Seminaries and Training in the West

Zen Study

One of the things that comes up a lot in the talks with my Buddhist teacher is the lack of Buddhist seminary facilities in the West. If you are on a Buddhist path towards ordination, either as a hermit or largely solitary practitioner or as one who will eventually be a leader of a sangha or one of the leaders, there is a lot of difficulty in receiving fully rounded training.

Receiving training in the ritual aspects, meditative techniques, and similar activities is difficult but can be accomplished by working with a teacher. Sometimes, as I have found, it is hard to find a place where there is a full-time teacher or one available to students on a regular basis. This seems to be more of a problem in the Tibetan lineages where there is currently a pattern of teachers doing circuits, like judges of the Wild West, from place to place during the course of a year. I know that when my teacher was originally ordained within the Drikung Kagyu lineage, he had to wait until a lama and attendants were in town to fulfill the quorum necessary to do ordination. I suspect that a similar problem exists for the Theravadan tradition in the United States. Here in California, there is at least one monastery but that is rare. For Zen practitioners, on the other hand, ordained priests are a lot more common around the country, largely because of the length of time Zen has been in the U.S. and because Zen teachers made a habit of ordaining Westerners decades ago. It is still uncommon in the Tibetan tradition to be ordained to teach, as opposed to ordination as a monk.

But leaving aside the receiving of vows and the learning of practices, Buddhism is a rich tradition with thousands of years of history. Even if one is not an intellectual, much of this needs to be understood at a level where it is integrated into one’s ability to call up the lessons or teachings of earlier eras on some level of command. It isn’t enough, sometimes, to look up what Dogen said to a particular problem. One has to have read this material, thought about and reflected on it, and integrated it with one’s own understanding. Additionally, if one is making a life path of being a Buddhist practitioner and perhaps leading a group, there are many many practicalities of working with students or groups of people, even in setting up monasteries or temples.

In Japan, a number of the Buddhist sects, such as Shingon, have their own universities to train in much of this. One can go to school at the university in Koyasan and study the traditional Shingon texts and teachings. There are professors who, as well as being ordained practitioners, are academic scholars in these areas as well.

In the United States (and, I suspect, the rest of the West), this is not the case. The division between practitioners and scholars is fairly wide and one often becomes either of these without being the other. I’ve considered a PhD program at the Graduate Theological Union in California not simply because I’m interested in Buddhism academically but because the man running the Buddhist program there is an ordained Shingon priest and has specialized in studying the ritual practices of Shingon, which are largely shared with my own lineage. If there was a way to study with him or someone similar without spending $10,000 a semester but was unaccredited, I would be more than happy to do it but the only way to become a scholar of Buddhism, often, is to join a scholastic program. I also know that many of these programs (not GTU) look rather askance at practitioner-scholars. I spoke to a couple of Tibetan translators about this in 2005 since they were both PhD’s teaching Buddhist Studies at a local University in their area. Each of them talked about the difficulties faced by practitioners as scholars because of attitudes in departments. One of them was not “out” as a Buddhist for this reason.

There is also the not uncommon practice of ordained individuals giving back their vows, going back to school or finishing studies, and becoming academics. Part of this is the issue in the West around maintaining any sort of livelihood and being ordained. As a number of people that I know have attested, it is nearly impossible to survive as a monk in America unless you are fortunate enough to be part of an established monastery because there simply isn’t the support and, at the end of the day, you have to eat. The monk vows normally preclude working for a living and, as many find, even when vows don’t get in the way of that, working full-time gets in the way of being a practitioner in a lot of ways. Part-time professional options for work are also few and far between in the current world, as I’ve often found as well. Anyone who has gone back to school full-time and tried to work has learned that one well.

We need schools in the West to train scholars of Buddhism and future (or current) monks and priests in order to have a full and well-rounded expression of Buddhism in the West. Naropa University seems to be partially oriented that way if you are a Tibetan practitioner. Non-sectarian options are not really available and the sectarian ones are almost non-existent as well. It would be nice if people got together and pondered a solution for this problem.