It seems to me that what has happened in the Theravada tradition (with perhaps parallel developments in other traditions) is that a particular Buddhist practice, namely the practice of mindfulness meditation, has been uprooted from its classical context and then taught against a different background. It is taught to people who, though they might have rejected the mechanistic world view of modern science, have minds that are still largely shaped by that same world view. It is taught to people who, though they may say that they don’t want to adopt any new “ism” including Buddhism, are still largely subscribing to the world view of materialism, even if they don’t want to admit it. At any rate, they often take an attitude of agnosticism, which is still an “ism.” And this is going to shape their experience of Buddhist meditation, to shape the way they appropriate Buddhist meditation, so that meditation will no longer be functioning as a liberative discipline in the traditional sense, but as a therapeutic technique. It may not be a psychotherapy narrowly conceived, but it will still be
an existential therapy intended to reconcile the individual to conditioned existence by opening up greater prospects of fulfillment within conditioned existence; it won’t transform itself into a path to emancipation from the limitations, the finitude, the flaws and faults of conditioned existence itself. It will be serving as a therapy for the sense of meaninglessness, the feeling of existential emptiness, that modern civilization has left as its legacy. It won’t be a way that transcends all therapeutic functions, a way that obliterates the
kilesas, the defilements and delusions, at their root; a way that leads altogether beyond the vicious round of birth and death.
I want to briefly give one example of this. It concerns the contemplation of impermanence. Now for both the lay Vipassana teachers and for monastic Theravada Buddhism based on the Pali Canon, impermanence implies: “Don’t cling. If you cling to anything, you will undergo suffering.” But the two draw different conclusions from this thesis, indeed, almost contrary conclusions. For canonical Buddhism, impermanence is the passageway to a radical understanding of the
dukkha-lakkhaÜa, the mark of suffering. “Whatever is impermanent is
dukkha; whatever is impermanent, dukkha, and subject to change, that should be seen thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’” Therefore, whatever there is among the five aggregates, the noble disciple sees this all as “not mine, not I, not my self.” Seeing it thus, one becomes disenchanted with it. Being disenchanted, there comes dispassion. Through dispassion, there is liberation. And liberation (vimutti) here means the release of the mind from the primordial defilements, the
Ásavas and samyojanas, and release from the cycle of rebirths. But many lay Vipassana meditators see the fact of impermanence as a fact imbued with positive significance. True, to cling to what is impermanent brings suffering. But, it is said, one can immerse oneself fully in the impermanent without clinging to anything, and this is the lesson that is often drawn. So the fact that clinging to the impermanent brings suffering means that one should live in the world and experience everything with awe and wonder, “dancing with the ten thousand things without clinging to them.” Once again, we are led through the practice of mindfulness to a new affirmation and appreciation of the world. From the standpoint of classical Buddhism, this turns out to be a subtle
re-affirmation of samsÁra.
Wisdom and compassion are the two “wings” of Buddhism, the two most excellent virtues, wisdom being the crowning intellectual virtue, compassion the crowning virtue of our affective nature. I want to hold that deep faith and right view are also necessary conditions for compassion to be brought to its fulfillment. Now compassion has many degrees and kinds, but for compassion to reach fullness and depth of development, it has to be grounded upon right view as a keen perception of the dangers and inherent unsatisfactoriness of conditioned existence. Without this perception, one can develop compassion towards those who are subject to the manifold types of experiential suffering — and of course there are countless numbers of beings undergoing such types of suffering all the time, so we are never deprived of opportunities to practice compassion — but our compassion still won’t reach its fullest and deepest dimensions. This only becomes possible when we take into account the boundless extent of samsaric suffering, the subtle fetters that keep beings tied to the round of becoming, and the hidden dangers that ever lurk before these beings (who, we are told, may well have been our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters in countless past lives) as they move from life to life.
I believe that for monastic Buddhism to take root and become properly established, what is needed is a laity that has an intrinsic respect for monastics, and for lay people to develop this respect, two themes that must be emphasized again and again in the teaching of the Dharma are faith and right view. Perhaps we shouldn’t begin with heavy doses of Buddhism pietism and teachings on the intricacies of Buddhist cosmology; but when the time is right to do so, we also have to be straightforward and unabashed in teaching people. Otherwise we will just become robed and shaven-headed teachers of mindfulness meditation, similar to our lay colleagues, and then the main difference will be that lay people will find greater affinity with the lay teachers, who can speak to them at a more intimate level of shared experience of the household life.
Another theme we have to emphasize, without any fear or hesitation, is the contributions that monastics have made to the survival of the Dharma. We shouldn’t hesitate to speak about how the Buddha Dharma has survived down the centuries through the self-sacrificing efforts of monks and nuns, who had the courage and earnestness to give up the pleasures of mundane life and dedicate themselves fully to the cause of Buddhism, surrendering their very persons to the Triple Gem. And we have to draw the inevitable corollary: If the proper Dharma is to take root and flourish here in America, we need Americans to come forward and make that courageous move. Not just because it is “more conducive to their practice,” but because they truly have been swept off their feet by the Dharma and want to offer their lives to the Dharma in every respect. It is when lay people encounter monks and nuns leading lives of selfless dedication that they can appreciate the beauty and value of the monastic life, revere it, and bring forth a mind of generosity to support those who have entered its fold.
I also want to add some concluding observations regarding the situation of lay Buddhists here in America. I don’t think that we should expect lay people today to revert to the roles of lay people in a traditional Buddhist culture, that is, to see their roles to be simply supporters of the monastic Sangha, providing their material necessities as a way of earning merit for a future birth; nor do I think this is desirable. I think in today’s world, lay people have much richer opportunities to lead a fuller Dharma life, and as monks and nuns we have to rejoice in this opportunity and try to encourage them. We should be of service to help them to realize their full potential as Dharma practitioners and teachers. We live at a time when people want and need to experience the concrete benefits to which the Dharma can lead, and they should have every chance to do so. This is a time when lay people will have more leisure and opportunity to participate in long-term meditation retreats, to study the Dharma in depth, and to live lifestyles that will approximate to those of monastics. This is also a time when there will be lay people who have the knowledge, experience, and communicative skills needed to teach the Dharma.
Much thought has to be given to the task of establishing roles for lay Buddhists that can tap their talents, and we will have to adjust the social forms of Buddhism to the new conditions we find ourselves in today. We simply can’t expect Western Buddhism to imitate Asian Buddhism. And yet, I feel, for the true Dharma to flourish as the Buddha himself had envisaged it, a healthy development of Western Buddhism will have to preserve the position of the monastic Sangha as the torchbearers of the Dharma. I say this, of course, not to try to reserve certain privileges for ourselves, so that we can sit up on high seats and wield fans with our names inscribed on them and get addressed with elegant and polite terms, but because I’m convinced that it was the Buddha’s intention that the full monastic ordination with the opportunities and responsibilities it offers are necessary for the true Dharma to survive in the world. And this means that, in each major Buddhist tradition, we will need more people of talent and dedication to come forth, take ordination, receive proper training, and then reach a point where they can give training to the next generation of monks and nuns. In this way, the Dharma will be able to reproduce itself from one generation to the next.