June 23, 2009

When a Western monk has had enough

Both here and on Dharma Folk, I’ve repeatedly railed against the marginalization and misrepresentation of Asian (American) Buddhists by self-styled “Western” Buddhists. For instances of Asians acting likewise towards non-Asian Buddhists, I hadn’t read a truly compelling story (sorry Al) until I read Bhante Noah Yuttadhammo’s post today. He describes a very similar loneliness and powerlessness.
Next on the list is the feeling of being much akin to a tropical bird in a gilded cage; all for show, living a life of interminable slavery to a group of well-meaning admirers. The abbot of Wat Thai summed this one up on the last day of the grueling three-month meditation course when, during the final ceremony and in front of a large crowd of people, he congratulated me by saying, “Phra Noah is a monk worthy of compliment. He is not even Thai, he is a foreign monk, and yet he was able to study and practice to the point that he can even speak Thai.” (Polly wanna rice cracker?) I have met nothing but resistance to any thought that I might ever be given a position of authority; the one time I was made head of a failing meditation center in Thailand, it almost cost me several bruises from a broomstick because, as was kindly pointed out to me, “this isn’t your home. Your father wasn’t born here. Why don’t you go back to your father’s home?” That piece of advice turned out to be terribly useful (the broomstick didn’t add much to his credibility, however), and that is what I came to seek out this time around in North America; a place where I can stand on my two feet and walk the Buddha’s path unhindered by monks who think “Thai way or the Highway.”

I certainly feel for Bhante Yuttadhammo (and sort of wonder what he has to say about Wat Metta and Abhayagiri monasteries). The takeaway message here shouldn’t be that each side is just as bad as the other. Rather, I’d like to think that we’re different groups of Buddhists who have yet to accept and respect that we’re all part of a common community. It’s a hard sell.

In the meantime, I hope he’ll find a good place to stay for the Rains Retreat.

5 comments :

  1. I don't know what drives Westerners to travel all over the world in a quest for an 'enlightenment experience'. Why don't they just stay home, rent or buy a small cabin in the woods, then equip it with Buddha's discourses and start to look within? This is what the Buddha wanted: that we should learn his discourse then go off into the wild and look within. Is it so hard for Westerners to read English translations of the Pali Nikayas or translations of the Mahayana canon that they have to go to Thailand or Japan to find the real meaning? What, is the air of Thailand more enlightened?

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  2. Ardie, we could stay at home but you can't self-train properly in Buddhism. It is a living tradition and you need to receive the tradition (and ordination if you choose that route) from a teacher. This training comes with requirements. Many Americans go to Asia because there are very few opportunities to be really trained and to then live within a Buddhist environment here in the West.

    As to reading the Pali Canon, that may be enough for a Theravadan Buddhist (I wouldn't know) but for the rest of us Mahayana practitioners, the Pali Canon is not the sum total of Buddhist teachings.

    The Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, andt he Sangha. The third requires a community (at least of sorts) and the first is generally embodied in one's teacher, who then gives the Dharma to you. This is a solitary path only later.

    I've personally found it very frustrating in previous years to receive training. There aren't many qualified teachers. This was one of the reasons that I left the Vajrayana community and became a Zen practitioner.

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  3. I can tell 'ya pretty hostile sentiments can be found among some Japanese-American temples too, speaking from experience. People are still upset and have bitter memories of Internment during WWII, and it caused such people to become insular and teach similar sentiments (this is our father's temple, etc, etc).

    Shame how few Buddhists, on both sides of the fence, really understand how short-sighted such things are.

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  4. That is true about many predominantly J-A temples. Many temples never recovered from the internment period. We should also remember that the hostility didn't end after WWII and the end of internment, there was still plenty of discrimination and racism in the late 40s and 50s; then all of a sudden you had the 60s and the beatniks and hippies show up at the temple wanting to know about this groovy Dharma, and perhaps with no thought or consideration for the history that these people went through. I imagine it was a little much for especially many of the older folks.

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  5. Not to mention that in the 1960s, the JA community was still split between not wanting to talk about their history and fighting to have it recognized by a government that would rather not.

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