Sunday, April 05, 2009

Whose Buddhism?

When I was 16, I discovered Buddhism in a book about world religions given to me by my high school friend Jim Gilbert. The religions of the East attracted me with their exotic otherness, so different from the Sunday School Christianity that formed my spiritual worldview. One dark night, along with other young hoodlums I snuck onto the grounds of Ananda Ashrama in La Crescenta because it was rumored that the inter-religious center was peopled by strange spirits; all we found were noisey dogs that ran us off. Later I returned to attend services there which included teaching from the Buddha. During an Easter week in Laguna Beach, I attended a meeting of Theosophists rather than the drunken party where my high school friends were headed. One of the founders of the Theosophical Society, Col. Henry Steel Olcott, helped create a renaissance in Buddhist studies and practice in Sri Lanka in the 1890s. I didn't know that then; an interest in Buddhism contributed to the outsider identity I cultivated as a teenager.

I learned more about Buddhism from books and articles by D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Baba Ram Dass and Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who helped me to see the ecumenical connections. The Beat Generation's embrace of Buddhism inspired me. When I lived on the east coast in the 1980s, I visited the New York Zen Center where I received a lesson in how to meditate while sitting and walking. At the Integral Yoga Center store in Manhattan I bought a zafu (cushion) and at home in Connecticut, with the help of a small meditation manual written by Ram Dass, I began to sit on my own. At first I used an egg timer and struggled with my thoughts to sit still for at least three minues. The method I used was to count my outbreaths, but it was years before I could make it to ten without becoming distracted and forgetting this seemingly simple task. Like most westerners, I assume that the core teaching of Buddhism concerned meditation.

Returning to the west coast in 1985, I stopped off in Boulder, Colorado, to visit friends who were involved with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's Naropa Institute (now University). I stayed with them for several days at a retreat center in southern Colorado and meditated in the hall full of fearsome Tibetan Buddha images. Settling back in Santa Cruz, I occassionally attended the Santa Cruz Zen Center which had been established in the 1970s as a spin-off from Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi's San Francisco Zen Center, ground zero for members of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. In addition to the Zen Center and a Shambala group inspired by Trungpa, the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains held at least four Buddhist centers, Taungpulu Kaba Aye Monastery, founded by Taungpulu Sayadaw from Burma, and two centers established by followers of Tibetan teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, Vajrapani and Land of Medicine Buddha. Lama Tarchin Rinpoche's Vajrayana Foundation was located up Eureka Canyon Road in nearby Watsonville. Watsonville also has a Buddhist Temple for the immigrant population which belongs to the Japanese Buddhist Churches of America organization. There are also a couple of local Plum Village groups that look to Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn for leadership, and headquarters of the Rigpa Foundation, founded by Soygal Rinpoche, author of best-selling The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The Theravada tradition was represented by Vipassana Santa Cruz, led by teacher Mary Orr who studied with Jack Kornfield, the best-known American spokesman for the southern branch of Asian Buddhism. A week before the devastating 1989 earthquake in Santa Cruz, I sat in the public auditorium together with several thousand residents to listen to the wisdom of the Dalai Lama (who stayed at Vajrapani during his visit to the area).

Carolyn Atkinson was one of the founders of the Santa Cruz Zen Center and she was also trained in vipassana. Seven years ago she started Everyday Dharma to integrate the two traditions. I participated for a number of years and enjoyed her teaching because it seemed to eschew technical and cultural terminology for everyday language about Buddhist teaching. In recent years, following the tragic drowning of her teacher, Kobin Chino Otogawa Roshi, Atkinson turned more toward a ritualistic zen practice which I found too constricting. Before leaving America for Thailand, I attended several retreats at Spirit Rock, the vipassana meditation center north of San Francisco built in the 1990s by Kornfield and other students of Buddhist teachers Ajahn Chah of Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma. In my western experience, Buddhism was more of a philosophy of mind than a religion.

None of this prepared me for the Buddhism I encountered in Thailand and have been struggling to understand ever since. Although I have been meditating (on and mostly off) for over twenty five years, and despite the hundreds of books I have read and the dozens of Buddhist retreats I have attended, I understand little of enculturated Buddhism in Asia, specifically what Buddhists do and think here in Thailand. This of course is a challenge. It's very easy to find information about general or generic Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, karma and rebirth, the teachings about impermanence and no-self, and, of course, details about the Buddha's accepted biography and the historical spread of his ideas after his death. I have learned considerably more about the threefold division of doctrine into the Theravada tradition in southeast Asia, Mahayana in northern Asia, and Vajrayana in Tibet. The Mahayana strain takes on very different aspects in China, Japan and Korea. And very little Buddhism as practiced by common people in any Asian country resembles the agnostic or secular Buddhism I knew in America.

Here in Thailand believers routinely pay respects to Hindu gods, trees, and spirit houses, in addition to Buddha images in the many temples. They wear amulets around their necks, featuring images of the Buddha as well as prominent monks, and string tied by monks on their wrists to provide protection from unseen forces. Special tattoos provide immunity from evil (and perhaps bullets). Visitors to temples may receive a blessing from the monks with chanting and sprinkled water, not unlike in the Catholic churches I used to frequent. Shrines are filled with yellow candles and sticks of incense, garlands of flowers are drapped around sacred images and small squares of gold leaf are applied by worshippers (not easy to do). Many temples include a tube of numbered sticks which is shaken until one falls out. Correlated with the number of that stick is a fortune in a nearby cabinet (not all good). Some shrines feature phallic images to encourage fertility. And stores sell yellow buckets full of prosaic gifts (soap, tooth paste, etc.) which are presented to monks (as well as food and/or money) on Wan Phra, Monk Day (there are four according to the phases of the moon each lunar month). Giving to monks is called tam bun, "making merit," and Thai Buddhists believe this contributes to a good rebirth. This, rather than enlightenment, is seen as the goal of Buddhist practice by most Thais. Meditation by lay people is relatively rare.

My curiosity piqued, for the past month, I have been researching the internet for useful information about differences between the practice of Buddhism in America and the west, and the popular piety of Buddhists in Thailand. It's a huge subject and it should keep me occupied for some time. I'm not sure if it's as entertaining as the normal sexual and political rant I attempt here, but it will keep my intellectual juices flowing (a sure cure for Alzheimer's, I hope) and it might perhaps further my understanding of the Buddha's teaching which I value. I began my research as a topic for a possible paper to be presented at a conference next month. My school, Mahachula Buddhist University, will host the international gathering at several sites near Bangkok and its themes include Buddhist approaches to the environment, the economy and political conflict. I'm not sure where my interests would fit, and I am concerned that the results of my studies do not in any way demean popular religiosity. I am well aware that for me religion is primarily a head trip. I am culturally incapable of entering the Thai world view. But I may learn to better appreciate it.

After years of studying and attempting to following the precepts of Christianity, I concluded that there was no such unitary entity. There are only a variety of christianities, all of which respect to some degree the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, and some of which even acknowledge him as The Christ, perhaps the incarnation of God. There are many variations of views. I think it is the same with Buddhism. The terms Buddhism and also Hinduism are in a way falsifications of what people actually do. Both were structured in response to western missionary activity and the speculations of Academic Orientalists. Soon after the Buddha's death, his followers fragmented into a variety of sects. When his teaching spread out of India it encountered and accomodated existing cultural practices. In Thailand an existing animism adopted the invader, along with a pantheon of gods from India. According to historian Peter A. Jackson,
Popular Thai religion is a combination of many influences, with animistic and Brahmanical beliefs blending with Buddhist doctrines. However, the existence of non-Buddhist spirit worship, magical rites and the honouring of Hindu deities has not traditionally been seen as conflicting with the canonical message of the religion. Rather, such features have been regarded as part of the overall heritage of Thai Buddhism.
Buddhism came west largely without its cultural context, although many converts paid respects to Japanese and, later, Tibetan cultural trappings. Most notably, the monastic community was left behind in Asia. It did not transplant easily. I was surprised to learn that monks are crucial to Thai Buddhism. It is they who constitute the Sangha, the third of the Triple Tems (after the Buddha and the Dhamma), and they provide the "field of merit" for lay people eager to obtain a better rebirth. That Asian Buddhism was somewhat truncated to appeal to western tastes I found curious. It reminded me of the eucalyptus tree that was imported from Australia in the 19th century to solve the timber famine in America caused by the obliteration of forests to build the new country. But the seeds were imported without the accompanying ecosystem. There were no insects to eat the leaf mulch and birds found the new smelly trees inhospitable. One writer has called the non-native invader "America's largest weed."

But I get ahead of myself. I have much material to digest before I can claim to identify the "true" Buddhism. I think there are probably only varieties of Buddhist belief, but such an ahistorical and agnostic stance will probably upset particular Buddhists. Subsequent blog posts will explore the many buddhisms around the world today, their differences and their significance.


Janet Brown said...

Please elaborate upon the"field of merit." My knowledge of Buddhist practice is scanty but I thought that actions that accrued merit were not limited to those that benefited monks and temples. Set me straight if you would.

Will Yaryan said...

In Thai Buddhism, you get points primarily from donating to monks, or even better,becoming one.