Saturday, March 11, 2017

The deserving poor, renunciates and Buddhism in the West

This post has been stimulated by a dialogue with a western Buddhist nun, trying to raise funds for better living conditions for Western-born monks and nuns.

When I was introduced to the oral transmission of the Mahayana Buddhist teachings in 1976 (in two intense courses, one for 10 days in silence, the other for 21 days, the last 10 with a single meal at lunch, also in complete silence) I was particularly attracted to the teachings on bodhicitta - the wish to help all. I was also taught that the Mahayana path (the "great" vehicle) was superior to the Hinayana (Theravada), because its aspiration was to help more people. But over time I met many selfish (normal?) followers of the Mahayana and some generous followers of Theravada; so I started calling the two traditions the "Northern" and "Southern" to reduce the pejorative implied by "Maha" (great).

Getting a largely non-Buddhist Western population to financially support a Buddhist monastic population, is a formidable task; especially in the Tibetan tradition, given the tiny number of Tibetans here, even though quite a few people here are interested in the Tibetan teachings.

In the West the concept of "deserving" poor is very deep (not just in capitalist societies); I think it's also deep in the East, but in many parts of South and SE Asia renunciates are seen as deserving; but not here;.unless the monk/nun does social work, teaches, or officiates at ceremonies etc. The Catholic church is old and rich enough to feed and house a few monks/nuns who engage solely in prayer/meditation (and probably would not be seen as deserving by most Aussies).

From late 1974 to early 1977 I lived on a "spiritual" community to which I gave my labour and all my scarce capital in exchange for rent and food, but I had no legal security (and no social security either, that was refused to us). Looking back, I feel exploited because I was falsely promised legal security by the owner of the spiritual community. I did learn a lot, but basically I'm glad I left when I did.

Consequently I studied medicine, not just because medicine provided a skill by which I could help people (though not spiritually - a topic I might return to) but also because I sought financial independence. That experience, where I felt exploited, gives me sympathy for people exploited in Asia (as do Tong Len meditations, mentally exchanging one's position for that of others), and also for people who feel exploited by giving their labour to dharma centres, though I expect most people in that situation know the conditions they will experience, i.e. they knowingly enter into an unwritten contract, which in fact is generally kept (many in Asia, e.g. indentured labourers, also know the conditions, but they are very often very obviously exploitative).

BODHI's funds only go for development in Asia (and a bit for administration). We are not a religious charity, so we are restricted from supporting religious projects, even if we wanted to.

In my mind, the poor in Asia are more "deserving" than the poor here, and also more "deserving" than renunciates, whether in the West or Asia, though I do accept an argument you make in your video that the monastic community, collectively, has helped to preserve the dharma. But many of the monastic community have either damaged the dharma (or mis-transmitted it, including by being terribly sexist). Some are good, but how is the ordinary person to know who is genuinely deserving?

In 1992 Ngari Rinpoche (a younger brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama) told Susan (my late wife) and I that he felt many Tibetan monastics were "parasites" - his word. Of course, Ngari would have his critics, but his words resonated with us. Earlier, in 1990,
His Holiness the Dalai Lama had clapped his hands when Susan and I talked to him about raising money to support the training of Tibetan monks and nuns as health workers. We then went to Namgyal monastery to see if any monk was willing - no one was. (Later BODHI did pay for 3 monks (sic) from a monastery in Mundgod to do a 6 month course at a hospital in Bangalore; however in 1997 I was denied a permit to visit Mundgod and I never met them; then our representative in Mundgod died. I have lost touch with them).

I have no objection to others supporting Western (or Asian) monks and nuns, but I do think at least some are undeserving; taking from the universe more than they give. Nonetheless I am sympathetic with your own aspiration to raise funds, in the West (or perhaps globally) to support Western monks and nuns. There is a vast amount of wasted money in the world, and I hope some of it will be directed towards your project, but I actually think it is more skilful to try to reduce poverty overall. 

Best wishes