“Walk With Me”, Premieres at SXSW

On Sunday the film “Walk with me”, about mindfulness advocate and Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh had its world premiere at SXSW, otherwise known as “South by Southwest” which is an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March in Austin, Texas.

Filmed over three years, at Plum Village monastery in rural France and on the road in America, the film is a meditation on a community grappling with existential questions and the everyday routine of monastic life.

As the seasons come and go, the monastics’ pursuit for a deeper connection to themselves and the world around them is amplified by insights from Thich Nhat Hanh’s early journals, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.

More Watering Down

We’ve run a series of stories recently on the “watering down” of Western Buddhism. Just when I thought it was all over for a while up pops the story of Buddhist Geeks coming to an end!

18-december-2016

On Tuesday, founders Vincent and Emily Horn announced that Buddhist Geeks — the podcast about dharma, technology, and culture, was no more and that they have stopped the podcast which had been downloaded more than 10 million times.

In terms of “watering down“, Vincent and Emily are working on an online meditation training platform called Meditate.io, which Vincent explains, “is more centred around meditation than Buddhism.”

“We’ve been teaching for several years. Recently we decided that the direction we wanted to take our teaching was outside of the Buddhist framework, so it just made sense to start a new project that reflected that,” says Horn.

 

Support for Bhikkhunis

As part of our recent series of posts on secular Buddhism and mindfulness I mentioned the following:-

“A while back I ran a series of stories on the plight of Buddhist nuns in various traditions who are denied full ordination. Many have now achieved this, “illegally” according to their parent traditions. But they have done this by side stepping the established protocols of the purely Asian schools of Buddhism. They have separated and moved away and formed their own monastic settlements here in the West where they can enjoy the liberal, progressive freedoms denied them within the traditional, Asian context of Buddhism.”

Coincidentally yesterday I received an email from the Alliance for Bhikkhunis about how one can help them in supporting the establishment and growth of training monasteries, hermitages and viharas for nuns.

It is striking how this contrasts with the Popes recent assertion on the subject of female ordination.

Pope Francis said that he believes the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on women becoming priests is forever and will never be changed.

He was speaking aboard a plane taking him back to Rome from Sweden, in the freewheeling news conference with reporters that has become a tradition of his return flights from trips abroad.

A Swedish female reporter noted that the head of the Lutheran Church who welcomed him in Sweden was a woman, and then asked if he thought the Catholic Church could allow women to be ordained as ministers in coming decades.

“St. Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands,” Francis said.

Francis was referring to a 1994 document by Pope John Paul that closed the door on a female priesthood. The Vatican says this teaching is an infallible part of Catholic tradition.

Western Buddhism (Watered Down?) Cont.

Further to our recent run of posts relating to the establishment/evolution of a genuinely Western form/school of Buddhism the following article cropped up in Lion’s Roar.

Recently we published an article by Funie Hsu titled “We’ve Been Here All Along,” which explores how Asian American Buddhists have historically been marginalized in American Buddhism. The author — an Asian American Buddhist scholar — bravely discusses what happens when white American Buddhists embrace teachings from Asia in a broader culture built on white privilege and racism. It’s a challenging but important article.

We don’t usually get much feedback from readers, but this one struck a nerve with several who took the time to write to us. The tone of these letters surprised me — some were quite angry at Hsu and lodged personal attacks (“She should be grateful for what she has”; “She ain’t no buddhist”). Others were more tempered but equally defensive (“I felt judged and unwelcomed”; “The article is implicitly racist toward white people”). 

Last week, while we were taping a panel discussion on Buddhist ethics for our next issue, Ajahn Amaro, abbot of Amaravati, took a moment to let us know how much he appreciated Funie Hsu’s article. I thought it might be interesting for him to tell you why. —Tynette Deveaux, editor, Buddhadharma 

“I am not an Asian-American Buddhist but I have certainly witnessed and been a part of some of the situations described in the piece, and to which Ms. Hsu calls useful attention.

I am European by birth and have been a monk in a Buddhist lineage hailing from North-East Thailand since 1979, practising under the guidance of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho. I have lived mostly in the West as a monk since that date, in both the UK and the USA.

As a monk in a somewhat conservative order, my community has maintained close ties with its Asian cultural and religious roots. Our monasteries in the West, of which there are about thirty (there are about 300 in Thailand as well), tend to straddle two worlds; on the one hand there are the Asian immigrant communities, mostly from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia, and on the other there are the Western-born folks who have encountered Buddhism through reading, travelling or browsing the net. 

Over the years, particularly during my time in the USA, I have interacted a lot with both of these groups. 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 practising “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…” 

I found I could empathise with the spirit of Ms. Hsu’s article and felt many of her points were very apposite. We can all be blind to our conceits (I had no idea how English I was until I went to live in an international community) and her highlighting of these issues helps the reader to, in my humble opinion, turn the attention back on to their own heart to consider what they are assuming to be true and real. When we challenge such assumptions, often only spotting them when we feel particularly gratified (Yes!) or offended (How dare she!), we can then become aware of the stress-filled limitations these conceits bring. Once the heart is awake to the bondage it is creating, it can more easily let go and be free of it.” 

All good wishes,
Amaro Bhikkhu, Abbot, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery

Comment on “Watered down Buddhism”

Further to the previous post “Watered Down Buddhism” I received an email from a long time correspondent, A.W. (Jack) Kennedy who runs the Bowerchalke Buddhist Meditation Group over in Wiltshire on the Dorset, Hampshire border.

He had tried to post a comment on the article but it exceeded the permitted word count. It is an excellent take on the subject so I am posting the entire piece here……….

Stephen, 

Thanks for this post. You point to an interesting article by Funie Hsu (accessible with a bit of searching on the ‘Lions Roar’ website). It is plucky of you to venture into the thorny arena of Buddhist hermeneutics: the way in which Buddhism has been, and is being, re-interpreted to suit contemporary western (American and European) social life, and precisely who claims authority to perform those acts of hermeneutics. 

Your post is brief, so please allow me to make a few comments by way of expansion: 

1. American and British Buddhism are not identical. Historical conditions have affected them in different ways they cannot be conflated. Certainly, there are two forms of Buddhism (indigenous immigrant and white convert) on both sides of the Atlantic, but in Britain there has generally been respect and interaction between the two. Hsu, and others, are concerned that the majority of white convert Buddhists should show respect and solidarity towards Japanese, Black, and LBGT minority Buddhists, in the face of neglect and oppression from the wider community, in the past and under Trump’s new world order. We should listen up, and make sure that neglect and oppression of marginalised communities doesn’t happen over here. 

2. Yet, any person, whatever their origin, has the right to inform themselves about the vast gamut of Buddhist teaching and practice, and the right to decide for themselves what’s meaningful and what’s meaningless in the light of their own cultural circumstances, which these days are usually scientifically-informed and liberal about human rights. Authority can, of course, be claimed by Buddhist teachers, but in the final analysis authority is only provisionally granted by those that decide to accept a teacher. My point is that white convert Buddhists can’t be expected to rely on indigenous immigrant teachers, or on traditional texts, without any right to apply their own forms of interpretation. 

3. You mention the ‘cultural appropriation’ and the ‘translation’ of Buddhism into western contexts. Whenever these terms are used, I think it only fair to reference my old PhD. supervisor, Philip Mellor, because he was the first person to use these terms and address these issues, and because subsequent commentators tend to forget his original contribution: Mellor, P.A. 1989, The Cultural Translation of Buddhism: problems of method in the study of Buddhism in England (University of Manchester, unpublished PhD thesis); Mellor, P.A. 1991, ‘Protestant Buddhism? The Cultural Translation of Buddhism in England’, in Religious Studies, 29, pp.111-127. Coming from an ‘outsider’ Catholic perspective, Mellor had a rather biased view of western Buddhism, but he made three interesting points: that Buddhism is being translated into Protestant forms of religious behaviour; that Buddhist practitioners are not particularly aware of this alteration, and that it is difficult for ‘the analyst’ (the academic observer) to disentangle western Buddhist discourse and practice from western psychotherapeutic discourse and practice.
You note that the Robert Ellis’s ‘Middle Way Society’ is independent of Buddhism; could that also be said of the Mindfulness movement? Robert Ellis, as is his right, has made up his own mind on the basis of his own interpretation of Buddhism, and in the light of his sceptical philosophy. He has generated an impressive website but has few followers, therefore, not much effect on the progress of Buddhism in Britain. Might not the Mindfulness movement prove more damaging? Is today’s Mindfulness movement not an outcome of the entanglement of Buddhism with psychotherapeutic discourse, and is there not a risk that the Mindfulness movement might go on to largely replace Buddhism in Britain?

4. I want to defend the memory of the Secular Buddhist UK website. It was established by Anantacitta Tunnell, a thoroughly decent Birmingham social-worker who used to be a member of the FWBO/Triratna Community. He worked hard to create an open forum for the discussion of secular Buddhist ideas and practice, with Stephen Batchelor’s blessing but without the benefit of his involvement. Nobody was willing to take over the site when it became too much for Anantacitta. Since I was a contributor, I must share some of the blame for that misfortune. Regrettably, it went into abeyance, WordPress closed it down, and the archives vanished into digital oblivion. But I remain dependent on Buddhism, as does the American Secular Buddhist website, as (I think) does Stephen Batchelor. Nobody can wholly escape the influence of their (white, western, contemporary, protestant, scientific) upbringing, but, of course, we can be Buddhists nonetheless, if Buddhist practice is truly applicable to all sentient beings.

Thank you Jack. As you note the original post was somewhat brief when touching on this subject but it was prompted by the demise of the UK secular Buddhist website and the rest sort of just followed as background context.

I feel that secular Buddhism is a genuinely Western response to the Dharma and although I have the greatest respect for the various Eastern schools into which the Buddha’s teachings have evolved that evolution has taken place within the context of cultures other than my own. It can feel somewhat of an affectation when performing, for example, Japanese or Tibetan rites and rituals when one is not Japanese or Tibetan. Secular Buddhism addresses this by removing the cultural accoutrements but then also jettisons anything “mythological”. The question then arises as to what is myth or just a good story loaded with parable, allegory and fable that teaches the Dharma in the succinctly skillful way the Buddha had of pitching his message.

That said, I cannot but agree with your comment about “there (being) a risk that the Mindfulness movement might go on to largely replace Buddhism in Britain.” 

I know that there is a counter argument that Mindfulness practise is in fact inculcating the Buddha’s teachings “by the back door” but various mindfulness teachers that I know who are Buddhists say that apart from a brief comment that these practises are derived from ancient Buddhist ones Buddhism itself is never mentioned.

But, ultimately, despite all of the challenges that Buddhism faces in the West it will, in time, develop into a truly Western practise. A while back I ran a series of stories on the plight of Buddhist nuns in various traditions who are denied full ordination. Many have now achieved this, “illegally” according to their parent traditions. But they have done this by side stepping the established protocols of the purely Asian schools of Buddhism. They have separated and moved away and formed their own monastic settlements here in the West where they can enjoy the liberal, progressive freedoms denied them within the traditional, Asian context of Buddhism.

Tassajara Zen Centre Threatened by Wildfires Yet Again

You may recall that back in July 2013 we reported that a fierce fire was burning in the vicinity of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre, a Buddhist monastery-retreat which is part of the San Francisco Zen Centre.

Now the same thing is happening again with California’s most destructive wildfire this year already claiming Anam Thubten’s Sweetwater Sanctuary. On Friday, an inspection revealed that many of the buildings were burned to the ground following the evacuation of residents, with the exception of a few structures, including the meditation yurt.

The Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre is again threatened. According to the LA Times, the Soberanes fire in Big Sur was started by an unattended illegal campfire. The fire has caused one death and burned 67-square miles of Monterey County.

Tassajara is one of three practice communities that comprise the San Francisco Zen Centre (SFZC). The SFZC posted an update on their Facebook page, saying evacuations are underway at Tassajara as a precautionary move against the erratic pattern of the fire. An evacuation notice was issued for Tassajara on Sunday morning. Fire officials say the wildfire may not be contained for another month.

California has been experiencing a severe drought since 2011.

Buddha Nature is Right There in Front of Us

We all have Buddha nature, but with some people it shows more. The following delightful story is from the New York Times………..

The man who lost his voice was a gentle man who didn’t ask terribly much of life. He lived in a miniature space in a single-room-occupancy residence on the corner of 74th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, above J. G. Melon, the popular restaurant and bar known for succulent hamburgers. And he was a New York story.

He was a New York story because he didn’t have a lot and yet he gave a lot. And in return he got what New York for all its busyness so often offers those who could use a good dose of it — kindness. The city can be cold and aloof and you can live crunched amid its population and remain lonely and overlooked. You can also be someone unremarkable and be made to feel like Mr. Big Shot.

The name of the man who lost his voice was Bernhardt Wichmann III. Sounds like an old-money name for sure, but any money ever attached to it was no longer visible.


His story revolves around a pair of doormen. In 1994, Jorge Grisales became a night doorman at the Mayfair, an apartment building at 207 East 74th Street. His shift began at midnight, when the city slows down but keeps breathing.
When you are a doorman, you notice things. You especially notice recurring people.

Mr. Grisales became aware of a man who almost nightly ambled past the building. He had a glistening face with a trimmed beard and he sported a big smile. Six-foot-something. As he walked, he would bend down and dutifully scoop up litter, tidying up the neighbourhood.
One sweaty summer evening, the smiling man waved at the doorman and paused. Mr. Grisales said, “How are you?” The man clutched scraps of paper. He wrote something down and handed it over. It said: “Hi, my name is Bernhardt but call me Ben. I can’t talk, but I can hear.”



Something instantly clicked between them. There was a delicious spirit about Ben. Two years later, Juan Arias joined the door staff, and Mr. Grisales introduced him to Ben. They, too, clicked. They talked. He wrote. On his notes, he always drew a smiley face.

Over time, the two doormen learned some blurred snippets about Ben Wichmann. That his parents came from Germany to Davenport, Iowa. That he was born in 1932. That he had served in the United States Army and was in the Korean War. That he came to New York and became an architectural draftsman. That, among other things, he worked on closets as well as decks and porches for houses in the Hamptons. That he loved opera and classical music. That he was gay. That he had a sister. That his parents and sister were dead and he had no family.

And that in 1983 he had polyps removed from his larynx, and that he had not been able to speak since. He wasn’t entirely sure why.

They discovered that since 1991, Ben had lived in that tiny third-floor room down the block that cost $10 a day. He had few possessions and eked by on Social Security. In a city where so many have so much, he had practically nothing. Yet it was enough, always enough. And inside him beat a heart bigger than a mountain.

He seemed unrelievedly happy. That happiness bounced off him and settled on others.
People up and down the block came to know Ben. He always petted people’s dogs. Admired the flowers. His cheery presence made East 74th Street brighter than it would have been without him.

“He charmed people,” Mr. Grisales said. “He always smiled. He never complained. He was just wonderful.”

Mr. Arias said: “He had plenty of reasons to be unhappy. But I never saw him unhappy.”
Now and then, he would stop in at J. G. Melon, plant himself at the bar and have a glass of wine and maybe a salad and converse through his written expressions with customers and the staff.

He would bring the doormen coffee and a Spanish newspaper. And they would fall into meandering exchanges — spoken words from the doormen, scribbling from Ben. Oh how they relished one another’s company.

Mr. Grisales was shaky with his English. That was why he worked the midnight shift. Ben tutored him. If Mr. Grisales mispronounced a word, he would write out how to say it, which syllables to emphasise, what words it rhymed with.

Mr. Grisales polished his English and graduated to an earlier shift.

The doormen gave Ben gifts — shirts or shoes, things he needed. So did others on the block. Joan Gralla, a reporter at Newsday who lives near the Mayfair, gave him sweaters, hats, a yellow rain slicker. For years, she got him a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. He would dress up in his best clothes and have the time of his life. She would tell him the ticket was from her dog, Clementine.
Once, when the seat was exceptional, he wrote that Clementine must have some pull.
“Ben was just magical in bringing out the best in people,” Ms. Gralla said.

Ben had many medical issues. He came to rely on the doormen to make — or cancel — doctor appointments. If something was urgent, he would write out the note to them in red ink.

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