BG 145: The Survival of American Buddhism

Episode Description:

This week, we’re joined by Shambhala acharya and Naropa University professor, Judith Simmer-Brown. She joins us today to discuss four areas, which she learned about while at Colombia University in the late 60’s, that help determine whether or not Buddhism will take root in a new country. These four are:

  1. The translation of core Buddhist texts into English
  2. The development of a monastic lineage w/ American lineage holders
  3. The training and appointment of dharma transmission holders
  4. Royal patronage, or financial support from within the country

After describing each area of focus, Judith goes into depth as to how we’re doing with the first three areas, today in America. She shares her reflections, while also raising some provocative questions, as to how we’re doing with building a sustainable infrastructure for Buddhism to prosper in the West. Next week, we’ll finish the conversation by exploring the 4th area in depth, and speaking about how we can best invest in the future of American Buddhism.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Investing in the Future of American Buddhism.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hi, Buddhist Geeks! This is Vince Horn. I’m joined today by a guest that we’ve had on the show before, Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown. Judith, thank you so much for taking the time again to join us and speak with us about topics that are close to your heart, and close to ours as well.

Judith: Thanks so much, Vince, I’m delighted to be back.

Vince: Yeah, and for those of you who haven’t heard our past interview with Judith, we talked about the Scholar-Practitioner, we talked about textual study, we talked about lots of cool stuff. So go check that out.

And also, a little background… Judith is an acharya in the Shambala tradition, and she’s also a Buddhist Studies professor at Naropa University, which is where we met originally. I took one of her classes there. So, she has a very broad and deep knowledge of the Buddhist tradition, and of education… so it’s a neat combination!

Judith: Yeah.

Vince: So, one thing I thought would be cool to talk about is that I went to see a keynote that you gave recently at a conference on Buddhism and Leadership. It was interesting, your talk was a response to a talk that you did eleven years ago…

Judith: Yes, that’s right. So, eleven years ago, I was a keynote speaker at a “Buddhism in America” conference, and in that talk eleven years ago, I laid out what I thought were four things that I thought Buddhism really needed to pay attention to survive in an American context… and I raised these questions of these four areas, but I didn’t address them in this keynote address. So, when I was asked to give a keynote in this “Buddhism in America” conference, I was asked to address the four things that I talked about eleven years ago, and it amazed me that anybody would even remember… but the organizers of the conference had heard my keynote lecture online, and they asked me if I would please address this particular topic, so I was delighted!

The four questions are based on a lecture that I heard when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in the early 70’s – actually, late 60’s – and it’s basically a criterion that’s used for trying to figure out if Buddhism is going to last more than a single generation, and a new culture. The lecture was really addressing Buddhism transplanted from India into China, and said that if in a single generation, these particular areas are not established, then Buddhism is not likely to last… and, then, I, over the years, as an American Buddhist, have thought about these four areas a lot, and in my teaching at Naropa, I’ll get these out and dust them off… and it was really an interesting thing, that in Naropa’s early history, I gave a lecture in a class about these four areas, and unbeknownst to me, a member of the class was a multi-millionaire, and she said that lecture became the foundation stone for her, about how we contribute to Buddhism in America to ensure its survival.

Vince: Wow.

Judith: …and it’s amazing, you know, I know this woman to this day; she systematically picked these four things to support financially, and incredibly generously, and she made a huge difference… and this was back in the early 80’s. She put strategic money in, to various things. So the four areas: let me just go over them, and then we can just… you can take it where you take it.

Vince: Perfect.

Judith: To reframe it, that if Buddhism does not develop infrastructure in four ways, it will not survive as a real ongoing tradition beyond a generation or beyond 100 years. The four areas are: [1] the translation of the key and foundational texts of Buddhism into the language of the new country (so in this case, English); [2] the development of a Monastic tradition, with American lineage holders in that tradition who carry on the Monastic ordination and education and training; [3] and the training and appointment of Regents or Dharma holders, transmission holders, in the new country, so that the tradition will be carried on in the new country, in this case, in the United States, or in North America. And the fourth is…

Vince: I’m looking at my notes here…

Both: Aw! It was a [4] royal patronage.

Judith: Yeah, patronage. Yes, and this is the one that I particularly talked about in this lecture you heard, that without patronage based in the new country, Buddhism would be reliant on patronage from the country from which it came. So of course, in Asia, it was always royal patronage, so royal patronage was the key to the success of Buddhism in Asia, but in this country, without royal patronage, some kind of base of financial support, and a kind of ongoing endowment to make sure that Buddhism can survive in this new culture.

So these four that I heard in a lecture, I think in probably 1969, or 1970, at Columbia University, and its stuck in my mind all these years, as four very important things for us as American Buddhists to think about. Have we really put attention into the right things? We can have lots and lots of very inspiring teachers, and people doing meditation practice, but when our teachers die, or when we get distracted, you know, poof! It’s gone. Do we have a real infrastructure for Buddhism to continue as a tradition established in North America, practiced by North Americans? So, those are the four things that I raised eleven years ago, and these are the things that I addressed in the keynote.

Vince: Thanks. And, and it sounds like these four almost have to come together, like you could have one or two without the others, and it wouldn’t… somehow the tradition might not take hold as a result.

Judith: I think that’s true, and I think also that these four criteria have to be adapted a little bit for an American context, because some things are a little bit different. And the question is, do we take these four criteria literally, or do we adapt them in some way? And so, in my keynote I’d thought about how we might adapt them or think about these infrastructure themes, without necessarily, for instance, sticking with royal patronage, because we don’t have a monarchy in this country, so….

Vince: And, one of the things you got into which I found really interesting, I’d love to kind of go back over that with you, is you looked at each of these areas and how you’ve seen them, how we’re doing basically…

Judith: Yes.

Vince: …in the last eleven years…

Judith: Yes.

Vince: …and you did a kind of a little overview of that, and I thought that would be really relevant for Buddhist geeks.

Judith: Yes. Well, for instance, one thing is, with the translation of text, eleven years ago, we had a long way to go on, on translation of Buddhist texts. Although in the Pali tradition there’s a lot that’s been translated, the Chinese canon has come along well. But, the Tibetan tradition has been way behind for a long time. In the last eleven years, a lot has happened in translation, and there is an increasing number of translations that are available, there’s a lot more available now in English than there was eleven years ago. There are some big areas that need to be thought about, and what I talked about in my lecture is that still only a small percentage of the Tibetan canon has been translated. The Chinese canon is translated increasingly, but still there’s huge portions of it that have not been translated into English.

And I think one of the key elements is that, so far, a lot of the translation projects are done by individual scholars working in isolation, and so there is no equivalency or ground of agreed-upon translation of terms, so when you move from one translation to the next one, you have to learn from their glossary exactly how they translate, Tibetan or Sanskrit or Pali or Chinese terms, or Japanese terms, and it means you have to learn each translator’s system separately.

So one of the things that has been very encouraging to me is an increasing collaboration among translators. In the Chinese tradition, there are more Chinese translation committees taking place. In the Japanese tradition, and I know the Tibetan tradition the best, there’ve been some translators’ conferences in the last year and a half that have meant that translators are now trying to say, it’s not enough for us to work alone, we have to get together, we have to create translation committees, we need to provide financial support for translators, they’re even developing health insurance policies for translators and retirement funds for translators to insure the ongoing work. And I think that American Buddhism is going to go through, in the next ten years, a real generation change from the initial group of translators, and of course it’s true in all the other areas that I’ll talk about as well, that a whole group of translators are going to be dying off, and they need to pass their experience and their support on to the next generation, and be training new generations of translators. And I do think that at least some of the translators recognize this, and this is something that very, very much needs our attention.

We need to financially support translation projects, we need to really appreciate and use the translations that they make, we need to find common agreement about translations of terms, so we’re not starting over with every book we read. So that’s a huge improvement, but there’s still much more to be done in the area of translation.

And I think one other thing that I would say is, in the area of Tibetan translation, which is what I know the best, the thing that is most dismaying to me is in the last seven or eight years, there have been fantastic translations that have come out, a whole series on Jomgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye, translations of whole seven or eight books, a whole series of sadra foundation translations, there’s some marvelous things coming out, but who’s reading them? So, one of the things that concerns me is that the translation aspect really fits in with the education aspect. So, if I can go on and talk about monasticism a little bit.

Vince: Yeah, please, please.

Judith: The reason why monasticism was so important in Asia was because of Buddhist education. And one of the questions is: Will we develop the kind of monastic structure in America that existed in Asia? We just aren’t sure, and some people say that we will not develop that. I’d like to come back to that because I do think we need a strong monastic system, although maybe it will play a different role here than it played in Asia.

But even if we don’t have strong, large, well-supported monasteries, we do need Buddhist education. We need people to learn the sources of a tradition, and we need dharma teachers to be trained, not just making things up as pop-psychology, or whatever sells, or whatever the market will bear. But a deeply trained, educated teacher who can share the depth and wealth of the tradition.

And so, all these wonderful translations that are being done, if people don’t read them, or study them, or learn from them, and build one text on another in a systematic way and understand what they’re doing, the tradition is going to get watered down more and more and more as our Asian teachers pass away, or no longer stay around. So, that’s a huge issue.

Vince: And then, you mentioned in your talk that these three areas that monasteries usually provided refuge for?

Judith: Yes.

Vince: And you already mentioned study.

Judith: Yes.

Vince: But that you kind of reinterpreted monasticism, that it might look differently. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that.

Judith: Sure, I’d be happy to. One thing is having places of intensive practice where people can go and really settle into the practice and do long-term practice situations even if it’s on retreat. I think one of the things that concerns me, is that American Buddhism increasingly, there are more people practicing, but are they actually going on retreat? Are they engaging in long-term practice? Are they deepening in their practice over a long period of time? Monasteries provided that in Asia, and if we don’t have places like practice centers, or whatever, that really hold the long-term practice, then that’s a difficulty.

So, the three things I mentioned were practice and then, of course, mentoring; having a mentor who can really train in ritual and in all of the protocols and aspects of Buddhist practice. That’s very, very important. So, monasteries held that as well, a kind of teacher-student relationship where you could have someone who could teach you all the ritual arts of musical instruments or the depths of shamatha, vipassana practice or whatever. Then, of course, education in text. So, monasteries provided that kind of support in Asia, and if we don’t have monasteries and that is a separate discussion I’d really like to talk about before we finish.

Vince: Sure.

Judith: If we don’t have a monastic tradition, we have to have a place with deep sustained practice, mentorship for really learning the depths of practice, and then a very important tradition of Buddhist study, study of Buddhist texts.

Vince: It seems like, in some ways, Western meditation centers are almost holding most of those things, except sometimes they just practice mentorship and not the study.

Judith: That’s right. That’s right. So, there’s some places that emphasize study more. Some emphasize practice more. Some of the places that have practice don’t necessarily have long-term mentorship. They don’t necessarily have resident teachers who might work with people over years. You might go for a retreat of 30 days, but then you wouldn’t see that person for another four years or whatever.

And I think the kind of mentorship that monasteries provided in Asia was a long-term relationship with a lot of depth and a lot of training that I’m not sure we can get in weekend programs and week-long retreats or 30-day programs. You know, the way that you bring the dharma into your daily life in that kind of enduring way. I think that’s a real question. How are we going to sustain that?

Vince: You mentioned in your talk that we need that because we can’t see our own blind spots.

Judith: We can’t see our own blind spots. That’s right. And, of course, we’ve had incredibly generous Asian teachers who have done a lot for us, and they have lots and lots of students. And they are not living forever. I’ve lost a few of my teachers, and I’ll lose more of them. Of course, I’ll die myself. So, how are we going to pass all of this on? How can I pass on what I’ve been trained in, what I’ve really been so fortunate to learn? How can I pass that on to others if I don’t have a setting and an ongoing relationship with students to pass that on?

Vince: It seems like, in the case of going for 30 days, for instance, and seeing a teacher, there’ll be a lot of value there, but then, there wouldn’t be an ongoing way in which they would see my practice in the context of life, or…

Judith: Exactly.

Vince: …I wouldn’t be able to kind of check in in this other area. So, it’d just be like the intensive retreat.

Judith: I love leading 30-day retreats and I’ve been doing it a lot, but I have such close relationship with those 30 days, but then, where are those people after that time? When do I get to work with them again? When do we have some kind of ongoing relationship? And email and phone, they just don’t do it. So, we need to find some way to foster that kind of ongoing mentorship in our training centers. So, if it’s not monasteries, it’s got to be some place that carries that piece.

Vince: And then that kind of ties in with the other area of Dharma heirs.

Judith: Yes, it does.

Vince: How are we doing on that? What’s changed in the last 11 years?

Judith: Well, Dharma heirs, it’s a hot topic, and the Zen tradition in America has done a lot for passing the Dharma heir on to American Zen teachers. We do have a lot of Zen Roshis now who are Western-trained, they had Asian teachers, and now, the Roshis, if you take the White Plum, for example, so a whole group of American Roshis. But what’s very interesting to me is that they have not been accepted by the Soto hierarchy in Japan.

So, it’s fantastic that they’ve been empowered and that they’re going on, but have they cut their ties with their Asian roots? At least, in the way that I’ve been trained in the Tibetan tradition, keeping the channel of blessings open is one of the very, very important things, when you’ve received Dharma transmission, to keep that kind of channel of blessings open so that your own teaching and the integrity of your teaching will survive in some kind of way.

So, as an achraya in the Shambhala tradition, one of the challenges always is, “Am I keeping a sense of connection and loyalty and devotion for the roots that I’ve come from?” But also, “Am I able to adapt the teachings to this new environment, that this is not Tibet?” What’s required here is different than Tibet. So, I think that the balance between keeping the traditions, but adapting them in a way that actually works, is something that every one who’s a Dharma heir needs to think about.

I know the Tibetan tradition has been the most nervous about Dharma heirs. They have a very good reason to be nervous, because they have lost their country. The teachers who I studied with are all in Diaspora, they do not have their homeland. So they’ve really had to set up in a different situation, and they’re extremely nervous about the survival of their traditions in Diaspora situation. They don’t know what’s going to be happening in another 50 years or less.

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama goes, and when the older elders of the tradition pass, then, what about the integrity of those traditions? So, I think they’re very nervous about passing this on to Westerners for fear that we do not have the same kind of investment in the survival of their traditions. So, I can really understand that question that Tibetan teachers have.

I think, however, if the Dharma is to survive in the West, there has to be Western Dharma heirs, and we cannot always rely on Tibetans. On the other hand, we as Americans, if somebody is Tibetan and a teacher in robes, we flock there and we’re less likely to flock to the American teachers, because it feels more authentic, or it’s a little more exotic or whatever. So, maybe we are mixed in our desire for Western Dharma heirs, I don’t know.

All of these things are things that I think we need to be talking about in our Western Dharma communities and asking ourselves, what kind of investment we’re making in our own future, the future of our own traditions. So, do we want Western Dharma heirs or not, and what is the alternative? Are we all to become little Tibetans or little Japanese or little Thai or a Sri Lankan Buddhists? You know, eating their food and wearing their clothing, or are we going to be actually making an American Buddhism out of this that still has the openness and connection to the channel of blessings in Asia. That’s a big question.


Judith Simmer-Brown