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.

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