Comment on "We’ve Been Here All Along" by Ajahn Amaro

A rather challenging recent article in Lion’s Roar:

Ajahn Amaro is quoted in a followup.


Here’s part of Ajahn Amaro’s comment:

Over the years, particularly during my time in the USA, I have interacted a lot with both of these groups [Asian Immigrants and Westerners]. It is sad to say, but in conversations with Western-born Buddhist teachers and practitioners, at formal meetings and conferences as much as in informal dialogues, I have regularly encountered the kind of white cultural conceit that speaks of practicing “real Buddhism” rather than “folk Buddhism” weighed down with so-called “cultural baggage.” As one whose lifestyle is devotedly built around such “baggage” (preferably understood as “skillful means”) such comments and discussions come across bearing the ugliness and conceit of the unconscious racism of: “Some of my best friends are…”

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QUOTE:

But an important element of the appropriation occurs through the assumed occupation of white authority status, often legitimized through the intellectual study of Buddhism. …

Indeed, Asian and Asian-American Buddhist practices have often been dismissed as superstitious, inauthentic (yet authentically exotic!) forms of Buddhism. In mainstream white American Buddhist conversations, white Buddhists are often heralded as the erudite saviors and purifiers of Buddhism. This perspective exemplifies the subtle enactments and overwhelming hubris of white supremacy.

For me, common stereotypes found in both articles however, in my experience, I have never found what I regard as a bona fide Western ‘revisionist’. There may be lots of this ‘conceited’ Western Buddhism but it is very sloppy Buddhism (e.g. ‘Batchelorism’) to me.

The continuum of ‘real Buddhism’ vs ‘folk Buddhism’ is very broad/wide and, in terms of authenticity, in my experience, I have never read a genuine ‘real Buddhism’ that is not rooted in an Asian teacher.

In other words, I have never come across any compelling exclusively Western contribution to Buddhism.

For me, the problem is not one of ‘conceit’ but one of ‘delusion’ (since Western scholarly Buddhism is generally very sloppy & often aweful, regardless of how ‘real’ is seeks to be).

Being a Western-non-American, if I am going to venture into naughty cultural stereotyping, I might speculate this issue is largely American & Jewish, since I have always gained the impression there is a strong (childhood) conditioning in both American & Jewish culture to “succeed, achieve & lead” & that such Buddhists struggle to overcome that cultural conditioning.

Personally, if I was an Asian Buddhist, I wouldn’t worry about it since ‘conceit’ is a defilement & fetter.

:soccer:

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Interesting article, and an interesting response by Ajahn Amaro. My personal practice includes attendance at uposatha day evening pujas, and occasional Sunday meal offerings, at a local vihara that is also in the Ajahn Chah - Forest Sangha lineage. Our community also includes a large number of Asian- Americans, mostly Thai. There is definitely some difference between the predominant American convert practice style and the predominant Thai practice style.

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Thanks for the post.

There is a genuine issue being raised here. But we can’t get at the issue until we’re able to make meaningful distinctions about different kinds of practice and understandings of the Dhamma. To treat “Asian Buddhism” as culturally monolithic and detached from western Buddhism is reductive and anti-historical. For a start, all forms of Asian Buddhism practiced today have been massively influenced, for better or for worse, by Western culture, and they have been for a century or more.

In any Asian country you will frequently hear intelligent, sincere, native Buddhists complain about the superstitions, corruption, and misunderstandings of Buddhism as generally understood and practiced in their own country. For a serious American practitioner of Zen to say, as quoted in the article, that they understand Zen better than most Japanese is neither hubristic or ignorant, it’s simply stating a plain and obvious fact. In the same way, a dedicated Christian from Kenya or Singapore would understand Christianity better than most Australians. So what? Of course, I understand that the article is trying to get at more pervasive attitudes, of which this is just an example. Point is, find a better example.

Western Buddhists often ignore such complexities, and casually treat “Asian Buddhism” as if it were nothing more than a mass of meaningless rites and superstitions. It’s interesting that the article speaks only of “American” Buddhism in this regard. American discourse only really cares about America. But you can’t divide what happens in America from what happens in other Western countries, or from what happens in traditional Buddhist countries, where teachers like Jack Kornfield are widely read by middle-class Buddhists.

To the extent that traditional Buddhist is unthinkingly dismissed, the article is quite right in calling it out. Much of the basis for this dismissal is ignorance of the richness and complexity of traditional forms of Buddhism, while much too is common or garden variety laziness: giving up attachments is hard.

Like all forms of discrimination, this is a problem that bounces back on its exponents. Having divested traditional Buddhist of all its unnecessary cultural baggage, Western Buddhists end up with an impoverished teaching and practice, which is then filled in with psychology, New Age, or whatever else; i.e. Western cultural baggage.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as meaningless and even harmful superstitions and doctrines. Black magic, corruption, sexism—and, it must be said, racism—are endemic in many forms of traditional Buddhism. And what of the cruel interpretation of karma that says that the disabled, disaster victims, victims of sexual slavery, the poor, and other disadvantaged people cannot be helped, or that helping them is of little karmic benefit, since they are just reaping the fruits of their karma? Are we just to accept this as a perfectly valid cultural belief?

Such things are against the letter and the spirit of what the Buddha—an Asian—taught. They are also things that countless traditional Buddhists struggle with. They see the harm that these things do, and are trying to change things for the better.

I have seen this in the case of women’s ordination. Buddhist practitioners who sincerely wish to devote themselves to the Dhamma are unable to do so if they are women in traditional Theravada countries, because of the obstacles placed in their path by some monks. The reasons for this are complex, but they are supported by the belief that women are born in a female body because of bad karma, and that female bodies, especially due to menstruation, are taboo. In response to such religiously sanctioned sexism, Asian women like Kumari Jayawardhana have developed their own theories of non-Western feminism.

Such practitioners would appreciate support from the West, where they hope that sexism is not tolerated. I was once asked by a very senior Thai monk whether we could send any bhikkhunis back to Thailand to help establish the order there.

But it’s not that simple. In the west, as in Asia, there’s a lot of sexism. When we try to give what help we can, we’re accused of imposing western values on Asian countries. Suddenly, monks who had graciously accommodated western cultural impositions like air-conditioners, mobile phones, or credit cards, find themselves drawing a line in the sand when it comes to treating women as equals.

So bear this in mind when Ajahn Amaro recasts “cultural baggage” as “skillful means”. Ajahn Amaro is fortunate to practice within a tradition that had already divested itself of many forms of cultural baggage, thanks to the decades-long efforts of Ajahn Chah and other leaders of the forest tradition. They constantly had to battle with superstition and nonsense of all kinds, some merely time-wasting, others dangerous and harmful. The reasons they struggled are complex, but partly they were grounded on the reform movement started by King Mongkut in the 19th century under the influence of Western ideas of text-critical study.

As a result, the “Thai” Buddhism encountered by western students in north-east Thailand already had much in common with so-called “Western” Buddhism, which is, of course, why they were drawn there. Nevertheless, the Western monks had to face much bitter prejudice from some local monks, who for a long time tried to turn the local villagers against them. Now, of course, the Buddhism practiced by Western monks is regarded as a valuable and influential dimension of modern Thai Buddhism.

Still, the nature of such things is that they are never black and white. Ajahn Amaro, while presenting himself as a practitioner within a tradition that straddles the divide between Western and Asian Buddhism, is one of the leaders of an order that has actively undermined women’s right to pursue their religious path free of discrimination.

What’s needed is not a blithe dismissal of traditional beliefs and practices, nor an equally blithe acceptance of them, but a grounded understanding of Dhamma. Then we will have the wisdom to know for ourselves what is good and what isn’t; what is skillful and what isn’t; and what should be developed, and what should be given up.

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Thanks Bhante, that’s a very helpful post. You’re certainly right that many of these discussions are much too one-dimensional.

Where I could really identify with Ajahn Amaro’s comments was from my association with a number of (mostly female by not exclusively) Thai people at my local Wat. A superficial visitor would conclude that not much “real” practice goes on, just empty rituals, but that’s clearly not the case if one actually spends time there. Furthermore, the way that they carry out various tasks (bringing food for the monks, and so on) is a key support for the “real” practice.

See, for example:

This is an unusual & questionable point of view, in my opinion. I assume this point of view leads to the next point of view:

[quote=“sujato, post:4, topic:3720”]
In any Asian country you will frequently hear intelligent, sincere, native Buddhists complain about the superstitions, corruption, and misunderstandings of Buddhism as generally understood and practiced in their own country.[/quote]

Is this point of view inferring these Asian natives were massively influenced by Western culture & philosophy? If so, this is a questionable inference.

Generally, the 20th century Asian revisionists were solely influenced by their valid interpretations of the Pali suttas. In other words, their only Western influence was speaking outside of their non-democratic cultural traditions.

These 20th century Asian revisionists were no different to the 21st century Western bhikkhuni movement which does not base its revisionism on Western feminism but, instead, on the Pali suttas.

I would respectfully suggest your arguments @Sujato have a contradiction, in that you regard 20th century Asian Revisionism as Western influenced yet you regard the 21st century Bhikkhuni Revival as Sutta influenced (where I am suggesting both are Sutta influenced).

This appears based in suttas such as MN 135 rather than in cultural belief.

It is only the most extreme minority of Christians that believe poverty & injustice are God’s will since no such teaching is found in the Gospels. Yet the majority of Buddhists believe poverty & injustice are wrought by past kamma because such teachings are actually found in the Suttas.

This seems to be inferring a lay person or 10 preceptor cannot sincerely devote themselves to the Dhamma.

In a country such as Thailand, monasticism is extremely large due to its use as a cultural function. The Thai monastic system is already under so much pressure to maintain the thousands of monks, who serve a social role. Since monasticism here has gone far beyond its original purpose of being merely a vehicle for individual enlightenment, I assume it is difficult for Thai Buddhism to open the flood gates to female monasticism. Instead of having 500,000 monk bodies to feed & house, there will be 1,000,000 monk & nun bodies to feed & house, of which 95% will be for a cultural purpose.

In the West, because Buddhist monasticism is so relatively small & generally only devoted to its purity of individual realisation, to promote female monasticism is appropriate. When Ajahn Brahm chose to ordain bhikkhunis in Australia, it was correct (imo) that he intentionally chose to depart from his Thai lineage. However, this should not be used to impute similar ideals upon Asian Buddhism. In fact, this imputation is the very ‘Western influence’ mentioned at the start of the post.

:seedling:

Actually this is a pretty commonly observed phenomenon. Richard Gombrich talks about it occuring in Sri Lanka when Christian missionaries starting coming to convert the Sri Lankans…pretty rapidly after there was a reformation of Buddhism…

The first unavoidable confrontation between Sinhalese Buddhism and
an alien religious tradition occurred only in the nineteenth century
when Protestant missionaries, with the (initially reluctant) blessing of
the British government, invaded Ceylon with their preaching and
pamphlets… It had to settle into a
new social and cultural environment, a change which brought about a
redefinition of what it is to be a Buddhist, a subtle change in Buddhist
identity

Richard Gombrich, 1988,
Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo

Why? Modern Sri Lankans are very well educated on Western culture and philosophy. In Sri Lanka I was often approached by Sri Lankans telling me how glad they were to see Westerners practicing Buddhism because they believe Westerners practice a ‘purer Buddhism’ (their words, not mine). I don’t think this is true. I think working together will produce the strongest results, because there are different things both East and West have excelled in and we’d do well to learn from each other.

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So true!

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I think this highlights the whole issue of this topic. A question about some matter arises and we automatically turn to one of the Western clique to offer an explanation.

The little I have read from Gombrich is very strange to me, namely, his views about dependent origination & Brahma as Nibbana.

As for the book cited, it is difficult to follow the logic of the writing & the relevance of the book to the topic because it is this very ‘Western influenced Protestant Sri Lankan Buddhism’ that Gombrich defines that is what the current Western conceit’ group disparage.

Gombrich begins by referring to a Protestant Buddhist reform, where Buddhist laymen took the lead, but then refers to the Buddhist counterattack to Christiantity, where monks take the lead. Gombrich refers to two kinds of Buddhism but does not make clear what these are. The impression is that Buddhism was in huge disarray in Sri Lanka, requiring Thais & Burmese to reinstate their Sangha; and that one form of Sri Lankan Buddhism was very superstition & very degenerate and the later so-called Protestant form was still superstitious but less so. For example, Gombrich refers to a debate between two forms of superstition, as follows:

Christian attack was Buddhist cosmology, with its numerous heavens and hells, as it was ‘in antagonism to the most obvious teachings of science’. But for Gunananda this was child’s play: he counter-challenged his evangelical opponents to locate their own heaven and hell in the cosmos, and when David de Silva said that no explorer had yet discovered Mount Meru, the traditional Indian axis mundi, Gunananda countered by asking where lay the Garden of Eden.

Gombrich then makes this rather bizarre statement:

Thus Dharmapala and the other early Protestant Buddhist lay leaders preached a sexual puritanism to such effect that not only has monogamy become the norm of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie; it is believed, quite incorrectly, to be the traditional norm. The bourgeoisie have adopted western Victorian morality, and the contemporary West is considered lax and corrupt in falling from that standard. By a similar misunderstanding Dharmapala considered caste to be un-Buddhist.

Now, it is quite clear from the Pali suttas that the Buddhist ideal is monogamy & that the Buddha said when the four castes enter his Sangha they all lose their caste. Yet Gombrich claims monogamy & castelessness is non-Buddhist.

From my reading of Gombrich, the salient impression is prior to colonisation, Sri Lankan Buddhism was in total disarray and that the Christian missionaries influenced the Sinhalese to revive Buddhism and that is all.

Unlike Christian Protestantism (which was largely a crypto-Judaism that considered material wealth to be blessing of God; that taught salvation via faith alone; and condemned celibacy, each contrary to the Gospels), the so-called Sri Lankan Protestant Buddhism was actually a bona fide attempt to revive the purity of the original Buddhist teachings (subject to human intepretation).

Thus. when the ‘Protestant Buddhists’ started arguing to counter Christianity that Buddhism was “scientific”, this actually represented what the Pali suttas generally say about the Buddha-Dhamma, namely, that it invites inspection & verification by the wise.

In short, my critique of Gombrich, at least to me, is in relation to this very topic about how Western Buddhists hold their Western scholars to know better.

But an important element of the appropriation occurs through the assumed occupation of white authority status, often legitimized through the intellectual study of Buddhism. …

Regards :slight_smile:

Thank you @Deeele I think this is an excellent example of what we are talking about, namely [quote=“Deeele, post:10, topic:3720”]
Now, it is quite clear from the Pali suttas that the Buddhist ideal is monogamy & that the Buddha said when the four castes enter his Sangha they all lose their caste.
[/quote]

No… These are Western (Protestant) ideals that have been interpreted into Buddhism and Asian culture, and yet now seem like truth. The Buddhist ideal is celibacy and chastity, and there is no explicit mention of monogamy in terms of right sexual conduct. While monks were not to be treated according to their caste after entering the Order, the Buddha still frequently used the word ‘Brahmin’ or true Brahmin in regards to a good monk, so I don’t think I would call it casteless…The Buddha appropriated caste and Brahmanist concepts into Buddhism in a way that turned them into positives for Buddhism.

There are a number of issues I would like to take up in your post but I unfortunately just don’t have the time for a lengthy argument RN, sorry.

My goal was to merely reinforce the previous statement by indicating that other scholars who have researched this area had the same conclusion based on evidence. You can disagree with it if you wish. However I see no need to wholly discount Gombrich simply because he’s a westerner. It was simply the first example that came to mind that was evidence based.

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Dear Friend, please allow me to sound like the newbie. First I find all this squabbling rather inconsistent with the little I know about Buddhist traditions. But I have two questions, which I hope are not too oversimplified: Regarding sexism, doesn’t our imminent rebirth mean that we are born in many forms over many lives? And doesn’t this negate the validity of sexism? And secondly, which part of this American-Asian thing not dependent arising and therefore just more phenomenology as it relates to the Dhamma?

Not a smarty pants…just asking?
Namaste

Buddhists have squabbled for ever! The Buddha never shied away from an argument. The point is, to argue well there must be two things:

  1. The form of the argument should be truthful, rational, and civil.
  2. The content should be something that matters. No point in arguing over trivialities!

Are Buddhist principles incompatible with sexism? Absolutely. Sadly, this seems to be irrelevant for many people. And this matters: it creates suffering. Massive suffering, every day, for thousands of women.

As to your second question, I apologize, but I don’t quite understand. Can you clarify for me?

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My friend sujato, thanks for adding clarity. Let me try my second question again. It is my limited understanding that everything that exists within material reality is a construct of dependent arising phenomenon.
Not trying to devalue the traditions or discussions about them. But if everything is dependent on causes does this include differences in opinion regarding comparisons between differing traditions? But this…the following quote is was I was trying to ask about:

“As mentioned earlier, “ignorance” here means not just the absence of knowledge about how phenomena actually exist but also an active misconception— seeing persons and things as if they exist independently from their own side. This ignorance is uprooted through the realization that all phenomena arise independence upon other phenomena”.

The Dalai Lama His Holiness; Hopkins Ph.D., Jeffrey. Becoming Enlightened (p. 84). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

The Dalai Lama His Holiness; Hopkins Ph.D., Jeffrey. Becoming Enlightened (p. 84). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

I get what you’re saying about dependent origination, but I still don’t understand what question you’re asking. Sorry!

Assuming that all Buddhist would agree that they are bickering about phenomena…why do they continue to have those negative feelings about their fellow Buddhist? Maybe too big of a questions, but to rephrase it slightly, "Why can’t we all just get along? What would Buddha say if he saw how his words are used as weapons?

Isn’t a discussion about being right, or which tradition is more better counter-intuitive to the principles of Buddhism?

Oh, okay, finally I get it!

For sure, it can be, and often is.

But we have to be careful not to dismiss the reality of people’s experience. If someone says, “My guru is better than your guru”, well, whatever dude. But if someone says, “My guru is better than your guru. And he says that gay people deserve to get AIDS because of the bad karma in a past life”*, then this is seriously harmful and must be countered. Not with anger or sectarian silliness, but with reason and kindness based on the Dhamma.

In brief: being right doesn’t matter—except when it does.

NOTE: * Actual view taught by actual “Buddhists”!

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Ahhh, good, mission accomplished.[quote=“sujato, post:17, topic:3720”]

And he says that gay people deserve to get AIDS because of the bad karma in a past life"*,
[/quote]

But I have a hard time believing anyone would go for that kind of cheesy judgmentalism. I mean who could propose to know that with a straight face. Sounds too much like fundamental Christianity. In my naivete I guess I was hoping for a higher bar in Buddhism. sigh…

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You’d hope so, wouldn’t you? But you know, Buddhists are just people. We have the right to be silly and judgmental!

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Well for me, Asians, westerners,male,female neither female nor male ,Americans, Europeans, Sri Lankans, British, Germans,beings with good kamma beings with bad kamma or whatever it is are just living beings trapped in this mass of suffering who are in need of compassion and solace from the Buddha-dhamma!

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Hi Bhante,

As usual, you bring up some very deep issues.

This whole area of gurus, and traditions based on gurus, is one of tremendous difficulty and contradiction. On one hand, Dhamma practice should be judgeable by it’s results. On the other, it’s not so easy to actually verify the results, as we see hinted about in discussions such as the following:

So if we follow the ideas of Ajahn Maha Bua, or Ajahn Chah, or Mahasi Sayadaw, or Bhikkhu Nanananda, or students of those teachers, is our practice more likely to be successful? Or perhaps we should try some Vajrayana practices - those are said to be very quick…

Ultimately, short of taking our own practice all the way to stream entry, we have no conclusive way of assessing the efficacy of how people are practising, which is where I agree with Ajahn Amaro that one should not be too quick to dismiss certain aspects as “baggage” without an adequate exploration.

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