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.   

Are Asians welcome in certain American Buddhist circles?

American Buddhists are racially pretty cool and inclusive, right? Or at least many individuals in Buddhist circles imagine themselves to be.   Yet, many Insight and Zen communities created in America which are purportedly open to all Americans end up being very white – a fact which sometimes prompts some reflection and embarrassment and to others, it’s just … normal.  I’ll speak more about the Insight community as it’s the style rooted in the strand of practice that I found myself the most attracted to and follow today. 

In an admirable step, many of these communities are actively trying to combat this with outreach to minorities – black and latino folks were told that they too can practice the Buddha’s teaching.  That didn’t quite do it as people still found it a rather white space and many minorities didn’t feel comfortable. Then, in centers that are retreat-focused, came the realization that it’s difficult to be in a predominantly white space if you’re living the legacy of slavery or colonial brutality, for example (we all are, regardless of which side of the perpetration your ancestors were on, but that’s a matter for another time). People of color retreats came up, many of which are taught by teachers of color. Further other issues were imagined/discovered – such as the fact that minority communities may not be able to afford fees – scholarships become available.  One center in New York City (with its retreat space upstate) provides free bus rides from the city to retreat location for people-of-color retreats. Social justice and activism itself is a focus area.

These measures have had some success, but the fact remains that these spaces are disproportionately white.  I wish to speak about the possible reasons for this. I notice the much more lukewarm enthusiasm for Asian Americans. Why? – I wonder.  Most spiritual organizations are happy to grow and Asian Americans seem like a natural constituency. For one, even if Asian American individuals themselves had nothing to do with Buddhism earlier, they are more likely than other groups to have come across some Buddhists in their life and are least likely to think they are stepping into something scary, weird and unknown. Many might even have had parents or grandparents who are Buddhist.

Yet, it seems that there is a feeling in some Insight communities that “our Buddhism” is different in some way.  That “we” follow our own thing. Making sure to stress that this is not the Buddhism of your family’s ancestry. This is “our” space. That stuff is “over there in those ethnocentric temples” (Thai, Burmese, Chinese etc).  There are many gestures, large and small, that sanghas (I use the term loosely here) do which eventually makes Asian Americans go away, go to some center more peopled either with those of their own ethnic make up or at least of other people who may not feel a sense of belonging or maybe lose enthusiasm for the Blessed One’s path altogether. 

I myself feel that there are few aspects of American life where I am made more aware of my race and color than in Buddhist circles. I realize that, to many white fellow Dharma practitioners, this is almost unbelievable. Spiritual circles are where people are at their best, right? How it is possible?

I contend that there are deeper causes for this than many realize – that holding POC sessions is not going to solve this.  This is one of the themes I shall explore in this blog. I shall also contend that some of the outreach attempts are counterproductive.

Practice in the time of nCOVID-19

Words of Dhamma inspiration from my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya. Click this link to get the pdf document.

Questions addressed include:

Q: How can a person practice to maintain awareness and equanimity with all the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that Covid-19 has unleashed?

Q: Does the present extreme circumstance present any positive opportunities
for our practice?

Q: Why should we try to maintain continuous awareness of such mundane activities as getting out of bed, brushing our teeth, noticing which foot goes through a doorway first, which arm goes through a T-shirt first, and so on?

Q: I share a space with my partner, and we are around each other much more often than before. We both practice Dhamma, but being around each other so much is tense, like we are breathing down each other’s necks. What advice can you offer someone living in close proximity with a loved one during this lockdown?

Q: I have been unemployed and my job prospects now seem hopeless. I have a family to support and children to educate. I have been practicing awareness but I frequently can’t sleep at night due to panic and fear. How can I approach all of this with wisdom and equanimity?

Q: How does one clear tension from the mind?

And my favorite in this document is the answer to the following question

Q: Some experts say that about 70% of us will eventually get Covid-19. How should we practice if we get sick, or if we’re dying?

Here again, is the link to get the pdf document.

Will nothing be the same again?

Many of us fear the world will never go back to what it was before COVID-19 and to be prepared for that, i.e., that there is no going back.

That may well be the case, but it’s okay because it’s not as if there will be some new permanent mode of living post-COVID.  Things will be that way until the next big thing shoves everything aside and radically  changes everything again.  Incessant and huge changes are just the nature of things.  Just speaking from a US perspective – President Obama’s election changed “things forever” – then the Arab Spring changed everything “forever” and Brexit changed things again and the world was never going to be the same gain. Then the 2016 elections made it feel like Obama’s times were normal and now everything is changed forever.  Then stunners started happening on a daily basis and the trade war with China was going to change things forever, fires in California, the Amazon and elsewhere changed things beyond recognition and the nuclear standoff with another country was a whole new reality whose impact was supposed to be for 10 years… until the virus came along.  The list of every unprecedented thing positive, negative and ugly that happened in the last few years is long.

Some even fade from memory of those who didn’t experience it directly. The unprecedented blackout during the Camp fire may not be on many minds soon. The virus too is unprecedented, but I can’t help feeling that it’s just that way until the next crisis and is the world really that much different from the “end of times” in 2003 when a big war was about to be launched? Many good things have happened, racism and various unsavory sentiments have reared their head time and again, amazing cures have emerged, much brutality has happened. It is hard to say in many dimensions, whether the world has gotten better or worse since, say 2003.

We do acknowledge this in terms like the new normal – except it’s said tinged with a sense of sadness.

Many of these thoughts arise because of the illusion that something or the other was not going to change in the first place. As if the EU, for example, were an exception to this – the union wasn’t born a mere 30 years ago. But of course, everything that ever came into existence is impermanent, is subject to change, deterioration and eventually ceasing to exist. The Buddha called this anicca. The simile of the desert applies to the world – always changing, but in many characteristics, the same. Rather that worry about the new normal, we can recognize frequent arrival of drastic change as it has always happened. Change is the Old Normal. The Forever Normal.

Back to the virus – I do see that everyone washes hands a lot better and am delighted by that.  Against all better sense, I hope that this is a change that is for good. Of course, I’m hoping for the quick discovery of vaccine/cure and do think it’s a serious situation, just not buying into the whole “game-changer” narrative.