Beliefnet
One City


by Greg Zwahlen 
People study meditation and Buddhism for all sorts of reasons, with varying levels of interest. That said, it seems safe to say that the vast majority have modest aspirations for it, modest levels of interest in it, and modest levels of commitment to it. That’s not a bad thing. It’s wonderful, actually. It’s normal, it’s healthy, and it’s exactly what one would reasonably expect. Most of the people I hang out with fit this description, and thank goodness they’re here. 
In a very real sense, people with a casual interest in Buddhism and meditation are the foundation of dharma in the West, without which there would be little or no dharma here at all. The scholar Thomas Tweed, writing about this in Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia, wrote “sympathizers have been an important part of the story of Buddhism since the 1880s . . . [the] tens of thousands who .  ..do not affiliate formally with Buddhism formally or fully are an important part of the tradition’s history in America” (pgs 75-76). Tweed coined the term “night-stand Buddhists” to describe the contemporary representatives of this demographic.
There simply aren’t enough teachers to teach everyone with this level of interest in meditation and Buddhism. However, the good news is that it seems to be possible for facilitators to give introductory instruction with only a relatively modest amount of experience themselves.
In order to keep this situation healthy and thriving, however, it is also important that there is a certain percentage of the Buddhist population that is deeply trained and knowledgeable, able to guide the smaller number of people who wish to explore the dharma further and deeper, able to address more thorny issues in an informed manner, and able to protect the integrity of the overall situation. Basically, we also need more masters of scripture (?gamadharma) and realization (adhigamadharma).

In an interesting interview with Vince Horn over at Buddhist Geeks, Judith Simmer-Brown suggests that a Buddhist infrastructure must be developed in four areas, without which the dharma “will not survive as a real ongoing tradition beyond a generation or beyond 100 years.” Prof. Simmer-Brown is on the faculty at Naropa University, and is an acharya in the Shambhala tradition. The four components she identifies as critical to the survivial of Buddhism in the West are 1) the translation of texts into native languages, 2) the establishment of a monastic tradition, 3) the full empowerment of Westerners as teachers and lineage holders, and 4) the establishment of endowments and bases of financial support.
With regard to the second point, she says (emphasis mine):
The reason why monasticism was so important in Asia was because of Buddhist education. And one of the questions is: Will we develop the kind of monastic structure in America that existed in Asia? We just aren’t sure, and some people say that we will not develop that. I’d like to come back to that because I do think we need a strong monastic system, although maybe it will play a different role here than it played in Asia.

But even if we don’t have strong, large, well-supported monasteries, we do need Buddhist education. We need people to learn the sources of a tradition, and we need dharma teachers to be trained, not just making things up as pop-psychology, or whatever sells, or whatever the market will bear. But a deeply trained, educated teacher who can share the depth and wealth of the tradition.

And so, all these wonderful translations that are being done, if people don’t read them, or study them, or learn from them, and build one text on another in a systematic way and understand what they’re doing, the tradition is going to get watered down more and more and more as our Asian teachers pass away, or no longer stay around. So, that’s a huge issue.

I couldn’t agree more with her sentiments. It’s not that I think that the dharma can’t evolve and adapt to its new context–on the contrary, I agree that it must. But I do think it needs to adapt and evolve consciously and intentionally, with an awareness of the ways in which it departs from tradition. It should not evolve and adapt because of general ignorance and carelessness, poorly trained teachers, or because the path of least resistance becomes the course by default.
Although I agree that monasticism should be part of the solution to the need for deep and comprehensive training for some, there is clearly much room for discussion here. However, whatever the proposed solution, the present arrangment for training, credentialing, and advertising teachers leaves much to be desired. Daniel Ingram critiques the situation trenchantly in his Mastering the Core Teachings of the BuddhaHe asserts, “we may wish to explicitly ask our teachers if they are skilled in the aspect of the specific training we are interested in mastering and also to what level” (pg 81). A simple and reasonable enough suggestion on the face of it, but surprisingly hard to implement, and in some cases one that violates what is almost an unspoken taboo. As he elaborates later (emphasis mine):
It is interesting that Buddhism started out very much as a tradition in which those who were highly attained were often loudly proclaimed to be so by themselves and others with the specific details of their skills and understandings made clear. . . . In the West, the situation is often remarkably different from this early practice. There seem to be two basic styles of code used when advertising dharma teachers. The first is to simply use a grand title such as, “Wazoo Tulku, Supreme and Luminous Dharma King.” The second type of code is in the style of a resume for a job, “Jane Rainbow is the author of three books. She has been teaching meditation for 17 years internationally and is a member of the Buddhist Flower Society.”

 .  . .Obviously, the assumption is that if they have been practicing for so many years, have a fancy name, or if someone let them publish a book
or teach internationally, then they must be in some generic way a good teacher of something.
There may also be the unspoken assumption that there is some unnamed but reliable body of evaluators of teachers somewhere that have checked the person out. Either of these may or may not be true, and some traditions do a much better job of being clear and honest about these things than others do.

. . .Notice that neither of these bios tells you anything about what they may actually know, which traditions they draw from, their attitude towards scholarship and the standard dogmas, which techniques they are masters of or teach, what they have attained or claim to have attained, what their personality is like, what their strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and person are, who trained them, the lineage or lineages by which they are claimed, their level of availability to their students (though “teaches internationally” is often an ominous clue), why it is that they teach, what they expect from their students, particularly as regards money, vows and exclusive loyalty, how many students they already have, whether or not they will talk about real practice directly, if you run into trouble with them, is there a governing organization that can address this.

What is astounding is how few students will ever ask their teachers about any of these specific practical issues. These are the questions that should be initially considered when seeking a teacher, and yet you almost never see them addressed on a retreat center brochure. Imagine a university where none of the professors would tell you about their research, who funds their work, where they got their degree, what courses they teach, who taught them, what their specialty is, or even why they like being professors. That would be just a bit strange, wouldn’t it? This sort of information is typically available for public consumption on the university web page.

There is something very balanced and reasonable about this. When I see a presentation at the school I currently attend, someone generally tells you exactly who the person is, what they are working on, highlights of what they have published in the past, and what positions and degrees they currently hold, and why they are qualified to speak on the topic of the day. Perhaps I am particularly naive and idealistic, but I imagine a spiritual world where this would be standard practice as well. I dream that this would simultaneously cut down on otherworldly spiritual ideals, provide faith that it can be done, demystify the process of awakening, and bring the whole thing back down to earth. There is obviously a long way to go before such a dream is likely to be a reality, but hopefully this little book will be one small step towards that. There are cool things our minds can do and perceive, and there are definable techniques that lead to those cool things. Why does is have to be more complex than that? (339-341)

What’s worse is, not only is it often hard to discern why someone is qualified to speak on a given topic, once a teacher has received some degree of perceived legitimacy, in my experience they sometimes seem to feel qualified to pontificate and make pronouncements about nearly any subject under the sun, Buddhist or otherwise. The temptation is normal and understandable. What is needed is enough informed citizens out there who can call those bluffs in such cases.
At the same time, most of the time it seems that when people experience confusion about any number of things related to Buddhism and meditation, it’s because there is such a panoply of views out there among and between various schools. It’s hard even for fairly well educated Buddhists to make sense of it all.
Ingram is correct in pointing out there there are a number of different areas in which a teacher might or might not be knowledgeable, and it is a mistake to assume that someone competent in one area has necessarily mastered them all. I was once at a teaching where a western lama gave a brilliant and inspiring talk. Afterwards I asked him about some remarks he’d made and how they might correlate with the three natures discussed in the Yog?c?ra system, and he had no idea what I was talking about. But that’s fine, because he admitted as much without hesitation. 
The problem of realization and how to talk about it is a whole other subject. I’m grateful to Ingram for being the only person who seems willing to mention the elephant in the shrine room, but I also understand why its so difficult to have an intelligent discussion about it. Adding “Arhat” to people’s names as a title like “Ph.D” is definitely . . .um, shall we say, one way to clarify things, but certifying realization would be tricky, to put it mildly. However, as Acharya Simmer-Brown noted, producing more masters of scripture, at least, would be far less complicated, and a very good start.
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus