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The Emergence of Western teachers of Buddhism and Meditation

April 15, 2005

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

I often contemplate how Buddhism will look in the West.  And, this has caused me to reflect also on how our own teachers will emerge in the West as well.  The assumption is that eventually we will generate our own teachers and not be dependent upon Asia to supply us with teachers indefinitely.

With the idea of myself becoming a dharma teacher I recently asked a Tibetan lama, "How does a Westerner, an American, become a teacher in your tradition?"

I will paraphrase his fifteen-minute answer, "If you work really hard on your spiritual practices in this lifetime, then maybe you will be born as a Tibetan in your next lifetime, then maybe someone will recognize you as a Tulku."

I am not sure if his answer took into account that he was in a room full of Westerners, mostly "Americans," who were feeding and clothing him, and providing a temple and a home for him to teach from.  And, these people were also ardently studying from him, and diligently practicing what he instructed them in.  Nor did it appear that he considered he needed an interpreter, nor did it seem significant to him that his interpreter was also an American. 

A significant number of the audience had probably worked "really hard" on themselves for several decades, and possibly longer than the good lama may have invested in his own particular practice regimen.  Just because an Asian is wearing robes, and is recognized by his tradition as a lama, rinpoche or bhikkhu does not mean he didn't spend 20 years in a Chinese prison, then get out and spend another 20 years being a family-man before taking up the "cloth" a few years before being sent to the West as a missionary to Americans, who might not be able to discriminate between an enlightened master and a simple priest with only 5 years of formal training (if that).

In Asia there is a common belief that Europeans are demons.  The lama's belief that Americans are unsuitable for religious leadership may then reflect this form of racial stereotyping.  It of course is a common belief among the various peoples of the world that the "other" (people from other cultures) are evil and demonic.  Look at the Christian concepts of Satan.  The 'evil' one in Christian iconography has been represented with horns and carrying a pitch fork, and he is red with cloven hooves for feet, etc. 

It may not be a coincidence that Pan, the Greek god of the ecstatic experience, was often depicted as half goat.  And, Shiva, the Hindu god of the underworld, carried a pitchfork and wore a crescent moon on his forehead, which would have looked like horns to an uninitiated observer of the cult.  And, the Hindu religion at times was called 'Sanatana'

which is linguistically similar to the word 'Satan.'  Some of the priests of Buddhist and Hindu cults even wear crimson, like the Pope and the devil, so it is easy to see how our cultural concepts of evil were influenced by our own cultural prejudices of peoples just over the 'hill.'

We in the West of course have Buddhist teachers who began to emerge almost immediately after the rise of interest in Buddhism and Asian thought in the mid to late 1800s.  The early Pali translators Viggo Fausbšll and F. Max Muller, as well as Madame Blavatsky, Annie Bassant and Henry Olcott Steel, and other 19th century founders of the Theosophical Society borrowed heavily from Asian belief systems, especially Buddhism.

In the last 50 years, Robert Aiken studied Zen in Japan in the 1950s.  And, in the 1960s Robert Hover and Ruth Denison went to Southeast Asia and sat a few 90 day retreats, and after about 10 years of study and practice were "empowered by Sayagyi U Ba Khin at the same time S.N. Goenka was.  Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstien and Sharon Salzburg emerged as teachers a few years later in the mid-70s after about 5 years of study and practice and a few 90 day retreats under U Pandita.

We also have a new generation of Western dharma teachers emerging, who not only studied Buddhist contemplative practices, but converted to Buddhism, and even became ordained monks and nuns, such as Ayya Khema, Ajahns Amaro and Brahmavamso, Bhantes Rahula and Vimalaramsi, and Bhikkhus Bodhi and Thanissaro.

Some well known American dharma centers are now actively training the next generation of dharma teachers, such as Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, the San Francisco Zen Center, and the Bhavana Society.  So, it is reasonable to consider that the portion of the 600 million that is our nations population, who will embrace an Asian contemplative practice, will find well-trained dharma teachers prepared to teach them in our native language without the pejorative racial stereotyping typical of Asians.

But, the question is whether Americans will accept being taught by their own people.  I believe there is in part a romance with everything Asian right now, which makes our population predisposed to seeking instruction from an Asian.  I believe also the pursuit of Asian meditation practices reveals a deeper conflict within Western culture. 

Religion is often at the root of the definition of a culture's identity.  If that is true, then what does it mean when members of a culture reject their religion of origin and embrace that of another culture?  Does that act represent a kind of cultural suicide?  Does it reflect a kind of self-hate as well?  If self hatred is at the root of the Western infatuation with Asian concepts and culture, does that imply that we generally will not acknowledge spiritual leadership from our own people, even if they have embraced the Asian traditions?  Most probably.

These questions of course rely on gross generalizations, but when a room full of Westerners accepts that they have to die and be reborn as Tibetans before they can become "worthy" teachers of the dharma, means that they have accepted the Asian belief that we are demons.

A week ago an old dharma friend of mine, who has been a Zen practitioner for 15 years, told me he was having trouble convincing his dharma center that he was sufficiently knowledgeable to lead a beginner's class.  In fact the years of conflict over the issue have left him with little interest in remaining in Tucson.  The good news for the Western dharma is this man may find himself moving to Asia to study in a monastery for the 5 years necessary to receive ordination as a Roshe.  Then, he would no doubt return to the USA, because it is unlikely an Asian would ever consider him a worthy teacher for having come from, what they tend to believe is, a demonic race of people.

In my 30 years of study and practice in various Asian traditions I have studied from swamis and lamas, yogis and rinpoches, bhantes and bhikkhus and I have found that for the most part they are just priests of a foreign religion who are fundamentally no different from Western monks, nuns, ministers, rabbis and priests.  Asian monastics and dharma teachers are primarily people who have dedicated their lives to understanding and preserving their culture's spiritual heritage, just as our ministers, rabbis and priests do.

The form of Buddhism from Tibet is so distinctly different from the form that Buddhism takes in Sri Lanka that, if one didn't know better, it would appear they were distinctly different religions.  The same is true of Christianity today.  American Protestantism is so radically different from Eastern Orthodox that it would be easy to assume they were in fact different religions as well.

So, it is reasonable to predict, as the West makes Buddhism more in its own image, it is likely to take on a form that is radically different from any of its Asian counterparts.  But, does that make Western Buddhism any less a vehicle for the dharma?  Certainly not.  Does that mean our own native teachers are inferior to their Asian brethren?  Of course not.  But, it does mean that our native varieties of dharma centers and teachers are going to be more inclined to understand the Western psyche much better than an Asian can ever.  Therefore we in the West should make every effort to support those who want to dedicate their lives to contemplative practice and the dharma (the path to liberation).

If you are interested in dialog on and about Western Buddhism then you might find the 4th Wheel of interest.

May you be enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

This document originally appeared in Vol. 3.2 February 1, 2003 of the Southwest Insight E'letter.


This version (updated 04-15-05) can be retrieved at this URL:


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