Filed in Community

Letters to the Editor

On Monks, Models & Misnomers

I read your collection of articles on monasticism with interest [Winter 1995]. I am glad that a forum exists to discuss such aspects of Buddhism from a wide variety of perspectives; but the question of “monasticism,” in contrast to “lay” practice, created a polarization that could have been circumvented had the subject had been approached in terms of “ordination” in a wider sense. Stephen Batchelor touched on the existence of “the noncelibate yogic tradition of the Tibetan Nyingma School," but did not mention that it represented half the Nyingma School. This noncelibate tradition is called the ngakphang, or mantra-holding, sangha, and is the tantric equivalent to monastic ordination. Tantric ordination is often overlooked, because its adherents tend to be reclusive, itinerant, and live in small communities or family situations. The ethos of this tradition was not geared toward establishment of institutions, even though a few ngakphang dratsangs (colleges) existed, such as Repkong (currently represented by Tharchin Rinpoche in Santa Cruz). Although few people seem to be aware of the existence of the ngakphang sangha, its representatives are well-known. H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, for example, was a ngakphang Lama, but he is described in the interview with Sangharakshita as a “lay Tibetan master.” I feel we should be careful about the use of the term “lay” to describe nonmonastic practitioners. According to the Collins Dictionary, “lay” is defined as follows: “lay adj. 1. of, involving, or belonging to people who are not clergymen. 2. nonprofessional or nonspecialist; amateur.”

To use “lay” to mean “noncelibate” is inaccurate and leads to confusion when speaking of noncelibate religious orders. At a time in which political sensitivity advises care with language, we should pay attention to the inadvertent prejudice inherent in classifying noncelibate practitioners as “lay.” I have heard Western Buddhist teachers describe the ngakphang sangha as “halfway between monastic and lay,” and this is also a misapprehension. The ngakphang sangha is a stream of practice that is neither monastic, nor lay, nor inbetween. It is a tantric sangha whose members are ordained. In recognition of ordination, they wear the go kar changlo (Gos-dKar-IChang-lo), which is very similar to monastic costume. Within the wide latitude allowed in costume for both monastic and ngakphang orders, it has often appeared that lamas (such as H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche) dress like laypeople —especially because they wear their hair uncut. H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was a ngakphang lama but there is no indication in the interview with Konchog Tendzin that was not a monk. Other ngakphang lamas well-known in the West are H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, the late Gonpo Tsedan Rinpoche (head of a ngakphang dratsang in Amdo, Tibet), and the late Ngakchang Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche. H.H. Sakya Tridzin, the head of the Sakya School, is a ngakphang lama—and so is H.H. Mingling Trichen, one of the six Ma-gon heads of the Nyingma school. Stephen Batchelor points out that “we must be ready to learn from whatever historical alternative models already exist.” To this end serious work is already under way with regard to establishing an authentic traditional alternative to monasticism in the West. Established ngakphang sanghas exist in Britain and Austria, in which both men and women have been ordained. Maybe the discussion of ordination would be valuable with regard to broadening the perspective you have offered so far.

Dr. C. Togchen
South Glamorgan, Wales

As a bhikshuni myself I can understand Ms. Markowitz’s indignation vis-a-vis the nuns’ situation in Sri Lanka. Familiar with the situation in Thailand I must, however, stress that the lay Buddhists’ attitude toward nuns is of crucial importance. There is a good opportunity for nuns to ordain within the Chinese sangha—if they have the stomach for it. But if after that they wish to live the life of mendicant bhikshunis in the orthodox way, then what they need most is the day-in, day-out support of the laity.

As to Stuart Smithers’ article where he writes that the sedentary life of monks could have led to all the different schools: The Hindu sadhus are mendicant wanderers, yet I never witnessed a greater diversity in “schools of thought” as among these sadhus. Could it be that the germ for all these different schools is rather in the practitioners’ minds? And isn’t it so that there are 84,000 dharma doors?

Bhikshuni Ratana
Eede, Holland

The editorial of the splendid Winter 1995 issue was most provocative; however, casting aside the metaphor and, instead, taking it literally, why not indeed wear a robe or similar symbolic garment, or at least an emblem accessory? Having been an Army captain and a white-coat-clad medical researcher, I learned early that uniforms do evoke certain assumptions, behavior, and responsibilities in oneself and others. Lay students of many schools of Zen in America dress in robes during formal practice and sometimes in monk-styled clothing in other circumstances. When business attire is required, the sporting of a modest dharma-wheel pin on the lapel will serve the same purpose. Therefore, taking your example, if you—a Buddhist visually representing Buddhism—were to wait in a long queue with a pleasant smile, you could calm your neighbors. . . and yourself. (A smile alone may be sufficient.) Of course, if symbolic garb can be a powerful tool, then it can also serve as a crutch or shield.

The point that monks, ideological hippies, and poets are social and self-directed outsiders is right on the mark. They are the jokers in a pack of cards. All outsiders, including eccentrics, spunky senior citizens, and young children, have a great degree of social immunity and freedom, if society permits it. The early native Buddhists of China, Korea, Japan, and now the Americas, Europe, and Africa were and are outsiders: malcontents, nonconformists, and adventurers. The same can be said for those accepting any other nonindigenous religion or social alternative. ’Tis how history is made. All the bashing and handwringing found in Tricycle merely echoes what has occurred elsewhere in the history of Buddhism. It is interesting to follow its unique development here and not to anchor oneself to any particular position.

Debra Jan Bibel, Ph.D.
Oakland, California

Your section on monasticism contained an interesting range of ideas. However, your contributors —with the exception of Sangharakshita —seem constrained by a dualistic view of monastics and laity. Many of the qualities they describe as aspects of the monastic life are qualities of any lifestyle in which commitment to the Three Jewels is central, i.e., in which one goes for refuge.

Pema Chodron paints a vivid picture of life in a monastic community, unable to hide from habitual tendencies, complaining into a “house of mirrors”—experiences that I recognize from living in a nonmonastic community of Buddhist women with various ethical livelihoods. Chodron well describes Buddhist commitment —“you put the desire to wake up in the center of your mandala and everything else stands in relation to that”—but this can be done without becoming a monk or nun. The monastics’ role in ensuring the survival of the dharma was a mixed blessing in India though, as Batchelor points out, the dharma needs to be embodied in a distinctive sangha. Commitment as described above—effective going for refuge, in Sangharakshita’s terms—provides an alternative criterion by which the sangha can retain its identity without being limited to monasticism. Markowitz describes monasticism as a “minimalist lifestyle.” Rather than contrasting this with lay life they can be seen as on a continuum—any serious dharma practitioner is going to lead a simpler lifestyle than the average Westerner, and within this some may choose to move closer to a “monastic” way of life.

The dangers in eschewing traditional monasticism are that we follow an ambiguous hybrid path, as cautioned against by Loori (though his “stable monogamous” monastics sound rather hybrid to me), or that we don’t go beyond “practice in daily life”—as in the weekend seminars mentioned by Roether—which can easily tip into “daily life with a minimum of practice.” These dangers are avoided, and the benefits of the monastic lifestyle are still available, if we think in terms of transcending the monastic/lay divide altogether and see the Buddhist life in terms of increasing commitment to the Three Jewels, with an ethical code that is relevant to all. This may take us far away from ordinary life of full-time conventional jobs, nuclear families, and so on—but it is commitment that takes us there, not monasticism.

Dharmacarini Dharmacandra
London, England

Yanayanayana . . .

I noticed in your Winter 1995 issue that it’s now politically correct to refer to the two major schools of Buddhism as Southern and Northern schools [“From the Academy: The H Word,” by Donald Lopez]. This actually avoids a lot of meaningless hard feelings. However, within the context of motivation for Buddhist endeavor, I think that the terms Hinayana and Mahayana hold relevance and importance in that they refer to two levels of motivation: wishing for one’s own liberation as compared to wishing for the liberation of all beings as the basis for one’s spiritual striving. As long as these terms aren’t misapplied by labeling whole schools of Buddhism, I think they seem useful.

I also noticed some consternation expressed at Buddhists’ believing in God (Dharmachari Manjuvajra’s letter and Jeffrey McIntyre’s objections to Ken Wilber talking of a “World Soul”). I’ve yet to find a consensus among Christians as to just what they mean by “God” and I’ve yet to find consensus among Buddhists as to just what they mean by “Buddha.” So why beat each other over the head about labels applied to the unknown? After all, it is very valid within Buddhism to speak of Buddha’s omniscient compassion. What do you want to label that?

Thubten Sherab
Fairfax, Virginia

As evidenced by Mr. Lopez’s article, the karmic effects of Mahayana’s self-definition are still with us. The problem, then, is not the H-word but the M-word. Perhaps contemporary Mahayanists can redress the problem by changing their name, while still retaining all the distinctive features of the Mahayana path. Perhaps they should call themselves “Hinayana Plus.”

Dana Garrett

Three Sides of the Coin

Once I would have agreed with Dharmachari Manjuvajra’s criticism [“Letters,” Winter 1995] of Aitken Roshi and Jack Kornfield’s statement referring to animals as “Creations of God” [“In the News,” Fall 1995]. I too insisted that the line between theistic and nontheistic worldviews should be clearly drawn, with Buddhism on the nontheistic side.

Since then, I’ve discovered the teachings of the Kyoto School of Philosophy (specifically, Nishida, Nishitani, and Abe) attributing a personal quality to shunyata; and also the negative theologies of contemporary theologian, Jean-Luc Marion (“God Without Being”), the medieval mystics Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, and the ancient writings of Pseudo-Dionysus, all holding the reality of God to transcend the duality of being and nothingness. Are “shunyata” and “God” two sides of one coin? Might theism and atheism be another false distinction in the realm of duality? Allen Ginsberg wrote an excellent poem (on the occasion of Bob Dylan’s conversion) titled “Lay Down God.” It was good advice, but only if one also lays down attachment to atheism.

Dan Edwards
Macon, Georgia

Karmic Virtue

I am a music therapist at Patton State Hospital for the criminally insane and work with individuals evaluated by the court to be incompetent to stand trial. These clients are labeled as schizophrenic or bipolar, and 90 percent have incurred some level of brain damage due to drug and alcohol abuse. Much of the therapeutic programming is geared toward stabilizing the men on medications and providing opportunity to learn court-related material and decorum.

Zen Karmics is an arrow to the heart of the matter (most patients’ attention span is no longer than 3-5 minutes). Focused breathing and guided relaxation have been a staple item in our music therapy sessions and it is good to give the men something they can hold on to and use to image on their own.

Lisa Rimland, RMT-BC
Patton State Hospital
Patton, California

The End Result

I have enjoyed your Fourth Anniversary issue [Fall 1995], as I do all the issues. I just wanted to add another suggestion to the “alternatives to the full lotus” aspect of the posture article. I have found a “Balens” chair, or a “Norwegian back chair,” to be a very satisfactory alternative to the positions that I cannot now, and never could, assume. The end result is rather like sitting on a seiza bench.

Julia M. Corbett
Parker City, Indiana

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