Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

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Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 20, 2014 6:37 pm

In relation to our other ongoing discussions about being a monk/nun in the west, something occurred to me which I'd like to highlight.

In the old days in most cultures I've studied, if as a travelling monk you went abroad, learned a lot (maybe even another important language like Sanskrit) and came back home, you'd probably be welcomed and your journey celebrated with many people interested in whatever you learnt or brought back. You would probably at the very least get a place to settle to make good use of your skills. Some examples that come to mind are Faxian (fifth century) and Xuanzang (seventh century) who went to India and back to fetch scriptures and master Sanskrit. They went home to grateful Buddhists and moreover appreciative benefactors. Likewise, the Japanese monks who went to China and returned with new knowledge, scriptures and Dharma-related items likewise were generally well regarded and highly appreciated in their home culture, even if it took a few years for people to notice (like in the case of Kukai).

This is quite different from what you see with many western sangha members. Even if they master a primary classical Buddhist language, it doesn't mean anyone in their home country will care or appreciate such abilities. There probably won't be much in the way of benefactors who recognize and want to support such skills. Likewise, someone who has done extensive retreat or gained much new knowledge might receive a cold shoulder (and I believe they often do).

That's a difference between the past and present. Malcolm earlier pointed out that many TB sangha members from the west have little to nothing to contribute to Dharma centers. But even if they are useful and have much to contribute, it doesn't mean the relevant Buddhists in their home country will have much use for them.

This doesn't just apply to sangha members, too. In general translators of Buddhist materials, as I've come to understand, don't make much money from what they do (Chinese, Tibetan and Pali). In fact many struggle financially for years developing their art and working on their projects.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby PorkChop » Fri Apr 25, 2014 2:10 am

You're always welcome to crash on my couch if you're ever in the area. :) Don't really have too much else to offer besides food and a fast internet connection.

I think there may be a few reasons for the situation you're describing.

The world was smaller back in the day, taking a trip to a foreign country was a huge endeavor that took a long time, it wasn't something one could do for a few weeks on summer vacation. There was also no such thing as youtube with lectures broadcast from every major foreign monk overseas with convenient subtitles, no shelves devoted to Buddhism (in English) in the book stores, no Amazon with page after page of Buddhist books available in English, no iTunes with English-language podcasts, no cds with pre-recorded Dharma talks in English. Instead, support had to be gathered for an international trip before even going. This support was easier to drum up, because there really were no other options. These days translators are able to go off and translate first, before looking for support, and in the past it was the opposite.

As far as the exception that proves this rule, I happen to think the western nuns in Tibetan Buddhism have a decent amount of support. Thubten Chodron has a pretty temple, Pema Chodron seems to be pretty popular, I know that Ven Robina Courtin gets flown all over the world to give talks (I went to one). This may be because there hasn't been such a huge female presence in the sangha overseas and western women wanted other women to relate to, I'm not sure.

I also think this situation may be part and parcel of the decline in interest in the humanities in the US (possibly the entire west or further). I read a biography on Franklin when I was doing my masters and was kind of surprised at all of the different social clubs he belong to, mostly involving research of some sort or another. If the guy had been alive today, he'd have been on about 20 different bulletin boards, with maybe 5 different blogs, and at least 1 youtube channel (his kite getting struck by lightning would've gotten a lot of hits). Then I read about guys like Joseph Campbell and the various people he used to interact with daily and it makes me feel rather isolated. Outside of Buddhist bulletin boards and emails I'm lucky if I have a single night of conversation that doesn't revolve around computers or silly videos in a given week. When I actually had a temple to go to nearby, that meant maybe 2~3 days a week to discuss in person. This is with me searching for stuff, I have to wonder if the average person has many encounters with stuff unrelated to pop culture anymore.

PS - you can probably add Japanese/English translation to that list; especially if it's a non-technical topic. The only reason I came back to the US for school in 95 was because I was told that I needed to have some sort of technical skill if I wanted any hope of being able to make ends meet as a translator over there. After school, I don't think I qualified for JET because I'd lived in Japan too long.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby David N. Snyder » Fri Apr 25, 2014 2:33 am

Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thich Nhat Hanh have made a lot of money from their books and translations (Bodhi translations of Pali Canon). Since they are good monks, they gave all the money to charity and for the opening of monasteries. Deer Park Monastery in San Diego (area) was entirely paid by Thich Nhat Hanh's book royalties. However, they are pretty famous and prolific writers; most don't reach that level / volume of writings.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby PorkChop » Fri Apr 25, 2014 2:41 am

David N. Snyder wrote:Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thich Nhat Hanh have made a lot of money from their books and translations (Bodhi translations of Pali Canon). Since they are good monks, they gave all the money to charity and for the opening of monasteries. Deer Park Monastery in San Diego (area) was entirely paid by Thich Nhat Hanh's book royalties. However, they are pretty famous and prolific writers; most don't reach that level / volume of writings.


That brings up a good point. With the forthcoming Avatamsaka translation, Bhikshu Dharmamitra may become a modern day Xuanzang for Chinese Mahayana in the US (I guess Conze had that title in the past?). Given Ven Indrajala's ability at classical Chinese, if it's something he'd be interested in pursuing, he may want to work with Bhikshu Dharmamitra? For my own part I've been screaming "take my money" ever since I heard about the Avatamsaka project.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby Wayfarer » Fri Apr 25, 2014 2:51 am

Surely a large part of that is because of this secular age. The very notion of what constitutes 'knowledge' is based on what has utility, mainly technological or economic. The idea that any kind of spirituality constitutes 'knowledge' is hardly respected in Western society. Liberal democracy defends freedom of religion, which is a good thing, but its underlying philosophy is pretty antagonistic to it. To quote a well-known Orthodox theologian:

David Bentley Hart wrote:Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible. Not only do convinced secularists no longer understand what the issue is; they are incapable of even suspecting that they do not understand, or of caring whether they do. The logical and imaginative grammars of belief, which still informed the thinking of earlier generations of atheists and skeptics, are no longer there. In their place, there is now—where questions of the divine, the supernatural, or the religious are concerned—only a kind of habitual intellectual listlessness.1


It isn't necessarily the case in the Universities, fortunately. But the agora, the marketplace of ideas, only values those that can be packaged and sold.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby Indrajala » Fri Apr 25, 2014 6:02 am

PorkChop wrote:Given Ven Indrajala's ability at classical Chinese, if it's something he'd be interested in pursuing, he may want to work with Bhikshu Dharmamitra?


I'm hoping to start a PhD program either this year or next year, but that's still up in the air at the moment.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby Indrajala » Fri Apr 25, 2014 6:06 am

jeeprs wrote:It isn't necessarily the case in the Universities, fortunately. But the agora, the marketplace of ideas, only values those that can be packaged and sold.


Alas, money talks in university, too. There's a lot less interest in discussing religious issues and consequently even less funding for religious studies. Maybe theology is mostly covered because of longstanding endowments and so on, but there's increasingly less funding for humanities in general as we all know.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby Indrajala » Fri Apr 25, 2014 6:17 am

David N. Snyder wrote:Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thich Nhat Hanh have made a lot of money from their books and translations (Bodhi translations of Pali Canon). Since they are good monks, they gave all the money to charity and for the opening of monasteries. Deer Park Monastery in San Diego (area) was entirely paid by Thich Nhat Hanh's book royalties. However, they are pretty famous and prolific writers; most don't reach that level / volume of writings.


They're definitely exceptional individuals with sizable followings. Ajahn Brahm is a charismatic public speaker, too.

Theravadin bhikkhus in any case don't normally have to worry about food, shelter and clothing. In many places their visa issues are covered as well. I think that applies to Vietnamese communities, too. They're very accommodating, at least to their own abroad.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby PorkChop » Fri Apr 25, 2014 7:55 am

Indrajala wrote:Theravadin bhikkhus in any case don't normally have to worry about food, shelter and clothing. In many places their visa issues are covered as well. I think that applies to Vietnamese communities, too. They're very accommodating, at least to their own abroad.


Monk at my old (Vietnamese) temple in San Antonio, Texas said that all of these things would be cared for, including a temple upon one's return from abroad, if one trained in Australia with recognized monks and were wiling to proliferate the teachings of Tiantai back here/there (in San Antonio), especially to the English speakers. It's not like these opportunities are completely nonexistent, one just has to operate through the right channels. PM me if you're interested.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby Wayfarer » Fri Apr 25, 2014 10:47 am

Indrajala wrote:There's a lot less interest in discussing religious issues and consequently even less funding for religious studies.


Of course I recognize the commercial pressure on Universities, but what I meant to say was at least in them, there are some people who appreciate skills as such as mastering Sanskrit and understanding Buddhism.

(To level with you, Venerable, I think you would be quite well suited to an academic calling, although I also recognize that academia can be a rat-race. But with your language skills and real-life experience, you would be an outstanding candidate in my humble opinion.)
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby Gwenn Dana » Fri Apr 25, 2014 12:36 pm

Dear Indrajala,

what you´re addressing is in my eyes a serious matter too.

You only need to go as far as the Sammannaphala Sutta: The fruits of the homeless life, where The Blessed One states one of the fruits of a "holy life" in this life is escape from a dependent work situation (in case of a labourer or farmer) and upon return the respected reception (cf. 35-38).

The situation that I see nowadays is not so. The dogma of utility (in terms of profit) recently has outcasted so called "soft sciences", be that theology, philosophy, even sociology, as well as the fine arts (practice, practice ...) as something useless to be looked down upon. There is not only no reward in terms of means of living, there is widespread disrespect and back turning. At the same time it is difficult to even escape in terms of physical location, as in celtic tradition all ground is declared private property with usage rights or fences around. The towns are no longer a "place of living", where people gather and just are, but they have turned into huge virtual malls where you´re only welcome as long as you spend money, and then better go and vanish.

"Breaking free" physically nowadays does thus not seem so easy. But I want to ask you another point which is confusing me.

Buddhism, as I understand it, has been founded on a state (or on a quest for a state) which is beyond moral judgement. Its big predecessor, the Blessed One, perfectly self enlightened, set out to break free and did. All on his own. Just as everybody can. And in my eyes in the end everybody has to since being free is non-dependent on concepts. Yet whereever I come in contact with organized buddhism, I see a strong emphasis on rules and obedience. Over 200 for monks. Over 300 for nuns. A system of titles. It does not matter whether we look into Tibetan Buddhism or the almost Bushido-like ranks in Zen. Wouldn´t it appear that those traditions are rather founded on Confucian traditions than on thought of self-liberation?

Is it then only society that has turned against the ideal, but not the very struture that the organizationed Buddhism has given itself has too, in that it would neglect one who does not obey its rules, has not followed its procedures, no matter how liberated to own standards he may be, how profound his understanding of the scriptures may be, how far progressed on the path he may be, whether he set out to go into the woods or what other art he may have practiced? The same what is criticized in christian or muslim organizations? It appears to me that the definition is on "what you are not", the emphasis seems to be on "where what you say differs from own understanding", or "where could possibly be pointed out an error" instead of trying to integrate and widen the view. Isn´t this close to a culture of conventional doubt that is not much different from doubt under the dogma of utility?

In the end, for the self, I find that liberating, if you can even no longer cling to the organizations that propagate the very (conventional) truth you share, and confirm no matter how many more sutras you study. Fortunately, its scriptures nowadays are available to the public. But practically, is this really any different from the non-appreciation you describe above? Isn´t it an inherent proclamation of the fact that "you are useless for the thing unless <conditions of mine>", or even more derogating "your understanding cannot bee decent because you haven´t <conditions of mine>" or "you cannot have experienced what you think you have since you didn´t <conditions of mine>"? If so, what follows from Kant is simply right: A free being must then be without organization at any time, since any organization will spit him out, because free is beyond subjecting to an organization´s rules. If so, submitting would be a contract on utility, some kind of money deal where the money has been hidden inside a doughnut so that conscience does not see it. Isn´t that a bit of a Jesus problem, where he suggests that even if you told them the truth they would not recognize?

And we´re not proclaiming something mystical that has to be believed , but something that can simply be experienced, where false belief that it could not be experienced is one usual problem. It appears to me that the practical simplicity has been lost. Or as that lama said which I met in my hometown: Nobody wants to be just normal anymore. The notion that "enlightenment" be something "special" that has to be "attained" may be one of the reasons of the attractivity of Buddha´s teachings for the West. But doesn´t that totally turn against it, when we´re just discussing a normal state of being?

Now I hope this posting doesn´t blow up the board but there is interesting exchange on the topic in the sense of "appreciation for buddhist skills".

Best wishes
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby garudha » Mon Apr 28, 2014 12:43 am

Gwenn Dana wrote:Dear Indrajala,

what you´re addressing is in my eyes a serious matter too.

--SNIP--

Now I hope this posting doesn´t blow up the board but there is interesting exchange on the topic in the sense of "appreciation for buddhist skills".

Best wishes
Gwenn


:good: Very nice post but I'd challenge your perception of the west with this: The further into Samsara we descend, the greater the pain we feel, and the clearer we are able to feel out the various impurities.
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Re: Appreciation for Buddhist skills past and present.

Postby rory » Mon Apr 28, 2014 2:32 am

Ven. Indrajala;
What's happened is that the world has changed; people are literate, travel is cheap, education is available via MOOCS and the internet, college professors translate religious texts. So those monk/nuns skills as being special are simply passe. Additionally the state (in China and Japan) no longer believes in the necessity for esoteric rituals for the benefit of the nation, they underwrote Buddhism.

I have a friend a devout Theravada Buddhist, who received her Phd in psychology. Her speciality is meditatiion and therapy. Now she is doing very well. What's I'm saying is if as a monk/priest you want to have a job in academia you need to find what they want and fill it. My old professor harked from the day when you did translations, that's now passe in academia. There is a good piece of advice: find a need and fill it.

People in the West are stressed out and overwhelmed/distracted by social media. I am sure that monks/nuns/priest/esses who gave retreats in some soothing attractive countryside place with nice healthy food (eg shojin ryori) would be able to support themselves easily. The model has changed. As Buddhist it's rather absurd to rely on a model that worked in 100 C.E. in India. As Ven. Indrajala pointed out, monks & nuns have always handled money. I think there is room for all types of clergy and want to help them.
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