Larkspur, October 2012
Lately, I have been thinking about how Buddhism in the West is evolving. This is something I often think about, but my recent trip to Montana perhaps especially caused me to think more on this. It seems we are in the midst of a new phase of the evolution of Buddhism. Of course, Buddhism changed and adapted in major ays when it migrated from India to various other countries and cultures in the EastChina, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia. But it seems to me that changes that are now occurring to Buddhism in the West are far more significant than those that occurred in previous migrations. More changes have occurred in last 50 years to traditional Buddhism and Buddhist practice than in the previous 2,500 years, and these changes continue at a rapid pace. We are in the midst of this process.
When the Buddha was a young man, fairly recently married and with a newborn son, he decided to leave them in order to search for spiritual truth. This wasn’t how it sounds to us todayhe wasn’t abandoning them, in sense that they had no one to take care of them. At that time, as throughout most of our human history, people were primarily members of a tribe or a clan, as much, or more so, than they were a member of a dyadic relationship. His wife and son were still embedded in the family and clan; they were not alone and they were taken care of. Also, in India at the time of the Buddha it was considered admirable in many ways to leave ties of home and family and become a wandering mendicant and spiritual seeker. And anyway, years later the Buddha’s wife and son both joined the Buddha’s sangha. Still, the Buddha named his son “Rahula,” which means “fetter”a family tie that would hinder him in his spiritual quest.
Throughout all of Buddhism’s history, there has been a clear distinction between monks and nuns on the one hand, “home leavers,” [these are the very words used in our ordination ceremony] and laymen and laywomen on the other: those who don’t leave home. The distinction was strong and definite: monks and nuns were strictly celibate; householders of course were not. Among householders’ duties were to help support monks and nuns, who didn’t need much--having very few possessions was one of the marks of the monastic life--but they still needed food, clothing and shelter, and this it was considered the duty of the laypeople to provide.
This fundamental pattern continued in Buddhism until the last 50 years. That’s 2,525 years of practice and tradition that has been rather completely changed in just the last five decades, and this process continues.
There has always been a strong “lay” Buddhism, and lay Buddhist practice has been honored. In the recorded history of Buddhism there are two famous lay teachers who stand out: Vimalakirti and Layman Pang. Vimalakirti lived around the time of the Buddha. The Vimalakirti Sutra tells the story of how none of the Buddha’s close disciples wanted to go visit Vimalakirti because he when they did and he engaged them in dialogue, he showed them up with the depth of his understanding of the dharma. So Vimalakirti put out word that he was sick, and then Buddha’s disciples, as well as various Bodhisattvas, had to go visit him in order to pay their polite respects. Once they arrived, Vimalakirti quizzed them about the nature of emptiness, and they gave various intellectual answers. Manjusri was the last one to answer, and said that by giving an explanation "they have already fallen into dualism." Vimalakirti, in his turn, answers with silence. This is the well-known “thunderous silence of Vimalakirti.”
A second episode in the Vimalakirti Sutra, which is also well-known, is important in terms of the role of women in Buddhism. A goddess who lived in the house of Vimalakirti came out and conversed with the male disciples and bodhisattvas. Sariputra asked her: “Goddess, what prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?” Thereupon, the goddess employed her magical power to cause Sariputra to appear in her form and to cause herself to appear in his form. She asked him, “Reverend Sariputra, what prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?” She demonstrates to Sariputra that whether a person is a man or a woman has nothing to do with their spiritual ability or spiritual insight, and exposes his prejudice against women and his attachment to fixed ideas (for spiritual practice, it's better to be born as a male).
Unfortunately for women, there is another episode in the Lotus Sutra that was used to justify discrimination against them in Buddhism. In that story the Princess Naga, despite her devoted practice, is told she cannot attain enlightenment because her defiled female body is a hindrance. However, when she demonstrates how sincerely she follows the Buddha's teachings, she is "rewarded" with transformation into a male. These two stories show well the range of attitudes of traditional Bdsm. toward women. It is true that the Buddha gave women more opportunities for spiritual practice than any other religion or institution in India at the time. He considered them equals in terms of spiritual ability. In spite of this rather positive beginning, throughout Buddhism’s history the treatment of women has overwhelmingly followed closely that of the prevailing culturei.e. second class. This is still mostly the case in Asia.
The other example of a well-known lay practitioner is Layman Pang, actually Layman Pang together with his daughter. He was a 7th century wealthy Chinese merchant who, when he got older, give up all his possessions in order to study and practice Dharma. The story goes that he piled all his possessions in a boat and sank it, and then wandered around China with his wife and daughter studying with various Buddhist teachers. Both he and his daughter were said to have a deep spiritual understanding. Layman Pang is the one who said, when asked about his spiritual attainments, “My supernatural power and marvelous activity is carrying water and chopping wood.” It is interesting to note that both Vimalakirti and Layman Pang were wealthy and therefore had the leisure to pursue study and practice though they were lay people.
In spite of these few exceptions, the history of Buddhism has been primarily the history of celibate single-sex monastic institutions, supported by the local lay people. The monastics in turn minister to lay people’s spiritual needs: ceremonies, blessings, encouraging teachings, and so on.
The underlying reason why celibacy has been so importantand also, I believe, the underlying reason for discrimination against women in Buddhist history-- is the need to avoid having children. If you have childrensuddenly, pow! just like thatyou are a householder. You HAVE to become a householder--suddenly you’ve got a family. And when men and women live in close proximity to each other, you are inevitably going to have children. All the deeply embedded sexism and insistence on celibacy and rhetoric about defiled women’s bodies is a kind of indirect method of ensuring that women are kept at a distance, physically and psychologically, and children don’t happen. So the rhetoric is rather dishonest. Although the rhetoric has been said to be about sex, and spiritual purity, and how women are inherently defiledI think it always was and still is about children and the family ties and responsibilities that are created.
In Meiji Japan, the government wanted to reduce the power of Buddhist monastic institutions. One of the things they did was to say that priests could marry. So beginning in the 1860s, Buddhist priests started marrying. While they were in training in a monastery, they were celibate, but otherwise not. (This is not true anywhere else in Asia, and in fact Japanese married priests are sometimes looked down upon by other Asian Buddhists.) The result is that a typical local Japanese temple is effectively run by a husband-wife team. In fact when a male priest is running a temple by himself, the local people may encourage him to get married, so his wife can help him with the many temple tasks. Japanese Buddhist priests are semi-monastic practitioners. Of course, in the West, this is changing ever more radically.
I often think that the most significant thing that has happened in the last two millennia to change human society is contraceptives. It has and is profoundly changing all societies all around the world and all cultural institutions, not just religions, because it allows women a degree of choice they did not have before about having children, and therefore allows them to participate in society and culture in a way they were mostly not able to before. This is changing basic cultural assumptions and cultural possibilities all around the world. Of course today in many places the traditional model continues strong--particularly in Asia but often also in the West. And the traditional Buddhist model of celibate monastic practice can be a valid and valuable choice for some peoplethey don’t want to be a householder; they want to be able to focus entirely on monastic life. But the traditional model isn’t the only thing going any more.
Many years ago I lived in the City Center and Blanche Hartman lived there also. She was older than me, and she had grandchildrenone of the few people at SFZC at that time who did. If you know Blanche, you know that her style, including her style of practicing and teaching Buddhism, is very connection-oriented. Warm, personal, devotional, loving. And it struck me then how important her family was to hershe would talk about her grandchildren, and they would come to visit. It was somewhat of a contrast to attitudes that many of us hadthat we were home leavers, had left all that behind us for our spiritual practice. “Nonattachment” or something like that. In fact in earlier years living at City Center or Green Gulch it wasn’t even clear how welcome families were to come visit. But for Blanche, family was way important, and seeing her, I realized it was for me, too.
I may be getting into hot water here, but I think there often is a difference in how men and women relate to family. Of course this is a generalization, but women in general seem to put a lot of energy into family: family and relationships are central to women. Men often seem more inclined to direct their energies into a cause, like, say, spiritual practice, as a kind of goal that becomes their primary focus. And I think this emphasis on home-leaving is part of the “male-pattern” Buddhism we all inherited, and is one of the things that is changing in current Buddhism.
A few weeks ago I was teaching in Kalispell, Montana. I was a guest teacher at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. This is an institution that has no dogma, no creed, whose members are not Christian, and are open to exploring all spiritual paths. Fifty percent of Unitarian Universalist ministers are women. It is true that all churches support family, but this place, this Fellowship [they don’t call themselves a ‘church’] seemed to especially emphasize it. They even have a small room with a sign on the door: “Breastfeeding room.” It would be great to see if temples in Japan have breastfeeding rooms. Maybe some do!
The man who invited me to Kalispell is 50 years old, and has an eight-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. He very much wants to do a period of intense monastic practice. That will work best for him if he can find a time when it works well to leave his wife and children for a while, to sequester himself in a monastery. If his wife ever wanted to do monastic practice it would work best for her to do it when her kids are older and could better take the separation from their mother. If you are going to have a family, AND you want to do monastic practice, these are just realities you have to take into account. In spite of the fact that SFZC has often experimented with having kids in the monastery, it seems more satisfactory for all to, if possible, do your monastic practice without having children to take care of at the same time. But also, because there are so many couples and children at SFZC, there are lots of accommodations madeat Tassajara children often come in the summer, a number of kids live at GG, and so on. It is an ongoing experimental process.
So roles and categories and styles of practice are changing. One thing that has changedcertainly in ME, and I think more and more in Buddhist institutions--is that we can fully accept, as part of who we are, our ties to our family and love of our family. In many times and places throughout Buddhism’s history this would have been considered almost a kind of heresy. But it is part of our humanity for both men and women, and I feel because of the prevalence of women in practice today this is more and more acknowledged.
Please excuse this long historical/cultural discussion here: came to the fore for me during this Montana trip. Seeing my own family, my parents and my brothers and sister, and remembering how I learned from Blanche to acknowledge these feelings many years ago; participating in the Unitarian Fellowship’s family service; teaching mindfulness to this large group of very attentive children.
My father suffered from moderate depression often during his life, and also often from anxiety. He has had difficulties in his life, as everyone does. Yet as he gets older he has been saying more and more what a good life he has had--how much he has seen; how many things he has done. As he gets older he has more appreciation of his life just as it was, and, I’m really glad to see, he has a kind of peace and happiness. At the same time, he told me how sometimes he notices in himself an indefinable sadness. One day recently he realized that the cause of this sadness is, as he put it, “It’s almost over.”
Dogen Zenji wrote: “The years and months of life are uncertain. When we look back at the ten thousand things, there is nothing to gain or lose. Who does not express the ornaments of the path of awakening?”
“Nothing to gain or lose,” this means, nothing to judge about our life. With nothing to gain or lose, we just live our life, each unique day. We express the ornaments of the path of being a human being. We do our work each day. We have our problems. We have our joys and sorrows. And, we love each other. These are all the ornaments of the path of awakening.
My father’s depression, the financial difficulties my parents had, especially when my father was beginning his construction business and we had to move... the struggles and unhappinesses between parents and children as we grew upall these, too, are the ornaments of the path. Even difficulties or struggles are ornaments of the path of awakening. Sometimes it is hard to see them this way, so it is good to be reminded. Each thing is an ornament of the path of awakeningan encouragement to awaken. There is no gain or loss. Each thing is a gate to the Dharma; each thing is the Dharma itselfthe unfolding of truth itself. This very moment, right now; this very day, this very autumn season, this year, this lifetime, is the unfolding of the Dharma.
Dogen also said: “Since ancient times, people of the way do not value the nation’s powers, societal hierarchies, the seven treasures or the hundred things, but only value the passing time.”
I read recently that there is a plaque at Providence Zen Center on which is written: “Three days of looking into the self, thousand-year treasure. One hundred years of chasing after power, and things turn to dust in an instant.”
What does it mean to be a person of the way and only value the passing time?
It means we concentrate on the present moment. When disturbing, distressing thoughts and emotions arise, when thoughts of gain and loss arise, we simply practice returning to our own breathing. We practice returning to our physical body in the present moment. We concentrate on our breathing. Nothing is more calming than mindfulness of body and mindfulness of breath. Nothing is more powerful for changing ourselves. When the mind and body are calmed, then we can see reality beyond our usual reactions based on our “self.” We see reality as it is, beyond self and other, beyond gain and loss. This is our path.
The way we do justice to each moment, the way we do justice to this lifetime and to ourselves as a person of the way, is to accept each moment as it is, and appreciate the moments of our lives. To appreciate each moment as an ornament on the path of awakening.
We can see and appreciate the blue light of autumn deepening, each day. We can appreciate and feel how much we love other people. And how we love this short lifetime.
The Buddha’s teaching says that everything changes. All that exists is transientsubject to change, to decay and death. And the Buddha’s teaching says to accept this truth of transiency. But even accepting and understanding this truth, we will still feel grief that things change, that things we love pass away. Acceptance of things as they are means accepting the grief also. We do not deny grief. We don’t deny grief or love or any other human emotion.
[Day after day, The wind moves in the grasses
The light of the world changes. We, children of the Buddha,
In love with this short lifetime. ]
THE PROMISE Jane Hirschfield
Stay, I said
Stay, I said to the spider,
Stay, I said to my body.
Stay, to the earth
Stay, I said to my loves.
Jane Hirschfield is Buddhist. So what do these last 3 lines mean? “Everything changes, but love is eternal?” [probably not]
All religions, or spiritual and mystical traditions say: All is love. Use different words for "love.".
The teachings say, All conditioned things are subject to change. Nirvana is the unconditioned.
The unconditioned doesn’t arise because of causes and conditions.
Yet Nirvana and Samsara are the same.