An American Buddhist Tradition

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An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Dhammakid » Fri Dec 31, 2010 2:44 am

Hello all,
This idea was originally introduced by P0int in his thread explaining how he and some others have started a network to establish an American Buddhist temple. After reading the thread again, I concluded that it wasn't clearly stated exactly what he's trying to do - that is, establish an American Buddhist tradition, not just a temple founded by and for Americans. I've been in discussion with him on his facebook page and thought I'd bring it up here to explore what an American tradition would look like.

What do you all think? How would an American tradition be different from the others? What would change?

It seems to me that many American Buddhists are attempting to separate what they consider cultural left-overs from their practice so they can, in one way or another, get back to basics, if you will. So practices like amulets, chanting in different languages, deities, etc might be done away with.

I guess it's hard for me to imagine a tradition totally free from the existing branches (Theravada, Zen, Tibetan, Nichiren, etc). And it seems that the tradition, even if unintentionally, would end up resembling one or the other. For instance, I could see a "stripped down" Buddhism looking a lot like the basic Zen schools, or even the basic Theravada schools.

I'm interested to hear what you all think.

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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Khalil Bodhi » Fri Dec 31, 2010 3:28 am

I, for one, am not a fan of the idea of people presuming to know what is useful and skilfull in a tradition especially if they have not had a long and intimate acquaintance therewith. I often hear talk of people wanting to create a "Western" Buddhism, an "American" Buddhism but to me it seems unnecessary and almost a display of hubris. There as many dhamma-vinayas as there are upasikas and upasakas just as there are as many Islams as there are muslims (and so on and so forth) so why muddy the waters by attempting to create a new tradition or a new sect? Finally, I think it's kind of disrespectful to the bhikkhu (and bhikkhuni) sangha to dismiss their role in the the preservation of the Dhamma by suggesting that what they practice is little better than an anachronism. I hope this doesn't come off as caustic because I don't mean it to be but I feel that many of us are putting the cart before the horse by assuming we know better. Metta. :anjali:
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Dhammakid » Fri Dec 31, 2010 4:04 am

I share your sentiments, Khalil, pretty much completely. Though I'm interested to see what an American-style tradition of Buddhism would look like, I don't think I'm likely to follow it if it ever arises. I feel quite comfortable in the Theravada tradition.

One of the things I would like to see, however, is the resurgence of the Bhikkhuni order. I think an American tradition that fully ordains women would be fantastic.

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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby P0int » Fri Dec 31, 2010 5:07 am

I feel my words and efforts have been misconstrued. My goal is to establish a place where an American Theravada Buddhist tradition can develop and flourish. I am not stating what a tradition will be, because I do not know how Buddhism will be practiced in America five generations from now.

I would like to see a place where Americans can practice Theravada Buddhism without having to do it like the Vietnamese do, or the Thai do, or the Sri Lankans do, etc. because they run the temple and that is the way they do it. Today there are American-Thai traditions, American-Japanese traditions, American-Burmese traditions. It is ok to chant in English, it is ok to have western Buddhist art, it is ok to use different architecture, it is ok to learn from a wise American monk. These things do not take away from the teachings at all and will make it more accessible and comfortable to American sensibilities.

The tradition will develop on its own. I would like to see the space opened for it to do so.
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby David N. Snyder » Fri Dec 31, 2010 5:37 am

See: http://www.dhammawiki.com/index.php?tit ... vada_takes

Theravada Buddhism has taken four distinctive forms in the West and around the world, in modern times:

A. The Secular Buddhist Society Model. This is concerned with the intense study of the Dhamma in its original formulation as given in the Pali Canon, the development of norms of living in substantial conformity of the requirements of the Dhamma, and the encouragement of the observance of the Dhamma generally.

B. The Original London Vihara Model. This model encompasses the objectives of the secular societies, but places greater emphasis on the necessity to accommodate ordained monks to expound the Dhamma. In its interpretation of the Canon it tends to place greater emphasis on Buddhaghosa's exegesis whereas the secular societies tend to go the original Canon itself.

C. The Lankarama Model. This is the ethnic Buddhist Model par excellence. Its main objective appears to be to cater to the spiritual needs of expatriate groups using the particular national models of Buddhism as practiced in their home countries without any consideration of its relevance to the universality of the Buddha's teaching or the external conditions in the host country.

D. The Meditation Centre Model. Here the Buddhist Institution is transformed into a centre for "meditation" under the guidance of a self-proclaimed "teacher". The meditation practiced is a simplified form of the first foundation of satipatthana ignoring all the preconditions which the Buddha was careful to lay down for the correct practice of this technique of mindfulness.

Dr. Gunasekara argues that models A and B are appropriate modes in following the teachings of Buddha whereas models C and D are departures from the teachings[1].


That is from an old article, but I think it still applies and gives a pretty good synopsis of the different forms Theravada can take.

Versions C and D seem to be almost opposites and sort of like extremes. Model C is more of a cultural center and I think what you are referring to above. Model D is another extreme which a predominant "American" or "Western" center might take.

Models A and B appear to be more in line with the Buddha's teachings and could be implemented in any temple, regardless of the backgrounds or national origin of the monks and congregation. In my opinion, a temple or center that follows A or B, chants in the native language of the land along with Pali would be Theravada since Pali is not specific to any current country's language and the focus would be on practice, without ignoring the Triple Gem.
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby tiltbillings » Fri Dec 31, 2010 7:26 am

David N. Snyder wrote:in the host country.

D. The Meditation Centre Model. Here the Buddhist Institution is transformed into a centre for "meditation" under the guidance of a self-proclaimed "teacher". The meditation practiced is a simplified form of the first foundation of satipatthana ignoring all the preconditions which the Buddha was careful to lay down for the correct practice of this technique of mindfulness.
The teachers a meditation centers such as IMS are not "self proclaimed," and many of them continue to work with older recognized teachers such as U Pandita.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Fri Dec 31, 2010 8:36 am

P0int wrote:It is OK to chant in English.

These things do not take away from the teachings at all and will make it more accessible and comfortable to American sensibilities.

Although its OK to chant in English, I disagree that it will not take anything away from the teachings. Which translation will you use? Can English convey the full meaning of the Pali?

Thais, Burmese, and Sril Lankans usually chant in Pali, not their mother tongue. In my experience, if Thais do chant in Thai, they also chant in Pali — line by line, or verse by verse — Pali then Thai.

I see danger in trying to make Buddhism "comfortable." The Noble Truth of Suffering is very far from being "comfortable."

The Burmese way of teaching is that the monks recite a passage in Pali, then explain it word-by-word. The Western style of extempore talks can easily lead to the dilution and distortion of the original teachings. We must be careful to preserve the original teachings of the Buddha. Making Buddhism accessible is important, but we should avoid trying to make it comfortable.
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Kim OHara » Fri Dec 31, 2010 11:22 am

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:
P0int wrote:It is OK to chant in English.
These things do not take away from the teachings at all and will make it more accessible and comfortable to American sensibilities.

Although its OK to chant in English, I disagree that it will not take anything away from the teachings. Which translation will you use? Can English convey the full meaning of the Pali?

With respect, Bhante, I have to say that Pali does not 'convey the full meaning of the Pali.' In fact, it conveys no meaning at all to the vast majority of Westerners - or, indeed, Asian lay Buddhists.
The practice you mention, of interleaving Pali and the local language is, in effect, using a translation. A monk quoting a section of the Pali and then explaining it in the local language is extemporising a translation and commentary. In either case, the main benefit of the Pali is to remind listeners of the fact that they are getting an interpretation of the original rather than the original, and that does have some value. Another effect - I'm not at all sure that it is a benefit - is to create or reinforce a separation, in knowledge, power and status, between the clergy and the laity.

The practice of conducting the liturgy exclusively in a 'holy' but un-understood language was maintained by the Catholic church up until the mid twentieth century. The debates which led to their switch from Latin to the vernacular may be relevant to this discussion.

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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby AyyaSobhana » Fri Dec 31, 2010 7:10 pm

It seems to me that the truly "American" Theravada temples are the ones that make the effort to be multi-cultural, such as the Bhavana Society led by my teacher Bhante Gunaratana. It takes a clear intention good execution to make a center welcoming and comfortable for European- African- and Asian-Americans; and for Theravadan Buddhists from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, and the other nationalities. The fact is that Asian-Americans often have different needs here than merely a traditional center like their home country. They may have been affected to war, economic disaster, and the trauma of migration. They may be alienated from traditional Buddhism, and looking to re-establish their connections. Plus, Buddhism in every country is impacted by the juggernaut of modernity/capitalism/war/the digital revolution.

I believe Dr. Gunasekera's critique of "D. The Meditation Centre Model." is aimed at the Goenka centers. Places like IMS and Sprit Rock are co-evolving along with the monastic centers in America.

The bhikkhunis of Dhammadharini and the Aranya Bodhi Hermitage would qualify as "American Theravada" in the sense that we cultivate the friendship of the various Wats and Viharas, and the lay Vipassana community, while striving to practice in accord with the earliest Dhamma and Vinaya.

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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby David N. Snyder » Fri Dec 31, 2010 7:48 pm

AyyaSobhana wrote:I believe Dr. Gunasekera's critique of "D. The Meditation Centre Model." is aimed at the Goenka centers. Places like IMS and Sprit Rock are co-evolving along with the monastic centers in America.

The bhikkhunis of Dhammadharini and the Aranya Bodhi Hermitage would qualify as "American Theravada" in the sense that we cultivate the friendship of the various Wats and Viharas, and the lay Vipassana community, while striving to practice in accord with the earliest Dhamma and Vinaya.

Peace to all ...


Hi Ayya,

I agree that IMS and Spirit Rock don't fit into model D above. They also have visiting monastics that come over to lead retreats and programs.

Welcome to Dhamma Wheel and I hope to see you posting here more! :bow: :bow: :bow:
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Khalil Bodhi » Sat Jan 01, 2011 12:53 am

P0int wrote:I feel my words and efforts have been misconstrued. My goal is to establish a place where an American Theravada Buddhist tradition can develop and flourish. I am not stating what a tradition will be, because I do not know how Buddhism will be practiced in America five generations from now.

I would like to see a place where Americans can practice Theravada Buddhism without having to do it like the Vietnamese do, or the Thai do, or the Sri Lankans do, etc. because they run the temple and that is the way they do it. Today there are American-Thai traditions, American-Japanese traditions, American-Burmese traditions. It is ok to chant in English, it is ok to have western Buddhist art, it is ok to use different architecture, it is ok to learn from a wise American monk. These things do not take away from the teachings at all and will make it more accessible and comfortable to American sensibilities.

The tradition will develop on its own. I would like to see the space opened for it to do so.


Hi P0int,

I apologize if you feel that your words and efforts have been misconstrued. I was only responding to the question as Kourtney had posed it. Rest assured that the Dhamma-vinaya will, like it or not, change in response to its new-found environment. Mettaya!
To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
-Dhp. 183

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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Fede » Sat Jan 01, 2011 8:36 am

If a wheel ain't broke, why fix it? :quote:
"Samsara: The human condition's heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment." Elizabeth Gilbert, 'Eat, Pray, Love'.

Simplify: 17 into 1 WILL go: Mindfulness!

Quieta movere magna merces videbatur. (Sallust, c.86-c.35 BC)
Translation: Just to stir things up seemed a good reward in itself. ;)

I am sooooo happy - How on earth could I be otherwise?! :D


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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby tiltbillings » Sat Jan 01, 2011 9:33 am

AyyaSobhana wrote:I believe Dr. Gunasekera's critique of "D. The Meditation Centre Model." is aimed at the Goenka centers. Places like IMS and Sprit Rock are co-evolving along with the monastic centers in America.
That would not be a fair characterization of the Goenka center, either.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Sat Jan 01, 2011 10:44 am

If the wheel ain't turning, push harder.

Some of you might be surprised just how long it has taken for the English Sangha Trust to establish a western monastic tradition in the UK. It did not start with Ajahn Sumedho.
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby d.sullivan » Sat Jan 01, 2011 10:50 am

tiltbillings wrote:The teachers a meditation centers such as IMS are not "self proclaimed," and many of them continue to work with older recognized teachers such as U Pandita.


My thoughts as well. In fact, if one reads the writings of some of those teachers, one will find that they were explicitly asked by their Asian teachers to begin teaching. There is nothing "self-proclaimed" about having a teacher request that you start teaching.
Every blade in the field,
Every leaf in the forest,
Lays down its life in its season,
As beautifully as it was taken up.

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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby tiltbillings » Sat Jan 01, 2011 11:32 am

d.sullivan wrote:
tiltbillings wrote:The teachers a meditation centers such as IMS are not "self proclaimed," and many of them continue to work with older recognized teachers such as U Pandita.


My thoughts as well. In fact, if one reads the writings of some of those teachers, one will find that they were explicitly asked by their Asian teachers to begin teaching. There is nothing "self-proclaimed" about having a teacher request that you start teaching.
And as I understand it, there is nothing "self-proclaimed" about the instructors at the Goenka centers.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby farmer » Sat Jan 01, 2011 4:16 pm

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... ached.html

As the essay linked above points out, the economic model that supports dhamma teachers will inevitably have a subtle effect on the teachings they give. A teacher or a center with a mortgage to pay may teach a dhamma that "sells" rather than one that fully reflects the demanding, unpopular aspects of the Buddha's message: things like renunciation, discipline, and seclusion. Although the monastic model may seem anachronistic and out of place in the west, the vinaya plays a vital role in keeping the dhamma pure by insulating monastic teachers from the market.
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby AyyaSobhana » Sun Jan 02, 2011 4:45 pm

Here is another attempt to support diversity in Buddhist Centers.

http://www.shambhala.org/diversity/resources.php

I have not been so impressed by the Buddhist centers that start off proclaiming their separation from Asian precedents. The few examples I know of seem quite reactionary. A better model is the center that is well rooted in a particular form and tradition, but has the sensitivity, flexibility, and self awareness to make cultural adaptations.
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Jack » Tue Jan 04, 2011 9:54 pm

I think an American Buddhism has been emerging naturally. From my experience most ethnic Buddhist and American Buddhist groups meet separately and have different interests. If a center has a meditation retreat, 100% of the participants will be Am. Buddhists. If the center has an event around a ceremony, 90% of the participants will be ethnic Buddhists. Again, that is my experience.

Another factor in play is the quality of the local sangha leader. Just being a lineage monk doesn't convey wisdom or teaching ability. There are many leaders from the laity who are quite qualified. From my experience, many monks neither meditate or know much about the suttas. And, some who do aren't good teachers. This isn't meant to desparage the many fine monks out there.

jack

PS. I feel awkward using the terms Ethnic and American Buddhists. By ethnic Buddhists, I mean someone who is usually foreign born into a Buddhist culture. I mean no disrespect.
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Re: An American Buddhist Tradition

Postby Viscid » Tue Jan 04, 2011 10:13 pm

Recommended Reading:
Image

It's Joseph Goldstein's vision of how Buddhism [may/should] look in the West.

I'd rather see a completely secular monastic order that strives to develop the deep concentration required to journey contemplative depths, and encourage self-transformation towards an ideal spirital state.

Let people come to their own conclusions through practice and educated insight.

And English chanting would sound corny as hell.
"What holds attention determines action." - William James
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