Things to think about in the Buddhist World

Things to think about in the Buddhist World December 11, 2011

Or: what I happen to be reading now. Transgender Buddhists, Buddhist Monastics and allegations of abuse, and Was there a Buddha?

This week we celebrated Rohatsu, the Japanese Buddhist celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. For Theravadins, he was born, enlightened, and died on Vesak, which falls in May or June in many places, or April in China, Japan, Korea according to wikipedia – which seems to mean that Japanese Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment twice. In any case, along with very nice messages from Shako Yuinen at the Buddhist Military Blog, James at the Buddhist Blog, and Uku at Zen – the Possible Way, came a very poignant story of redemption and acceptance through practice. That story is told by Jack W. Cooper, a transgender Buddhist living in Philadelphia, PA.

And in much more controversial news, WH of The Masculine Heart broke the story (to me at least) about Kalu Rinpoche, a young Tibetan monk -and believed reincarnation of the previous Kalu Rinpoche, a highly revered Buddhist teacher -who posted a video with allegations of abuse and attempted murder at the hands of his elders. What caught my eye was the statement by WH: “It seems monastic systems are fundamentally flawed – we have seen it in Catholic history, and here we see it in a Tibetan tradition.”

I was also directed to an article addressing the same issue at Elephant Journal, by Shyam Dodge, a former Hindu monk, author, and satirist and current student of religion at Harvard University. Dodge speaks from the perspective of another ‘discovered’ holy man who feels damaged by the experience, concluding in part that, “It is inhuman to deny yourself the pleasures of the body and it is inhuman to deny the overwhelming precedence and value of our embodied lives.”

I posted the link and quote on facebook, where many of my friends are monastics. The responses were thoughtful and reassuring. The most regular comment was that we cannot generalize this event or assume that it’s happening everywhere in monastic communities. Next, it was noted that all human systems/institutions are flawed. Also, monastics, sometimes from Western backgrounds, sometimes not, are becoming visible advocates for reform in their traditions. Lastly, and this is key for allegations of any kind of abuse, the victim needs to go through the right channels – legal authorities – to ensure that something more than speculation or mob justice is done.

And while many modern, secular Buddhists are striving for non-monastic models of practice, I am of the opinion that monasticism is here to stay. As I stated on facebook:

My own experience with Buddhist monastics has been overwhelmingly positive. And I do think that people willing and able to take up the monastic vocation are of extreme benefit to humanity, across all religions. But what about the ‘bad apples’ and the institutions that protect them?

My hunch is that the bad apples have always been there, but in the past they could be hidden: people could be convinced not to talk and there wasn’t a spirit of investigative journalism like we have now. I think that is still true in many countries outside the West. But in the West the bad apples are regularly exposed, leading to enormous harm to the religion(s) in general.

I think that if Buddhists want to avoid the same mistakes that the Catholic church made, they will need (and in many places surely already have in place) more transparency and accountability to the laity.

Monasteries still serve a purpose. And for that, we need them. And like any institution, we need to continuously improve and update the system.

And lastly is a piece and discussion over at Speculative Non-Buddhism that echoes a question that has been bouncing around a lot lately: did the Buddha even exist!?

Did the Buddha even exist?

As Glenn Wallis states: “My several years’ effort of searching for a reliable historical basis for a biography of Siddhattha Gotama can be summed up as this: Gotama is a ghost. He is a non-entity.”

It’s a bold statement, no doubt meant to elicit thought more than blind acceptance. As such, my first response would be to ask what counts as ‘reliable’ here? Is there any reliable historical basis for a biography of anyone living in India before the Common Era? Are we to imagine the continent inhabited by ghosts who magically gave birth to humans around the time the first Chinese pilgrims came around to ‘reliably’ record history there?

A more sophisticated reading might see Wallis’ words as a warning against clinging too closely to later, mythologized accounts of the Buddha’s life. We need to read these accounts as records of what people thought/believed about the Buddha when they were composed rather than as historical accounts of the Buddha’s life. That’s fair enough, and I got that in my Buddhism 101 course in college and find it in most at least semi-scholarly books on Buddhism. And Toni Bernhard, in her essay, “Who Was the Buddha“, which appears to have occasioned Wallis’ observations, gives what I took to be proper caution: “As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.”

So Wallis’ question, “Why, given their ostensible sophistication, do contemporary x-buddhists cling so stubbornly (ignorantly? something else?) to a naïve understanding of the very nature of the texts and teachings…” seems perhaps directed toward a straw man of his own making. Or perhaps he has just encountered far more unsophisticated individuals than I have – I’ve met my share, but, you know, moved on. I’m reminded of the re-emerged John Horgan, another contemporary writer who seems to have had a bad experience or two and now likes to tell Buddhists what they believe and how ridiculous they are. Theworsthorse has one handy excerpt, Barbara O’Brien conjures up a whole thought experiment for him.

And lastly, while evidence of pretty much anything around the time of the Buddha (yes, this ghost has dates, approximate ones at least) is scant, it is there, and scholars are doing very interesting work to tell us about that time and the person at the heart of it known as the Buddha.  Johannes Bronkhorst, Richard Gombrich, Gregory Schopen and others are digging in to history, each in their own way. And each time they present us with new evidence: linguistic, epigraphical, and so on, they broaden and deepen our understanding of this very beautiful time in history. I think all would agree that if the Buddha, the man, had not existed, someone just like him would have been needed to fill his place. If evidence (yes, the E word) does arise that he didn’t exist and the whole thing is a mass  conspiracy cooked up by creative individuals much later, I’ll be very interested to see it.

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