Considerations On Buddhism’s Transmigration Toward A Secular Institution
David Xi-Ken Astor
Most Buddhist tend to express their practice and understanding of Buddhist thought with reference to general ideas about liberation, enlightenment, realization of the Buddhist ideal, the importance of subduing the ego, the cultivation of nonattachment, and the importance that compassion plays in recognition of the social-self. The discussions around these topics are generally structured and result in bringing out the dynamic tension between tradition and innovation that is expressed in many different ways within the Western Buddhist communities of practice. However, the basic idea is that there are so many forms of Buddhism and so many different roads to Westernization of it that it is too early to announce the emergence of a distinct form that can be said to be typically American. America will be the weather vane that points to how the other Western countries will also come to a censuses on how their culture will also incorporate Buddhism into their communities. Some forms of Buddhism have been overtly retailored to fit with one or another American (democratic?) ideal, often in very specific practices and course of study. This in itself is not evidence that they are more authentically American or are more likely to become permanent parts of the long-term development of Buddhism in Western countries.
Buddhism has been in the West, and specifically in America, for over a century, but only in the past few decades has it blossomed into what might be called a mass movement, expressed in a wide rage of Western institutions. It is my conviction, however, that in the future both Buddhist and historians of Buddhism will look back to the last half century and find the origins of a unique American form of Buddhism that will compare with the great traditions rooted in Asia society.
The path of liberation taught by the Buddha was transformed time and again as it progressed throughout Asia, and renewed indigenous forms of it are taking shape today in the vibrant Buddhist communities throughout Western countries. The process of integrating Buddhist thought into a new culture is highly complicated, and the recasting of ethical and moral values into new language always takes time. We must think in terms of centuries, not decades. It takes that long for the understanding of dharma to become fully indigenized in a new environment, so it makes more sense to talk in terms of there being many Buddhisms in American now rather than a Western style of Buddhism per se. American understanding of Buddhism as it evolved from romantic, often uninformed simplicity to the complexity found in the way it is practiced today is uneven and reflects a diverse picture of Buddhism that can be confusing to our general understanding of how a spiritual practice is encountered in Western cultures. Buddhism is often introduced to Americans though literature and images rather than by institutional structures. That is due to the fact that very few Buddhist temples and practice centers are recognizable in our communities. Most of these practice centers are situated on the West and East coasts in urbane settings away from the general public’s eye.
Another reality we Buddhist teachers need to consider is how we have a chance to present Buddhism with its non-theistic and essentially psychological orientation that could better address the growing schism between science and religion than does the Christianity tradition. This needs to be thought out before more fundamental questions are confronted that translates dharma legacy lessons into Western modern languages. For example, can the teachings of the Buddha about nonexistence of the self be reconciled with the Western idea of individualism and the notion of free-will. Buddhism’s value is much more than just another religious structure. It’s strength is in its ability to develop informed “agents-for-change.” All Buddhist traditions have unique literary and philosophical heritage, distinct ways of practicing the dharma, and different Asian vocabularies that need to be overcome in order for American Buddhist practice to gain cultural authority. As American Buddhism gains a solid ground for popular acceptance as a viable spiritual and practical world class paradigm that promotes human flourishing, it will influence how Buddhism is received in other Western cultures.
Buddhism is a vast umbrella of many practices. As such, there is no such thing as a unified American Buddhist tradition yet, although each form of practice is crafted from the same timber past down to us by the Buddha; the stem of which is the Four Noble Truths. From this single branch of thought all the legacy traditions have arisen in order to provide the foundation for the core principles they have chosen to acknowledge as essential in representing their unique understanding of how to teach the dharma. Buddhism is a philosophical construct that works to give meaning to the universe and how we are in it. The elements of this concept is what gives each Buddhist tradition “purpose-in-practice” as they have chosen to define the world around them. Although this is not clear in the beginning of our study of it.
A more formal education model may be the key. Some believe that until we establish a body of Western material that translates Buddhist principles into objects of study, and secular institutional structures for educating the leadership that is better integrated into Western notions of educational credentiality, Buddhist leaders will struggle alongside their Christian counterparts for cultural acceptance, and along with it Buddhism itself. This may be how Buddhism becomes secular in nature, and moves away from the monastic model that tends to separate the leadership from the Sangha’s they are charged to serve, and whose training is sporadic in the West right now. There is already such an American institution, Naropa Institute, that has full accreditation that offers degrees in Buddhist study. Perhaps this will become a standard model for formal Buddhist training, both for the laity and clergy. But we must not underestimate the value of community Sanghas for transmitting the dharma either.
However, there will always be room for Buddhist monasticism in the West. The tradition of the teacher/student relationship is a strong one and offers the dynamic that interweaves the deep human component of seeking the inner spiritual journey that is too easy to set aside in a pure secular academic environment. The monastic tradition is of great value, and offers something that a more secular model generally lacks; the lineage of direct connection handed down from one generation to another that goes beyond mere academic accomplishments. Formal training is more then just understanding and wisdom of dharma, although this is of great value too. It is awakening to our unique human expression of the Universe that is nourished by the personal deep interaction we develop with a teacher that goes beyond the training material. Buddhism is not a faith-based practice. It is a complex set of philosophical, psychological, and spiritual constructs that requires guidance and verifiable interactions best encountered from a teacher that has mastered decades of confronting these realities in a structured practice.
What makes the discussion of whether Buddhism is to be considered a secular or religious practice often surrounds this issues of training of it’s leadership and the type of ritual practices adopted by the tradition’s Sangha. Old world vs. new world sort of thing. Monastic training is considered by many to belong to the religious side of the argument, based on how most interpret the sacredness of its form. While the secular approach abandons all the trappings associated with religiosity. But it is not that simple. I value my monastic training, but at the same time consider my practice and study of the dharma to be contemporary valuing the pragmatic secular interpretation of the core principles. I reject the metaphysical underpinnings of ancient legacy teachings in favor of the lessons to be learned in our scientific age. Does that make me a secular teacher, or a religious one just because I am a Buddhist monk?
Nevertheless, it seems that the Western model that is being introduced in this last decade for Buddhist training and practice is moving toward a more secular approach to Buddhist practice. Only time will tell how these issues will be resolved in order to define an American Buddhism that survives into the next century.