Letters to the Editor Fall 2007

Transgender Bias

Pagan Kennedy’s account of Michael Dillon’s quest to become a Buddhist monk (“Man-Made Monk,” Summer 2007), and the bigotry he encountered, hits a tender spot in me. In 2005, having studied Buddhism for ten years, I cut off my hair and aborted my four-year-long transition from male to female to seek ordination as a Gelug monk. Careful research revealed, though, that as a “eunuch” I was ineligible to become even a novice monk.

My ensuing disenchantment with Buddhist monasticism propelled me to seek my own truth, and at long last I joyfully completed my transition to womanhood in the spring of 2006. My disillusionment with Tibetan Buddhism became complete last fall when an American laywoman with whom I studied traditonal Tibetan dance repeatedly put me down in front of the other women. Currently I sit zazen while writing my autobiography and deciding whether I’ll continue to study Buddhism or move on in search of a religion that isn’t steeped in sexism.

Joni Kay Rose
Rio Rancho, NM

© Neal Crosbie
The Cream and the Cake


I was delighted to read “Losing Our Religion,” the interview with Professor Robert Sharf in the Summer 2007 issue of Tricycle. I am a Burmese-born dharma teacher, and I’ve been teaching Theravada Buddhism and the practice of Vipassana in the U.S. for seventeen years. Sharf very succinctly described the “quick fix” technique of Vipassana that has been imported to the States while pointing out that what has been left behind is the sangha or community that holds the Buddhist heart and soul. When asked what I think of Theravada Buddhism in America, I often say, “Americans brought the cream but left the cake behind.”

I believe this was partly due to the Burmese political climate during the sixties when Westerners were studying and practicing there. At that time Westerners were given permission to stay in the country only if they stayed in meditation centers for a restricted period and for the specific purpose of meditation. Even now, when the issuance of tourist visas has eased up, it is still difficult for foreigners to live in a community with Burmese families and friends. I feel that without firsthand experience of what makes Buddhism tick in the lay community, it would be impossible to feel the essence of Buddhism and how it has profoundly affected the Burmese people for over sixteen hundred years.

For members of the Burmese community, going to retreats at the meditation center is only one part of their lives as Buddhists. The lay community is constantly exposed to the teachings through movies, novels, magazines, and plays as well as sermons by monks and tutoring by elder relatives. There are all kinds of courses available at monasteries and nunneries, courses run by lay teachers, where anyone can study the full range of
scriptural teachings.

I think if Westerners traveling to Burma in the sixties had had a chance to live among the local Burmese Buddhist community, a chance to learn the language and get to know the integral role of Buddhism in the lives of the laypeople, the story of the emergence of American Theravada Buddhism could have been different. Of course, that is only my personal opinion.

Dr. Thynn Thynn
Sae Taw Win II Dhamma Center
Sebastopol, CA


Nonconceptual Analysis

Professor Adam Frank draws many excellent parallels between science and Buddhism as forms of spiritual practice in his essay “In the Light of Truth” (Spring 2007). However, his main point is fundamentally misleading. Professor Frank writes, “When carried forward with right intention and an open heart, science is a kind of spiritual practice, no different in its aspirationaspiration from the work on the cushion. . . . Rather than compare the ‘results’ of science and religion, we would do better to compare the experiences, aspirations, and training of the most dedicated practitioners of each stream.” There is some truth in what he says, in that both disciplines demand an unflagging commitment to truth, but fundamentally there is a drastic difference between the aspirations and experiences of scientists and
those of spiritual practitioners.

When Professor Frank pursues theoretical astrophysics, no matter how abstract, sophisticated, or far-reaching, it is an objective, conceptual analysis of nature. Even if he took a few weeks off from astrophysics and developed a grand unified theory of all the forces in nature so that his graduate students could put the equations on their T-shirts, it would be a conceptual scheme whose objectification would be shown directly by its mathematical formulation. This is not the main aspiration of Buddhism in any of its flavors. In his book How to Practice, the Dalai Lama writes:

To apprehend the “mind vivid, without any constructions, just as it is” or to know the “luminous and knowing nature of the mind unaffected by thought” is an experience of identity between the knower and the known. Alternatively, the empirical subject, what we normally take ourselves to be, becomes so attenuated by the cessation of conceptual thinking that it no longer impedes a direct apprehension of the mind. Such knowledge is neither an objectification nor reification. Such a first-person experience is radically different from scientific knowledge, which must be fully objectifiable and quantifiable.

I love physics and astronomy and have dedicated my life to their research and teaching. However, if the Buddhist tempter Mara asked me to choose between a grand unification scheme and a nonconceptual appre-hension of emptiness, I would have no trouble deciding. Nor do I think would Professor Frank.

Victor Mansfield
Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Colgate University
Hamilton, NY


How Many Years?

Even the best of scholars slip up occasionally. The Spring 2007 interview with Professor Peter Masefield (“Found in Translation”) was a wonderful insight into the roots of Buddhist scripture and the Pali canon. But he certainly did not mean to say that the mid-nineteenth-century European scholars who discovered Theravada Buddhism came from a culture suffering “a growing disenchantment with religion following the Hundred Years’ War, which was largely fought over religion.” Well, the Hundred Years’ War that ended in 1453 had nothing whatever to do with religion—it was a dynastic catfight between England and France—and anyway, it was a very distant memory by Victorian times. I suppose Dr. Masefield might have been thinking of the Thirty Years’ War that ended in 1648, but by the same token it’s hard to see why that should still be casting a shadow more than two centuries later.

Otherwise, it was a fascinating interview with a true scholar.

Philip Jenkins
Professor of History and Religion
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA


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