Monday, August 30, 2010

Western Gurus?

This post appeared last week as part of the new, weekly 21st-Century Buddhism feature at the Interdependence Project.

A recent article on Huffington Post by David Nichtern -- one of my earliest Buddhist teachers and father of the notorious Ethan Nichtern -- asked some hard-hitting questions about The Future of Buddhism in the West. David and I are apparently sharing brainwaves, because I've been chewing on many of the same questions recently.

Nichtern points out the puzzling shortage of Westerners being fully empowered as teachers in the Vajrayana tradition, commonly known as Tibetan Buddhism. He says: "Either the time has not yet come for Western Buddhist gurus to manifest fully, or we have a major culture clash on our hands here." I'm thinking that it may actually be a little of both.

Clearly, Vajrayana is lagging behind other Buddhist traditions in the process of empowering Westerners as full-blown lineage holders. In the Zen and Vipassana traditions, Western teachers are now fully empowered and passing the torch from one Westerner to another. But high-level Vajrayana teachers who are not culturally and ethnically Tibetan (or Nepali or Bhutanese) are, today, few and far between. The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted, including:

  • Guru principle. The guru-student relationship is a particularly intense kind of bond that is unique to the Vajrayana tradition. It remains to be seen if Western Buddhists can relate to one another as gurus and students -- or if we're only comfortable having gurus from another culture.
  • The politics of reincarnation. In Tibetan Buddhism, lineage transmission is bound up with the institution of tulkus (reincarnated teachers) and recognition across multiple lifetimes. How this will play out as Western teachers begin to hold the lineage also remains to be seen.
  • The Tibetan diaspora. Tibetan culture is threatened with extinction in its native land. At the same time as Tibetan teachers living in exile are transmitting the dharma, they are also struggling to preserve their culture -- a culture that is, itself, intimately fused with the dharma. It is understandable if this makes Tibetan teachers reluctant to pass the lineage to Westerners who have little investment in preserving their endangered culture.
  • Bad examples. It doesn't help our case that in several of the rare instances when full lineage transmission has been given to Westerners, the subsequent conduct of those new lineage holders has blown up into scandal and embarrassment. Just this past week, we've seen scandalous articles in the New York Times and the New York Post about two high-profile Buddhist teachers, Eido Shimano Roshi and Geshe Michael Roach. Perhaps this kind of thing, which is all too common, signals to Tibetan teachers that we're not quite ready to hold the Vajrayana lineage fully, in the way gurus do.

Those are all legitimate factors to consider in assessing why the Vajrayana is lagging behind the Zen and Vipassana traditions in terms of giving lineage transmission to Westerners. You could say there are good reasons for it.

What concerns me in this is the disempowering effect it might have on Western students. Given the widely acknowledged fact that we tend to have rather low self-esteem in the first place, we might come to believe that genuine wisdom and realization is something foreign and relatively inaccessible, and that we have to make ourselves more like Tibetans in order to hopefully get a little bit of their wisdom to rub off on us. There is a common tendency to idolize and mystify the Asian teacher and believe that wisdom exists "out there" somewhere, embodied predominantly in representatives from another (exotic) culture -- when, really, those very teachers are always reminding us that wisdom exists right here, right now, in the palm of our own hand.

In a recent article on One Human Journey, I called this tendency "cultural theism." Under the spell of cultural theism, Western students may -- consciously or not -- come to regard wisdom and genuine realization as something culturally foreign and therefore relatively unattainable. Because the power differential between teachers and students in the Vajrayana tradition falls more consistently along cultural and ethnic lines, Westerners may feel they are not capable of holding the lineage or manifesting the same degree of wisdom as their Tibetan teachers.

Cultural theism probably won't begin to go away until we start seeing more fully empowered Western teachers holding lineages in the Vajrayana tradition. But then, as David Nichtern hinted at in his article, will people really be ready to accept that when it does finally happen? Will Westerners feel the same respect and devotion for a realized and empowered Westerner as they do for a more culturally exotic Tibetan teacher?

If you assume the answer is yes, take a look at how many people show up when a Tibetan lama who's barely out of high school gives a talk, versus how many show up to hear a Western teacher who's been studying and practicing for 30 or 40 years. In some cases there may be reasons for the disparity -- maybe the young Tibetan lama is recognized as a tulku, and his previous incarnation was an important teacher -- but when this sort of thing manifests as a consistent pattern, it suggests that cultural theism may also be at work.

Are we ready for Western gurus? Share your thoughts.


Jeeprs said...

HI David - just discovered your writings via Facebook, and here. Greetings!

Question - Why is Ethan Nichtern 'notorious'? I have heard the name once or twice, that is all.

Re Western Gurus - I must admit I have some disquiet at any guru. There are exceptions. But it is a position so ripe for 'inflation' and exploitation, I think the term is better left unused.

That said, there definitely needs to be teachers. Whether the West can really deal with Vajrayana is another question, but there seem to be some great teachers and schools, so this might be proving itself. But as for 'gurus' perhaps something with fewer baggage might be useful. Such as 'enlightenment facilitator':-)

Dennis Hunter said...

Hi Jeeprs. "Notorious" was really just my way of ribbing my friend Ethan. He's a great, young, up-and-coming Dharma teacher with a growing sangha. Ethan is doing a lot of good work with young people and also advancing the cause of engaged Buddhism. Check out his book, "One City: A Declaration of Interdependence."

Jeeprs said...

Yes I have discoved more of his work since this post. I will be dropping by regularly. I love your work.