The Urban Dharma Newsletter... July 16, 2002


In This Issue:

1. One Nation under all Religions
2. Religious Traditions at Crossroads in America
3. Book Review- The New Buddhism
4. Temple/Center of the Week: Metta Forest Monastery
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 "under God."

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 clarks@dfwcn.com.

2. Religious traditions at Crossroads in America

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 in exile?"

"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 and mysterious."

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 life."

Consider one item sold in many spiritual bookstores. Consumers can now buy rocks with this inscription: "What Would Buddha Do?"

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 content.

"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 strange land?

"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 James Coleman

* http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0195152417/wwwkusalaorg-20/

Amazon.com review:

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

* http://www.here-and-now.org/watmetta.html

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 Elliot Cohen

The Middle Way (volume 76:4 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 article.

Should you open the Buddhist Society’s 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 today’s 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 for this.

More often than not, these little books are used instead to distort and abuse Buddhism and the Dhamma so that it fits into one’s 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.
* It’s 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 Mahayana’s Bodhisattva Vow the line:

The gates of Dharma are without number, I vow to enter them all.

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 group’s 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 group’s 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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