November 23, 2014

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Family Members - By Birth and By Choice

A true Buddhist isn't necessarily a person who attends Buddhist services and who observes Buddhist traditions... no more than these public acts define a true Christian or Muslim. Living out the life of the spirit, freeing ourselves from anger, lust, and ignorance are the private goals we need to set for ourselves. This is how we mature in our religion. We can't go around thumping people's heads to see if they are ripe - the way we determine the ripeness of a watermelon - but we can be kind to one another, we can help a person in need, and we can share personal experiences with a stranger to let him know that he is not alone in having made a choice to convert.

Sometimes, if we keep our mind open to possibilities and don't close ourselves off with prejudiced opinions and snap judgments, we can learn a lot about ourselves and about those things in life we value most.

The opportunity to learn can occur anywhere. A week ago, in the market, I stood helplessly over a large box of watermelons. I didn't know how to select a ripe one, and there wasn't anyone around from the produce department to help me. Shoppers walked by, too busy filling their lists to offer any assistance, until finally, an Asiatic lady took pity on me and taught me the gentle art of watermelon thumping. Seeing my wooden-bead bracelet she said, "You're a Buddhist." Then she glanced at the items in my cart for confirmation. "A vegetarian." I stood behind her in the checkout line and we had a chance to talk more. "I used to be a Buddhist vegetarian," she said, "but when I left Taiwan and came here, I became a Christian. Now I can eat whatever I want. My children, too. They don't have to be left out when their friends go to KFC or McDonalds. We're an American family. We have Thanksgiving turkey. Easter ham. Hamburgers and hotdogs on the 4th of July. Just like everybody else."

She told me that as a child growing up in Taiwan she had to keep a strict diet, that her family was very poor. They lived in an old-style Chinese house that had an open transom. An American schoolteacher and his family lived nearby and at dinner every night she could smell the barbecues and roasted chicken or pork that they regularly ate. "It smelled so delicious. I played with their daughter and they would invite me to Sunday dinner; but my mother would never let me go. She'd say, 'They eat a pig and come back in their next life as pigs.' When they ate chicken, she had them coming back as chickens. We ate rice and vegetables... cabbage. I never eat cabbage now. We're Lutherans."

There was a lot in the conversation to digest. I kept thinking about the negative comments many American Sangha members make about "ethnic" Buddhists. Just what makes a person a Buddhist?

Particularly in western countries, our various Buddhist institutions always seem to have two distinct kinds of members: those of Asian ancestry who have been born into our religion, and those who, as adults, have converted to Buddhism. Very often these two groups are hostile toward each other, each group failing to understand or recognize the legitimacy of the other. It is as if there were two different religions.

If we stop to consider actual congregations, we can't fail to notice surface differences which appear most obviously as racial: congregations tend to be composed either of persons of Asian descent, or they are composed of persons of European and African descent. Further divisions can be seen in the Asian groups: in most American cities, for example, we can find separate congregations of Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai Buddhists, and so on. American groups may be headed by a foreign-born Master and it is his national tradition which usually governs the style the group adopts. Zen groups which have Korean origins will chant in Korean and will use Dharma names and garments associated with that country's worship. And this is generally true of all American groups which follow oriental models.

But giving oriental names and oriental garments doesn't eradicate the fundamental difference between Biological Buddhists and those of us who have adopted the religion.

Growing up in religion is a far different experience from converting to it later in life. Born Buddhists go from cradle to grave - and through every significant life event between - in a firm liturgical embrace. For them, Buddhism influences every aspect of life - from childhood games and social events that bond them to their community through to watching their own children participate in these events; from basic moral and spiritual education through to advanced mystical methodologies. Their cultural heroes, folklore, and holidays have Buddhist associations. They go through various rites of passage with friends and the memory of these experiences binds them even tighter to the religion. Buddhism has a central role in bringing social order to their community and in providing for the sick and needy. Family members who have given significant support to the local temple have their names or portraits prominently displayed in the temple complex. Every family has a long history of identifying itself as Buddhist. Every house has a little altar or niche and their icons become cherished heirlooms. So intertwined is religion with every aspect of communal life, so blended are national and religious purpose, that however much religion may counsel citizens against violence, when the country is threatened there is no question of everyone's readiness to fight. Every war, to one degree or another, is a religious war. National purpose is seen as being consonant with religious goals.

The downside of being born into Buddhism is the tendency to maintain a proprietary attitude about the religion, an attitude that manifests as a kind of arrogance, the perception that converts are "hungry ghosts," persons who are attracted by the 'novelty' of Buddhism, who have no appreciation for its eternal truths. In China, for example, I and several other priests in our Order were surprised and a little distressed to see how novices would try to explain fundamental Buddhist doctrine to us. Each of us, at different times and at different monasteries, was asked several times during our ordination ceremony if we knew what the "San Bao" were (the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). An affirmative answer surprised them as much as it made us wonder what it was they thought we were doing there, going through that arduous month-long ritual.

People who convert to Buddhism enter the religion as adults and their reasons for making the switch to Buddhism are usually based upon a variety of life experiences that have little or nothing to do with Buddhism. Usually they were born into another religion that they later abandoned because they found no comfort in its scriptures, preachers, or fellowship. Perhaps they became Buddhists because someone they admired recommended the benefits of this new religion that seemed, on its surface, to be free of superstition, hypocrisy, and demagoguery. They wanted to identify themselves with all that they regarded as good and noble about Buddhism - the gentle, forgiving nature, the rejection of violence as a solution to life's problems, or the superiority of a vegetarian diet. Perhaps they had New Age sympathies and wanted to pursue reincarnation theories or exotic meditation techniques. Many, of course, converted because they found salvation and redemption and a satisfying way of life in our religion.

Often, in western Buddhist institutions, we find that Buddhist converts tend to regard born-Buddhists as superstitious and primitive believers who have so confused nationality with spirituality that they cannot see beneath the surface of their own social aspects. Converts scoff that these born-Buddhists are persons who have not come to Buddhism for solutions to life's problems but rather are merely persons who acquired Buddhism with no more thought or effort than they expended in acquiring a last name or an eye color.

Regardless of why people convert to Buddhism, the missing element - that long history and mingling of all facets of life - remains missing. A totally idealized version of the religion often pervades their understanding of it, coloring it's values until those values blend with those of their own personal palettes. As an example of this subtle distortion, we can consider the way that American Buddhists decided how Japanese Buddhists regarded Japanese participation in World War II.

In the 1960's, Buddhist groups sprouted like mushrooms in the United States as Buddhism was seen as an influential, "nonviolent" vehicle to boycott the Vietnam War. In his introduction to Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, the record of some of Master Shunryu Suzuki's talks, Richard Baker claimed that Suzuki led a pacifist movement in Japan during the war. This, of course, supported the prevailing view that Zen Buddhism was a pacifistic religion. Many Japanese Buddhists were surprised to learn that Japanese Zen Buddhist masters did not support either the Empire's goals or the vast number of Japanese Buddhists who were serving in the military.

That Suzuki's pacifism was a fiction proffered by Richard Baker later became the object of much discussion. Stewart Lachs, an always insightful commentator on our religion, reviewed the investigative works of David Chadwick and Brian Victoria and noted that, "Brian Victoria was so interested in the possibility of a public pacifist/antiwar Soto monk that he contacted Suzuki's son Hoitsu who told him: 'I don't know where all of this antiwar talk comes from, but my father and the rest of the family supported Japan's war effort just like everyone else.' ... Perhaps tellingly, Baker made this claim at the height of the Vietnam War, when virtually 100% of Zen followers were opposed to the war and hence having an antiwar/anti -government Roshi in his lineage was good currency."

Chinese Buddhist vegetarianism also has some history to consider. There was a time in China when the Emperor decided to exempt the clergy from taxation and in response rich folks suddenly got very religious. For whatever time they actually spent inside a monastery they wanted to live in the "style to which they had become accustomed" as the saying goes. Meals served in the monastery were sumptuous feasts containing meats of every kind. But since it was the tax revenues that should have gone to the emperor that paid for these banquets, the emperor decreed that people who took the Buddhist vow of poverty should not dine like kings; and he forbade meat-eating in Chinese Buddhist monasteries. He made additional rules - such as not keeping personal servants - that were designed to make clerical life unappealing to the rich. It worked. Monastic life became austere. But the people came to believe that these austerities had been mandated for all Buddhists since the days of Shakyamuni. In Japanese Buddhist monasteries the old Vinaya rule of eating whatever is charitably placed in one's bowl is followed which seems to be the rule that the Buddha, himself, observed, according to scripture. In the Vinaya accounts, he is often shown as eating both "hard and soft" foods, meaning in the time's parlance, meat and such other foods as vegetables, fruits, and grains.

Religious customs often change. When a religion is introduced into an area, the old religion may blend with it as the Bon religion of Tibet blended with Vajrayana Buddhism; or the new religion may change to accommodate the customs of the old, as when Christianity switched from worshipping on the Sabbath to Sunday worship.

To the lady in the supermarket, it was a dietary matter that led her to decide to reject Buddhism and to convert to Christianity, just as many converts to Buddhism reject Christianity for similarly dubious reasons.

There is a huge difference between religion and spirituality. Beliefs such as dietary restrictions and other customs are usually cultural "add-ons" that serve a variety of purposes, none of which is vital to spiritual purpose. To spiritual persons, there's only one Nirvanic reality and the name we give that reality doesn't matter much. We go within ourselves to find it. Religion serves the needs of civilization, the culture we find ourselves in. This lady didn't believe that her neighbors were going to be reborn as chickens, and it is entirely possible that her poor mother didn't believe it either but was simply offering a religious reason to cover a meatless poverty. It is easier to say "My religion prohibits me from eating meat," than it is to say, "I cannot afford to purchase meat."

I personally think that the lady in the supermarket saw the importance of having her children fit into American society. Reasons other than religion made her want to leave a Buddhist country and come to a Christian country. She wanted her children to live as Americans and being able to eat KFC was just some kind of bonus. I supposed that because she knew from personal experience how religion can separate people - or unite them - she took her children to church on Sunday. But unlike many people who convert to another religion, she did not express any hostility towards her old religion. So many people who approach Buddhist priests in a desire to convert to Buddhism show disturbing contempt for their original religions. They talk about hypocritical ministers and priests, or draconian schoolteachers, or the unacceptable prejudices of Fundamentalists. They don't understand that people have merely added personal opinions, customs or practical accommodations to the spiritual message.

Ultimately, as the children of immigrant Buddhists seek to move away from those addenda - those that perhaps served a function in the "old country" but do not serve the same purpose here, they will not leave Buddhism but will rather welcome more converts to Buddhism into their temples and do what religions from time immemorial have done, i.e., affect a synthesis. The core of Buddhism will not be altered. We will still have the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path; but we will tell those truths in a new idiom, and to a new audience.

We American converts will also have to realize that unless we make certain adjustments to our hard-line, "intellectual" approach, there will be no practical way to bring children into our religion.

A true Buddhist isn't necessarily a person who attends Buddhist services and who observes Buddhist traditions... no more than these public acts define a true Christian or Muslim. Living out the life of the spirit, freeing ourselves from anger, lust, and ignorance are the private goals we need to set for ourselves. This is how we mature in our religion. We can't go around thumping people's heads to see if they are ripe - the way we determine the ripeness of a watermelon - but we can be kind to one another, we can help a person in need, and we can share personal experiences with a stranger to let him know that he is not alone in having made a choice to convert.