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Western Buddhism: The 50 Year Lessons (Part II)

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A few weeks ago I began a series of posts called "Western Buddhism: The 50 Year Lessons." In that post I mentioned three lessons: enlightenment is not what we thought, meditation is not good for everything and religious corruption is universal. Outside of ethnic enclaves, Buddhism is really quite new in the West. Even the word "Buddhism" itself -- a term coined by 19th century European scholars to categorize it as a world religion along with other "isms" -- is not quite right. There is no such word "Buddhism" in Buddhism. The Buddha himself used the word marga, which simply means "path." Buddhism is a wisdom path, a long, difficult, and complex journey. It takes time and effort, and mistakes are part of it.

I would like to continue my exploration of 50 year lessons with two more: Prejudice Against Women Runs Deep, and Conflict is Part of the Path.

Prejudice Against Women Runs Deep.

Buddhism began in Northern India in the 5th century B.C., in a caste-ridden, conquistador society where women were ranked below men in nearly all things. According to scripture, the Buddha did not initially want women in his monastic order, and it was only through the pleading of his disciple Ananda, speaking on behalf of Prajapati -- a leading woman disciple and the Buddha's biological aunt -- that the Buddha reluctantly agreed. Since Buddhist scriptures were not committed to writing until several centuries later, we don't know whether this incident was literally true, but it was certainly culturally normative for that time. That bias against women has remained operative in Buddhist countries to this day. The young Karmapa -- reported to me by people who were there -- said recently in a public gathering that the prejudice against women in Buddhism was simply wrong and should be changed. After 2,500 years, that's good to hear. Correcting that "mistake" is probably easier said than done, however.

The inclusion of women as equals in Western Buddhism is revolutionary, but we should not congratulate ourselves too quickly. Many women teachers of Buddhism have explained to me poignantly and at length how difficult it has been for them to establish and maintain themselves as women leaders. The prejudice they face is multi-leveled. First, the Asian male leaders who brought the practices to us have come from societies which regard women as inferior. Second, partly because we began imitating these Asian models, Western Buddhist communities have had mixed success in equalizing teaching and leadership opportunities for women. And third, our own society is itself hardly free of gender bias. It's been a hard road to hoe for women in Buddhism. My colleague Dr. Grace Schireson, a Zen teacher in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, has written a groundbreaking book, Zen Women, where she brings to light and shares her research into the until-now forgotten histories of important women Zen teachers in ancient China and Japan. In those societies, women who wanted to practice and teach often attached themselves to powerful male abbots as mentors, men with enough personal and institutional authority to buck the prevailing biases. Grace's book tells an important and powerful story; I highly recommend it.

Conflict is Part of the Path.

One meme that mainstream society has absorbed about Buddhism is that it is all about peacefulness and calm. That is not untrue, but it is not the whole story. Buddhism is a wisdom path leading to being fully awake as a human being, and that human realm includes conflict of all kinds -- family conflict, interpersonal conflict, power struggles, trauma and abuse -- in Zorba the Greek's words, "the full catastrophe." Many Western Buddhists have come to meditation because it seems to offer a refuge from the emotional strife that they grew up with. As one prominent Buddhist leader has said, "80 percent of meditators at Buddhist centers have a background of trauma and abuse, and the other 20 percent are lying." To put that statement in a more positive light, people who have suffered a lot know something already about Buddhism's first noble truth -- that human life is marked with suffering. They don't need to be convinced.

As a consequence of this, however, Western Buddhists are often conflict averse and averse to expressing negative thoughts and feelings. This can give Buddhist communities an unreal patina of peace and harmony, masking a deeper current of resentment, anger and frustration. In such communities, the Buddhist virtue of "right speech" is often wrongly interpreted to mean never saying anything critical or difficult. Such pretense is not conducive to real inner transformation.

Working through all of this will take time. Integrating these ancient, exotic practices into our own social milieu will require us to embrace the full range of human experience, positive and negative. Thus, the notion that meditation is a method for achieving calm is not quite accurate. The purpose of Buddhist meditation is not to achieve any particular state of mind, but to be fully awake within any state of mind, even quite difficult ones.

We have learned a lot in 50 years, but in the context of Buddhism's 2,500 years, 50 years is but a blink of an eye. I sometimes tell my students that Western Buddhism is a 1000 year project. Our job is to till the soil, scatter the seeds, and learn what we can. The full working out of these and other issues will take many lifetimes. Buddhism is not perfect -- that is an idealization -- but it is perfectly human. That is why it can be such good medicine for us, if we are patient.

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