May 26, 2010

What will it take to establish a truly Western Dharma?

In Tricycle’s most recent issue there is a piece titled “It Takes a Saint.” In this piece, Tai Situpa Rinpoche shares his beliefs on what it will take for Buddhism to become truly established in the West.  He writes,

"I’ll make it simple: One Western person must attain full enlightenment in the same way as Marpa, Milarepa, or Padmasambhava. If one Westerner—man or woman, doesn’t matter—attains that level of realization, then pure dharma will be established in Western culture, Western language, and environment, and so forth. Until that time, dharma can be taught in the West, which is already happening; it can be practiced in the West, which is already happening; and it can be recited in Western languages. But it’s not yet one hundred percent complete."

Read the whole piece here.

For me, it was love at first sight with this article.  I remember reading it for the first time and holding back the urge to cheer while reading certain passages (particularly when Tai Situpa speaks of what would happen if such a Mahasiddha rose above New York City while singing the perfect dharma song for New Yorkers). Yet before long I realized that what was striking me so deeply was not necessarily what he was saying, but where the piece was taking me in my mind—to a West where the Dharma was utterly thriving.  THAT is what had me on the verge of joyful cheers.   Once I noticed this, I began to question his main point and I realized that while I don't necessarily disagree, I don't necessarily agree either.  I'm not sure what the answer to the question is.  I began to bring this topic up with others to see what they had to say.

I asked a good friend of mine, another second generation Western Buddhist, and she stated that the Dharma IS established in the West, it's just young.  She used an analogy of Western Dharma being like a two foot tall baby tree and explained that just because it's ancestors are massive magnificent old-growth trees it doesn't make it any less of a tree.  I like this analogy.

I also brought this question up while talking to the scholar Jeff Watt, the director of Himalayan Art Resources (and my old boss!) and his response was very different than that of Tai Situpa Rinpoche.  When I first began working for Jeff many years ago, he was very quick to educate me about the traditional meaning of the word "sangha" (as in the third jewel of Buddhism in which we take refuge).  In the tradition I grew up in "sangha" refers somewhat generally to the "community of practitioners" but Jeff explained to me that sangha actually means "community of monastics."  He stated that what is lacking in the West is a strong and dedicated monastic community.  Unlike Tai Situpa's assertion that Western Dharma can become truly established by the attainment of just one Mahasiddha, Watt believes that the monastic commitment of many is what will strengthen and fortify Western Dharma.  The analogy that came out of this conversation is that a dedicated monastic tradition is like an great engine, a tried and true reliable machine, that steadily produces realized practitioners and great teachers.  I think this is a very important point, and the occasional cynic in me can only help but notice that in a culture where what Chogyam Trungpa would call "Spritual Materialism" is so prevalent, there are far more people whose involvement with Buddhism is more like a part-time self-help hobby than there are people that would ever make the serious committment of taking monk's vows.

Please share your own thoughts on this important subject!

Image: Photograph by Felicia Megginson

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Bob Wallace's picture

So far...and it will change...Ego and commercialism best descibes the emergence of the dharma in North America.

Carol Horton's picture

I'm a yoga practitioner who loves reading contemporary Buddhist works and does some sitting meditation in addition to a much bigger asana practice - a follower of Western Buddhism, I suppose, in a very very loose sense. So certainly rather an outsider to this community. But I have to say that I find it a blessing that Buddhism is adapting to my society and culture. I find it a great source of both spiritual inspiration and just practical help in my life. If it stayed in some "pure" Asian form (of which, I agree, there actually is no such thing, but certainly there are many ancient and important teachings rooted in cultures very different from my own), it wouldn't be accessible to me. Alleviating suffering requires being culturally accessible, which in turn requires adapting to the culture(s) that we live in.

nathan's picture

I think whether established or not, just keep practicing. The whole debate seems like a sloppy philosophy exercise. The terms aren't clear (i.e. "Western"), nor is the benefit of an answer clear.

My full response is here:

Mike's picture

Tai Situpa speaks for himself and represents the typical beliefs of his particular tradition. He cannot possibly speak with any authority about 'Western Buddhism' (whatever that might be) and what will mark its full establishment. He is entitled to his opinion like anyone else, of course, but it is no more than his own culturally determened view.

As Buddhism travelled across Asia it took root in different countries and assumed a different flavour in each, according to the local cultural influences it absorbed. It is doing the same in the West right now.

We can look at Buddhism as some kind of immutable, revealed religion if we wish. Then perhaps it might make sense to talk in terms of the west needing to produce a certain kind of hero figure who embodies this ideal. The trouble is that different traditions do not share a common view of what such an enlightened being might be like. Tai Situpa's magical Buddha is very different from the 'ideal' figure found in other traditions.

The famous Buddhist hero figures all have the advantage of being long dead. We can gloss them as much as we like, give them all sorts of magical powers and nobody can subject these claims to scrutiny. If we are waiting for one of these fantastical beings to appear before us in the West I think we may be in for a long wait.

Perhaps it would be more helpful to ask what our Buddhism is really for. If it is all about producing impossible heroes like those spoken of in the Tibetan tradition, who only exist in the imaginations of the faithful, then frankly it is of no conceivable use to ordinary people whose striving to assume super-human status will always be frustrated.

Bob Wallace's picture

The teachings of Siddartha will continue to be revised and presented in different cultures just like any spiritual quest. As I continue along my path of the original dharma and my practices of dream yoga and veganism I look forward to the future with hope.

Bill's picture

Tai Situpa Rinpoche's article is very good. I agree with him that Buddhism has nothing to learn from science or from anything. He says:

If you get enlightened and appear in the sky above the entire city of New York, and you manifest all the Buddha qualities while singing the most perfect dharma song, which is the most appropriate song for New Yorkers, all of them will have some realization.

This may be a valid appearance in some traditions, but in Je Tsongkhapa's tradition the display of miracle powers was forbidden. An enlightened being in this tradition would never even admit to being enlightened, but I believe by their actions of spreading wisdom they will show their enlightened qualities.

Bill's picture

A truly Western Dharma is already here. The New Kadampa Tradition is a Western Buddhist tradition. The teachings are available in all major world languages and are suitable for busy people. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the Founder of the tradition explains how to enter the Buddhist path, how to make progress on it, and how to complete it comfortably, even with a busy lifestyle. Unlike some Asian traditions, all the teachings are given to anyone who wants them - lay or ordained, male or female. Also unlike some Asian traditions, there is complete equality between men and women, with many eminent women Teachers.

The meaning of the Dharma is unchanged from that practised by Tilopa, Naropa and the other Mahasiddhas but the presentation suits Westerners.

Cris Holanda's picture

I live in Brasil and considered myself a western exactly as other people here who don't considered themselves westerners. So long as we are westerners, we like to ask: What do you mean by this? Am I'm right or wrong? Is this black or white? But still we don't like to be called westerners.

When I read this text for the first time, my eyes stopped at the quotation reproduced here from Situpa Rinpoche. This feeling about buddhist tradition (mainly american) is extremaly pertinent. Maybe not american but academic, individualist and selfish buddhism. To follow the Buddha path requires a strong commitment. Do we have commitment or prefer to be solitary buddhists who don't believe in sanghas and coletive actions anymore?

Every morning I recite Shoshinge, an old shin buddhist chant which makes me feel connecting with many and many buddhas and bodhisatvas over the centuries. I don' t imagine this chant beeing translated in portuguese. I'm grateful for my masters. But I don't feel they are buddhas. They are unenlightenment people as I am I. So I still need the japanese buddhist to balance this lack.

In gassho

Judi's picture

I'm not a scholar, and I don't call myself anything in particular but Buddhism is to me the closest approximation of a good Way. I am a Western person. But the understanding I value can't be called Eastern or Western. And the knowing I value is present in diverse ways. Is the goal to build a new form--the small tree, or is it to see through the various forms into the beautiful consciousness in each? Is meditation/energy awareness in need or more form? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is an act of creativity, of life continuing to evolve and flux.

I do see this awareness growing clearer in the world in surprising places.

Gurudas's picture

@Scott - And this is why a doctorate degree from BCA is totally meaningless. Why do you ramble on with this self serving political ideology when it has nothing to do with the authors post? It reeks of smugness and holier than thou attitude. You don't care about the dharma spreading in the West, you only care of its political implications to your Marxist ideology.

scott's picture

What do you mean by "Western"? What do you mean by "the West"? Do you mean the United States? North America? Any culture that happens to have been impacted by Western culture? Australia? What about modern Japan which often looks more like the West than some idealized, mythical and mystical "Orient"? Or do you just mean New York? If a Mahasiddha did rise above New York singing the Dharma for New Yorkers, would anyone in Australia hear it? Or care? So would that mean that Buddhism was firmly established in "the West" or just in New York?

And for that matter what do you mean by Buddhism? As your two friends responses amply demonstrate, different Buddhist schools have different ideas about what "sangha" means. I can think of a dozen institutions in the United States that are, to paraphrase, steadily producing great teachers. But most of those aren't monastics. But does our definition of a firmly established Buddhism require fully ordained, celibate monastics? For some, clearly yes. For others, not so much.

It seems to me that we should not be asking if "Buddhism" is firmly rooted in "the West"; we should be asking if particular branches of the Buddhist tree have taken firm root in particular locations across the globe. That way, you'll actually get an answer.

Jeff's picture

Even Devadatta the cousin of Shakyamuni Buddha, in regular company with the Buddha, could neither see nor understand the greatness. If you don't have the karma to see enlightened beings then you won't see enlightened beings.

Max's picture

This is a great mystery that will only unfold with time as our tree grows. Every tree is a little different too, even if they are of the same family. But a tree is a tree; and what a magical thing a tree is. Thank you. Love that picture!

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