Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1994

Ajahn Chah remembered; Jack Kornfield
Heart of a Legacy; Luang Por Chah
Freedom in Restraint; Sister Sundara
Turning the Western Wheel; Ven. Sobhano interviews Aj. Amaro
Faith in Awakening; Many Monastics Reflect
Seize the Time; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:


Turning the Wheel in the West

In March 1993 about thirty distinguished Western-born Dharma teachers assembled in Dharamsala, India, for a 4-day dialogue with H.H. the Dalai Lama. In the second of a three-part interview with Ven. Sobhano, Ajahn Amaro continues with his impressions of the conference's aims and achievements.

Question: Did you feel that there was any similarity between the way the Dalai Lama and Ajahn Chah related to Westerners?
Answer: I didn't really spend that much time with Ajahn Chah. But from what I remember from being around him, his whole manner and mode of response was similar to that of the Dalai Lama. For instance, people would make statements and His Holiness would just pause and take things in. You could see that he wasn't just reacting to ideas. Sometimes he would make no reply, or just ask a question back. Sometimes he would just un-pick the question. He seemed to be coming from an empty and loving place - totally attuned to the people around him. Pushing and yielding as and when needed. I felt an immediate and tremendous similarity - it was like the same man in a different robe. But rather than saying that Ajahn Chah had a unique understanding of Westerners, I think both of them have a very profound understanding of human nature.

... it would also be a mistake to assume a sense of uniqueness as Westerners...

Q: Which goes beyond conditions and culture?
A: Yes, although the Dalai Lama is also aware of the particular agendas that Westerners have, He could see where certain questions were coming from, and knew what lay behind them. If someone was making a point, he would politely side-step things sometimes, not just pick up on some line that he was being fed. He was extraordinarily perceptive and very sharp. One could imagine that someone in his position - a monarch as well as a religious leader - could just be a figurehead, but it was apparent that he is very different from that. His mental 'acuity - even if he wasn't the Dalai Lama - would be impressive. He would remember things that had been said a day or two before, and remember who said them. He could pick up a point that had been talked about before and carry on, or use it to illustrate something else. In the same way that Ajahn Chah had developed the human potential to its limit the Dalai Lama could be very sensitive, unafraid to feel emotion, and at the same time be fierce if he needed to.

Q: Did he directly address the question about how much to stick with Dhamma-Vinaya to deal with the problems of our conditioning and how much to use techniques outside the Dhamma-Vinaya?
A: The discussion that I remember most clearly was around the subject of psychotherapy. There were some delegates who expressed the view that we need supplementary skilful means because our present conditioning is such that people do not have the same 'mind-set' today in the Western world as they did in the time of the Buddha. The other position was that the complete practice is already found in the Buddha-Dhamma, but we just don't know how to use it. His Holiness was very impressed with people's reports on the use of psychotherapy. But he felt that it was an exaggeration to think that psychotherapy was something that is a necessity for all people. He said it would also be a mistake to assume a sense of uniqueness as Westerners - even though our Western materialism, de-spiritualised society and high-speed environment are somewhat unique.

Even though he agreed that psychotherapy could help certain people, he felt it should be looked upon in terms of our not knowing how to use what is there in the Buddha- Dhamma in a way that is helpful. His point was that the mind is extraordinarily complex and that is why the Buddha presented the Dhamma in a very complex way. It has many facets, many layers and to think that you can deal with all of the complexities of the mind with one simple practice or instrument is expecting too much.
     His Holiness concluded by saying, "The Buddha-Dhamma is sufficient for realising Buddhahood, so it should be enough..." It was one of those moments when everything stopped and we felt: Yes, of course, if it wasn't sufficient for Buddhahood it wouldn't be Buddha-Dhamma. But there was a sense that there are good things to learn from Western psychotherapy; in fact, the Dalai Lama thought that it would be good if some of the Tibetan lamas studied this. He makes a point of educating himself in Western psychology and science.

Q: The other issue, which seems to be one of the most important ones for the monastic Buddhist communities in the West, is the whole question about the position of women in the Sangha, and women in the context of the Buddhist world. How was this topic discussed at the Conference and what kind of impression did you come back with?
A: There was a universal agreement amongst the conference delegates that an egalitarian system should be established. That's the reason, I think, why many women have never entered the Sangha, or have left -because of the male dominance of the whole picture and the way that the women are very much shunted into the background. This is certainly how it is in the Asian system - all the leading roles historically and contemporaneously being filled by men. For some it was a much stronger issue than others, although there was a certain sympathy for monastic orders who are trying to adopt traditional formats. People took it for granted that you would set things up in a totally egalitarian way if you could. It was remarkable how matter-of-fact and how universal this view was amongst the delegates. Martine Batchelor had just come back from touring in Asia, doing a book about Buddhist nuns. She'd been to Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Burma interviewing nuns and women in the Buddhist world. She had a very practical approach to the question. Others had a much more idealised approach from the feminist viewpoint. I think everyone had a lot of sympathy for those voices but one also felt that people didn't want to make it a political issue. It was recognized that beyond a certain point; it gets destructive. It destroys its own potential through becoming a position that you're taking, rather than something that you're seeing as supportive to the practice of Buddha-Dhamma. The general feeling was that we should aim towards egalitarianism in every way possible.

It was interesting that by the end of the conference I'd fallen into the role of representing the old orthodoxy. I happened to be sitting next to one of the keenest feminist voices on the final evening and we were all giving a little account of our impressions. She finished her talk by saying, 'I really look forward to seeing a Buddhism which is free from the patriarchy'. That afternoon I'd been visiting people and happened to have been at a nunnery where they had given me some white scarves as a greeting. So I had a number of these in my bag which I thought I would give away in the evening. I had considered giving one to this woman as a peace offering but had thought better of it as it would have been too condescending. So I didn't, but they happened to be sitting in my bag, and after she'd made her dramatic point for an end to patriarchy I realised the moment had come. I picked up one of the white scarves and put it around her neck as a gesture of friendship saying that even though the old order might seem to be something to contend with or leave behind, there is also that which conserves and is respectful to the past. Furthermore, that tradition can be respectful towards the agents of reform. I realised that this might look a bit out of order but it seemed important to make that kind of gesture - on the one level, not necessarily going along with a person's line of thinking, but on another level, supporting their right to hold a different opinion. Differences of opinion should not interrupt our communion as Buddhists. It was a poignant moment which received gales of applause.
     While the whole monastic/non-monastic, male/ female, patriarchy/non-patriarchy issues weren't always contentious, they were there. The gesture seemed to bring a release of tension. It was a way of uniting her efforts with ours. Whether we like it or not, we're tied to each other. We're in the same boat. However much people may want to renovate everything and get beyond Buddhism as an 'ism', Buddhism is still tied to the Buddha, and the orthodoxy. Also, no matter how much you want to sustain the purity of the old order, you've got to be sensitive and open to change. It's unavoidable.

Q: Do you feel that there was a sense of how the two approaches to practice could start to work in a more harmonious way together in the teaching?
A: Certainly. Because if we're actually practising it's an inevitable outcome. I think that we come into Buddhist practice full of our own fervour and inspiration perhaps thinking: 'Tibetan Buddhism is it, or that lay practice, or monastic life is it'. After a while you realise that that's not 'it', that's the way to get to 'it'. Naturally your whole perception broadens and you see that maybe you were inspired by this because it was the first thing you saw. If you're drowning, any lump of wood is a bit of wood to hang on to. It's only when you're up on your bit of driftwood that you see other bits of driftwood around. The first thing you grab can seem very important to you.
     We can relate to particular traditions or teachers or styles of practice with a frantic enthusiasm. But what I saw within this group, and in the Buddhist world generally, is less frantic. After twenty years of Buddhism in the Western world, it's settling down with a mutuality of respect. Why should we all be the same? I choose to do it this way, but that doesn't mean I feel you are wrong to do it that way - I don't want to judge too quickly where people are at because of the label that they wear or the style in which they choose to practise.
     Within an egalitarian Western mentality having men first and women second is an oddity. But if such a convention is really that intolerable to us then we do have the option of leaving this 'family' and going to live elsewhere. It's up to us, we're free to choose. There seemed to be a clear recognition of this in most members of the group and, because of the mutual respect at this meeting, I felt that it boded very well for the future.