Is This The Buddhist Community Today?

Just like Buddhist sects….

A while back, I wrote about my frustrations with the Buddhist community in Western cultures. I had a conversation with a certain reader, “E.K.”, who summed up the problem nicely:

From time to time, I actually hang out at a Nichiren [Internet] forum because the head moderator is real cool. It’s just occasionally, some Nichiren Shoshu & Nichiren Kempo Hokke folks will start going off on how every other person from every other school (especially Tendai & Pure Land) is going to burn in hell. That’s when it’s like “time to go…” The sheer number of fundamentalists in Buddhism is pretty astounding if you think about it; from hardcore Sri Lankans, to hardline Burmese, to intolerant Thais, to those wacky Nichirenists, to the Vajrayana/Dzogchen folks who think no other practice is advanced enough to lead to enlightenment. Pretty shocking when you factor in all the teachings about not holding to views.

I have had the same experiences too. On the one hand, you have converts (not all converts, but a vocal minority) who are too enthusiastic about their new religion and want to spend all their time discussing it, defending it, or arguing about it.1 On the other hand, you have immigrant communities of Buddhists (again, not all, but a vocal minority), who are more concerned about preserving traditions than exploring them. The immigrant communities can be chauvinistic at times.

But it’s not limited to Buddhism. A friend I know, who’s from India, told me that Hindu communities in America are the same way: you have New Age communities (almost exclusively non-Indian converts) and chauvinist, conservative immigrant communities on the other hand. Not much in between.

It reminds me of an anecdote I read in Robert E. Buswell’s book on Korean Zen.2 This talks about a failed experiment to reintroduce a Vinaya (四分率) tradition in Korea:

One of the more controversial moves made by some of the Vinaya masters (律師, 율사) in Korea was to arrange a special ordination of Korean monks by Theravāda bhikkhus from Thailand. These Vinaya masters were concerned about the potential aspersions that could be cast against the purity of the Korean Buddhist ordination lineage because marriage had been officially permitted during the Japanese colonial period. Organized by Ch’aun sŭnim, the foremost Vinaya master in Korea, and Ilt’a sŭnim, one of the most popular ordination catechists, the ordination was helped at T’ongdosa on 22 February 1972. The abbots of Wat Benjamobopitr, Wat Sukkot, and the Thai temple in Bodhgaya presided over the ceremony, with five other Thai monks attending….

Controversy ensued immediately. Many opinion leaders within the Chogye Order viewed the ordination as a complete fiasco, because it implied that Korean Buddhism was corrupted and that the only orthodox ordination lineage remained in Thailand. Koreans also were aware that the Thai Mahānikāya tradition was in fact introduced to Thailand from Sri Lanka, which had in turn received it from Burma, so that Thailand could hardly be considered a bastion of purity in its own right. The affair grew into a full-fledged scandal when the Thais made claims, published in Korean newspapers, that they had come to Korean not to help the Korean Buddhists reestablish their Vinaya tradition but instead of convert them to orthodox Thai tradition. Many of the monks who had participated in the ceremony subsequently renounced their reordinations in prominent public displays. To my knowledge, this was the last foreign ordination performed on Korean soil. (pg. 90)

When I see all this in-fighting, and ethnic chauvinism (converts vs. Asian Buddhists, Asian Buddhists vs. each other, converts vs. other converts), I get really discouraged. I really just want to give up. I know there are good temples, good priests and good communities out there, but it seems they are outnumbered by the “tribal” ones. At times like this, I wonder why I even blog about it anymore; what’s the point of legitimizing such petty behavior? I’d probably be better off blogging about something less serious and depressing like K-Pop or Star Trek. They both have plenty of in-fighting too, but who cares? 😉

Buddhism will continue long after I’m dead, but I wonder if there’s much left that reflects the true spirit of Buddhism anymore.

P.S. Attempts to fix or revive Buddhism remind me of the cartoon above. :p

P.P.S. If you think Pure Land Buddhists are somehow above this (since they’re not mentioned above), try talking to devout Jodo Shu/Jodo Shinshu members some time. *sigh*

1 I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve been one of them in the past. That’s one reason my old blog, the Level 8 Buddhist, is gone.

2 Mr. Buswell ordained in both Korean and Theravada traditions, so I think he has a good perspective on the subject.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “Is This The Buddhist Community Today?”

  1. Reblogged this on 24 Hour Zen and commented:
    A very interesting point made by Doug. I’m sure that I’ll experience what he’s talking about in due time, and I’ll just have to remember to be grateful for the experience, instead of taking it to heart like I usually would. Thanks Doug!


  2. I gain optimism from the Buddhist clerics I have met here (in Japan)–I mean ones that do not ask if you are a danka (congregation) member, and of course, they don’t care what kind of Buddhist you are. They have ‘Buddhistic’ events like sutra copying and meditation, but they also sponsor concerts and yoga classes. Not concerned about teaching zazen meditation in a Tendai temple. They seem to feel that the person-to-person interface is the main point. That is where we can ease each others’ suffering. Maybe my experience has been exceptional; if so, I am grateful to have met such down-to-earth altruists.


    1. Hi John, that’s encouraging to hear. My encounters with such people around here is a lot fewer so maybe I’m just not meeting the right people. Online forums are definitely a bad idea (for any religious discussion).

      Buswell’s book also implied a lot of good “Buddhist families” and monastics including his own teacher. But the politics of Buddhism definitely were discouraging


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