On the 20th of October, my temple hosted Vipassana Hawaii's annual panel of Buddhist scholars and thinkers, as part of their meditation seminar series they hold at various places in different countries. The attendance was a little shy this year as opposed to last, but a nice group nonetheless. The subject: Buddhism and its effects on Western Culture
One of the panelists was an ex-pat Brit who practices as a monk in Thailand. He gave an interesting talk about how Americans should, like everything else they get their hands on, "make Buddhism their own"...and there were analogies to spaghetti, and pizza, and other things that we not only adopted, but may have ADAPTED and sent back to their respective country of origin. The ex-pat monk also gave a great dialogue of life as a monk in Thailand, and how it is a mistake for everyone to put monks, and religious people on a pedestal, since almost EVERY male in Thailand at one point or another follows monastic disciplines for a bit. He went on to talk about all of these 20 year old men shaving their heads, putting on the signature saffron robes of the Thai Buddhist Monk, and the family bringing food to the monastery and praying and bowing before the same 20 year old son they ordered to take the garbage out the night before. Of more amusement was how soon after the rites were finished and the meals were enjoyed by all in attendance, the young man would be chided by his uncles or grandparents who said he didn't chant in the correct way! From being an object of devotion to just another member of the family. However I detected something in this dialogue about how Western culture perceives Buddhism, and it isn't positive.
I think as people living in the West, we all like to believe that there is innate equality amongst everyone. Whether this is true or not, is besides the point, it is a perception that we all love to cultivate. For this reason, many love to embrace the ideals of Buddhism which promote that kind of equanimity amongst brothers and sisters, but it isn't always the case. My 17 years of intimate dealings with Japanese schools of Buddhism proves that there is nothing so far from the rules of equality than the monastic order in Japan. For one, there is a dynastic system in Japan that requires priests to have sons that will eventually take over the temple, all of the property and cemetery rights the temple possesses. While it would be nice to say that parents are doing that in order to keep the religion alive, many sons are forced to assume minister's robes because no one in the family really wants to give up lucrative rights to owning cemeteries that only religious organizations (read: temples in Japan) have. When a single plot in metropolitan Tokyo can go far north of $50,000 USD, along with annual maintenance fees which a plot owner is required to fork over, you can imagine why the first born male had BETTER take over the temple. More often, you will find that the temple, if not already a recognized tourist location, or part of a pilgrimage route, owns a preschool or daycare center on a large parcel of land, much like their Western counterparts (oddly something that we gave them an idea for!). This imparts an immense annual revenue for the temples, and along with donations associated with memorial services (required in Buddhist rites), funerals, and blessings, places the minister of a large temple into a social strata akin to the aristocracy (this is not the case for all temples, especially smaller rural ones where most priests do their mission out of love and respect for their order, and usually have other jobs to make ends meet, but these temples and their associated ministers do not make up the administrative power for the larger sects). For the ex-pat Brit, I would assume that had he gone to Japan, which he probably did, the larger temple organizations would no sooner give him directions to the nearest train STATION then would let him train as a disciple.
The ex-pat monk did reveal that he was having difficulty with his visa in Thailand, and that he was not the head of his own monastery, but lived in one. There is a difference. Which is why I felt a little tinge of disappointment. How can anyone tell us to OWN and MAKE a religion into something comprehensible and relevant in America when the very advocates for change are shackled by ties to the East, an East that probably gives him trouble with a visa, and don't even think about getting your own monastery?
It is our own fault as Westerners that we refuse to actually make changes in the way Buddhism is practiced. For one thing, there are many, many people dissatisfied with the way Buddhism is "transmitted" from teacher to disciple, and exactly what this "transmission" actually means. You can't blame any one for feeling uncomfortable, because there are no real parameters involved in having someone "receiving" the teachings. In my own form of Buddhism, Shingon, there are many proponents who say you can't learn anything from reading about Shingon it must be orally transmitted. You can't know what the qualifications of any minister is because the transmission they receive is secret. You must trust in the lineage of the minister. That would be like going to school and trusting that the teacher you are learning a subject from is qualified to teach you this subject without a degree from an impartial institution, but the person who taught the same class previously and before retiring "transmitted" what he/she knew to the next teacher. Some people would mark what I say as being anti-Shingon, because Kobo Daishi stated that he can't teach the rituals and secrets to people by writing, he must communicate face to face. However, I am an American and realize that Kobo Daishi was in fact a product of his time. In Heian Japan, there was no religious freedom, and monks were given decrees by which to open monasteries and carry out ordinations by the government, which carefully rationed the number of monks ordained per year. Moreover, privileges were given to "favored" religions, so there was constant vying for political attention. I cannot see Kobo Daishi readily giving his rivals (and he didn't) tips on how to become the "popular" religion in the court. Why a prolific writer who wrote magnum opuses on sutras and their importance would relegate his teachings to oral communication only is a mystery, no matter what anyone pulls out to be deemed as ecclesiastical fact. The point is, Kobo Daishi had to commit Shingon to paper to make his argument to the Emperor.
As a westerner, and especially as a Caucasian, do not assume that everyone in Japan is just so warm and fuzzy about you because you are "gaijin". In Shingon especially, I have encountered many scholars who have practiced some disciplines up in famous monasteries in Japan...but please note that I say "scholars"...for the most part, students, academics, and scholars are welcome for training. If you come from a good western school, better yet, the welcome will be greater. On the other hand, if you are a wandering backpacker, don't expect the shoji doors to be slid quickly to the side and zabuton placed next to the resident minister's seat at the altar. It does actually happen, sometimes. But you will usually find that the temple that does that is considered "rogue", and on the fringe of the administrative power of the headquarters of that sect. So much for treating all humanity as equal, and spreading the word of Buddhism to everyone for their eternal happiness.
AND YET, despite all that, even Americans are wrapped up in the "lineage" of someone. Yes lineage is important. It represents a continuation of a teaching, not necessarily Buddha's teaching, but A teaching that is recognized as a viable source from which to make reference on your journey as a Buddhist on this earth. But how can we OWN a religion, when we all just want to be tenants? Are we incapable of making interpretations of writings on our own? Even Buddha said, "don't believe what I say...DO, and see what happens".
My point? I have participated in a lot of these panel discussions, usually with academics who have strong degrees to back up their arguments...but have no argument to back up. We all like to complain about the old Japanese (Thai, Cambodian, Chinese, insert your favorite Asian country here) minister who visited and made a fuss, and was picky, and etc., but in the end we still look for validation. We still have all of these great symposiums about Buddhism and its effect on Western Culture, what about Western Culture and its effect on Buddhism?