White Buddhist for Asians

Over on Dharma Folk, kudos posts about largely Vietnamese immigrants in Orange County who have “hired a white American man to teach Buddhism to their kids.” This man is a Buddhist monk, Ven. Kusala Bhikshu.

There are a number of white Buddhist teachers who have ordained and now minister to multicultural communities, especially here in the United States. There’s Ven. Heng Sure and Thanissaro Bhikkhu to name just two. What sets Kusala Bhikhsu apart, in my opinion, is that he has not made the same effort to thoroughly immerse himself in another culture. While Ven. Heng Sure speaks flawless Mandarin and Thanissaro Bhikkhu speaks fluent Thai with a mastery of slang that would make my own mother blush, Kusala Bhikshu is a happily monolingual American Midwesterner—who also happens to reach out to Asian American Buddhist communities.

In my opinion, this is a most beautiful manifestation of Western Buddhism, where Western Buddhists of different stripes and colors come together in spite of—even because of—their differences. Here are people who are leveraging their community’s diversity to strengthen it! Kusala Bhikshu’s not the only white guy working in this vein. For example, I often talk of Richard’s assistance to a local Lao temple. My hope is that, one day, self-styled Western Buddhist institutions can outgrow their cultural insularity and follow in the steps of these multiculturally-minded individuals.

You can listen to the full story at PRI’s The World. (Photo credit to PRI’s The World.)

Choosing a Teacher

Karen Maezen Miller writes on Shambhala Sun Space about choosing the right teacher.

Choose a teacher who practices what he or she preaches. Teachers can be charming, entertaining and provocative, but if you choose based on anything other than the vigor and authenticity of their practice, you will surely be misled.

Choose a teacher who has time for you and a practice center you can get to, or your spiritual life might be little more than intellectual tourism. You can find lots of information and opinions on the Internet but it will never take you anywhere new. As long as you view yourself as a dabbler, you are holding yourself back from the wholeness you seek.

The quote she remembers from Maezumi Roshi speaks very strongly to me: “Choosing the wrong teacher is worse than having no teacher at all.”

Like Teaching Basketball Online

Brad Warner insists “Zen cannot be taught via the Internet or on a blog.”

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I don’t keep this blog as a way of teaching Zen. Zen cannot be taught via the Internet or on a blog. Same as you couldn’t teach someone how to play basketball via the Internet or on a blog.

Sure you could teach a lot about basketball via the Internet, its history, its major players, statistics, descriptions of playing techniques. You could even put up some helpful videos or give advice to people who emailed questions. But you couldn’t really teach basketball that way. You would need to be face-to-face in the same gymnasium. No two ways about it.

Not a Zen practitioner myself, I have no honest opinion on the Zen-to-basketball comparison. But I would say it applies to the Theravada—if you’ve never place rice in a monk’s bowl before, you might want to add a new line to your spiritual checklist.

Teaching Imperfections

A post by Brad Warner touches on the notion of imperfect teachers, including his experiences with his own teacher.

I guess it had to do with trust. I knew the old man wouldn’t steer me wrong. By then I knew full well he was no saint. I saw the old man’s students bickering with each other. I saw the old man himself do things I didn’t entirely approve of. I heard him express opinions I could not agree with. I was there when he burped and when he farted. I knew he sometimes – gasp! — fell asleep on his cushion during early morning zazen.

But I trusted him. I knew that whatever else he did, he always told me the truth. And that’s what counted. I knew him more than as a teacher. I knew him as a friend.

On the Dangerous Harvests blog, Nathan expounds on these thoughts with some of his own experience. I’ve touched on this topic before, and it’s one that’s important to reflect on in any and all Buddhist groups. Odds are that our teachers are not perfect, most especially if they claim to be. So how do we practice with imperfect teachers? If you do your due diligence, you’ll find that there are already a good many answers out there.

Teachers of Imperfect Reputation

A few lines from Nathan on Dangerous Harvests caught my eye.

I’ve been reading Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying before my bedtime meditation. I’m aware that Rinpoche was the subject of multiple scandals during the 1990’s, so his reputation isn’t so good I suppose. But regardless of reputation, and issues with his “in the flesh” teaching, this book is filled with practice gems, and it’s illumination of the Bardo teachings for modern practitioners is extremely important.

He didn’t dwell on this thought, so I’m expanding on it from my own perspective. Words are not necessarily false because the speaker is imperfect, but likewise nor do wise and truthful words imply the speaker’s perfection. In building new Buddhist institutions, we often have to wrestle with teachers of less-than-desirable reputations and even contradictory teachings; this dilemma applies almost everywhere. Regardless, I tend to believe that if you have well-fitted teachers, they will help guide you to be a better person, and those close to you will notice this change.