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Whatever happened to the monastic Sangha?
Tuesday, September 5, 2017 -
In a traditional Buddhist country like Sri Lanka, it isn’t unusual for lay people to become Dharma teachers. They give discourses, they conduct classes, they give meditation instructions, and sometimes conduct meditation courses and retreats; but when they do so, they’re almost always nested within a system that gives priority to the monastic order. Usually they will have studied and trained under monastic teachers, and they’ll continue to pay homage to the monastic sangha as such, not merely to individual monastic teachers. If any lay teacher turns against the monastic sangha, those lay devotees who have faith in the sangha will steer clear of them
First I should say, not as an excuse but by way of explanation, that I learned that I was to be a presenter only two days ago. I was a bit disoriented when I learned this, for I hadn’t prepared anything to speak about in advance. At first, I decided to make it easy for myself and give a presentation based on a paper that I already had on hand. But one statement that Venerable Heng Liang made yesterday, at the end of her talk, kept on ringing through my mind. It was the statement: “If a monastic sangha doesn’t become well established in America, I don’t see much hope for the Dharma here.”
Today I woke up long before dawn and those words immediately popped into my mind. I felt that I had somehow to address this topic in my talk. Suddenly ideas started to come together in my mind, at that very early hour. I sat down and started jotting down notes, and before long the draft of a paper was taking shape. Due to this morning’s activities, I could type out my notes only after lunch, and I just managed to print out a version to refer to during my talk ten minutes ago. The ideas aren’t well organised, but I will present them anyway. Please don’t mind if they are a bit out of sequence.
In my talk I want to consider how we can move in a direction whereby the sangha assumes its special role as the “torch-bearer” of the Buddha’s message, yet does so in a way that doesn’t alienate lay people, but on the contrary can win their trust, confidence, and devotion.
Here in the United States, and maybe more broadly in the West, we have a rather unusual situation, matched perhaps only by Japan, where the most prominent teaching roles in several Buddhist traditions have been taken over by the laity, and not seldom this has been done with the blessings of members of the monastic sangha. Sometimes, in fact, lay teachers train and even certify monastic sangha members as teachers. It seems to me that the training in the sangha should prepare monks and nuns to serve as Dharma teachers, for they have dedicated their lives to this purpose; yet in today’s world, we also have to prepare earnest lay people to understand, practice, and teach the Dharma, which implies a respect for their potentials as practitioners and teachers. Yet this should be done within a system that recognizes the monastic sangha as the custodian of the Dharma as well as the field of merit for the lay community.
Now, in a traditional Buddhist country like Sri Lanka, it isn’t unusual for lay people to become Dharma teachers. They give discourses, they conduct classes, they give meditation instructions, and sometimes conduct meditation courses and retreats; but when they do so, they’re almost always nested within a system that gives priority to the monastic order. Usually they will have studied and trained under monastic teachers, and they’ll continue to pay homage to the monastic sangha as such, not merely to individual monastic teachers. If any lay teacher turns against the monastic sangha, those lay devotees who have faith in the sangha will steer clear of them. Such teachers—and there are a sprinkling of them nowadays in Sri Lanka—are usually recognizable by the idiosyncratic character of their teaching.
In traditional pre-modern Buddhism, the roles for laity and monastics are clearly defined, and there is also a clearly defined version of the Dharma for each. This structure, though, can be rigid and limiting. The laity see their primary task to be that of acquiring merit, which will ensure them a favourable rebirth in their next existence and provide supporting conditions for the attainment of the ultimate Buddhist goal, nibbana.
The practice for the laypeople that goes along with this task is primarily giving (dana), which usually means giving food to monks, observing precepts, undertaking devotional practices, and practicing short periods of meditation, usually on special observance days. The meditation practiced is primarily recollection of the Buddha, recollection of the Sangha, and loving-kindness meditation. Asian lay Buddhists who have been subject to modern influences emanating from the West have developed a new understanding of their roles, and so, while they continue to support the monastic order and look up to the monks as the custodians of the Dharma, they are also intent on learning the Dharma in depth and on practicing intensive insight meditation.
Asian Theravada countries
The roles of monastic persons in theory are intensive study of the Dharma and meditation, as well as performing services for the laity. What happens in practice, however, in most temples in Asian Theravada countries, is that the role of performing services for the laity gains the upper hand; it has even become the major function of temple monks. Even intensive, in-depth study of the Dharma has faded out, and the practice of meditation has almost vanished, so that it is reduced to just five or ten minutes of quiet sitting in the daily devotional service. Forest monks often place more emphasis on meditation in the hope of reaching true attainment.
For all its shortcomings, in traditional Asian Buddhism, these activities take place against a long-standing background that includes trust and confidence in the Three Jewels as objects of devotion and a world view that is determined largely by the teachings of the suttas and the commentaries. It is built upon solid trust in the law of karma and rebirth and upon an aspiration for nibbana as a state of world-transcending realization.
Modern Westerners, in contrast, come to the Dharma from an entirely different stance of consciousness. They generally have a much higher level of education than traditional village Buddhists. Many Westerners will have read widely in psychology and in fields that might be grouped under the heading of “spirituality” and “higher consciousness.” They also approach the Dharma with different problems in mind and they therefore naturally seek different solutions.
When Westerners come to Buddhism, they bring to their encounter with the Dharma an acute sense of what I shall call “existential suffering.” By this expression, I’m not referring to clinical depression, or a disposition to morbid states of mind, or any type of psychopathology. What I mean is a gnawing sense of lack, a feeling of incompleteness or inadequacy, that can’t be filled by any of the ordinary sources of enjoyment. This sense of existential suffering can coexist with a personality that is, by all other criteria, quite sound and healthy.
Sometimes existential suffering takes the form of a feeling of loneliness that can’t be eliminated by any number of social contacts or human relationships; sometimes it’s a feeling that “my life is empty, devoid of meaning and purpose”; or sometimes it’s just a conviction that there has to be more to life than acquiring rewards and trophies in the great American success story. For those who come from a deeply religious background and have lost their faith, it can manifest as a feeling of infinite absence, the absence of God that has to be filled with something else to give an ultimate meaning to life, an objective source of meaning or purpose without which life seems pointless and absurd.
This sense of existential suffering, or “fundamental lack,” is the primary motive that drives most Westerners to seek the Dharma. People troubled by existential suffering come to the Dharma in search of what I would call “radical therapy.” Since they generally aren’t psychopathological, they aren’t using the Dharma as a psychotherapy.
Though some have criticized them for doing so, in my observation this isn’t the case. But they are approaching it as what we might call an “existential therapy.” They are trying to fill a hole at the bottom of their existence. They are seeking above all a practice that they can integrate into their daily lives in order to transform the felt quality of their lives.
They aren’t seeking explanations; they aren’t seeking a new religion; and generally, they aren’t seeking a new system of beliefs.
They come to the Dharma seeking a radical therapy, a method that will provide them with concrete, tangible, and immediate changes in the way they experience their worlds. And most Buddhist teachers—or rather, let me say, most Dharma teachers—are presenting the Dharma as exactly that. They are presenting the Dharma as a practice, a way, a path, that will help ameliorate this disturbing sense of existential suffering. They are presenting it as a radical, pragmatic, existential therapy that does not require any beliefs, that does not ask for any more faith than a readiness to apply the method and see what kind of results one can get from it. What is being given is something that is ably captured by the title of an extremely popular book on Buddhism, a title and a book that encapsulate very well the nature of this lay Dharma practice. The title of the book is Buddhism Without Beliefs.
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