The Boards of Directors run a variety of Buddhist retreat centres, organisations and publishers in the West. They may not believe in a soul but they may have some soul-searching to do.
To their immense credit, these governing bodies show a genuine dedication towards the establishment of the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) in the West.
The Chair and the directors/managers attend numerous meetings throughout the year, mostly in an unpaid capacity. Some of these meetings last for hours, days and weekends. There is a real wish to provide men and women with the opportunity to explore the teachings/practices (Dharma) and expand the Sangha (women and men engaged in similar spiritual practice). Centres have introduced numerous important progressive initiatives.
Some of the chairpersons, directors and seniors have held such positions of authority for years, even decades.
Murmurings of discontent quietly rumble through the variety of Sanghas. The Board of Directors of Buddhist organisations, retreat centres, publishers and charities need to find out if they have become out of touch with developments in the Sangha in the last decade or two.
The governing bodies of such organisations and charities do not seem open to change. Some board members will invite new people to join the Board, often like themselves, who belong to an older generation. Such new board members will bring nothing new to the Sangha.
Many people associate Buddhists with being liberal minded but such an impression does not necessarily ring true.
This public persona of Buddhists and the reality seem to be at odds with each other. The governing bodies of Buddhist centres often appear conservative, sometimes reactionary and cling on to their positions of power, year after year. Influential religious and secular Buddhists on the boards of centres and publishing houses can behave like the religious orthodox and corporate orthodox.
Neo-liberal Buddhists wish to be agreeable with anybody. “Everybody has a view. Everybody has their own truth. I am not trying to impose my truth on you. I simply hold this view. I simply hold this truth.” This is a charter of the neo-liberals.
Orthodox Buddhists maintain the status quo, cling to the past and only make changes if it serves their self-interest.
The same Buddhists will speak of mindfulness, impermanence, letting go and being in the now but resist applying these approaches in the hierarchy of power.
One feels concern for the future of the Three Jewels in the West.
Yes, the Chair of the Board and the Directors or governing committee of Buddhist organisations are well-intended. Good intentions cannot serve as a substitute for vision, creative imagination and a participatory engagement of the Sangha.
For example, the Board of Directors could initiate participatory democracy to run centres, charities and Buddhist publishers.
Such steps would help the governing bodies meet the real needs of people from all kinds of backgrounds and social/economic realities.
The Sangha needs to elect all board members for a period of say three to five years. The Buddha introduced democracy to the Sangha. Participatory democracy needs to be reinstated in Buddhism in the West in the 21st century.
The Boards urgently need fresh young minds of women and men, dedicated to the Dharma, to address the challenges of the times we live in. The younger generation need to have a real voice on the Board. Their representation needs to match in numbers the older voices. Wisdom, clarity and vision must work together. Boards will benefit from grounded practitioners, calm and caring, in the younger generation.
There is little point in having two or three people, say under the age of 35 years, on the board if they can be easily outvoted by the oldies, who resist change.
A democratic input will revitalise board meetings to expand ways to address 21st century needs. An elected Sangha can have a major voice in providing input in to strategic decision-making processes to awaken the creative spirit of practitioners.
We need Agents of Change, inner and outer, not just a lot of meditators sitting on meditation cushions watching their breath and body sensations.
Some directors rarely or never attend retreats at the centre they govern. They rarely meet with the generation of the Sangha in the 20s and 30s. They may know little of the conditions of the facility. The Chair and board often agree year by year to make the centre more and more comfortable. That is often the priority – because they live very comfortable middle-class lives themselves. Health and safety take priority not creating a five-star spiritual hotel.
Those who attend retreats pay in cash for their comfort. The daily rate for retreats goes up, often on an annual basis. The poor, the single parent, the student, the low income, the person living on a small pension, the traveller, the backpacker, the worker on minimum wage doesn’t even look at the website of such centres because they are simply unaffordable. On top of the daily rate, participants also fork out travel costs and appeals for donations at the end of the retreat for teachers, staff and centre have to be added.
Those with little money who wish to attend such retreats can ask cap-in-hand for a scholarship or bursary.
‘People of Colour’
Some of the Boards in the USA have written excellent statements to support ‘People of Colour’ so they feel truly welcome into Buddhist communities. These statements of purpose apply anywhere in the world. A lot of mindfulness, reflection and kindness has gone into these statements and subsequent initiatives. There is much to appreciate here.
There is still a harsh reality to overcome, especially in the extreme conditions of poverty and debt in the USA. Many people of any colour simply cannot afford retreats. Buddhist retreats and people with disposable income go largely (not always), hand in hand. The Boards need to be brave and simply slash the daily rate across all the retreats.
The Boards to need find ways to engage in massive savings of expenditure from food cuisine, property expansion, equipment and paid employment. Such initiatives will bring about a welcome diversity of people, poor and rich alike, on all the retreats.
Who is a Conservative?
Conservatives hold to traditional values and attitudes and can come across as preferring to live in the past. Wisdom draws on insightful teachings from the past for the present with an eye to the future.
Reactionaries resist change as much as possible. They simply hold onto the past more tightly. Both often believe everything will work out fine in the end. Reactionaries do not realise how much they want to remain firmly in control of the way things are and have been. The same people can show a kindly face while resisting innovative programmes.
Such attitudes of conservatives and reactionaries ensure a strong resistance to change. Meditators sitting on Buddhist retreats have little knowledge of the board of directors of the centres. There is no real engagement between the meditators and the board. There is no democracy, no invitation to experienced practitioners of the younger generation to be on the board. The Board of Directors do not believe in a participatory democracy. They govern from the top down.
A Board, teachers and Sangha need to have regular in-depth meetings together to explore a sustainable vision and direction. The current model has the danger of fizzling out as we, the senior teachers, start fading away. Death, sickness, pain, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease will bring a halt to our teaching. We will not have enough energy to step into our own grave.
The Need for Change
Change is needed. Otherwise, the new generation of the Sangha will remember we, the old farts, as the Dharma teachers/boards who remained stuck in our ways. We can carry on supporting religious Buddhism with its temples to remember the Great Man of 2600 years ago or identify with the dry, pedantic and intellectual world of secular Buddhists.
As centres grow in popularity, the self-satisfaction of the board can lead to negligence around spiralling costs, lightweight teachings and neglect of the needs of the Sangha.
A centre may distribute feedback forms to participants knowing full well that the board will pick and choose the suggestions that suit our conservative and aged dispositions.
One is left wondering whether the centres will last another generation or two. Buddhist centre like Gaia House in south Devon, England and IMS (Insight Meditation Society) in Massachusetts, USA bought an unwanted Christian monastery and convent and converted them into meditation centres.
There are lessons here. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, these Christian centres were full of monks, nuns and retreatants. I recall around 1995 visiting for afternoon tea with the nuns in the south Devon convent (which I persuaded our board to name as Gaia House in 1996). The convent had 54 bedrooms. The senior nun was leading a retreat. There were eight participants. The age of the youngest retreatant was 70. Twenty-five years earlier, the convent had added more than 20 bedrooms and the Church hall to accommodate all the retreatants. Impermanence. Rise and Fall. Coming and Going. Be mindful of unexpected change.
Today, some Buddhist retreat centres are frequently full. People book a room or shared room months and months in advance. There is a huge demand. Just like, the Christian monasteries and convents experience in the 1950s and 1960s. Retreat centres will charge a lot of money for a weekend course. They will make a lot more money over a weekend that having few people for a week.
Buddhist governing bodies need to be mindful of the potential for a disintegration of dedicated Buddhist practices in West. The Dharma will then end up as a psychological tool to reduce stress and have compassion for oneself.
People in the Sangha get tired of teachers giving the same talks, same forms and same techniques retreat after retreat. Such a formula becomes a mind-numbing activity.
Buddhist Publishers and Censorship
Buddhist publishers continue to make available numerous books of teachings and practices. The publishers provide excellent translations of Buddhist text from the four primary Buddhist languages of Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. There is a growing body of work of the ancient texts now available, especially in English, German and French.
Buddhist teachers and scholars continues to provide us with excellent commentaries on the Buddha’s teachers and the major teachers from the traditions over the last 2600 years. This provides a very welcome fusion of the best of the past and the application for today and future generations.
There is widespread interest for millions of people in the West as the Dharma takes root here. Yet, it is hard to find in the book list of publishers a critique of developments of the Buddhist tradition as it transmits from East to West. There is plenty to write about –
- anti-democratic strains
- introverted Buddhist practices
- narrow mindedness
- orthodox Buddhism
- over-simplification of the Buddha-Dharma
- patriarchal Buddhism
- resistance to question lifestyle
- secular Buddhism,
I recall submitting more than a decade ago a book proposal for a critique on Buddhism in the West to Shambala Publications and Wisdom Publications, both based in the USA. Shambhala had kindly published three or four of my books some years previously. Both publishers rejected the book proposal. The Shambhala editor described the chapters that I sent as a ‘rant.’ Maybe.
I went through the entire list of Shambhala books and Wisdom Publications. I could not find a single critique of Western Buddhism. Is this censorship? Is it a form of control to ensure everything published is pleasing to read? That was some 10 years ago. I do not know if the situation has changed.
Openness to analysis of Western Buddhism, critiques of Buddhist practices and questioning of the status quo appear to be largely excluded from the Buddhist publishing world. You must look elsewhere.
There are various publishers who also make absurd claims about Buddhist practices.
Jon Kabat-Zinn has made such an important contribution to the widespread interest in mindfulness to reduce stress. Sounds True, a multi-media publishing company based in Colorado, USA, provides a fine library of audio talks on teachings/practices and publishes numerous books supportive of practice.
One Sounds True CD consists of teachings/guided meditations of Jon K-Z.
The CD blurb on the website states
“What if you could profoundly change your life just by becoming more mindful of your breathing? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, you can.”
Does this sound true? Not to this Dharma teacher. Mindfulness of breathing belongs to deep meditation, whole hearted exploration and a supportive body of teachings and practices. Deep experiences, insights and realizations change your life.
Buddhist publishers, authors and readers need to insist that copy writers stop making extravagant claims divorced from reality in order to sell more books to people in need of support.
The intention behind this critique is to make a small contribution towards inner-outer change. Inner change includes the individual and changes in the Sangha.
We need to develop and evolve throughout every level of our organisations and networks.
We find ourselves blessed with a body of teachings embracing ethics, meditation, mindfulness, wisdom, liberation and full awakening.
We have a voice. We need democratic processes.
We have a significant contribution to make for the welfare of life on Earth.
This blog is an extract
from a chapter in this blogger’s book
titled The Buddha in the West.
Due to be self-published
in the summer of 2018.