Just like in the old days…
From Buddhadharma News: Teachers gather to discuss the future of Western Buddhism:
The conference, known as the Maha Teacher Council, is by invitation only.
It also was not announced more than a week prior to the event and the participants are a secret.
How does that strike you?
It strikes me as very odd.
Why is this any of our business? Why not just ignore it?
Maha Teacher Council sounds like something official. Some of the most prominent Buddhist teachers and book authors are going to be present. It involves some of the big Buddhist magazines. They shape the message that the masses will receive regarding the Buddhadharma. They have authority in terms of lineage, Buddhist practice, ownership of Buddhist properties such as centers, mass production of English language Buddhist information and of course media reach.
This affects the atmosphere of Buddhist practice for many of us. It possibly affects the direction some future Buddhist endeavors take. It further consolidates a power base for a select group of individuals to determine the mainstream Buddhist message.
And there’s more.
Brad Warner wrote in the comments on a Facebook mention of this item:
Oh nice. A self-selected groüp of important Büddhists get together to decide what’s best for the rest of us.
Gatherings like this worry me a lot. It’s pretty obvious what their intentions are.
The intent is to create a unified sense of what Buddhism ought to be. It’s like trying to create a unified sense of what art ought to be. Very Soviet sounding to me.
And yes, I will even admit to being bothered at not being invited. Because someone needs to take a stand against that attitude, which is starting to take over Buddhism in the west and will, I believe, win in the end.
[a commenter pointed out that there was no list of attendees or agenda published] I can’t find a list either. Which is also intriguing.
But I do think someone needs to question this kind of thing openly. I’m only sorry (and annoyed) that has to be me.
[When Brad makes a blog post about this it will go here. 6.8.11 And here it is Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Uninvited to the Buddhist Party on Suicide Girls and another on his own blog here][In case he doesn’t you can always read mine]
Well Brad isn’t the only one with concerns about these conferences and self-appointed decision makers. Several other commenters had some issues with this though many dismissed it as rather unimportant in a self-important sort of way. I want to go through some of the issues that were brought up as well as some of the dismissals.
This meeting is in the spirit of previous teacher meet ups.
As Buddhism becomes established in the West, one of the new developments is a rich cross-fertilization among the great traditions. In this spirit, Buddhist teachers in the West have been meeting and supporting one another in many forms. The Garrison 2011 meeting continues the past series of collaborative teacher meetings held in the U.S., Dharamsala, and in Europe.
As for cross-fertilization being a “new” development, well that’s not exactly new. Ancient monks travelled for years to obtain teachings and documents. Dogen went to China, Chinese monks went to India…Here’s a lovely PDF document that illustrates the point The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing SOURCES FOR CROSS-CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS BETWEEN ANCIENT CHINA AND ANCIENT INDIA (there’s even maps of these travels for those not inclined to read the article), Indian monks went to Sri Lanka, Ghandaran Buddhists went to Pakistan, Afghanistan (recall Bamiyan?) and further west, Tibetan monks went to India in ancient times and far more recently to carry texts out from Chinese occupied Tibet, Bodhidharma went to… It still happens today all over Asia. And the West came east in the form of Alexander (known as Sikander in India) (and many others) who took back a great quantity of knowledge to Ancient Greece. You get the picture. That’s how Buddhism spread around. That’s why there is such dispute over the earliest writings and Who’s Buddhism is Truest? Cross-pollination has long been the name of the game. It’s irksome when Buddhist “authorities” don’t seem to know Buddhist history and claim to be some kind of modern developers of something (idea, practice, methodology, anything), especially in the name of self-aggrandizing Western accomplishment, that has been in existence for centuries.
A series of past meetings was mentioned. It would be nice if there was some note made of the time frames in which these other meetings had occurred and who attended them as well, if only to save some research time. If historical precedent had been set then perhaps that could be noted. However at a Dharamsala meeting held on March 16-19, 1993 the 22 Western teacher attendees, in addition to HH Dalai Lama, included:
Fred von Allmen, Brendan Lee Kennedy, Ven. Ajahn Amaro, Bodhin Kjolhede Sensei, Jack Kornfield, Martine Batchelor, Dharmachari Kulananda, Stephen Batchelor, Jakusho Bill Kwong Roshi, Alex Berzin, Lama Namgyal (Daniel Boschero), Ven. Thubten Chodron (Cherry Greene), Ven. Tenzin Palmo, Lama Drupgyu Crony Chapman), Ven. Thubten Pende (James Dougherty), Lopon Claude aEsnee, Lama Surya Das (Jeffrey Miller), Edie Irwin, Robert Thurman, Junpo Sensei (Denis Kelly), Sylvia Wetzel.
And one of the things discussed there was ethics and a joint statement on that was issued within the group open letter that came out of the meeting. [at the end of this PDF] In that document is Bodhin Kjolhede’s recollections of the meeting along with some direction given by HH Dalai Lama. Well worth a read.
If something like that were to be produced that would certainly be productive and useful. Even an endorsement of the previous statement would also at least indicate that some have read it.
The question that keeps coming up for me is why this has been organized in such an under-the-table sort of way. Should we not celebrate this great meeting of minds as a step forward in Western convert Buddhism? Should we not at least mention it a little earlier than a week before it gets under way? Sure it may have been on the Institute’s calendar for some months but a few lines on a tertiary webpage of some obscure retreat center is hardly an announcement. Particularly since Shambhala Sun staff have been involved in setting this up for years. Should we not also mention who is attending? By not doing so makes the whole thing appear either irrelevant to the Maha sangha in the West or somehow surreptitious. If it’s only to avoid inviting Brad Warner or other non-traditional folk then that’s a rather insecure perspective and frankly rather childish. One would think that mature adults, particularly adult practitioners of Buddhism and even more so teachers who take the moniker of “Elders” would be able to say “No” if that was the necessary response to circumstances.
There’s a lot of these future of Western Buddhism meetings and conferences going around these days. Buddhist Geeks is one that comes to mind. There will be some presentations from around 2 dozen presenters and participation is open to anyone who can afford a trip to Los Angeles, lodging, conference fees etc. And with the technical skills of the Geeks folks quite likely much of it will appear on the Internet for all to enjoy, learn from and even criticize. Despite the oft repeated phrase of this group being about “the emerging face of Buddhism”, the primarily upper class and dominant culture (aka mostly white people) element and the Integral push that is well represented, there’s not much about it that either excites me or gives me the vapors in any sort of serious way. The one big reservation I have about it is with having Jane McGonigal, gamification evangelist, included. I realize she had a book that was all cutting edge a couple of months back so there’s a certain geekish panache involved but I find her perspective not only unrelated to anything having to do with Buddhism but rather antithetical to it. Do we really need another layer of illusion woven atop of the Samsara we already know and love. And just because someone meditates occasionally, that does not make them a Buddhist any more than someone who changes a light bulb occasionally is an electrician. I’ve read her book and am finishing up reading her academic papers so an explanation of my objections to what she preaches as well as the move to gamification in general will be forthcoming some time in the future.
This Maha Teacher Council conference and meeting however is a different matter. It takes up a week in the calendar which is no small amount of time for 4.5 bus loads of people. 230 carefully selected teachers is no small number. It’s more than the entire membership of the American Zen Teacher’s Association, the Shambhala Acharyas and Insight Meditation teachers combined. Certainly there are many more teachers in many more lineages and groups than these across the US. Theravada teachers, Tibetan lamas, Shingon, Tendai, Pure Land, Jodo Shinsu, Buddhist Churches of America, Nichiren, Triratna and many others have some representatives in the US.
I wonder how many of these will be represented at this meeting. Pretty hard to find out since not only is no list of these prestigious invitees available, so little has been mentioned about it, other than the recent brief announcement less than a week before the event, that one begins to wonder if this whole thing has been planned with some kind of secrecy in mind. Do the participants have to sign non-disclosure agreements too? Some prominent teachers have been asked directly if they are attending and they do not respond. Is that because they are attending and are embarrassed to be called Mahagurus or because they didn’t get the invite? Maha means great. Guru means teacher.
The seemingly surreptitious nature of this gathering will do wonders for the transparency issues that so many American Buddhist sanghas seem to have so much trouble with these days.
Addendum: In order to try to determine who might be attending I’ve had a look at the various online offerings that over 100 teachers make available. This includes Facebook, Twitter, blogs, center websites and their teaching schedules. Nowhere is this meeting indicated on the vast majority of those sources, however several have a blank space in their schedules at the time of the meeting and either immediately before or very shortly thereafter have teaching engagements around NYC. This includes Stephen Batchelor and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo . Have found one participant, Jay Rinsen Weik Senior Dharma teacher of the Toledo Zen Center who made an actual announcement on Facebook. As well Jack Kornfield will be attending per his calendar on his website (which was down but a copy is in Google cache).
I could give a much bigger list of who’s schedules admit they won’t be there[provided the schedules are correct] That includes B. Alan Wallace, David Loy, Joan Halifax, Grace Schireson, Jan Bays, Alan Senauke, Susan Piver, Brad Warner and quite a few well known others.
One commenter deemed those who would attend as “the usual suspects”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing.
What is this meeting about exactly?
Before I go into some of the issues surrounding the announcement of this Maha Teacher’s Council meeting we find they will discuss a number of rather vague items. Nothing too exact about it. By the language used, since that’s all we have to go by, there are a number of concerns that might be touched upon.
In the event information the following topics are mentioned:
THE MINDFUL SOCIETY – a visionary consideration of the promise and the pitfalls as the Dharma spreads more widely into medicine, science, healing, education, the arts and all aspects of Western culture.
PRESERVATION OF DEPTH AND ADAPTING SKILLFUL MEANS TO A NEW WORLD – how to preserve and adapt the Dharma in new conditions without losing depth.
FROM ELDERS TO THE NEXT GENERATION – 50 teachers under age 45 will join the council to consider together how the current teachers can best support and empower the next generations.
In order for this post not to reach epic proportions I’m going to summarize the main concerns that appeared in comments in various places as well as some of my own.
On the Event Items
The Buddhadharma is a lot more than mindfulness. Mindfulness alone does not constitute all of Buddhadharma. Although there seem to be plenty of teachers around who put that notion forward. Mindfulness is 1/8th of the 8 Fold Path. That’s only 12.5%. Let’s not forget the other 87.5%.
One perspective is to say that the Buddhadharma is spreading into secular areas as mentioned and another is to say that portions of Buddhist methodology are being co-opted to fit into other non-Buddhist related objectives. The latter results often into quite a distorted picture of what Buddha taught. He never taught mindful marketing, never wrote a manual of child rearing, didn’t have a column on relationships and self-esteem and did not constantly admonish those around him to “Don’t worry, be happy.”
The intersection of Buddhism with medicine, the arts, science, healing, education and other areas is certainly an interesting and fruitful area. However too often that intersection downplays the “Buddhist” element in favor of the familiar Western philosophical paradigms of scientism and materialism and seeks to justify Buddhist world views by placing them into narrow boxes of conditioned Western Enlightenment thought. Enlightenment there is in the philosophical sense not in the Buddhist sense.
Does “Mindful Society” include the element of engaged Buddhism?
Whose society is being discussed:American society, English-speaking society, upper-middle class society?
Preservation of Depth and Adapting Skillful Means to a New World.
It would seem rather obvious that teachers require some kind of education in Buddhism to begin with. One that won’t be found in a 3 week teaching-of-meditation course. If one wants to preserve depth then depth is what has to be the focus of the teaching. And that takes time.
Buddhist teachings are a very deep well from which to drink.
As for skillful means read on to the sub-heading Technology.
From Elders to the Next Generation.
If teachers have been doing their teaching properly then the next generations should have a suitable foundation upon which to continue and build. That is probably the best support that can be given.
All we know at this juncture is that Shambhala Sun and Bodhidharma magazines and the Garrison Institute retreat center are involved.
Who are the sponsors? Housing and feeding 230 people for a week can be quite prohibitive in terms of cost. This kind of event isn’t cheap.
What is the benefit derived by these sponsors?
One of the organizers is the publisher of Shambhala Sun and they will have a representative on the ground according to the blurb on their website. So I guess we will have to wait for the fall edition of Shambhala Sun to find out what went on.
I don’t know if Garrison Institute is a sponsor or not. The event is being held there and there is a prominent banner on the Shambhala website announcement.
This organization has spiritual advisors such as Father Thomas Keating, Gelek Rimpoche and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, well respected board members from universities and businesses and retreat teachers such as Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein and..well, Adyashanti. So it’s something of a Buddhisty scented place though Buddhism is not mentioned much on their website. More towards the “contemplative” and “psychotherapeutic” range of the scale.
One of their retreats offers “nonsectarian universal wisdom for people of all backgrounds” so that’s perhaps the direction of the future of Buddhism. Mild, deodorized, mediocre, watered down, beige, tasteless and certainly not too challenging. And yes the “beige” has more than one meaning.
Now one will certainly be comfortable in the surroundings with jacuzzis on every floor. Here is a nice slide show of the place which is a former monastery and covers 95 acres. That’s not to say that teachers should be subject to any sort of privations but more a statement on the class issues which I will get to momentarily.
The institute has a budget of over 3.2 million dollars. Not exactly bush league.
It is interesting that the Institute offers a whole section of courses and retreats on Transformational Ecology and one of their primary corporate sponsors is Shell International, the oil company. (via their most recent Annual Report p. 7) Make of that what you will.
Institutionalization and Conservatism
Conservatism means in the general political sense:
- a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change
Social conservatism means:
- Caution or moderation, as in behavior or outlook.
Cultural conservatism means:
Cultural conservatives support the preservation of the heritage of one nation, or of a shared culture that is not defined by national boundaries
The latter item is the one that concerns me the most. The viewpoint of these popular magazines is generally one of upper-class, white, heteronormative, secularized bias. Secularized meaning mindfullness has been stripped of it’s Buddhist roots, associations and connotations and become a stand alone feel good self-help form of psychotherapy.
Arun has done some of the math on some of this regarding viewpoint, for example in On White Women and Buddhism and Asian Meter 2009 particular to Shambhala Sun.
It is not about individual beliefs for I don’t think the majority attending this conference are racists, sexists or any other distasteful sort of –ist. But I do think the institutional-based –ists are in evidence. Not only in terms of reinforcing the various dominant narratives but also in terms of further divisive marginalization and derogation of Asian Buddhism. Can there be a “Western Buddhism” without an Asian Buddhism?
What I mean by that is the secular-materialist viewpoint which sees itself as superior to a religious-idealist viewpoint and is not self-aware enough to realize that it is often at the expense of rather than in cooperation with “the other”. What is sought in this instances of cultural conservatism is not preservation of Buddhism, particularly the Asian variety but of Western, wealthy, white hegemony.
Any time Western Buddhists are mentioned it is with the subtext of overlooking, ignoring or generally not acknowledging Asian Buddhists. Asian Buddhists, including Asian-American Buddhists are only admitted into the privilege circle of Western Buddhism when they reinvent themselves or perform as rock stars, rebels, crazy wisdom clowns or Yoda-like wise men. It is a performance on the stage set by the hegemonic culture for their own edification and benefit to the detriment of those who perform in these Buddhist garbed minstrel shows. Though in that case Asians often seem forced to lampoon themselves to service their audience’s stereotypes.
Who selected the attendees? What was the criteria for selection? What is their agenda? What are their biases? And why can’t people know that?
These are public figures acting in an official and dare I say professional capacity.
It appears that some few elites have learned Buddhism and set themselves up as Dharma power brokers. They have the “official” knowledge and maintain an insularity as keepers of that knowledge.
Did you know about this meeting of prominent and influential teachers before last week?
Most people didn’t.
The more I work on this blog post the more I am inclined to agree with Brad Warner’s assessment of the intention of this kind of meeting.
The intent is to create a unified sense of what Buddhism ought to be. It’s like trying to create a unified sense of what art ought to be. Very Soviet sounding to me.
One commenter wrote:
“as someone who speaks hindi, “Maha Teacher Council” sounds ridiculous. I don’t get how anyone (teacher worth his salt) could take that conference/topic seriously and attend.”
It is pretty aggrandizing and self aggrandizing. Another elitist smoke screen between the proles and the elite of the Inner Party. (get out your copy of 1984 for that reference)
Yes the last thing anyone wants is the rowdies from the cheap seats upsetting the careful staging of this piece of precious esoteric theater.
And don’t tell anyone outside the chosen circle about the gathering lest it harsh the mellow of the old wood and quiet gardens. Walled gardens that is. Rather like gated communities. Secure and private. Very private.
Privacy is the refuge of the elites. They can afford to hide behind walls, titles and social status. They can pass their knowledge, skill and helpfulness on in this way without damaging their status. Comes across as rather Skull and Bones.
Of course this group doesn’t have any legal way to take away the rights and freedoms of other Buddhists. They have no power at all other than what their students and followers give to them.
That’s the point. These are leaders. Sure they may not be dictators but they certainly have influence.
Since Shambhala Sun has stepped up and mentioned their involvement I’ll address that. Those who purchase Shambhala Sun, Tricycle and related magazines as well as the products advertised within them have a relatively high standard of living.
The average household income for Tricycle readers is $50,000 or more and $72, 000 for Shambhala Sun readers, with 50 percent having incomes between $60,000 and $90,000. Shambhala Sun furthermore notes that 35 percent of their readership are professionals in the “medical/alternative health care, legal, financial, or counseling fields.” As evidence of the assertion that we are, in some significant way, talking about people who might actually meditate, Shambhala Sun finds that 90 percent have “visited a contemplative center or retreat center in the past year.”
which is from the Shambhala Sun ad rate card, fall 1999, according to “Americans Need Something to Sit On,” or Zen Meditation Materials and Buddhist Diversity in North America By Douglas M. Padgett. I think it would be safe to say that those figures are considerably higher at this point in time. [Excellent article. Go read it.]
Now it is in keeping with business practice to organize events that will forward and expand the ideology, scope and particular viewpoint of that given business. It’s called cornering the market. Drug manufacturers do it all the time. They invite a bunch of doctors, particularly those that have been friendly to them in the past, for a conference, vacation or other sort of meet up and give their pitch while their cohorts in the audience help to provide an accepting ambiance.
Just because something is called non-profit doesn’t mean it is exempt from behaving just like a for profit organization. The postulates for raising money, profile, readership, sales, network connections and reach are exactly the same. Scientology is a non-profit registered entity and so are many art museums, cultural foundations and big charities like the Red Cross or the Gates Foundation.
I’m not saying that the Shambhala Sun and its affiliated foundations are greedy, only that they are not exempt from market forces and it is greatly in their interest to expand their brand of Elite Buddhism.
Elite Buddhism, from the Padgett article cited above, means a number of things. I am taking Padgett’s definition with it’s consumerist orientation. Here he explains his definition with respect to others:
…Elite Buddhist are those privileged, well-educated Americans with time enough and money enough to devote themselves to some level of meditation and the study of Buddhist concepts.
For the purposes of this paper, however, Elite Buddhism is not wholly defined by actual meditation practice, but rather by a particular consumer orientation. I am interested in their consumption habits. In consumption anthropology, they might be known as “highbrow Buddhists.” They may be meditators; they may not. In either case, they have certainly adopted consumption habits indicating a minimal level of understanding and commitment to a Buddhist practice. I am adopting Nattier’s term because those whom I call Elite Buddhists are those who are making investments of one sort or another in meditation. Thomas A. Tweed has referred to some of the people I am trying to identify as “night-stand” Buddhists—Buddhist sympathizers and seekers for whom the most regular “practice” is passive—reading Buddhist books, listening to “Buddhist” music, watching Buddhist videos, thinking about Buddhist concepts.(14) Taken together, these night-stand Buddhists and Elite Buddhists, as well as Tweed’s other categories of Buddhist affiliates, “horse-shed Buddhists” (occasional practitioners), “Buddhist interpreters” (journalists and scholars), and “Dharma hoppers” (permanent seekers who move from community to community) constitute a coherent population of people with knowledge about and interest in Buddhism. They appear to be affiliates of something like what Tweed has referred to, in the Victorian context, as a “community of discourse.”(15) For my purposes, perhaps, most importantly, these are also the people who are buying things that, in some way are symbolically or culturally associated with Buddhism. Thus, this community of discourse might just as appropriately be referred to collectively as a “community of consumption.”(16)
The “community of discourse” in which the big Buddhist magazines flourish is indeed involved in consumption. And a great deal of what the community consumes comes from the pages of these magazines as well as the events they sponsor or offer advertisements to and the books they publish.
Considering the demographic of the readership these are not only Elites but very well off elites. This is what mainstream convert Buddhism is increasingly coming to look like.
We live in a time and a place where money talks. That includes in Buddhist social and institutional circles as well as Wall Street offices.
Not only do we have exclusions based on gender and race from the mainstream but increasing marginalization of the working classes and the poor, for whom the Buddhadharma (the teachings not the magazine) would be and is a great benefit.
And that certain lineages and teachers receive preferential treatment within the pages of those magazines is not surprising. The more they receive exposure the more they come to dominate Buddhist discourse in America and elsewhere. And more importantly the more readers will shell out for their particular brand.
Authority these days often has little to do with knowledge, experience or ability and far more to do with media reach.
Whoever benefits by advertising dollars, favoritism within dominant media and participation in elitist meetings are those who will be deemed authoritative. [It also doesn’t hurt to have Christopher Hitchens endorse one’s theories]
Authority by celebrity is rapidly replacing actual knowledge and wisdom. Or celebrity must accompany such knowledge and wisdom in order for it to be heard.
It is to be hoped, especially with an invitation only event, that there will be people from numerous ethnic groups and not just white converts. That’s as plainly as I can put it.
That concern is only part of something much bigger that needs to be addressed as well.
Image via Science News article Information flow can reveal dirty deeds. (Enron message flow regarding illicit projects(left) and normal business)
The network dynamics of any organization or group can be modeled to illustrate the way the group works in terms of inclusivity, transparency and accountability.
The diagram illustrates the difference between a closed (and corrupt) organization and an open inclusive, accountable one. On the left is a corrupt group. On the right is a non-corrupt group. Where the interactions cluster towards the center with little external contact and the ties are very tight and close and there is little feedback or contact opportunity from the outliers there is a transparency problem as well as one of accountability.
Whether we are talking about the inclusion of different ethnic backgrounds, gender inclusion or any other issue of inclusion, examination of the dynamics of the situation are helpful in visualizing what is really going on.
In this particular instance, 230 public figures are cloistered in a semi-secret retreat by invitation only, some literally choosing not to disclose their locations on their calendars, discussing the future of Western Buddhism, issues regarding ethics, lineages, successions and both seeking and offering advice to some of the next generation of teachers, who also have been chosen by invitation only.
This pattern is simply an enlargement of some of the primary problems many American sanghas have encountered for decades taken to a new level. We have the Dons of the convert Buddhist endeavor sanctioning these same problems by their attendance and passing on these dysfunctional patterns to a select group.
I’m not saying that the conference and meeting needs to be a collective or even democratic sort of project. Clearly people who have experience and knowledge set the agenda for such a meeting. What I am saying is the method and structure is flawed. The desire to hold power in this area is corrupting the center. And has been for a long time.
Rigidification of Hierarchy and Lineage
One commenter remarked:
“It’s to re-establish and codify the lineage-tradition of the usual suspects so they seem more important and/or certified so that they can sell more books to the unsuspecting public by (for example) saying the Buddha was someone who followed the “subversive path of an outlaw transient.””
There’s just not a whole lot I can add to that.
One thing that definitely seems out of the picture relates to technology and how that influences the access to Buddhist teachings. There are several people offering online sanghas and meditation times both live and recorded. There are thousands of dharma talks, taishos, ceremonies, texts, commentaries, translations and so on available. Of course there are also websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter on which many teachers and sanghas put forward some form of representation either personally or as groups. Many even use Google docs for their public calendars.
What I’ve noticed since I read this announcement is that only one blog and one Facebook page out of hundreds that I am aware of indicates that the owner or group representative is going to attend this meeting. No others even mention it. Those who have some Internet presence seem to be excluded.
This is really surprising considering the agenda items for the meeting. The future, younger generation, dissemination of the Dharma and all that.
If this group can’t even handle the present, with the multitude of global Buddhist presentations already available, it is pretty unlikely they will have any sort of “visionary” statements to make about the future and even less so regarding the support by the “Elders” of the younger generation.
This meeting doesn’t even have a website! The future? Really? Maybe they arranged it all by telegraph.
[A bit of an aside. This is somewhat reminiscent of certain ways of thinking that was demonstrated during the old Tricycle fiasco regarding Buddhist Bullies with the stodgy clinging to some very conservative positions. Nishijima Roshi called the Japanese Buddhist establishment a bunch of “funeral directors” so what may we make of the American Buddhist establishment? Technophobic psychotherapeutic book sellers for some part. ]
Western Ethnocentrism and the Larger Picture
One of the questions that comes up is how this group views itself within the global Mahasangha and in terms of development and extension of the Buddhadharma. Buddhist teachings are not some kind of relay race where the Indians pass them off to Southeast Asia and on to the Chinese and Tibetans, then the Japanese then Europe and the Americas take over. Although that seems to be the view many in the west, and some in Asia as well, have adopted. It is not a linear deal and that straight line paradigm doesn’t fit the case. It is part of the same idea that views Theravada or even Asian Buddhism in general as “old” even though present day Theravada is as “modern” as anything else since it resides within the same current time frame, that being the present aka now. Linear thinking has its uses but it also has its drawbacks.
There are many efforts to bring Buddhists together under large umbrellas globally such as World Buddhist Sangha Council and the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
There was the World Buddhist Forum, 2006 which was a somewhat botched effort held in China and excluded the Dalai Lama even though their stated purpose included lofty goals.
The forum aimed to set up an open dialogue in equality and pluralism, for those who love the world, care for living beings, respect and protect Buddhism, with a loving heart to conduct exchanges and collaboration. The forum was open to all, Buddhists and non-Buddhists, regardless of tradition or religious background, hoping to accomplish an open dialogue on Buddhist topics.
Regional and local efforts continue aplenty as well. There’s the Buddhist Council of the Midwest, The American Buddhist Congress, The Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California and many others. Unfortunately most of them are driven by individuals or small organizing groups and don’t really go anywhere in terms of continued effort. That’s pretty ironic considering that those ancient guys at the first few Buddhist Councils didn’t have any telecommunications equipment and had to walk to the council and still managed to assemble and codify the Tripitaka. From memory.
Dismissals and Why Some Teachers Might Want to Pay a Bit of Attention Here
Some people want to dismiss this gathering as nothing more than some kind of product showcase, teach in, mutual admiration society, spiritual circle jerk, inter-sectarian sharing session, religious summer camp, translation project production committee or networking opportunity. Maybe it’s any one of those or all of them. And maybe it’s not. Who knows except those who got the encrypted invitation and secret decoder ring?
Then there are others who seem to take neither the gathering nor any concerns about it with any seriousness.
James Ford Roshi forgot the emoticons when he commented:
quite a bit of bile here. What’s the worry that a someone invited a bunch of Dharma folk to palaver? Does someone think from reading some news copy that a grand council is going to be writing legislation that other people are going to have to obey or go to jail? Best I see it, just a bunch of gassing by people with some things in common.
Ooops. I’m wrong. Turns out it is a conspiracy. I’ve just been assigned to the What the Fuck to Do About Brad subcommittee of the We Gotta Get Control of the Loose Cannons committee of the New World Order Dharma Cabal…
There, all fixed emoticon-wise.
James can mock the concerns of people as much as he likes of course, as that is apparently par for the course for many Zen masters. [straight line-too easy] A number of other Zen types also took a similar tack regarding either this meeting or concerns about it. Who am I to argue with the official party line? [rhetorical question]
Considering that one of his colleagues from his Boundless Way organization is attending as well as Jack Kornfield and quite likely other very well known and highly influential people, it’s a bit disingenuous don’t you think to try to write it off in that way?
Competition is one of the hallmarks of American culture. That is often managed by way of cartels, coalitions, consortiums and other quid pro quo arrangements when the field of play becomes both large enough and competitive enough. And lucrative enough. This necessarily pushes many to the sidelines.
What happens to them in the rush to promote particular brands especially when those involve a great deal of watering down in order to make them palatable for consumers?
- Is this going to be an on-going project?
- Will this group meet on any sort of regular basis?
- Is it the foundation of something bigger?
- What are the criteria for inclusion?
- Is exclusion by way of lack of invitation an act of ostracization?
- How will this group interface with other groups with similar purposes?
- Who is actually being represented?
- Who benefits?
230 is by no means a large gathering of Buddhists in global terms. In May of this year 1,700 people from 34 countries, including over 1,000 monks and nuns gathered for a 3 day Buddhist conference in Bangkok. They even issued a declaration. That’s not unusual in a Buddhist country where the government supports such activities.
Some very good ideas came out of that conference by way of a document called The Bangkok Declaration. This conference and declaration is an annual event around the time of Vesak and sanctioned by the United Nations. This year’s Declaration contained statements such as:
…we urge the business world to give priority to produce essential goods and services over non-essential consumer goods;
…Mindful of the urgent need for mankind to preserve sustainable social, economic and natural environments: we reaffirm an urgent need for a balance, based on the Middle Path, between scientific, technological and material progress on the one hand and, on the other, cultural, moral and spiritual advancement;
…Urging the international community and its governments to work towards the elimination of poverty and economic injustices, promoting human solidarity; and, sharing fundamental human values taught by the Lord Buddha; we seek to establish an awakening world where all people are afforded basic human rights and enjoy life and happiness;
…In order to commemorate the 2600th Anniversary of the Buddha’s Full Enlightenment we seek the completion, publication and free and wide distribution of a body of Common Buddhist Texts (CBT) from Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions fostering understanding of Buddhist principles and practices; to include the completion of linking over thirty electronic resources for all the major Buddhist canons into a single online electronic Union Catalogue of Buddhist Texts (UCBT) allowing users to identify all translations available;
And quite a few other issues were addressed as well. A fairly useful and productive session with both affirmation of Buddhist principles, acknowledgement of current global issues and some future directives towards concrete projects.
But that is in Thailand and there is the advantage of having these sort of gatherings established for quite some time.
Such gatherings of hundreds of teachers in America is unusual. May they not waste their time.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of most of those who are attending. Nor do I doubt that they take their practices and teaching responsibilities seriously. It is not about the individuals but about the structure, the institutionalization of problems that have reared their heads more times than I can count. And some of those problems seem to be replicating here on a much larger stage. That is my primary concern.
The purpose of the secret US gathering is still somewhat mysterious. Lots of guesswork going on.
Maybe the reason for keeping this large gathering under wraps has been to avoid any speculation and criticism. How’s that working for you?
Then again the whole thing might just be a publicity stunt to sell more magazines and cushions.
I could go on but my feelings about writing this post over the past 3 days are summed up in the following animated graphic.
UPDATE: James Ford has written a blog post http://monkeymindonline.blogspot.com/2011/06/on-big-fat-upcoming-buddhist-conference.html which contains a list of participants as well as the schedule for the conference. Thanks James and party on.