Sunday, September 19, 2010

Five Western Buddhist Teachers to Watch

Western Buddhism is at a turning point in its history. I recently heard one teacher compare where we are at now to the stage of adolescence: the rebellious years, when kids are not kids anymore but they're not yet full-grown adults either. It's a time of bold questioning, even rowdiness, and of rapid and sometimes disorienting growth and change. And it is the time when children begin to assert their own identity and their own understanding of the world. They begin to demand -- to require -- space to explore things for themselves, to find the answers that make sense to them. Certainly, if you look around at the Buddhist scene these days, you see the signs of this adolescence unfolding all around us.

A number of significant Buddhist teachers are leading this adolescent rebellion, and helping to forge the identity that Western Buddhism will carry into adulthood. Here are my picks for the five Western Buddhist teachers to watch. These teachers may not be widely known yet, but I suspect that will change. Each of them is doing something unique and compelling that will shape the way we study and practice Buddhism in years to come. Observing these five will give you a sense of what Western Buddhism's emerging identity may look like.

Ethan Nichtern
Usually when someone is called a "charismatic" teacher, as I saw Ethan Nichtern called in print recently, it's a euphemism that secretly means he's good-looking. Ethan is that too, but he's also charismatic in the old sense of the word -- which used to refer to a certain breed of Protestant preachers who had a power to captivate audiences with impassioned sermons. Founder of the Interdependence Project and author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence, Ethan is a second-generation American Buddhist (his father is the Shambhala Buddhist teacher and Huffington Post columnist, David Nichtern).

With the ID Project, Ethan is building a new kind of Dharma community: one modeled primarily around the interests and perspectives of young people. The group includes students of all ages, but most of all it embraces the 20-something and 30-something demographics, who often feel disempowered and under-recognized in more long-established Buddhist institutions. Under Ethan's guidance, members of the ID Project are shaking things up and manifesting a new vision of socially and politically engaged Buddhism. At the recent demonstrations for and against the Islamic center near Ground Zero, ID Project members sat in silent meditation, "bearing witness" and conveying a startling message of peace while angry mobs on opposing sides shouted insults at each other. Last year, the group staged Sit Down Rise Up, a 24-hour meditation marathon in the windows of Manhattan's trendy ABC Carpet store. Instead of mannequins or displays of merchandise, the store's windows featured, for one full day, live human beings meditating.

The other compelling thing about the ID Project is its non-sectarian approach. The group's lineage mentors include Zen Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Shambhala Acharya Eric Spiegel, and Insight teacher Sharon Salzberg -- representing Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Ethan, who was recently named a Shastri (senior teacher) within the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, has skillfully brought together these diverse streams of Buddhist study and practice into a single, harmonious sangha that represents a new model for Dharma communities in the West.

On November 14th, Ethan will join Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Mitra Mark Power and Gina Sharpe at NYC's Great Hall at Cooper Union for a "a multimedia day of discovery around key questions of spiritual life, religion and culture — what Western Buddhism is and what it can be." Ethan's voice in this conversation will be one to listen to.

The Interdependence Project
Rebel Buddha NYC event on Nov 14
Ethan Nichtern on Twitter

Hokai Sobol
I first encountered Hokai Sobol when listening to a Buddhist Geeks podcast called Vajrayana in Plain English. At first I was struck by his deep voice and his Eastern European accent, but as I listened I was struck more and more deeply by what he had to say. Since then, I've listened to that podcast about 10 more times, and I continue to be inspired by it.

Hokai is a scholar and teacher in the Shingon tradition, Japan's little-known tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. Most of the Japanese Buddhism we see in the West is Zen; some people don't realize that Japan also has a Vajrayana lineage. So far, the Shingon tradition has been largely invisible in Western circles, but Hokai just might change that. Hokai is also Croatian. The seeming oddity of a Croatian teaching in English about a Japanese form of Vajrayana Buddhism says something promising about the emerging global and pluralistic nature of Buddhism in the 21st century.

Hokai's depth of knowledge about a variety of Buddhist traditions and practices, and his respect for those traditions, is matched by his commitment to innovation and to finding authentic (sometimes dramatically new) ways to express the meaning of the Dharma in a Western cultural context. His recent, four-part series of interviews at Buddhist Geeks (Episodes 180-183) addresses "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 is another teacher who contributes an important voice to the current discussion of Buddhism in the West.

Hokai Sobol's Website
BG Episode 180: The Invisible Forces that Shape Western Buddhism
BG Episode 112: Vajrayana in Plain English
Hokai Sobol on Twitter

Khenpo Karl Brunnhoelzl
Dr. Karl Brunnhoelzl is infamous for two things: having a name that most Americans can't pronounce or spell properly, and writing intimidatingly long and in-depth commentaries on Buddhist philosophy. He is also, in my experience, one of the most lucid, direct and humorous teachers you'll find anywhere in the Tibetan tradition.

Karl is a Buddhist scholar of the first magnitude, and translator of some of the most profound treatises in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. His book Center of the Sunlit Sky laid out the Kagyu view of Madhyamaka philosophy, while other books dive deep into the topic of Buddha Nature. Karl's authoritative scholarship was recently recognized when he received the title of "Khenpo," a Tibetan designation for a master scholar that is roughly equivalent to a doctorate degree in Buddhist philosophy. As one of very few Westerners who hold the title of Khenpo, Karl represents an emerging class of Western Buddhist teachers whose depth of understanding of the Dharma is being recognized by Tibetan masters. Karl is also a Mitra (senior teacher) in Nalandabodhi, the lineage of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and one of the main teachers at Nitartha Institute.

Despite all that, Karl is also incredibly humble and down-to-earth, and totally funny. At the most recent Nalandabodhi Sangha Retreat where he gave a series of teachings on Buddha Nature, Karl showed up one night and delivered his entire talk wearing a Spider-Man costume (it was an inside joke that would require too much explanation). Like Hokai Sobol, Karl's depth of scholarship gives him the authority to legitimately question and play with tradition, parsing out the genuine Dharma from its cultural container -- and he does it without taking himself too seriously or losing his sense of humor.

Karl's books at Snow Lion Publications
Heretic Buddhists: Karl's article on Rebel Buddha

Kenneth Folk
Kenneth Folk is part of what some people have called the "hardcore Dharma" movement, but which Kenneth and others are now calling the "pragmatic Dharma" movement. The movement, and its most visible teachers such as Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram, are controversial and outspoken; I wrote about the movement here recently. What makes the movement controversial is the fact that Folk, Ingram and others are breaking with tradition and speaking openly about their levels of realization. Some, such as Ingram, are even publicly calling themselves "arahants," or "enlightened." Whatever you think of that, it is difficult to deny (unless you are totally cynical) that many students who are studying with Folk and others in this movement are making progress in their practice that they were never able to attain with other teachers.

Folk comes largely from a background of practice in the Vipassana tradition. The stages of practice and fruition he describes are those of the Theravada path, and they differ in some important ways from the stages and paths of the Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles that I'm more familiar with. Folk, however, excels at finding ways to show that the realization attained in all three traditions is really not as different as it might appear. His own vision of enlightenment and the nature of mind has been influenced by threads from the Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions, making him another Western teacher who is breaking down traditional sectarian walls between Buddhist schools. He also has a knack for using simple metaphors and jargon-free language to explain the mechanics of awakening. He most often describes the stages of practice using the image of a 3-speed transmission, showing students how they can shift through progressively higher or more refined gears of consciousness. Kenneth Folk's frank and direct voice, which comes not from theory but from experience, will be increasingly important in American Buddhism in the coming years.

Kenneth Folk's Website
Coming Out of the Closet About Enlightenment: A look at the hardcore Dharma movement
Kenneth Folk on Twitter

Clark Strand
I first came across Clark Strand when Tricycle magazine published a cover story on "Green Meditation." Strand's article talked about his years-long struggle with insomniac episodes of awakening in the middle of the night, and his eventual epiphany when he began to realize that these episodes might actually be not the dysfunction that he had always believed them to be, but part of a human being's natural rhythm. Strand's research into this phenomenon suggested that this rhythm of "divided sleep" was recognized and utilized by many spiritual traditions for thousands of years -- until the industrial age and the invention of light bulbs. At that point, our natural rhythms were disturbed and we lost touch with the fertility of darkness and twilight states of consciousness; we developed the expectation that we are supposed to sleep through the night without awakening. As someone who has struggled against divided sleep and insomnia, I found Strand's hypothesis compelling.

Strand is also one of the few Buddhist teachers who is openly exploring the territory where Buddhism overlaps with the Abrahamic religions -- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In my article "Christian Buddhism?" published on Buddhist Geeks last month, I profiled Strand's work in this area, which included founding the Woodstock Buddhist Bible Study and the Green Meditation Society where he teaches frequently on "Biblical koans." Given the depth at which our Judaeo-Christian roots are planted in our collective and individual psyches in the West, it makes tremendous sense to search for ways to tap into the wisdom of those roots in conjunction with our study and practice of the Buddhadharma -- rather than trying to dig up and replace our familiar roots with something culturally exotic and foreign. As Buddhism unfolds in the West, this kind of interfaith inquiry will be increasingly important and essential to the tradition's survival here. Strand stands out among Buddhist teachers as someone who has not only the inspiration to pursue such an inquiry, but the breadth of knowledge of multiple traditions to pursue it effectively. Strand's book, How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, his columns on religion and spirituality for the Washington Post, and his ongoing "Green Koans" column for Tricyle testify to this breadth.

Strand is also in the process of articulating his vision of a "Green" spirituality that returns to a pre-industrial sense of humanity's benevolent interdependence with the planet, the seasons, the elements, and the cosmos. A Dharma that does not include such a vision for our future, and practical steps towards implementing that vision, is no Dharma at all. At this pivotal time when we see so much man-made environmental catastrophe unfolding before our eyes (with warnings of greater catastrophes in the making), there could be no more important message for us to hear than this one.

Clark Strand's Facebook Page
Christian Buddhism? An article that profiles Clark Strand
Clark Strand on Twitter


Dennis Hunter said...

If this shortlist of my favorite picks seems like a boys' club, I apologize. But perhaps that speaks to the current, disconcerting situation of women teachers in the Western Buddhist world. I'm just not seeing the new crop of emerging Sharon Salzbergs and Pema Chodrons that I would hope to see. If they are out there, I would love to have them pointed out to me.

This issue came up at a recent retreat I attended with a Tibetan lineage holder. A female retreatant during the Q&A asked why we don't see more women teachers on stage. The lineage holder replied that he had, many times, tried to invite and shepherd women into prominent teaching roles within his sangha, but they displayed a consistent reluctance to step up to the plate. That reluctance points to deep issues that need to be contemplated by both men and women. If we, as Western students, do not wish to perpetuate the painful and unfair gender imbalance that has plagued Asian Buddhism, we need to recognize and empower more female teachers. And women need to empower themselves to hold the role of teacher.

Anonymous said...

Did you just blame women for their absence from your list?

What of POC?

Michael Rose said...

Diane Hamilton

JJ said...

Great list...if one wanted to place a woman on the list...I would recommend Thubten Chodron.

Dennis Hunter said...

@Michael, Diane Hamilton's work looks pretty great. I wasn't familiar with her (aside from having heard her name) but I will definitely want to learn more now.

@DCMazzie, "blame" is a pretty loaded word, and no, I wouldn't say that's what I meant. When I look at the scene of emerging (not long-established) Dharma teachers in our culture and take note of the ones who are doing really cool and innovative stuff and shaking things up (which is what all the people in this list are doing), I don't see enough women there. Am I just not looking in the right places? That's possible. Michael's suggestion of Diane Musho Hamilton seems like a good candidate for this list. Others?

@JJ, Thubten Chodron is fantastic, but she's pretty well established at this point. She heads a monastery, and her book "Open Heart, Clear Mind" was possibly the first Dharma book I ever read, quite a few years ago. In this list, I was trying to identify emerging teachers who are maybe not as well-known as her.

If I did pick one Western female Dharma teacher that I'm pretty familiar with to include on this list it would probably be Tara Brach. Her focus on addressing Western practioners' psychological issues of self-esteem and shadow work in the context of the spiritual path is, I think, really profound and essential. It's an area that's not always adequately addressed by other teachers, and she's articulating it in a way (and to a depth) that few others do. She's definitely one to watch.

Keep your suggestions coming. We definitely need women on this list!

Anonymous said...

@Dennis I used the word with intent. I think it fits.

Also, Tara Brach is not an emerging teacher. She has been teaching since 1975. Some of the teachers in IMCW, which she founded and leads, certainly are, though. There's also gender and race diversity in that group. Check it out.

Dennis Hunter said...

@DC: That's why I didn't include Tara in the original list -- I had the sense that she's too well-established to fit in a list like this. However, quite often, other Buddhists I talk to about her have never heard of her, which always kind of shocks me. That might just be because of the circles I run in, which are mostly Mahayana/Vajrayana circles rather than Theravada ones, and she's not on these people's radar screens. But it's nice when those walls get broken down and we experience the depth of wisdom in traditions other than the one we call "home."

Lyn said...

re: women techers: I second Thubten chodron and add
Heather Sundberg

Lyn said...

Another young teacher I really really like is Bhante Buddharakkhita
(his talk on Dharma seed about the monkey using a cell phone and looking around self-conciously still makes me laugh

Dennis Hunter said...

Lyn, I just downloaded a talk by Heather Sundberg and will listen to it soon. Thanks for the tip!

Mat said...

From the UK a couple of teachers to watch are Catherine McGee and Rob Burbea - both teaching at Gaia House and elsewhere.

Catherine's McGee's teaching is primarily based around insight meditation but is increasingly influenced by the Diamond approach of A.H. Almaas (Rhidwan school) and so also embraces the personal and psychological aspects of awakening. A very wonderful and potent female teacher.

Rob Burbea is currently resident teacher at Gaia house and brings his in-depth knowledge of the suttas and extensive personal practice with a big heart to his teaching. Rob's teaching particularly emphasises the importance of discovering what leads to freedom.

Vince Horn said...

Not to make this about the woman-teacher issue, because honestly I don't think its as big of a deal as we're making it. It's seems to me that most of us are taking a very early feminist perspective here anyway, thinking that Men and Women should be totally equal in how they behave, and thus how well-known they are in the public sphere. Perhaps as later feminist movements have pointed out, there are real differences between men and women, but those differences don't necessitate being fixated around static roles (like they were for so long). Instead, it might mean a more fluidity of roles, while not immediately assuming that women are the *same* as men. That assumption of complete equality of roles, can be as fixed and as ugly as any other.

But yeah, I would second Diane Hamilton. I have practiced with her, and she is both up-and-coming and also an amazing teacher and human being. And interestingly, Diane Hamilton herself pointed out recently, that she isn't nearly as ambitious or driven as the men in her lives are, and so she recognizes that and plays to her strengths (ex. being in relationship with others) instead of trying to fit herself into a particular mold that doesn't work. :-D

Nancy said...

taking the word of one male teacher that women did not want to "step up" to teach is superficial. those women may have had good reason to want not to work more closely with him.

many very wise women don't want to go through the traditional lineage structure because women are discriminated against -- monks eat first, then nuns, then laymen, then laywomen. Lineages don't make room for women. (I wonder what will happen with Shambhala now that the Sakyong has a baby girl.)

Ethan Nichtern is a wonderful and exciting teacher, but you give him and IDP too much credit. Some fact-checking is in order.

Dennis Hunter said...

These are really good things to contemplate. I'm struck by Diane's comment to Vince that she doesn't share the same degree of ambition and drive as she sees in a lot of men in her life.

I also agree with Vince that making too much of the women teachers issue here would be missing the point. But I felt compelled to bring it up in my first comment because I was keenly aware that the short list of cool, emerging teachers I've been watching didn't have any women on it -- which was not intentional, but it left me wondering why. Part of it is surely my own ignorance of the great emerging female teachers who are out there, but maybe part of it, too, comes from the larger social issues that we're all pointing to in various ways.

I also agree with Familiar Stranger that it would be superficial to draw conclusions based on one teacher's comment alone, whether male or female. But it would be equally superficial to dismiss it offhand. It's just one perspective and one aspect among many that merit listening and contemplation.

Fábio said...

Thank you for that list!
Here is one more western teatcher for us to take a look at. Lama Padma Samten was the first lama ordained in Brazil by H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche.

jewelTara said...

After noticing there were no women on the list, I realized the larger question for me is "What makes me consider someone a teacher"?
Do they really need a formal title or a focus on scholarly endeavors for me to give credence to their experience? Is a hierarchical structure of student-teacher required for me to realize something? When I examine the question in this way...isn't everyone potentially a teacher?

Nigel said...

Tina Rasmussen is another very significant woman teacher.

Unknown said...

Hello, I've only just begun listening to audio teachings and I would like to recommend Robina Courtin. She can be blunt at times but I think that just makes her seem real.