Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Epic Dhamma Battle: Myanmar vs. the USA

Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu is an American monk who has spent 25 years in Burma, thereby making him uniquely qualified to contrast the differences between Dhamma practice of these two cultures. This is exactly what he does in his highly engaging recent essay Epic Dhamma Battle: Myanmar vs. the USA

Here is one passage in which he sets the scene: "Also before proceeding I will mention an event that occurred not long ago, within the past few years, as it has a moral which may be useful to bear in mind. One of the most famous and influential Vipassana teachers in America went to Burma and was introduced to a Burmese lady, the likes of whom are very rare in America but not so uncommon in Burma—she keeps eight precepts, always wears the brown clothing of a yogi, studies the Pali texts in depth, and takes Theravada Buddhism very, very seriously. Anyway, the famous Western teacher gifted her with a number of copies of the famous books he had written and then proceeded to explain to her what was wrong with Burmese Buddhism and how it ought to be changed. The Burmese lady was so indignant at his superior American attitude that as soon as he left she had all of his books thrown out of her house. I’ve never met the famous Vipassana teacher but I have met the Burmese lady, and I know that a granite-like faith such as hers is a force to be reckoned with. Anyway, the moral of this little tale is this: A firm conviction that you are right counts for nothing, since everyone is the same way, including those who believe the exact opposite as you. Everyone considers their own way to be right, or at least more right than other people’s way; and these two “rights” don’t make a wrong, but simply cancel each other out. They add up to zero and can be left out of account. The Burmese can see the faults of Western Buddhism no less clearly than Americans can see the faults of the Burmese version, and both sides are largely blind to the most important shortcomings of their own systems. So again, if you are a Westerner and can see plainly enough that Western Buddhism is an improvement on the Asian traditions, it counts for pretty much zero, because those Asians can see that Western Buddhism is not an improvement, and they can see it just as clearly. So it’s good to have an objective perspective of the Big Picture, as I will try to have in what follows."

Such astute observations in what follows is rare today among those who write about the Dhamma today, and his ability to discern subtle distinctions, and advantages and disadvantages among the cultural forms of practice and belief, are highly valuable to anyone on the Path, and particularly those with an interest in Burma-Dharma.