The Urban Dharma Newsletter... July 16,
In This Issue:
1. One Nation under all Religions
2. Religious Traditions at Crossroads
3. Book Review- The New Buddhism
4. Temple/Center of the Week: Metta
5. The Quiet Crisis Within Western Buddhism.
1. One Nation Under All Religions
By K. SHELBY CLARK , Copy Editor, Plano Star Courier, 07/07/2002
* Imagine if the Pledge of Allegiance read, "One nation
under conservatism, indivisible for liberty and justice for
all." Those who subscribe to conservative ideology would
lend praise for this Pledge, but the statement simply would
not be accurate.
We are not one nation comprised of conservatives, and we are
most certainly not one nation under God, nor were we ever.
Not all Americans recognize God as their spiritual guidance,
so why should school children proclaim this falsity every morning
in church-separated public schools.
The Supreme Court, in its stand for the unconstitutionality
of the Pledge, should reconsider the total elimination of this
oath from the schools, but rather should only remove the phrase
The Pledge would read, "One nation indivisible...,"
which during a time of such national solidarity, is a more accurate
description of the United States now than ever before.
Conservatives argue that "under God" somehow describes
the historical foundation of the nation. However, it is merely
a reminder of dark periods in American history when the xenophobia
of McCarthyism ran rampant, and some felt the only way to defend
ourselves against these notions of difference and diversity
was to proclaim ourselves "under God."
Our nation was founded on the principles of diversity, not uniformity.
The fact is that our diverse nation embraces many religions,
and many different spiritual leaders. If some percent of our
U.S. population practices Buddhism, why should our Pledge of
Allegiance say we are one nation under God and not Buddha.
Instead of alienating more than 2 million Americans who do not
recognize God as their spiritual guide, the United States should
look to the past - remember there were other dark periods in
time when African-Americans and women were not recognized as
right-bearing citizens. Let's not make the same mistake again
and alienate yet another group of American citizens who may
be the minority, but do not deserve to be treated menially.
It's not God that binds this nation together, but it is each
and every citizen, regardless of religious belief, that unites
the United States of America.
K. Shelby Clark is the copy editor for the Plano Star Courier.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Religious traditions at Crossroads
Bradenton Herald... Scripps Howard News Service, July 6, 2002,
* It was a logical question for the Dalai Lama to ask his Jewish
visitors, yet it caught them completely off guard.
Poet Rodger Kamenetz has pondered his question for a decade:
"Can you tell me the secret of Jewish spiritual survival
"Notice that the Dalai Lama asked about spiritual survival,
not cultural survival," said Kamenetz, author of "The
Jew in the Lotus," a classic travelogue of uncharted terrain
between two spiritual traditions. "What he was really asking
was, 'How do you survive spiritually until you can return to
your homeland?' "
The exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader assumed that Jews had learned
valuable lessons about survival during centuries of life in
foreign, often hostile, cultures and lands. But he also assumed
that this ability to survive was linked to the practice of the
rites and prayers of the Jewish faith.
This is a haunting question for Jews in an age when so few actively
practice their faith, Kamenetz said during a prayer seminar
for the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews. But this
question about spiritual survival should haunt all devout believers
in an age in which ancient faiths seem to be under attack -
by forces both obvious and subtle.
It's easy to focus on threats such as persecution, terrorism
and war. While these forces are real, Kamenetz warned that ancient
religious traditions are also being buried in commercialism
and entertainment. Faith has become a "consumer good."
For millions, a religious tradition is now a product that they
purchase, not a way of life that they practice.
In his opinion, the worship, prayer and ethical traditions at
the heart of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam should
be added to a spiritual "endangered species" list.
Take Buddhism, for example, which appears to be flourishing
and winning converts in media-soaked America. Simply stated,
Buddhism is being bought and sold. And Kamenetz is not the only
scholar who is worried about the rise of a consumer-friendly
Buddhism in the spirituality marketplace.
Indeed, some forms of exile are subtler than others.
"All of the world's great religions provide profound challenges
to the unexamined life," said Stephen Prothero of Boston
University, at Salon.com. "At their best, they offer devastating
diagnoses of human sickness and radical remedies for it. They
demand crazy things - that we love our enemies, that we deny
ourselves. At their best, religions are difficult, confusing
Meanwhile, the fad that many call Baby Boomer Buddhism is "all
too often shallow and small," he said. "It soothes
rather than upsets, smoothing out the palpable friction between
Buddhist practice and the banalities of contemporary American
Consider one item sold in many spiritual bookstores. Consumers
can now buy rocks with this inscription: "What Would Buddha
There are other seekers - including growing numbers of JUBUs,
or Jewish Buddhists - who find Buddhism attractive because they
see it as a form of spirituality without dogmas, creeds, beliefs,
commandments and rituals that resemble anything they were required
to learn as children. They simply ignore what traditional Buddhist
leaders such as the Dalai Lama have to say about hot-button
moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality or sexual abstinence.
"Let's face it," Kamenetz said, "one of the reasons
Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast,
is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts
and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live
your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical
"You are left with a religion that makes very few demands
of you. Is that Buddhism?"
Interfaith dialogues between Jews, Christians and Buddhists
are sure to increase, as more Buddhists blend into the American
mainstream. The number of Americans converting to Buddhism also
will continue to rise.
Will the new Buddhists compromise and assimilate? Will they
be able to spiritually survive while "exiled" in this
"It may take 300 years for a true Buddhism to come to America,"
Kamenetz said. "In the meantime, you're going to continue
to see all of these hybrid forms. People are taking pieces of
this faith and combining it with pieces of that faith.
"This is all so, so American."
2. The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation
of an Ancient Tradition, by
The book gives a brief history of Buddhism in the United States
beginning in the late Nineteenth Century. Some of this ground
was covered in Rick Fields's book "How the Swans Came to
the Lake." This is followed by one of the clearest brief
summaries I have read of the history of Asian Buddhism and of
the multiplicity of schools and traditions that confront the
American beginning a study of Buddhism.
The book then proceeds to discuss practice and beliefs at several
prominent sanghas in the United States representing each of
the Zen, Tibetan and Vipassana traditions. Coleman obviously
understands his material from the inside, as well as from academic
research, and he conveys it well.
There is a great deal in the book on the difficulties that Western
Buddhism has encountered, many of which are of its own making
in the establishment of a new religious approach in the United
States. He describes the conflicts and scandals involving sex
and power that plagued much of the American Buddhist community
in the 1980s. He offers his views on the source of these embarrassments
as well as opinions on how they may be avoided as Buddhism may
continue to develop in our country.
3. Metta Forest Monastery
Located in an avocado orchard on a hill surrounded by the mountains
and chaparral of northern San Diego county, Metta Forest Monastery
offers the opportunity for lay people to come and stay for individual
retreats of long or short duration. It also offers the opportunity
for men to ordain in the Theravada lineage and train in the
practices of the Thai Forest Tradition.
Metta was founded in 1990 by Phra Ajaan Suwat Suvaco, a student
of Phra Ajaan Munn Bhuridatto. The current abbot --Thanissaro
Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) -- grew up in rural New York and
Virginia, and was later ordained as a monk in Thailand in 1976.
The Thai Forest Tradition was founded in the late 19th century
by Phra Ajaan Sao Kantasilo and Phra Ajaan Munn Bhuridatto.
This tradition is known for its strict adherence to the Vinaya
(the monastic discipline), its ascetic life style, and its strong
emphasis on full-time meditation practice.
5. The Quiet Crisis Within Western Buddhism, by
p. 233) February 2002
* For the past three years I have been keeping abreast of popular
Buddhism by way of Buddhist sites and chat rooms on the Internet
and, for two years, in my capacity, as the joint chair of the
Manchester Metropolitan University and Manchester University
Buddhist Society. The groups and individuals I have encountered
on the Internet and on campus have prompted me to write this
Should you open the Buddhist Societys Directory (2000/2001)
you will find under the foreword an Important Notice
and the contact number for the Cult Information Society. The
notice begins thus:
The fact that a teacher, group or centre is included in this
Directory does not imply endorsement by the Buddhist Society.
This declaration and the accompanying contact number are a rather
recent addition to the directory and are (I believe) indicative
of a quiet crisis within Buddhism in the West.
This quiet crisis is the increasing popularity of Buddhist
groups with strong sectarian and/or authoritarian undercurrents.
The reason the crisis is being kept quiet is due (somewhat ironically)
to the non-sectarian, non-authoritarian stance of mainstream
Buddhist schools (from Theravada to Vajrayana). The tone of
the warning would seem to suggest that common sense
should be enough to guide the interested party. However, as
I hope to demonstrate, this assumption is quite naive and potentially
harmful. This is due, firstly, to the lack of genuine understanding
of what Buddhism/Dhamma actually is and, secondly, to the almost
missionary-type zeal which many of the more sectarian/authoritarian
groups possess. It may be noted that ignorance of Buddhism contributes
greatly to the success of these groups.
It is necessary to differentiate between popular Buddhism
and Buddhism. In my three years of research I have (somewhat
sadly) encountered far more popular Buddhism than authentic
Dhamma/ Dharma. Popular Buddhism draws most of its sustenance
from mass media representations: men dressed as Buddhist monks
trying to sell us dog food, tranquil music or even a deodorant
named Zen, to name but a few examples. This is fortune
cookie Buddhism, in which the entire Dhamma/Dharma is
reduced to a few clever one-liners about peace, love and everything
being one. Although these are often wonderful sentiments
to hold, they are somewhat vacuous, a product of the New
Age, which, in attempting to embrace the whole world,
succeeds in holding absolutely nobody.
Some of the most popular books on Buddhism are not the suttas
from the Pali canon (Tipitaka) or the Mahayana sutras, which
are the actual teachings of the Buddha, but the DIY Buddhism
books, pocket-sized compendiums of intellectually ticklish but
(more often than not) utterly useless utterances. It is understandable
why they are so popular: they are small and accessible, perfect
for todays busy man or woman on the move. It may even
be argued that these introductory books are useful,
as they might serve to generate enough interest that the reader
will go on to read more accurate and detailed accounts about
Buddhism. I hope this is the case, but I have seen little evidence
More often than not, these little books are used instead to
distort and abuse Buddhism and the Dhamma so that it fits into
ones pre-existing world-view without ever radically challenging
it, as the real Dhamma would.
The above is a renewed celebration of form over substance, made
even more bitter because it purports to be spiritual in nature.
People will spout their Kung Fu-style quotes, wear
their Karma/power beads and hang up their prayer
flags without ever having to engage with the authentic Dhamma.
In this case, Buddhism is just another thing to have, another
fashion to wear and then cast aside when it is no longer in
season. Some might ague that this is symptomatic of being in
the post-modern age, in which we have traded identities for
designer labels and ideals for sound bites, and thus that it
is not the curse only of Buddhism.
On the number of occasions I have asked self-described
Buddhists to explain to me what the Dhamma means to them in
Internet Buddhist chat rooms (mainly on Yahoo and MSN), I have
received these most common answers:
* It is about finding your oneness with all things.
* It cannot be articulated.
* It is about finding God.
* Its about reincarnation.
* There are no rules to follow.
Some of these answers may contain the seeds of certain truths,
but they do not in any way encapsulate or accurately reflect
what the Dhamma/Dharma is. They are, I believe, a reflection
of woolly Buddhism. This woolly Buddhism is, more often than
not, practised and propagated by people who claim
to be adherents of Zen. To them Zen means that any actual
knowledge of the Dhamma would be mere intellectual baggage and
as such would only serve as an obstacle in achieving illumination.
This anti-scholastic/intellectual extreme that I have encountered
in many forms of popular Buddhism would seem to
view ignorance as one of the signposts on the road to enlightenment
instead of part of the heart of the problem. If this trend continues,
it may eventually become rare to encounter someone who knows
(or even believes it to be worthwhile finding out) about the
Four Noble Truths or the meaning of Dukkha, Anicca and Anatta.
It might be argued that these people are obviously not Buddhists,
but their great enthusiasm in teaching and imparting their dhamma
is not so easy to dismiss. They are serving as the new gurus
of the cybersangha a sobering thought when one considers
the millions of Internet users and the millions yet to discover
this new, exciting universe of ideas and mass communication.
Against this backdrop of popular Buddhism we encounter
the rise of sectarian and/or authoritarian Buddhist groups.
These groups seemingly exploit the ignorance of the popular
Buddhist. They too promote form over content. Buddhism becomes
the product they are trying to sell along with T-shirts and
essential oils. Often these groups will use language that is
saturated with pop-Psychological terms, and they will run their
meetings/sittings like group therapy sessions. Their gurus or
lamas will often be shameless self-publicists who promote sectarianism
in their movements.
It is important to remember when dealing with any form of sectarianism
in Buddhism that, quite simply, it should not be there. In fact
Buddhism might be more helpfully referred to as Buddhisms (including
the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana schools). Each of these
schools arose in a certain place, at a certain time and became
infused with the cultural flavour of that place and time. People
who are unaware of this often tend to try to become more Indian
or Tibetan in a misguided (but often very sincere)
attempt to become more Buddhist, not realizing that it is the
Dhamma that is paramount, not nationality. Again, this can be
seen as the apparent triumph of form over content.
Throughout his long and illustrious teaching career the Buddha
taught many individuals of different status (from beggars to
kings) and varying mental capacities. His teachings in the Pali
Canon reflect this: each is seemingly tailor-made
for the group or individual that he is addressing. With so many
different teachings for so many different individuals and their
various situations, how can it ever be appropriate to talk about
individuals having access to the one and only truth?
Perhaps in recognition of this we find in the Mahayanas
Bodhisattva Vow the line:
The gates of Dharma are without number, I vow to enter them
In the Dhamma/Dharma there is simply no room for entertaining
sectarian notions of this is the only path, all other
paths are false, yet I have encountered this attitude
on numerous occasions. Indeed, of all the unskilful acts that
one can commit as a Buddhist, the worst is thought to be causing
a rift in the Sangha, but many simply seem ignorant
of this fact.
The teachers who are responsible for these rifts
are rudely and wrongly riding on the long-established and excellent
non-authoritarian/non-sectarian reputation of Buddhism in order
to promote these very things. It is also interesting and important
to contrast the conduct of the teachers of these
pseudo-Buddhist schools with the conduct of teachers such as
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh or countless ajahns
and bhikkhus. The former tend to brag about their attainments
and actively seek praise, whereas the latter are exceedingly
humble about such matters and are seemingly unaffected by the
praise lavished upon them by others.
In this article I have consciously avoided mentioning the names
of any specific groups or teachers, for two reasons. Firstly,
many of the individuals who happen to involved with such authoritarian/sectarian
groups may themselves be very sincere practitioners, and so
it would not be fair to tar everyone with the same brush. Secondly
my objective here has been not to accuse or point fingers but
merely to increase general awareness on the part of the international
Buddhist community and to enhance the ability of the curious
individual/aspiring Buddhist to choose wisely. It is important
for people who are curious about Buddhism/Dhamma to know that
there are numerous excellent resources for discovering what
it is really all about. Here are three useful tips to give people
when searching for information about Buddhism/Dhamma:
* Before actually contacting a group, read up about Buddhism,
or search the web for information. The Buddhist Society has
an excellent reading list on its website. There are also other
excellent websites where one can learn about Buddhism.
* Always check for a groups lineage. There is often a
traceable link, whether Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana, from
the present-day teachers and teachings all the way back (2,500
years ago) to the Buddha himself. If the lineage is missing,
you may well find that the Dhamma/Dharma is missing too.
* Before you attend a group you might enter its name in a search
engine (e.g. www.google.com). This is not necessarily in order
to find some skeletons in the cupboard but because it is always
good to know as much about a groups history as possible
before attending a session.
Since completing this article and discussing its contents with
other Buddhists and academic peers, it has occurred to me that
I need to add one further note of caution. There is, in seeking
to define what is authentic Dhamma/Dharma, the inherent
danger of inadvertently creating yet another (and perhaps equally
sinister) sectarian strain of purism.
My main purpose in writing this article was to highlight the
worrying emergence of sectarian trends, specifically within
Western Buddhism. It is worth keeping in mind that certain sectarian
trends are also well established in some of the indigenous (Eastern)
schools of Buddhism.
We in the West are in the historically unique position of having
practically every school of Buddhism represented here, and our
Buddhist Basics must take account of this fact.
The Buddha taught Ehipassiko come and
see for yourselves. In this spirit I feel that it is important
that the picture people see is an accurate reflection of the
true richness and vast variety of Buddhisms in the West.
The Middle Way February 2002 p. 233 (volume 76:4)
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