13906Emergence of Western teachers of Buddhism and Meditation
- Apr 15, 2005The Emergence of Western teachers of Buddhism and Meditation
April 15, 2005
By Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks):
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 upon 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
I will paraphrase his fifteen-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
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 from. 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, nor 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'
which is linguistically similar to the word 'Satan.' Some of the priests of
Buddhist and Hindu cults even wear crimson, like the Pope and the devil, so
it is easy to see how our cultural concepts of evil were 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. The early Pali translators Viggo Fausböll and F. Max
Muller, as well as Madame Blavatsky, Annie Bassant and Henry Olcott Steel,
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 study and practice and a
few 90 day retreats under U Pandita.
We also have a new generation of Western dharma teachers emerging, who not
only studied Buddhist contemplative practices, but converted to Buddhism,
and even became ordained monks and nuns, such as Ayya Khema, Ajahns Amaro
and Brahmavamso, Bhantes Rahula and Vimalaramsi, and Bhikkhus Bodhi and
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 within Western culture.
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? Does 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 will not
acknowledge spiritual leadership from our own people, even if they have
embraced the Asian traditions? Most probably.
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
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 liberation).
If you are interested in dialog on and about Western Buddhism then you might
find the 4th Wheel of interest.
May you be enlightened in this very lifetime,
Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks):
the Great Western Vehicle
Back to Jhanananda¹s articles on Ecstatic Buddhism
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