Is Buddhism a hobby?

The work week is for work and the weekend is personal time, at least for those of us who are fortunate to still have jobs, yet not so fortunate that it requires working on the weekends too. “Work” here is stuff that involves earning a living. What is personal, though? Most people save time to be with family, meet with friends and family not living with them. 

Where do hobbies fall? I know gyms and fitness programs that have classes scheduled only on weekdays, and maybe a small schedule on Saturday, and nothing on Sunday.   Language classes, art classes, sports classes, music classes – things that don’t need a block of many hours like a long hike – are scheduled on weekday evenings so as not to encroach on the weekend. 

Where does spirituality fit in all of this? Does it belong in personal time or in work/hobby (weekdays). It seems most religions in the US choose the weekend for communal gatherings in addition to daily private practice.  This is true for all faiths including “traditional” Buddhist parisas (assemblies).  But a number of “western” Buddhist circles have gatherings and meditation almost exclusively on the weekdays, meeting every Tuesday evening, Thursday evening, etc.  This despite the fact that the original reason for the weekend was to set it apart for spiritual practice – a tradition from the western world. 

It’s also not common to see  families attending together, which would have made the weekend a natural time for practicing together as a community.  Children at such Dharma gatherings are a rarity and a source of some attention and “awww”s.

All of this leads me to wonder what kind of place meditation and Dharma, that I would normally think of as situated in the personal and the spiritual, is assumed to hold in these communities. Is this considered a hobby?

The power of truth and nonviolence

A good bit of the story of Aṅgulimāla is told in the pāli canon in the Aṅgulimāla Sutta (MN 86). A small part of this sutta, a single verse, is often chanted as a protection.  The Elder Ahiṃsaka (Aṅgulimāla) is something like a patron saint of childbirth.  His story of becoming a bloodthirsty killer and then redeeming himself by becoming a monk and living the holy life is a rich starting point for various explorations – on causes and conditions, the ripening of karma even on one who has attained nibbāna, how one can be set on a destructive path by one’s own teacher, how excellence can engender jealousy, how one can be blinded by fervor of belief or a slavish sense of duty to carry out the most heinous of crimes and turn on even the ones who have been the most loving figures in one’s life, restorative/transformative justice, the power of love/courage and wisdom to subdue what even the most powerful weapons cannot.

In this post, however, I wish to focus narrowly on the immediate context of the paritta. One day, on alms round, the reformed and gentle monk Ahiṃsaka, whose name translates literally to “the non-violent one”, came across a woman undergoing the pain of a breech birth (feet-first birth) and as he was moved by her suffering, the thought arose in him – ‘How afflicted are living beings! How afflicted are living beings!’*

After discussion, the Buddha asked him to go and tell the woman –

Ever since I was born in the noble birth, sister, I don’t recall having intentionally taken the life of a living creature. By this truth, may both you and your baby be safe.

The story goes on to say that the woman and her baby came out of the childbirth safe and well and the birth became easeful.

I write this post to highlight two things about this very short verse.

  • The enormous task of not killing any living creature. One who is really serious about the first precept will find how hard the task actually is. If one expands the meaning of avoiding intentional killing as avoiding activities where one might end up killing a living being (cleaning, walking without being too careful not to crush creatures which could easily have been seen, drowning creatures as collateral damage),  it is a mighty hard task.   This is significantly harder in a rural/wild setting. Not having cruel intentions is not enough.  It requires care and consideration and a lot of continuous mindfulness to keep just this precept that many of us assume is something that we obviously don’t violate. And to not have ever done that is quite an achievement – one that the Buddha considered quite powerful.
  • The respect for the miraculous power of truth in the mythology/allusions of the time/place. There are several stories in various Indian traditions of a truthful statement having actual force to cause an effect in the physical world. In this case, a safe childbirth.  In other instances, people being unaffected by fire because of the truth of some fact or the other.  Not that society at any time or place was/is entirely truthful in practice, I am referring to the power attributed to the ideal in the common reference system of the teacher and the taught. 

Notes:

  1. Apart from being recited to pregnant women, this paritta (chant of protection) is also recited as a matter of routine on Fridays in many countries.
  2. Some chants frame the paritta itself with a description of the protective power of this paritta in this way – even the water used to wash the seat of one who has chanted this paritta can ward off all danger/trouble!
  3. The line here (kilissanti vata bho sattā) would be literally ‘How defiled are living beings!’ and in this context of physical childbirth, perhaps better translated as ‘How tormented are living beings!’, I have chosen ‘afflicted’ as an attempt to bring together these two meanings.
  4. The sentence spoken to the woman concludes with the words “May your fetus be safe” (rather than baby), but I have chosen the word baby here as it accords with our normal way of speaking about something like this.

The image below is of the scene of Ven. Ahiṃsaka making his assertion of non-killing at the site of the childbirth by the great Burmese artist U Ba Kyi. In this conception, the monk makes the statement seated on a platform outside the home of the pregnant woman with the childbirth happening behind the screen. This and the painting at the top of this post of the Buddha’s first encounter with Angulimāla by the same artist are illustrations from The Illustrated History of Buddhism by Ashin Janakābhivaṃsa of Myanmar.

Sources:

  1. Sutta Central for the text: https://suttacentral.net/mn86/pli/ms
  2. “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” (MN 86), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html 
  3. A translation of MN 86 by Venerable Sujato https://suttacentral.net/mn86/en/sujato 

Baggage Buddhism

A suggested experiment for anyone who thinks that Asians come to the Dharma with “cultural baggage”: Try translating the word sīla as morality or mention morality to a Dharma audience in a “western sangha” and watch for the reaction.  Wait, wait, don’t call it morality, it’s better translated as ethics, you might hear. Well, why not morality, you ask. Explanations are forthcoming along the lines of how it has negative connotations from Christian conditioning/society, how some grandparent used to behave. Any signs of baggage there?

Other triggering terms are right/wrong as taught by the Buddha, translating someone’s address of the Buddha as “Lord”, translating pāpa as evil – people have objections to all of these. Same with the translation of the deva as god or hiri as shame.  Perhaps reflecting on these will reveal that everyone approaches the Dharma from their own context, baggage if you will. Shame, god, Lord, morality, right and wrong – these things exist in languages independent of Christianity/Abrahamic faiths and it’s a person’s conditioning that makes them evoke mythology of a certain religion when they hear these words.  

Furthermore, it’s a person’s particular experience with said faith/society that makes their reaction about the word negative or positive.  Someone inclined to Christianity might view the use of these words favorably while someone allergic to it has a different reaction. Both reactions are baggage specific to a Christianity-dominated society. Someone with a different religious upbringing (say, Hindu) but who also grows up with the English language, might have an altogether different reaction to these words.

As another example, translate dāna as ‘giving’, which is what it literally means rather than ‘generosity’, which is the preferred choice and see how that plays out.  Would it be easier to be called upon to cultivate a quality in our mind rather abstractly than to actually give stuff? 

This is a little like accents. It’s fairly frequent occurrence in some US cities, to hear people say “…Where are you from…you have an accent…”.  Mostly innocuous, and the meaning is quite clear to me, but I want to point out that this forgets the fact that the person asking has an accent too – an American accent! 

It is fine – come one, come all to the Dhamma, as you are, with your baggage. The Buddha’s teaching is truly universal.  One thing that’s not helpful, seeing another’s “baggage” while being blind to your own.

Asian Americans speak on the assumptions about them

Here’s an excellent article from the journal Religions, by Chenxing Han, author of the article We’re Not Who You Think We Are that I mentioned in the previous post. It features interviews with 30 young adult Asian American Buddhists as they share the type of issues faced and assumptions encountered that I described earlier.  Some of these matters are encountered also by AABs who aren’t quite young adults. The author has summarized the overarching themes revealed by the YAAABs in these interviews into an enlightening and enjoyable read. It includes discussion from 30 “first gen Buddhists” out of 89 interviews conducted by her in 2012-13. It includes interviews of YAABs who grew up in Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, multi-religious and non-religious families, from a variety of ethnicities – Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Iranian, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Turkmen, and Vietnamese as well as from multi-racial families which include European, Central Asian and Latino ethnicities.

Abstract

This paper engages the perspectives of thirty young adult Asian American Buddhists (YAAABs) raised in non-Buddhist households. Grounded in semi-structured, one-on-one in-person and email interviews, my research reveals the family tensions and challenges of belonging faced by a group straddling multiple religious and cultural worlds. These young adults articulate their alienation from both predominantly white and predominantly Asian Buddhist communities in America. On the one hand, they express ambivalence over adopting the label of “convert” because of its Christian connotations as well as its associations with whiteness in the American Buddhist context. On the other hand, they lack the familiarity with Asian Buddhist cultures experienced by second- or multi-generation YAAABs who grew up in Buddhist families. In their nuanced responses to arguments that (1) American convert Buddhism is a non-Asian phenomenon, and (2) Asians in the West can only “revert” to Buddhism, these young adults assert the plurality and hybridity of their lived experiences as representative of all American Buddhists, rather than incidental characteristics of a fringe group within a white-dominated category

Why so swayed by visual appearance?

It is understood that there are two Buddhisms in this country.  One for the “people from traditionally Buddhist countries” (call it type A) and one for the “modern” rational, Westerners”, who “bring an intellectual curiosity to Buddhism as we do with everything” (call it type B). 

Never mind if these Asians or Asian Americans have never in their lives previously encountered Buddhism or if some of them might even be scientists. For some people, one look at their Asian face and there’s the illusion of knowing something about their practice – that maybe they are superstitious, that they were “raised Buddhist”, maybe follow some rites and rituals and most of all, don’t really know what the the Buddha actually taught, that their practice is “devotion based”, they are unquestioning etc. There are references to “cultural baggage” in the way Asian communities practice Buddhism. 

Two less-obvious areas  for this that I find quite jarring and to be based on misunderstandings are the veneration of monastics and dāna.

Is the special status of monastics important for the practice of the Dharma? I won’t debate this here except to acknowledge that this is at least a reasonable question to ask.  However, if you are one who thinks that veneration of monastics is irrelevant, is it necessary to ascribe the motives of the other side to be “blind following of Buddhist authority figures that is part of the Asian/(insert country name) culture”?

Or dāna.  I understand if some people are distrusting of giving money or material support as a means of supporting a religious org.  Maybe some people have had negative views from the relationship of certain spiritual leaders with wealth.  Maybe they don’t yet really understand how material support is essential to preserve the teachings.  In any case, there is no pressure on anyone to make dāna.  Then is it necessary to mock the dāna practiced by Asians? To call it blind faith, a practice based on superstition about a future life, to debase it as transactional just because the other person subscribes to the concept of good karma?  I have personally come across this condescending sentiment many times, including from people who are *huge beneficiaries* of this very generosity.

As I wonder about this kind of attitude towards Asians, an episode  comes to mind that not all people of color are the same in this context.  I was at a retreat where a young Latino man was on a scholarship (I appreciate the center for making that effort), for which he offered thanks to the center.  There was one other older latino man attending (let’s call him Edward).  Later, when we were all doing dishes in the kitchen as part of the chores, the young man remarked how grateful he was to see Edward there because it made him realize that someone like him, a person of color, could also practice meditation and that it’s not only for white people.  Most of the people present thought the remark made perfect sense but one person pointed out that it was never supposed to have been the preserve of people of European descent or some activity invented by them. In fact, until quite recently, the Dharma had always been practiced and preserved by “people of color”.

Yet the young man was not totally off.  He had deduced that the community is predominantly white and is led by white people.  People of color walk into that space with diffidence and uncertainty, wondering if they do belong.

The kind of people of color that had been practicing and preserving the Dharma are of course, not the kind that the community was making an outreach to.  There is membership focused outreach to African Americans and Latinos. There is sometimes also a welcoming, at least in lip service, of native American practices or Middle Eastern wisdom and not to mention any number of European philosophies, whereas the only practices to which I hear a discouragement or avoidance of is on something from a type A congregation and not really much outreach to Asian Americans for membership. It’s as if the type B communities are open to evolving in many different directions except the direction of the type A.  

This would all be kinda honest if type B were a community where Asian communities are explicitly excluded.  You know, just block type B groups out of your mind and move on.  But they claim to be communities which are inclusive, universal etc. When in reality, for all the show of trying hard to bring in people of color (and to some extent, they are trying – with races other than Asians), they really aren’t.  Type A communities are more clear and open about it: e.g., this is a Thai temple, you can expect to encounter Thai language and culture, foods, religious practices and monks ordained in Thailand.  Anyone is welcome to attend, but such and such is the practice here.  But type B does not claim to be a white-centric place, which is the reason we all wander in.  Then we are showered with messages of welcome and inclusion while the more subtle signs simultaneously tell us there is a certain mainstream here, that there is a certain dominant culture, that we can only belong if we integrate into this dominant culture.  The culture is not going to be flexible for us, it’s we who have to change.  In other words, no different from many workplaces or some other spheres of American life where white culture is dominant and normative and others are, well, fringe.  In other words, a place that operates with a rather narrow view of who is really American. 

Perhaps this concern about becoming a type A community is what drives the force field that many Asian Americans experience as they try to approach type B sanghas, where in paper, based on their own outlooks, they feel they might find a more natural spiritual home. 

Am I late to the discussion?  Maybe so given the attention that leaders like Larry Yang and several writers have pointed out have brought to the matter.  I also know that the leadership of several communities are making an effort to make changes to include people of color.

This is a hard post to write because things are not clear cut, provable.  On the one hand, I see some leaders in the predominantly European American Buddhist community* exert themselves to change the white dominance of the space and make it open to all and on the other hand, I see a number of members behaving as if to say “This is a white space” and not a space for all Americans by simply bringing their assumptions about other races right into the Dharma circle.  

In fact, as I write this, I find in my own mind a softening of the irritation in my own mind in the way Asians are perceived in type B sanghas.  On the one hand, I see type B sanghas partly defining themselves by saying what they are not – they are not Tibetan Buddhism or Thai Buddhism. They are not the Catholic church, not Christianity etc. Their distancing from Asian roots of the tradition is part of that negation. Unfortunately, that does not make them universalist and welcoming: they are not as clear-eyed about what they ARE permitting themselves to be – predominantly white, middle-class, politically liberal.  And people who can check off these three boxes of self-view have a different experience when they walk in and different ability to take ownership compared to the discomfort felt by those who don’t check all three.  But like many things – the fact that it’s not intentional is not sufficient reason to not wake up, acknowledge, understand, react, fix.

Writing about it is also hard because of being perceived as creating divisions where none exist. For example, I sent Funie Hsu’s and Chenxing Han’s articles to someone about this kind of thing in Dharma communities, only to get a reply that these articles are full of identity politics.  Well, that’s a bit interesting, isn’t it?  The nonchalant putting down of people of color is not identity politics, but speaking about it is? Right in the midst of a decade where people are occupying positions of high power by riding/inciting race-based identity, fools still see only the pointing out of such reliance on identity as “identity politics”.

Do I sound angry? Maybe, maybe not.  I’d like to be spared the burden of having to not sound angry. I’m stating the facts and experience for anyone who cares to see/hear what another’s experience has been.   Do I speak for all people of color? No, but I can speak for one – what that one has directly seen/heard. 

As to how all this appears to Asians, I plan to post a paper written by Chengxin Han that captures these feelings and experiences over a broader section than just one person’s.

* I called it European American Buddhist community above. I’m not sure what else to call type B since I’ve already expressed why I don’t want to call it:

a. “American Insight” (since the Burmese/Thai/Sri Lankan groups ARE American too).

b.“Convert Buddhism” (since many members consider Asian Americans who are also new to Buddhism to not belong there).

c.“Scientific/Intellectual” – because well, I totally reject that Asians are not that or that “westerners” have some kind of monopoly on that.

A suitable land

Among the many blessings listed by the Blessed One in the maṅgala sutta is “Living in a suitable land” (patirūpa desavāsa).  One can interpret that metaphorically (suitable conditions) or more literally as a suitable land.  This post is about the latter.

Indeed the land in which we live can profoundly impact our Dharma life.  Those who live in America can be fully satisfied that we are met with such conditions.  

Perhaps most important of all is the aspect of coming into contact with the teachings of the Blessed one. Tibetan Buddhism explains one of the requirements of this – just having a human life – with the analogy of the golden yoke.  But even having that, there is wide dispersion in the ease with which you can practice in a particular land.

The US constitution itself has ploughed the soil well

Through the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the very first amendment, the constitution has expressly made sure nothing gets in the way of a new religion.  Buddhist practice in any meaningful numbers is an arrival in this land much after the state was established.   Yes, Christianity too was a new arrival in this land.  But let’s remember that it would have been far too easy for the religious faith of the new majority to have simply been made the law of the land.  This has happened time and again – is still prevalent in many countries and other religions are not given the same status or allowed to grow and be available to people who are willing to give it a try – and that includes countries where that privileged position is occupied by Buddhism. It was the nearly unique position of the founding generations, having tasted what religious persecution feels like in the old land that urged them to keep the new land free for all religions yet to arrive.

In fact, a similar environment of the free and (mostly) respectful, but vigorous exchange of ideas and room for new ones to arise is where the Dharma arose in the first place – India of the mid first millennium BCE.  Contrast that good fortune with lands where people of different religions are not allowed to pray together, not allowed to meditate at all and in some cases, even subject to intimidation and violence.  

I remember from about ten years ago, someone saying that Americans change religion as easily as changing breakfast cereal.  To some this might indicate a lack of depth of practice, but I think this idea that your religion is not assigned to you at birth or that you aren’t considered a rebel and troublemaker for adopting another has been helpful for the Dharma  to flower in many hearts.

It’s also a land that does not have disdain for religion – unlike some places and societies where irreligion is fashionable or required.

A land of immigrants

Being a land of immigration has been phenomenally helpful in the development of the Dharma. The beginnings of American Buddhism are certainly from communities in Asia who brought their practice with them.  Not only did they bring it along, they had to alter and adjust the practice to suit their American lives. The difficulties they faced were tremendous and are well covered – even touched upon in another post in this blog. 

The presence of teachers and communities

Some parts of the US, like the Bay Area, have phenomenal access to Dhamma communities.  Of course, as in any profession, not all who teach are actually teaching the Dharma and one has to choose wisely and all that, but imagine the difficulty of being in a land where there are none!  

There is also the blessing of being present in a fortunate time: This is a time when once you come into contact with an area of exploration, and that includes the Dhamma, you can learn more about it with a few finger taps, engage in discussion with other learners, ask questions and interact with teachers – whether in text, speech or even visually – right from your home!

The sight of monastics

I can’t even begin to tell you how inspiring it is for practice to see monastics living their lives, setting an ideal for the lay folk, just like in the time of the Buddha. Not only do I get to see this sight I never saw growing up, I also get to see a number of lay people interacting with them and many of these lay Buddhists are familiar with interacting with monks (per point above regarding immigration), providing them with support, knowing how to learn from them. I think of these lay folks as a freshman might regard a junior or senior – keenly watching for example.  

The willingness to go to the ends of the planet to learn more about what you think worthwhile

It’s argued that this quality of “going all out” is in abundance in America. I tend to agree.  A whole wave of Buddhist influence in North America is through people who either encountered the Dharma while in Asia or even expressly went there to spend years or decades learning with masters.  While I do have some irritation with the fact that in some minds, the teachings passed down by these students of the masters is considered  the real American Buddhism and “modern” while that brought by Asian students of the masters of the same previous generations is not… I am thankful for them too.  I came into contact with the Buddha’s teaching through just such channels.  They have greatly broadened the visibility of the Dharma to the population.  Another phenomenon that came with this wave: the prominence of lay teachers. 

The clear recognition of some forms of dukkha

Different cultures tend to be blind to different forms of dukkha they endure.  Whatever our society is blind to, one thing that’s fairly widely accepted in the US is that we’re pretty stressed, dissatisfied, and that some of our pursuits are quite exhausting.  Most agree on this, even if there is plenty of disagreement on whether such pursuits and dissatisfaction with the status quo are a good thing or bad.  And that’s great. It’s much harder for a person who does not recognize being in the grip of greed, hatred, delusion and suffering to realize they need the Dhamma.

With being in a leadership position in technology and innovation comes the unenviable burden  of being the first to meet new forms of dukkha. Social media is a fairly recent example, but there have been others for some time now, reminding us all the time that liberation from dukkha is a goal and undertaking of its own.  It’s not going to come by making progress on other matters of physical comfort or entertainment.  

Knowing that this is a home for the Dharma

Perhaps to me the most important aspect of living in America – in contrast to most other places is the feeling of being at home, regardless of where you come from. To cite a speech in 1988 from one of our former presidents, which is included in the little handbook that every naturalized American gets at their oath ceremony:

“America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’?”

This is as true for faiths and practices as it is for persons. Never mind that reality is lagging behind ideals. Never mind that there are many Americans who don’t subscribe to these ideals.  Or who think you’re not really an American at all.  But if *you* do subscribe to this ideal of the US and understand the country this way, then it should gladden your heart to know that in due time Buddhism will be as much of an American religion as any other. Remember that in some countries, the laws actually privilege some religions and can’t merely ignore those who will never accept the full status of your faith.  Buddhism will not be considered a foreign import any more than Christianity is considered a foreign religion in, say Europe.  This is in contrast to the pessimism that some hold regarding the future of Buddhism in America, that the Dharma is Anti-American, which I contend is based on some ideas of what the American ideal is and who Americans are and what American culture is. Unlike many other countries (and from the presidential quote above), there is no conceivable test for being a real American other than, well, legal citizenship.  Whatever I happen to believe or practice, is by definition, an American belief or practice. Not the American practice, but an American practice. Buddhist cultures in America are American cultures. 

Is this the only suitable land? Far from it, but we’re in great shape too!  Nor is much of what I say here unique to Buddhism – it’s true for all faiths, from Catholicism to Pastafarianism.

The universality of the Buddha’s teaching

The Buddha’s teaching did happen in one particular culture (that wasn’t East Asia, by the way), but the teaching was not directed to one culture or another.  The dukkha that was the central subject of the Buddha’s teaching is also independent of time. If you had a human birth in any era, his teaching applies to you.  In fact, that is the reason people all over the world and across thousands of years have found it appealing.  I find it remarkable when I read the stories and the teachings contained in them how similar human concerns are today and then, in totally different parts of the world, when the external context is hardly recognizable. I contend that no part of the Buddha’s core teaching needs to be changed and modified to suit any culture. Practices, rituals – yes, these have been made to suit the situation, but in the case of a sangha that intends and claims to not deal with rituals, there is no particular need to differentiate the east and the west.   

To reconcile the difference in the cultural  context of the seeker and the cultural context of the ancient teacher it is sufficient to gain some historical context of the Buddha to understand events in his life. Let me make an analogy with Christianity.  There are Christians in the Philippines, Korea, England, Spain, South Africa, Brazil and, China and Sweden. But they all learn the story of Jesus’s life set in the Middle East, without having to change anything. Pictorial depictions and rites have taken on lots of flavors. For example, in Europe, Jesus and Mary are often represented as white people. 

My purpose in writing this is to challenge the notion which is sometimes brought out as the prime reason why “our Dharma” needs to be different from “their Dharma” which has a different cultural context. Let’s consider the versions of practice found in the East Asian countries or the Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam etc.  Many works of art show the Buddha looking more or less like a person from their own country.   Artistic depictions of royal figures like Prasenajit (Pasenadi), Mallika, Ajātaśatru (Ajatasattu), Bimbisara etc show them dressed in local royal finery.  

However, when we look at the local teachers show the exhortation of the Buddha about the perfections to be cultivated by the practitioner: Ten paramī in the case of Theravada – dāna (giving), sīla (conduct/morality/ethics), nekhamma  (renunciation), pañña (wisdom), viriya(effort), khanti (patient endurance), sacca (truthfulness), adiṭṭhāna (determination), mettā (goodwill),   upekkhā(equanimity) or 6 pāramitā in the case of Mahayana – dāna, śīla, kṣānti ,vīrya, dhyāna (concentration/contemplation), prajñā.  These core teachings are not altered in any of these to “suit our culture”.  The difference in the two lists above is because of the difference in schools and not of the new host cultures.   

A particular mention is owed here to the law of karma – a concept that existed long before the Buddha, but to which the Buddha gave his unique meaning. Many teachers have explained how this is central to the Buddhas’ teaching.  Getting rid of this idea makes it quite hard to make sense of his teaching. I’m not going to talk here what karma really means – that’s an involved debate that scholars have had over the ages and about which there is copious literature.  Just urging everyone to look into understanding it and not reject it as something irrelevant to your cultural context.  Imagine if it were “true” – it doesn’t matter whether I know it or not, it applies to me.  Just as (to use a common analogy), I cannot escape the effects of gravity by refusing to believe in it or not hearing of it at all.  Or, permit me to use a religious analogy –  if the ideas of sin and virtue in Abrahamic faiths are true, I couldn’t just escape their effects by saying this doesn’t come from my culture or that I don’t believe it.

Again, I point to Christians in all Asian countries.  Theirs is not a distinct, not-quite-there Christianity.  It’s not uncommon to see Mary, mother of Christ dressed in local clothing in depictions, but you will never find any teaching of Christianity dropped because “it’s not suitable for our culture”. This is as true for old strains of Christianity that long predate Christianity in parts of Europe (St.Thomas Christians in India, e.g.) as it is for Christianity brought by missionaries who accompanied the European colonization. Their previous cultures do not have ideas of angels, satan, a second coming, all the dead being raised again then and Christian notions of a permanent selection of a soul for heaven or hell, but they accept the mythology as a fine frame in which the teaching is set. Likewise, Greece and many Nordic countries and other European countries had their own complex mythologies before the middle Eastern mythological setting for Christianity arrived.  And Christianity is openly recognized as a foreign arrival. They did not feel the need to reject all that.  They simply learned more about the prevailing beliefs and mythology in the time and place of Jesus’s life to understand his context better.  

There has always been tension within each of these communities as to whether this mythology is to be taken literally, whether it is believable, some totally rejecting the religion, some accepting it entirely and some giving non-literal interpretations to make it palatable to certain people.  But what I wish to point out is that the rejection was not on cultural grounds.  It was not because “that stuff is fine for them, but does not apply to our culture”. Same for the precepts.

I submit that it is just as possible to understand the Buddha’s Dharma as it was taught by learning more about the culture then and the mythology of the time and place.  But it is essential to understand the purpose of one’s practice – benefit to oneself and others – and from that, be able to note what is a teaching and what is a setting – and then practice, learn and teach all that constitutes the teaching.  The Buddha was quite a minimalist, never teaching more than what was necessary.  Another, starker way of stating the same thing – drop parts of the teaching and the Dharma is incomplete. 

I also find it a bit strange to see the opposite end of the spectrum – “this is the Buddhist cosmology, take it or leave it.  If you don’t believe in it, it is not Buddhism.”, but I don’t really hang out in circles where this is a big thing – hence not writing much about it.  

I’ll leave you with a funny image I saw about the depiction matter mentioned above.

What to be thankful for

Those who have explored it, know the power of the practice of gratitude. But different people find they are thankful for quite different things. In other words, when we count our blessings, it really is a skill to know what your blessings are. It turns out that this very question was put to the Buddha. And he, a master of lists, lists 38 of them. This is the topic of the sutta from the Pāli canon that I wanted to share today – the Mangala Sutta. It appears twice in the canon (The Sutta Nipāta and the Khuddakapāṭha). This site offers translations by 4 authors, but my favorite are the ones by Ven. Ṭhanissaro and Ven. Nārada. Ajahn Geoff (Ven. Ṭhanissaro) has chosen to call it “highest protection”. Others have called it the highest blessing. In any case, every time I read it, I realize how many things are going right for me. It’s hard not to read it and feel wealthy as many of us check off at least a few of these supreme blessings.

I share the sutta below mixing the two translations and perhaps adding a third perspective (my own) a bit. I mean no disrespect to either of these great scholars – I have nothing but the highest regard for them. It is just that for some phrases, I liked one better and for some others, I like the other translation.

I have heard that at one time the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi at Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then a certain devatā, in the far extreme of the night, her extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta’s Grove, approached the Blessed One. On approaching, having bowed down to the Blessed One, she stood to one side. As she stood to one side, she addressed him with a verse. Many devas and human beings have pondered the blessings, desiring well-being. Tell, then, the highest blessings.

The Buddha replied:

“Not to associate with the foolish, but to associate with the wise; and to honor those who are worthy of honor — this is the greatest blessing.

To reside in a suitable locality, to have done meritorious actions in the past and to set oneself in the right course — this is the greatest blessing.

To have much learning, to be skilled at one’s work, well-trained in discipline, and well-spoken  — this is the greatest blessing.

To support mother and father, to cherish wife and children, and to be engaged in conflict-free work (occupation) — this is the greatest blessing.

To be generous in giving, to be righteous in conduct, to help one’s relatives, and to be blameless in action — this is the greatest blessing.

To avoid evil and abstain from it, to refrain from intoxicants, and to be steadfast in virtue — this is the greatest blessing.

To be respectful, humble, contented and grateful; and hearing the Dhamma on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing.

To be patient and compliant when corrected, the seeing of monks[1] and discussion of the Dhamma on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing.

Self-restraint, a holy and chaste life, the seeing of the Noble Truths and the realisation of Nibbāna — this is the greatest blessing.

A mind unruffled when touched by worldly circumstances, freed from sorrow, cleansed of defilements, liberated from fear  — this is the greatest blessing.

By acting in this way, they are everywhere unvanquished, and everywhere they go in safety: Theirs, the highest blessings”

Notes:

  1. The Pali words here are samaṇānañca dassanam:
    1. samaṇa literally means one who exerts himself/herself in spiritual pursuit – a seeker. However, the word has been used to mean a specific type of seeker – a certain category of renunciates that includes Buddhist and Jain monks and distinct from another category of seeker – brāhmaṇa.
    2. Seeing is indeed the literal translation of dassanam. One can take it to mean meeting/associating with monks, but this particular verse has for centuries captured the imagination of the devout – that the mere sight of monks is a fortunate occurrence, on many occasions having inspired people to take their first step on the path. I have left it as the literal ‘seeing’ to honor the interpretation of those who have gone before us.
  2. The maṅgala sutta is among the traditional verses of protection (paritta) chanted by people in some countries – usually on Sundays. It is worth reflecting on why reading this sutta is a protection of oneself.
  3. The image above is of a different scene from the canon, but it has some elements in common with the story above – the Buddha meditating in the woods, a luminous being approaching him with a request…

Sources

1. “The Khuddakapatha” (Khp 1-9), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/khp/khp.1-9.than.html 

2. “Mangala Sutta: Blessings” (Khp 5), translated from the Pali by Narada Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/khp/khp.5.nara.html .

Some history

I’d wanted to elaborate on how a “western sangha” is a hard place for you to find a Dharma community if you don’t fit certain profiles, but first, in this world, where everything cool is called “Zen” and a Buddha face is a great ornament to decorate anything from your living room to your nightclub, some following of history is in order for all of us to understand. Many people have worked to bring the Dharma to this country, since a time before we, or even our grandparents were born.

I cannot possibly provide you a better place to start for this, than Funie Hsu’s exceedingly beautifully written article published in Lion’s Roar.

…which gives us an introduction to the double standards applied to Asian American communities when it comes to the Dharma. How their Buddhism is seen by some as “baggage” Buddhism, of a “simpler” kind, maybe superstitious even, trapped in rituals and “faith”, while that of European Americans is “real”, and bringing an intellectual approach and curiosity (which Asians lack, I suppose).

You’ll see that this story is one of effort and of pain and of a form of theft. I did not grow up in a place where I saw even a single self-identified Buddhist growing up, but I have spent enough time in Buddhist countries to know the tremendous efforts made even today just so that the Dharma can survive and be there for future generations. And this has been happening for thousands of years and every one of us today, if we only knew, owe a debt of gratitude our spiritual ancestors in these countries.

In more recent times, it is a story of pain inflicted on those who brought these here (inflicted for doing the same things that confers coolness on you if you are of the right race today). I can’t begin to elaborate on how Asian Americans were treated in their own country by their own compatriots. Anyone who’s somehow managed to live under a rock and avoid knowing anything about the shameful history of Japanese internment camps, read up, or at least stop by the little free museum in the Presidio if you are in San Francisco.

As for theft, it’s not because I can’t spell “appropriation” that I call it theft, but why call a spade a hammer? And no, it’s not anyone’s newly taking up Dharma practice that is theft, not at all – by that token, I’d be a thief many times over. Rather it is the taking away of the legitimate place of these Asian traditions in the space of American Buddhism.

Why? Answer me this – are these Americans following Asian Buddhist traditions not real Buddhists or nor real Americans – what is it that makes anyone want to exclude them from American Buddhism?

And after reading the article, if you’re tempted to start a “reverse racism” line of thought, I refer you to the response to that kind of thinking by Buddhadharma’s editor Tynette Deveaux and the Ven. Ajahn Amaro.

The “westerner” Dharma community

To elaborate on the last post, let me start with the frequent use of words “we westerners” or “in our western culture” by some Buddhist teachers in North America.  The teacher is sitting up in the teacher’s seat and s/he frequently talks about something like “given our western upbringing” without realizing (I hope it’s unintentional) that this term does not include everyone.

What is unclear is whom this word includes and whom it excludes.  People have differing opinions of the boundary, but one thing is clear: white folks definitely don’t have to wonder whether they are included. Others may have to.  And guess who is the most likely to have to wonder? The people whose heritage is from the very place that the speaker was trying to draw a contrast with – Asia.  So if the conversation and the community is about “us westerners”, Asians have to wonder.

How about using the word “we Americans” or “our (American) culture instead? This is a rather objective statement of nationality or the geography in which we operate.  Yeah, it makes sense that maybe an Asian master’s story of growing up playing with friends in the paddy fields, catching frogs together in Vietnam or Thailand is something that people in America cannot exactly relate with.  But then imagine if you talk about growing up with green bean casseroles, milkshakes, clam chowder etc – that might not be necessarily the experience of all your fellow Americans in the audience. Understand that if someone grew up in Chinatown or if their parents were cooking Japanese at home or sending them to Carnatic music lessons, it definitely wouldn’t fall under the speaker’s definition of a western upbringing, but it WAS an American upbringing  and it wasn’t necessarily a Buddhist one! 

If the impact on Asians isn’t intuitive yet, think about the opposite. Who is an easterner in the Buddhist context? 

To convince yourself even more that this is exclusionary and I’m not just imagining it, think about this – go to any traditional Chinese/Burmese/ Thai/Japanese/Vietnamese Buddhist congregation (a majority of members would be Americans – whether of 1st, 2nd, 3rd or greater generation). Would you expect to hear the Dharma teacher talk about “us westerners”? So why would an assembly that purports to be open to all these people use those words?

There is, in some Dharma circles, a subtle resistance to using American as a self-descriptor, preferring instead to use Westerner (more on that in another post), but folks, please be aware that we feel excluded.  Isn’t it amazing that the person may be thinking they’re being super inclusive using a term that includes Norwegians, Austrians and other non-Americans, but may make their own countrymen and countrywomen, sitting right next to them, feel excluded?

I can sort of understand and empathize with where it comes from.  A lot of those who did us the favor of bringing the teaching and setting up meditation communities spent years in Asia in the Cold War era. Some of them are heroes to me. Imagine you’re an American living in a culture where you are an outsider. There are fellow seekers from Europe, Australia etc (mostly white). You are distinct from the local population. The local population treats you all the same, you are white foreigners to them and distinct from themselves.  It’s natural that as you form friendships and connections, you want to self-describe using words that would include all of you. An identity as a westerner is more inclusive in that context than say, identifying primarily as British or Italian.  But now, decades after the teachers are back, when America’s demographic make up is quite different, as Americans of all races are seeking the teaching or are sought by communities, is it wise to embrace the term westerner and avoid the term American or North American in describing a collective “we”?

It shows up in translations too.  I have seen the words of several Thai, Burmese teachers translated into English, in books, Facebook or websites, with prefaces describing the translation work as “so that the teaching can be available to westerners”. I get it, people in traditionally Buddhist countries, of course, have  a certain familiarity with teachings that foreigners might not. Some amount of different explanation is needed for foreigners. But that is needed for all foreigners, not just westerners.  At the monastery in Myanmar that I know and love the most, the largest contingent of foreign meditators comes from Vietnam, the most supportive and enthusiastic community is from Malaysia, a large number comes from Korea. There are yogis from Japan and India, Indonesia. Some of these countries do not have any significant Buddhist population at all. And some of them have Buddhist traditions (Japan, Korea, for example), but of a flavor quite different from the country of the master whose work is being translated. For people from many Asian countries, the English translation is their sole access to the master’s teaching too, but they have to pick up the book and find the unnecessary commentary that it is for western students.

I haven’t yet touched upon the not so subtle putting down of Asian Buddhism in some of these circles, just talking in this post about how the inadvertent and insensitive use of certain language can be excluding of Asian Americans.