Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Catholic Popes, Buddhist Teachers, and the Organizations that Uphold Them



So, there's a new Pope at the Vatican. Pretty exciting for a lot of folks. Depressing for many others. And for the majority of the world, it's news that has little or no importance for them at all. I long had a fascination with Popes and papal history. There's something quite different about their place in the world from other religious figures. Perhaps it has to do with the hordes of money and political influence they've had for nearly 2000 years now.

Anyway, fellow Buddhist blogger Justin Whitaker seems to have won the race for the first Buddhist blogosphere Pope post. He suggests that Pope Francis might be a shift for the better, given some elements of his track record. Maybe. Hell if I know. The guy is also linked to some fiercely anti-gay rhetoric (more so even than the average conservative Catholic), aided the Argentinian dictatorship during the 1970s, and generally seems to hold the standard Vatican line on all things sex and reproductive rights.

But honestly, I don't care much anymore about parsing Papal biographies. It seems to me that instead of hoping for something of a savior figure, it's time for something more radical: institutional collapse and regeneration.

Why such bold words? Because the whole relationship between religious leadership and everyday members needs to be deconstructed and re-imagined.

I write this not just about the Vatican, but about organized religion in general, including Buddhism. The seemingly endless number of power abuse scandals amongst North American Buddhist communities speaks to one side of the issue: namely that when people place spiritual leaders on too high of a pedestal, at the expense of their own agency and wisdom, all hell breaks loose. On the other side of the coin is the fact that all over the "Buddhist" world, younger folks (and some older folks as well) are either turning away from, or simply uninterested from the start, in organized Buddhism. In Buddhist sanghas. In traditional forms. Longtime readers may remember this post about a Japanese monk opening a bar in order to try and connect with more young folks and teach the dharma. It may not be as bad here in North America, where Buddhism and meditation in particular is still fairly fashionable in a certain sense. However, anyone involved in sangha leadership would probably concur with my feelings on the issue. Plenty of people come through the doors. Some of those people stay for awhile. But it's a fairly small percentage that actually stick around and become rooted in the community.

The problems of the Vatican and the Catholic church are in many ways different and probably greater than what Buddhists face. And yet, it's hard for me to not see some similarities, beginning with patriarchy. How leadership is constructed, what it means to be a "follower" or student, and how the organizations are built and run: these things seem marked by patriarchy. Even often with women in leadership positions. You may see fewer power abuse scandals with women leaders, but I don't think it's a great shift when an all powerful and knowing father figure is replaced by an all knowing and powerful mother figure. For years, I watched issues come up in my own sangha around our head teacher, who wouldn't fully step into that powerful mother figure role some of the students seemed to desire. Whenever she attempted to move in that direction, there was backlash. And, often at the same time, there was suggestions that she wasn't a "strong enough leader." Seems to me that this back and forth was about much more than a conflicted teacher and her conflicted students. It represents the binary set up by patriarchal leadership models. You either have a powerful top dog or someone who's always facing questions about their strength and leadership skills. And you either have an obedient, mostly passive flock of students/community members, or you have a rebellious bunch filled with conflicting desires.

Several members of the staff of my former workplace were nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, one of the groups under constant watch during Benedict's years as Pope for their progressiveness. When I look back on conversations I had with my co-workers about the church and their position within it, it wasn't all that different from what I described above about my own Zen sangha. Like us, they were decidedly in the "rebellious" camp, fighting against what they felt was crappy leadership while continuing to have some lingering sense of loyalty to the institution and spiritual teachings as a whole. Obviously, what they faced was - and continues to be - much more troubling and serious than anything I and my fellow sangha members have been dealing with over the past half decade or so. But at the root of it, in my view, are the very notions we've had about what a priest's "job" is, what it means to be a spiritual student, and how it is that we construct and maintain community containers to support these two interdependent roles.

Instead of spending a lot of energy on parsing Papal biographies, and hoping for change like so many did when Obama was elected (both bloody times), it's time to inspire reorganization and renewal. To uphold groups that have broken new ground without abandoning most - if not all - of the past in process (like the secular meditation folks, or ex-Catholics who have adopted science as their new savior). Note: there's nothing wrong with either of these diverse groups of people, but I don't find their conclusions particularly inspiring. Much of the New Age community feels equally uninspiring for different reasons - although all of these groups seem to be variations of the theme. Either made up of rebellious individuals who have rejected the whole notion of spiritual leadership and communities, or who have simply recreated the father/mother dynamic in a new form (plenty of New Age guru scandals to go around, to cite one example of that).

I think humanity is longing for something beyond the patriarchal binary. And I think there are examples out there on a smaller scale of "communities" that exemplify that something beyond. Something more holistic that incorporates the best of the past with the creative spirit of today. The Pope is a ghost leadership figure in my opinion, as is the "traditional" Buddhist priest and teacher. They're dead, but haunting us because we haven't figured out what to do now in this modern, changed world of ours.

Some of us cling and defend, and others rebel and hope. But none of that will put the ghosts to rest.






9 comments:

Robyn said...

You know, Nathan, I am not so sure that I agree that there are any(?) or at least, many parallels between institutionalized Christianity and the current incarnation of convert Buddhism in the West.

The main place of disagreement that I have is that, in my experience, working with a teacher in Zen, the dynamic is exactly related to the term "Sensei" - one who has walked the path before you". In other words, we are both working towards the same goal (such as it is), or we have the same aspiration (perhaps that is better) and the Sensei has walked this path before me so that is why I am asking her/him - key point here: I am asking! - to guide me. I am seeking a kind of guidance but , ultimately, we are both the same.

In Christianity, the role of the priest and the congregant are never the same - what they aspire to are quite different, if such a thing is ever even articulated. The hierarchy is institutionalized to the point where there is never even a whiff of a notion that someone in the congregation could also know/be what the priest is. This doesn't even come up, as far as I know. Not that every sangha member aspires to be the teacher but (one presumes) they do have some kind of aspiration towards understanding their true nature...just like the teacher did/does.

Does that make any sense? It only just now occurred to me that this distinction makes some of the comparisons moot. But I think it is an important distinction.

jundo cohen said...

Plenty of people come through the doors. Some of those people stay for awhile. But it's a fairly small percentage that actually stick around and become rooted in the community.

Hey Nathan,

It has always been so throughout the centuries. Zen Practice has always appealed to certain folks, often of a certain spiritual and philosophical bent, and not to others. It was a "boom" among the scholarly classes in China, but not throughout the general population. It was a widely spread in Japan only when it began offering ceremonies to honor the dead, or when the government required everyone to register with their neighborhood temple as a form of social control. It was never popular for its "deeper" teachings and practices except upon people of a certain bent.

And that is fine.

This Way has been preserved for centuries by the handful who stay and thrive in this soil. Others have Karma that leads them elsewhere, and that is fine as well. I would believe in making these Teachings and Practices available widely to those with such a calling, but not in lowering to content to fit the low common denominator.

You also write ...

younger folks (and some older folks as well) are either turning away from, or simply uninterested from the start, in organized Buddhism.

That is fine, but some of them do not have the slightest idea what they are turning from or toward. They turn away without looking within themselves to see what they are running from or toward. This week, I read something by a friend on another blog who described most of the Zen Teachers out there as " People are saying the same shit in the same way it’s been said 100 times; what’s the point of buying a 300th remix of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind?" I wanted to respond that some folks can hear it 100 or 300 times, but not truly pierce it. Running away from the Organized into the DisOrganized is not the answer if one fails to see what cannot be run from.

Gassho, Jundo

Mumon K said...

I'm going to have to put out quite a post on this, I guess.

As an ex-Catholic, I take the position that Buddhism as Buddhism and Christianity is it posits itself ultimately are in no way the same thing, and that the reasons the Catholic Church has become what it is has to do precisely with the fact that it isn't Buddhist.

Nathan said...

I figured my attempts to make certain links between Catholicism and Buddhism would be taken too broadly. Robyn and Mumon - I totally agree that they are different animals. I'm thinking now that it would probably take several posts or a much longer piece for me to be clear about the differences, while also pointing to some underlying similarities. Which I still believe are there. We're all humans acting out human constructs that have been mutually influenced, even if the end results in the relative world look very different.

Jundo, you're right. Zen has always appealed to the few in the end.

"I would believe in making these Teachings and Practices available widely to those with such a calling, but not in lowering to content to fit the low common denominator." This is exactly what I was arguing in favor of. How to do so is another matter. I actually think Treeleaf is an example of moving beyond what's traditionally been done, while being diligent about maintaining the marrow of our training and history.

"Running away from the Organized into the DisOrganized is not the answer if one fails to see what cannot be run from." This is one end of the binary I spoke about. What I'm speaking about is new forms of organization. Regenerated and revitalized. Which contain elements of "disorganization" probably. Because what I see with the old forms of organized religion - not just Zen or Buddhism - is that fewer people are sticking. Feeling nourished. Feeling challenged in a beneficial way. This isn't just an issue of youth. I've known dozens of middle aged and elder adults who simply stopped attending churches and other religious orgs. They still felt a resonance with some of the teachings, but not with the communities and spiritual leadership. At the same time, here in the US, there's been a gigantic growth in evangelical Christianity amongst people of all ages, in large part I'd argue because they redid how "church" looks. And how the scriptures are taught. We can debate whether or not this is a positive development, but I see it as a response to modern life. Just as I see Treeleaf as a response.

Anonymous said...

Hope and fear are two sides of the same coin, but this is not a popular idea. The popular ideas are those which provide refuge from any sort of personal limitation. The demand for significance must find fulfillment, regardless of outcome.

Why risk exposure to the reality of death, and submit to affirmation of the final limitation of any lifetime itself? Why risk exposure to the cosmic scale of time and space which dwarfs the personal significance of apparent action in an unimaginable way? Absolutism and defaulting to extremes are indicators towards any operative limits of perception. They are not "reality", but the filters with which to approximate it. The relationship to endless process is a personal choice in the face of the impersonal... but communication of the non-conceptual requires an ability to grasp it. Standard education does not currently support this, so we cannot expect it as a standard among society.

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot force them to drink it. Perhaps you can ride the horse through the desert for a while to make that water more appealing... but at the end of the day, that personal choice remains. Freedom cannot be institutionalized. Conditional engineering can only provide so much when the objective itself is unconditional.

Robyn said...

I think that because I have had the good luck to fall into a sangha that is very diverse and has very strong teachers, it is sometimes hard for me to relate to some of your assertions about dissatisfied people are within Zen. Of course there are issues and disagreements - we are polishing each other as we bump up against each other - but it feels generally very healthy and alive.

That said, I am very hesitant about places that want to make it look different and teach different. I think the arguments I have had with myself and with others about why wear a robe? why have a dharma name and use it? why bow in front of the teacher? and so on, have all been hugely helpful to me, not just in clarifying my own practice but in my life as a whole. I am grateful for the strictness of discipline in the MRO - it helps me see myself in so many ways. And I hear others say similarly. What a shame to toss it away in the hope that an easier version would attract more people. Attract them to what, exactly? And here, I know, I do tread dangerously close to some of the stuff the previous Pope said about Catholic dogma and updating it to better suit modern life.

I think it does all go back to my first comment that makes the distinction about asking to be taught - Buddha to Buddha - and the immoveable hierarchy between priest and congregant.

Kyla Houbolt said...

Nathan, thank you for this post. I appreciate your raising this issue and I especially appreciate the thoughtful conversation you've elicited.

I agree with Anonymous, generally. However I also question why it is that this condition exists so widely, of the need for the "guru" (to use some shorthand, please forgive if you can!)

Of course the differences between Catholicism and Buddhism are huge and crucial. But I do believe there is this overlap, of ultimately unhealthy reliance upon the teacher, the leader, the voice from outside.

It is good that this is being discussed. I don't believe I have any answers; I do encourage people to take up their own investigations and discover as much as possible for themselves. Pedestals are dangerous both to those who occupy them, and to those who bow at their bases.

Thanks again.

Nathan said...

"I am very hesitant about places that want to make it look different and teach different. I think the arguments I have had with myself and with others about why wear a robe? why have a dharma name and use it? why bow in front of the teacher? and so on, have all been hugely helpful to me, not just in clarifying my own practice but in my life as a whole. I am grateful for the strictness of discipline in the MRO - it helps me see myself in so many ways. And I hear others say similarly. What a shame to toss it away in the hope that an easier version would attract more people." Robyn, you seem to assume that making changes equals easier. The reality is that the dharma has always been changing and evolving. The teachers that came to the US, for example, all made adaptations - based precisely on what they saw in their student body, and felt those folks (and like-minded folks needed). Many of them erred on the side of meditation and samadhi, for example, which in recent decades has led to more emphasis on the precepts. That's just one example. The deliberate inclusion of women ancestors in lineage chants and documents is another change that I'd argue is for the better. The list goes on.

What's funny is that I actually prefer maintaining robes, bowing, chanting, and the like as well. We don't disagree on that at all. I'm not interested in some stripped down, easier version of practice. What I am looking at though is that the kind of diversity it sounds like your sangha has is NOT the norm. Perhaps if it were, I wouldn't be speaking of these issues. My own sangha isn't doing a bad job itself, but that's only because of long standing, deliberate raising of the kinds of questions and ideas I write about on this blog. We've changed a lot in the 11 years I've been a member, even as we also have maintained many of the rigorous practices and forms of the past.

As Jundo rightly pointed out, it's not about attracting piles of people. But I do think it's about keeping practice alive - which requires responding to current conditions.

Nathan said...

Kyla,

Thanks for the comment. I generally agree with Anonymous as well.

"But I do believe there is this overlap, of ultimately unhealthy reliance upon the teacher, the leader, the voice from outside."

One thing I notice is that there's a struggle to move from the necessary learning/copying stage to a place of autonomy and standing on one's own. This is natural, I think, but gets dangerous when a person is in a community where spiritual leaders are treated "God-like" and where questioning and self-inquiry are downplayed or outright discouraged.

Seems to me that developing an environment that fosters healthy movement through the stages of practice is critical. Some sanghas do this well, others don't.