Monday, November 23, 2009

Mahayana/Theravada Finale: In the Land of the Fork.

Mahayana/Theravada Finale: In the Land of the Fork.

This is the last in the series on Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. I'm
sorry I have not been able to say much about Vajrayana or Tibetan
Buddhism, because I know little about it. Although it is normally
classed as a branch of Mahayana, it has its own unique properties as
well. Let me summarize what we've discussed so far:

The Theravada and the Mahayana differ in geographical and cultural
distribution, in doctrine, and in practice. The Theravada is found in
Southern Asia, primarily in those countries historically within the
Indian sphere of cultural influence, the Land of the Fingers. The
Mahayana is found in Northern Asia, primarily in those countries
historically within the Chinese sphere of influence, the Land of the
Chopsticks. Both are found in the West, in the same countries, in the
same cities, often on the same blocks, in the Land of the Fork.

Doctrinally, beginning in India the Mahayana has shown a greater
tendency to differ from the original teachings of the Buddha, as we
understand them. Although some common themes and concepts are
characteristic of the Mahayana, such as Buddha Nature and the
Bodhisattva Ideal, it is actually hard to define the Mahayana clearly;
it is not monolithic. The Mahayana seems to be heir to a creative
period of Indian Buddhism that partially predates the name "Mahayana"
while the Theravada was forming in remote Sri Lanka. This creative
period actually represents a variety of doctrinal perspectives, many
of which might be fairly conservative, but have later been claimed as
Mahayana. In China the Mahayana came under the influence of Chinese
religious influences, especially Taoism, and other aspects of the
Chinese world view.

There appears never to have been a substantial schism in India around
the development of the Mahayana schools as distinguished from the
Hinayana, including Theravada, in spite of traditional claims. Rather
Mahayana and Hinayana monks lived together in harmony, as reported by
Chinese pilgrims to India. A schism is when one group of monks goes
off in a huff to practice on their own.

Today there is a tendency for Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists to
disparage each other, particularly in Asia, where there has been
geographical separation between the two groups for many centuries.

My recommendations for those in the Land of the Fork are as follows:

We should not worry about the question of which Buddhism is most
appropriate for the West, Theravada or Mahayana: It is in the long run
moot. Most of the substantial differences between Theravada and
Mahayana have arisen from differences in the cultures of India and
China. The West is yet another culture, out of which a merging of the
two great traditions will arise. By the way, many in the West
anticipate a radically new form of Buddhism as Buddhism leaves Asia. I
think it is important to bear in mind that the cultures of India and
China are probably at least as far apart as Western culture is from
either of them. We should not anticipate that Western Buddhism will be
in a different ballpark.

On the other hand, the Buddhism of the West needs to regain its
moorings. It has been set adrift on an ocean of eagerness to build a
comfortable religion. Fork People have been pruning away at it without
knowing what it is they are pruning and what it was they had in the
first place. It is like removing the safety cover on an electric saw,
not understanding its function, because it makes it more difficult to
see the board you are sawing. Buddhism is a whole system of
interlocking parts: Practicing generosity and virtue; understanding
the teaching of non-self; training the mind to distinguish wholesome
and unwholesome intentions, and to free it of the latter;
renunciation; the task of monastics in propagating and sustaining
Buddhism; faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; and so on. You can't
just start removing parts from under the hood of your car to make room
for luggage unless you are very very sure you know what those parts
are. I'm afraid that is what we are doing to Buddhism in the Land of
the Fork.

It seems to be more difficult for Westerners to find one's moorings in
the Mahayana tradition. I think this has at least two causes. First,
the scriptural basis is so fluid. Different schools of Mahayana
subscribe to different sutras and shastras. The Vinaya is the most
common foundation, but that is largely ignored in the West. One does
not know where to go for a complete picture. Second, Buddhism in the
Land of the Chopstick has been leaning on Taoism and especially
Confucianism for hundreds of years. When that prop is removed, it
collapses. For instance, Zen Buddhism puts very little emphasis on
following Precepts, in fact in Japan taking precepts is often
considered to be a purely symbolic act. But traditional Chinese
culture is permeated with Confucian ethics, rendering the Buddhist
ethical system rather redundant. In the West we've imported Buddhism
from the Land of the Chopstick, but not the Confucian ethic to
complement it.

The Theravada tradition, on the other hand, is generally much more
clearly moored in the original teachings of the Buddha in their
entirety than the Mahayana. This does not mean one should abandon the
Mahayana tradition one has been trained in. But at this juncture, as
Buddhism makes its historic move to the Land of the Fork, it is
appropriate to study the Core-pus, the Suttanta and the Vinaya, or
derivative literature. This is the historic foundation of all of
Buddhism. Of course not all of you have the time that, say, I have,
to make a careful study of this corpus, but your teachers should. It
will be a useful exercise, not necessarily to change your current
views, but at least to understand what they are.

At the same time, I think it should be appreciated that all Buddhist
do not have to conform to a strict orthodoxy, to have exactly the same
understanding as everyone else. In fact debate and consideration of
alternative viewpoints is probably much more likely to give rise to a
more proper understanding than simply adhering to orthodoxy. It often
happens that an erroneous understanding becomes orthodox, and without
differences in viewpoint and debate it is impossible for the orthodoxy
to recover from the erroneous viewpoint. A simple example is the
Theravada view, not represented in the Core-pus, by the way, but in
the Commentaries of Buddhaghosa, that the language of the Buddha was
Pali. The best scholarship indicates that that is almost certainly
not the case, but the view persists, even among Asian Theravada

The Mahayana tradition is much more one of innovation and trying out
novel means of expression. Zen is even playful with orthodox teachings
and has a reputation for iconoclasm. Dogen is well-known for turning
even Zen teachings that had become orthodox by his time on their head.
But I think it is important to recognize how Zen has kept its moorings
through the years. First, it has been a rather intense monastic
tradition, in which practitioners were in an ideal position to find
verification in their own experience. Second, my impression is that
the study of very traditional teachings actually was fairly thorough
in spite of what Bodhidharma was later reputed to have said about
"Without Reliance on Words and Letters." I predict that Buddhism will
retain much of this spirit of innovation and debate in the Land of the
Fork. Consider that science, now a very old tradition, thrives on
innovation and debate.

That said, it is remarkable to me how on-the-same-page most of the
various sects of Buddhism actually are. Throughout Buddhism there is
the idea that humans get ourselves and each other into trouble because
we misperceive reality, from which liberation is possible through our
own contemplative effort to purify the mind. This and considerable
more detain is found in schools of Buddhism that had no communication
for many hundreds of years. If you compare Christianity to Buddhism,
for instance, I don't think you find as great a degree of doctrinal
agreement, even though Christians at least, by and large, agree on
what the scriptures are. What holds Buddhism together? There is an
orthodox Theravada teaching about that, and that is that as long as
the monastic sangha is living in harmony according to the Vinaya, the
doctrine will be preserved just fine. (Why that should be so, will
await the series of postings I have planned on Buddha's Teachings on

Let me end this series on Theravada and Mahayana on a personal note,
and with maybe a few more conflicting metaphors than necessary. (I've
also been in the Left-Wing all my life, so I find it strange to
suddenly view myself below as a conservative.)

Ten months ago I ordained as a Theravada monk after living as a
Mahayana Zen priest/monk for six years. I have an enormous love for
the Mahayana scriptures and the quirky Zen stories and in general for
the creativity of the Mahayana tradition. But I personally decided to
set a more conservative example in my own life, to be a representative
of the original wonderfully profound teachings of the Buddha, to live
the way the Buddha thought the Sangha should live. The reason is that
in the West everybody wants to be an innovator; but someone has to
worry about the moorings. I fear that the ship of Buddhism is already
floating aimlessly in the Ocean of the Fork. I hope that the readers
of this blog will join me in making sure that we assemble and drive
the whole car before we decide what parts to remove or modify.

NOTE: I cannot view this blog directly from Myanmar. If anyone is
posting responses I am not seeing them. However, please feel free to
respond to me directly at

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

Well, it's been a quiet month at Sitagu Buddhist Academy. Sitagu
Sayadaw was away for about a month, and returned yesterday for about a
week. He is a busy guy. He will be back in Austin, Texas sometime in
December, then again in March, when I will also be returning to
Austin. I have no idea where he has been for the last month.

It is interesting what a flurry of activity accompanies Sayadaw when
he returns. Visitors, mostly lay, but some monks and nuns, start
checking into the Guest House, where I live, in the days before his
arrival. I don't know who all of them are, but generally they seem to
be people who need to meet with Sayadaw while they have the chance.
Donors start providing more of the meals, for all of the monks, which
means the cuisine takes on a couple of extra stars, and monks start
gaining weight. This morning we had Mohinga for breakfast, which is a
specialty in Myanmar, made of noodles under a thick soup, with various
toppings to choose from (eggs, fried bread dealies, parsley, lemon).
Mmmmmm. A lot more lay groups start showing up presumably from the
immediate area, filling the parking lot, many of them apparently not
on business, but just to look around at the Convocation Center and the
various statues and altars, apparently at the same time wishing to get
a glimpse of the famous sayadaw. This flurry of activity presumably
follows sayadaw wherever he goes, to Mandalay, Yangon, Bangkok, Korea.
It would explain why sayadaw is so chubby. I wonder if he even knows
that the flurry of activity leaves each place when he leaves.

Monastics are renunciates, which means that their lifestyle leaves
almost no channels for sensual pleasures or accumulation of stuff, or
for all of the problems that accompany these. The effect is that we
settle into a state of quiet contentment, of not struggling with the
world. This makes absolutely no sense to most people, but there is
actually enormous joy in this kind of life, if your passionate
impulses don't get the better of you. The one channel that is open to
the monastic for enjoyment of sense pleasures, at least until noon
each day, is enjoyment of food. So don't be surprised when monastics,
including me, express dismaying enthusiasm for food or even start to
get chubby. What's more, lay people here, who take as great an
interest in doing things for monks as you do in the welfare of your
cat, recognize this one channel as a way to please monks while
ingratiating themselves, so they like to excite monastic passions even
more through the culinary arts. This is probably better for lay
practice than for monastic practice, but it sure can be yummy.

The lay people who come to visit SIBA are always upbeat, whether or
not Sayadaw is present, in a festive way. Happy voices working in the
kitchen or gardening, or just looking around. Often people come for
one reason, maybe to meet with one of the monks, then while waiting or
afterwards pick up a broom, or take one away from a monk, for some
habitat cleaning while they are here.

The weather is getting cooler. It is quite nice, a little chilly in
the morning, a little hot in the afternoon, bright and sunny during
the day. It's quite beautiful. I saw a big snake behind the Guest
House, near the gopher holes, a couple of days ago, maybe four feet
long. One of the monks explained to me that if you whistle it attracts
snakes. But he said you don't want to do that because most of them are
VERY poisonous. There are still a lot of mosquitoes; I'm hoping the
cold weather will reduce their numbers.

I am still teaching English five or six days a week, following the
lunar weeks, with two days off for every uposatha day, before and on.
I've started showing documentary that are available here in English
once a week. So far I've shown two: One was on Egypt, and had Omar
Sharif in it, more of a docudrama. One was on the Mayan civilization.
Tomorrow I will show one on the American Civil War. There are also a
few on nature: Some National Geographic films, some films about
geology, and profiles of different countries. Most of them have rather
difficult narration, most of these with an American accent, which the
students find more difficult than a British accent. I chose the first
two films because they also had English subtitles. I've been teaching
geography and some other subjects mixed in with English lessons. Most
of the students are amazingly uneducated. Some cannot find Europe and
Asia on a world map! One of the great tragedies about this country.
They are very eager to learn though.

My friend Venerable Jitamaro, from Laos, has been expressing a strong
interest in coming to the USA for a long time. He is interested in
being a missionary for Western Buddhists. I think he will be very good
at this. He is my main English student. We've been exploring ways to
bring him over as a monk, most viably to live at an ethnic temple.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

Kathina Day.
Last week was Kathina Day, a time when lay people make donations of
robes to monks. Not that they don't at other occasions throughout the
year. Kathina Day is always scheduled after the Rains Retreat (Vassa)
has ended. The original tradition, as described in the Vinaya,
involved a lot more work for the monks. In the old days donations were
often in the form of robe cloth rather than finished robes. Monks
would accrue pieces of cloth until they had enough to sew a robe. On
Kathina Day all of the monks at a monastery would, as a joint project,
sew a single robe from scratch and donate it to the monk who was
considered most worthy or most needy. Here is the catch: the robe
would have to be sewn by the following morning , by hand of course.
Everyone would pitch in regardless of seniority, and stay up all night
sewing. Nowhere in the scriptures does it explain why the Buddha would
institute such a silly practice, but the reason would seem to
encourage solidarity among those who shared the Rains together. Isn't
that cool? With time and modern industry, robes have lost the value
they had at the Buddha's time. Certain forest monks keep the old
tradition alive, but by and large Kathina Day has become a kind of a
festival at which purchased, manufactured robes are simply donated,
along with toothpaste. Today's Kathina involved also a Dhamma talk by
Sitagu Sayadaw and a very good lunch, prepared by a lot of lay people,
both for the monks and for themselves, monks eating first, before
noon. Then this evening the monks met together for a brief ceremony.
English Classes.
Petra, the German woman who was living here for a couple of months has
left for a new job in northern Myanmar, teaching meditation to
tourists at a hotel. She had started an English conversation class
while she was here, alongside my English pronunciation class which was
largely preempted by Sayadaw's lectures. I am continuing her class
daily 4:00 – 5:30 pm, except for Uposatha Days and the days before
Uposatha Days. Uposatha Days are full, new or quarter moon days when
many laypeople visit monasteries and monks recite Precepts. The
afternoon before an Uposatha Day is temple cleaning for the monks.
Cold Season.
November 1 was full moon, therefore an Uposatha Day. I believe this
also marked the beginning of the Cold Season. The Cold Season lasts
four months, as does the Rainy Season (just ended) and the Hot Season
(which will start just before the beginning of March, I think). The
weather has been getting cooler, still warm in the middle of the
afternoon, but a bit chilly when I get up at 4am. I no longer take a
shower first thing in the morning, but wait til it is warmer, sometime
before lunch. There is no hot water, of course. In about a month is
is supposed to be quite chilly. I don't think this means freezing
temperatures; I've never seen anything like a space heater in Myanmar
and many buildings don't have real windows. But I think I have
adequate blankets and enough layers of robes to cope.
On this full moon I was invited with the other two foreign monks to a
nuns' monastery, right across the street from Sitagu. Another unknown
senior monk was there who seemed to be a regular. Quite good food. The
various laypeople and nuns took a lot of pictures, as usual featuring
the exotic Western monk. About half an hour after I returned home
about ten people from the monastery showed up at my apartment guided
by the senior monk who proceeded to give them a tour, showing them the
little bathroom and all. They just showed up and let themselves in;
knocking is not customary in Myanmar, then all did prostrations not
only to me, but also to my altar with its $2 gold Buddha. Of course as
usual they were all delightful people.
Later that evening three children showed up at my apartment (I usually
do not get so much traffic) asking for money. That surprised me, since
there is very little begging in Myanmar (unless you count the monks),
and only in public spots, and it is odd to expect a monk to give you
something besides the Gift of the Dhamma. I wouldn't give them
anything. I learned later that this full moon day is a special day
each year in Myanmar when children are allowed to ask for small things
like money and cake. In a way, it is like our Halloween, but not as
scary. OOPS!!! And I did have some Kyat (Burmese $$) in small bills
that I could have given them.
A monk who lives in Yangon invited me about a month ago to tour the
Buddhist sites in India with him. This was U Pan~n~asiha, who used to
live in Minnesota, and has a new doctorate from an Indian university.
He suggested this rather casually, but when he comes through here
again I've decided to try to pin him down. Sitagu Sayadaw has
suggested about three times that I go to India while I'm here, and
once that I go to Thailand. If you look at a map you will see that I,
here in Central Myanmar, am not at all far from the area in which the
Buddha lived. I probably can live in monasteries, travel maybe three
weeks. Hopefully my visa will allow me to leave the country and get
back in.