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.”
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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
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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...