Buddhism is still recovering its balance in the Land of the Fork. We do not yet know if it will succeed. If it does it is bound to have profound consequences for Western culture, as well as for the shape of Buddhism itself, in the East as well as the West. This final section considers what it will take to recover from this great leap.
Some Words on Authenticity.
If you poll the followers of the various schools (Theravada and the variety of Mahayana and Vajrayana schools) with the question, “Which is the True Buddhism?” you will certainly find a very consistent answer: “Ours Is!” And each school is generally prepared to explain exactly why. I don’t intend to enter into the fray, but would like to suggest briefly a variety of considerations in looking at factors that often confuse us in assessing what is authentic and what is not.
The Living Dharma is Like a Comet. If you ask the median Buddhist in any Buddhist country or at any Buddhist temple about particulars of the Dharma he or she will generally come up short. Does this mean that the Dharma has degraded?
The Buddha gave us a very sophisticated system of integrated views and practices that we call the Dharma, that when taken up wholeheartedly full-time in the long term have remarkable implications for the human character. However in any Buddhist community relatively few take up the Dharma this intensely. Most members of that community will understand little of the most authentic doctrine—many are uneducated, occupied in jobs or raising kids, many are kids—but will probably absorb many of the values and take on some of the practices, for instance, that of generosity but not that of meditation. Others will confuse the Dharma with many folk beliefs or certain decidedly non-Buddhist attitudes and practices. Others will have fundamental misunderstandings of the teachings. This should not surprise us at all, because we are dealing with popular understandings of something rather sophisticated. Consider the wide variety of popular misunderstandings of climate science, zoology, economics and, of course, any other religious tradition. This is inevitable.
Like science, authenticity in Buddhism is traditionally entrusted to a class of dedicated and trained adepts. This has always roughly corresponded to the monastic Sangha, but typically they also include some dedicated laypeople and exclude some lazy monks. The most dedicated form something like the head of a comet, the others, the tail. Full authenticity only reasonably can be expected in the understanding of the most dedicated members of this community; the center of a comet is not the middle of its tail, but its head. More than anything else the dedicated serve to exemplify the Dharma in their lives and hopefully instill values in the others, from which the others will derive great benefit. They may also offer provisional teachings suitable for the others; the Buddha is known for his skillful means in matching his message to the audience. In sum, any tradition will trail off into a variety of understandings, only the most adept of which is fully authentic.
The Living Dharma is Like a Smudged Recipe. Each tradition of modern Buddhism is the result of an historical series of mistransmissions, scribes error, deliberate manipulations or falsifications, embellishments and enhancements. Does this mean we can no longer recognize authenticity?
Many religious traditions need to take care that their teachings are carefully recorded, for instance, the rituals and incantations of the Brahmins. Buddhism, because it is will be impossible for future generations to recover the teachings if the recipe becomes smudged. Buddhism, however, is relatively smudge-tolerant because the truth can be found somewhere in the space between the teachings and the ardent practitioner’s experience. Just as if a recipe is smudged and misread the taste buds will know something is wrong and make a correction (“Oh, it must have mean One teaspoon of salt, not Nine”), the teachings are always subject to correction if incorrectly transmitted. In fact, the teachings might even be improved with time to better reflect the reality of experience, or the way experience is best conveyed in a new culture. And in second fact, an attempt to preserved the teachings unblemished, might actually achieve the opposite!This is because the recipe will inevitably have been smudged at some early date. Orthodoxy is to trust this inevitably smudged recipe more than the taste buds, that is, orthodoxy shuts off the ability to self-correct. Changes in the teachings or in the way the teachings are presented do not automatically entail a weakening of authenticity, at least as long as there are ardent dedicated practitioners. In sum, the living Dharma is robust and self-correcting, because it is based in experience.
The Living Dharma is like Socks. Aside from a long process of smudging and recovery, at points in Buddhist history certain traditional elements seem simply to be lost in the laundry. Does what is left continue to be authentic?
Just as sox go easily go missing in the laundry, elements of the authentic teachings may be lost in a particular school. As mentioned above, this may have happened with the teachings of ethics in Chinese Buddhism. It has also happened with the Vinaya in Japanese Buddhism. In “village” sects of Theravada Buddhism the monastic Sangha will often neglect practice in favor of scholarship and teaching, in the “forest” sects it will neglect scriptural study in favor of ethical and meditation practice. A particular school may also lose its most authentic teachings while retaining some version of provisional teachings. This is to be expected if that school no longer has a core group of very dedicated adept practitioners, the head of the comet to which the authentic teachings are entrusted. This may have happened in the Pure Land schools in China and Japan, most particularly Jodo Shinshu in Japan, which see salvation in the form of rebirth in the Pure Land.
On the other hand, a school can recover from a missing element, just as a missing sock may be replaced by an creatively matched sock that has also lost its mate. Outside of Japan Pure Land is generally conjoined in the same community with some other more authentic doctrinal school, most typically Ch’an (yielding a school of ”Zen for the monastics and Pure Land for the laity”). The role of the missing Vinaya in Japan was successfully upheld by strict monastery rules in Zen and other schools for many years, but even that degraded in the Twentieth Century as ordained clergy spent less and less of their careers in training monasteries. The role of Buddhist ethics in Eastern Buddhism seems to have been largely upheld, or actually displaced, by Confucianism, but that itself has begun to degrade in recent years.
The danger in missing socks is that the whole is not simply the sum of the parts. For instance, if you study the Noble Eightfold Path you notice how each of the folds reinforces the others, that is, the contribution of each is multiplicative not additive. In sum, authenticity may decline like once matching sox, either as parts of the authentic teachings are lost while others retained, or as the dedicated practitioners are lost.
The Living Dharma is like Laundry Detergent. Buddhism has passed through many periods of great innovation; we are certainly in one now as Buddhism recovers it balance after the leap to the Land of the Fork. Does this represent a progressive degradation of authenticity?
A viewpoint, I think most implicit in the Mahayana, is that innovation may improve on, or further develop, the original teachings of the Buddha, perhaps in ways the Buddha did not forsee. If one were marketing the result, it would be “New! Improved!” or “Bodhisattva-Fortified.” Another analogy is found in Western science, which has its own evolving notion of authenticity, but at the same time is a tradition firmly grounded in an intellectual discipline developed in early Seventeenth Century Europe. The Vinaya, the monastic discipline, was was similarly envisioned by the Buddha as the anchor though which his authentic teachings would endure. In fact in Theravada Buddhism, in spite of its tendency toward orthodoxy, it is taught that as long as monks and nuns follow the Vinaya, the Dharma will take care of itself. If this is true, then those new-fangled Mahayana traditions, along with the new-fangled abhidhammicly colored Theravada school, as well as the many cultural adaptations in the Land of the Chopstick, as long as they have continued to respect and practice the Vinaya faithfully, will not have lost their authenticity through innovation, they will have retained their grounding. The explosive rate of innovation of the sciences is not likely in Buddhism, yet Buddhism seems to have shown itself historically, like science, highly tolerant to innovation without losing its original integrity. In sum, authenticity, properly rooted, may be preserved in the midst of innovation.
Future and Recommendations for the Land of the Fork.
I am among the many who consider the coming of Buddhism to the West to be a good thing. It need not displace the many other religious traditions that are of benefit to the people of the Fork, but has much to contribute to to the spiritual life of the West through providing a strong contemplative ethically based and practice-based alternative, and through the influence it can and is beginning to impress on other religious traditions.
The historical process that has brought Buddhism to the West and is continuing to nourish it here is at a critical point. At the same time that Asian Buddhism has grown with recent immigration, it has westernized and its younger members are beginning to flake off. Lnguistic and cultural differences limit the availability of of the still enormous spiritual resources of Asian Buddhism to the non-Asian community. The Upper Middle Way has exhibited remarkable energy, but is also largely an aging population whose energy is not being fully replenished in the newer generations, and it has generally not embraced a complete Buddhism that can absorb a larger demographics. Inclusive and Unaffiliated Buddhists represent a huge potential for the future with proper inspiration. This final section lists what I feel are needs for the development of a culturally suitable, authentic and thriving Buddhism in the West.
First, a Vibrant Monastic Sangha. The monastic Sangha are traditionally the primary caretakers of the Dharma in Asian Buddhism. So far other forms of leadership predominate in the non-Asian types of Buddhism. There are three reasons why the further development of the monastic Sangha is essential to the future of Western Buddhism. First, this is what the Buddha endorsed and it has proven itself historically as Buddhism was transmitted throughout Asia. Second, the monastic Sangha embodies the Dharma and thereby maintains a level of expertise that keeps comet of Buddhism headed in the direction of the Dharma, Third, the monastic discipline is the primary determinant of the structure of the traditional Buddhist community.
Of course the growth of the monastic Sangha only happens as individuals choose to live the monastic life’ I think that is the only significant bottleneck. My sense is that increasing numbers of people are beginning to make this choice, and that non-Asians who make this choice tend to inspire other non-Asians (and perhaps Asians as well) to make this choice; so far Westerners who encounter Asian monastics are often inspired to practice, but also make a tacit assumption that you have to be Asian to be a monastic. In the meantime, lay Buddhists would do well to become better informed about the parameters of monastic life, and to try to support monastic institutions. Being a monastic in the West is much more challenging in many ways than being a monstic in Asia. For instance, how health care is provided is a significant issue in America, and traditional beneficial practices like alms rounds are difficult to jump-start in the West.
Other forms of leadership and focal points of certified competence exist in Western Buddhism, such as among Zen priests, Tibetan lamas, scholars, meditation teachers and others. These are more established than the monastic Sangha in non-Asian communities, will probably continue as a valuable part of Buddhist leadership and should be strengthened. But it is important that we be concerned about standards and qualifications; there are a lot of people with little understanding taking on leadership roles in Western Buddhism. Of course Zen priests, Tibetan lamas, scholars and meditation teachers can also be monastics at the same time, as they generally are in Asia.
Second, Cooperation among Western and Asian Communities. Asian Buddhism represents the full depth and breadth of the Buddhist tradition. Most of the non-Asian Buddhist leadership in America is just a step or two away from Asian Buddhism and there are many ways the Asian Buddhist communities can continue to nurture non-Asian Buddhism. Most of these communities are very welcoming to Westerners, and many temples consider outreach to the Western community to be part of their mission. Since proselytizing is rare this welcome is not widely broadcast. The tendency for non-Asians to go it alone is short-sighted.
Communication is the greatest bottleneck in making . Improvements in communication can be facilitated through most effectively when Asian monastics undertake education in English (and Spanish) and in American religious culture. At the same time non-Asian Buddhists can also be of great benefit to the Asian Buddhist communities! Western Buddhist teachers can play a role in teaching Buddhism to the younger Asian generations that are generally more proficient in English and quite familiar with American culture. Second, non-Asian Buddhism, as a clean slate in an inquisitive and intellectually alive culture, is bound to challenge but ultimately to have a purifying effect on the understanding of Asian Buddhism, as many unquestioned long-standing beliefs and practices are carefully reconsidered.
Third, Comparative Authenticity. There is much to recommend a Middle Way (not the “Upper” kind) with regard to authenticity. This is not strict orthodoxy on the one hand, nor the kind of free thinking in which anything you want can carry the “Buddhism” label on the other. In Western Buddhism we have a wide variety of teachings and practices, transmitted from every Buddhist land in Asia and supplemented with some home-grown, many tested for suitability in cultures quite distinct from our own, or representing the innovations of various stages in Buddhist history, having been subject to interpretation and reinterpretation as they have been transmitted from culture to culture and finally to us. How do we know what is useful? There is no simple answer, but I can suggest two broad strategies for mooring teachings and practice in something authentic.
One is simply to rely on the thesis recognized in the Theravada tradition that as long as the monastic Sangha is thriving and disciplined, the Dhamma will take care of itself. This result is expected as long as the monastic Sangha is truly embodying the Dharma as full-time adepts they will recognize when it is getting away from us.
The other is widespread literacy in the Sutta/Agamas and Vinaya, that is, in the earliest Buddhist scriptures. This provides a means of evaluating teachings that deviate from the earliest teachings, whether they supplement them or contradict them. This level of literacy gives rise to the question whenever such a teaching is encountered, What is this teaching for? It may have a reasonable justification, it may be a beneficial innovation, but repeatedly raising the question will tend to highlight what is unnecessary or even destructive to the Buddhist program, and to garner an appreciation for that which is valuable. This level of literacy will also highlight what might be missing in one’s own understanding, what has fallen by the wayside in the historical transmission of the Dharma-Vinaya.
This Comparative Authenticity is particularly a challenge for the Mahayana. First, the literacy in the earliest scriptures has traditionally been better maintained in the Theravada. Second, Buddhism as it has developed in the Land of the Chopstick has doubtlessly accreted more cultural adaptations simply because its culture is further removed from the culture of the Buddha, and these cultural adaptations are not likely to make as much sense in the Land of the Fork. For instance, Chinese Buddhism has imposed family lineage on the monastic Sangha because of the importance of family in China and we still recite the Zen lineage in Western temples, with some perplexity if it fails to inspire in a land where family is probably of less importance that in either India or China. Third, the various Mahayana reworking of the earliest expressions of the Dharma may require some untangling. But this effort can be very fruitful as a means of reconstructing the creative process whereby Buddhist thinkers, themselves quite literate in the early teachings chose to reword the Dharma. It is important as Buddhism comes to the West to take stock and understand the history of the tradition. It is particularly important at this juncture to understand as best we can the roots of Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha as intended for the cultural context in which he lived. But we should not stop there. The Mahayana innovations are partly a result of creative and productive practice, partly a result of cultural necessity, and we should try to understand which is which. One of the things that we will discover is that what are clearly cultural accretions will often have assumed roles that are justified in early Buddhism. For instance, many practices found in China and Japan, such as the tea ceremony and ritual monastic eating, are very Chopstick in their expression, but are wonderful mindfulness trainings.
Comparative Authenticity will also help us recover missing socks. It will remind us to embrace the whole, so not be satisfied with an anemic Buddhism. What the Buddha taught is very attractive to secular sensibilities, but it was also religion. Comparative Authenticity will help us to identify what has gone missing over the centuries and perhaps more importantly to resist the temptation to pick and choose, to leave out what makes us uncomfortable, renunciation, for instance. What makes us uncomfortable is often what we most need.
Fourth, Balance of Tradition and Innovation. Buddhism is the first World Religion. Spreading beyond its homeland in all directions, it demonstrated the relatively rare ability among religions to adapt to different cultural and environmental conditions, yet to remain profoundly authenticity. Now it is in the process of spreading and adapting to the West, over to the Land of the Fork to continue this ancient historical process. Buddhism will change in the West, but (as Helen Tworkov asks) will it survive America? It is important that authenticity not be at odds with cultural suitability. I see three primary dangers: grasping, aversion and presumptiveness.
There is much to entrance us in Western culture, that nevertheless is inimical to Buddhism. We live in a highly material culture, and above all we prize ourselves. There is a strong tendency not only to insulate those aspects of our lives from our Buddhist practice so that they won’t be touched, but also to commodify Buddhism itself, to treat it as a self-help program and add it as one more object of consumption in our busy lives, along with our gym membership and season tickets. This is grasping.
There is much to attract us in Buddhism, or we wouldn’t be here, but to begin with it isn’t exactly what we want. It is too religious, it has too much meditating or too much bowing, it is scary to give oneself over completely to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, to let go of the precious self. So there is a strong tendency to want to pick and choose or change. This is aversion.
Americans are great inventors, we love to tinker. But to do this without understanding what Buddhism is in its full depth and breadth will hardly lead to the desired results. This is presumptiveness.
It is important not to compromise authenticity for convenience or through lack of understanding. If Buddhism does not challenge our Western assumptions there is little point in bringing it into the Land of the Fork. Buddhism will adapt, but I should think Western culture will adapt more through its encounter with Buddhism. In either case, patience is required. Ultimately the Land of the Fork will play an enormous role in the history of world Buddhism. The West excels at critical thinking, and turning its attention to Buddhism without prior bias will doubtlessly serve to cleanse Buddhism of the many folk beliefs, magic and naive popular misunderstandings that infest it, variously in the different Asian cultures. These things will always be there (popularization distorts everything, consider the strange ideas that crawl around politics, economics and zoology) but in the Land of the Fork we can start with a clean slate, and achieve an even greater authenticity. What we discover will readily influence Buddhism in the Land of the Hand and the Land of the Chopstick.