Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Westernizing" versus "Mutating" Buddhism

James Ford and Barbara have written posts about "Westernizing" the Dharma, and more specifically Zen Buddhism in the West.

I figured I'd put my two cents in...

  • Barbara and James talk about how Zen training was at first primarily a Zen training in monasteries.  They're right as far as they go, but what I wonder about is if they get the historical context correctly.  As I've said repeatedly, the degree to which Zen training was "laicized" in Asian cultures depended on the degree to which people had free time, and in the societies in which Chan/Zen flourished, most people had very little time on their hands.  The degree to which Chan/Zen flourishes amongst non-monastics is quite highly correlated with economic status. Thus, samurai and nobility could study Zen, but peasants could not unless they became monastics.  That fact can't really be ignored, and should be taken into account.
  • James Ford writes:
Most people, however, who practice Zen, do not live in a controlled rule based environment beyond regular or occasional retreats. The average Zen practitioner today sits with a group that meets maybe once a week, perhaps a bit more regularly. And hits a retreat once in a while, maybe once or twice a year.
  I think that most Americans who practice Zen are in fact living highly structured lives by default because lives today are that structured, and there is "surplus" time in which to do meditation.  That's partially because of the class of folks practicing it.  The challenge for Chan/Zen is to bring this practice to those who have more hours of physical labor in the week and are poorer than those who do not.

  • There are similar problems of Chan/Zen going on throughout the Western world; there is a significantly larger lay practice in Japan than there was centuries ago, because the movement to bring Zen to the laity actually started first in Japan, with Japanese organizations.
  • Even amongst the less economically well off (and especially amongst the better off) Chan/Zen "offshoots" have been around for centuries with much the same spirit of Chan/Zen.  When James was writing about how there is much criticism in traditional monastics, I was thinking about martial arts training.  Teachers who are worthwhile in this endeavor aim constantly for perfection in their students.  Any practitioner of the so-called "Zen arts" will be challenged by one's continual need to improve skill.  And Barbara's right of course, communities of practitioners of any discipline will make for a better group of practitioners.
  • Finally, I'd take a small issue with Barbara's characterization of "Western" versus "Eastern" philosophy.  My take on how professional philosophers do this is not that they intend to denigrate Eastern narratives of Buddhism, but rather that they wish to contextualize Buddhism in terms that have proven useful to Western philosophy.  To me, this is kind of like how mathematics has developed over the world.  Much of Western philosophy is concerned with matters about how to consistently, logically, describe aspects of human existence, just as mathematics attempts to consistently and logically describe numeric and computational aspects of our existence. The fact that much of probability theory has come to us through Soviet era mathematicians doesn't imply that probability theory is in any way "Communist," though I can imagine some know-nothings might assert that for political reasons.  Thus,   I can't imagine a serious professional Western philosopher saying there's no need for reading Nagarjuna when one has Sartre, but my viewpoint is shaped by what I've read on the subject.  But I'm talking about folks like the late William Barrett, whose writing was very respectful of D. T. Suzuki, (not to mention D.T. Suzuki himself) rather than knock-offs like Ken Wilber.
  • So from a "Western philosophical" point of view I don't think there's a big problem.  I do think there's a big problem when "Western Buddhism" makes fetishes out of political figures, particularly when those figures have their own agendas.  I also think there's a big problem when "Western Buddhism" is really someone's projection of what they'd like  Buddhism to be, when it's a Buddhism laden with their own psychological or political or gender biases. But that's what I'd call a mutation of Buddhism.  It's all well and good to support political action and have that political action to be informed by one's Buddhist ethics.  It's another thing entirely to say that a particular movement is "Buddhist" and therefore that "Buddhism" should re-make the entire world.  You better free your mind instead, as John Lennon sang.
  • Finally, I'd note that "traditional Buddhism" can indeed learn something from the West, and that something is professional ethics.  We in the West really did do that; it's a legacy of a Roman system of law.  All religious personnel should have notions of conflict of interest areas in what they do, and to be on guard for them.  The notions of professional ethics is of course still evolving, but let's give credit where credit is due.
Seriously, though I don't think the subject is so important to think about concerned with the day-to-day practice itself.


jundo cohen said...

Hi Mumon,

A very interesting and insightful post from you, following upon James' and Barbara's also insightful comments. Zen, all of Buddhism,is changing ... as do all composite things (and also is simultaneously changeless). The only question is whether the new forms we create are something good and beneficial in folks' lives, bringing the Wisdom and Compassion of this Way home. We also should keep (wholly or in some adjusted form) the best of past traditions, for no need to "throw out the Baby Buddha with the bath water".

What will be the result? If we are careful, something wonderful.

Gassho, Jundo

Mumon said...

Thanks Jundo; it's well appreciated.

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