Saturday, December 26, 2009

Do not go by what is said

Hegemony: (from Merriam-Webster) 1: preponderant influence or authority over others: domination 2: the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group. (from the Free Dictionary): ascendancy or domination of one power or state within a league, confederation, etc., or of one social class over others.

Projection: (Merriam-Webster) a transforming change; (a) the act of perceiving a mental object as spatially and sensibly objective; also: something so perceived; (b) the attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects; especially: the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety.

It is important that we understand these two terms in advance because my post (I apologize now for its length) is about how these two terms have been functioning in Buddhism of late; and not just Western Buddhism – I mean all of it.

I was struck by five different posts this month by five different bloggers because I discerned a common thread through them all. But indentifying this commonality has proved more difficult than I anticipated (and when you finish reading this, you may still be struck with a feeling that I haven’t quite nailed it yet). I think that difficultly lies in the fact that what each writer has brought up is a reflection of the essence of dukkha, although it was experienced differently by each person. The blog posts are:

1. Ajahn Sujato’s post on projection.
2. Arun’s post at Angry Asian Buddhist titled “All the Same”
3. Shravasti Dhammika’s post at dhamma musings called “Vandals In Sandals - And Robes”
4. John’s post at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt titled “Buddha’s Afterbirth: Organizational Buddhism”
5. Nate’s post at Dangerous Harvests called “Sangha? What’s Sangha?”

What is dukkha? “Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.” (from Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion, SN 56.11)

In other words, dukkha encompasses everything in life that bums us out for whatever reason. And often, the reason we are bummed is results don’t match our expectations.

Sujato’s blog spells it out right from the start:

“I’m struck, again and again, at the vast gap that exists between how the Sangha is seen and the reality of what it is. Not just the Sangha, but Buddhism in its historical manifestations is almost completely unknown, it seems, to almost all practising (sic) Buddhists.”

At the heart of Sujato’s post is the concept of projection; the assigning to another person, group or institution our own concepts and ideas of who or what the person, group or institution is and how he/she or it is supposed to behave. As Sujato indicates, a projected expectation is frequently non-reality based; but sometimes the expectation is appropriate and the target of the projected attribute is failing to live up to a reasonable expectation.

On one hand, Sujato asserts (and I think rightly) that lay practitioners perceive monks as someone larger than life, someone above the rest of us. And to a point, this is an understandable perception given the plethora of monastics who deliberately project themselves as someone superhuman, all-knowing, and the keeper of a practice that is superior to all others.

They might say, “My dhamma is better than his dhamma,” or “Don’t do that, you don’t have to, we do it this way,” or “That group is wrong, we are right,” or “You’re wasting your time with that, all you need to do is this.”

In fact, the Buddha warned about these types in The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Heartwood (MN 29).

I agree with Sujato that this misperception of the monastic community appears to be more of a problem with what is euphemistically known as Western Buddhism, as there are non-Asian practitioners who are uncomfortable with some of the ritualistic decorum often extended toward monks and nuns. As an example, Sujato describes how the Sangha in Asia had been an integral part of the community, a place that laypeople frequently visited, supported, sent their children to for education and sometimes for temporary as well as permanent ordainment as monks or nuns.

“Now, for the majority of urban Buddhists, contact with the Sangha is far less organic; just occasional ceremonies or teachings,” Sujato writes.

In fact, there has been recent discussion about abandoning the cultural baggage that is often attached to Buddhism, stripping the practice down to its bare essentials of dhamma study and meditation. It seems to me that these folks just don’t want Buddhism to be fun.

This has led to a de facto segregation of the Western Buddhist community with non-Asians creating their own groups and, to some extent, a Buddhist, cultural elite that deigns to control the direction of Buddhism in the West. And that brings us to Arun’s post, as this has been a topic over at the Angry Asian Buddhist for a while.

“When I write about the marginalization of Asians in Western Buddhist institutions and dialogue,” writes Arun, “a common retort is that Buddhism has nothing to do with race—it is about the path to the end of suffering. We all suffer regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and many other factors. The promise of Buddhism is likewise applicable to all of us, regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and many other factors. In this sense, we are all the same in our potential to attain complete liberation. I couldn’t agree more.

“This ‘all the same’ line is, however, a non-response to the issue of the marginalization of Asians (among others) in Western Buddhist institutions. At both the institutional level and at the level of discourse, we aren’t treated the same.”

This is an appropriate time to bring up the other term I presented at the start of this blog – hegemony. In the West the hegemony is based upon that of white, European culture and has at its roots a Christian ethic; but in America, it takes on an additional flare of individualism. In East Asia, I would hazard a guess that the hegemony there is driven by Confucianism, which has a decidedly different social perspective to that of American individualism.

A prevailing hegemony can have the appearance of being racist, but this seldom has to do with the fact that the hegemony is being guided by racist doctrine. The prevailing hegemony in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s – Nazism – was in fact rooted in a racist doctrine. But that’s not the guiding force in present day America. Reactions to non-whites in America can appear racist at times, but that’s not because the American hegemony is built upon racism; rather, it’s because the hegemony nurtures and supports white privilege, a concept Arun has also blogged about in the past. And white Americans can take advantage of the white privilege inherent in our culture without being deliberate or even aware of it.

When I first came to Buddhism, I joined a group that had a Thai majority of members, but which also had a significant white membership. The head monk, in fact, is a white, American-born man. But he was ordained in Thailand, having spent years in the forest monastery culture there, so when he returned to America, he brought with him a practice that had melded with it Thai culture and even Hindu culture. He showed us how to embrace this without giving it meaning; in other words, he showed us how to recognize its significance as well as its emptiness.

He explained that the bowing down before a Buddha statue was not an act of obeisance as if the Buddha was a deity, but rather an act of respect. He used the example of a parent’s or grandparent’s grave. If you had respect for them while they were alive, you often continue to show that respect by assuring that their grave is kept nice. On special days you may put flowers on the grave. If the headstone becomes dirty, you clean it. And you spend silent moments occasionally in reverie at the grave, remembering what your parents or grandparents taught you. If you do not live near the grave, then perhaps there is a special photograph of them you keep, or a photo album. That is what we do, he said, when we pay respect to the Buddha image or a Buddha shrine; we are showing our gratitude for the Buddha leaving for us the Dhamma. When we chant, we are not praying because there is nothing out there to hear our prayers. We chant because it reminds us of the Dhamma and focuses our minds.

After a trip to Thailand, I asked my teacher about the ubiquitous spirit houses I saw there, many of them with rotting fruit left on or near them. He explained that again, this had nothing to do with Buddhism, but represented a blending of Thai and Hindu culture. The Buddha spoke of the devas that live in the forests because he knew that acceptance of these minor spirits was part of the Indian culture. Many Thais also accept that the forests are filled with devas or other minor spirits. When land is cleared to build a house or a business, the forest homes of devas that lived there are destroyed. So a spirit house is placed on the property – its size and how ornately decorated usually related to how much land was cleared and how wealthy the landowner – to appease the devas so they don’t cause the property owner any mischief.

My teacher then made the comment that it would be nice to have a spirit house for the monastery. Later, at an import shop, I found one and purchased it for the monastery.

But many non-Asian Americans are not comfortable with these cultural additions, either because they are suspicious of them through giving them more significance than they really have (for example, many Asians may use the term “pray” to describe chanting because it’s the best English word for them to use instead of the word in their native language, but to non-Asian Americans, the term “pray” has a very specific definition of being an entreaty to a deity or other higher power), or because they don’t understand them and don’t want to bother understanding them because they are alien and “not American.”

Perhaps it would be helpful to use a model from popular culture to further explain the American cultural hegemony. Think of America as being like the Borg from the Star Trek series. The Borg has no cultural identity of its own; instead, it absorbs other species into the collective, retaining only what is considered useful and discarding anything that might contradict in appearance the current state of Borg identity. That is American culture in a nutshell.

So some white Americans attracted to Buddhism began to affiliate in groups that dropped the Asiatic trappings of the practice. Some of these individuals became quite expert in the Dhamma as well as in certain aspects of the practice, usually meditation. By virtue of white privilege, the voices these individuals had eventually rose above the rest, and with that came influence. In America, prestige comes with influence, and often with prestige comes snobbery. I may be wrong in this assertion, but I cannot think of a single significant and influential voice in American Buddhism that comes from an Asian American. Every significant Asian voice I can think of is either that of an individual who may be an American citizen now or lives in America, but all were born in Asia.

That, in and of itself, should not be a problem. But as Arun points out, when the editorial boards of the most influential Buddhist publications lack an Asian presence or voice, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that it may be, in fact, a problem. Imagine what our health care services and outcomes would look like for women should the health care industry and Congress be dominated by white men.

Oh, wait, the health care industry and Congress are dominated by white men. And it’s a demonstrable fact that women’s healthcare is not on par with men’s, nor is healthcare among minorities on par with that for white men.

Before I go on, however, I must point out that the marginalization that Arun speaks about is not a one-way street. When it was no longer convenient for me to visit the monastery I had been visiting because I had moved to another area of the state, I began to wonder if the positive experience I had with the former was an anomaly. I’ve written about my experiences in previous blog posts, but portions of these experiences are worth mentioning again within context of some of Sujato’s points.

Unlike the dhammasala I had previously attended, the groups I found in my new locale were overtly organized around a particular ethnic group and seemed to function primarily as isolationist community recreation venues. One was a Cambodian group, the other Lao. While the monk at the Lao temple was very welcoming and encouraged me to visit him, the members of these congregations, while polite and friendly, always treated me like a visitor.

In his post, Sujato talks about how some monks are ill-equipped to deal with the inappropriate expectations placed on them by the lay community as well as poorly equipped to follow the monastic code. As Sujato said, monks are people too with human emotions and desires. I saw that with the Lao monk I mentioned. He was deeply grateful for what Buddhism had provided him. He told me how he was a very reckless young man (when I met him, he was still quite young, in his 20s) who partied and treated his girlfriend badly. The monks in Laos took him in, cleaned up his act and educated him. He was ordained, then brought to America, barely able to speak English, to minister to the Lao community in that area. He was left on his own most of the time. He told me he was lonely a lot, which was why he enjoyed my company so much, besides the fact I was helping him improve his English. But the young Lao man was still very much alive inside this monk. He surreptitiously drank beer. There was another monk that eventually came to join him who wanted me to buy him lottery tickets. All of this conflicted with what I projected as proper monk behavior. Sujato writes that this is a significant problem within the monastic community in Asia and Australia, but he has a perception that it is not such a problem in America.

Shravasti Dhammika provides an extreme example in his blog post “Vandals in Sandals – and Robes.”

“Recently two Sri Lankan Buddhist monks led an unruly crowd to the Jesus Never Fails Good News Centre in Battaramulla on the outskirts of Colombo and after a noisy protest, proceed to smash the place up. The monks were, (I will not use the honorific ‘Venerable’) Athraliye Ratana and Ellawala Medananda, both of who also happen to be members of the Sri Lankan parliament. What on earth, you might ask, are Buddhist monks doing sitting in parliament and inciting vandalism? Well, some monks in Sri Lanka are quite literally ‘looking for a role’.”

Faced with the reality that there were no other non-Asian members of these groups in my new locale, and only the very young spoke any English, as well as the fact that I am gay, I sought a graceful exit. I wasn’t feeling much like Rosa Parks.

The white groups weren’t any better. All they wanted to do was meditate, then talk about Buddhism as if it were an intellectual exercise. They had read a lot about Buddhism, but very few had actually taken the further step of reading any of the Tipitika. And these groups, I found, were often very resistant to any type of discussion that was outside the realm of what their paradigm of Buddhism was all about.

Which brings up John’s post, “Buddha’s Afterbirth: Organizational Buddhism.” I strongly identified with a couple comments John made in response to another’s questions about his “style” of practice.

“Any large Organization Buddhist group that I have sat with eventually put restrictions on practice. Some more so than others but there was always a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way… If I walked into a ‘proper’ zendo and asked to practice in a way that was different from but not distracting to the group, I would be told ‘no’. Why? Because it is not the way ‘they’ do it.”

This can be a problem for those of use who feel a stronger affiliation for the Buddha and Buddhism than we do for any Buddhist doctrine or group, as well as those of us who have a deeper understanding of the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65) than, perhaps, others do.

In my continuing search for a sangha here in Chicago – you would think it would be easy in a city like this as there are plenty of them – I’ve recently started participating with a group that practices the Nichiren method of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. I really enjoy this activity, as I’ve always liked chanting. It is an exceptional practice to help focus the mind. The group I chant with is also affiliated with Soka Gakkai, which is headed up by a rather charismatic figure in Japan.

Please spare me your warnings. I am well aware of the perception Soka Gakkai projects to some other Buddhists, as well as what some other Buddhists project on to Soka Gakkai. Some have even likened it to the Chinese cult of Falun Gong. But one of the questions I ask as a measure of what this group is all about is do this group and its activities cause harm to its participants? To myself? To others? So far, the answer has been no. Having said that, I remain dubious about further engagement with the group beyond chanting. And it’s not like I haven’t been invited, or even encouraged, or that attempts to tell me that I don’t need to practice any other way haven’t been made. I shared with one woman how I really liked the way the chanting focused my mind so that my silent sitting meditation was more productive. She said that I don’t need to meditate that way anymore because all I need to do is chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

My response was a silence that I’ve learned from hanging around a lot Asians. It’s that Chinese way of expressing, “No thank you,” without having to say anything at all. My message was received, and there’s been no more pressure since. However, I would be na├»ve not to anticipate future attempts to pull me into the fold. And I’m alright with that. These people are friendly and they are happy. They believe in their practice, and that is how it should be.

Nonetheless, my search for a sangha continues. This raises the issue as to whether a “real” sangha is needed at all. Yes, I am aware that the Buddha attained release entirely on his own by just sitting under a bodhi tree. But he did agree to form a monastic community, and he taught that his path was the Triple Gem of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Which brings me to Nathan’s post at Dangerous Harvests, where he asks, “Sangha? What’s Sangha?” Like Nathan, I was struck by the plethora of discussion on this topic. There are those who assert that the iSangha is sufficient, while there are those that hold that only a “real” brick-and-mortar sangha can safely keep the practitioner on the right course. And then there are those who say to hell with it all and, like the solitary person who holes up in a cave on a mountainside, simply sit and seek enlightenment all on his or her own.

There is merit in all of these responses; each method can work for some on their own, and each method can work coordinated with any or all of the others. We have the Buddha’s teaching style as the example to follow, because, while the Buddha was skilled at many things, he was exceptionally skilled as a teacher, providing the right teaching for someone at the right time. While he taught one way to the Kalamas, he used a different technique with the infamous debater Saccaka, and still another method when instructing his son Rahula.

In reference to John’s post at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, Nathan writes:

“John’s definitely poking into one of (the) main problems with organized religion: its tendency to fossilize around a set of rules and regulations that often places troubling limits on individual practice and spiritual understanding. And when you’ve lived through some organizational scandals, or have felt a great lack of support from a spiritual community, then it can be difficult to see how a well functioning group can propel your life in amazing ways.”

So true, so true, so true. Which is why I continue to search for my sangha. Granted, I am very grateful and hold a debt of gratitude for the iSangha I have found (read this post at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret about the difference between gratitude and being grateful) and while I have not met any of them personally, I consider each my friend. And the article swap has been a great exercise in sharing our experiences and growing from others’. But for me, it’s not a sangha.

I have a remarkable memory from that first sangha of mine. I had only briefly visited the monastery in the past and was not affiliated with it at those times. But the bottom had fallen out of the bucket of my life, and I instantly knew where to go. When I arrived, the monk was out on a hill with some other people speaking to them as they worked at building a gazebo. I walked out there, introduced myself, and the monk replied, “Yes, I remember you,” and then he walked away. One of the others handed me a hammer and some nails, told me what to do, and then returned to his work. I then sat on the ground in the hot sun and pounded nails.

It was one of the best Dhamma lessons of my life.


  1. I swear, I would never have read a post this long if it weren’t at the top of my Google Reader list! I thank you for it. Back to the topic of local meditation communities, I remembered that there’s a vipassana-oriented meditation group in Lincolnwood, and also another group that meets less regularly headed by a Gujrati chemist in Palatine. Those are definitely English-speaking, although I think the temple in Willowbrook is also very open to non-Thai Buddhists. Good luck!

  2. Haha, glad I caught you when I did then! Thanks again for the tips on sanghas. I will be checking them out after we are through with this pagan holiday season, lol. My first visit, however, I think will be the one on Magnolia.

  3. The concept of vigilance, or lack thereof came into my mind as I read your post and recalled the others you cited.

    It strikes me that after some time in institutional and in individual practices things become taken for granted, lose their edge, complacency sets in, the mind and personalities involved overlay or overtake the point of practice, practice becomes a static thing.

    What it points to in my opinion is a loss of relationship with the elements of practice. One gradually comes to related in a complacent way. Mindfulness is lost, effort wanes, one loses the view. It becomes rather lazy rather than sharp, immediate, wholly encompassing. Distracted is another word that comes to mind. Unfocused.

    Self-discipline is something a lot of people don't like and don't like to hear. But it's necessary to realize the Dharma.

    Sometimes it's difficult to muster though. I went through a time of about 8 years (out of about 25 years since I converted) when I just couldn't be bothered with any of it. It felt like work. It felt futile. It felt shallow and like just another stressor in my life to deal with.

    Really good to get over that time and realize I was completely missing the boat with my attitude.

    This happens on a larger scale too if leadership is not forthcoming and self-interest and politics take precedence over the well-being of the Sangha.

    This is what I see to a large extent in America particularly, but not exclusively by any means. All these teachers with their own ideas, many of which are unrelated to Buddhism and Buddhist objectives and their own "brands" and their own "followers" competing for market share. Individualism in Buddhist practice has come at the expense of the Dharma in many cases.

    If teachers can't even set aside their own notions of ego how can they guide students to understand this process?

  4. Very thought provoking and well written post Richard.

    Just a couple of comments; I totally agree that many make Buddhist practice an intellectual exercise, and place that aspect above many of the other expressions. But I feel, even though I disagree with it that is their prerogative to do so if that is what they feel is best for them. It is difficult to play Dharma police, when there are so many different ways of expressing ones Buddhist practice. For instance, I enjoy science tremendously, and like to incorporate those kinds of things into my own personal practice.

    As for Sangha's, as you know, something that I've been talking about a lot recently is the growing population of lone practitioners, who have no access to a brick and mortar Sangha. For them, their only outlet to other Buddhists is the internet, and this is a huge problem. It may not be a Sangha in the conventional sense for sure, but its the only thing we've got. And a lot of people, (not you obviously) have placed in their crosshairs the authenticity of their practice with criticism, without offering up any type of real world solutions to these 10's of thousands of rural and suburban Buddhists with nowhere to go. They are a forgotten group as well.

    I agree that those that have the largest voice, that run the big magazines and websites are urban whites, that already have the great luck to have access to a brick and mortar Sangha. I'm going to avoid talking about the topic of white privilege here as I think my opinions on that have been made. But I feel the theme of your post speaks to the great need for a more connected community here in North America, to address many of these concerns.

    Great post Richard!

  5. @NellaLou

    "It strikes me that after some time in institutional and in individual practices things become taken for granted, lose their edge, complacency sets in, the mind and personalities involved overlay or overtake the point of practice, practice becomes a static thing."

    Yes, which is what I miss so much from that first sangha I had attended. It was more than just a place to meditate and hear Dhamma, it was a place where we asked questions, we planted gardens, we built a meditation hall, we organized festivals, we did things too.

    @Kyle, yes, I do feel there's a need for a more connectedness within the lay community in North America, but how does that get accomplished while avoiding the pitfalls of personality and personal ambition, as outlined by NellaLou?

    Let me ask this, because I don't know the answer, though I have an inkling: can a group of practitioners, provided they "find" each other, solicit for a monk or nun to come to their area and establish a dhammasala or temple? For example, could a group proposition a monastery in Thailand or Japan or Taiwan or India and ask that a monk be sent, with the condition that the group will sponsor a permanent visa in the event the monk sent does not hold a U.S. passport?

  6. @Richard - I think that would be an excellent idea, and I know of a couple of places here in the US where that is happened. What we need is some kind of connected network, so folks can group up, like you said, and do things such as sponsering a monk or a nun to there area. I think there is a growing push for this kind of grass roots network and it won't be long before you see something like that.

    As for personality conflicts, well I don't think in any organization one could avoid those kinds of problems. I think it is inherant that some people will do certain things for the sole purpose of personal gain. Of course I might not be the best person to ask about conflict given my vocal nature. Its kind of funny, I just posted this morning a post that referenced one of the same posts you did, but came away with a much different take.

    Is it possible to avoid conflict, ambition and personality conflicts?