Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who will watch the watchers?

A recent story in the Chicago Tribune has rightly outraged many. The specter of clergy sexually abusing minors has revealed itself in the Sangha, as well as the pernicious practice of enabling the monk perpetrators through “sending them away” to places where they wind up re-offending. The sad thing, in my mind, is that you could substitute “priest” wherever you see “monk” and “Catholic Church” for the temple’s cited. It’s the same enabling behavior: rather than directly dealing with the offender, he is shuffled off to re-offend.

But don’t get carried away with that analogy.

Our reactions to this story, which by the way is not “new” because even this specific event has been developing for more than a decade, reflect both our bewilderment and our anger. But while for many of us our initial reaction is to “rage against the machine,” where does it get us? Is that our best response?

It is easy to see parallels in this situation, which I repeat is nothing new, with what’s happened in the Catholic Church. Both have traditions in which the clergy take vows of celibacy and both are dealing inappropriately with violations of that vow through secrecy and shuffling clergy around. But the similarity ends there.

The Catholic Church is a world-wide organization with a central authority. Its entire administrative structure is based upon this authority, and while the Vatican moves agonizingly slow, it is an authority to which congregants can turn to petition or seek to influence. There is a dearth of similar administrative structures or hierarchies for Buddhism in America, and with Theravada, there are none.

This is not a “Theravada” problem as it is not an institutional problem. Theravada, or the way of the elders, is not broken. Theravada is no more broken than Zen is broken, the latter of which has also seen its share of sexual misconduct among its clergy. To say that there is a problem within Theravada that needs to be addressed is no different from the one made by the editors of “Buddhist Warfare,” that Buddhism has a problem with violence.

There is a problem, yes, but not with Theravada per se.

With the Catholic Church, it is an institutional problem because the failure of appropriate response lies within the institutional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. But there is no “institution” of Theravada. All the individual congregations have their own boards that answer to no higher authority. Proclamations of “Theravada, fix yourself” are specious and meaningless.

Whose problem is it then? Because clearly this is a problem that requires our attention. While I knew how I felt, I didn’t know how to respond. So I asked four monks who reside both in the U.S. and Southeast Asia. What can a layperson do? Are there oversight organizations that can be pressured? Reasoned with?

While I have not heard back from all of them, the responses I did receive were simultaneously unsurprising and vexing. It goes back to the culture issue: many of these congregations are based upon an ethnic community that doesn’t have the same tradition of openness and confrontation that we have in America in particular and in the West in general. And the other issue is what ecumenical or administrative organization is there that exists to exert pressure on? When you’re angry, who do you shout at? Who has authority over these sanghas?

Shravasti Dhammika replied, in part, to my query with the following: "I have long been an advocate of the idea that ultimately, to move ahead, Western Buddhists will have to gently and politely ‘part company’ from traditional Asian Buddhism. The values, assumptions and attitudes of the two are just too different...We Westerners have enough problems of our own, getting involved in ethnic Buddhists’ wastes energy, leads to resentment and changes nothing. Let’s walk our own path."

While I do not subscribe to the notion of Hinayana – the Lesser Vehicle – when describing Theravada or the Thai Forest Tradition, the way it is manifested, the practices that it adheres too, certainly make it come off as a teeny-weeny wagon mired in twisted and misogynistic doctrine.

And after viewing the vibrant and at times acrimonious discussion at Sujato’s blog regarding secular Buddhism versus traditional practices, I am increasingly of the mind that Buddhism in America needs a Reformation of its own.

This is an important question for American and other Western Buddhists as more and more Westerners adopt Buddhism while at the same time its various iterations are increasingly co-existing literally closer to each other: Thai and Cambodian Theravada temples within blocks of Tibetan meditation centers that are close to Zen groups operating in store fronts and SGI groups meeting informally in homes in many neighborhoods. No longer are the various schools and vehicles physically separated by countries or other much larger geographic divisions. For crying out loud, I bet 90 percent of the non-Buddhist world thinks that the Dalai Lama is the leader of all Buddhists!

Many of us may rebel against the idea of a “centralized” Buddhist structure that oversees congregations and establishes parameters, and there is merit in their worry. But if Buddhism is allowed to gradually erode into a populist practice in which anyone who writes anything and gets it published is suddenly a guru who doesn’t know or care a whit about Dhamma, then we all might was well start dropping acid right now and walk the road of hedonism and nihilism, because that’s where such a road leads.

Conversely, Buddhism cannot be and never really was a fixed doctrine. Frankly, most of the Vinaya the Buddha made up as he went along, reacting to certain situations that arose at the time. Now that the Buddha’s gone, however, the Vinaya and Tipitika are treated like some sacrosanct text that cannot be changed and even contemplating a review of it would be considered heresy.

Yet it is this blind allegiance to doctrine that gives us a Thai Forest Tradition that can’t come to grips with ordaining women, a Zen culture in which the teacher is considered infallible, a Mahayana sentiment filled with bodhisattvas that can’t pay their own bills but they’re gonna save every sentient being, and a Tibetan culture that deifies superstition.

Things have changed in the monastic community and many of us may not be aware of that. Arun from Angry Asian Buddhist reminded me of an excellent point. In the past, families in Asia sent their children to the Sangha for education, but nowadays, education has been largely secularized. Trips to the Sangha are less frequent. In fact, it is losing support in some regions. Add to this the growing desire and pressure to succeed in life, to get a professional degree; in the past those motivated to learn, think abstractedly and were of high intelligence were attracted to the monastic tradition, but has that attraction disappeared? And if so, how is that affecting the quality of those who do enter the Sangha to seek ordination? If all the smart and ambitious ones are going to graduate school, what does that leave for the Sagha in terms of new recruits?

Granted, the Sangha has done great things for young men who made poor decisions, drank excessively, gambled, used drugs, etc. But some of these men are also being ordained and sent off to the U.S. to guide their own community of immigrants and do so on their own without guidance or support. These young men are placed in positions of authority to watch over a devout and, most likely, naïve congregation.

Who is watching the watchers?

In the meantime, young women and boys are preyed upon by those whom they thought they could trust.

Perhaps it is time that Buddhism in America takes a look at how physicians are managed. Medical doctors who received their degree overseas, but who desire to practice in the U.S., are treated just like residency students and required to go through a residency program before being licensed here. I know two medical doctors, one who received his degree in the Philippines and the other who received his degree in Taiwan. Both are licensed physicians in their home country, but for them to practice in the U.S. they must go through a residency program here just like someone fresh out of an American medical school.

But someone trained to be a Buddhist cleric and ordained in Thailand, Nepal, Japan, or anywhere else can come here and start a congregation with virtually no oversight.

Maybe that needs to change.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A minor meditation challenge

I realize it is a bit late to get in at the start seeing how the Rains Retreat “officially” began a week ago, but a post I happened to see on the fancy new Google+ alerted me to an opportunity I thought I couldn’t pass up. It was an invitation to join Patrick Henry, who on Twitter goes by the handle @MishapPatricio and Tumbles here, and others in a commitment to meditate for 30 minutes daily for the duration of the Rains Retreat.

If you want a little background regarding the Rains Retreat, this article is a decent start. It also explains that if you decide to make a commitment to sitting for 30 minutes each day, you don’t have to do all 30 minutes at once. I break up my sessions into two 15-minute sits.

But I would also recommend that you read this about the Lay Buddhist Practice. It’s an excellent guide to a variety of activities you can add to your practice. Granted, these practices are mostly from the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada. But several of the chants I recite every time I sit; it’s part of my practice just as much as breathing.

Some may balk at these activities because they appear ritualistic. And there’s been a lot of discussion about dumping the rituals and seeking a new Buddhism that is more focused on – well, I actually haven’t quite figured out what this “new Buddhism” is supposed to be. I’ve read several posts about this rebellion against traditionalism within Buddhism, both from the pro and con. I’m reserving judgment at the moment. But I will say this, as I have said it before.

Rites and rituals, in and of themselves, are empty behaviors that have no meaning and to attach meaning to them is to foster delusion. Having said that, these rites and rituals are excellent methods for developing mindfulness, without which Buddhism merely becomes a glamorous excursion into self-gratification – a supreme hand-job if you will.

Start slow, however, if you decide to add any of these activities to your practice. If you seek to develop mindfulness, you will fail if you try to add too many of these activities to your overall practice all at once.

Please let us know how you are doing with your 30 minutes a day for the next 90 days by leaving a comment here occasionally. And don’t forget to visit the My Buddha is Pink Facebook page!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Making a chai tae out of a kathoey, or real man out of a fag

Got a sissy-boy child? Send him to a reparative therapist who attests he or she can “straighten” your boy out. Even if it kills him. Literally.

These types of “clinics” and “therapists” were fairly common in the not-too-distant past in the United States, but for the most part have been professionally ridiculed as not only ineffective, but as psychological quackery and mental torture. There remain a few who still push this dangerous fake therapy, the most infamous being the laughable George Rekers.

More recently, similar clinics have turned up in Malaysia, which is led by a homophobic Islamic (is that redundant?) government that has for years been trying to convict a dissident of sodomy. These clinics were for “sissy boys” and asserted they could turn your sissy boy into a real man. Unsurprisingly, many reparative therapists took up the torch – oh, how ironic – to practice this voodoo psychology in Malaysia where they found a willing client: The Malaysian government, which allegedly forced boys into the treatment centers. Despite international condemnation, the Malaysian government essentially replied with a hearty “fuck you.”

A side note: To really understand Malaysia’s antipathy toward gays, you need to know the history behind the government’s attempt to denounce and prosecute dissident Anwar Ibrahim. The government wants to get rid of him so badly, but the only thing they can come up with is an accusation of sodomy.

But I digress. Because that’s not the end of it. While it may not surprise you that conservative Christian groups and Islamic groups continue to support efforts to change one’s sexuality, it may surprise you to learn that Buddhist organizations, teachers and even various Sanghas have been involved in reparative therapy as well. And a recent news report of a particular Thai Sangha’s involvement in treating so-called “ladyboys” infuriates me no end, as this strikes me as a complete corruption of the Dhamma as well as some of the worst kind of homophobia I’ve seen.

To get a good grasp about how this issue operates in Thailand and most of Southeast Asia, one needs to understand both how the Sangha fits into Thai culture, as well as understand the history of the kathoey, or ladyboy, both in Thai culture and Buddhist history. For this explanation, I’m going to rely heavily on a work by Peter A. Jackson called “Male Homosexuality and Transgenderism in the Thai Buddhist Tradition.” Granted, this work dates back to 1993, but it nonetheless presents excellent background on this issue.

There remains a very strong link between the Sangha and lay community in SE Asia, where families in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia send their boys to the Sangha for short periods where they learn Dhamma and live as a novice monk. Some decide to stay. Most return to their families and lay life. This is such a strong tradition that a recent survey revealing that many Thais no longer support the Sangha like they had in the past has made headlines in the local press.

Many may have a perspective that Thais are generally very tolerant and accepting of homosexuality. After all, sex clubs have been ubiquitous in Bangkok and Pataya (not as much so in Phuket), and if you type the search terms “ladyboy” and “Thailand” into Google, you’ll get a plethora of results for various websites offering a variety of services performed by such ladyboys.

True, there are no laws against homosexual activity in Thailand as there are in Malaysia to the south, but to conclude that homosexuality is widely accepted in Thailand would be very unskillful. It’s not uncommon for Thai police to raid gay bars just for the hell of it, much like police did in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s. What made the attitude different in Thailand from that in the West, Jackson points out, was the Thai attitude toward homosexuality was largely diffused: it lacked a specific target. The AIDS epidemic in Thailand changed all that; it gave people who initially harbored vague feelings of antipathy toward homosexuals an opportunity to target aggressive hatred.

But where did this seed of homophobia come from? Believe it or not, it came from several Thai Buddhist teachers from the past whose homophobic interpretations of the Tipitika have been carried forward by more recent members of the Thai Sangha. As was largely the case with Christianity and Biblical texts, the Buddhist canon contains sections referring to certain, specific sexual activity and attitudes. But given the fact that there was no Western concept of homosexuality 2,500 years ago in Asia, modern Buddhist “interpreters” have tended to force the concept of homosexuality onto Pali terms and descriptions of activity that appear similar to what the Western mind labels as “homosexual.”

Another thing to keep in mind is the Pali canon, and Thai Buddhism in particular, contains a very strong anti-sex message directed specifically toward monks.

“That which is called methunadhamma is explained as: the dhamma of an unrighteous man (asattapurisa), the conduct of the common people, the manners of the low, dhamma which is evil and crude, dhamma whose end is but water, an activity which should be hidden, the dhamma which couples should perform together.” (Vinaya, Vol. 1, p.49)

While the message was strident, it did not differentiate between forms. All types of sex were covered: it didn’t matter what a monk stuck his penis into, such activity always carried the same result – the monk had failed and was usually expelled from the Sangha. But a distaste for all forms of sex, even among the laity, found its way into the commentaries of many Thai Buddhist writers. Jackson writes:

“Significantly, contemporary Thai Buddhist views on laypersons' sexual behaviour are often more proscriptive and extreme than attitudes reflect in the Pali canon or in traditional or popular Thai accounts of Buddhist doctrine and ethics. Phra Buddhadasa's work has been especially influential among educated and middle class Thai Buddhists. However, his views on sexuality are at variance with Thai Buddhism's traditional distinction between lay and clerical ethical conduct. The ethical extremism of Phra Buddhadasa and other contemporary Buddhist reformists in Thailand such as Phra Phothirak results from a clericalising trend whereby ethical demands traditionally made only of monks are now increasingly also being required of laypersons.”

This anti-sex attitude remains to this day not only in the Thai Sangha, but to a large extent within general Thai society among the laity in the form of homophobia.

The term "kathoey" in Thai loosely translates as "ladyboy" and has a somewhat interesting history in Buddhist literature. The term has been translated to include everything from hermaphrodites to being a descriptive term for a weakling or eunuch. The Pali term pandaka has been used to describe virtually any sexual deviant, but was most frequently used to describe homosexual activity. Jackson writes:

“But whether or not Buddhism has been instrumental in influencing the development of the popular Thai notion, a very similar mixing of physical and psychological sex, gender behaviours and sexuality occurs both in the Pali terms pandaka and in the Thai term kathoey. Both terms are parts of conceptual schemes in which people regarded as exhibiting physiological or culturally ascribed features of the opposite sex are categorised together. If Buddhism was not the source of the popular Thai conception of kathoey then at the very least it has reinforced a markedly similar pre-existing Thai cultural concept.”

Jackson further states that the term kathoey has largely transformed in general Thai vernacular to be used to describe any gay man, whether a cross-dresser or straight-acting, so nowadays it essentially translates as "fag."

It is unfortunate that so many Thai commentators and their subsequent followers developed and promoted such anti-gay sentiments as there are some very interesting references in the Pali canon to the Buddha showing great tolerance toward those whose sexual identity did not follow the norm.

There was Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, who allegedly was born a kathoey in many previous lives and who became an arahant shortly after the Buddha became enlightened. And there is the story of Vakkali, who was enamored with the Buddha. The Buddha rebuked Vakkali for constantly staring lustfully at the Buddha, but his rebuke was not a “stop looking at me that way gay boy,” but rather, stop falling into the trap of sensual attachment. Nonetheless, the Buddha told Vakkali to go away. Jackson writes:

"Vakkali was so shattered by this command that he attempted to kill himself by jumping off a mountain. But deva or spiritual beings informed the Buddha of Vakkali's dejection and he quickly went to the monk's aid in time to save him from committing suicide. With an extremely brief exposition of the dhamma, 'The eyes see dhamma,' the Buddha gave Vakkali the insight he needed in order to attain enlightenment and he immediately attained arahantship."

Nonetheless, there is a proscription against ordaining a pandaka that is attributed to the Buddha based on a tale in the Vinaya about a monk who was running around the Sangha asking the young monks to “fuck me, fuck me.” When they didn’t oblige, the pandaka went to the elephant stables and again pleaded with the men there to “fuck me, fuck me.” When the Buddha heard about this, he expelled the pandaka because he was concerned what the lay community might think about the Sangha. This has created considerable controversy today over whether openly gay men should be allowed to be ordained.

Now we arrive to the year 2011 when effeminate boys are being sent to Sanghas where monks are attempting to transform them from being pandaka or kathoey into real men, or chai tae. At work here is probably centuries of indoctrinated homophobia.

The renunciation of sexual desire, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, is for the monastic community and has everything to do with renouncing sensual pleasure of all types. For the monks to teach these “ladyboys” to become "real men" would mean guiding these boys in the ways of hetero sex. The fact that monks would even venture into that territory at all with young novices strikes me as a serious corruption of Dhamma, as well as a particularly virulent form of homophobia sustained by reactionary abbots who don't know what to do with the ordained ladyboys in their midst.

And again we come back to the psychological trauma such reparative therapy can create in young minds. This isn’t the ending of suffering, this constitutes the nurturing and encouragement of suffering. Many of these boys will simply reject the efforts and return to their previous ways after they leave the Sangha. But others may likely be so traumatized that they commit suicide or develop seriously self-destructive behaviors. From being happy, these boys are “transformed” into miserable waifs.

Shameful. Shameful. Where is Rahula when you need him? Where is the water dipper?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The day I knew Buddhism was right for me was…

I posed this question a few weeks back on Twitter and I got some great responses. He are some of them:

@MrsCapra: When I read the book “Buddhism is not what you think”

@Zenfant1969: When I saw what I already knew had been written down 2k yrs ago

@ZenDirtZenDust: The day the bottom fell out of my pail

@checkbak: The day I broke 20 years of resistance and walked into a meditation center

@ruralhybrid: When I saw Lama Yeshe say calmly on video, “check it out for yourself”

@bodhichittah: The day I lost everything around me but glimpsed (gained!) a new world within

@Bohicitta3000: When I knew I have to be the carrier of my own banner and not blindly follow one

@ShojinRJB: The day when I learned no discrimination on the zafu

@mindonly: I remember reading a little "basics" book & thinking 'wow, I've always thought that' & 'that makes perfect sense'.

I thought it would be an easy question for me to answer as well, but I found that I really struggled with defining a single day, a single moment or epiphany when I knew that Buddhism was right for me. I guess for me it was really a process that took approximately two years.

If I had to pick a single statement, however, I think I would go with @ZenDirtZenDust’s response: The day the bottom fell out of my pail.

Buddhism is a path, and like any other path, we decide to follow it because something about the path’s beginning appeals to us. Along the way we see and experience different things and at some point we make a decision, conscious or unconscious, that we chose the right path.

My first experience with Buddhism was going with a former boyfriend to a Buddha’s birthday celebration at a temple in the Lansing, Mich., area. During that visit, the monk’s Dhamma talk really struck home with me. It was welcoming, but also presented boundaries that made sense. A seed was planted. Because it was at least another 18 months before I found myself at that temple again, this time alone and feeling like I had lost control of everything, including myself.

The bottom had fallen out of my pail, and when it did, the first thing that came to mind was that evening Dhamma talk. Without hesitation, I got into my car and drove 90 minutes to the monastery where I began walking the path.

But when did I know, when did I become aware, that I had made the right decision? I’m not sure, but I know I did.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Buddhist Warfare, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 presents another excellent example of really interesting history on how the Chinese Communist Party set out to re-shape Buddhist doctrine to get practicing Buddhists to follow the party line and willingly enlist with the Red Army to help defend Korea from the Americans.

In other words, it’s another example of fine scholarship that contradicts what the editors of this collection assert – that Buddhism rationalizes violent action and warfare – by clearly showing that Buddhists succumbed to the pressures of the prevailing hegemony either through acquiescence or through intentional action to curry political favor.

Buddhists in China at this time didn’t become soldiers because Buddhist doctrine condoned it; rather, the Chinese Communist Party beguiled Chinese Buddhists into believing that by helping the North Koreans defend themselves from American forces, they would be practicing the Bodhisattva path.

This was a clever ruse by the Chinese Communist Party achieved by co-opting Buddhist terms and concepts and re-packaging them in terms that would benefit the party. And in part, it was also a reaction by Buddhists there to secure preservation of their practice under the Communist regime.

For example, the author, Xue Yu, writes: “Many Buddhists believed that, by positively responding to the government’s call and undertaking socialist transformation, they would in return receive sympathy from the government, which would then protect Buddhist institutions.”

But the Party was also much more direct in coercing cooperation from monks and nuns:

“Monks and nuns were advised to closely follow government policies or be considered enemies of the people within the framework of the people’s democratic dictatorship. To a large extent, these campaigns successfully transformed monks and nuns, physically as well as mentally.”

The results of these efforts can still be witnessed in China today as the Party prepares for its 90th anniversary, as evidenced by this article.

Using Orwellian speech tactics, the CCP mounted an aggressive propaganda campaign to malign the intentions of America while portraying Chinese intentions as pure:

“We Buddhists uphold peace, yet America is the deadly enemy of peace. Therefore, we must reject American imperialism in order to safeguard peace… Now, the people of Korea have been severely tortured by the imperialist America; assisting Korea will safeguard not only the nation and the world, but also Buddhism.”

By using the language of the bodhisattva, the pure and good intention of the Chinese and efforts to support the underdog Korea were made palpable to a Buddhist constituency. Never mind that it was the North Koreans who started everything by invading the South and that America only ventured into the fray following the North’s aggression and near occupation of Seoul.

This chapter, “Buddhists in China during the Korean War,” is an excellent read and bit of history. But as an article to support the editors’ thesis that Buddhism in and of itself it “warlike?” Sorry, not a chance.

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