Buddhism’s 4 Big Unanswered Questions: A Conversation with Donald S. Lopez (A webinar by Tricycle)

I admit, I was pretty proud of that one.

That’s not what dualism is. Cartesian dualism is the idea that there are two fundamental, irreducible substances that make up the world: matter and mind (or spirit or whatever). We can distinguish between mental and physical phenomena, but that is a quite different thing.


This is a different movement tho, a recent shift rather than the postmodernism from the 80s.

Fun to see how many of the specific things that they are looking at are familiar topics that I wrote about ten years ago in White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes and elsewhere: the story of Hariti, translation of Chinese nuns’ biographies, the relationship of bodies to discrimination in Dhamma.

A major theme of that twitter thread is Buddhism, cultural appropriation, and racism. Without being snarky, I promise, there’s a genuine sense of dislocation when you see who is doing this work. These are the faces of their twitter.

(I was invited to an interfaith panel discussion on racism some time ago. I asked who else was on the panel. Turns out, literally every person was white. I recommended Ven Juewei, a Taiwanese nun, so that worked out, at least from the Buddhist point of view.)

But this speaks to what I alluded to in my question 2 above: Buddhists are still playing catchup. First we say, “we have to bend Buddhism to make it fit with modern times”, then it turns out, shocker, that we have simply encoded all of our biasses and prejudices into the Dhamma, then we have to work to try to dig ourselves out of that pit.

Why aren’t we challenging others, setting the agenda, stepping out in front of the dialogue and shaping it?

Just as one very obvious and critically important issue: we need a Buddhist academic critique of materialism and economic growth in the face of climate change. We’re talking about how bad racism is, but we’re not stopping the one thing that will decimate the lands and cultures and lives of people of color more than anything else in history.


I’m sorry Bhante, you may have confuse me with somebody else. :see_no_evil:

No worries, every Piotr is a beautiful Piotr in their own way!


You can only ask people where language and culture allow. I don’t have any particular interest in interrogating my local monastic community about their vinaya interpretation and adherence, but if I was suddenly overtaken with great concern about, some of the finer points of vinaya I’ve seen debated on this and other forums, I don’t think I could do that. The language barrier is too high. Honestly, I believe I have donated cash which was then collected by a lay steward to support construction of the Wat, but I cringe at the idea of trying to interrogate the details and make sure none of the monks ever physically touch it. I bet I could, but I’d probably feel quite bad about it.

On the flip side, there’s been an explosion of resources to help me figure out everything about how the other institutions I donate to function. E.g. charitynavigator.org.

One can imagine a future, where, perhaps inspired by this famous joke:


Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

All of the finest details of the practices of all monasteries, or even all monastics, could be published online, so that if a lay donor has even the slightest quibble, they can say, “starve, heretic!” and withdraw support.

As it stands, I feel like I know enough.

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So, serious question here about the general trend of whiteness in modern Buddhist studies.

After a recent convo with some Asian cradle Buddhist associates, I started thinking about why we have the current lack of native Buddhist ( for lack of a better term ) scholars in the Western world. From my experience in american academia at least, it’s because only white people are going into it. My alma mater has internationally recognized stem and humanities programs. It also has massive quantities of asian american students and asian international students. 99% of them are in STEM in some capacity because there’s cultural pressure in that direction. Practically none of them are in the Humanities, much less specifically Buddhist studies.

How does a trend like that get corrected if the prospective pool of students doesn’t see it as a viable livelihood?


These trends will never go away, when those Asian students are strongly motivated to do what their family/clan/tribe wants them to do. The high profile, high-paying jobs like doctor, lawyer, economist, etc. will bring home the most prosperity for their clan, so that’s very likely why they’re pressured to go into those sorts of programs (by the “Tiger Moms” of the world). :slightly_smiling_face:

Likewise, when Ethnic Asian monks who become Scholar monks (almost all of the ones I’ve ever met), they will likewise usually strictly do what’s in the best interests of their respective clan saving face at all costs: be a “Glass Bead Game” sort of Scholar, sticking closely to the “party line” of their lineage - never going anywhere close to all the controversial, embarrasing-to-some-lineage areas that are explained by bold, risk-taking white scholars like Bhante Sujato, in his essays and books (like “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts”, and “How Early Buddhism differs from Theravada: a checklist”). I too have taken risks in things I’ve said. White monks like us have no predominantly Buddhist country to whom we have a patriotic loyalty to, and we come from liberal countries where you can much moreso get away with expressing unpopular, uncomfortable-to-hear perspectives.

Anyway, the underlying patterns here (WRT the Asian students avoiding Humanities/Buddhist Studies, while not in the robes) seem to become more clear (at least to me) when you look at the clan interests these respectable people are serving, as opposed their own heart’s desire as to career/vocation/life path.

Having said all this, the Ethnic Asian monks I highly respect, who have a high degree of intellectual honesty (even when it makes for embarrassment to the clan) are monks like Bhante Vipassi, Bhante Aggacitta, Bhante Dhammasubho, and it seems @NgXinZhao also. The sometimes-fiesty MaeChee Mon (of Birken, Canada) also deserves honourable mention.


This isn’t just limited to Asian monks. There’s also plenty of white monks that either toe the party line or actively attempt to enforce the status quo, regardless of how bad or wrong it is.

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Absolutely true. :slightly_smiling_face: Those who managed to get roles of leadership and teaching - where they officially represent their clans - almost certainly wouldn’t have managed to get those roles otherwise. You can’t get your clan’s blessing, if you are going to turn around and make the clan look bad, making them regret their decision! Quite the opposite, one gets marginalized from the clan, as indirect punishment for making a stand. That’s a standard playbook manoeuvre for running a clan, BTW: marginalize the problematic ones who refuse to become yes-men.

Fair point! As a monk, it’s easy for me.

When I was in Chieng Mai many years ago, my dad came and we spent a few days together. He offered to by me a book, and we happened to be near the Chieng Mai Uni, so we popped in to see what they had. And yeah, there was literally nothing of any interest in the Humanities area.

Having said which, many of the most important scholars of early Buddhism have been and are Asian, and classes and courses on the topics are always popular. I’ve been teaching early Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, or Hong Kong for years. Monks teaching their version of early Buddhism are super-popular in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and elsewhere. It’s not like there’s no interest, but it seems it’s not filtering through to the academy.


Because there’s a consumptive interest in the sense that people want to learn it deepen their practice but that doesn’t necessarily translate to academic interest, which is an entirely different animal

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That’s great to hear! This is inspiring. :slightly_smiling_face: The monks/MaeChee I listed above are all forest monks/forest MaeChee by-and-large - and that’s where I met them, when I did meet them in person - but they also have an academic side, and are definitely smart.

While indeed overrepresented, only 30% of Asians are in STEM majors.

I’d really recommend reading “Be The Refuge” to get some perspective on the experiences of Asian American Buddhists. The author, herself an Asian American Buddhist scholar, faced some hurdles just to get the book published.

My answer: make it a viable livelihood.

What does it say about our society that we have an endless budget for high-frequency stock traders and yet struggle to fund even modest Asian Studies departments? Or that our single Asian Studies Library was going to be demolished to make room for yet more administrative offices?

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[Edited out opening paragraph for bad info, I misread the link in the Venerable’s post]

I would be remiss if I did not admit to exaggeration for effect, which I should have marked in my original post.

If we want to get absolutely techincal, the last reliable data set I saw from the late teens studied Chinese (mainland and American) undergrad participation, and that was a near 50/50 split between STEM and Business, which accords with my own experience.

Ordered. Thanks for the recommendation!

That’s a pleasant sentiment but the situation will not be reversed by fiat. Cultural impetus towards STEM, Medicine, business or what have you is not only because of the paycheck, it’s also because they have prestige. Who is going to get more of that prestige, the person who creates a bio-polymer or cures cancer, or who significantly adds to our understanding of the development of Buddhist cultic practices around Avalokitesvara in second century India? The world doesn’t turn on academic journals, it turns on that almighty dolla, and it will continue to do so until we solve humanity’s basic frailties.

You’re welcome! “Ethnographies of young adult Buddhists” is my favorite subgenre. :slight_smile:

Idk: I’m a bit more optimistic that laws can change culture and that it doesn’t only work the other way round. Of course it’s a causal chicken and egg, but I doubt there’s any “actual” prestige in e.g. investment banking (other than the money, which can be affected easily by policy). And if we actually prosecuted white-collar crime, there’s a chance such jobs would be infamous and not prestigious, as indeed it already is in some circles.

Point being, we (the people) decide where the almighty dolla is allocated—at least for now… we’ll see how long we remain a democracy! We’re just currently deciding that teaching emotional intelligence is worth less than collecting military intelligence.

I am not. Unfortunately, I worked for the US gov in a prior career for too long to be anything other than a jaded cynic in that regard. :upside_down_face: It wasn’t even corruption, either, just towering bureaucracy and sheer, unadulterated ineptitude.


Yeah :joy: I understand. There’s a reason I’m a monk now! But, at least in public I try to act more optimistic :joy: <3

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In the spirit of unanswered questions…
Why are we still using the term monks and nuns rather than (male/female) monastics?
We stopped calling flight attendants stewards/stewardess around the time Phil Collins retired. :face_with_raised_eyebrow: ‘Monastics’ aint that clumsy.


Why is there a preference for (male/female) monastics term over monks/ nuns?

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I just don’t see the point in delineating. Within Buddhism nun is very varied in what the ordination might or might not mean. Monk just means bhikkhu (and sometimes samanera).
Also, term monk and nun are from the Christian tradition and have very different connotations from each other.

My main point is that we have removed the gendering from almost all professions, yet in Buddhism we’re lagging behind. I actually wanted to go back and edit out the (male/female) bit. Really that’s not needed either. My friends who are nurses are just nurses for example.


What are these different connotations?

ETA: I should add that I am not trying to be snide, I am genuinely curious as to what you are opining about. For reference, I am an ex-Catholic secular monastic so I have a lot of experience with Christian monastic orders. Convent, which most people associate with Nuns, originally meant a location where people (male or female) engaged in Conventual life. It could be monks, nuns, canons, or any thing in between. A monastery was a place where monasticism was practiced, usually according to a monastic Rule, and again could be gendered, or not. The Monastery I attended actually belonged to Discalced Carmelite Nuns, who were just as likely to refer to themselves as monastics or contemplatives as Nuns, and could be considered as monks since they lived permanently in the monastery. Nuns could also include non- monastic orders who would be engaged in more worldly affairs.