[ineb] Questions and Thoughts About Buddhism Today
- Questions and Thoughts About Buddhism Today
By Richard Petersen
August 18, 1999
Here are some of the questions I have asked along with some of my
thinking. I would love to have further discussion of these
issues as well as others which people feel are important.
Perhaps some of those on the INEB or Think Sangha lists will wish
to bring further clarity to these topics.
1. The nature of authority and the legitimacy of institutions.
How does authority become legitimate?
I do not have a good understanding of this one. Those with a
better idea of Buddhist doctrine might have a better handle on
this one. I have heard that there is something in Buddhist
doctrine about the proper role of Kings. Organized Buddhism has
certainly coexisted with rulers for centuries. The Dalai Lama is
thought to have divine authority in the Tibetan Tradition.
2. The world financial system. This is related to globalization -
but is more about how money is created and how it moves around
the world. It is affected by trade in goods - but as financial
markets have dwarfed trade, it become an entity in itself. What
are Buddhist views on debt?
Both the Christian Bible and the Muslim Koran have much against
the practice of usury. What do Buddhist doctrines have to say
about debt and money.
3. Governments, people and the movement of money in society. What
is a Buddhist perspective on transferring money from one group to
Islam has the concept to Zakat, or the giving of 1/40th of
certain assets to the poor and other specified groups on a yearly
basis. Where do Buddhist texts say about taxes and the voluntary
or involuntary transfer of money between people or to a state
4. Buddhism and consumer society. To what extent has Buddhism
become a consumer product to be sold through objects and
seminars. What are appropriate Buddhist institutions and how are
One can observe Buddhist organization engaged in the business of
selling objects and books. Increasingly in the west it is
popular to charge for Buddhist seminars and conferences. Many
Buddhist retreats support themselves through guest fees. One
exception to this is the Vipassana Meditation groups who ask for
no fee and claim to be strictly voluntary. In a consumer society
in which everything is purchased with money it may seem natural
to "sell" religious services and experiences. How compatible is
this with traditional Buddhist teachings?
5. The place of ritual in Buddhism. To what extent is ritual
based on tradition and to what extent is it an evolving process?
Buddhists have rituals that have been passed down from generation
to generation. As Buddhism moves to different cultures, it may
be asked, what is the importance of following rituals from
another culture. Thich Nhat Hanh in Zen Keys seems to be saying
that Zen in the West will have to adopt it's own forms and not
become a copy of practices in other cultures. This also raises
the question about how Buddhist ritual and tradition may change
in our present day. As more people from different cultures
mingle - even Buddhists from different traditions no mix with
greater frequency than in the past. This is bound to have an
effect of Buddhist culture and tradition. Unless one wants to
preserve a culture as tourist attraction, a culture will
invariably evolve and develop new forms. Buddhist traditions and
culture are bound to be affected by communications technology as
well as the dominant western media culture.
6. Buddhism and the social issues of today. Buddhism meets
feminism, racism, prejudice, homosexuality, abortion,
nationalism, education and issues of class.
This is an area carved out by engaged Buddhism. Buddhist history
is full of the hierarchical and prejudiced views that are now
coming under attack in western culture. It is becoming less
acceptable to use historical Buddhist doctrine to defend the
rightness of these views. This means that some parts of Buddhist
doctrine which were held to be true will no longer be held to be
true. If one accepts that doctrine can change, then the question
comes up - what gets changed and who decides what changes? This
is a non-trivial problem. One can look to the wisdom of leaders
such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama for clues. Many will
attempt to define new doctrine, but who has the authority to say
what is true or not.
7. Buddhist Identity. What does it mean to call oneself a
Anyone can call himself or herself a Buddhist. There is no
central authority on what it means to be a Buddhist. Most of
those in the west who call themselves Buddhists generally have
studied something of Buddhist doctrine and feel that it offers
enough of value that they want to be associated with Buddhism -
enough that they would refer to themselves as a Buddhist. Is the
label "Buddhist" mutually exclusive - can a Catholic call
themselves a Buddhist? Perhaps - yet the Pope might consider
this blasphemy and order the excommunication of the person from
the official Roman church. I know of no procedure comparable to
"excommunication" among Buddhist doctrine - but perhaps there
is - does anyone know?
Food for thought ...
from Zen Keys by Thich Nhat Hanh
Zen and the West
A great number of scholars and monks have wanted to transplant
Zen in Europe and America. Have these efforts proved successful?
It remains to be seen.
From the standpoint of knowledge, certain scholars, including
Professor Daisetz Suzuuki, have contributed a great deal toward
arousing the interest of Westerners in Zen Buddhism. Zen has
influenced the thinking of theologians like Paul Tillich, and
philosophers like Erich Fromm and Carl Jung. But Zen does not yet
exist in the West as a living tradition. Many monks are teaching
the practice of Zen there, but this practice still remains
Oriental: foreign to Western culture. The fact is that Zen has
not yet been able to find roots in this soil. Culture, economic,
and psychological conditions are different in the West. One
cannot become a practitioner of Zen by imitating the way of
eating, sitting, or dressing of the Chinese and Japanese
practitioners. Zen is life: life does not imitate. If Zen one day
becomes a reality in the West, it will acquire a Western form,
considerably different from Oriental Zen.
FOR ENGAGED BUDDHISTS
Evading the Transformation of Reality
- Engaged Buddhism at an Impasse -
Businessweek has an interesting article titled "21 Ideas for the
online at http://businessweek.com/1999/99_35/b3644001.htm