Some challenges of living a contemplative life today

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.

Ajahn Chah on alms round

Ajahn Chah on alms round

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 [81] 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.

Bhikkhuni Ordination at Aranya Bodhi: Awakening Forest Hermitage, Aug 29, 2010

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

Alliance for Bhikkhunis

Aranya Bodhi: Awakening Forest Hermitage

Awakening Truth

Sujato’s Blog

West Wight Sangha

it’s all dhamma.

On generosity

On women and Buddhism

On Buddhism in the West

Leave a comment


  1. This is an absolutely great post! Thank you. You cover so much ground, and yet it flows together well, and offers many ways to consider these issues, grounded in dharma sources. That same sentence “we were in a system that was conditioning us so that we couldn’t wake up.” struck me as well because I think it also speaks to the systems we have developed in the capitalist “West.” The discussions about engaged Buddhism online feel locked in this divide between internal practice and external manifestation. I’ve tried to argue that both are necessary ingredients, and like you, see how each individual manifests their “social action” in the world will depend on their circumstances. But I really think a lot of convert practitioners are locked in this dualistic view of practice – that being spiritual means shunning the social/political, or that involvement with such things somehow taints the dharma. To me, that’s coming from a privatized view of life, where everything is compartmentalized and most things have a price tag or value assigned to them, even enlightenment.

    All of this needs to be addressed, and is being addressed in some circles, but not nearly enough.

    • Thanks so much for the positive feedback and for stopping by. The polarization between “engaged” practice and “retreat” practice is palpable. I am particularly drawn to retreat practice, which is why I care about the issue of making it more widely available, and in another post may provide more detail on how that’s changed my view on ways that we can live in the world. I left a successful career a little over a year ago because of its dis-integration with my contemplative life. Now I am trying to figure out, by way of letting it unfold, whether to fully engage and do chaplaincy, for example, or to do contract work in a “day job” so that I can have months to do intensive practice…It’s definitely not so black and white! Oh, and your point about the price tag on enlightenment, yes, the commodification of the Dharma is an interesting (or disconcerting) phenomenon as well.

  2. bud dho

     /  September 21, 2010

    sounds like an exploitation of buddhism for a political agenda.
    you will never fix samsara. ever.
    so just let go and focus on your own practice.

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective. Would you care to elaborate a bit? It does seem to me that exploitation is a strong word. If Buddhism is static, and does not allow for us to consider such issues as race and gender, then it’s transformative potential is lessened greatly. Yes, there’s an agenda here as it’s an expository writing style and the agenda is to remind people that there is intention in our actions, that we do have influence over the shape of this particular manifestation of Buddhist practice. Although I do think these issues are worth reflecting on further, I don’t feel particularly attached to them. But it’s all part of it and practice is life itself. That brings up the point that to suggest that caring about the opportunities that others have for practice is somehow not also practice is odd to me.

  3. A wonderful and informed post. You cover a lot of ground here and make some excellent points. I really care about the future of Buddhism in the West, too, and you offer some good suggestions about how it can be opened up and made more accessible.

    In your discussion of dana and generosity, I think you have captured the spirit of what the Buddha was trying to achieve with the sangha – a new society within the larger one where life as a contemplative was sustainable, but not necessarily isolated or withdrawn. The Buddha was not concerned with just the private destiny of the individual, but with something wider, the whole realm of living beings, the whole of consciousness.

    There should be no inequality tolerated, whether between men and women or monastics and lay practitioners, and the fact that it exists points to the real need to go back and recapture that original spirit, while at the same time moving forward with a new sense of openness and egalitarianism.

    I believe that we need to wrestle Buddhism out of the hands of what I see as a somewhat oppressive hierarchy, and the bhikkhuni situation I think is a prime example of that hierarchy trying to hold on to power. A huge challenge, as I have come to recognize recently, is that as we open Buddhism up, we have to be careful that we don’t hand it over to the ill-informed. In an age where everyone has a vehicle to express themselves, it’s very easy for those who have a poor understanding of dharma and whose agenda may be simply to attack perceived agendas to mislead others. That’s why, I think it is equally important to build a community that supports teachers as well as individual practitioners.

    • How nice to have your comment here. Thank you for articulating so succinctly some of what I’m grappling with. The main issue being: how can we create a community that supports a sustainable, contemplative lifestyle? I’m not advocating that we overhaul the economic and political system we’ve got here in the West, just suggesting that as practitioners we might all stand to benefit from intentionally creating a micro-system that’s more inclusive and egalitarian and recognizing that people will fulfill different roles within that community (i.e., not everyone needs be a monastic, nor a teacher) and that they need not be so polarized. I don’t think a model that offers only pay-out-the-nose or teach-for-pay practice is going to do us a lot of good in the end. Especially when instead of real checks and balances it’s often a matter of who has the loudest drum beat…On a side note, I appreciate your contribution to the “engaged” discussions of late. From David:

      There is no separation between our internal world and the external world and to draw lines in the sand which Buddhists may not cross over is to posit a duality that does not exist. Sure, one does not have to be a Buddhist to practice compassion or to be socially engaged. One does not need to practice social activism under the so-called banner of Buddhism. But, I, for one, am glad there are people who do. Buddhism has a specific world view that the world needs to hear.

      • Well, thank you for giving air to these issues. I do wish though that you had not covered so much in just one post. You made so many good points that it is difficult to comment on them all.

        I have to admit that I’m not really sure how I feel about dana and I am very uncomfortable with the idea of teach-for-pay. I’ve been a dharma teacher for about 12 years now and have never been “paid” to teach. For a number of years I would not even ask for donations. I only started after I had some Asian students and I felt that if I did not accept their dana, they’d be offended. Still, I felt somewhat embarrassed about it, and still do. Probably has more to do with my personal mind-set than anything else.

        At the same time I can see that the kind of micro-system you describe would be beneficial to many, and I am definitely in favor of less (or zero) polarization. I hope you keep blogging on these topics.

        • Your criticism is quite valid, but as I mentioned early on, taking on subjects of this ilk is something I am hesitant to do so I figured I’d get it all out in one go! It’s encouraging to see how much interest there is in these issues and, as you said today in your own post (thanks so much for the nod), they have been bubbling up for a while and need to be dealt with in the present. So we’ll see if we can keep the conversation (and more) going…

          • It wasn’t a criticism, just a preference from my end, and a rather self-centered one, actually. You had to do it the way you did, and I’m glad you done it!

            And considering how well it was done, and the positive response you’ve gotten, perhaps this will ease any future hesitancy.

  4. Laura

     /  September 21, 2010

    Thanks so much for this post, it really resonated! The two major points in here have been topics on my mind of late. I had a conversation just two days ago with a dhamma friend regarding the current state of dana–that it felt more like one of economics, versus a ‘freely given gift”, whatever one felt like giving. When it becomes one of economics, even if it is just called ‘dana’, there is a feeling of a ‘suggested amount’ ((implied, or said)–what happens when one doesn’t have that amount, but had something a lot less? Do unconscious judgments come in by others? Would one who couldn’t give feel inferior? Is that in the spirit of real dana?

    The “Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism: Views from a Nobody” had some insights, which I’d also noticed in different retreat centers — that is, sometimes, a ‘scholarship’ for one who needed funds to attend retreats came with a string attached, and that was service, or work. Dhamma work or service to a center when given freely so that others may attend the retreat fully, be at ease on their retreats, etc. is very different from dhamma work that is given because one does not have enough funds to attend a retreat (in my view). If one does get scholarship, based on the generosity of others–he or she should be able to attend the retreat fully, no? Or does the one who is lacking in funds end up washing dishes or preparing food (which, in itself is wholesome–but might be different, when it is in return for a spot on retreat).

    But another part of being Volunteers meant taking on responsibilities that prevented us from participating on an equal basis in the week’s events…Frequently we had to leave presentations early in order to go work a shift.

    If the cost of retreat is a prohibiting factor, it does not allow too much room for experimentation (on long retreats) by those who cannot afford to stay longer periods. This most typically means those in their youth. One would have to be really interested already to jump through the hoops in getting scholarships (and then sometimes, work in return), to have a spot on retreat. In this, I am extremely grateful to retreat centers in Asia that have opened the doors to all who wanted to come and practice (and for long periods of time). It would be interesting to look to different retreat center models both here (in the US) and Asia to see how we can expand opportunities for more to have a taste of the dhamma, and practice wholeheartedly.

    Lots of things to think about!

    metta, :)

    • Laura, you are certainly one of the people I’ve been having these conversations with, and I have you to thank for pointing me to the Thanissaro Bhikkhu article, so I’m glad if I can give something back! It means a lot to have you comment here, thank you. I think Nathan raises a lot of really good points about how things really aren’t analogous at all in the US as to Asia, because of course we have no real culture of generosity. At the same time, we do – when you consider how church communities use tithing to support ministerial activities, etc. I think as the next generation of Dhamma practitioners we have an opportunity to be creative about how to address this real clash of cultures. I encourage you to read the lengthy but informative James Ford piece as well when you have a chance. What do people do as they age and they have no children, no social security? Can we count on our sanghas to take care of people to the end? What happens if we have a stroke like Ajahn Chah? We don’t have a system in place to sustain people who haven’t lived a productive lifestyle and who haven’t procreated! What then?

      • Laura

         /  September 22, 2010

        :) Thanks for that. I agree with Nathan, and you that things are not analogous. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t study for best-practices, and see what can be transferred, adapted, etc. while staying true to dhammic principles. I feel there is a great culture of generosity in the US–in looking at the donations that come in to victims of disasters, etc. There are many food pantries, church services, shelters, etc. While many have become institutionalized, they began somehow–and I think many began with good intentions.

        Nothing is ever certain–including procreation (far-flung families, burgeoning nursing homes come to mind here). I do think a culture of generosity begins with one. When we, as individuals help other dhamma practitioners who may be going off to a long retreat, help take care of errands, offer up our services, cook for retreats, with expectations of nothing in return, but that the person(s) benefits from it, etc. none of this is lost on the world. It is through individual actions that a system eventually comes into place. And there is a lot that each person can do for another. That’s how I’ve seen communities begin–and sustain themselves. Mutual interdependence also means that if one is on the other side of the equation (ie, as a receiver), graciously accepting a freely given gift is of the utmost importance. There is always a danger of egos getting in the way of giving and receiving and judging in general!

        You mention a very important point re Ajahn Chah–that one cannot be sure that a major health issue will not come up. A recent example of community comes to mind here–that when a Malaysian dhamma community found out that one person had been in a serious accident, there was an immediate outpour of questions as to where to send donations, how to help the family, etc. I have also seen similar things within the Goenka meditation community, here.

  5. This issue of scholarships, dana, and inequality of treatment is very important. Under our previous teacher, my sangha had a very class-rigid system in my view. Anyone who couldn’t afford a class or retreat was required to give X number of hours of “service” to the community. I actually delayed going through jukai for five years because the number of classes I had to take, at the cost (either monetarily or in volunteer hours) was way too much. I simply couldn’t afford to pay, and I would have had to double the number of volunteer hours I was giving to sangha just to cover the requirements. At the same time, I’d hear a few people in leadership positions say things like “well, this is your dharma gate.” Of course, they had the financial means to pay for classes and retreats, and it didn’t place them in a position of wondering if they could pay rent and buy food as well. So, I saw those “dharma gate” comments as disingenuous at best.

    Under our current teacher, things have changed. There is no service requirement anymore and anyone can get a class fee waived. However, it’s still not a central part of the center’s view of dana. I think because of a fear that moving more towards a dana-based system for classes and retreats would bankrupt the center. Which could happen. Having spent the last three years on the board of directors, I have come to see the challenges of funding Buddhist institutions in America very intimately.

    One of the differences between those more open and embracing Asia retreat centers, and what we often have here in the U.S. (and other “Western” nations) is that those Asian centers are outgrowths of a society that supports their work in ways ours might never do. Places like Spirit Rock are fortunate to have wealthy members and friends who have given hundreds of thousands of dollars, land, and other support. This isn’t true of most U.S. sanghas – most are just barely making it financially, which is why there is pressure to charge for everything.

    This is one of the reasons why I’m so committed to speaking about, and trying to address in whatever ways I might, the big picture, systemic inequalities and oppressions. Because the problems individual sanghas are experiencing, as well as the whole Buddhist in the west community, are about – in part – being embedded in greater systems.

    I personally think one way to address some of these problems is to develop funding bodies at a national level – or regional level. And to come together to address issues like how dana should be manifested in our sanghas, as opposed to simply substituting the word for “giving money.”

    • Thanks Nathan. This is helpful. It’s really such a big issue. My own teacher said to me earlier this week, “you know, we just can’t possibly make a living doing this work”, echoing Thanissaro Bhikkhu – because it distorts the teachings. It’s sad, but true as long as the models we have stand.

  6. So beautifully framed Katherine!

    I can understand your reluctance in voicing an opinion, that which is all relative and limited as we know. Yet, the topic certainly deserves to be brought into the light, and you have done so very skillfully.

    I will add my two cents :)

    The larger issue as I see it, is of honoring the feminine in what is after all a very patriarchal tradition. The bikkhuni issue is only one of many manifestations of an inherent disregard for the feminine within the Buddhist legacy. I am most struck by the use of language and the hierarchical model that is commonplace within most centers. Constructs such as senior student, senior teacher, prerequisites for long retreats, simply do not make sense to me. Who is to know how awakened a person is? Does the amount of hours spent on a cushion automatically translate into more wisdom?

    I need to run to a meeting, but I just wanted to chime in . . .

    Thank you being such an eloquent voice for the feminine and the Dharma.

    Deep bow to you,


    • Oh my, thank you…Yes, it’s just one among many systems that seem to have a hard time striking the balance. In Burma, there is such ingrained prejudice – I heard things like women suffer more because they have more defilements. Perhaps, but is that inherent to gender (whatever that is) or a consequence of systemic disempowerment and conditioning? Without the ability to seriously reflect on the cultural baggage we may be unconsciously bringing over unneccesarily we run a lot of risks. I’m also quite intrigued with the now dubbed “pragmatic” movement, with its seeming reaction against the more psychotherapeutic / “touchy-feely” aspects of Buddhist practice in the west. How does that fit in to this? Probably way too early to tell. Certainly wisdom or relative awakening does not have to do with hours logged (though from my own experience, I think retreat practice is very fertile ground for insight in daily life and relationship), and it’s a little scary what passes for credentials these days. Secularization doesn’t help on that front, and that’s a-whole-nother issue!

  7. Marguerite makes a great point about the what we consider “necessary” for people to be deemed worthy of teaching dharma or considered wise. It makes me think of an old Zen story about a young guy who had barely practiced with a community, but was deemed the community’s successor by the teacher. He then was hazed greatly by the “senior students,” who felt they were entitled to the leadership position. There was a long exile, upon which the young guy returned and finally took leadership. That story – forgive the lack of specific names and such – has been framed as a challenge the young guy had to face in order to become teacher. However, it also strikes me as a commentary on the problem with the whole “hours logged” issue.

    I have done little retreat work in recent years, even though I have moved towards the center of the “senior student” group in my sangha. It’s very clear to me that some, including my teacher to some extent I think, wonder about my commitment to practice because I’m not an active retreat participant. I say this as someone who did do retreats in the past, but now has been experimenting with other ways to apply/engage Buddha’s teachings. There’s a not so subtle privileging of meditation retreats as THE highest form of practice, when I’d argue it’s one form of practice that clearly has great benefit for a lot of people. There must be a way to support retreat practice/monastery practice, as well as see and honor that it isn’t the only path to awakening.

    There’s an attachment to forms amongst us that is hard to work with because I think the tendency, when some see this attachment, is to toss out most of the forms wholesale, and make everything informal. That’s not helpful either.

    There’s also a tension between honoring elders who have devoted their lives to the practice, and also recognizing that such devotion doesn’t always lead to immense wisdom.

    Somehow, all of these issues need to be examined, as well as the financial, systemic stuff we have already brought up.

  8. ebe

     /  September 24, 2010

    Katherine, thanks for the post. Thanks for the time, for the effort. I feel so much pain, insult and anger, though it might be well hidden between the lines. This issue is important to you, no doubt. But I would like to emphsize in a different direction, maybe to offer a different approach.

    Let me begin in a humble manner- Your direction is well declaired. It supports itself with many good arguments. Therefore, one who says “this is nonsense” is totally wrong. However, sometimes, a small angular perturbation near the origin, results in a huge shift as radius increases.

    The question I would like to raise is the following: What are we? Buddhists or Dhamma followers? What is important for us? Buddhism or the truth?

    The answer for me is clear. Every “ism” I have met in my life is a part of the samsara, no matter if it is “Modernism”, “Post modernism”, “Socialism”, “Capilalism”, etc. You name it. Buddhism has no difference. It is a crystalization of the ethernal truth, done about 2500 years ago. It is wise, it even provides the understanding- what is the cause for the suffering, but ut does not tell us what is the 8fold path. Each follower needs to find its own way, and it is considered correct as long as the 8 rules (right livelihood, right effort etc) are maintained. Therefore, I’m totally with you that things can be changed in Buddhism, with respect to gender, as an example. We do not live 2500 years ago. We live now, and today, women are supposed to be equal.

    But, and here is, finally, the my point :), isn’t it look like a cultural colonialism that some western people that fount the Buddhism about 45 years ago, start to fix whatever they dislike in it? Isn’t it the same judjing state of mind that cause suffering? Finally, it found a very good target, which we can be attached to without being blamed, after all- we are all spiritual… We are on our way to happiness, just need to fix few Buddhist bugs… And moreover, some of us are surprised when a certain Austraian monstery was punnished by its society. It wanted to be in the society, but on its own terms… Well, Kathrine, this is not the right way to do it. This way of changing whatever the western mind does not like does not belong to the 8fold path.

    First, people in the wast over rate the importance of meditation; haven’t we talked abount the attitude that wants quick results? Open the Vissudhimagga and find out that the practice starts from Silla. And it is free. And everybody can do it, no matter of color, age or gender. Maybe I’m naive, but if enough people practice only Sila, it can change the world. So the change, indeed starts from inside, it is free and it is our personal responsibility. BTW, most known religion rules say no to killing stilling sexual misconduct, harsh speech and intoxicans. No need to be a Buddhist for that.

    No doubt, meditation is important, but most people cannot practice for long periods, due to reasons you already mentioned. However, if meditation is not supported by Sila and Danna, it worth nothing! maybe this is the reason that most people do not even hear about meditation centers. I really believe that when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.

    As for Danna, most of the people give danna even without knowing it. This knowledge can be emphsized within comunity. No special money is required for that. I liked what you wrote, that practicing the precepts is actually a danna. Thanks for that.

    To summarize:
    If Buddhism is our way, may we all have patience to practice it for, say, 200 years, establish a tradition of enlighted western teachers, such that people from Thailand would come to study Dhamma in the west. Then, those enlightened teachers could suggest corrections to Buddhism, which will be accepted, since they really know what they are talking about. And what about us in this very life?

    When the Dalai Lamma visited in my country, several meditation teachers met him and told him their plans-how to teach meditation here. Really great plans. He listened carefully and said- the most important thing is to develop compassion. Becoming a Buddhist is not important at all. May we all practice only daily – Metta and Vipasana. It can be done during daily life of each one of us- from personal experience.

    When people become enlightened, other people seek for their presence, and become enlightened as well. However, we are still waiting for the first one to come…

    Much Metta Kathrine, and thanks for the challenging post!!


    • You are right that I feel passionate about these issues, but I’m surprised if what comes across is anger or despair…I do have much faith in things unfolding just as they are supposed to, both in my personal life, and in that of collective humanity and for Dhamma practitioners on the whole. You know I can’t agree with you more on the “ism” point you make, but I am a little confused. At the same time as you say it’s about Truth and not Buddhism, you then refer to evidence being in the Visudimagga and reference the Thai Buddhists who “really know what they are talking about” as if it’s not possible for someone else to understand the path? I also think you may be inferring that we are still waiting for another awakened being to appear? Maybe I am misunderstanding your words?

      I think what this article refers to largely represents the institutional aspects of Buddhism, i.e., those religious forms which are determined by culture, which are wholly dependent on conceptual reality, and which have very little to do with absolute truth. I believe that we have not only an ability to shape these aspects as a new manifestation of Buddhism emerges in the West, but also an obligation. In a way that is both meaningful and true to our current emotional and intellectual evolution as a species, and true to the original intention – what the Buddha taught. Indeed, sila and dana are essential aspects of the practice. I think you also know that I am quite skeptical of a purely secular approach to these teachings, as is often found in the west.

      I also just want to add that in my experience, metta grows organically as wisdom develops through right practice and understanding both in formal and daily life practice. It is not something we must intentionally call up – it appears of its own accord. And what a welcome friend it is!

      As always, thank you for reading and for engaging in dialogue. I really appreciate your comments. With palms together ~ Katherine

      • ebe

         /  September 26, 2010

        Hi again,

        With respect to the anger or dispair, it crossed my mind after reading an answer to one of the comments; however, this is not important to the following.

        The Vissudhimagga is not an evidance for anything. It is, however, an example of a well known Buddhist book that emphassizes Sila. Following the point, to allow everyone that wants to follow the Buddhist way to do it, free of charge, I just pointed out that no charge is required at all. Just follow the path… The small amount of people that are ready for long retreats find their way anyway, and I’m totally with you. For them (and only for them)- scholarships are needed.

        Also, the Thai tradition is not an evidence for anything. Change the Thai to be Burmese, I do not care. My point is that the Dhamma teaching ability in the west is not in the same level as in Asia, and my humble evidence for that is the very very very small number of people from Asia that come all the way to practice Dhamma in the west. And I feel that this would be the case, even if the teaching in the west was for free. I do not say a thing about the level of teaching, I say only that the west does not provide the tone in teaching the Dhamma, while in the same time, having many opinions about how to change the tradition.

        With respect to the “another awakened being to appear”… I only tried to say that as far as I know, and sometimes I am wrong, but there is no very influencing teacher in the west, such that people from all over the world seek his presence. I did not mean to sit and wait to the next Buddha, I just said that we have a lot to learn before suggesting changes. BTW, the opinion of such teachers would have ben accepted much mor eeasily by the Asians Buddhists teachers.

        With respect to Metta- it depends on personality.

        Much Metta,


        • Thank you for the clarification – very helpful. I do stand by the assertion that there are cultural aspects of the institution that have nothing to do with the Dhamma itself, which can be modified, even if Buddhism in the West is still in its adolescence. Indeed there are no teachers in the West of the stature of the Dalai Lama (but how could there, since that’s such a unique role), but there are quite a few who are highly regarded and influential and I suspect that will grow over time as you say.

  9. Thank you for the interesting and very important discussion. Also for taking on an issue of vital importance for the times we are traversing in American Buddhism. If there is any doubt to the instability of the present Buddhist institutions please refer to this article…
    We were all children and receivers of Dharma for the past 100 years, especially the last 50 years that arrived from the “east”. In my opinion they are old wine skins. We have grown up now, and have our own ideas about how to practice and what American Buddhism can be about. We have new wine to pour out and those old wine skins will burst. We need new wine skins. New approaches to our practice. We do not have the need any more of following the customs that immigrated from the east. It is now becoming an issue and in many cases a problem to continue bowing to the antiquated authority. It is my opinion that priests and teachers of Buddhism step down, and be renamed “spiritual friends”. If they act differently than that, then walk away from them. I know this sounds a bit radical, but it has got to happen sooner or latter, and it might as well be sooner because our country needs to get on with some very important business, besides wondering if we are “doing it right”. :)
    Equality is an illusion, but exploitation is not. The latter can be addressed and changed. For everything is change. Let the easterners learn from us what Buddhism is to Americans, not what sheepish following of antiquated institutions propose on us to do to be spiritually alive. This is a hot topic, and i do not want my words to be taken as an edict. I see this change occurring over many years, maybe 30-40 years. But we can start now….we know enough, and we can lead ourselves.

    • Chana, thanks for visiting and for your thoughtful comment. Your proposal is radical indeed! I’m interested to see that you live in community and that it offers a residential alternative for people who want to practice in the US… Thank you also for the James Ford article.

  10. Andre

     /  September 27, 2010

    What a wonderful post, on a wonderful site that I have just discovered.

    I will make this site a part of my morning practice :)

    May the dharma settle in the West – soon.

  11. With warm greetings,

    A friend shared your post with me today, and i appreciate it.

    You wrote: “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.”

    I wanted to follow up with this. What do you mean here about “the segregation of these communities”? I am delighted to see the increase in incredibly exponential increase in women monastic teachers in the Theravada tradition here in USA, and in Asia, since you wrote this post, and i am delighted that our re-emerging bhikkhuni sangria is a multi-ethnic one, that is largely able to transcend sectarian, racial and class divisions :-).

    Please explain.

    With kind care,
    Ayya Tathaaloka

    • Dear Ayya,

      Thank you for taking the time to read this post and to comment here. Unfortunately, I cannot respond to your question in a way that would accurately describe what I was thinking nearly four years ago when I wrote those words. I am not the same person I was then, by any stretch of the imagination! These days, I would not likely attempt to talk in this way about something I had virtually no direct experience with.

      From where I stand now–which is far less involved in the Buddhist community than previously (I’m now in seminary and working in hospital chaplaincy, two Christian-dominated, multireligious environments)–I do have concern that gender oppression is still operating as long as we think in binary and heteronormative terms, which from my perspective is the main impetus behind gender segregated monastic communities. Of course, power dynamics and ongoing marginalization are what require “safe space” for women and other marginalized folks, and for them not to be conditioned so as “not to wake up” and instead that they may flourish. This is of course the logic behind all-women’s colleges, where there are very few if any all-men’s colleges still in existence. And yet, I worry … that the mainstream practitioner community still won’t be impacted by the wisdom and incredible contributions of teachers such as yourself, as long as these communities are separate.

      I feel much mudita for the growth and strength of the bhikkhuni sangha and much gratitude to you for your pioneering efforts in that regard. I hope you know and feel my high regard and that these sentiments far outshine any skepticism I still hold.



      • Dear Katherine,

        How nice to see your reply, and i hope your work with chaplaincy (in my opinion a highly noble profession) is well and fruitful for you.

        We are not “cloistered”, so we have quite a lot of contact with lay friends and interest lay people, as well as with our local bhikkhus’ communities. Sometimes i feel the need for *more* seclusion! :-). But i don’t feel this need to be gendered; i recognize it in a good number of my bhikkhu brothers as well.

        I personally have in past found staying with women’s monastic communities, dual communities (where a men’s and a women’s monastic community are directly associated), mixed-gender communities (like Shasta Abbey) and with men’s monastic communities all highly valuable at different times and stages of this monastic life. I appreciate that each offers a different opportunity for development and growth, and appreciate all of our many varieties of needs, and how they shift and change over time.

        Because of this, i am glad that in our renascent Theravadada bhikkhuni sangha, we now have quite a variety of possibilities open and opening: a women’s only community like our’s here, a women’s monastic community that is directly associated with a men’s monastic community like Dhammasara and it’s relationship to Bodhinyana in Western Australia, and the new dual sangha monastery plans that the Buddhist Society of Victoria is going ahead with.

        Last, i think about some of the gender-free heavenly realms and pure lands that appear here and there in Buddhist discourses as blissful. In some ways, some aspects of some monastic communities seem to aim for this; that is, making or living such a pure land or heaven here on earth. But, I wonder if difference of form and difference of perceptions isn’t just a part of a basic stress in each of our unique embodiments and perspectives. To come to a place where this is simply nature, and not a cause for stress, but to be at ease with this all, seems like a good way to be to me. So, i work to relax and open to this ease and purity of heart.

        Vesaka full moon greetings,
        glad for the goodness of this way,
        may i wish you and both of us,
        all of us,
        well in all things,

        Ayya Tathaaloka, with mettaa

        • Thank you for your thoughtful response. Yes, it is important to have different kinds of communities for different people and different moments in one’s life, a sentiment I wrote about in the original post and needed to be reminded of! Glad to hear you have much engagement with the lay community, though sorry it’s sometimes too much. Grateful for your practice and teachings and for your having the opportunity to live as you do.

          With metta,


  1. What is the importance of long-term retreat practice? « on the precipice

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