Western Buddhism and Communities

This evening, my mind returns to the question of a Western Buddhism and the way things can or should develop for Buddhism in the Western nations.

I have spent the evening reading a tantric text (the Susidhikara Sutra used within Tendai) and it brought to mine the situation with priests in Japanese Buddhism. For those that don’t know, the vinaya are generally not held by specialists in Japanese forms of Buddhism. (For those that are unaware, the Vinaya are the vows held by monks and nuns in Buddhism going back to the time of the Buddha.) When you meet a Japanese “monk” (such as a Zen monk), he is not really a monk by the standards of other Buddhist traditions. This is because he does not maintain the Vinaya. As far as I know, the usage of the term “monk” is largely because of translation issues into English. Many groups use the term “priest” for these individuals (though not “priestess,” strangely enough).

Priests in the Japanese traditions are, by the standards of the rest of the Buddhist world, householders or lay practitioners, Upasakas or Upasikas. The ordination platform, since the time of Dengyo Daishi, who founded the Japanese Tendai sect, has largely been based on the Bodhisattva Vows. While the Vinaya was held by various individuals in Japanese history and, I believe, reintroduced a couple of times, the practice of following these vows and having “true” monks or nuns has never become a standard part of Japanese Buddhism after the Nara period, more than 1,000 years ago.

For most of the Buddhist world (I keep using that phrase…), this is a very serious issue when it comes up. I recall seeing what were nearly yelling matches on E-sangha over this issue in the past with monks and nuns of other traditions being rather dismissive of Japanese Buddhism because of this, which does not always go over well with the Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren, etc. practitioners of Japan.

What brings this to mind to me, other than working with a text important in Japan, is that this is likely to be similar to the ongoing case for Buddhism in America. I have another book, “Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia,” that arrived the other day. It is a collection of essays on Buddhism in the West and one of those essays is “Neither Monk nor Nun: Western Buddhists as Full-Time Practitioners” by Sylvia Wetzel. She makes the point that most Dharma teachers in the West (specifically the United States) are lay teachers working in Dharma Centers and, in fact, many or most of them are women. We have a situation in America where very few people become monks or nuns. Of those that do, most do not remain so for long. My teacher used to be a monk but returned his vows. Alan Wallace, who writes and teaches quite extensively on meditation, was a monk for 14 years, even training with the Dalai Lama. Eventually, he returned his vows, returned to the West, went to graduate school and was married. He still teaches though.

The long-term situation for Buddhism in America is such that it is nearly impossible to live as a monk or nun and keep one’s vows. We do not live in a Buddhist society and the requirements, for example, to not handle money at all or to have no contact with the opposite sex, simply are not possible to follow without the support of a community. For the rest of us, we have to support ourselves and the Dharma, often through working jobs. Being enmeshed in day to day life as householders means many, if not most, of us become married and even have children. For my friends who are Pure Land Buddhists, this is part of why they are part of established temples or churches here in the West with dedicated clergy. They generally seem to acknowledge that practice is difficult while living a normal day to day life. Most Buddhists here are converts to sects that have only been established in the last 40 (or 20 or 10) years, which makes that kind of structure unavailable and (to many) possibly undesirable.

From the point of view of traditional Buddhism, this situation is a real problem as the lack of monks and nuns in significant numbers and as the teachers here does not speak well for Buddhism in Western nations. I’m less sure that this is a problem but, outside of Japan and, in some ways, Tibet, this is a rather serious break with a tradition that dates back to the Buddha. The main problem that I see is that the distractions of day to day life really can and do interfere with practice. Practicing for an hour or three a day before or after your work is not the same as living a life totally focused on practice and the study that goes with it. Of course, one dirty little secret of monastic life is that many many monastics in history have actually spent very little time practicing. The vision of monks spending their waking hours meditating, chanting, or practicing liturgy are often just fantastic visions with little basis in reality.

I do think that there is a real possibility for another alternative. This alternative is the creation of temples, monasteries, Dharma Centers (call them whatever you want, even villages), as communities and retreat centers for study and practice for householders. Part of this is a vision of community for Buddhists outside of our rather consumerist and superficial culture of competition and gain. There are places, I believe Great Vow Monastery in Portland is one, where people live as residents but only a few are permanent and others are merely there for a (long or short) while. Of those that are permanent, most of these have jobs in the “real” world, which give them and their community the financial ability to survive in our money oriented society. The community created by bringing people together, temporarily or permanently, into a place allows people to continue to practice in a more intense way than they may be able to living in the isolated fashion that most of the West follows. This is a joining, and not a terribly unique one, of the various communitarian movements in the last 40 years towards communes, cohousing and the like, with spiritual community. Plenty of places like this exist but they are not part of a movement nor done with an explicit idea that they could be part of something much larger for the Buddhist community here. I expect that most people who establish these communities or live within them are simply trying to adapt to living both a Buddhist life but also surviving. I’d like to see a more explicit embrace of this as a model kind of community. There are good and bad ways (or “optimal” and “non-optimal”) ways to plan, create, and reside in such communities. People have learned lessons the hard way and it would be good to see these lessons shared with others who might wish to live in a similar manner.

This kind of life is not an option for everyone but communities like these give even non-residents the opportunity to study and practice through retreats or other kinds of more temporary programs. It is necessary to have centers of some sort for Buddhism to survive and prosper here and this strikes me as a more sustainable model in the long-term.