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the_challenge_of_the_future_how_will_the_sangha_fare_in_north_american_buddhism [2018/02/26 18:13] (current)
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 +====== The Challenge of the Future: How Will the Sangha Fare in North American Buddhism? ======
 +by [[Ven.]] [[Bhikkhu Bodhi]]
 +I will begin with some questions: If [[Buddhism]] is to be successfully transplanted in the U.S., does it need a [[monastic Sangha]] as its cornerstone?​ Must there be a monastic Sangha at all, or is [[wp>​Buddhist monasticism]] an outdated institution?​ Can the teachings flow entirely through a “[[lay Sangha]],​” through [[lay teachers]] and communities of [[lay practitioners]]?​ If [[monastic]]s are necessary, what should their role be? What their duties? What changes in lifestyle and orientation,​ if any,
 +are required by the new conditions imposed by the [[wp>​Western culture]] in which Buddhism has taken root?
 +My personal belief is that for Buddhism to successfully flourish in the West, a monastic Sangha is necessary. At the same time, I think it almost inevitable that as Buddhism evolves here, [[wp>​monasticism]] will change in many ways, that it will adapt to the peculiar environment impressed upon it by Western culture and modes of understanding,​ which differ so much from the culture and worldview of traditional Asian Buddhism. As a result, I believe, the role monastics play in [[Western Buddhism]] will also differ in important ways from the role they play in Asia. I do not think this is something that we need lament or look upon with dread. In some respects, I believe,
 +such a development is not only inevitable but also wholesome, that it can be seen as a sign of Buddhism’s ability to adapt to different cultural conditions ([[wp>​syncretism]]),​ which is also a sign of spiritual strength. At the same time, I also think we need to exercise caution about making adaptation. It would certainly be counterproductive to be in a hurry to make changes uncritically,​ without taking the long-standing pillars of our Buddhist heritage as our reference point. If we are too
 +hasty, we might also be careless, and then we might discard fundamental principles of the Dharma along with the [[wp>​adventitious]] cultural dressing in which it is wrapped.
 +I first want to examine the [[wp>​traditionalist]] understanding of this issue, even though--and I stress this--the position to which I incline is not a strictly traditionalist one. From a traditionalist point of view, the monastic Sangha is necessary for the successful [[transmission]] of Buddhism to occur because the monastic Sangha sustains the continuity of the [[Triple Gem]]. We can briefly consider
 +how this is so with regard to each of the Three Jewels individually.
 +(1) The [[Buddha]]: When the Buddha decided to embark on the quest for [[enlightenment]],​ his first step was to become a [[samana]] ([[shramana]]),​ an [[wp>​ascetic]]. On the one hand, by adopting the lifestyle of an ascetic,
 +the future Buddha was conforming to an ancient Indian paradigm of the spiritual life, a paradigm that might well have gone back centuries before his own time. But by taking up this mode of life, and continuing to adhere to it even after his enlightenment,​ the Buddha did something more than simply conform to the prevailing Indian convention. He conveyed a message, namely, that the [[wp>​renunciant]] ([[renunciation]]) way of life was an essential step on the path to the ultimate goal, to the state of
 +transcendent [[liberation from birth and death]], the ideal shared by many of the old Indian schools ([[Shad Darshan]]) of spiritual culture. Even more: he indicated that [[renunciation]] is itself an aspect of the goal.
 +Renunciation of sensual pleasures and [[cyclic existence]] is not merely a means to liberation; it is
 +also integral to the goal itself. The goal is renunciation,​ and thus the act of renunciation with
 +which the monastic life begins is not simply a step in the direction of the goal but also partly the
 +realization of the goal, an embodiment of liberation, even if only symbolically so.
 +After his enlightenment,​ the Buddha created a monastic Sangha on the model of the lifestyle that
 +he had adopted during his quest for enlightenment. The monks (and later nuns) were to live in a
 +state of voluntary poverty, without personal wealth and with minimal possessions. They were to
 +shave their heads and wear simple dyed robes, to gather their meals by going on alms round, to
 +live out in the open, in caves, or in simple huts. They were governed by a disciplinary code that
 +minutely regulated their behavior, and were to undertake a training that directed their energies
 +towards the same path that the Buddha had embarked on when he discovered the way to
 +Even though aspects of the monastic lifestyle have changed over the ages, in Asian Buddhist
 +tradition the figure of the monk (and less often, I have to say, reluctantly but candidly, the nun)
 +has functioned as the symbol for the Buddha’s continuing presence in the world. By his robes,
 +deportment, and lifestyle, the monk represents the Buddha. He enables the Buddha, vanished
 +from the stage of human events, to continue to shed his blessing power upon the earth. He draws
 +down the Buddha’s past historical reality and sends it out into the world, so that the Buddha can
 +continue to serve the world as a teacher, an image of human perfection, and a spiritual force—a
 +force of grace that acts within and upon those who go to him for refuge.
 +(2) The Dharma. In a well-known passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha tells Mara,
 +the Evil One, that his followers comprise monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who are “capable,
 +well trained, confident, learned, and upholders of the Dhamma.” These four groups are known as
 +the four assemblies. If we take this passage in isolation, it might seem as if the Buddha is
 +assigning the four groups to a level of parity with respect to the Dharma, for they are described
 +in the same way. However, another sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya (42:7), sheds a different light
 +on their relationship. Here the Buddha illustrates the three kinds of recipients of his teaching with
 +a simile of three fields: the superior field, the middling field, and the inferior field. The three
 +kinds of recipients—compared respectively to the superior, middling, and inferior fields—are the
 +bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (taken jointly), the male and female lay disciples (taken jointly), and
 +the monks and ascetics of other schools. This statement doesn'​t imply that monks and nuns,
 +individually,​ are invariably superior to lay disciples. Often sincere lay disciples are more serious
 +and diligent in practice and more knowledgeable about the Dharma than many monastics. But
 +the Buddha’s statement does suggest that, as a group, monastics constitute a more fertile field for
 +the Dharma to flourish than lay persons, and that is so because they have adopted the lifestyle
 +that the Buddha designed for those who wish to fully devote themselves to the practice and
 +advance thereby towards the goal of the spiritual life.
 +Traditionally,​ monastics have not only been charged with the intensive practice of the Dharma,
 +but also with the responsibility of preserving it and teaching it to others. This implies that there
 +must be monastics who have thoroughly learned the Buddhist scriptures and mastered the body
 +of Buddhist doctrine. In all Buddhist traditions, parallel with the exemplary practitioner,​ there
 +stands the figure of the learned monk, the pandita, the dharma-master,​ the geshe—those who
 +have acquired expertise in the doctrine and can skillfully teach others. In this way, too, the
 +monastic person becomes a channel for the preservation and transmission of the Dharma.
 +(3) The Sangha. The monastic Sangha also serves as a conduit for the transmission of the third
 +Jewel, the Sangha itself, in the world. The Buddha did not merely confer monastic ordination on
 +his disciples, permitting them to “go forth” from the home life. Going beyond this, he created a
 +monastic order, a community of monks and nuns bound together by a common code of discipline,
 +the Vinaya, and by other guidelines intended to ensure that they serve the well-being of the
 +community that they have joined. He also established a number of communal monastic
 +observances that bind the members of the Sangha together, the most important being the
 +ceremonies of ordination, recitation of the monastic code, the rains retreat, and the ending of the
 +rains retreat: upasampada, uposatha, vassa, and pavarana. Buddhist tradition—at least
 +Theravada tradition—says that the performance of these ceremonies is the criterion for the
 +continued existence of the Sasana, that is, for Buddhism to survive as a social and historical
 +institution. I’m not sure whether there is any canonical basis for this idea; it might come from the
 +commentaries or later tradition, but it is a well-established belief.
 +Thus, to sum up: From a traditional point of view, a monastic Sangha is essential for the
 +continuing presence of all three Jewels in the world. The renunciant monks and nuns
 +symbolically represent the Buddha; they learn, practice, and teach the Dharma; they observe the
 +guidelines, regulations,​ and rites of the Sangha; and they practice in such a way that they
 +themselves might become enlightened beings themselves, fulfilling the ultimate intention of the
 +This is the traditionalist perspective,​ but I question whether this traditionalist view of the
 +Sangha’s role is completely viable in today’s world. Is it sufficient simply to insist on the
 +traditional understanding of the Sangha’s task and mission, or are there forces at work
 +compelling us to stake out new ways of understanding the role of the Sangha? Do we face new
 +challenges, never foreseen by the tradition, that compel us to renew our understanding of
 +Buddhism and revitalize our monastic lifestyle in order to ensure greater durability for
 +monasticism as an institution and a way of life? Are there forces at work that might actually
 +undermine the survival of Buddhist monasticism?​
 +Interestingly,​ while the Buddha speaks of forces threatening the future long life of the Dharma,
 +we find nothing to indicate that he foresaw the kind of transformations that are taking place
 +today. When the early texts speak about the future, they generally predict decline and
 +degeneration—what they call future perils (anagatabhaya)—and the remedy they propose is
 +simply to strive diligently in the present, so that one attains liberation before the dark ages arrive.
 +The oldest collections of texts, the Nikayas and Agamas, consistently set the factors making for
 +decline against the background of the social order that prevailed in the Buddha’s time. There is
 +no recognition that society might undergo major social, cultural, and intellectual transformations
 +that could stimulate the emergence of positive developments within Buddhism. There is no
 +recognition that Buddhism might migrate to countries and continents remote from ancient India,
 +lands where different material conditions and modes of thinking might allow the Dharma to
 +develop in different directions from that it was to take in its Indian homeland. In general, from
 +the standpoint of the early texts, the revolving Wheel of Time draws us ever closer to the end of
 +the proper Dharma, and the best we can do is resist the tide sweeping over us. Change is
 +subversive, and we must preserve the proper Dharma against its corrosive influence.
 +I do not like to take issue with the early Buddhist canon, but I have often asked myself whether it
 +is necessary to take such a dark view of change or to see it as inevitable that Buddhism slides
 +ever more rapidly down a slippery slope. I wonder whether we might not instead adopt an
 +evolutionary perspective on the development of Buddhism, a perspective that does not oblige us
 +to regard change in the doctrinal and institutional expressions of Buddhism as invariably a sign
 +of degeneration. Perhaps we can see such change instead as a catalyst able to bring about a
 +process of natural, organic growth in Buddhism. Perhaps we can consider changing social,
 +intellectual,​ and cultural conditions as providing an opportunity for Buddhism to respond
 +creatively, and thus to re-envision and re-embody the Dharma in the world, bringing to
 +manifestation many aspects implicit in the original teaching but unable to appear until the
 +requisite conditions bring them forth.
 +The history of Buddhism might be viewed as the record of an interplay between two factors,
 +challenge and response. Time and again, change takes place—a seismic shift in cultural or
 +intellectual conditions—that strikes at the core of Buddhist tradition, setting off a crisis. Initially,
 +the new development might seem threatening. But often there will arise Buddhist thinkers who
 +are acute enough to understand the challenge and resourceful enough to respond in creative ways
 +that tap into hidden potentials of the Dharma. Their responses lead to adaptations that not only
 +enable the Sasana to weather the storm, but which embody new insights, new ways of
 +understanding the Dharma, that could never have appeared until the appropriate conditions called
 +them forth, until unforeseen historical, social, cultural, and philosophical challenges made them
 +possible and even necessary. At times these responses may veer off the proper track into the
 +wilderness of subjective interpretations and deviant practices; but often enough they reveal the
 +creative viability of Buddhism, its ability to adapt and assume new expressions in response to
 +new needs and new modes of understanding implanted in people by new social and cultural
 +In facing the new challenges, creative adaptation has to be balanced by an effort to maintain
 +continuity with the roots and past legacy of Buddhism. This double task points to a certain
 +struggle between two factors in the unfolding of Buddhist history: one is the need to respond
 +effectively to the challenges presented by new circumstances,​ new ways of thinking, new
 +standards of behavior; the other is the need to remain faithful to the original insights at the heart
 +of the Dharma, to its long heritage of practice and experience. The weight that is assigned to
 +these two competing forces establishes a tension between conservative and innovative tendencies
 +within Buddhism. Inevitably, different people will gravitate towards one or another of these
 +poles, and such differences often bring conflict between those who wish to preserve familiar
 +forms and those who think change and reformulation are necessary to maintain the vitality and
 +relevance of the Dharma. This same tension is still very much with us today, as we will see.
 +In the early centuries of Buddhist history, the architects of the evolving Buddhist tradition
 +preferred to ascribe these newly emergent dimensions of the Dharma to the Buddha himself. This,
 +however, was just a mythical way of conferring the mantle of authority upon new formulations
 +of the teaching. Such is the characteristic Indian way of thinking. It is an open question whether
 +these masters actually believed that these new teachings had sprung from the Buddha himself or
 +instead used this device as a symbolic way of indicating that such teachings brought to light
 +previously unexpressed aspects of the enlightenment realized by the Buddha.
 +Let us take a few examples of this: Several generations after the passing of the Buddha, the
 +Vedic philosophical schools took to compiling complex, systematized lists of all the components
 +of the universe. This tendency is particularly evident in the Sankhya school, which may have
 +already arisen before the time of the Buddha and must have been evolving parallel with early
 +Buddhism. This fashion of the age presented the Buddhists with the challenge of applying the
 +same style of fine analysis to their own heritage. Consequently,​ Buddhist thinkers set out to
 +systematize the various groups of elements recorded in the Buddha’s discourses, and over time
 +what emerged from this exercise was the body of learning known as the Abhidharma. This trend
 +cut clear across the early Buddhist schools, and the result was the creation of at least three
 +different (but related) schools of Abhidharma: the Theravada, the Sarvastivada,​ and the
 +Dharmaguptaka. Perhaps to give a competitive edge to their own system, the Theravadin
 +commentators ascribed their Abhidharma to the Buddha, claiming that he taught it to the deities
 +in a deva world; all the evidence, however, indicates that the Abhidharma resulted from a
 +process of historical evolution extending over several centuries.
 +On this basis, one who adheres to a strict conservative stance, a position that I call “sutta
 +purism,” might reject the value of the Abhidharma, holding that the only teachings worth
 +studying are those that can be ascribed, with a fair degree of accuracy, to the Buddha himself.
 +This position assumes that because the Abhidharma treatises were not actually taught by the
 +Buddha, they are useless and fruitless, a lamentable deviation from the proper Dharma. However,
 +by taking an evolutionary perspective,​ we can view the Abhidharma schools as responses to
 +intellectual challenges faced by the Buddhist community in an early stage of Buddhist
 +intellectual history. From this point of view, they then appear as impressive attempts to
 +incorporate all the elements of the teaching into a systematic structure governed by the broad
 +principles of the original teaching. The Abhidharma then emerges as a bold project that proposed
 +to establish nothing less than a comprehensive inventory of all known phenomena and their
 +relations, subordinated to the governing concepts of the Dharma and the project of transcendent
 +Similar considerations apply to the Mahayana sutras, which introduce far more radical reassessments
 +of Buddhist doctrine and spiritual ideals than the Abhidharma. Again, if one takes
 +the conservative stance of “sutta purism,” one might dismiss these texts as deviations from the
 +true Dharma and even as marking a step towards the decline of the Sasana. This, in fact, is a
 +view that many conservative monks in Theravada countries take of the Mahayana sutras, even
 +when they are completely unfamiliar with them. However, by looking at the history of Buddhism
 +as a process governed by the law of “challenge-and-response,​” we can see the emergence of the
 +Mahayana sutras as a result of new challenges faced by Buddhism beginning in the post-Asokan
 +landscape. Some of these challenges might have been internal to the Buddhist community, such
 +as a disenchantment with the rigidity of the Abhidharma systems and a narrow interpretation of
 +the arahant ideal; also, an interest in elaborating upon the path that a bodhisattva must travel over
 +countless eons to arrive at Buddhahood. Other challenges may have been external, particularly
 +the mingling in the Indian subcontinent of new peoples of different ethnicities,​ speaking different
 +languages, and holding different worldviews. This would have challenged Buddhism to break out
 +of the mold imposed upon it by its Indian origins and draw out, from its own inner resources, a
 +new conception of the universal ethical ideal already articulated in archaic Buddhism.
 +At this point I want to consider some of the peculiar challenges that Buddhist monasticism is
 +facing today, in our contemporary world, especially those that arise out of the unique intellectual,​
 +cultural, and social landscape of modern Western culture. Such challenges, I have to emphasize,
 +are already at work; they have brought about remarkable changes in the contemporary
 +manifestation of Buddhism as a whole. It is likely, too, that they will accelerate in the future and
 +have a significant impact on Buddhist monasticism over the next few decades.
 +I believe the present era confronts us with far different challenges than any Buddhism has ever
 +faced before. These challenges are more radical, more profound, and more difficult to address
 +using traditional modes of understanding. Yet for Buddhist monasticism to survive and thrive,
 +they demand fitting responses—responses,​ I believe, that do not merely echo positions coming
 +down from the past, but tackle the new challenges on their own terms while remaining faithful to
 +the spirit of the teaching. In particular, we have to deal with them in ways that are meaningful
 +against the background of our own epoch and our own culture, offering creative, perceptive,
 +innovative solutions to the problems they pose.
 +On what grounds do I say that the present era confronts Buddhist monasticism with far different
 +challenges than any it has faced in the past? I believe there are two broad reasons why our
 +present-day situation is so different from anything Buddhist monasticism has encountered in the
 +past. The first is simply that Buddhist monasticism has taken root in North America, and most of
 +us involved in the project of establishing Buddhist monasticism here are Westerners. When, as
 +Westerners, we take up Buddhism as our spiritual path, we inevitably bring along the deep
 +background of our Western cultural and intellectual conditioning. I don’t think we can reject this
 +background or put it in brackets, nor do I think doing so would be a healthy approach. We cannot
 +alienate ourselves from our Western heritage, for that heritage is what we are and thus
 +determines how we assimilate Buddhism, just as much as a brain that processes objects in terms
 +of three dimensions determines the way we see them.
 +The second reason is partly related to the first, namely, that we are living not in fifth century B.C.
 +India, or in Tang dynasty China, or in fourteenth century Japan or Tibet, but in 21st century
 +America, and thus we are denizens of the modern age, perhaps the postmodern age. As people of
 +the 21st century, whether we are indigenous Americans or Asians, we are heirs to the entire
 +experience of modernity, and as such we inevitably approach the Dharma, understand it, practice
 +it, and embody it in the light of the intellectual and cultural achievements of the modern era. In
 +particular, we inherit not only the heritage of enlightenment stemming from the Buddha and the
 +wisdom of the Buddhist tradition, but also another heritage deriving from the 18th century
 +European Enlightenment. The 18th century cut a sharp dividing line between traditional culture
 +and modernity, a dividing line that cannot be erased; it marked a turning point that cannot be
 +The transformations in thought ushered in by the great thinkers of the Western Enlightenment—
 +including the Founding Fathers of the U.S.—dramatically revolutionized our understanding of
 +what it means to be a human being existing in a world community. The concept of universal
 +human rights, of the inherent dignity of humankind; the ideals of liberty and equality, of the
 +brotherhood of man; the demand for equal justice under the law and comprehensive economic
 +security; the rejection of external authorities and trust in the capacity of human reason to arrive at
 +truth; the critical attitude towards dogmatism, the stress on direct experience—all derive from
 +this period and all influence the way we appropriate Buddhism. I have seen some Western
 +Buddhists take a dismissive attitude towards this heritage (and I include with them myself during
 +my first years as a monk), devaluing it against the standards of traditional pre-modern Asian
 +Buddhism. But in my opinion, such an attitude could become psychologically divisive, alienating
 +us from what is of most value in our own heritage. I believe a more wholesome approach would
 +aim at a “fusion of horizons,​” a merging of our Western, modernist modes of understanding with
 +the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition.
 +I would now like to briefly sketch several intellectual and cultural issues with which Buddhism
 +has to grapple here in the U.S. I won’t presume to lay down in categorical terms fixed ways that
 +we should respond to this situation; for the plain fact is that I don’t have definitive solutions to
 +these problems. I believe the problems have to be faced and discussed honestly, but I don’t
 +pretend to be one who has the answers. In the end, the shape Buddhist monasticism takes might
 +not be determined so much by decisions we make through discussion and deliberation as by a
 +gradual process of experimentation,​ by trial and error. In fact, it seems to me unlikely that there
 +will be any simple uniform solutions. Rather, I foresee a wide spectrum of responses, leading to
 +an increasing diversification in modern American/​Western Buddhism, including monasticism. I
 +don’t see this diversity as problematic. But I also believe it is helpful to bring the challenges we
 +face out into the light, so that we can expore them in detail and weigh different solutions.
 +I will briefly sketch four major challenges that we, as Buddhist monastics, face in shaping the
 +development of Buddhism in this country.
 +1. “The leveling of distinctions”:​ One important contemporary premise rooted in our democratic
 +heritage might be called “the leveling of distinctions.” This holds that in all matters relating to
 +fundamental rights, everyone has an equal claim: everyone is entitled to participate in any
 +worthy projects; all opinions are worthy of consideration;​ no one has an intrinsic claim to
 +privilege and entitlement. This attitude is staunchly opposed to the governing principle of
 +traditionalist culture, namely, that there are natural gradations among people based on family
 +background, social class, wealth, race, education, and so on, which confer privileges on some
 +that do not accrue to others. In the traditionalist understanding,​ monastics and laity are stratified
 +as to their positions and duties. Lay people provide monks and nuns with their material requisites,
 +undertake precepts, engage in devotional practices to acquire merit, and occasionally practice
 +meditation, usually under the guidance of monks; monastic persons practice intensive meditation,
 +study the texts, conduct blessing ceremonies, and provide the lay community with teachings and
 +examples of a dedicated life. This stratification of the Buddhist community is typical of most
 +traditional Buddhist cultures. The distinction presupposes that the Buddhist lay devotee is not yet
 +ready for deep Dharma study and intensive meditation practice but still needs gradual maturation
 +based on faith, devotion, and good deeds.
 +In modern Western Buddhism, such a dichotomy has hardly even been challenged; rather, it has
 +simply been disregarded. There are two ways that the classical monastic-lay distinction has been
 +quietly overturned. First, lay people are not prepared to accept the traditionalist understanding of
 +a lay person’s limitations but seek access to the Dharma in its full depth and range. They study
 +Buddhist texts, even the most abstruse philosophical works that traditional Buddhism regards as
 +the domain of monastics. They take up intensive meditation, seeking the higher stages of
 +samadhi and insight and even the ranks of the ariyans, the noble ones.
 +The second way the monastic-lay distinction is being erased is in the elevation of lay people to
 +the position of Dharma teachers who can teach with an authority normally reserved for monks.
 +Some of the most gifted teachers of Buddhism today, whether of theory or meditation, are lay
 +people. Thus, when lay people want to learn the Dharma, they are no longer dependent on
 +monastics. Whether or not a lay person seeks teachings from a monastic or a lay teacher has
 +become largely a matter of circumstance and preference. Some will want to study with monks;
 +others will prefer to study with lay teachers. Whatever their choice, they can easily fulfill it. To
 +study under a monk is not, as is mostly the case in traditional Buddhism, a matter of necessity.
 +There are already training programs in the hands of lay Buddhists, and lineages of teachers
 +consisting entirely of lay people.
 +Indeed, in some circles there is even a distrust of the monk. Some months ago I saw an ad in
 +Buddhadharma magazine for a Zen lineage called “Open Mind Zen.” Its catch phrase was: “No
 +monks, no magic, no mumbo-jumbo.” The three are called “crutches” that the real Zen student
 +must discard in order to succeed in the practice. I was struck by the cavalier way that the monks
 +are grouped with magic and mumbo-jumbo and all three together banished to the dugout.
 +I think it likely there will always be laypeople who look to the monastic Sangha for guidance,
 +and thus there is little chance that our monasteries and Dharma centers will become empty. For
 +another, the fact that many laypeople have been establishing independent,​ non-monastic
 +communities with their own centers and teachers may have a partly liberating effect on the
 +Sangha. Relieved to some extent of the need to serve as “fields of merit” and teachers for the
 +laity, we will have more time for our own personal practice and spiritual growth. In this respect,
 +we might actually be able to recapture the original function of the homeless person in archaic
 +Buddhist monasticism,​ before popular, devotional Buddhism pushed monastics into a largely
 +priestly role in relation to the wider Buddhist community. Of course, if the size of the lay
 +congregation attached to a given monastery tapers off, there is some risk that the donations that
 +sustain the monastery will also decline, and that could threaten the survival of the monastery.
 +Thus the loss of material support can become a serious challenge to the sustainability of
 +institutional monasticism.
 +2. The secularization of life. Since the late eighteenth century we have been living in an
 +increasingly secularized world; in the U.S. and Western Europe, this process of secularization is
 +quite close to completion. Religion is certainly not dead. In mainstream America, particularly the
 +“heartland,​” it may be more alive today than it was forty years ago. But a secularist outlook now
 +shapes almost all aspects of our lives, including our religious lives.
 +Before I go further, I should clarify what I mean by the secularization of life. By this expression,
 +I do not mean that people today have become non-religious,​ fully engulfed by worldly concerns.
 +Of course, many people today invest all their interest in the things of this world—in family,
 +personal relations, work, politics, sports, the enjoyment of the arts. But that is not what I mean by
 +“the secularization of life.” The meaning of this phrase is best understood by contrasting a
 +traditionalist culture with modern Western culture. In a traditionalist culture, religion provides
 +people with their fundamental sense of identity; it colors almost every aspect of their lives and
 +serves as their deepest source of values. In present-day Western culture, our sense of personal
 +identity is determined largely by mundane points of reference, and the things we value most tend
 +to be rooted in this visible, present world rather than in our hopes and fears regarding some
 +future life. Once the traditional supports of faith have eroded, religion in the West has also
 +undergone a drastic change in orientation. Its primary purpose now is no longer to direct our
 +gaze towards some future life, towards some transcendent realm beyond the here and now. Its
 +primary function, rather, is to guide us in the proper conduct of life, to direct our steps in this
 +present world rather than to point us towards some other world.
 +Just about every religion has had to grapple with the challenge of agnosticism,​ atheism,
 +humanism, as well as simple indifference to religion due to the easy availability of sensual
 +pleasures. Some religions have reacted to this by falling back upon a claim to dogmatic certainty.
 +Thus we witness the rise of fundamentalism,​ which does not necessarily espouse religious
 +violence; that is only an incidental feature of some kinds of fundamentalism. Its basic
 +characteristic is a quest for absolute certainty, freedom from doubt and ambiguity, to be achieved
 +through unquestioning faith in teachers taken to be divinely inspired and in scriptures taken to be
 +unerring even when interpreted as literally true.
 +But fundamentalism is not the only religious response to the modernist critique of religion. An
 +alternative response accepts the constructive criticisms of the agnostics, skeptics, and humanists,
 +and admits that religion in the past has been deeply flawed. But rather than reject religion, it
 +seeks a new understanding of what it means to be religious. Those who take this route, the liberal
 +religious wing, come to understand religion as primarily a way to find a proper orientation in life,
 +as a guide in our struggles with the crises, conflicts, and insecurities that haunt our lives,
 +including our awareness of our inevitable mortality. We undertake the religious quest, not to pass
 +from this world to a transcendent realm beyond, but to discover a transcendent dimension of
 +life—a superior light, a platform of ultimate meaning—amidst the turmoil of everyday existence.
 +One way that religion has responded to the secularist challenge is by seeking a rapprochement
 +with its old nemesis of secularism in a synthesis that might be called “spiritual secularity” or
 +“secular spirituality.” From this perspective,​ the secular becomes charged with a deep spiritual
 +potential, and the spiritual finds its fulfillment in the low lands of the secular. The apparently
 +mundane events of our everyday lives—both at a personal and communal level—are no longer
 +seen as bland and ordinary but as the field in which we encounter divine reality. The aim of
 +religious life is then to help us discover this spiritual meaning, to extract it from the mine of the
 +ordinary. Our everyday life becomes a means to encounter the divine, to catch a glimpse of
 +ultimate goodness and beauty. We too partake of this divine potential. With all our human
 +frailties, we are capable of indomitable spiritual strength; our confusion is the basis for
 +recovering a basic sanity; ever-available within us there is a deep core of wisdom.
 +This secularization of life of which I have been speaking has already affected the way Buddhism
 +is being presented today. For one thing, we can note that there is a de-emphasis on the teachings
 +of karma, rebirth, and samsara, and on nirvana as liberation from the round of rebirths.
 +Buddhism is taught as a pragmatic, existential therapy, with the four noble truths construed as a
 +spiritual medical formula guiding us to psychological health. The path leads not so much to
 +release from the round of rebirths as to perfect peace and happiness. Some teachers say they
 +teach “buddhism with a small ‘b’,” a Buddhism that does not make any claims to the exalted
 +status of religion. Other teachers, after long training in classical Buddhism, even renounce the
 +label of “Buddhism” altogether, preferring to think of themselves as following a non-religious
 +Mindfulness meditation is understood to be a means of “being here and now,” “of coming to our
 +senses,” of acquiring a fresh sense of wonder. We practice the Dharma to better understand our
 +own minds, to find greater happiness and peace in the moment, to tap our creativity, to be more
 +efficient in work, more loving in our relationships,​ more compassionate in our dealings with
 +others. We practice not to leave this world behind but to participate in the world more joyfully,
 +with greater spontaneity. We stand back from life in order to plunge into life, to dance with the
 +ever-shifting flow of events.
 +One striking indication of this secularized transformation of Buddhism is the shift away from the
 +traditional nucleus of the Buddhist community towards a new institutional form. The “traditional
 +nucleus of the Buddhist community” is the monastery or temple, a sacred place where monks or
 +nuns reside, a place under the management of monastics. The monastery or temple is a place set
 +apart from the everyday world where laypeople come to pay respects to the ordained, to make
 +offerings, to hear them preach, to participate in rituals led by monks or practice meditation
 +guided by nuns. In contrast, the institutional heart of contemporary secularized Buddhism is the
 +Dharma center: a place often established by lay people, run by lay people, with lay teachers. If
 +the resident teachers are monastic persons, they live there at the request of lay people, and the
 +programs and administration are often managed by lay people. In the monastery or temple, the
 +focus of attention is the Buddha image or shrine containing sacred relics, which are worshipped
 +and regarded as the body of the Buddha himself. The monks sit on an elevated platform, near the
 +Buddha image. The modern Dharma center may not even have a Buddha image. If it does, the
 +image will usually not be worshipped but serve simply as a reminder of the source of the
 +teaching. The lay teachers will generally sit at the same level as the students and apart from their
 +teaching role will relate to them largely as friends.
 +These are some of the features of the Western—or specifically American—appropriation of
 +Buddhism that give it a distinctly “secularized” flavor. Though such an approach to Buddhism is
 +not traditional,​ I do not think it can be easily dismissed as a trivialization of the Dharma. Nor
 +should we regard those drawn to this way of “doing Buddhism” as settling for “Dharma lite” in
 +place of the real thing. Many of the people who follow the secularized version of Buddhism have
 +practiced with great earnestness and persistency;​ some have studied the Dharma deeply under
 +traditional teachers and have a keen understanding of classical Buddhist doctrine. They are
 +drawn to such an approach to Buddhism precisely because it squares best with the secularization
 +of life pervasive in Western culture, and because it addresses concerns that arise out of this
 +situation—how to find happiness, peace, and meaning in a confused and congested world.
 +However, since classical Buddhism is basically directed towards a world-transcendent goal—
 +however differently understood, whether as in Early Buddhism or in Mahayana Buddhism--this
 +becomes another challenge facing Buddhist monasticism in our country today. Looking to what
 +lies beyond the stars, beyond life and death, rather than at the ground before our feet, we can cut
 +a somewhat strange figure.
 +3. The challenge of social engagement. The third characteristic of contemporary spirituality that
 +presents a challenge to traditional Buddhist monasticism is its focus on social engagement. In
 +theory, traditional Buddhism tends to encourage aloofness from the mundane problems that
 +confront humanity as a whole: such problems as crushing poverty, the specter of war, the denial
 +of human rights, widening class distinctions,​ economic and racial oppression. I use the word “in
 +theory,” because in practice Buddhist temples in Asia have often functioned as communal
 +centers where people gather to resolve their social and economic problems. For centuries
 +Buddhist monks in southern Asia have been at the vanguard of social action movements, serving
 +as the voice of the people in their confrontation with oppressive government authorities. We saw
 +this recently in Burma, when the monks led the protests against the military dictatorship there.
 +However, such activities subsist in a certain tension with classical Buddhist doctrine, which
 +emphasizes withdrawal from the concerns of the world, inward purification,​ a quest for nonattachment,​
 +equanimity towards the flux of worldly events, a kind of passive acceptance of the
 +flaws of samsara. In my early life as a monk in Sri Lanka, I was sometimes told by senior monks
 +that concern with social, political, and economic problems is a distraction from “what really
 +matters,” the quest for personal liberation from the dukkha of worldly existence. Even the elder
 +monks who served as social and political advisors were guided more by the idea of preserving
 +Sinhalese Buddhist culture than of striving for social justice and equity.
 +However, an attitude of detached neutrality towards social injustice does not square well with the
 +Western religious conscience. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Christianity underwent a
 +profound change in response to the widespread social ills of the time. It gave birth to a “social
 +gospel,” a movement that applied Christian ethics of love and responsibility to such problems as
 +poverty, inequality, crime, racial tensions, poor schools, and the danger of war. The social gospel
 +proposed not merely the doing of deeds of charity in line with the original teachings of Jesus, but
 +a systematic attempt to reform the oppressive power structures that sustained economic
 +inequality, social injustice, exploitation,​ and the debasement of the poor and powerless. This
 +radically new dimension of social concern brought deep-seated changes among Christians in
 +their understanding of their own religion. Virtually all the major denominations of Christianity,​
 +Protestant and Catholic alike, came to subscribe to some version of the social gospel. Often,
 +priests and ministers were at the forefront, preaching social change, leading demonstrations,​
 +spurring their congregations on to socially transformative action. Perhaps in our own time the
 +person who best symbolizes this social dimension of modern Christianity is Rev. Martin Luther
 +King, who, during his life, came to be known as “the moral voice of America”— not merely for
 +his civil-rights campaigns but also because of his eloquent opposition to the Vietnam War and
 +his commitment to the abolition of poverty.
 +The advocates of engaged spirituality understand the test of our moral integrity to be our
 +willingness to respond compassionately and effectively to the sufferings of humanity. True
 +morality is not simply a matter of inward purification,​ a personal and private affair, but of
 +decisive action inspired by compassion and motivated by a keen desire to deliver others from the
 +oppressive conditions that stifle their humanity. Those of true religious faith might look inward
 +and upward for divine guidance; but the voice that speaks to them, the voice of conscience, says
 +that the divine is to be found in loving one’s fellow human beings, and in demonstrating this love
 +by an unflinching commitment to ameliorate their misery and restore their hope and dignity.
 +The prominence of the social gospel in contemporary Christianity has already had a far-reaching
 +impact on Buddhism. It has been one catalyst behind the rise of “Engaged Buddhism,​” which has
 +become an integral part of the Western Buddhist scene. But behind both lies the European
 +Enlightenment emphasis upon righting social wrongs and establishing a reign of justice. In the
 +West, Engaged Buddhism has taken on a life of its own, assuming many new expressions. It
 +deliberately sets itself against the common image of Buddhism as a religion of withdrawal and
 +quiescence, looking on at the plight of suffering beings with merely passive pity. For Engaged
 +Buddhism, compassion is not just a matter of cultivating sublime emotions but of engaging in
 +transformative action. Since classical Buddhist monasticism does in fact begin with an act of
 +withdrawal and aims at detachment, the rise of Engaged Buddhism constitutes a new challenge
 +to Buddhist monasticism with the potential to redefine the shape of our monastic life.
 +4. Religious pluralism. A fourth factor working to change the shape of Buddhism in the West is
 +the rise of what has been called “religious pluralism.” For the most part, traditional religions
 +claim, implicitly or explicitly, to possess exclusive access to the ultimate means of salvation, to
 +the liberating truth, to the supreme goal. For orthodox Christians, Christ is the truth, the way, and
 +the life, and no one comes to God the Father except through him. For Muslims, Muhammad is
 +the last of the prophets, who offers the final revelation of the divine will for humanity. Hindus
 +appear more tolerant because of their capacity for syncretism, but almost all the classical Hindu
 +schools claim final status for their own distinctive teachings. Buddhism too claims to have the
 +unique path to the sole imperishable state of liberation and ultimate bliss, nirvana. Not only do
 +traditional religions make such claims for their own creeds and practices, but their relations are
 +competitive and often bitter if not aggressive. Usually, at the mildest, they propose negative
 +evaluations of other faiths.
 +Within Buddhism, too, the relations between the different schools have not always been cordial.
 +Theravadin traditionalists often regard Mahayanists as apostates from the proper Dharma;
 +Mahayanist texts describe the followers of the early schools with the derogatory term
 +“Hinayana,​” though this has gone out of fashion. Even within the Theravada, followers of one
 +approach to meditation might dispute the validity of different approaches. Within the Mahayana,
 +despite the doctrine of “skillful means,” proponents of different schools might devalue the
 +teachings of other schools, so that the “skillful means” are all within one’s own school, while the
 +means adopted in other schools are decidedly “unskillful.”
 +In the present-day world, an alternative has appeared to this competitive way in which different
 +religions relate to one another. This alternative is religious pluralism. It is based on two parallel
 +convictions. One relates to a subjective factor: as human beings we have an ingrained tendency
 +to take our own viewpoint to be uniquely correct and then use it to dismiss and devalue
 +alternative viewpoints. Recognizing this disposition,​ religious pluralists say that we have to be
 +humble regarding any claims to possess privileged access to spiritual truth. When we make such
 +audacious claims, they hold, this is more indicative of our self-inflation than of genuine insight
 +into spiritual truth.
 +The second conviction on which religious pluralism is based is that the different views and
 +practices possessed by the different religious traditions need not be seen as mutually exclusive.
 +They can instead be considered partly as complementary,​ as mutually illuminating;​ they may be
 +regarded as giving us different perspectives on the ultimate reality, on the goal of the spiritual
 +quest, on methods of approaching that goal. Thus, their differences can be seen to highlight
 +aspects of the goal, of the human situation, of spiritual practice, etc., that are valid but unknown
 +or under-emphasized in one’s own religion or school of affiliation.
 +Perhaps the most curious sign of religious pluralism in the Buddhist fold is the attempt made by
 +some people to adopt two religions at the same time. We hear of people who consider themselves
 +Jewish Buddhists, who claim to be able to practice both Judaism and Buddhism, assigning each
 +to a different sphere of their lives. I have also heard of Christian Buddhists; perhaps too there are
 +Muslim Buddhists, though I have not heard of any. To accept religious pluralism, however, one
 +need not go to this extreme, which to me seems dubious. A religious pluralist will generally
 +remain uniquely committed to a single religion, yet at the same time be ready to admit the
 +possibility that different religions can possess access to spiritual truth. Such a person would be
 +disposed to enter into respectful and friendly dialogue with those of other faiths. They have no
 +intention of engaging in a contest aimed at proving the superiority of their own spiritual path, but
 +want to learn from the other, to enrich their understanding of human existence by tentatively
 +adopting an alternative point of view and even a different practice.
 +The religious pluralist can be deeply devoted to his or her own religion, yet be willing to
 +temporarily suspend their familiar perspective in order to adopt another frame of reference. Such
 +attempts might then allow one to discover counterparts of this different view within one’s own
 +religious tradition. This tendency has already had a strong impact on Buddhism. There have been
 +numerous Christian-Buddhist dialogues, seminars at which Christians and Buddhist thinkers
 +come together to explore common themes, and there is a journal of Christian and Buddhist
 +studies. Monasticism too has been affected by this trend. Journals are published on intermonastic
 +dialogue, and Tibetan Buddhist monks have even gone to live at Christian monasteries
 +and Christian monks gone to live at Buddhist monasteries.
 +Among Buddhists it is not unusual, here in the West, for followers of one Buddhist tradition to
 +study under a master of another tradition and to take courses and retreats in meditation systems
 +different from the one with which they are primarily affiliated. As Westerners, this seems quite
 +natural and normal to us. However, until recent times, for an Asian Buddhist, at least for a
 +traditionalist,​ it would have been almost unthinkable,​ a reckless experiment.
 +Let me now sum up the territory I have covered. I have briefly sketched four characteristics of
 +contemporary spirituality,​ ushered in by the transformation from a traditional to a modern or
 +even post-modern culture. These characteristics have had a profound influence on mainstream
 +religion in the West and have already started to alter the shape of Buddhist spirituality. The four
 +(1) The “leveling of distinctions,​” so that the sharp distinctions between the ordained religious
 +person and the lay person are being blurred or even abolished.
 +(2) The rise of “secular spirituality” or “spiritual secularity,​” marked by a shift in the orientation
 +of religion away from the quest for some transcendent state, a dimension beyond life in the world,
 +towards a deep, enriching experience of the human condition and a transformative way of living
 +within the world.
 +(3) The conviction that the mark of authentic religious faith is a readiness to engage in
 +compassionate action, especially to challenge social and political structures that sustain injustice,
 +inequality, violence, and environmental despoliation.
 +(4) Religious pluralism: abandoning the claim to exclusive religious truth and adopting a
 +pluralistic outlook that can allow the possibility of complementary,​ mutually illuminating
 +perspectives on religious truth and practice. This applies both to the relations of Buddhists with
 +followers of other religions, and to the internal relations between followers of different Buddhist
 +schools and traditions..
 +I now want to suggest that all four of these factors are going to present powerful challenges to
 +Buddhist monasticism in the future, forcing us to rethink and re-evaluate traditional attitudes and
 +structures that have sustained monastic life for centuries right up to the present. Indeed, these
 +challenges have already been recognized in many quarters and the task of reshaping monasticism
 +in response to them has already started.
 +As I said at the beginning of my talk, I am not going to advocate a fixed response to these
 +challenges which I think is uniquely correct; for, as I said, I don’t have an unambiguous
 +conviction about the best response. But to help us grapple with them, I want to posit, in relation
 +to each of these four challenges, a spectrum of possible responses. These range from the
 +conservative and traditionalist at one end to the liberal and accommodative on the other.
 +(1) Thus, with respect to “the leveling of distinctions,​” we have at one end the traditionalist
 +insistence on the sharp stratification of monastics and lay person. The monastic person is a field
 +of merits, an object of veneration, alone entitled to claim the position of Dharma teacher; the lay
 +person is essentially a supporter and devotee, a practitioner and perhaps an assistant in teaching
 +activities, but always in a subordinate role. At the other end, the distinction between the two is
 +almost erased: the monk and lay person are simply friends; the lay person might teach meditation
 +and give Dharma talks, perhaps even conduct religious rites. Towards the middle we would have
 +a situation in which the distinction between monastic and lay person is preserved, in which lay
 +people accord the monastics traditional forms of respect, but the capacity for lay people to study
 +and practice the Dharma extensively and in depth is well acknowledged. From this point of view,
 +those who have fulfilled the requisite training, whether monastics or laypeople, can function as
 +Dharma teachers, and independent lineages of lay teachers, not dependent on monastics, can be
 +accepted and honored.
 +(2) Again, among the responses to the secularist challenge, we can see a spectrum. At one end is
 +a traditionalist monasticism that emphasizes the classical teachings of karma, rebirth, the
 +different realms of existence, etc., and sees the goal of monastic life to be the total ending of
 +cyclic existence and the attainment of transcendent liberation. At the other end is a monasticism
 +influenced by secularizing tendencies, which emphasizes the enrichment and deepening of
 +immediate experience as sufficient in itself, perhaps even as “nibbana here and now” or the
 +actualization of our Buddha-nature. Such an approach, it seems to me, is already found among
 +some Western presentations of Soto Zen, and also seems to have gained currency in the way
 +Vipassana meditation is taught in lay meditation circles. Between these two extremes, a centrist
 +approach might recognize the mundane benefits of the Dharma and stress the value of acquiring
 +a richer, deeper experience of the present, but still uphold the classical Buddhist framework of
 +karma, rebirth, renunciation,​ etc., and the ideal of liberation from rebirth and attainment of
 +world-transcendent realization. Again, whether this be understood from a Theravadin or
 +Mahayanist point of view, a common stratum unites them and supports their respective monastic
 +(3) With regard to engaged spirituality,​ at the conservative end of the sprectrum we find those
 +who look critically at engaged Buddhist practices for monastics, holding that a proper monastic
 +life requires a radical withdrawal from mundane activities, including all direct involvement in
 +social, political, and economic action. The monastic can teach lay people the ethical values that
 +conduce to greater social justice but should not become tainted by involvement with projects
 +aimed at social and political transformations. At the other end are those who believe that
 +monastics should be actively engaged in such activities, indeed that they should be at the
 +forefront of the struggle for peace and social, economic, and political justice. A middle position
 +might recognize the importance of developing a Buddhism that engages more fully with the
 +world, but holds that monastics should serve as guides, sources of inspiration,​ and educators in
 +programs of social engagement, while the hands-on work of dealing with governments,​ policy
 +makers, and institutions should generally be entrusted to lay Buddhists.
 +(4) Finally, with respect to religious pluralism, we find, at the conservative end of the spectrum,
 +monastics who believe that Buddhism alone has the ultimate truth and the unique path to
 +spiritual liberation. Since those following other religions are immersed in wrong views, we have
 +nothing to learn from them and would do best to avoid religious discussions with them except to
 +persuade them of their errors. We can cooperate on projects aimed at worthy ends, such as world
 +peace and environmental awareness, but there is no point exploring our religious differences,​ for
 +such discussions lead nowhere. Conservative followers of a particular school of Buddhism might
 +bring forth similar considerations in relation to Buddhists belonging to other schools. At the
 +liberal end of the spectrum are monastics who believe that all religions teach essentially the same
 +thing, and that it does not particularly matter which path one follows, for they all lead to the
 +same goal. In the middle, we might find those who, while upholding the uniqueness of the
 +Buddha’s teaching, also believe in the value of inter-religious dialogue, who recognize elements
 +of truth and value in other religions, and who might be willing to live for periods in monasteries
 +of another religion, or in monasteries belonging to a school of Buddhism different from that in
 +which they have been trained.
 +It should be noted that while I designate certain positions as conservative and others as liberal, it
 +is not necessary that the four conservative positions constitute an inseparable cluster and the four
 +liberal and four middling positions other inseparable clusters. It is quite possible for one who
 +takes a conservative position on one, two, or three of these issues to take a liberal or middling
 +position on the fourth. Someone might take a conservative position on two issues and a middling
 +or liberal stance on the other two. And conversely, taking the liberal and middling position as our
 +basis, we can posit numerous combinations between them and conservative positions on the four
 +issues. Thus a great number of permutations is possible.
 +In considering the different positions, the approach that seems to me most wholesome is one that
 +conforms to the spirit of the middle way: on the one hand, avoiding rigidly clinging to longestablished
 +conventions and attitudes simply because they are familiar to us and give us a sense
 +of security; on the other hand, exercising care not to lose sight of the basic principles of the
 +Dharma, especially those that derive from the Buddha himself, just to accommodate new social
 +and cultural conditions. In the end, it might be best that new forms evolve gradually in response
 +to the new conditions we meet here in the West rather than through hasty decisions. Monasticism
 +is, in any case, generally a fairly conservative force. This may be partly due to the temperament
 +of those who ordain, partly due to the fact that Buddhist monasticism is an ancient institution—
 +older than all the empires and kingdoms that have risen upon the face of the earth--and thus has
 +acquired a weight that discourages random experimentation. In any case, the good Dharma
 +flourishes to the extent that we remain firm in our commitment to the core principles of
 +Buddhism as a whole and those that define our respective traditions while at the same time
 +remaining open to the challenges, insights, and values of contemporary civilization.
 +But one point is certain: To preserve relevance, the Sangha must allow the forms and expressions
 +of Buddhist monasticism to respond effectively to the new and unique challenges we face today.
 +Our response should be marked by faith, flexibility and resiliency. Faith roots us in the Dharma,
 +but it should not stiffen us. Flexibility allows us to adapt and thereby to keep in touch with the
 +concerns of ordinary people; it is not a mark of weakness. To the contrary, with firm roots, we
 +can bend with the wind without breaking and collapsing.
 +The challenges we face today can be seen, not as threats and dangers, but as calls to discover
 +more deeply and authentically what it means to be a monastic in the contemporary world, which
 +is so different from the world in which Buddhism was born. Changes in forms and structures, in
 +roles and ways of conducting our monastic lives, can be positive and healthy, a sign of the inner
 +vitality of Buddhism and of our own confidence in the spiritual quest. We can look upon the
 +changes that occur in response to the new challenges as the next step in the onward evolution of
 +Buddhist monasticism,​ as the next bend in the river of the Dharma as it flows onwards from its
 +ancient Asian homelands into the unchartered frontiers of the global 21st century.
the_challenge_of_the_future_how_will_the_sangha_fare_in_north_american_buddhism.txt · Last modified: 2018/02/26 18:13 (external edit)