There are several topics that come up a lot for me of late, and they seem to bring up some discomfort and concern around how Buddhism is integrating into Western culture. The issues are:
1) The subject of dana and generosity, and how it has not very successfully been translated here; and
2) The issue of gender inequality and the general lack of (recognized as such) realized women teachers within the Buddhist institution — the same can be said for lack of racial diversity; as well as
3) The challenges for monasticism, particularly for women in the Theravada tradition.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these issues are intimately connected to one another. Together, and placed in the larger sphere of traditional vs. progressive interpretations of scripture, the multi-layered cultural baggage of social oppression, and the challenge of engaging in “unproductive” activity in an economy solely based on production and consumption, from my limited perspective right now, they constitute the grand challenge of Buddhism in the West. I may be biting off more than I can chew in trying to touch on all these points, but in the interest of starting a conversation, what follows is a humble attempt.
I’ve been thinking about writing about this for a while, but I’ve hesitated because it takes me entirely out of my comfort zone. I was pretty radical early on, marching for gay rights and abortion rights at 12. I spent my adolescent years and most of my twenties pegged as “opinionated”, “strong-willed”, “aggressive”– characteristics that are viewed more favorably in men than women; and thus also characteristics that aroused self-hatred and unease in my own skin. I pursued a master’s degree in public policy, starting out in advocacy but ending up believing that the particular change that I was to effect would be made from the inside, so choosing civil service. My interest in politics waned as my practice deepened, and as I began to recognize the benefits of subtle influence, of being a model of change, instead of an actor of it. So, anything smacking of politics is hard for me to take on now. Anything which takes on a strongly opining nature makes me think only of Seng Ts’an’s words in the Hsin-hsin ming: “The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” I’ve placed my focus in the past several years on working on the internal change, the mental purification of this body-mind, because it is the only change that I can be sure of effecting. And because I do believe that it bleeds over into the lives of all those we come into contact with. The wisdom gained in retreat translates directly into daily life, it is the fertile ground with which we begin to see the mirror of relationship more clearly. I know it’s with some privilege – no debt, a supportive family, etc. – that I’ve been able to do this “Dhamma sabbatical”, and I feel strongly that others should have the same opportunity.
According to an article I happened upon by Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Socially Engaged Buddhism and the Trajectory of Buddhist Ethical Consciousness” in Religion East & West, this perspective reflects a classical Buddhist approach. He differentiates it from the more modern rendition as follows:
Classical Buddhism works by directly altering the views, attitude, and values of individuals in the expectation that such ‘micro-changes’ will result cumulatively in positive large-scale changes in society. Contemporary engaged Buddhism in contrast, operates at a more systemic level, seeking to change the systems and structures responsible for communal suffering, not merely the persons who create and control them.
The truth is, I really care about the future of Buddhism in the West. And I know that it must be inclusive–that it must allow for those who want to be totally engaged in the world as well as for those who want to focus their revolution inward. We need all types of people to really have lasting change.
I entirely agree with the tenets of socially engaged Buddhism (though I’m not sure that they are, or can be universally recognized by all Buddhist practitioners – for a different take see the Zen Peacemakers version), and we must and will have to be in the world at many times of our lives, so each of us will need to find ways to engage meaningfully according to our particular strengths. Right livelihood for one person may be to champion climate change policies and for another to take care of elderly parents. For yet another, it may be to follow a monastic path, and I think it’s crucial that as the larger sangha, we find a system to support people in that effort.
Katie Loncke in a recent post thoughtfully detailed the subtle class division that permeated her experience as a volunteer at the Zen Peacemaker’s inaugural Socially Engaged Buddhism Symposium last month. She highlights how particularly pernicious these deeply ingrained habits of being are, and of how dependent we are on our economic customs and our biases about generosity. As Dhamma practitioners, we will need to reconsider the concept of generosity, and hopefully practice it more in line with the way that the Buddha described it. Thanissaro Bhikkhu — who arguably offers one of the most successful examples of an Asian monastic model here in the West — critiques our current usage of the term dana in “No Strings Attached: The Buddha’s Culture of Generosity”. He explains that the Buddha,
When asked where a gift should be given, he stated simply, “Wherever the mind feels inspired.” In other words — aside from repaying one’s debt to one’s parents — there is no obligation to give. This means that the choice to give is an act of true freedom, and thus the perfect place to start the path to total release.
This is why the Buddha adopted dana as the context for practicing and teaching the Dhamma. But — to maintain the twin principles of freedom and fruitfulness in giving — he created a culture of dana that embodied particularly Buddhist ideals. To begin with, he defined dana not simply as material gifts. The practice of the precepts, he said, was also a type of dana — the gift of universal safety, protecting all beings from the harm of one’s unskillful actions — as was the act of teaching the Dhamma.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains that the teachings must be offered freely and that dana offered by lay supporters to monastics was never meant to be a fee or to repay debt. Contemplatives have no obligation to teach, only to practice wholeheartedly. The concept of dana that we have developed in the West, he argues, has become highly distorted, and, “the ideal solution would be to provide a framework whereby serious Dhamma practitioners could be supported whether or not they taught. That way, the act of teaching would be a genuine gift.” On this point, I couldn’t agree more. Generally, we need opportunities for people to practice in any way that fits for him or her at a particular point in time, and we need to find a way to create ways to support the next generation in living as contemplatives in a culture that pushes us entirely in the opposite direction. Similarly we seriously risk commodifying the Dhamma if serious practitioners feel they have to teach in order to make the practice their livelihood. Indeed, as Robert Thurman pointed out (a friend reports) at the aforementioned symposium, there’s no “free-lunch” in our culture, making full-time Dhamma practice without teaching responsibilities particularly challenging.
Right now, intensive retreat practice is the domain of a privileged few in this country. Just look around when you’re on retreat. The average age is probably 50 or above and the large majority of retreatants are white. This just does not reflect our society. Now, there are other factors besides economic means involved in the disparity. There are large swaths of the population that may not have much interest or exposure, there are younger householders whose family obligations preclude them from going on retreat, and there are probably plenty of other factors as well. But, undoubtedly, the cost of retreat is a significant limiting factor for many people who may want to practice. Evidence of just how limiting a factor the cost of retreats can be for people of color is provided in the response that the Spirit Rock Meditation Center got when it moved to a full-scholarship model for its people of color retreat:
In 2006, Spirit Rock went to private donors, asking them to fund fully the center’s annual people of color retreat. The fundraising was successful and [Larry] Yang says that the ability to offer the people of color retreat free of charge created an incredible response: “The  spaces of this year’s 2006 retreat filled in five days…faster than most of the most popular retreats at Spirit Rock…One month in advance of the retreat (held June 3-8, 2006), there [were] seventy-seven people on the waiting list.” This type of response is evidence to many of the great interest in Buddhism by people of color. The challenge, Yang says, will be figuring out how to sustain this type of retreat structure.¹
For those who take robes we also have systems in place to waive fees. But for most people, monasticism is not even close to a feasible option. Particularly in the Theravada tradition and for women.
While I have been encouraged by the developments of the bhikkhuni sangha here and in Thailand and Sri Lanka, the challenges are still huge for this small group of women who lack the institutional support of the largest monasteries. Realistically, I can’t see how having these communities entirely segregated will be sustainable or will lead to us seeing more women teachers, nor will it address the racial and other inequalities that remain.
The fact that all of the women teachers who have most influenced me lie outside of the Buddhist tradition to one degree or another is telling. The Indian teacher Vimala Thakar taught in a way that transcended her cultural and religious context. She is considered by some to be one of the most enlightened people of the last century, and certainly among women (if not the most). Yet, she is largely unknown, as detailed here by Elizabeth DeBold. Toni Packer left the Zen tradition all together when it became too constricting for conveying her understanding of Truth. Charlotte Joko Beck is described as having “done away with all titles and [before retirement she] no longer wore her okesa. She had distanced herself considerably from her roots in the Soto school, and much of the ceremony had been abandoned in favor of informality.”² And Upasika Kee Nanayon, the Thai laywoman, was a rebel in her own right.
There are exceptions to these maverick women, such as Pema Chödrön and Ayya Khema, who have been able to have great success as both renunciates and as teachers, but the patriarchal and male-dominated aspects of the traditions remain – across the various schools of Buddhism. It doesn’t make sense for this to be the exception more than the rule, however. Some may take issue with the claim of this being an exception; I know there are quite a few female ordained Zen priests who have had far-reaching influence as well as female Lamas whom I have not mentioned here, but in the Theravadan tradition it’s a lot spottier and, because the monastic form in this school arguably offers the most austere practice (celibate, alms mendicants, etc.), that may be why it is more limiting both for men and women in this culture.
The recent departure of nuns from the Amaravati / Chithurst community, women who have been ordained for 15, 20, or more years is also significant. I found these words written by Ajahn Thanasanti before her recent ordination as a bhikkhuni, in the comments section of her blog, particularly poignant and painful:
For 10 to 15 years, I would agree that for many of us — all that we needed were the requisites of food, shelter, medicine and robes and the opportunity to practice the Dhamma with precepts. For many after that amount of time something started to emerge as we became clearer about the dilemma we were in. From my perspective, every nun who has ever been in the community I have lived in has known the blessings of the life and the rare privilege it is to live the life as an alms mendicant. On the other hand as we finally got more traction as a community of nuns we were also able to see the way that prejudice against women and the inability to discuss matters of importance were affecting our ability to see clearly. What became apparent to me was that we were in a system that was conditioning us so that we couldn’t wake up. When there wasn’t interest to know about our experience or the harm that was happening and when there were severe consequences for non participation in something that I perceived as harmful, I left.
What struck me most here are her words, “we were in a system that was conditioning us so that we couldn’t wake up.” My concern has been that if the system itself makes it difficult for many people to gain access, and then, you find major defections of a group of people that represent no less than half of the population, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. And if those people are further disempowered to believe that awakening is not something they are capable of, what is the future of the Dhamma here?
We simply must find ways to make intensive practice an option for anyone and everyone who has the passion to live in that way, whether as lay practitioners or as monastics. I don’t have an answer for this, but I do think that for anyone who takes social justice and engaged Buddhism seriously, this should be an essential part of our efforts – building a community that supports contemplative lifestyles for all equally, and which allows the concept of dana to return to its original intention. We have to find a way to truly support the practice, because it is precisely through one’s inner work that the outer work can blossom.
1. From Kate Dugan & Hilary Bogert’s article “Diversity Issues in the American Buddhist Community” (see below)
2. From Wikipedia description of Ordinary Mind School, paraphrased from James Ishmael Ford’s Zen Master Who?: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen
UPDATE, 9/22: See a dialogue between James Ford and Kyogen Carlson on ordination and proposed residential retreat requirements for Soto Zen priests. The conversation published at James’s blog Monkey Mind brings up, in far more detail, many of the issues raised here as it pertains specifically to Soto lineages in the West.
More reading on the subject of generosity
Dana: The Practice of Giving, with Andrew Olendzki, Marcia Rose, Taitetsu Unno, Robert Aitken Roshi, and Judy Lief, Tricycle, Summer 2003
Give and You Shall Receive, Reginald Ray, Buddhadharma, Spring 2005
Generosity, Chapter 8 from The Issue at Hand, Gil Fronsdal
Challenges of Generosity | Dangerous Harvests
More reading on the subject of diversity
Diversity Issues in the American Buddhist Community (DOC), Kate Dugan & Hilary Bogert, Pluralism Project, August 2006
Forum: Barriers to the Dharma, Buddhadharma, Summer 2005
Something Has to Change: Blacks in American Buddhism, Shambhala Sun, September 2001
More info on the Bhikkhuni Sangha
it’s all dhamma.