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13906Emergence of Western teachers of Buddhism and Meditation

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  • Jhanananda
    Apr 15, 2005
      The 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
      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 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

      This document (updated 11-12-04) can be retrieved at this URL:
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