The Emergence of Western teachers of Buddhism
- The Emergence of Western teachers of Buddhism
I often contemplate how Buddhism will look in the West. And, this has caused
me to reflect also on how our own teachers will emerge in the West as well.
The assumption is that eventually we will generate our own teachers and not be
dependent on Asia to supply us with teachers indefinitely.
With the idea of myself becoming a dharma teacher I recently asked a Tibetan
lama, "How does a Westerner, an American, become a teacher in your tradition?"
I will paraphrase his 15 minute answer, "If you work really hard on your
spiritual practices in this lifetime, then maybe you will be born as a Tibetan in
your next lifetime, then maybe someone will recognize you as a Tulku."
I am not sure if his answer took into account that he was in a room full of
Westerners, mostly "Americans," who were feeding and clothing him, and
providing a temple and a home for him to teach out of. And, these people were also
ardently studying from him, and diligently practicing what he instructed them
in. Nor did it appear that he considered he needed an interpreter, or did it
seem significant to him that his interpreter was also an American.
A significant number of the audience had probably worked "really hard" on
themselves for several decades, and possibly longer than the good lama may have
invested in his own particular practice regimen. Just because an Asian is
wearing robes, and is recognized by his tradition as a lama, rinpoche or bhikkhu
does not mean he didn't spend 20 years in a Chinese prison, then get out and
spend another 20 years being a family-man before taking up the "cloth" a few
years before being sent to the West as a missionary to Americans, who might not
be able to discriminate between an enlightened master and a simple priest with
only 5 years of formal training (if that).
In Asia there is a common belief that Europeans are demons. The lama's
belief that Americans are unsuitable for religious leadership may then reflect this
form of racial stereotyping. It of course is a common belief among the
various peoples of the world that the "other" (people from other cultures) are evil
and demonic. Look at the Christian concepts of Satan. The 'evil' one in
Christian iconography has been represented with horns and carrying a pitch fork,
and he is red with cloven hooves for feet, etc. It may not be a coincidence
that Pan, the Greek god of the ecstatic experience, was often depicted as half
goat. And, Shiva, the Hindu god of the underworld, carried a pitchfork and
wore a crescent moon on his forehead, which would have looked like horns to an
uninitiated observer of the cult. And, the Hindu religion at times was called
'Sanatana' (http://www.wcer.org/members/sasia/india/definitions.htm), which is
linguistically similar to the word 'Satan.' So, it is easy to see how our
cultural concept of evil was influenced by our own cultural prejudices of
peoples just over the 'hill.'
We in the West of course have Buddhist teachers who began to emerge almost
immediately after the rise of interest in Buddhism and Asian thought in the mid
to late 1800s. Madame Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, and other 19th century
founders of the Theosophical society borrowed heavily from Asian belief
systems, especially Buddhism.
In the last 50 years, Robert Aiken studied Zen in Japan in the 1950s. And,
in the 1960s Robert Hover and Ruth Denison went to Southeast Asia and sat a few
90 day retreats, and after about 10 years of study and practice were
"empowered by Sayagyi U Ba Khin at the same time S.N. Goenka was. Jack Kornfield,
Joseph Goldstien and Sharon Salzburg emerged as teachers a few years later in the
mid-70s after about 5 years of practice and a few 90 day retreats.
We also have a new generation of Western dharma teachers emerging as well,
who not only studied Buddhist contemplative practices, but converted to
Buddhism, and even became ordained monks and nuns, such as Ayya Khema, Ajahn Amaro,
Bhantes Rahula and Vimalaramsi, and Bhikkhus Dhammarato and Thanissaro.
Some well known American dharma centers are now actively training the next
generation of dharma teachers, such as Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock,
the San Francisco Zen Center, and the Bhavana Society. So, it is reasonable
to consider that the portion of the 600 million that is our nations population,
who will embrace an Asian contemplative practice, will find well trained
dharma teachers prepared to teach them in our native language without the
pejorative racial stereotyping typical of Asians.
But, the question is whether Americans will accept being taught by their own
people. I believe there is in part a romance with everything Asian right now,
which makes our population predisposed to seeking instruction from an Asian.
I believe also the pursuit of Asian meditation practices reveals a deeper
conflict for Western culture as well.
Religion is often at the root of the definition of a culture's identity. If
that is true, then what does it mean when members of a culture reject their
religion of origin and embrace that of another culture? Doesn't that act
represent a kind of cultural suicide? Does it reflect a kind of self hate as well?
If self hatred is at the root of the Western infatuation with Asian concepts
and culture, does that imply that we generally wont acknowledge spiritual
leadership from our own people, even if they have embraced the Asian traditions?
These questions of course rely on gross generalizations, but when a room full
of Westerners accepts that they have to die and be reborn as Tibetans before
they can become "worthy" teachers of the dharma, means that they have accepted
the Asian belief that we are demons.
A week ago an old dharma friend of mine, who has been a Zen practitioner for
15 years, told me he was having trouble convincing his dharma center that he
was sufficiently knowledgeable to lead a beginner's class. In fact the years
of conflict over the issue have left him with little interest in remaining in
Tucson. The good news for the Western dharma is this man may find himself
moving to Asia to study in a monastery for the 5 years necessary to receive
ordination as a Roshe. Then, he would no doubt return to the USA, because it is
unlikely an Asian would ever consider him a worthy teacher for having come from,
what they tend to believe is, a demonic race of people.
In my 30 years of study and practice in various Asian traditions I have
studied from swamis and lamas, yogis and rinpoches, bhantes and bhikkhus and I have
found that for the most part they are just priests of a foreign religion who
are fundamentally no different from Western monks, nuns, ministers, rabbis and
priests. Asian monastics and dharma teachers are primarily people who have
dedicated their lives to understanding and preserving their culture's spiritual
heritage, just as our ministers, rabbis and priests do.
The form of Buddhism from Tibet is so distinctly different from the form that
Buddhism takes in Sri Lanka that, if one didn't know better, it would appear
they were distinctly different religions. The same is true of Christianity
today. American Protestantism is so radically different from Eastern Orthodox
that it would be easy to assume they were in fact different religions as well.
So, it is reasonable to predict, as the West makes Buddhism more in its own
image, it is likely to take on a form that is radically different from any of
its Asian counterparts. But, does that make Western Buddhism any less a
vehicle for the dharma? Certainly not. Does that mean our own native teachers are
inferior to their Asian brethren? Of course not. But, it does mean that our
native varieties of dharma centers and teachers are going to be more inclined
to understand the Western psyche much better than an Asian can ever.
Therefore we in the West should make every effort to support those who want to
dedicate their lives to contemplative practice and the dharma (the path to