In the first part of a multi-part discussion with Buddhist teacher and scholar Hokai Sobol, we explore the invisible, and rarely discussed, forces that shape Western Buddhism. In particular what we call “culture” shapes our institutions and communities in ways that we rarely see with clarity.
Hokai spends a good bit of this initial discussion exploring the traditional story that has been handed down to us. This story includes the various cultural assumptions surrounding the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, in the different countries and time periods in which they existed. These norms include the what it means to have a “healthy attitude” (or “right attitude” as it’s often formulated), what the proper teacher-student relationship is, and what hierarchy looks like in these cultures.
This is part 1 of a multi-part series. Listen to part 2, Exchanging Dharma – The Consumer Mindset.
Vincent: Hey, Hokai.
Hokai: Hi, Vince. Hey.
Vincent: How’s it going
Hokai: Yeah, great, cool. I’ve been waiting for this phone call. You know, it’s been a while. [Laughter]
Vincent: Yeah, it has been a while. Our last recording we did was when you were in Boulder, in person. That was like, must have been a year, year and a half ago.
Hokai: That’s a long time. You know?
Hokai: And I have stuff put aside just to share with you.
Vincent: Yeah, I know we had a talk last week and I was wanting to explore this one topic with you, and then I suggested it and suddenly we spent an hour and a half going over what sounds like either a book or a like six-part episode on Buddhist Geeks, or both.
Hokai: Yeah, a six part summary of an endless episode. Serious.
Vincent: So, I mean, but it’s really interesting stuff, too. So it’s not that this is going to bore people, at all. This is really fascinating, interesting material. It just feels like it’s the type of topic that needs some extra time to really go into the nitty-gritty with you.
Hokai: Sure. But I think the only audience out there I know of with a high percentage of people interested in this stuff is the Buddhist Geeks audience, anyway. So, I guess this is the right place to discuss things like this.
Vincent: Yeah, yeah. And this is hopefully going to be a first of many, I guess, original conversations around topics that are of real relevance to contemporary practitioners. You might call it BuddhaDharma 2.0, in some ways.
Hokai: Yeah, yeah.
Vincent: And the topic that we’re going to explore, we decided a title for it which is, “The invisible forces that shape Western Buddhism.”
Hokai: Oh, yeah.
Vincent: I figured I’ll say a little bit about what we discussed and why this topic’s important… What the topic is.
Hokai: Oh, please do. Yeah.
Vincent: And then, I’ll expect you to chime in with some erudite wisdom. [laughter] Or, something like that.
Hokai: Good, yeah. OK, yeah.
Vincent: So as I understand it, and correct me again if I miss important things. But, as I understand it, usually when we talk about Dharma we think about our individual practices, we think about the tradition maybe, we think about teacher/student relationships. But there are also a lot of really invisible forces that we don’t often think about or talk about, which could include things like economics, it could include things like cultural inheritance, it could include basically ways that we make meaning, but don’t really recognize that we’re making meaning in that way.
It includes all sorts of issues around autonomy of the individual versus the communion of the group that they’re in, issues around hierarchy versus sort of more pure egalitarian modes of being with each other. So many invisible things that we don’t necessarily pay attention to that are still shaping the way Western Buddhism plays itself out. In terms of actual communities, of teacher/student relationships, of the way that Dharma’s exchanged. Is it exchanged for money, is it given freely? All sorts of ways that we interact as Dharma students and practitioners and teachers, that we’re just not even usually aware of.
Hokai: Well, yeah. I mean, you mentioned that there are many ways we make meaning. But because these forces or influences are often unrecognized and because they often function behind our awareness as it were, these structures that are already in place in the collective shared space make meaning for us. So that, very often, what we decide to make the meaning is what is being offered by these hidden influences or forces. So that basically we decide among a very limited range of options.
And without recognizing how that range is limited and what is the actual content of that range we’re being offered by our own, whether cultural or techno-economic situation, we end up making meaning that we believe is a product of our free will, or informed choice, or whatever. While as good as we may try, some of these meanings and some of these solutions and choices that we make are indeed strongly controlled or conditioned by the… just as you said, cultural and economic conditioning that is, it would seem, inescapable as soon as you move off your cushion. I would argue even while you’re on the cushion.
Vincent: Right. Yeah, this is, sort of, I guess the blind spot of dharma practice, right? Where it’s the idea is that if I sit on the cushion and pay attention to the content of my experience, that somehow I’m going to see all of the conditioning that shapes me, and I’ll be able to influence it.
Hokai: Yeah, well, it’s a blind spot of traditional dharmic formulations of course, because they had not yet discovered these spheres of human activity. In a way they have been made obvious to us by the modern and post-modern cultural developments, not just theories, but new ways of investigating human relationships. Especially the ways people come together, the ways people
exchange stuff, whether hard stuff or services—what we know as economics. And especially the ways people come together in making meaning and sharing values—what we know as culture.
If I can just give a very brief background for this discussion although many geeks out there will definitely be aware of some of this stuff, but originally the Buddhist teaching has been, at least in the form preserved in the earliest strata of literature, has been presented through the framework or four noble truths. And the fourth of these, namely the path that leads from one situation to a completely rediscovered situation that can be argued is a new situation, or the old situation seen with seen with fresh eyes. But this path that leads from one point to the other point is known as the Noble Eightfold Path or sometimes it’s summarized as the three trainings. Sometimes people will say morality, meditation, and wisdom but actually in the noble eightfold path, the wisdom comes first.
So, the wisdom is again presented in the noble eightfold path in two elements or two components. The first one being right view and the second one being right intention though some people translate this differently. For our purpose, right view and right intention fit what we need to discuss. Taken together, these two constitute something we may call “right attitude”. Basically, right attitude provides a certain clarity of intention and certain clarity of direction, and a will to move on, and also a basic set of concepts including a clear understanding of one’s present situation and how one wants to proceed. At least on an initial conceptual level. So this “right attitude” is a dynamic notion that stands right there at the beginning of the eightfold path. In Pali and Sanskrit we find the expression “kusala citta” which would basically mean I say right attitude, but it’s a healthy attitude. Some people would use notions like virtuous mind, which I don’t think is very helpful. So healthy attitude is something we can easily resonate with.
So basically, there is a healthy attitude there, but traditionally it’s framed as something spiritual and nothing cultural is implied there, at least not in the language used in the early scripture. And the reason is very simple because cultural situations or context in which spirituality was pursued at the time, these situations were rather stable. Three generations, namely your grandfather, your father, and yourself, or your grandmother, your mother and yourself, would be born, would live, and would die, in a virtually, basically, unchanging cultural situation.
Hokai: And now days even during one lifetime, we can see multiple values playing themselves across the economic and political and cultural scenes, and these values influencing one another. We even talk about “culture wars.” And we may even see a shift in values. It may be micro-shift like the one that happened during the sixties and seventies era. Or it may be a huge shift to an entirely new level as has happened during the enlightenment and that began even before during the Renaissance period. Some people would point out that we are on a threshold of a new huge shift. I wouldn’t go into that at this point any way.
So basically, when the traditional texts talk about the right attitude, they will describe the spiritual meaning of this: what is right and what is an attitude. But the spiritually informed right attitude never functions in a cultural vacuum. So basically a spiritual attitude of any kind will magnetize certain content from the immediate cultural situation in which the practitioner, or practitioners in plural, find themselves immersed in.
So, basically if you have a spiritual attitude or a healthy attitude in agricultural India 2,500 years ago. And if you have the same basically spiritually speaking healthy attitude in 21st century West, especially you know Europe and United States and countries that share the features of this part of the world… In that case what will magnetize around that right or healthy attitude will be of a different nature. Basically, the roles and the relationships and the whole range of tacit knowledge that was available to Indians more that twenty centuries ago will differ hugely from the roles, relationships, and tacit knowledge available to Westerners now a days. And basically what will happen is that unwittingly we may find this right attitude exposed and then fused with a completely different set of cultural values and cultural assumptions because of which we may have, well modestly speaking, certain difficulties. Let’s frame it that way.
I believe this is the reason why we need sometimes to check and look into, more seriously, into our both economic and sometimes technological, but certainly cultural systems and analyze these in terms that are not overly either scholar or academic or analytic or statistical or whatever. But, analyze them, in accessible terms that could hopefully provide us with tools of recognizing when some of these hidden forces are at play. And when we unwittingly find ourselves identified with some of roles and find ourselves perpetuating some of the relationships that perhaps were not even dreamed of in the time of the historical Buddha, and that definitely have an influence on how the Dharma is actually taking place in our culture at this time
Vincent: Great, that’s a great framework for the conversation. And I just wanted to highlight one thing you said, because as I understand it, it’s really the crux of this conversation, which is not to explore this topic from just a purely scholarly perspective, where we’re just sort of talking about the ideas. But rather it’s exploring it in the service of trying to be a little more free around some of these identifications that we may not even notice we have.
Hokai: Oh yeah.
Vincent: Or roles, or whatever, systems. Not to say you Hokai and I Vincent, have the answers but rather that this is something that you for instance have explored a lot and have been real prime interest for you as a teacher and as a scholar.
Hokai: Oh yeah, far from offering any sort of answers or recipes or solutions or patronizing anyone in this discussion. The best I can do and the best I can hope that you’ll help me in this discussion, is try to formulate certain situations that arise quite naturally and that we share with most practitioners out there. These situations can be framed and formulated as potential problems, but also as opportunities if we can become more aware of them, and step into them without either paranoia or distrust or certain ideological bias, that would make it impossible for us, to deal with them in a constructive open-handed way. Ok.
Vincent: Nice. And, I guess to sort of come from the big picture and then down into the specifics, we thought it would be good to talk about and explore some actual traditional examples of these invisible forces and how they might operate, as well as some contemporary examples. Because we haves tons of different Buddhist communities operating all over the West, a lot of them operate pretty differently from one another. So we have plenty of examples from the past and currently, of these sort of forces in play. It seems useful to talk about what’s come before and what’s now, before we could even talk about what might be?
Hokai: Yeah, you want me to talk about the traditional roles, as…
Hokai: As they are being handed down? Ok, so…
Vincent: Yeah, I think that helpful to illustrate what we’re talking about.
Hokai: Ok, Ok. So basically the two sources that we have for traditional roles and relationships in the Dharma study, are canonical literature, and the commentarial literature of course, and additional third layer of literature, specific to each school and tradition, like chronologies and events that took place.
So this like a written down record of what went on before. Some of this is of course conditioned by idealizations or uncritical exaggerations, in some cases. Though, the earliest strata, namely the Pali Canon is amazingly journalistic in many respects when it comes to describing the arising of the first conventions in the Buddhist Sangha. But later on, especially in Mahayana and Vajrayana, although you know I’m not critical of these traditions, being a Vajryana practitioner myself, we certainly find a lesser degree of journalism, if I may say so, when it comes to describing historical events, and we find much more literary freedom there.
Anyway, by a careful study of the text, we may easily get to know that some of the early roles around the teacher-student relationship and around the relationship between students, namely within the community. That these roles and relationships developed organically. They were not received at once through a codex of behavior. But instead, many of the rules and principles were laid down as solutions to problems, after problems have made themselves clear. And not just the ethical precepts of the early Sangha, but also some of the disciplinary principles and then the details that have nothing to do with ethics that are concerned with exterior behavior and with certain practicalities, were developed as pragmatic solutions for certain difficulties. To make the life of the monks and lay people run smoothly, and to make their exchange and meeting and relationship run as smooth as possible, and to solve the problems in a proper way when these arise.
So basically what we find is that there was an understanding, for example, that the monks would be those who are devoted to studying and practicing the Dharma 24/7, and that the community of monks would provide the gist of Dharma to the lay people at “no charge”, quote, unquote. But instead, and this is not charging but it’s a way of exchanging of course. But instead, the lay people would take care of the monks and their basic needs through a system of the donations, that would imply food and basic necessities like cloth for the ropes and stuff like medicine and later even some money, or what would function as money; whether handled by the monks themselves, or by someone assisting them in that.
Anyway, there is an early model of economic relationships described in details, and there is also a model of relating between a teacher of Dharma and his students or apprentices, whatever word we tend to use. These teachers, again, were not necessarily monks, but in the vast majority of cases they were, at least in the very early history of Buddhism. The students also were not always novice monks, or young monks, or nuns, but were also students who could also be lay people. So theoretically we could imagine a situation where a monk or an elder nun teaches both the ordained and the lay, and we could also theoretically imagine a situation where the lay teacher—there are examples of lay teachers even in the time of the Buddha–would teach lay people. And in some extraordinary situation, although the later code of behavior and ethical and behavioral regulations prohibited mostly, the situation where younger would teach the older, where women would teach the men, or where lay would teach the ordained.
So as the time went on, the situation became somewhat formalized and narrowed down. But originally, all sorts of combinations did happen, would happen. And the very early relationships between teachers and apprentices created an ideal of a teacher where a teacher would basically be seen as a senior in holy life, in skill, in meditation, in knowledge, in experience in general. So basically there was a relationship between a junior and the senior somehow.
There was no sharp contrast between the teacher and the student. Of course, there was a sharp contrast during the Buddha’s life. But after that there was something we would nowadays see as an egalitarian taste of this relationship. But I wouldn’t bet on it, because we don’t see the invisible cultural overlay, or the invisible cultural foundations, in India, Tibet, China, Japan, Burma, Korea, any of those countries. Saying that someone is more senior immediately implies a huge deal of respect, a huge deal of humility, and implies a whole attitude that is absent when we in the post-modern West say that someone is senior and someone is junior in any discipline.
We even think that the junior must somehow challenge the senior generation, bringing something new into the discourse. At least this is encouraged in the Western educational system, in the universities that want to do something with their education. People are encouraged to think independently and to speak up independently. This was not exactly the case in traditional Asian societies.
Vincent: Yeah, yeah.
Hokai: So, anyway. Even when we start with a very mild distinction between a teacher and a student, even in that senior-junior distinction there is a huge amount of relationship implied. As the Buddhist history moves on, we find these positions moving even a little bit further, namely in the Mahayana tradition we find that the teacher must be a Bodhisattva. Well, Bodhisattva is almost an angel in the Western sacred terminology, and Bodhisattva can of course be ordained or a lay. But a special name is used for a Bodhisattva when he’s someones instructor, guide, a spiritual friend, etc., and there is Kalyanamitra. And Kalyanamitra basically is often translated as “good friend.” This again, when we hear that someone is a good friend, this is almost as saying that he’s a “buddy,” and something else is implied there of course. In the Asian cultures, Kalyanamitra is never your buddy. Whether we look at the Mahayana in India, which lasted until the 11th or 12th century, whether we look at the Tibetan, or Chinese, or Japanese, Burmese, and any other situation; a teacher in Mahayana would not be someone that you would be very comfortable at relating as buddy, even he was just your father.
So basically we find that a teacher is described with many, many virtues. And then again that what is expected from a student is a great deal of devotion, dedication, of course not to the teacher personally but to that which the good friend or the spiritual friend is expected to guide you to, namely, the dharma. And the path, and eventually fruition of that path. And without proper guidance, of course, it is said that you may wander aimlessly for many lives, not just this one.
And basically this traditional attitude transmits into the relationship between a teacher and student in a way that, again, in the scripture may remain rather invisible, and if you haven’t had a really intimate relationship with a traditional Asian teacher, being a Western student of dharma, you may be completely unaware of this cultural assumption that is there, even nowadays. Because most Asian teachers visiting the West will behave differently in the West, while teaching, and they will establish a flexible different relationship with their students, at least with the entry-level students, so to say. So, before you become a committed private student you may not even be aware that there is a lot of cultural material there waiting to be discovered.
And of course there is a minority of Asian teachers, I don’t want to be misunderstood in this respect. There is a minority of Asian teachers that are already stepping boldly with both feet into the 21st century, and that are doing their best to evolve their way of, not just teaching but of relating to individual students, whether Eastern and Western, and to basically to invite and embody a new type of relationship that would better fit our post-traditional attitudes and values.
And, again, to come back to the traditional story, after the Mahayana we know that another tradition arose from the field of Mahayana and basically we know it as either Vajarayana or Mantrayana or sometimes called Tantric Buddhism and sometimes Esoteric Buddhism. This last development which is coterminous or simultaneous to the development of Zen—this last development brought another idea or another description for the role of the teacher, at least for the more advanced or more senior teachers in the lineages, namely, that’s the idea of the Guru. Or as Lama in the Tibetan tradition, or known in some other Asian countries with different names and with different titles, but we tend to use the term Guru in the West these days as somehow a generic term for all those teachers in the Vajarayana. But an indisputed fact remains that the Guru plays an even, could we say, more somber role than even the good friend, the spiritual friend from the Mahayana, in the sense that Guru is sometimes understood to embody even the Three Jewels themselves. So, you don’t get any heavier than that. And, in that case, basically the devotion overwhelms the whole description of what being a good student means. And for our contemporary understanding this is not easy to wrap our minds around. What this basically means in the spiritual sense, and then find a well-adapted cultural expression of that, whether while alone in a room with this teacher, or being this teacher, it’s even more difficult I would think. Or in a public place with many other people present. Or even start thinking what are the economics of this relationship in the 21st century America or France or Russia or whatever.
So, as this role of the teacher developed in these three distinct ways, although they share something in common, namely the general implied trust and benevolence and a right attitude shared by the teacher and the student, although a very mature form of the right, or healthy attitude in the teacher, and a very early, initial form of the healthy attitude in the student. So, there are shared and common traits in all these relationships, but there is also always a huge amount of unrecognized cultural material there, if we only study the texts. But if we allow ourselves to see what people who have studied Buddhism in traditional settings will tell us, then we recognize that, indeed, the cultural assumptions there are really very rich and that by simply cleaning our Buddhism from all these cultural assumptions—Oh my! If that was so easy, you know we could just strip Buddhism from any culture and we would have like the very pure spiritual recipe. But it just doesn’t work. When you remove a certain set of cultural assumptions, what will immediately be magnetized into that space is another set of cultural assumptions, unavoidably. And if these cultural assumptions are not carefully put together or chosen, and I’m talking about the long time of this process—while they are not put carefully together and chosen, they should at least be recognized. And that’s what we’re talking about.
So, basically traditionally, just to sum it up, student has been warned to develop a healthy attitude, to equip oneself with serenity and clear understanding of principles and practices and basic nature of experience, and to approach well-respected teacher, and to study with that teacher with a deep sense of conviction, trust, devotion. Not being selfish with supporting and helping this teacher in any way with body, mind, and speech, is the traditional phrase. And if possible to ordain. So that’s the traditional setting, basically, and that’s what we have been handed down by literature, and by some of the institutionalized Asian Buddhism that is still alive in the East.