|Forest Sangha Newsletter||April 1991|
The Golden State
Part II: A Still Life
It is an oft-recognised fact that, once a religion is established in a society, over the centuries its original values tend to be obscured. Cultural overlay, empty intellectualism, assumed importance and conceit all contribute to a process of corruption.
When a religion enters a new country, however, there is an opportunity for a reclarification of values - particularly if it has not arrived through missionary zeal but through the interest of the local population. Against the background of new culture, whatever does not relate to the basic spiritual paradigm becomes illuminated - and can be questioned.
Most religious traditions employ similar 'tools' - self- discipline, kindness, devotion, contentment with little, contemplation, meditation - which historically have often been formulated into monastic institutions. As Buddhism enters Western (and particularly American) culture, however, these basic spiritual qualities are being cultivated via variety of approaches. Some are conservative, traditional and origin-based; others are novel, unorthodox and based more in the effort to fit with present cultural values.
On the 'modernist' side - if that is the right word - we visited Spirit Rock, the centre being established by Insight Meditation West (IMW) and the Vipassana meditation students of the West Coast; Green Gulch Farm, a community associated with the San Francisco Zen Center, and Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in northern Oregon, also mainly used by Vipassana students. We also conducted an inaugural blessing ceremony for the Bell Springs Hermitage, a retreat centre particularly for those with life-threatening illnesses.
Their approach has been - right from the start - not to dilute the monastic form to make it more palatable to Americans, but instead to make clear what the teaching and discipline offers, and to give people the opportunity to rise up to it.
Perhaps these two attitudes are extensions of the psychological tendencies of primacy and recency: either trusting what was first experienced as most important, or trusting what has been experienced most recently. Both approaches are, naturally, blessed with benefits and problems.
Traditionalism (primacy) derives from a respect for one's origins. On the spiritual level, for Buddhists this manifests as respect for the fundamental, unconditioned Truth (Sacca-Dhamma) as the Source. On the conditioned plane, it means a respect for Gotama the Buddha, the whole dispensation which arose from his accomplishments, and the lineage of all who have lived according to the teachings over the centuries - keeping them alive and vibrant to the present day.
Such devotion to the roots of one's faith has a tremendous supportive quality: one is participating in a form which has existed for millennia, with the power to buoy one up and carry one along, like the flow of a great river. One has the right to enjoy the inheritance of one's ancestors, living in the way extolled by them.
Traditional monastic institutions automatically inherit the faith and devotion of the people of their country, and Can rely on a stable Sangha to back up any efforts in a new land -- which often receive financial support from the laity. Adherence to the trusted standards of the 'old country' draws in those who already have confidence in that form.
The principal difficulty is that, inevitably, these well-established forms of Buddhism carry a cultural overlay. This can make their transplantation to another social milieu a very delicate operation. If those bringing it over have little conversancy with the new environment, the precious seeds of wisdom can remain trapped within a capsule of Asian custom and language. Or - like a rare and fragile orchid - it might take root as something exquisite and exotic but basically infertile, unable to withstand for long the rigours of its new location.
The Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is, as its name suggests, more than just a monastery. Alongside the facilities for the hundred or more resident monks, nuns and novices, there are also elementary and secondary schools and the 'Dhamma Realm Buddhist University'. It is the main centre for a group of orthodox monasteries spread along the West Coast of America and Canada. The spiritual guide and founder of these monasteries is the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, a bhikshu (monk) of Chinese origin who began teaching in San Francisco in the early Sixties.
Although the main interest and support has so far come From the Chinese community, there is a strong emphasis on making the teachings available to the English-speaking Americans. Indeed, many American men and women have gone forth as bhikshus and bhikshunis under the Venerable Master's guidance, and are now in the forefront of administrative and teaching duties at the monasteries. Their approach has been - right from the start - not to dilute the monastic form to make it more palatable to Americans, but instead to make clear what the teaching and discipline offers, and to give people the opportunity to rise up to it.
The monasteries still have a strong Chinese flavour - all the religious objects, rituals, etc. retain the form developed in China over the centuries - but Master Hua has consistently pointed our the original forms established by the Lord Buddha. Thus his monasteries adhere more closely to the Vinaya and observe a number of Sangha procedures more strictly than is done in present-day Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. Along with translating all scriptures and rituals into English, this approach makes it possible for those attending retreats, ceremonies and Dharma talks to tie in the practice directly to the Lord Buddha's own Way, rather than just to the obvious Chinese tradition.
Despite attempts to make the teaching more accessible, Sangha members commented that the average interested American still finds perhaps understandably their form of practice somewhat impenetrable. However, things are constantly in a state of adaptation. In being faithful to a tradition, one starts out by sticking with the known and well-established - and makes changes later, to fit the time and place. It is a dodgy business to design ideal reforms from scratch; one does better to see what changes will be suitable - often by seeming to blunder at first!
Americans, however, are used the opposite approach: the ideal is laid out on paper and approved beforehand - rather like the U.S. Constitution. This may be fine in principle but, to be ruthlessly practical, one has to start from where one actually is. So, getting back to the problem of importing a monastic form, although there might be all kinds at great adaptations that could be made, it is only by using what is there already that one finds out what really needs to be changed. In making changes in this usually painstaking manner, the trust and confidence of Buddhists in the country of origin is happily retained. Pioneer monasteries are much in the public eye back home, so if too much is altered too quickly, disaffection can set in on a dramatic scale. Once a community is well-established, however, important adaptations can often be made without such negative repercussions.
Waving the hands
Bright sharp light
It was very encouraging, therefore, to see that these monasteries have recently instituted some Pali chanting with English translations in their morning and evening recitations, and have made it optional for the monks and nuns to wear 'Theravada' robes if they choose. This is in order to further the recognition of unity between the different branches of the Sangha and to stress connectedness with the Buddha rather than with China.
At the Buddha-Dharma Meditation Center on the outskirts of Chicago, the experience is similar. Established much more recently (1988) by Phra Ajahn Sunthorn Plamintr, the centre has aimed to be a resource as much for local Americans as for the immigrant Thai population. In June of 1990 I was invited there to attend the demarcation of an ordination precinct (sima), and the ordination of several men as novices and bhikkhus. Despite being quite a junior monk I was accorded a place of honour amongst the many Maha-theras, and was asked to give one of the Dhamma-talks to the whole assembly.
The efforts and sincerity of the resident Sangha, and also the lay supporters, were immediately striking; so also was their concern to be more of use to English-speaking Americans. So much was this on their minds that, from the drive from the airport right up until my departure time, I was repeatedly asked for advice on this. The barriers of language and culture, I was told, meant that more than 99% of the people coming were Asians.
They had been trying very hard. On this week-end, for example, they had ensured that most of the Dhamma-talks would be in English. At the Center, they held regular meditation classes; they had formed links with other local Buddhist groups in the Mid-West Dharma Association and had invited well-known teachers of other Buddhist traditions to speak on their festival days. However, many felt that there was an inexorable inclination of the centre towards becoming little more than a Thai cultural centre, with all the trappings of Thai 'city' monastery.
The future is, of course uncertain but my feeling was that this outcome is quite unlikely. These are the early days when, as mentioned above, one tends to stay close to the mould from which one has recently emerged. Gentle transmutations will come withtime. Since the determination of the abbot and his closest lay supporters is to establish a monastery for all people, and a place where meditation is taught and practised, that east be the dire; ion it will take.
Our contact with Brother David Steindl-Rast at the 'Joys of Monastic Life' conference led to a visit to the monastery at which he now stays. Although professed in a different order, he has been at the hermitage of New Camaldoli for the past eight years. When the Camaldolese Order was set up in the 11 century by St. Romuald they were even then something of a reform movement. Eschewing leadership by abbots (who already had an aura of power and worldliness), they established a unique pattern in Christian monasticism. Their life is divided into three basic styles: that of the Hermit; that of communal life in the monastery; and that of a house in the city. Each monastic spends varying periods of time in each situation according to their disposition.
it was this unique blend that moved Father Thomas Merton to urge the Camaldolese to establish a monastery in the USA. In his eyes, his own Trappist order was too isolationist and rigid to fully serve the American people as he felt a monastic community could. Unfortunately, by the time the New Camaldoli monastery was founded, he was too valuable to be allowed to leave his own community. Thus he never got the chance to live with them in the stunningly beautiful place they found, nestled on the hillsides overlooking the Pacific. However, that the monastery exists today and is one of great vitality and ecumenicism, would probably please Father Thomas more than his own getting to live there.
On their 800 acres they have a number of hermit monks living in the woods, and a main community of about 25 monks, novices and lay people, most of whom are a lot younger than the average resident of today's Christian monasteries. They have a small house in Berkeley as well, where a couple of monks reside whilst engaging in studies at the University of California.
They still retain their traditional monastic habits and follow the Liturgy of the Hours, but they have also made a number of adaptive changes - particularly in providing ample facilities for men and women to come on solitary retreat, and in the ecumenicism of their services and literature. Their emphasis is strongly towards contemplative and mystical aspects of religion, and towards religious unification. The Prior, Father Richard, was instrumental in bringing about the recent meetings between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. And Tibetan Buddhist prayer-flags could be seen flying in the little garden behind his cell!
As contrasted with traditionalism, the modernist way takes its cue more from the current attitudes and understanding of those interested in the teachings, than from the way the teaching has been presented and lived out in the past. The present environment is of primary importance. This derives from the quality of ultimate Truth as 'apparent here and now, timeless', just as traditionalism derives from its quality of being the source and foundation of all things.
Here one finds, in the main, middle-class raised, educated white Americans. The teachings are presented in their own language, by teachers from their own kind of background, and in a familiar cultural context. The advantage of this way is that it is easily adopted and used by people who have grown up in the West. It slips into their value system and is absorbed comparatively painlessly. It is naturally more understandable to many people, being of Western appearance and less alien than forms with an Asian veneer and decidedly conventional 'flavour'. Also, the vocabulary used to describe the world of the mind accords much more with contemporary psychological ideas than classical Buddhist expressions do.
A big disadvantage is the disconnectedness from the historical Buddha that naturally arises. Through claiming Buddha-nature as one's reference more than Gotama Buddha and his whole dispensation, social links with the rest of the Buddhist world are weakened. Moreover, skilful means, teachings and traditions that the Buddha established - which serve the whole spectrum of human life - tend not to get used to the full. On the practical level, the separation from Asian forms also means that devoted Asian people, who might be delighted to support the efforts of others in their cultivation of the Path, often do not recognise these groups as 'real Buddhists'. The spirit of generosity, so much to the fore in Buddhist countries, is thus disabled from helping to nourish these efforts.
Another, and perhaps the most important, disadvantage is that in adapting to the surrounding culture, some moral aspects of the teaching which are crucial to wholesomeness and liberation get passed over. Without the reflection of the larger Buddhist community, and without the standards established by the Buddha being given prominence, these groups are vulnerable to incidents which can have grave consequences.
For a long time the Zen Center has been the most prominent Buddhist institution in the San Francisco Bay Area. Originally established by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi - whose collection of transcribed talks in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind graces many a Buddhist bookshelf- the centre was guided, after his death in the early Seventies, by Richard Baker Roshi, his Dharma heir. The centre went from strength to strength, establishing both Tassajara - a retreat centre for more rigorous training - and Green Gulch Farm - a more informal community of Zen students, based around a market garden as a means of livelihood. In a Sixties-Seventies spiritual environment characterised by distrust of most traditions in favour of a 'direct-experience spirituality', this Soto Zen group had managed to strike a remarkable balance that allowed for tradition-based and disciplined practice to be integrated with the idealistic lifestyles of the rime. For many, it seemed the perfect blend, which gave birth to much confidence in Buddhism as a spiritual path.
In 1984, however, the Zen community, and all Buddhists in the U.S., were stunned by the news that Baker Roshi had been relieved of his post as abbot, because of a number of serious transgressions against community standards of proper behaviour.
When I visited Green Gulch, the main interest expressed to me was in Vinaya and community discipline. Zen's customary approach to the Precepts has been - in contrast to the rest of the Buddhist world - more as 'themes for contemplation', which you bear in mind whilst going about doing what you do, rather than clear guidelines to be followed wherever possible. This overly liberal approach was clearly one of the causes of Baker Roshi's downfall, and for the distress and confusion of their community resulting from it.
Norman Fischer, the head of Green Gulch, spent as much time as he could with me, discussing the establishment of a more solid basis of moral conduct for his community. He pointed our that they now better appreciated that they were not monks at all, but should look upon themselves as lay- priests. It was quite a relief, he said, to recognise their proper role, and to establish their values accordingly as a lay community. It was his hope - even though some other leaders of the Zen Center group were at variance - that they would at least establish the Eight Precepts as the standard for practice at Tassajara. This came not from a disaffection with his own tradition but from the obvious need, within the spiritual life, for a basis of restraint and trustworthiness.
IMW and Spirit Rock have had no such catastrophic incidents. The plans for their Marin County site focus around a retreat centre, but also include a teaching area where people can come to learn meditation and to hear Dharma talks, and an area set aside to be a monastery or hermitage. This group's style is based around lay practice, and is guided by teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Borstein and James Baraz. It is a group that has served thousands of people, organising silent retreats and leading local Vipassana meditation groups on the West Coast. Because of its simple approach and absence of 'religious' trappings, it has been an inroad into the training of the heart for many whose interest was, initially, in a more effective kind of therapy.
Its form of meditation practice is, however, akin to the methods of mind-training contained within classical Theravada monasticism. Because of this, and of Jack Kornfield's time spent as a bhikkhu with Venerable Ajahn Chah, it was no surprise that IMW should convene the Monastics' Conference, and that Jack was the Moderator of the event. His affinities with both approaches described here, together with the growing interest in morality and traditionalism aroused by the debacles of Baker Roshi and Osel Tenzin [Chogyam Trungpa's successor, who recently died due to AIDS], made the conference both pertinent and timely. The event was not so much for monastics to meet and discuss with each other, but more for Bay Area students of Buddhism to have an opportunity to contemplate such questions as: What is monasticism for? How does it work? What are its results? Is it still a valid approach? What should be changed? - and to hear from the mouths of monks and nuns themselves the accounts of their vocation.
Those invited to speak and lead discussions were quite carefully chosen - not for their eloquence or attainment, but rather for their years of commitment to a communal, contemplative, orthodox monastic life. There were Buddhists and Christians; all of us were Westerners.
Approximately 150 people attended, most having had little if any contact with traditional monasticism. Although largely of Vipassana and Zen Center background, there were also a fair number of Christians. Of the main talks, even though all were fine expositions, probably those of Sister Sundara and Sister Columba were most memorable.
At the beginning of the second day, Jack Kornfield in- vited everyone to suggest issues that they would like to see covered. The list began: celibacy, equality for women in Theravada Buddhism, adaptability of rules, vegetarianism, differences between Buddhism and Christianity . . . and on and on it went. It seemed that everyone had a pet issue. After about half an hour, Ajahn Sumedho and I looked at each other - it would take months to deal with that lot!
Just then one of the audience announced that she had just had an insight. Silence fell and we waited.... 'We want it all! We don't want to give up anything. This is real American Buddhism!' Everybody laughed and, for that moment, could see the tendency to search for a perfect Buddhism that matched one's own particular biases. Ajahn Sumedho turned towards her and applauded.
Nevertheless, the suggestions kept on coming, and with the question of equality for women well to the fore.
It was Sister Sundara's turn to speak next and Ajahn Sumedho leaned over to me with a concerned look: 'I would not like to be in her position right now.' After a short break, she gave the talk reprinted elsewhere in this newsletter. In many respects, she had taken the most tricky of issues and clearly pointed out the way to work with such things: there are no simple answers, only ways to practise wisely.
Sister Columba was deeply impressive, and probably less for the wonderful words she spoke than for the purity and light that imbued all she did and said. She described her entry into her convent, and the life that she and her sisters led. She fielded questions with directness, humour and honesty. Here was the result of a lifetime given up to pure conduct, simplicity and Truth a being radiant, clear and sublimely happy. For many people at the conference this said more than all the words for, despite belonging to the most orthodox and austere of traditions, she had arrived at a state of being that freewheeling Californians have combed hills and beaches endlessly to find.
At the close of the conference, Jack Kornfield asked the assembly how many would now consider entering a monastery, say, for at least a year. It was a testimony to the insight in convening such a conference, and to the capacity of the speakers to put their lives into words, that 70-80% of the people raised their hands.
A monastery's purpose is to provide opportunities for such interest to bear fruit. Even though, as some suggest, the future of Buddhism in the U.S. might lie with lay groups, the monastery remains a unique and invaluable environment for the development of the spiritual life - not only for those within the enclosure, as it were, but also for those for whom it is a reminding and encouraging presence in the world.
So how will things develop? Who knows? What can be seen for definite, however, is that there is already a tremendous fellowship among Buddhist people in the West. During this visit I experienced only warmth, hospitality and respect from those I met. What we are experiencing here is a cooperative effort towards a common goal, rather than a contest to see who is right and best. Traditional forms and the spirit of the present can work together like an old, well-used tool in a skilful hand. The too1 and the hand on their own cannot achieve very much, but in concord we can bring great beauty into the world.