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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Metamorphasis of Buddhism Strengthens the Global Sangha

Whenever Buddhism has taken root in a new land there has always been a certain variation in the style in which it is observed. The Buddha himself taught differently according to the place, the occasion, the situation of those who were listening to him. So, all of us have the responsibility to take the essence of Buddhism and put it into practice in our own lives.

~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

James: There is so much discussion over Buddhism in the west. There are many from the East who feel that they have a corner or the "true" Dharma/Buddhism and that "Western Buddhism" is diluting the "True Buddhism." Yet as HDL states above, the Buddha taught differently according to the place (which I'm 99% sure meant the culture as well).

The fact is that there many different styles of Buddhism in Asia which has been the cradle of Buddhism. Under the greater umbrella we have the main traditions: Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana--all slightly different but sharing the core keystones of the Dharma taught by the Buddha. Then breaking it down further there are differences between Theravada (for example) in Thailand and in Burma (Malaysia).

I think of what Jack Kornfield said in the recent issue of the Buddhadharma magazine.

He spoke of studying Theravada under the Venerable Ajahn Chah and learning so much from him and that "forest style" of Theravada found in Thailand . Then he speaks of studying Theravada in Burma (Malaysia) under the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw and studying the Dharma from a totally different point of view but still as valuable as the teachings of Ajahn Chah. Both teachers neither changing the core teachings of the Buddha beyond recognition but providing a different angle of the great, multi-faceted diamond that is the Dharma.

It's ironic that (according to Kornfield) monks in Burma will say, "In Burma we have always been the carriers of the true way" even though the ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism began only a few hundred years ago.

James: I have to giggle when I hear such dualistic thinking when Burmese Theravada Buddhism is a realtive child compared to some other traditions!! I guess it's kind of the like the egotisitcal thinking that the immigrants who have been here for a couple generations are more American then those who've only been here for a few dozen decades.

Kornfield goes on:

So, infact, the history of the Theravada, and the history of Buddhism in generally, is actually a weaving of a number of different strands.

James: And that I believe is what is happening within the growing "Western Buddhism."

Sadly not all great teachers feel this way. Eido Roshi states in that same Buddhadharma issue that, I am well aware that a few people reject the traditional ways, but still some people love them, and these people are the ones who have real devotion toward Buddhadharma. That is all I have to say.

James: I hope that Roshi is refering to the main tenets of Buddhism such as the four noble truths and the eightfold path, etc. rather then the cultural attachments of a particular tradition or school from a certain country.

Stephen Batchelor had a more inclusive viewpoint on the matter:

But there is an important distinction between being rooted in a tradition and being stuck in a tradition. To be rooted in a tradition like Buddhism is absolutely necessary, but it's also possible to become attached to certain doctrines, to certain ways of doing things, that do not allow you to grow. They become another form of attachment. From rootedness, we need to be able to respond anew to what the world presents us.

James: Editor Jeff Wilson of the magazine Tricyle: The Buddhist Review provides another interesting example of the diversity within Buddhism and in this particular example the place of meditation within the different styles of Zen:

In America, many people are interested in meditation and that is one reason that Zen teachers discuss it. Asian teachers who like to have Western students talk a lot about zazen to them. When they teach in Japanese, most do not emphasize zazen unless it is in a monastic situation.

In Japan, where virtually all Soto Zen practitioners live, Soto Shu emphasizes moral behavior, respect of elders, charity, and chanting in front of the home altar. Meditation is not a central practice and is generally only performed by a minority of the clergy, who are themselves a very small minority of members.

Yes, it doesn't look like the Theravada in Thailand or maybe Burma and yes, the Zen maybe not exactly look like that found in Japan or Korea but that does not mean that the Theravada, Zen or Tibetan Buddhism blended into American culture are not actual "Buddhism."

Insiting on one way of practicing the Dharma is a type of "spiritual materialism" to use a term from the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Placing more importance on the form rather then the essence which stunts the growth of the Dharma.

As long as the main tenets stay the same then Buddhism is generally Buddhism. We may look different, meditate a bit different, chant in a different accent, etc. but we are all usually practicing the same Dharma.

I find the different blends and flavors of Buddhism to be beautiful and a testament to the strength of the Dharma. The Buddha had the foresite to see into the future and realize that the religion he had started would need to adapt given the nature of subtle differences between people.

~Peace to all beings~

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cognitorex said...

I think it was Chih i who disparagingly called the Theravadans "Nose-focusers."
I thought that Nose Focusers might make a nice name for a sangha.

The Buddha taught skillful means: teaching to the level of the audience. I doubt he could blend in Western psychology, with it's "Self" help emphasis with Eastern spirituality and its no-self emphasis, nor should anybody try this blending.
I have sat with more than one sangha where me, myself and I(s)' are paid witness to extensively.
What are we blending with what?

Buddhism Meditation Pittsfield MA Sangha Unitarian UU cognitorex
# posted by cognitorex

They call him James Ure said...

Yes, "Nose focusers" would be a good, light-hearted name for a sangha. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves a bit after all. :)

Greenwoman said...

YOur remarks about Buddhism put me in mind of something my spiritual teacher Uncle Henry says...well he says a few things that make lots of sense...One is "You've got a brain...use it!" His message in that is don't let other people lead you by the nose. Use your own good judgement and wisdom. Use what you've learned of the traditions you have embraced to steer your life.

He also says that Tradition was created to serve needs...the needs of the times. Those Traditions often are in place to help the seeker deal with the changes in energy and consciousness as they evolve in their those things should not be changed without serious and lengthy consideration and lots of spiritual guidance...but otherwise, do what serves your current needs within the context of the over all Tradition. I think that's lovely advice and clearly many Buddhists in the past have done this or there wouldn't be so many flavors.

Nice usual. *Smiles*

They call him James Ure said...


Great advice from Uncle Henry. Thanks for sharing that. :)

Greenwoman said...

James...Uncle Henry is a wild and wily man...

He's a dirty old man...and at the same time as he's being a boob grabber, he'll come out with that sort of heart grabbing stuff.

One of the philosophies of his own teachers and indeed of the Lakota people is that the medicine men of the tribe should find as much trouble as they can get into without loosing themselves...because doing so helps them to truly understand those they are going to help during their time of serving the people....and they also believe that from the deepest hardships come the deepest wisdom.

Uncle is a total trip. He's been the leader of that community for over 25 years...a thriving community which still has almost all of its original memebers. They've now got multi generations in it and are seeing its elders dying and passing the torch in their dotage....and that includes Uncle.

Federico said...

Thank you, James, for sharing these insightful thoughts. As a matter of fact, your post has awakened in me questions which I, as "independent and agnostic
buddhist" (just to indulge myself in sheer labeling), cannot still answer, although I've really tried.

Which is the real role that sangha traditions, any sangha tradition, can play within the secular and humanistic western society? Why is it so strong in us the need for a tradition to abide? To which extent a tradition can be molded (I dont dare to say bent) by idiosincratic practices before losing its essence, its purpose and efficacy? What could any _real_ western tradition -if any- look like? Might it be akin to the 'secular buddhism' sometimes envisioned
by Batchelor? Or the vipassana-oriented vision of Barre center and its web of correspondents all around the world? The fwbo network? And above all, is the so called "west" too wide, heterogeneous and intrinsically pluralistic to ever generate a full-fledged buddhist tradition, the fourth wheel of the millenary 'tricycle' we have learnt to know, study and appreciate?

I know that it is not polite to introduce oneself with a battery of unanswered questions. I hope that some of these open questions are somehow shared by other seekers and that trying to answer them can foster an interesting discussion. As far as I am concerned, these very questions are really lively within me, any single time I consciously take refuge in the third jewel.
With metta


(sorry for my bad English: I'm not a mother-tongue and, alas, I do not have a spellchecker installed right now)

They call him James Ure said...


Interesting theory on the medicine man--maybe that's why I've had to go through all the shit I have so far in my life.


Your English is EXCELLENT!! You write it as if you're a professor--honestly.

I think that it is still too difficult to tell if there is a genuine, "Western Buddhism."

However, if there is then I think the importance of sangha is developing a bit differently. In the west the laity often meet together to meditate but in traditional Asian Buddhist countries this is rare for the laity.

There there are the "online sanghas" that have (and are) developing. Technology is seemingly spreading Buddhism to further and further people. It allows people to gather into "online sanghas" that still provide a community of followers who encourage each other in their practice similar to a traditional sangha.

The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it can blend and adapt to any situation or culture. Some of the practices might vary such as an online sangha vs. a physical, traditional one but the essence of the Dharma remains.

That is what I've learned about all this "western Buddhist" spread so far.

It is a fascinating and exciting time to be a Buddhist.

Federico said...

You got it James, I'm actually an assistant researcher at university, but a tech-geek, to be honest. And, believe it or not, I cannot speak more "plain" than that, since I learnt English from scientific papers (alas!).
Whatever, as long as we understand each other! ;-)

Your points are good ones. Internet is fostering the spreading of dhamma, as never it could be fostered in the past, by some keen and brave missionary.

Probably without web sites, forums, blogs, cheap world-wide e-bookshops and e-books, dharma spreading would be "bottlenecked" by the usual wariness for exoticism and distrust for sept-like and eccentric groups that we learnt about in past societies (just a couple of decades ago) or see even in some contemporary ones.

I also appreciate the way it is now (actually, it could not be different). What I'm wondering about is whether this "western buddhist", and these more distributed and loosely coherent (e)-sanghas, can "survive their time" and continue even after their scattered founders will pass away.

Nothing lasts forever, this is the anicca teaching, right. But what must be still checked about western buddhism is not its western nature, but rather its "buddhistness". That is, its ability to keep on referring to the dhamma without compromises and on adapting itself and thriving also in the second, third and further generations of western followers and seekers. This would make it a "tradition". It must still reveal itself as something more than just a fashion, a new-agish commodity, a new kind of illuminating product our society was able to package at the turn of the millenium.

It is not so for us, obviously. We know it. I'm speaking of the judgement of posterity. Of our beliefs seen from the next ages. My point is that we have a sort of responsibility, towards our sons, about this matter.

E-sanghas can vanish as soon as the E- is turned off. Real sanghas, instead, must survive the death of a generation and get new life in the next ones. Will western sanghas survive at least till the next future and help our descendants in knowing and following the middle path in their lives more easily than it was for our western ancestors? I hope so and I wonder what we can do for it to become more likely.
I hope I made this point clear enough, since it is a tricky one, I guess. Thank you for sharing your opinion on that.

They call him James Ure said...

I think that the Dharma will always have a home in cyber space as long as their is an internet capability. I am discovering that even monks have blogs!! How exciting!!

In previous times, isolated Buddhists had no way of reading, learning and hearing from monks and other teachers of the Dharma.

Not to mention fulfilling the third refuge of being apart of the Buddhist community. A lonely Buddhist in the middle of no where can have full and direct connection with fellow practitioners by simply turning on the computer and having an internet connection.

I also believe that the more traditional, physical sanghas will survive and even grow in the next 50 years or so. Buddhism has been growing rapidly in the west and the trends seem to show that will continue well into the future.

Never-the-less, you are correct that nothing lasts forever and thus we should never attach to the vehicle too much. If "Buddhism" disappears then I'm sure another similar vehicle will always be reborn in one way or another. That is the other side of the death coin--rebirth.

This has been a great conversation.

I appreciate discussing such profound matters regarding the Dharma. Being open to such discussions will help us be ready for the next turn of the Dharma wheel.

RevRon's Rants said...

I recall Alan Watts' book, "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," wherein he observes how we in the west tend to bend Buddhism to our own desires and prejudices. It was Alan's way to be amused at the folly, which in itself spoke volumes about his presence.

Though I have long followed the less-regimented Rinzai, I find myself grappling with a sense of frustration with those who consciously subvert and misrepresent the Noble Truths in their quest for profit. Were such misrepresentations merely individuals' delusions, I would chuckle to myself and walk away. But when it is a person with a significant audience - many of whom know nothing about the Eight-Fold Path - it does bother me. I actually attempted a dialog with one individual yesterday, a MLM maven (, whose current marketing efforts are outgrowths of his participation in The Secret DVD. He claims his teachings are essential Buddhism, yet they sound more like the man's hero, P. T. Barnum. Ah, well...

They call him James Ure said...


I'm very leary of, "The Secret." I saw only half of it because I was so skeptical I just turned it off. It seemed too hokey for me.

RevRon's Rants said...

The thing that really turns me off is that the "teachers" initially presented their "Secret" as being infallible science, and when that was pretty well refuted, attempted to offer it up as being the guiding philosophy behind both Christianity and Buddhism. In so doing, they claimed that compassion for the less fortunate should be turned aside in favor of focus upon affluence and success - in diametric opposition to the teachings of bot the Buddha and the Christ.

Peddling snake oil is bad enough, but to attempt to undermine the values upon which our growth and evolution is dependent - in the quest for their own personal enrichment - rates pretty high up on the "evil" scale, as far as I'm concerned. The phrase "money changers" somehow emerges from my early Christian teachings.

They call him James Ure said...


I agree that the emphasis on materialism is troubling.

Anonymous said...

"You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember -- all I am offering is the truth, nothing more."

~Morpheus, "The Matrix"


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