Friday, May 21, 2010

Is Convert Buddhism too Clubby and Exclusive?

Peter over at living and dying with eyes wide open had a post yesterday which has been hanging with me. The major thrust of the post is a questioning of the ritualistic, highly monastic forms and language found in most convert Zen communities. I appreciate his desire to open the doors to more people, and the wondering of how that might happen, but I'm also a bit troubled.

First, here's his post:

Something’s been troubling me about this thing called practice. When I first came to Zen, my personal likes and dislikes got in the way. I didn’t like chanting lines in Japanese and Sanskrit, thought there was too much bowing, too many robes, too much mumbo-jumbo. Over time that very practice has helped me to see such “obstacles” for what they are, namely ego-based impediments that have little or nothing to do with living a good life. I’m now grateful for the ethical framework that Buddhism provides. It guides me through the chaos of everyday existence and people tell me that I’ve become more gentle and less judgemental. So far so good.

Recent conversations with friends about someone they believe would “really benefit” from meditating but “won’t come for x-number of reasons” cause me look a little closer at what I take for granted. If it’s such a good thing, this practice, why aren’t more people coming to it? What gets in the way? What turns people away from trying and what, should they give it a try, prevents them from returning? What barriers might we remove to provide freer access?

In a practice that stresses non-duality and inclusivity, I’m struck by texts and images that seem clubby and exclusive. In our city (which is anything but a hotbed of Buddhist activities) meditation opportunities are offered in several flavours, including Tibetan, Shambhala, Vipassana, as well as Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Soto, and Rinzai Zen. Teachers sport such arcane titles as Reverend Master, osho, sensei, rinpoche, venerable, lama, priest, and roshi; others are called elders, monks, shusso, benji, doan, ino, or by given names in Asian languages. Websites refer to proper etiquette (such as when and how to bow, and which foot to put first when entering, how to hold your hands while walking, and so on). Pictures show people wearing special outfits (some crown-like hats), burning incense, bowing to statues, sitting on round cushions while facing blank walls, walking lock-step in close formation, ringing bells, hitting wooden boards, and holding their hands in what may well be prayer. Hello !!

All that so people can sit still and pay attention to their breath?

I know of formally trained teachers who have taken off their robes and offer meditation with little jargon, titles, and ritual. In some traditions, Vipassana (as taught by SN Goenka) for instance, the emphasis is on silent sitting and focusing on the breath: no Buddha images in sight. Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), widely used in American hospitals, teaches patients meditation techniques to help lower blood pressure and improve immune systems. Abundant research attests to MBSR’s benefits, its Buddhist roots are rarely mentioned.

I've written plenty about my disagreements with those who wish to strip everything cultural (i.e. Japanese, Chinese, Korean ...) from Buddhism to expose some "core" of practice. It's folly because everything develops within a cultural/societal framework, and although it will change whenever it moves, it still will also contain influences from its native setting. Zen itself is a hybrid - but it would be absolutely silly to suggest that nothing of Indian origins of Buddhism is left in Zen. The search for a "core" in Buddhism is as fruitless in my view as the search for a "fixed self."

What Peter is considering here may contain a bit of that flavor, but I don't think it's driven by a goal of finding some pure essence of Buddhism. Having read his blog for awhile now, I can see the deep respect he has for how he's learned to practice.

The thing I get stuck on when I consider his comments above is that everything seems to come down to meditation. Buddhist practice is more than just meditation though, as even any monastic would tell you. But just as Yoga's arrival in North America, Europe, Australia, etc. led quickly to a very heavy emphasis on asanas (physical body poses), so much of convert Buddhism has has a heavy emphasis on meditation practice.

Look. I practice Soto Zen, whose founder, Dogen, emphasized seated meditation. It makes sense that zazen would be a prominent feature. But if it was only about getting people to sit down and watch their breath, then why in the hell did Dogen write a huge pile of texts concerning ethics, relationships, ritual, work, and awakening, amongst other topics? What's the point of writing an entire manual on how to be a Zen Cook if the core practice is meditation?

The reality is that every major spiritual tradition includes some form of meditation. It's really not unique to Buddhism, and so even though people like Kabit-Zinn (founder of MBSR) took their cues from Buddhist forms of meditation, they might have produced similar results secularizing something like Centering Prayer. So, I think it's important for those of us who are interested in creating "more access" to, or "opening the doors of Buddhism to" more people, to see that meditation isn't what makes Buddhism unique.

A point I made over at Peter's blog in response to his post yesterday is that just as there are many flavors of Buddhism, so, too, are there flavors of Protestant Christianity. And just as there are many ritualistic aspects to Zen, so, too, are there ritualistic aspects to Catholicism. Clearly, this turns many off. But others thrive in it. Different flavors are needed for different people is the way I see it.

Peter writes: "In a practice that stresses non-duality and inclusivity, I’m struck by texts and images that seem clubby and exclusive."

I have been too, but in different ways most likely. Convert Buddhist communities have been notoriously race and class unconscious, for one thing. It's hard not to get a bit cynical when you step into a Zen or Tibetan center and see fifty or seventy five white, middle and/or upper class folks and a hand full of well off people of color in the room. Another thing, which my own center has addressed pretty well in my view, is stepping into a room where there are no children, few elders, no food, and little socializing at all. We have taken steps to develop a more well-rounded community, one that actually feels like a community, and not just several dozen people coming together for a few hours every week to meditate and listen to a dharma talk. We have elders. We have lots of children around. We are socializing more. We even have food to share pretty frequently now.

I love doing meditation in a group. In fact, it would be hard for me to sustain a meditation practice without access to fairly regular group sittings. After several years, I can do it on my own. But it's easier when you have a group to go to and work together with.

However, sangha is more than just silently practicing together, and I suspect that this is something Peter's post is aiming at without directly saying so. Newcomers, who don't know what's going on and feel very out of place, are probably more likely to never come back if a group doesn't have a prominent social element.

So, I'd be interested to know what you all think about this. Is convert Buddhism too clubby and exclusive? If yes, in what ways? Do you feel, like Peter, that there are too many "bells and whistles"?

Even though Buddhism has been in North America over 150 years, it's still true that it's a newcomer, and people are still finding their way. So, it's important to have these kinds of discussions, and consider what we might be leaving the generations that will follow us.


Adam said...

Yes, it is clubby and exclusive. There! I said it!

It's difficult to navigate and step into this religion here in the US and the reasons are many. Geography, access, previous religious dogma, culture, language, 84,000 sects, all compounded by prevelant misconceptions about Buddhism in general DO make it difficult for someone that is curious about Buddhism to get started (and stick with it).

But I (like you) don't find everything I just listed to be unnecessary or things that need to be discarded. But the obstacles are real and present. I have no idea how to deal with offering Buddhism to new comers while keeping the identity and culture of Buddhism alive and well.

It seems like the type of job a larger non-denominational Buddhist institution would be able to handle, though I don't think that would be well recieved here in America.

And post coming soon regarding Buddhism and babies......

Robyn said...

It isn't the practice that is the obstacle, it is the person's ideas about the practice. Something like sesshin could easily appear to be completely bizarre, uptight, or any other adjective but, in fact, it is about creating the easiest place to practice - setting up everything to be just right to make practice easy. If, at first, it all just seems overly obsessively detailed or using arcane language and symbols, well, there you go - there is your practice! Figure it out!

I say that as someone who bristled at all the bowing, robes, incense, etc.. I hated it, thought was was stupid, blah, blah, blah. It was the teacher's talks and the sitting itself that kept me coming back. Little by little, I have grown to see the wisdom and, yes, compassionate gift of all those other things.

Because really, if you have trouble with that stuff, which is completely designed to help you on your path, what will you do with something that hurdles at you from left field that doesn't give a damn about you and your practice?

No, that IS the easy stuff. All the rest of it only gets harder.

Also, since I haven't experienced sangha as clubby or exclusive (or middle aged or middle classed), I can't speak to that. Sangha really is a treasure and one that I am deeply grateful for.

Barry said...

Nathan, I don't have a direct comment on your post, or the post that provoked it.

But I have been thinking lately about the differences between techniques such as MBSR (and I'll include Goenka-style Vipassana in this) and more traditional practices such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has been very careful not to overposition MBSR as anything other than stress reduction. It's a powerful tool for this function, but no one considers it fundamentally transformative.

Perhaps that's because it doesn't force us into a head-on confrontation with our attachments to opinion, views, thoughts, and beliefs.

Traditional Buddhist practices, on the other hand, shove our faces into our attachments. ("I don't LIKE chanting" is a common one.)

Of course, the vast majority of people will never willingly look into attachment - it's just too painful and actually increases stress (at least for a while).

So I don't worry too much about the fact that Buddhism hasn't grown huge in the West. I don't worry too much that one person out of one hundred returns to the Zen center for a second time.

That's normal, I think. Good grief, did we think that transformation would be easy?

Richard Harrold said...

Meditation is not "the practice." Living a moral life that causes no harm is "the practice." Meditation is the tool by which we see for ourselves what is skillful and unskillful.

The Buddha said that rites and rituals in and of themselves are empty. However, they can be tools for developing mindfulness. You can bow to a Buddha statue as a simple rote behavior; or you can be mindful of what you are doing while simultaneously remembering what the Buddha left for all of us.

The development of a reverent mind is just as important as developing a focused mind. Ted Bundy had a focused mind; what he lacked was a reverent mind.

NellaLou said...

This post got me thinking about the way Christianity is viewed by many here in India. A couple of years ago my partner attended a Christian wedding as a guest.
He had no idea what to do there. At Hindu weddings everybody knows what is going on.

He was surprised by the inside of the church. It was a large on in a big city. He marveled at the vestments of the priest, the stained glass windows, the ornate goods that decked the altar. In the latter case he saw them used by the priest which is different than in Hinduism where items are just left on the altar in the temple and not used in ceremonies. The priest carries his ritual goods around with him.
He also was shocked and rather pleased with the lines "If anyone here has objection to this marriage speak now or forever hold your peace." He thought this was a good idea for every marriage as it would save a lot of interference later on.

He's briefly been inside a couple of small local Christian churches but never when there's been any service or function on. I had suggested at one point to attend a Christmas concert at a local Anglican church but he felt it would be too much since it's such a big deal for Christians.

The reason I am bringing this up is that a lot of what he found alien, interesting and somewhat daunting is stuff many North Americans would take for granted. We go to weddings occasionally and don't have to think about what happens next. We know the script.

And the point is the script. Every situation has one. It helps people to organize themselves into an effective group and to accomplish the purpose of the group.

One of the things that seems to cause some tension is the balance between what the individual wants to accomplish in a Buddhist situation and what the group wants to accomplish. If it is only about the individual's practice then throwing out any and all rituals, chanting etc. is no problem. But when it becomes about the Sangha and their purpose (which I think is what is missing in a lot of Western contexts, everyone is there for themselves mostly)then imposing an individual's desire upon the group is not feasible.

The scripts change over time and over cultures. But there has to be some foundation for group practice before improvisation can really take place and be effective.

(I'd better make this a blog post as there's a few more ideas bubbling on this.)

Thanks Nathan, and Peter for bringing this up for discussion.

David said...

Much of what you’re talking about is exactly what the Soka Gakkai does. For them it is more than just chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, it’s also about socializing, creating bonds, making newcomers feel welcome, and they are very successful in making newcomers feel at ease, which as you pointed out, is important.

For myself, ultimately I found relationships in the Soka Gakkai to be rather superficial, more as a means to an end. Nevertheless, it was fun, joyful even, and that is one reason they attract so many people.

As Westerners, it’s natural that we have a resistance to some of the bells and whistles. Some of them are purely cultural and have little or nothing to do with awakening. At the same time, we’ve got to maintain a seeking and open mind to insure that we seeing clearly what is superficial and what is substantial.

The answer lies where it always does in Buddhism, somewhere in the middle, but it’s a razor’s edge. We need to adapt Buddhism to our world and age, but it's no good if we end up diluting it, which has happened in the case of the Soka Gakkai and other similar movements.

Nathan said...

Thanks for the great set of comments everyone!

I think Nella Lou's point about "scripts" is an important one, one that I've tried to make as well.

Robyn, you've been fortunate to practice in a diverse sangha. It's not a terribly common experience I think. As for people seeing the "bells and whistles" as a practice - well, you and I and some of the others on here get that. But someone who is brand new doesn't, probably, see that anything and everything is an opportunity to practice. So, somehow that message needs to be given out as much as possible, to encourage boundless openness to start arising.

David, I totally agree that if the relationships being made in a sangha are just a means to an end, it's not much of a sangha.

Barry "I don't worry too much that one person out of one hundred returns to the Zen center for a second time.

That's normal, I think. Good grief, did we think that transformation would be easy?"

The questions being raised here won't be even tentatively resolved in my lifetime. At the same time, it's worth looking at why the 99 people that walk out do because maybe there are changes that could be made so that only 98 walk out :)


helmut said...

All true religion is composed of volunteers.
When the Buddha was asked to give teachings to prospective "followers" or "converts".
He said, "Come."
In other words follow and see, and if you like it, stay on; if you don't, nice meeting you and best wishes on your search.
It's like a guy I heard once where I was working, for the first week he gushed at how grateful he was for the job and the benefits and the steady pay, and how he was now able to provide for his family. Within a few short weeks the same guy started spending most of his working time complaining about everything and felt he should be paid twice as much, at least. He then became one of those co-workers that are a complete drag to be around, because of the dis-satisfaction (ungratefulness), he constantly showed.

steve said...

New Yorker Cartoon:
Picture a guy leaving house day after day for the garage with his class notebooks and no umbrella. There are sheets of raindrops outside, each rain drop is one word: maybe.

What's a guy to do now: 'fraid of living, scared of dying; all dressed up and no where to go, half-hearted about being half-hearted just about to rename his blog: " POS" [permanent observer status].

To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

When you find yourself on board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.

Good thing this is about the other guy not you...

Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple said...

The "smells and bells" of the zendo forms are a barrier for some. The mind will always come up with resistance to something. Why toss out the forms because of activity of the mind. For the most part, it can't be trusted!

It is important to be vigilant about our own conditioning which can consciously or unconsciously create obstacles which are even more problematic.

In our medium-size Sangha we never charge for zazen. This includes meditation instruction, sitting, discussion groups and all-day sits (zazenkai). This allows lower income people and students to keep coming back.

We have people designated as greeters who welcome and connect newcomers with a meditation instructor, show them around, explain the forms, and introduce them to a couple people.

Greeting people cannot be underestimated. Our teacher says that it is the most important volunteer position.

This came home for me when a newcomer told me that he went to a Zen center and said that the people there barely noticed him and stood in a circle talking to each other. It was so off-putting that he meditated alone for many years.

Extending a hand to new people and orienting them to what is going, friendly conversation before and after sitting goes a long way.

Algernon said...

You named this and I have noted it as well: we sometimes neglect the sangha jewel. Sometimes there are unseen (read: ignored) barriers involving race or class. A social feature can help address that if there is consciousness around the issue. Someone once raised the question in a sangha meeting as to why our sangha had 99.9% white faces, and a teacher shrugged and suggested other people just might not want to come. It was a disappointing answer in that it could be true, but we wouldn't know if non-white faces didn't feel invited in the first place.

During periods that I have lived at Zen Centers, I always noticed the phenomenon of people coming to practice and then quickly jumping into their cars, firing up their combustion engines, and motoring off to individual homes.

I have seen a range of sanghas, however, and some socialize quite easily with a diversity of faces and blue- and white collars. If you ask how they do it, they often smile and say, "Gee, I dunno."

Anonymous said...

I bow to you Nathan and all who've written with such thoughfulness. My reason for writing was NOT to advocate doing away with bells and smeels (as I enjoy them and rely on them as aids to navigation), nor to strip Buddhism of its historical riches, nor to claim that it's only about meditating.

Perhaps I used to many words to state my challenge as the co-founder of a new sitting group: "How can we attract newcomers to the practice -- a practice initially about meditation and, always, about the dharma?"

Peter (Daishin) at

Nathan said...

Hi Peter,

I didn't really get the sense that you were part of the "strip it down" club. I wrote about that issue because it seems to be a common approach these days, and one I have some concerns about.

The issue of how to attract newcomers is one most of are wrestling with, so it's good to keep talking about it, and also sitting with the question.