Thursday, 11 February 2016

"Waking Up Is Hard Work": A Photographic Gift of Burma to Foreign Meditators

As Shwe Lan Ga Lay is entirely a dana project, American yogi Matt Richter has generously offered to give over one month of his time to helping the project in a unique way that will benefit all future meditators. He writes:

"On the night before his awakening, the Buddha sat beneath a bodhi tree and vowed not to move until he had become liberated from suffering. It is said that he attained enlightenment upon seeing the morning star in the eastern sky.

As I watch the sunrise after a month-long meditation retreat in Myanmar, I am humbled to realize how far it is to that goal. Waking up is hard work. 

I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to this country for valuing inner work and offering foreigners like myself the opportunity to learn from its great meditative traditions. The teachings of the Buddha are very much alive here in the Golden Land.

Due to a stroke of luck or perhaps some unexpected karmic connections, I have been given a wonderful opportunity to assist with a book project on Burmese Buddhism. As a visual pilgrimage of sorts, I plan to spend an additional two months in the country photographing important monasteries, meditation centers and sacred sites. Many of these places have played a significant role in the spread of Vipassanā, or insight meditation, and have directly influenced the growing mindfulness movement in the West.  

The project, which is almost entirely run by volunteers, will eventually culminate in the definitive guidebook for readers interested in traveling to Myanmar to practice meditation.

If you are curious about Buddhism, Burmese culture, meditation or simply want a glimpse of possibly the most photogenic country I've ever been to, I invite you to follow along at #BurmaDhamma and @shwe_lan_ga_lay.  Donations to the project can be made at the link in my profile. The project is largely funded by dāna, the Pali word for giving, so any contribution goes directly to to covering the basic costs and has a huge impact. Part 1 of the book can also be downloaded for free! Thanks for looking! ��"

Note: the book can be downloaded freely here, also the page where one may make any financial donations.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Advice from Htut Khaung Sayadaw

Bhikkhu Obhasa shares the following:
"After lunch my teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya and I were talking about how often Dhamma and especially Vinaya are argued about. He said his teacher Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw used to share a poem by Htut Khaung Sayadaw with some healthy guidelines for discussing Dhamma: (paraphrased)
On discussing Dhamma:
If someone speaks of Dhamma - Listen
If asked - Speak
If you agree (with anything) - Accept
If you disagree - Silence
-advice shared by my teacher shared by his teacher from a poem of Htut Khaung Sayadaw"

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Thread: Why Is the Four-Fold Sangha Important?

Although separated by continents, three Dhamma friends have been having discussions on practice and theory for some time via email, in order to share their perspectives and learn from one another as they continue on a spiritual path. All are American; two are lay and one is monastic. Between them they have nearly a half-century of practice, and all have been to Burma on several occasions, where they have resided at monasteries for some time. They have offered to share their ongoing Dhamma talks with the greater community, as others may be interested in considering the ideas that are discussed. To see their entire collection of messages, please see here.

Gerald: I took a moment to re-read Ethan's suggestion that Bhikkhu Obhasa and I were painting Burmese Buddhism glowlingly. Actually, I disagree with both examples he gave. The three of us have a history in communication (that is, before we offered the idea of sharing this chat with the Burma-Dhamma audience), and from past discussions it has been suggested that we (Bhikkhu Obhasa and I) present Burmese Buddhism in too favorable a light, and so I wonder if this past consideration was applied to this previous round unduly.

For example, the following line was quoted by me: “a millennium-long experimentation on the part of the Burmese people regarding how one organizes and orients an entire society towards the adherence to the teachings of a single supreme spiritual teacher." When I wrote this, I was very intentionally not suggesting any positive or negative aspects beyond a historical fact that needs to be remembered. The word "experimentation" does not imply that they have successfully resolved or found the answer for how one creates a Dhammic society; only that the attempt (and which is sometimes a very messy attempt!) has been consistent. This was why I intentionally used "experimentation," rather than something like "effective implementation." Similarly, the latter part of the sentence highlights that the Burmese have oriented their society around a single spiritual teacher-- this is also not seen as either positive nor negative, but a statement of fact, as opposed to the spiritual marketplaces found amongst neo-atheists and Buddhist secularists in the modern U.S., or throughout India today as well as in the past. Some people would say that a pluralistic spiritual society is actually better!

Similarly, rereading Bhikkhu Obhasa's post (I'm not sure which specific line Ethan felt was "glowingly"), I find he has written much less on specific cases in Burma and specific cases in the West, and more on what it means to have and not to have a monastic system, in a universal sense. In other words, I don't find him supporting the Burmese system vis-a-vis the West, but rather expressing that lay connection to monastic systems are in general a powerful addition when seeking to practice the Buddha's teachings.

Of course, Bhikkhu Obhasa puts an entirely different spin on this discussion by suggesting we look less at the language Pannobhasa Bhikkhu introduced of an "Epic Battle" between the U.S./West and Burma, and more at what each can learn from the other.

Finally, I'd like to share an observation that Bhikkhu Obhasa and I had in person. We realized that Ethan's posts tend to be objective in nature, mine bring in history, and his concern the personal narrative. Looking at our own backgrounds, this makes sense. Ethan has spent the least time in Burma amongst the three of us, so his view is more concerned with general rules, principles, information, comparisons to other systems, etc., as he tries to understand this intellectually. Being in academia myself, I've read many books on the subject and my view has been informed by "how we got from there to here." Bhikkhu Obhasa has made a radical transformation in his own life, leaving the householder's life entirely behind by ordaining last year, and his journey from lay meditator to Buddhist monk makes all these facts and debates a very personal issue.

I think the beauty of this roundtable format is that these three different puzzle pieces can come together as they do, and it can allow us to look at a single subject from different layers. At the same time, it also presents a danger of miscommunication and misunderstandings, so I think it's helpful to be explicit about how we are approaching the subject, so that we can better understand one another and consider how we frame our writings. While expressing our individual strengths is a gift to the communication, I think it will also be good if we each allow ourselves to delve into the others' spheres as well; for example on my part to remember the power of including my own personal narrative, while also considering objective questions as they may look to an outsider.

To conclude, despite these superficial differences, we are all united by a commitment to the spiritual journey, and a respect that it takes different forms for different people, and we are here to explore those forms in this dialogue.

Ethan: To be clear, I was not accusing either of you of any kind of bias. My intention was only to highlight a point I felt had been downplayed in the discussion so far: that negative trends and influences are present in Burmese Buddhism as well. Since we all clearly agree that they are, I won’t spend any more time on it.

In fact, while I enjoyed reading the “Epic Battle” post, I think the question of which system is better is ultimately unanswerable. Yes, certain systems are better at certain things, but in the end the best system is the one that best promotes spiritual progress, and that can vary greatly depending on the person, and can even differ at different times in an individual’s life (or lives). One of the questions that came up after reading “Epic Battle” was whether Western Theravada needs a monastic system, and if so, what should it look like? Since we all agree the answer to the first question is “yes,” what are your thoughts on the second? Since one of you has approaching a decade of experience living in a society with a Theravada monastic system and the the other has been an actual Theravada monk for (one? two?) years, I am very eager for your responses!

Bhikkhu Obhasa: As a preliminary to what a monastic system 'should' look like, I'd like to share more specifically why I think a monastic system, or more completely, why the entire four-fold sangha of monks, nuns, and lay men and women together, is important. I feel understanding what the value is will inform what it then might look like.

Valuing monastics is like valuing scientists in that supporting the field of scientists so they can devote full time to discovering things, benefits the people that support them. Monastics are different in the sense that they aren't trying to discover anything new, but they devote full time to replicating the grand experiment of liberation. And when there is success, this is a great inspiration for others.

In the last post it was stated that "in the end the best system is the one that best promotes spiritual progress..." and this was framed in terms of a person or individual. I think this is a bit too loose. In setting up the Vinaya for monks, the purpose wasn't only for the progress of the individual but also for the longevity of the teaching. I think this balance is more easily forgotten in the individualized western culture and that puts longevity at risk. Also I think progress towards the ultimate goal needs to be emphasized rather than just simply 'progress', as secondary benefits can come to be more emphasized and the highest goal marginalized, perhaps eventually even forgotten. These aims balance out what could otherwise become a self serving, short sighted system. In this regard, the communal monastic system seems far better poised to maintain this balance than individuals.

Monks an nuns spend their lives practicing and studying Dhamma. When they share that knowledge, they provide shortcuts to learning for others that don't have or make that time to dedicate to study. And since there are so many monks and nuns studying and practicing, there are bound to be available much variety in languages and ways of explaining that suit different people of different learning styles and different levels of understanding. This great pool anyone can lean on. It's a well anyone can drink from. Not only that, anyone can participate, for a short period or for life. This symbiotic interdependent relationship between monastics and laity is, in my opinion, the most stable, reliable, and sustaining system for spiritual progress.

So why would a monastic system be better for an individual than just learning Dhamma from individual lay teachers? First, that there are lay Dhamma teachers is great so it's not a matter of either/or and certainly lay teachers can be of great benefit. But I would say that lay teachers fare better and only actually exist BECAUSE OF the four-fold sangha, AS A PART OF IT, not seperate. Relying on a single Dhamma teacher that claims complete independence from monastic sangha is first of all, a farce because without the four-fold sangha, there wouldn't be any Dhamma to teach. It would be like a branch of a tree with no trunk or roots.

Second, relying on a single independent teacher in that way would be like relying on one scientist instead of a large pool of collaborating scientists with a deep history of research, shared contribution, renewed inspiration, and fresh successes. There's just no good reason to to cut yourself completely off from the pool (although there may be some good reasons to filter the water). Sharing in a greater sangha has the same benefits. It's alive and it has a momentum that helps carry everyone along. This is actually why the Buddha DIDN'T WANT monks to be independent of the laity. The four-fold sangha is communal and this sense of symbiotic interdependence helps to incline the mind away from individualist ego and more towards ideas like dependent arising. The larger the sense of sangha and the more one participates in it, the less strength of attachment there is to self, teacher, and technique. And the more momentum the sasana has, the more it can help us along.

Some say this mode, this system, is outdated. I however fail to see where these benefits, these values are not as relevant today as they ever were. I have focused mostly on benefits of the laity so far but there are also tremendous benefits for the monastics well beyond simply sustaining life via the four requisites. The mere act of being revered as is so abundant here in Myanmar makes me want to be worthy of that reverence, helps keep me on track and making effort to do my part to maintain the integrity of the monastic sangha. The results of striving then are shared with the laity who are naturally further inspired to support which further inspires me to striving. Around and around it goes in a cycle of mutual benefit.

Thanks for enduring the exegesis. I think in writing the above, I'm more clear on what conditions would need to arise for a naturally sustained four-fold sangha to exist but I'll speak more to that next time perhaps.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

A Yogi Story: "Practice after Health Issues"

The following narrative continues the story of a Mexican meditator who has been in Burma for many years. This is the ninth entry, and her entire story up until now can be found here.

"I kept practicing at the monastery and slowly the teacher helped me to see the difference between nature and concepts. This made a radical change in the practice and in the perception of reality for me. So then it was possible to investigate reality directly and to see the patterns in it. It was a very interesting time for me.

But it was around this time that I had a lot of health problems. They were mainly related with food and poor hygiene. At the beginning I had problems with digestion, and the precept of not taking food in the afternoon was very difficult because I had previously had gastritis and colitis, so the body was reacting a lot. The same problems happened in Kalaw with a lot of diarrhea but in Shwe Oo Min Yangon was even worse. I need to learn about local medicines because the medicines that I had were not working very well. So I try many things and I asked local people for help and advise. Most of the time local people were extremely kind and helpful. They really try to take care as much as they could.

The food in Myanmar tended to be extremely oily. It is the way they protect the food from fungus because of the heat. However, the quality of the oil is very bad. Normally is the cheapest oil they could afford. So many foreigners we struggle a lot with digestive problems. It can be constipation or chronic diarrhea. I needed to go many times to the hospital to take various kinds of tests.

The quality of the hospitals is very low as well as the hygiene. I could get some good information thanks to the doctors, who most of the time were very kind and willing to help, however, the standard is not very high at least in allopathic medicine. The best medicine in Myanmar in my experience is the local medicine. Is the one that works for diseases in the country. So what I ended doing was to ask mothers what medicine they use to give to their babies when they got strong diarrhea and that is the medicine that could relief the pain, symptoms and the problem.

Is good also to have supplements because in monasteries we only eat two times and the quality of the food sometimes is not very good because of hygiene and because of the amount of oil. Garlic helps to reduce cholesterol and to improve the immune system. Spirulina helps to keep one strong. Probioticis helps with chronic diarrhea. Ginger is good to improve digestion and heat in the body. Magnesium is good for constipation. I recommend to know local medicine and to learn form Ayurveda or Tibetan medicine. Those medicines are base on food. They will balance the body with alimentation, so is easier to find the products and just take them. In my experience this is what have solve the problem not antibiotics.

I kept meditating there until hot seasons and then I move again to Kalaw because of the heat. There I had the opportunity to keep practicing in an environmental that I already knew with new yogis. After it I needed to go out of Mynamar and I came back to Shwe Oo Min Yangon to keep practicing."

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Thread: How Should Western Meditators adapt from "Religious Burma"?

Although separated by continents, three Dhamma friends have been having discussions on practice and theory for some time via email, in order to share their perspectives and learn from one another as they continue on a spiritual path. All are American; two are lay and one is monastic. Between them they have nearly a half-century of practice, and all have been to Burma on several occasions, where they have resided at monasteries for some time. They have offered to share their ongoing Dhamma talks with the greater community, as others may be interested in considering the ideas that are discussed. To see their entire collection of messages, please see here.


I think we all agree that the West needs some kind of outlet so people who want to dedicate their lives to Dhamma are able to do so. U Obhasa hinted at one solution I had in mind when I posed the question. That is, perhaps the monastic system does not even need to be physically located in the West. Is it enough, for example, for a Theravada community in the United States to have an understanding that members who want to dedicate their lives to the teachings can go to Myanmar and ordain? Given how connected the world is now, it is not that difficult for a person to fly halfway across the globe to become a monk or nun. A means for the American community to offer material support for their member’s livelihood could even be set up. Would that kind of system be enough to convince Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu that the Western community is no longer “somewhat of a sham”? I’m not sure how I would feel about such a system. Certainly it would be better than nothing. But it also feels like a bit of a cop-out.

If, however, these dedicated people stay in the West, what kind of framework should there be to support them? Should it be a Vinaya-based system like in Burma and Thailand? Or can it take a completely different shape, while still hold to the core principle of providing a means of full dedication?

But instead of saying more on that topic right now, I’d like to bring up another theme that struck me from both of your responses. I noticed that both of you used fairly critical language to describe the development of Buddhism in the West, yet were more neutral/positive when talking about the system in Myanmar.

For instance, Gerald described Western Buddhism as being filtered by “Orientalism, Eastern exoticism, and transcendentalism/Romanticism,” and U Obhasa mentioned “additives already polluting and diluting the water” in the West. Then when describing Burmese Buddhism, Gerald called it “a millennium-long experimentation on the part of the Burmese people regarding how one organizes and orients an entire society towards the adherence to the teachings of a single supreme spiritual teacher.” U Obhasa used glowing language to describe the Burmese laity (though he did not name them directly) in the post Gerald linked to.

I don’t disagree with these sentiments at all. It’s just that they only seem partially true to me. I feel these descriptions leave out the fact that Buddhism in Burma was also shaped by negative forces. For instance, I’m sure authoritarian state and clerical control was a factor, and I know that due to illiteracy and certain structural factors, the great majority of lay people had little access to the deeper theoretical and practical aspects of Dhamma. Also, present day Buddhism in Myanmar is far from free of pride, greed and tribalism, which taint religions all over the world.

I bring this up not just to be contrarian, but to point out that there are very good reasons why many Western Buddhists are skeptical of adopting the practices of “religious Buddhism.” Certainly this skepticism can be taken too far, but I feel it is an important and valuable characteristic of modern spirituality in the West, and needs to be part of any conversation on how the teachings can best be transplanted and nurtured in the West.


That's correct, it sounds like none of the three of us are saying, "no monastic system is really needed at all in the West." It's important to pause at this point, however, as this is far from a common perception by Dhamma practitioners living outside of Buddhist countries. Some Western Buddhists point out that the Dhamma needs to adapt and adjust to the needs of the place and context in order to thrive, and that this may involve sacrificing the entire monastic system as a viable option. Goenka practitioners say a similar thing, with some variance, as some suggest that Ledi Sayadaw promoted Saya Thet Gyi specifically with an intent to establish a lay Sasana, as he (Ledi) feared that the monastic order could no longer play a primary role in this endeavor (it may be too tangential for me to comment on this particular theory at this time, but suffice it to say now, it is clear that empowering the laity was a major innovation of Ledi; however IMHO it is going a bit too far-- and perhaps imposing on history-- to suggest that his appointment of Saya Thet Gyi represented an acceptance that the Sasana was better managed under lay control). Looked at religiously (that is, in the context of what happens any time a religion moves across time, borders, and peoples), this seems to follow a familiar pattern of traditional beliefs becoming integrated in new cultures in an innovative way, and then this integration/adaption is redefined and justified as not only being a beneficial change, but also one that is more "authentic" to what is determined to be the core teachings.

In this case, one can go back long before Western Buddhists and the teachings of S.N. Goenka to examine the 19th century self-proclaimed Orientalists, who brought a form of "Protestant Buddhism" that sought answers not in the Buddhism of the people, which they determined was lost and impure, but from the ancient scriptures and written text alone.

Forgive me Ethan! You can tell I am a historian at heart and so many of your contemporary questions I get sidetracked to examine this historical progression, which I find so fascinating myself. I agree with your first passage Ethan, which is basically itself agreeing with U Obhasa's "water/canal" argument. This reminds me of a common belief in Myanmar, that if the written words of the Buddha are lost, the teachings may not last more than a century. This is because without a written guide to check against, it becomes impossible to know if one's practice and doctrine is in line or not with the Buddha's words. This contrasts somewhat with the Western concept that the Dhamma is something that is somewhat at the opposite end of academics and critical thought, for many practitioners have arrived at meditation practice after seeing the futility of higher education. It also explains why so many Western meditation teachers have almost no scriptural background or even basic understanding, but solely meditation experience as credentials; while Burmese teachers (of either meditation or scripture) must pass through many rigorous years of training before being allowed to preach the Dhamma in any form. And this relates to what U Obhasa said that without having a system of dedicated followers who are living in line with Buddha's teachings for every moment of their life, it is simply hard to have that wealth of resource in the West to draw upon, and which practitioners and meditation teachers alike can take advantage of. For the years of study that go in to being a qualified monk and teacher are so consuming, that one can concentrate on little else but this practice.

To me this is why both above Western arguments fall flat to me. Both Western Buddhism as well as the proliferation of Goenka's teachings have only been made possible by the millennium-long preservation of the Buddha's teachings that have been carried out almost exclusively by the monastic orders, and continue to so up to this day. As U Obhasa's humble post indicated last week, meditation practitioners are literally "riding on the backs" of so many who have allowed this practice to even exist. Or using his more recent metaphor, these canals are overflowing to such a degree today (which Sayalay Sukha and Monsoon Frog recently noted in this blog were resulting in monstrous waitlists at retreats across meditative traditions) directly because of the vast rivers and oceans that the monastic orders have maintained (and not to neglect the lay societies that have supported these monastic orders!). Those who have traveled to the rivers and oceans, or who have taken a plane across the land to see the geography; understand this. Those who have only seen the rushing canals without an appreciation of the deeper reservoir that fed them, may think that the canals are actually rivers themselves!

Happily, this segues directly into Ethan's closing skeptical assertion that U Obhasa and I may come of a bit glowing of Burmese Buddhism. This is a hard balance to communicate! Because he's right in his way, but it also depends how you are looking at it. For example, U Obhasa and I are two Westerners who come from a background where Burmese monastic society is downgraded as something "religious, traditional, and based on useless rites and rituals." What is more, both of us were strong advocates of these very ideas not so many years ago! So our comments about the value of Burmese Buddhism, and the undervalued role of monastics in Western Buddhist and meditative circles, often comes out stronger in response to this bias. A voice saying, "No, wait! There really is a lot of value here! You Westerners have your own bias, blind spots, and conditioning that is preventing you from properly seeing how it is operating." This forceful response, or rather over-compensation, can sometimes be heard as an unqualified "thumbs up" for the Burmese Sangha and overall Buddhist society, and a overriding criticism of how it is practiced outside. But this is not true, as Ethan points out there are many challenges found in Buddhist practice in Myanmar that need to be talked about openly, and many advantages to be found in the West, as Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu himself points out in his "Epic Battle" post, and which Bhikkhu Bodhi also voices concern about in the link posted in our last thread.

Not to shy away from this point, and fully admitting its truth, however this has been a long response by me already so perhaps I will come back to it in more detail next round.

Bhikkhu Obhasa:

Honestly I cringed at the accusation that I painted Burmese Buddhist laity glowingly. Taking a critical look at one side (especially doing so by exploring how my own personal biases were shaped and being willing to challenge them) does not equate to exalting the other. But if it's needed for clarity before the dialogue can move on, I will make it clear. Burmese Buddhism, both monastic and lay, in my opinion, are far from perfect. I however did not raise this point at the outset because it only seems bolster the fractionalized view that tradition is a broken system that need be ignored, forgotten, or even done away with. I realize none of us hold that view. Even so, if we're going to take a critical look at what's going on in traditional Buddhist culture to help inform the western Dhamma direction, understanding the biases we bring to the table seems primary.

My journey as I see it regarding this issue is to unpack my own belief systems, biases, cultural conditioning, and judgements, to see what I am bringing to the table. I've spent far too much time in my life focusing on and criticizing the imperfections of 'the other' so I am making a more concerted attempt to focus more on my 'stuff'. In doing so as a monastic here in Burma, I am finding value (sometimes begrudgingly) amongst the very things I criticized! And that doesn't mean that what I once saw as imperfect is now seen as perfect, just that with my arrogant idealized values of what I thought Dhamma should be blinded me from seeing the value in the imperfection of 'what is'. And most of the views I held of the superiority of western Dhamma are quickly crumbling.

Is there value in western Dhamma? Yes. Is western Dhamma fitting for its time and place? Yes. Does it supplant traditional Buddhism? No. Does it have something of value to offer the whole of Buddhism? Absolutely. I think the problem here and perhaps with Ven. Pannobhasa's original post as well as divisive discussions across the globe is pitting western and traditional Buddhism against each other. Shouldn't we be asking how they can support each other? Benefit each other? The thing is, while such debates go on, this symbiotic relationship is already happening. Much of the Buddhism in the west is still informed by and kept in check by tradition, and tradition is kept in check by the fresh look (at tradition and modern application) by adherents born outside of tradition. Of course that is only effective to the degree to which we are willing to check our own positions, views, biases, and beliefs. And that won't be perfect either but even some is enough to keep things going. Hopefully we heed the Buddha's many warnings of the dangers of views and attachments to them. Both east and west suffer from this.

I agree that the imperfections of tradition need to be understood and discussed. But how can that be objectively evaluated if we don't recognize our own biases we bring into the evaluation? So starting with internally trying to recognize those biases seems the most prudent and, to me, the most interesting way forward.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

"Experiential Learning in Buddhism and Truth"

Tharbawa Monastery requested to share the following announcement:

Date: 8 days retreat in 2016 [feb 7 to 16] 
Experiential Learning in Buddhism and TruthMeditation type: Insight meditation and loving kindness meditation
By Sayalay Cala (ITBMU)

Every 7 first days of the month 7 days meditation retreat at ThaBarWa Shwe Chaung (Pyin Oo Lwin)

Everyday in ThaBarwa Center, meditation class, Buddhism class & discussions. Possibility to do a self-retreat and limitless good deeds.

For all details refere to our website and can contact us through it.

Thank you for your collaboration,

Khema Cari
ThaBarWa Dhamma Center
Thanlyin, Yangon
+95 9 250047330

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Thread: The Value of Monastic Systems

Although separated by continents, three Dhamma friends have been having discussions on practice and theory for some time via email, in order to share their perspectives and learn from one another as they continue on a spiritual path. All are American; two are lay and one is monastic. Between them they have nearly a half-century of practice, and all have been to Burma on several occasions, where they have resided at monasteries for some time. They have offered to share their ongoing Dhamma talks with the greater community, as others may be interested in considering the ideas that are discussed.

Ethan: We’ve talked a lot about the differences and similarities, advantages and disadvantages of the meditation center-focused system that is common in Western Buddhist circles and of the monastery-focused system in Theravada countries. And I believe we all read U Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu's post titled “Epic Dhamma Battle: Myanmar vs. the USA." In the post he compares the Theravada Buddhist systems of Myanmar and the United States, coming to the conclusion that “Burma cleans America’s clock.” 

I disagree slightly with some of his conclusions in the post, but what I wanted to discuss is an idea that didn’t really catch my eye on the first reading, but that I started to wonder about as time went on. Here are a couple quotes from the post that

“Laypeople were originally intended to practice as much as they were able in their worldly circumstances and to support those really dedicated to practicing the system. So I repeat, the American lack of support for the more advanced levels of the system, which arguably are the most important levels, is a fatal flaw which undermines the whole thing.” (emphasis his)

“[I]f the really dedicated ones, regardless of whether or not they are wearing brown robes, are striving full time for the transcendence of Samsara, then they will need support. I suggest that any Theravada Buddhist organization in America that does not support at least one spiritual renunciant is somewhat of a sham, especially if its members are calling themselves ‘sangha.’ Theravada is a system first and foremost for renunciants.”

At its simplest, the question I’d like to discuss is, “Does Western Buddhism absolutely need a monastic system?”
Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu eems to be saying ‘yes,’ though not necessarily as a carbon copy of the Theravada system. In my interpretation, he doesn’t think this is because a monastic system is beneficial for the lay population, or even for the vast majority of monks (not that it is not beneficial for these groups, just that these aren’t the key benefits), but because it provides people who are “really dedicated to practicing the system” a chance to do so.

I can see his reasoning, as clearly if a committed Buddhist has no way to dedicate himself/herself fully to Dhamma there is something seriously wrong. However, I wonder if it is really necessary for Western Buddhist communities to develop monasticism in order to not be considered “somewhat of a sham.”

Gerald: What struck me is how Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu described his many years as a monastic in Burma, and then the shock of coming to the US. Of course, implicit in this dynamic is that Burma has had over 900 years of established Buddhist practice, and then during the 1,500 years before that had various touches with the faith. The US, and by extension the West, literally did not know if the Buddha came from either sub-Saharan Africa or ancient India as recently as a couple of centuries ago! (see Charles Allen's In Search of the Buddha). Given that Westerners knew so very little about the most basic origins of the Buddha, it goes without saying that they knew absolutely nothing about either the doctrine or practice. And when they did start to become interested, it was masked through the filters of Orientalism, Eastern exoticism, and transcendentalism/Romaticism, which more than skewed proper understanding (and later gave way to the later appropriations of Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg,Jack Kornfield, etc.)

What's so interesting to me then is that Western Buddhism (or as some like to refer to it, Non-Religious/Non-Secular Mind-and-Matter Observation of Pure Awareness and Mindfulness or some such variation) and Burmese Buddhism seem to be speaking the same language, however there are subtle gaps between how one is talking and the other. These subtle gaps ultimately cause immense confusion in the form of cultural bumps for those few who travel from one community to the other, expecting that the same understanding of the same practice is being followed, and becoming confused and disoriented by the gaps that continue to manifest. But that such a gap exists should not be confusing: on one hand we have a millennium-long experimentation on the part of the Burmese people regarding how one organizes and orients an entire society towards the adherence to the teachings of a single supreme spiritual teacher; while on the other hand you have a community in which the practice is barely a generation old, and is only practiced by a very small subset of the population who are still awkwardly trying to find how it fits within their cultural norms and established lives. In other words, the "minor cultural bumps and subtle gaps" are neither minor nor subtle, but blasting Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu directly in his face!

And to me, this represents the very difference of a society that has had centuries upon centuries to not only understand and investigate these teachings, but also to organize an entire society upon the establishment of the four-fold Sangha (the monk, nuns, lay men, and lay women), all of them fully engaged in carrying out their respective roles so the Sasana may continue (as Bhikkhu Obhasa himself so eloquently pointed out here). And the other society has experimented in their own way, from the innovation of the non-monastic meditation center (itself only about a half century old) to the presentation as Buddhism as being a kind of efficiency practice for the modern world. But the innovation of the West is still young, and has not yet turned its attempt on the monastic order, and so when a dedicated monastic such as Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu steps into the Western world of Buddhist practice, this is a glaring and shocking omission.

I realize I have somewhat sidestepped Ethan's question of "Does Western Buddhism absolutely need a monastic system?" I'm looking more at historical development and progression objectively, at how things developed and why it makes sense for them to develop in that way, rather than thinking about it as what they "absolutely" need and why. I may tackle this query next round. For now suffice it to say, that (a) it makes sense that most all the initial Buddhist teachers to the West innovated to bring the teachings without an emphasis on the monastic system as a primary concern; as well as (b), that we also have to be honest and not sidestep the fact that a huge component is lost by removing the central feature of both the Buddha's life and teachings and trying to develop further without ever looking to add this piece. On that last note of (b), I will add that while I am a lay practitioner, I have benefited beyond what words can explain by living within a monastic society such as Burma. In other words, a monastic system benefits not only the monastics, but as Bhikkhu Obhasa's post indicated, everyone involved in every facet of it

U Obhasa: It's a great question. My current answer is yes, the west needs the monastic system whether they know it or not, whether they understand it's value or not. And this answer I realize changes the meaning of the question in that I don't necessarily think the monastic structure needs to even BE in the west. It just needs to exist and the west would do well to understand it's value and stay connected. Along with the Buddha and Dhamma, the Sangha completes the core strength of the continued existence of these teachings. Monastic sangha in the west will only ever develop as much as supporting conditions allow. Currently those conditions are quite lacking and it's hard to tell whether those conditions will develop in the future. It could be that many will eventually understand the monastic sangha's necessity, even in it's inherent imperfection. But that need not be the case as the Dhamma is quite adaptive to varying conditions. Yet, whether the Buddhists in the west realize it or not, the Dhamma we have today exists ONLY because of the monastic system which includes all monks and nuns and all who have supported them both in the past centuries and today. Some say though that the monastic system is archaic and unsuitable to modern times. I feel that this view is rather shortsighted.

It's as if there's a big lake of water well cared for over many centuries. This lake, if not cared for in a certain way, would otherwise dry up. Others come from afar to drink and are even given permission to dig canals so the water may benefit those in distant arid places. But the people from afar don't channel it into another lake and take care of it in the same way as those they received it from. They create canals and distribution of the water based on the situations present in their own lands. The canals and the distribution system may be brilliant and a great fit for those lands but it would be ludicrous to think that it would survive long without the source being well taken care of, no matter how good the new system is. And this would be true whether it is understood or not. This is in response to those that not only emphasize certain aspects of the Dhamma at the exclusion of others but actually wish to abolish those other aspects completely from the face of the earth. These are some of the neo-athiest and secular mindfulness practitioners I've come across.

Another angle of this issue is brought up by Bhikkhu Bodhi. How far can the Dhamma be stretched to fit the current non-traditional culture? Using the water metaphor, one may emphasize secondary aspects of the benefits of water in order to appeal to the local culture like that one can swim in the water and swimming is both fun and good excercise. To a degree, nothing wrong in that because the Dhamma has a certain amount of adaptability and it does have such secondary benefits. But when those secondary aspects start to eclipse the primary benefit, when swimming becomes more important than drinking water and growing food, that's a detrimental perspective. It misses the point. When the emphasis in Dhamma is no longer liberation but instead secondary life benefits, we will have lost the core. A culture of primarily lay teachers is more likely to drift that way than one whose Dhamma is still influenced by a strong monastic tradition. The main emphasis of liberation seems far better anchored by those 100% committed to it than those who have other obligations. Do the monastics actually need to be within the physical culture? Maybe, but perhaps not. As long as the culture doesn't cut itself from the source.

Can another culture borrow from the traditional source and create a new way of sustaining it? Perhaps, but I am doubtful. It's too early to tell but even at these early stages it already seems too scattered and unstable. It could go on perhaps hundreds of years but the tradition has been proven to last for thousands. With all the Kool-Aid and other additives already polluting and diluting the water, so far the 'new' ways don't seem like they'd survive apart from the tradition let alone outlast it...