanguard began to turn around, which then became a big U, then a big backward J as the leaders slowly and mindfully arrived back to the South steps, altogether taking about 40 minutes.

We were astonished what a great mass of people showed up for this event; I had no idea who most of them were, not recognizing many from Austin’s Buddhist circles. After a few congratulatory words and after we started to break up I talked to a number of unfamiliar faces to discover Quakers, Unitarians, Catholics, presumably Secular Humanists, and many people who with no previous knowledge of the event had been passing by and thought it looked like a cool idea. Local TV news showed up as well. We would be pleased that evening that the local TV would run a long, very respectful piece on our walking meditation. The huge anti-war rally on the other hand would get only a brief disapproving mention.

After the walking meditation an angelic young woman walked up to me and said, “I was at the anti-war rally. Could you Buddhists please come to more demonstrations like that? You are so peaceful. Everyone else is so angry I don’t really like to go to these rallies, but feel I have to.”

Alongside gender equality, it is often said that social engagement is a peculiar hallmark of Western Buddhism. Nonetheless Engaged Buddhism as it has come to be called has its own peculiarities within the realm of Western social engagement. It is “so peaceful,” and it puts an inordinate emphasis emphasis on “Bearing Witness,” being present with problematic social problems rather than agitation. But as with gender equality American Folk Buddhism does tend to think of social engagement as a Western innovation that contrasts with the inwardly directed and passive track record of Asian Buddhism, which is much more interested in transcending the everyday world than fixing it.

As with other features of American Folk Buddhism I would like to explore what the influences on social engagement are and how it stacks up against Essential Buddhism, whether it is friendly toward or inimical to Essential Buddhism no matter what its origin.

Origins of Engaged Buddhism. Ashin Nyanissara, a young forest monk who became very ill and sought treatment at a hospital where he recovered. The hospital was run by Catholic missionaries in now independent Burma and as he had lay in bed he began to consider, “Why is it that in a land of devout Buddhists, people who learn kindness and compassion from infancy, there are no Buddhist hospitals.” He resolved at that point to devote his life as a monk to good works. Over the next decades he would found many hospitals, organize a project to bring clean running water into the Sagaing Hills in Central Burma allowing it to thrive, begin a massive relief project in the Delta Region hit by deadly Cyclone Nargis and promote advanced monastic education. (He also became my preceptor when I ordained in Central Burma.)

Engaged Buddhism is actually not uniquely Western, at least no longer, but its Asian proponents often acknowledge their indebtedness to the example of Christian missionaries in Asia. Among these is Thich Nhat Hanh, who coined the term Engaged Buddhism, during the days of his early social work in Vietnam. In the Twentieth Century in fact many Buddhists and Buddhist organizations became active in everything from charitable work to political engagement throughout Asia in ways that had long been familiar to Christians in the West. Examples of other extremely prominent engaged Buddhists in Asia are the Dalai Lama of Tibet/India, A.T. Ariyaratne of Sri Lanka, Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Ven. Ghosananda of Cambodia, Ven. Cheng Yen of Taiwan and Daisaku Ikeda of Japan.

In the Christian West itself there is a natural assumption that religious organizations of all stripes will take on the work of social engagement in manifest forms from charity to political activism, alongside pastoral care of the congregation. It was natural that social engagement would become a part of the popular understanding of Buddhism in the West even if Buddhism did not come with good Asian exemplars.

Interestingly, however, by the time Buddhism was establishing itself in Western America, Christian social engagement was already under strong Eastern Influence, for instance, in the activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, a devout follower of the methods of Mahatma Gandhi. Methods of nonviolence and of activism as a kind of personal practice, become the change one seeks, seem also to have been quickly embraced in American Folk Buddhism. Blanche Hartman, former abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center, reports coming to Buddhism in the Sixties because she could not reconcile the pacifism of her opposition to the Vietnam War with the militant attitudes of many anti-war activists. The social activism of American Folk Buddhism was not purely Western in origin.

Essential Buddhism and Social Action. Nonetheless the impression persists that Buddhism has been traditionally indifferent to social welfare. Walpola Rahula, before he wrote What the Buddha Taught, argued that social activism in Asia was in fact discouraged through contact with the West. In The Heritage of the Bhikkhu makes the point that the impression of social indifference arose in colonial Asia as Western powers disenfranchised the monastic Sangha from its traditional social roles in order to appropriate its power and influence for themselves. He documents the role of monks in pre-colonial Sri Lanka as active engagement in education, in scholarship, in social services, in medicine, in providing political advice to kings and ministers and naturally in teaching the Dharma and in pastoral care. He then describes the way in which the colonial occupation changed both the status and the roles of monks in society, for instance, by mandating that children attend government schools, often staffed by Christian missionaries, rather than monastic schools. The result was to make monks socially irrelevant, a condition from which, after having forgotten their own history over centuries of colonial occupation, they still have not fully recovered in post-colonial Sri Lanka. Hence the reputation of the Buddhist clergy as unconcerned with social conditions.

Let’s go back to the Buddha to see if we find any conflict between social engagement and Essential Buddhist practice. The Buddha was of course concerned with liberation from Samsara, that is, reaching a point where most of life’s contingencies no longer touch the practitioner personally. However this cannot be achieved without the practice of Virtue (sila) and without the development of qualities of kindness and compassion; these are among the parmitas (Palin: paramis), virtues to be perfected. These in turn involve a harmless and caring attitude for others’ welfare, no only in the sense of others’ liberation but also in others’ comfort in negotiating life’s contingencies prior to liberation.

The Buddha’s life itself represents many instances of social engagement and compassionate action: personal care for a monk with dysentery, intervention to stop war, pastoral care of all varieties. Many of his teachings were social in nature: on the causes of human conflict and means to maintain harmony, on the relationship of crime to poverty on the social obligations of kings, employers, spouses, students, etc., on the misguidedness of caste distinctions, and as we have seen in the past weeks, of gender in determining one’s true worth. Sulak Sivaraksa and others have suggested that in creating the monastic Sangha the Buddha designed an ideal community, harmonious, cooperative, democratic, with an economy based in generosity not in greed, as an example to be emulated by the larger society. The insistence of the Buddha that monastics go on daily alms round would ensure continual contact of lay communities with this ideal. The monastic Sangha itself has not actually consistently functioned as an ideal community throughout history, always it would seem because lazy monks and nuns sometimes get lax about following the Buddha’s injunctions. However it has sustained itself remarkably well, longer than any other human institution on the planet that I am aware of.

Nuns and monks, the members of this ideal community, may seem least likely to become socially engaged; they are after all renunciates who forsake worldly existence to devote themselves fully to liberation. The monastic code in fact enforces this. It is telling however that although there is a rule against virtually everything worldly nuns and monks could conceivably do for themselves (acquiring stuff, earning a living, even cooking up a meal … though things like sewing one’s robe and keeping things tidy are OK), what they can do for others is almost limitless: Charitable work, advocacy, education, clearing rubble, rescue work and so on . Of course laity are not subject to such rules in any case.

In Ashoka (~304-232 BC) we have an example of a very early example of a benevolent Buddhist emperor wielding power according to Dharmic standards. His edicts engraved in still existent stone pillars tell of his good works in founding hospitals (even for animals), of building roads with rest stops, of his mercy in eliminating torture or mutilation of criminals and even the death penalty, his advocacy of non-violence at this (the Mauran) borders, of his promotion of general edication, of his tolerance of all religious faiths, and of his promotion of Buddhism internationally.

Conclusion. I think it is safe to conclude that Engaged Buddhism is a friend of Essential Buddhism and represents an ancient tradition, even while its modern influences are varied and are substantially both Christian and Gandhian.


American Folk Buddhism (14)

July 2, 2012

Full Moon, Uposatha, July 3, 2012            Series Index

Consumerism in American Folk Buddhism.

If anything characterizes American Folk Culture it is consumerism, the boundless commercial advertising whetting and then drenching our appetites for more and more, the commodification of everything under the sun, the common regard of financial wealth as one’s greatest spiritual aspiration and of poverty as the most abysmal failure, the mall shopping experience as one of our greatest cultural achievements and on-line push-button instant gratification as one of our greatest technological triumphs.

It is a cinch that consumerism will have colored American Folk Buddhism, the popular understanding of American Buddhists, and will compel me to write about it here.

If anything characterizes Essential Buddhism, the Buddhism as understood, maintained and transmitted by the adepts, it is the equation of craving with suffering, the imperative to let go of lust and greed, envy and competition, instead to cultivate contentment and to disentangle oneself from the samsaric snarl of impulse, and the embrace of renunciation as a way of life.

It is a cinch that American Folk Buddhism, nestled as it is between the general American Folk Culture and Essential Buddhism will find itself in a process very much like trying to mix oil and water in a bowl or like trying to eat a snow cone in the shower.

Let’s look at consumerism in Folk Buddhism today at three levels: first, Buddhism as an object of consumerism, second, consumer behavior as template for structureing Buddhist practice, and third, Folk Buddhism’s confrontation with the unwholesome aspects of consumer behavior.

Buddhism as an object of consumerism.  Folk Buddhism is often a shopping experience: statues, malas, incense, artwork, cushions, sitting robes, Zen mindfulness bell clocks, books, fountains and chimes, subscriptions to magazines full of ads for more Buddhist paraphernalia, Buddhist mood music, luxury retreat experiences, any product with “Zen” scrawled on it (curiously “Vajrayana” does not seem to work and “Theravada” even less so). Of course people have always spent a lot of money on Buddhism; consider the million dollar pagoda we just build here at our monastery, whose motivation belongs to Burmese Folk Buddhism. Western consumerism involves primarily expenditures for oneself and lacks a community spirit.

But in either case, consumerism about Buddhist stuff doesn’t worry me so much. First, it probably just offsets some other material distraction like fashions, power tools or hang gliding and therefore brings one no further from actual Buddhist practice, as long as the shopping experience is not misconstrued as real Buddhist practice. Second, some positive influence might actually come out of Dharmic shopping that might bring one closer to Buddhist practice: Once all of these things are purchased there is a bit of an obligation to offer the beautiful jade Buddha a stick of fragrant Japanese incense in the elegant ceramic incense holder or to actually take a book with its glossy cover of the shelf  and read it. True inspiration might with some luck ensue.

Consumer Behavior as Template for Structuring Buddhist Practice. Consumer behavior seems widely to serve as a model in American Folk Buddhism, for how we to treat practice and for the way we to integrate practice into our lives. It probably also becomes a model for other aspects of our lives as well, such as our personal relationships, but we will focus on the way entering and integrating Buddhist practice parallels our consumer behavior with predictable consequences.

To begin with, American  offers a veritable marketplace of  teachings, practices and teachers from which American Folk Buddhists are free to select those that appeal most, mixing and matching the various options much as they do with home furnishings or kitchen utensils.  Many teachers and authors correspondingly fall into the role of promoting and selling particular practices and teachings as commodities, often adapting them to increase their market appeal, for instance, favoring reassurance over challenge or ease over effort, and to to take care how they are packaged and presented, for instance, in the form of popular self-help books, lectures, seminars,  CD’s, stage performances, personal hourly consultations.

These teachings and practices are then integrated into Folk Buddhists’ lives much as products are used to enhance those lives. Rather Buddhism is integrated piecemeal as enhancements into the old pre-Buddhist life, for instance, adding a meditation practice much as one would add a regular gym workout or skydiving lessons without otherwise changing any other parts of one’s life. Just as American homes and lives become cluttered with market products, Folk Buddhist lives become more cluttered with the accumulation of practices and teachings. Progress in Buddhist practice adds but rarely subtracts these. There is, for instance, generally no mention of renunciation as a practice in American Folk Buddhism, and only cursory mention of the practice of virtue or precepts, since these generally involve abstention from certain behaviors. A practice like meditation, on the other hand, fits well with the consumer product model as something we can add, devote time to and later even supplement.

It seems to me that the consumer model of Buddhist understanding and practice distorts the content of Essential Buddhism in some profound ways. First, mixing and matching of freely selected teachings and practices damages the coherence of Essential Buddhism in which all the parts of the practices are intended to work together as a unified whole. For instance, the Buddha taught that you cannot have Right Samadhi without first establishing the previous seven factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, without, for instance, Right Intention, Right Action and the others. This is almost impossible to achieve by mixing and matching whatever has appeal to the spiritual shopper.

Second the actual presentation of teachings and practices as saleable products or services with actual market values violates the Buddha’s principle that teachings should be offered freely. For instance, once when a layperson declared he was offering a meal in recompense for the Buddha’s offered teaching, the Buddha refused to teach! Or to eat. Furthermore selling Buddhism in this way tends to  bias what is taught in the direction of saleability and away from actual efficacy. Although I have no doubt that this bias is substantial in American Folk Buddhism, there does seem to be some restraint in this regard as well, presumably under the influence of Essential Buddhism. The crass promotion found in much of American religion through open proselytizing and TV programming is almost entirely absent.

Third, the piecemeal accumulation of spiritual products largely excludes plunging boldly into a new way of life or taking on a Buddhist way of being in the world as the defining framework in which the details of one’s life are to be integrated. There is accordingly generally little mention in American Folk Buddhism of faith or vow, nor of aspects of Buddhism as a community project, nor a deep understanding of the Triple Gem. There is little opportunity for Buddhism to shake one’s life to the core.

Fourth, “renunciation” and “restraint,” fundamental to Essential Buddhist practice, are relegated to the fringes of the Folk Buddhist vocabulary. But in fact virtually all of the progress one is likely to make on the Essential Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up or curtailed: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligation like debt and car ownership, self-view, identity or being somebody, behaviors like partying flirtatiously or channel surfing, and particularly the clinging emotions rooted in greed or anger. Practice in Essential Buddhis is no more and no less than a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, of renunciation. Meditation has an ancillary role in this larger task; it provides a magnifying glass so that we may see and then disentagle the subtlest aspects of the clinging mind.

Fifth, I fear that a Folk Buddhism built on the consumer model is very commonly a selfish Buddhism, one about self-enhancement, about making oneself special and envying others’ attainments rather than about the total selflessness encouraged in Essential Buddhism.

Folk Buddhism’s Confrontation with the Unwholesome Aspects of Consumer Behavior. According to Wikipedia, “Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.” It is an order that goes beyond satisfying human need to feeding human greed, which Buddhism teaches will never ever be satisfied. Consumerism in some form has probably been a part of almost all folk cultures, but took on a particularly virulent form with the rise of the commercial marketing industry and public relations starting in America in the early Twentieth Century, which beginning with the great pioneer Edward Bernays developed the art of mass manipulation of human drives to specific ends. It was discovered that desire and craving could be stimulated to increase market demand and fear and hatred could be stimulated to promote a war or a political movement. Stimulation largely played upon the irrational, emotional and delusive aspects of human cognition rather than upon clear rational thinking, which was discovered to be not only harder to manipulate but in much shorter supply than anyone had ever imagined.

Now, from the perspective of Essential Buddhism this is all an abomination. For Buddhism craving with its manifestations in greed, hate and delusion is the root of suffering. Buddhism is fully in accord with satisfying fundamental material needs, but the relentless intentional stimulation of dissatisfaction must for Essential Buddhists lead bottomless human misery. This conclusion is borne out in the modern world, particularly beginning in America as evident in the generally feeling of impoverishment even in the midst of wealth, the enormous degree of drug and alcohol abuse, the rate of suicide, the huge market for antidepressants, the ubiquity of daily fear, the widespread unraveling of social networks, the dissolution of  families and the renewed strength of class and racial oppression. And so much stuff, we are choking on it. Ultimately this order has produced endless war, poverty for much of the world’s population and brought us to the brink of ecological collapse, all driven by greed, hate and delusion.

David Loy writes that

“… our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation.” — “Religion and the Market”

Loy suggests that consumerism is displacing all of the world’s other religions in providing the answers to life’s problems. People are almost universally aware that something is dreadfully wrong in the world, but respond in different ways. For many the resolution is more consumption! For others it has been to turn to Buddhism. I think many people in the West are initially drawn to Buddhism because it conveys an image of simplicity, of not seeking happiness in worldly things, of refuge from the rat race of life. The British economist E.L. Shumacher who proposed an alternative “economics as if people mattered”in the 60’s and 70’s, and wrote the book Small is Beautiful, named his system “Buddhist Economics,” and he was not even a Buddhist. I am all for interreligious understanding, but it is clear that the values of the religion of consumerism is in actual fact almost entirely diametrically opposed to the values of Essential Buddhism.

American Folk Buddhism, nestled as it is between the general American Folk Culture and Essential Buddhism, is right in the thick of this seismic contradiction of values. This is perhaps comparable to the situation within the Catholic Church in Latin America at various times and places faced with choices ranging from cozying up with the landed wealthy class thereby securing its own financial backing and safety, to becoming relentless advocates of the poor and dispossessed in accordance with the model of Jesus. American Folk Buddhists individually are faced with choices ranging from  practicing a stripped-down Buddhism that does not challenge the dominant religion of consumerism, to living according to Buddhist principles and (probably gradually) disentangling themselves from participation in the consumer culture. I think that since Essential Buddhism is so clear on this matter that the latter will be potentially among the greatest contributions of Buddhism to American culture.

American Folk Buddhism (13)

June 27, 2012

First Quarter Moon, Uposatha, June 19, 2012            Series Index

Gender Equality in American Folk Buddhism (4)

Karl Marx famously stated, “I am not a Marxist!” I think this statement was in response to the popular understanding of Marx’s teachings that arose even in his lifetime, a Folk Marxism that no longer accorded to his satisfaction with what Marx was trying to get across. This was inevitable, since most radicals of Marx’s age were simply not as smart as Marx was. And yet Marx as a revolutionary had to come to terms with the Folk Marxists to aid in the birth of new economic order.

The Buddha did not have in his vocabulary the ist-word needed to state, “I am not a Buddhist!” in his lifetime, but like Marx he had to come to terms with a Folk Buddhism. Who were these Folk Buddhists? They were those who had imperfectly assimilated the Buddha’s message, those who took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, yet whose understanding was still very much shaped by the (in this case, patriarchal) popular culture. Why did the Buddha need to come to terms with the Folk Buddhists? They were the bulk of his disciples. Although they might be of limited understanding one day, the next day through his influence their understanding might be greater. Some of them would become the adepts of the future, and the rest could be gently turned in a more positive direction to their great benefit. They were also the ones who provided for the material needs of the Sangha, the donors of food, robes, shelter and medicine that afforded the monastics the generous opportunity of the very pure form of practice he propounded.

This week I wish to consider how the Buddha, in navigating this interplay between Essential and Folk Buddhisms, may plausibly have spun off an early form of gender inequality as a practical means of establishing a sustainable independent nuns’ order. Although he was apparently wildly successful in realizing the Essential ideal of equal opportunity for nuns in an inhospitable culture (as we saw in the Ashoka’s India last week), he may also have created a precedent in the Vinaya that historically would encourage the opposite result. This account may be as speculative as many others, but see if this does not seem plausible.

Establishing the Monks’ Order. Before the nuns’ order came the monks’ order. Now aside from being a man of limitless kindness and compassion, the Buddha was a practical man of threefold brilliance. The first aspect of his brilliance was his own awakening, his insight into how things really are and the perfection of the human character. This second aspect of his brilliance was his teachings, his ability not only to express what he had attained but to provide a program of study and practice that others might grow in understanding and go on to replicate that attainment. The third aspect of his brilliance was the design of a community that provided individuals with the optimal conditions for study and practice and that would sustain, propagate and transmit Essential Buddhism for future generations. When we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha we are acknowledging this threefold brilliance.

Now the Buddha’s establishment of a sustainable Bhikkhu Sangha was aided by precedent. Wandering mendicants were very common in India in masculine form, and their aspirations were respected, at least enough for people to offer alms to help sustain them. Nonetheless the Vinaya reveals a pragmatic Buddha that had to be very attentive to the relationship of the bhikkhus to the Folk Culture, in particular that it blend with its values and habits, maintain a respectful reputation and yet follow a strict discipline in accordance with his teachings. He imposed a uniformity of appearance on the monks so that people could recognize them as his disciples and thereby know what to expect and learn how to relate to this particular group. It has been suggested that in developing the governance of the Sangha he wanted to circumvent government (royal) interference by demonstrating its ability to regulate satisfactorily the behavior of its members. His overall achievement in governance is remarkable: that its gentle policies and regulations have survived as governments and empires have risen and fallen and survives today as possibly the oldest continuously functional organization on the planet.

The give and take between Essential and Folk Buddhism is exemplified in the story of the sneeze that I related a number of weeks ago: The Buddha sneezed. A monk said, “may you live long,” which is like our “Bless you” or the German “Gesundheit.” The Buddha replied, “Do you think by your saying that that I will live longer?” “Well, uh [shuffle shuffle], no.” “Then don’t say it!” And so it was, the monks quit blessing anyone who sneezed. The Buddha here assumed the Essential Buddhist position, that in which monks do not offer blessings or spells in the manner of the Brahmins. However laypeople then began to complain that when they stood in the presence of a perfectly good monk, the monk would not bless them as was the norm in Indian culture. So the pragmatic Buddha rescinded the rule, saying, “Monks, laypeople are superstitious. They need to hear, May you live long.” He here had tactfully given way to Folk Buddhism where harmony was at stake.

A large portion of the monks’ precepts were in fact either proposed by lay people or enacted in response to criticism from lay people, as long as they did not conflict with important principle of Essential Buddhism. Most of the rules of etiquette in the Patimokkha are like this, according to their origin stories in the Vinaya. So to a great extend the laity had considerable influence over the character of the Sangha according to their own culturally conditioned expectations. “Design-a-Monk®. The institution of the yearly three-month Rains Retreat (vassa) was, as another instance, in response to lay criticism that the Buddha’s disciples were out sloshing about stepping on crawling things during the long rainy season while other ascetics resided in one place for the interim.

At the same time the Buddha kept the life of the Sangha consistent with Essential Buddhist principles where it mattered. When he saw monks engaged in potentially competitive behaviors, such as endearing themselves to laypeople in order to obtain more or better alms, he prohibited such behaviors. He also eliminated caste distinctions within the Sangha, even while this would almost certainly have displeased many of his supporters. Luckily in this case the presence of multiple castes in the Sangha would have been largely hidden from daily awareness under the uniform attire and bald heads of the monks.

Establishing the Nuns’ Order. Establishing the nuns’ order required even more tact. There was apparently little in the way of a tradition of women among the ranks of wandering mendicants, except for recently among the Jains. This alone would suggest that much of the public that was already supportive of monks would be less supportive of nuns and would therefore make it more difficult for the nuns to receive adequate alms to support their practice. Unfortunately, unlike caste distinctions the presence of two genders in the Sangha could not be hidden from daily awareness under uniform attire or bald heads. Furthermore women were across the board expected in Indian society to be under the guardianship of men, except for the “loose women.” This circumstance might indeed improve the potential for garnering alms, at least from men, but would hardly be conducive to nun’s practice nor to their safety, nor to the reputation of the Sangha. Furthermore, the nuns would need a lot of coaching; few would have experience in the intense spiritual practice of the mendicant or yogi (although the monks’ order itself was but a few years old, many of its members would have had decades of ascetic practice behind them before joining the order). Also the nuns would be at a disadvantage in general education, education having been largely neglected for women of all social classes. Finally, the Jain experiment with nun ordination seemed not to be working out so well due to a “decay of morals” (as Ven. Prof. Dhammavihari puts it) stemming from mingling monks and nuns to an extent that they were finding each other far more interesting than sitting under a tree following the breath.

According to what we learned two weeks ago the Buddha clearly wanted to offer women the same opportunities for monastic practice that his monks enjoyed since their potential was no smaller. Nonetheless it is already apparent why the Buddha would have balked when pressured to establish a nuns’ order or why he might have feared the consequences for the longevity of the Sangha: He may not yet have formulated a satisfactory solution for how a nuns’ order was going to survive in this hostile environment.

Yet the Buddha relented and a hallmark of the Buddha’s solution was to uphold a clear separation between monks and nuns in order to avoid the weaknesses of the Jain monastic order. Nuns should have a quite independent order that would discourage romantic interludes and flirtatious behaviors vis-a-vis the monks, as well as discourage both genders from falling into well-worn domestic roles, which would generally be to the nun’s disadvantage. In order to achieve this the nuns would have considerable independence, be responsible for their own internal affairs and governance, maintaining harmony, etc. Once the nuns order was launched and the first nuns began to attain a level of seniority they would also be able to ordain their own new nuns.

In spite of the relative separation, the Buddha’s solution also engaged the monks’ order in a supportive role, first to bring the nuns up to speed in terms of doctrine and practice and second to help protect the reputation and welfare of the nuns in this hostile society. This required the engagement of senior monks as teachers to “admonish” the bhikkhunis. Also monks living in the vicinity of monks would provide the nuns with some degree of protection from the dangers of the outside world. (We discussed already two weeks ago the restrictions on monks targeted to protect the nuns from misconduct on the part of some of the monks).

Although the engagement of the monks’ in this supportive role was to be controlled and limited, the Buddha’s solution involved some PR: maintaining the public appearance of guardianship, of the bhikkhunis living under the wing of the bhikkhu sangha. This would help dispel the notion that these were loose women. I imagine that the public awareness of just how much independence the nuns in fact enjoyed might also even arouse envy of women lay Buddhists who were under the constant thumbs of menfolk more than symbolically.

If this was, as I speculate, the Buddha’s solution to eking out an independent bhikkhuni sangha in a society hostile to this purpose, the Garudhamma rules would appear as an effective means of implementing this solution, as harsh as they seem at first sight from the perspective of our more gender-neutral culture. Notice that according to these rules the bhikkhus are substantially in a position of responsibility, not advantage, in this arrangement; the most substantial relationship between the two sanghas is the “admonition.” Furthermore the Vinaya takes special care that that relation not become abusive. For instance, an admonishing monk cannot show up among the bhikkhunis in the late hours, and must have certain qualifications, described as follows:

A monk who is entrusted to preside over their welfare should conform to perfect standards of moral virtue. He should also possess a thorough knowledge of the teaching of the Master and know well the complete code of the Patimokkha covering both the Bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunis. He should be of pleasant disposition, mature in years and acceptable to the Bhikkhunis, and above all, should in no way have been involved in a serious offense with a Bhikkhuni. – Vin.IV.51

Of course this bimonthly admonition would have most practical value in the early years of the bhikkhuni sangha, after which they would be expected to have acquired a level of competence similar to that of the monks, but no expiration date seems to have been foreseen. Oversight by the bhikkhus over actions of the bhikkhuni sangha such as ordinations (the Garudhhama rules were listed last week) may have had a practical function at first until bhikkhunis were up to speed, but would have quickly assumed a purely symbolic function along with the first Garudhamma requiring a gender-based hierarchy of respect (the prohibition of a nun from abusing or reviling a monk fits in here, though monks were already prohibited from abusing or reviling nuns or anyone else). These would not have seemed like harsh demands in the society in which the Buddha lived, where such hierarchies of respect were common, for instance, between castes, or fashioned within the bhikkhu sangha itself strictly according to ordination date (regardless of maturity or previous ascetic experience). In fact there is relatively little in the way of opportunity for abuse or oppression by the monks, only service.

We do not know to what extent the Buddha is the author of the Garudhamma. Various inconsistencies call into question the account in which he declared them after Mahapajapati requested ordination. Yet even if much of the Garudhamma was added after the Buddha’s death, for instance, during the First Council, it may well have been with perfectly good intentions, that is, to strengthen not weaken the bhikkhuni sangha. This seems highly plausible to me. As mentioned India seems have been on a trajectory of every increasing patriarchy by the time of the Buddha, with forces increasingly aligned against the Bhikkhuni Sangha. The practice of sati, the self-immolation of widows on their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres, for instance, would not be known in India until several hundred years after the Buddha. This leads one to wonder to what extend trying to uphold the bhikkhuni sangha as the folk society became increasingly patriarchal, might in fact have contributed to the eclipse of Buddhism in India, roughly as the Buddha is alleged to have predicted.

The ongoing and greatest historical difficulty with the Garudhamma is that they belong to an ancient Indian Folk Buddhism, not to Essential Buddhism, yet have scriptural authority and as such have persisted and been applied in cultures in which they made no sense, most of which were probably not as patriarchal as ancient India. In some societies the Garudhamma have probably had the opposite of their intended effect, the weakening of the nuns’ order by justifying symbolically a level of gender inequality that might not otherwise have occurred to anyone. It is ironic, for instance, that in Burma, which is known for its relative high degree gender equality, described by an anthropologist around 1970 in a book I read recently as having “among the most emancipated women in the world,” that where gender inequality is most evident is within the Buddhist institutions and practices. This does not seem to bother people in Burma much, but consider how this translates into lost opportunities for spiritual practice for a large part of the population over hundreds of years as well as into the loss of many teachers and role models for the rest of the population that a vibrant nuns’ order would have secured.

Finally Back Home. If the Buddha were alive today, and had awakened in, let’s say, uh, Austin, Texas, founding a monastic sangha of any gender would be difficult. There is no significant precedent, for instance, of monastic support in the folk culture to build on. However certainly there would be no Garudhamma, for rather than protecting the nuns’ sangha a Garudhamma would degrade it. The gender equality called for in Essential Buddhism and in the Buddha’s deepest kind and compassionate resolve is already endorsed by American Folk Buddhism. To the extent that the Sangha observes procedures that have even the appearance of significant gender inequality damages the reputation of the Sangha in this folk culture. Somebody recently turned the Buddha’s alleged prediction cleverly upside down (I’ve lost the reference): If the perception of gender-inequality in the monastic Sangha in the West is not quickly resolved, we can expect that this Sangha will not survive for more than fifty years. Considering the already fragile condition of the Western monastic sangha I find this very plausible.

American Folk Buddhism (12)

June 19, 2012

New Moon, Uposatha, June 19, 2012            Series Index

For an updated version of the following post, see my essay What Did the Buddha Think of Women?

Gender Equality in American Folk Buddhism (3)

I hope last week I made persuasively the point that,

Essential Buddhism is concerned with securing for women exactly the same opportunities and respect that men enjoy in spite of prevailing folk attitudes and in spite of inherent gender differences.

From this we can see that the trend in American Folk Buddhism toward gender equality seems to stand in close accord with Essential Buddhism. Buddhism also stands in support of a broad social movement in Western culture and that movement reciprocally supports a correct understanding of Essential Buddhism. Great!

However, what I presented as the proper understanding of this issue in Essential Buddhism is not what everyone East and West thinks of as Buddhism. Many observers compare Buddhism critically with the Catholic Church with respect to gender inequality as just another institution in which patriarchy has run amok. Many even accuse the Buddha personally of sexism! This week I want to begin to look at how the record of Buddhism become besmirched in this way, because it has implications for our regard for Essential Buddhism in the West. Also the contrasting situation in much of Asia is very illustrative of the tension that can arise between Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism when Essential Buddhism challenges the dominant culture as it often does and as it does in the West with respect to other issues. With respect to gender we see how badly the message of Essential Buddhism has shipwrecked on the rocky shores of Asian Folk Cultures for which Buddhism has otherwise generally been a civilizing force.

Gender Inequality in Buddhism. The commonly cited and worrying instances of gender inequality in Buddhism include the following.

  1. Isolated statements attributed to the Buddha in the Discourses that seem to disparage women.
  2. The Garudhammas, special rules allegedly imposed by the Buddha on the founding of the Bhikkhuni Sangha that entail an unequal relationship between the two sanghas.
  3. The alleged reluctance of the Buddha to create a Bhikkhuni Sangha and his prediction that the lifespan of the Sasana would thereby be cut in half.
  4. The historical track record of Buddhism, including the many instances in later Buddhist texts that disparage women along with the relative invisibility and neglect of the Bhikkhuni Sangha historically.

Here is an example of a isolated statement in the early discourses that disparages women:

Venerable sir, what is the reason that women neither come to the limelight, nor doing an industry see its benefits?”

Ananda, women are hateful, jealous, miserly and lack wisdom, as a result they neither come to the limelight, nor do an industry and see its benefits.” – AN 4.80

Whoa! Where did that come from? Does that sound at all like last week’s Buddha?

In fact this exchange is tacked onto the very end of a sutta which begins with the theme of “non-sensual thoughts, non-hateful thoughts, non-hurting thoughts and right view” and furthermore seems to bear no relationship to anything else in the sutta. Yet there it is, tacked on. The ancient Suttas have a complex history with much editing and insertion often by lesser minds long forgotten. The Suttas must always be read for the system that shines forth, the consistent message. What is remarkable is that wayward passages are not even more common. We have to conclude that such a remark was a later insertion and not the words of the Buddha.

The Gardudhammas are a set of eight rules allegedly imposed by the Buddha in response to his step-mother Mahapajapati as her lobbying on behalf of the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha finally succeeded. They are recorded in the Vinaya as follows:

  1. A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.
  2. A nun must not spend the rains in a residence where there are no monks
  3. Every half month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks : the asking as to the date of the uposatha day, and the coming for the exhortation.
  4. After the rains a nun must ‘invite’ before both Orders in respect of three matters, namely what was seen, what was heard, what was suspected.
  5. A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo manatta discipline for half a month before both Orders.
  6. When, as a probationer, she has trained in the six rules for two years, she should seek higher ordination from both Orders.
  7. A Monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun.
  8. From today , admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden, admonition of nuns by monks is not forbidden. – I.B. Horner, Book of the Discipline, V.354-55

As in the case of isolated statements, there is evidence that suggests that these rules, or at least some of them, are not authentic. See, for instance, Ajahn Sujato, Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies, which can be googled on-line and is very thorough. Ven. Sujato makes an intriguing case that the Buddha might have imposed these rules specifically on Mahapajapati to curb her Sakyan pride. Although many inconsistencies have been pointed out with other statements in the Vinaya and with the equivalents or lack of equivalents in the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha, this research is as yet inconclusive and still a topic of much contention. Because the Garudhammas have been taken seriously throughout the history of Buddhism they certainly shaped historical Buddhist attitudes toward women and demand close evaluation.

The Vinaya also tells us that Buddha at first resisted Mahapajapati’s lobbying effort until Ananda interceded on her behalf and elicited the famous statement from the Buddha reported last week that women’s capabilities for attainment and awakening were equivalent to men’s. It should be noted that the Buddha never refuses to found a Bhikkhuni Sangha, he simply puts Mahapajapati off with the words, “Don’t ask that.” But after he agrees to begin ordaining nuns he expresses some immediate regret concerning his decision.

If, Ānanda, women had not obtained the going forth from home into homelessness in the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, the Dhamma would have lasted long. The true Dhamma would have endured for a thousand years. But because women have gone forth . . . in the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, now the Dhamma will not last long. The true Dhamma will endure only for five hundred years. Even, Ānanda, as those households which have many women and few men easily fall prey to robbers, to pot-thieves . . . in whatever dhamma and discipline women obtain the going forth . . . that dhamma will not last long. Even as when the disease known as white bones (mildew) attacks a whole field of rice, that field of rice does not last long, even so, in whatever dhamma and discipline women obtain the going forth . . . that dhamma will not last long.

Even as when the disease known as red rust attacks a whole field of sugar-cane, that field of sugar-cane will not last long, even so, in whatever dhamma and discipline women obtain the going forth . . . that dhamma will not last long. Even as a man, looking forward, may build a dyke to a great reservoir so that the water may not over-flow, even so, were the Eight Garudhammas for the nuns laid down by me, looking forward, not to be transgressed during their lives.”

Strong words. Again, some scholarship has questioned the authenticity of this statement. For instance, it is unusual for the Buddha to make a prediction about future history, one that also turns out to be way off base. During the First Council, a meeting of monks after the death of the Buddha to go over the teachings, some of the monks are reported to have reprimanded Ananada for his role in lobbying for the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha.

In any case the early Buddhist Sangha seems to have thrived and by the time of King Ashoka, the 3rd Century BC emperor of much of India and great exponent and supporter of Buddhism, nearly to have achieved gender equality! King Ashoka gives us a unique snapshot of the state of Buddhism in India a couple of centuries after the Buddha through his edicts and stone inscriptions, the earliest written texts related to Buddhism. In these many contemporary monks and nuns are named for their accomplishments as teachers, scholars and good works, including Ashoka’s own daughter, Ven. Sanghamitta, who founded the bhikkhuni sangha in Sri Lanka. What is striking is how prominent the nuns are in these inscriptions, apparently appearing almost as often as monks, evidence at least of King Ashoka’s high regard for the Bhikkhuni Sangha. Yet after King Ashoka there is suddenly hardly a mention of bhikkhunis in the historical literature; their role as teachers, philosophers or sisters of great attainment is hardly known. Moreover the Bhikkhuni Sangha died out in much of Southern Asia and was never established in Tibet.

Sources of Inequality. So, what happened to the Buddha’s enlightened perspective toward women and nuns that we discussed last week? This includes his high regard for women’s capabilities for spiritual attainment and his thorough efforts at nurturing and protecting the nuns’ sangha that nuns might have exactly the same opportunities for practice as their monastic brothers. Can we reconcile that perspective with the Buddha’s reluctance to establish the Bhikkhuni Sangha, with the unequal garudhamma rules (assuming at least part of the traditional account is authentic), and with the lower status of nuns in much of the traditional and modern Buddhist world?

It is clear that the source of the apparent contradiction has been one way or another an ongoing tension between the Essential ideal and the Folk Buddhist understanding of the roles and capabilities of women. Folk Buddhism has managed to overrun Essential Buddhism at certain points. I have no doubt that much of this has manifested in creative editing of the ancient texts. However, I would like to consider an alternative perspective to the apparent contradiction that may clear up whatever remains after later editing has been accounted for.

The monastic Sangha is a complex institution. Although it provides the nun or monk with a valuable opportunity for study, practice and independence from the normal concerns of society so that the monastic soak in the Essential perspective, the Sangha functions within the context of a wider Buddhist community drenched in the Folk perspective. First the monastic Sangha is fragilely dependent on the lay community for all of its material needs. And second, the monastic Sangha traditionally provides the teachers for the lay community. This requires that the Sangha harmonize with the wider community, while called upon to uphold Essential Buddhism also functioning in a Folk Buddhist context.

The Buddha in establishing the monastic code showed every sensitivity to this dual perspective of the monastic life, holding firm where the integrity of Essential Buddhism was at stake, yet giving way to the expectations of a Folk Buddhist community where harmony and the reputation of the Sangha requires it. At least some of the gender inequality of Buddhism may have arisen in this context. Next week I will provide a speculative but plausible scenario for how this might have played out in the Buddha’s design of the monastic code.