The Challenges Ahead

Two hundred teachers gathered for a Buddhist Teachers Council to discuss the future of Buddhism in the West. A forum on the key issues.

By Tynette Deveaux

“Buddhist Landscape,” by Paul Hannon

This past June, about two hundred Buddhist teachers from across North America and Europe gathered at the Garrison Institute near New York for a three-day conference that had been several years in the planning. In his opening address, Jack Kornfield, one the key organizers, pointed out that this “Buddhist Teachers Council” was part of a tradition of councils that have been held since the Buddha’s paranirvana, most recently in the West at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 2000.

Despite the responsibility that such legacy implies, the goals of the conference were modest: to deepen friendships and collegiality across traditions, strengthen honest dialogue and learning across generations, create bonds for the work that needs to be done in the future. You get the idea.

So how did it go? Like most things, that depends on whom you ask. Even before the conference started there were grumblings about who was being invited and who was not (the gathering was by invitation only). There were oversights and blunders: one teacher posted his grievances online, saying “a self-selected group of important Buddhists get together to decide what’s best for the rest of us” after learning about the conference and thinking he had been excluded (it turns out he had been invited but never got the message).

While this was billed as a multi-tradition gathering, some traditions were overrepresented (Vipassana), some underrepresented (Vajrayana), and some barely represented (Pure Land and Nichiren). There were only ten African Americans and one Latino teacher. On the positive side, fifty “next-generation” teachers attended, as did a number of monastics.

In the discussion that follows you’ll hear from four teachers who attended the conference. Three of them also attended the preconference gatherings: one for next-generation teachers and the other for pioneers. They share their observations and insights about some of the big topics that were addressed, such as how secular teachings of mindfulness are taking hold in the West, and whether it’s possible to adapt the dharma to Western cultures without losing depth. And they share some of the questions that arose indirectly, from being in each other’s presence and getting to know one another, such as whether there’s a need to accelerate the authorization of younger teachers.

Time will tell whether this gathering of teachers will lead to new initiatives, better communication between traditions, or a foundation to unite as Western Buddhists. In the short term, though, I have yet to speak with any participant who wasn’t transformed by it in some way. For that, we can thank Vinny Ferraro, a young tattooed teacher from Oakland, California, who led teachers in a simple but profound exercise that exposed their vulnerabilities, prejudices, failings, and old wounds. Amid the sadness and tears that this generated came an outpouring of solidarity and warmth. As with most things in life, that’s when the real conversations happen.

Buddhadharma: What are the main reasons for Buddhist teachers to gather together at this time?

Pat Enkyo O’Hara: What is most important is not that we know precisely what is going to happen when we get together. Rather, when we encounter one another and differences arise, it becomes a catalyst for change. In our day-to-day lives we can be so isolated. When we gather together, what is nascent within us, what we know but have not spoken, comes out.

I am also glad that there was a lot of discussion about young teachers and new teachers. Just being around so many young people with so much energy was exhilarating. It also asked us to consider how they are doing and how they can continue to be trained. It’s so exciting to have a whole new cohort coming along. Their very presence in such large numbers was itself a catalyst for change.

Gina Sharpe: As Enkyo said, I didn’t know what was going to happen at the Garrison meeting, but I found when I got there that we realized how many projections we have of other people when we don’t take the time to sit and talk and let things arise between us. When we take the time to sit down with each other, we can talk about what’s actually happening rather than our projections about what’s happening.

Having a gathering that brings together all traditions is a beautiful way to break down barriers and make bridges across differences. It’s more powerful than each tradition and each generation speaking within itself. When we reach out across boundaries, we see our differences as richness—as something that makes us more vibrant rather than something to be afraid of.

Ken McLeod: From my work in organizational development, in business consulting, one of the things I’ve come to appreciate is that the very sociology of the teaching position is isolating. The position itself tends to isolate a person, and the consequence of that is that they only experience themselves as a teacher. When a person is in that position, a predictable set of attitudes and behaviors arise that ironically reinforce the sense of self. Gatherings like the Garrison meeting are particularly important because they give teachers a chance to meet with their peers, to talk about their experience, and listen to the experience of others. This breaks down, as Enkyo and Gina have said, the sense of isolation and leads to a discovery of what we have in common and an appreciation of what is different about our situations.

As a result, we can take tools and perspectives and ideas that we may not have ever considered and bring them back into our own environments. A gathering of teachers is not a matter of controlling the evolution of Buddhism or Buddhist teaching in America. That’s neither desirable or even possible, but such a gathering is part of the evolution of Buddhism in America.

Diana Winston: I don’t think we can emphasize enough the importance of closing the isolation gap that so many teachers struggle with. In some of the lineages we have strong collegial experience, and in others, people are out there practicing and teaching completely alone. It’s profoundly helpful to have some company, some collegiality. Some of the best stuff that happened occurred not in the sessions but during the in-between time, when people were talking and meeting and connecting and sharing in all sorts of informal ways. And I agree with Ken, if we tried to shape the future of Buddhism, we would get a lot of push back, and rightly so. Buddhism is much more organic than that. It’s also becoming less top down. There is so much beneficial bottom up activity that’s happening these days.

Buddhadharma: What are the most prominent issues that teachers need to consider today, whether they emerged while you were together or not?

Pat Enkyo O’Hara: One of the biggest issues for those of us who are older teachers, who feel a need to pass something on, concerns how we most effectively offer the fruits of the dharma to others. To whom and how best do we offer the dharma—how much of our effort goes to conserving and how much to innovating? This was on everyone’s mind. For example, there was a lot of talk about what is being called the mindful society, people practicing meditation in all sorts of contexts outside of traditional Buddhist sanghas. How do we do that in a way that serves people well?

In my group we do a lot of chaplaincy work in hospitals and in prisons. Are we doing it in the most effective way? Do we strip away all the dharmic language? Is that useful, or is certain dharmic language needed and effective? And in which contexts?

Gina Sharpe: One of the biggest elephants in the room for Buddhism in the West is the issue of diverse communities practicing and studying the dharma together. We have been quite a white and middle-class sangha. Lately that has been changing, and of course there are lots of difficulties with that process of change. Interesting things happen when you bring people together who have differences—whether they’re cultural or ethnic or class or education or all of the many ways we think of ourselves as different. We are all challenged and encouraged to learn how to work with diversity, because the dharma grows richer and deeper when we’re able to use the dharma to see the shared humanity beneath our differences.

Buddhadharma: It’s also valuable to examine the various ways that we’ve ended up defining sangha. We may have inherited assumptions that have a lot to do with class and race that we are not even seeing.

Gina Sharpe: That’s right. Even the way we teach the dharma can be very ethno- and class- centric. It helps the dharma reach more people when we become aware of the fact that there are communities with different needs and different ways of communicating. We need to stretch ourselves to reach people where they live, so that they don’t feel as if dharma is an esoteric philosophy that has nothing to do with their lives. People ought to feel that dharma is about awakening who they are, not fitting into someone else’s idea of who they need to be to enter the dharma.

Ken McLeod: I appreciate very much what Gina was saying about diversity, and appreciate coming to understand why that is such an important issue—because, let’s face it, I’m a white middle-class guy. Some time ago, I had the pleasure of talking with Jan Willis, who laid out for me the kind of points that Gina has made, which has helped me to learn how people from different backgrounds might perceive how the dharma is presented in the West.

There are also several issues that I felt would have been valuable to discuss, which didn’t really come up in a significant way at the conference. One is language. It seems to me that a form of hybrid English has developed, which I’ve nicknamed “Bunglish” for Buddhist English. It creates a barrier for people to come in to Buddhism. It also creates a shortcut, so people think they’re talking about things when they don’t actually know what the original terms mean. For example, sangha. In the West, we talk about individual sanghas. In Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, it’s impossible to refer to sangha in that fashion. It would be like talking about different skies. There is only one sky. We have created a totally new meaning for the word sangha in English, which is much closer to the idea of community than it ever was in the original languages.

I also would like to see more exploration of different teaching and learning models. We have extraordinary resources for this in the West. All the pedagogical studies that have been done on the different ways people learn would be valuable for us to be aware of. The ways we teach and learn are often inherited from the feudal structures within the Asian traditions. When we no longer are operating within those larger social structures, we need to consider whether there are alternative ways of teaching and learning that make sense.

The same goes for financial models. We have to appreciate that as productivity increases in the whole culture, the actual cost of practice, not to mention the cost of supporting institutions, increases in exactly the same way that medical costs keep increasing. We need to discover ways of working with this rather than relying on old models alone.

Finally, there was a short exchange between Stephen Batchelor and Bhikkhu Bodhi concerning the contrast between modern rational modes of expression and traditional mythic ones. I would love to have seen that explored much more deeply

Diana Winston: I would echo what others are saying about what some of the key issues are. Concerns with diversity are alive in nearly all of our practice communities. If, when we come together, we can bring our best thinking to it, we can begin to make breakthroughs more quickly than if we remain in isolation. The same goes for the question of depth and breadth: which do you emphasize more, deep practice for a few or some practice for a larger number? How do you balance the broad and the deep? Likewise, how much do you conserve and how much do you innovate. How do you include young people more and empower them. What about the growth of secular mindfulness? And, as Ken says, how we develop good models for financially supporting teachers and practice communities is also of prime importance.

Gina Sharpe: I would like to add that “secular dharma” is a widespread phenomenon. Dharma is becoming so secular in so many ways, and we need to discuss that in much greater depth. I’m not so sure that we gave that enough of an airing at the conference.

Buddhadharma: Since the terms “secular dharma” and “mindful society” have come up, let’s talk about concerns in those areas.

Ken McLeod: I’ve had conversations with Stephen Batchelor, who has talked about secular dharma or secular Buddhism, and I don’t have a clear idea of what’s being talked about.

Gina Sharpe: I’m not sure I’m referring to the same thing as Stephen, but what I’m talking about is the fact that dharma is being taught in a lot of nontraditional settings, such as prisons, schools, and hospitals. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is offered widely, in institutional settings but also in dharma centers. This is a huge phenomenon and we would benefit from really understanding what’s going on. We could examine how people’s needs are best met in different settings, rather than simply letting it grow like topsy.

No need or point in controlling, as others have said, but it would be very helpful if we looked at the way language is used, and what might be helpful to support people who want to teach in those settings, as well as the kind of training people need to have who want to work in these secular settings.

Buddhadharma: It might be helpful to make some distinctions here. There are a few different movements. There is overlap, but they’re also distinct. One concerns developing forms of Buddhism that strip away doctrine and cultural elements, so somebody could follow the Buddhist path without those trappings. This approach is presented in Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.

Then, there is engaged Buddhism or applied Buddhism, which puts an emphasis on having a component of social action in Buddhist practice, which may or may not include meditation.

Finally, there is mindfulness meditation practice being used in all kinds of secular settings with no particular implication about whether a dharmic path is going to be involved. MBSR is the most widespread of these types of programs. Generally, little or no reference is made to Buddhism in secular settings where mindfulness is taught. For one thing, religious programs are not allowed to be offered in certain kinds of public institutions.

Ken McLeod: That’s a very helpful distinction.

Buddhadharma: Of all of the “secular dharma” movements, the one that’s the biggest phenomenon and which seemed to have been discussed more at the conference is secular mindfulness practice.

Diana Winston: I was teaching in a Buddhist context for seven or eight years through Spirit Rock and also doing engaged Buddhist work through the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I loved teaching in the Buddhist context and then I got to a point where it just became clear that the teachings that I knew and loved and was personally transformed by—and watched many others be transformed by—could make an impact on a larger world. I’m sure that is the conclusion that, for instance, Jon Kabat-Zinn came to thirty years ago. I began to explore how to take the core of these teachings into a secular context, which did mean putting aside the language and the ritual and the larger context of Buddhism in order to make dharma really accessible to people.

Buddhadharma: This also meant leaving aside doctrines like karma, for example.

Diana Winston: Exactly. Wisdom ought to be accessible to people of all kinds. It ought not to depend on their background, religion, or anything like that. That’s what I’ve been doing the last five years, and honestly I love it. I love being a Buddhist teacher doing, in a sense, stealth dharma work.

Buddhadharma: It must bring up certain concerns for Buddhist teachers when you teach without reference to a traditional system.

Diana Winston: Certainly. Is this teaching only focused on results and not ethics? Can people enter deeply or just float along the surface? There’s no regulatory body that is responsible for the integrity of the practices that are taught in secular settings. For myself, as a Buddhist who has made a choice to teach in this way, I do my best to model the ethics, to model the teachings of compassion, to model kindness and self-awareness. It’s not just about getting rid of doctrine. It’s having to teach and train in a more embodied way that relies less on doctrine, since people are not committing to a path per se.

Since the integrity relies so much on the teacher and the type of program, at UCLA we are developing training programs and ways of certifying people to teach mindfulness, instead of their just going out there and teaching without training or ongoing mentor and peer support. Others are trying to do the same.

Pat Enkyo O’Hara: This relates to the creative tension between conserving and innovating. Buddhism is not a fixed thing. In my own practice, I’m part of the ongoing stream of teaching and transmission. Even though I attend to the ritual and to the Zen tradition, I’m open to all of the wisdom of the West and use it a lot. I’m not uncomfortable with dropping language that doesn’t serve to communicate, or changing the meaning of language as it is used in the different venues in which we teach. I have traditional Zen students but also people in hospitals, prisons, and other places. We meet people where they are. I’m excited by all of this change. Of course, there are people who will hold fast to the traditions and work carefully on the translations of traditional dharma teaching, but that is not the only true tradition.

Gina Sharpe: Having taught in prisons myself, I see that the way to keep the dharma really alive is to adapt the language while not really adapting the dharma itself. It must be understandable to people as something useful in their lives, just as they are. When we talk about freedom in a prison, that can obviously be quite a loaded discussion. It forces us to explore what freedom really means as the central teaching of the Buddha. We may end up talking about freedom in different ways with prisoners, but it’s not a betrayal of the dharma to use language that will serve rather than language that may erect unnecessary barriers.

Ken McLeod: Historically, the behavior of Buddhists, rather than the teachings, is what has inspired people. One of the principles the Buddha established that governed the monastic sangha is that they would be seen as people who didn’t react, but rather responded, to situations. How practice manifests in our lives is probably the most important aspect of bringing benefit to others.

I agree with Gina about the need to adapt language to different circumstances. I make a very strong differentiation between my professional practice as a consultant and my activity as a Buddhist teacher. In my consultant role, I will let people know when something is coming from Buddhism but I’m not making any effort to teach Buddhism. It wouldn’t be appreciated most of the time. There are, however, ways in which the principles that underlie the teachings provide deep and powerful ways of addressing difficult and complex situations.

With respect to work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others doing secular mindfulness work, I would really have liked to have seen an examination of some of the unintended consequences. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s intention it seems was to make mindfulness a household word, and to a large extent I think he’s done that. It has brought immense benefit in a lot of different forms to probably hundreds of thousands of people. At the same time, some teachers have said to me that the word “mindfulness” has been rendered completely useless in the traditional meditation setting, because it comes now freighted with all kinds of meanings. It’s often just too much work to try to explain what is being meant by mindfulness in a certain context, so Buddhist teachers are having to develop new vocabularies.

Buddhadharma: The traditional meditation settings you refer to are within age-old training programs. How important is it to have people still going through those training programs, the ones that all of you have benefited from?

Pat Enkyo O’Hara: In our tradition, people follow a very long path. It takes at least twenty years to become a teacher. Since most people get started in earnest in their thirties, this means practitioners are in their fifties or sixties before they become teachers. At the conference I was seeing all these kids in their twenties who had three years of teacher certification, and began wondering how they’re able to reach people. That was the light bulb moment that caused me to re-examine the long path of Zen transmission, which also does not teach people explicitly about how to teach. We don’t talk about transference or the isolation that Ken was talking about. It comes up in the koans and is implicitly contained in a lot of the copy-me rhetoric of the way we teach. But I have a lot of questions. It was very good for me to see different forms of succession and transmission.

Gina Sharpe: Perhaps I’m more of a traditionalist. It’s really a question of breadth and depth. There’s something really wonderful about people in their twenties and thirties being able to teach, and yet there’s something that makes me take a step back to wonder. I see breadth, but is there depth? This makes me want to re-examine what I think the teacher’s role is and how a teacher can be prepared to meet the depths of transformation that happen when we enter into practice.

We have a culture that highly prizes things happening really quickly and yet I think we lose something when we hurry a process that takes a lot of annealing, and deeper and deeper and deeper work. Maybe I’ll have some rotten eggs thrown at me, but I don’t think I would give up any part of the longer traditional training that many of the older generation have received. I could have been a teacher thirty years ago or perhaps I should have been a teacher twenty years earlier, but when I think about who I was then, the thought scares me.

Buddhadharma: For somebody to become a deep dharma teacher and to keep peeling away layers of the onion and examining different dimensions of mindfulness and awareness, and deception and ego for that matter, requires a profound long-term commitment. That commitment doesn’t end the day that you get called a teacher. It increases.

Diana Winston: This is not an either-or proposition. There is a whole range of kinds of teaching that people can do. Indeed, one of the issues we need to be concerned about is teachers teaching before they are ready. The dharma can be deceptively simple and people think that they can do a weekend workshop or a six-week class and turn around and start teaching it. I have seen this particularly in secular mindfulness contexts. Having achieved a very basic understanding of mindfulness, they think they are ready to teach it.

If we’ve been well trained as dharma teachers, we know the profound work that one has to do. In the secular mindfulness world, we need rigorous training that demands a lot of practice experience. Right now, there’s not a lot of quality control. In our training program at UCLA, I was happy to see that we got people who had twenty or thirty years of dharma practice enrolling in the program. We had people with a lot less, too. How do we control for quality? This is a tricky question.

Ken McLeod: On one extreme, we have the Western medical model: see one, do one, teach one. Once you’ve seen a procedure, you’re qualified to do it. Once you’ve done a procedure, you’re qualified to teach it. At the other extreme, we have the Asian model followed in the Buddhist traditions: either you have extraordinary realization or you go through a very long process that results in your starting to teach in middle age.

In fact, there are many different paths for teaching these days. There is teaching in prisons, MBSR, Dan Siegel’s work on awareness, and so forth. There are lots of teaching situations that use the dharma to improve the quality of one’s life and help people to function better in daily life, such as working with conflict or leadership. At the same time, there are people for whom the buddhadharma is their religious practice, their faith, and they relate to it in a different way. Each of these different ways of practicing and teaching is going to develop its own way of training instructors and teachers and creating suitable learning and training environments.

Gina Sharpe: I guess I’m coming to see that there are indeed these different kinds and levels of teacher. If someone wants to develop and transform and walk a path to liberation, as described by the Buddha, through retreats and deep discipline, that requires one kind of teacher to accompany you on that journey. If you’re in prison, for example, and you are really looking for a way to find some inner freedom, you may need a different kind of teacher. It’s not shallower. It’s just a different circumstance. And there will be many different circumstances.

Part of the confusion that comes up for me, though, is that it doesn’t seem that our current training programs take those distinctions into account. Maybe Enkyo can speak to this since she has been doing a beautiful program on contemplative care.

Pat Enkyo O’Hara: We can have excellent chaplains who are able to relate very quickly in the hospital setting to a dying person and their family and the staff. We might have someone who is very effective in the chaplaincy community, but may not be at all suitable as what we would call a Zen teacher, someone to be leading long retreats and continuing to transmit the dharma. They’re transmitting something else.

Diana Winston: The conversation we had at the conference about breadth and depth made it very clear that there are some people who want to go into the cave and practice for twenty or thirty years and that is their way. That’s the perspective they teach from. There are those who are doing secular teachings and bringing them into corporations and schools. As Ken was saying, there’s a broad range.

At one point, I looked at the two hundred people at the conference and could see each of them and their activity moving in thousands of different directions, creating a vast mandala. It’s like Avalokiteshvara, whose picture is on my desk. There are a thousand arms and eyes moving in many different directions. There is a whole. All of the teachers are doing things based on where their heart is. We don’t need to have just one way of teaching.

Buddhadharma: That includes teachings by diverse teachers for diverse communities. How was that issue aired at the conference?

Pat Enkyo O’Hara: The “next gen” group presented an exercise, led by Vinny Ferraro, from the Mind Body Awareness Project in Oakland, that is commonly done in diversity training centers. It’s called the power shuffle or “crossing the line.” We lined up, and then a series of characteristics was read off slowly one at a time: “Cross the line if you’re gay. Cross the line if you’re a woman. Cross the line if you’re African American, or biracial, or Hispanic…” Eventually, we came to a point of seeing how diverse we all are, which can help to break down the idea of a monolithic Western Buddhism.

I thought that that was a beautiful way to begin a discussion about diversity so that you could own their roots, as it were. I certainly heard a lot of discussion in small groups and one-on-one conversations triggered by that exercise.

Diana Winston: It was amazing that it was done in the context of all these Buddhist teachers. It opened the door on many profound issues. In addition to questions about ethnicity and sexual orientation and so forth, there were also questions about whether you ever experienced abuse, or performed abuse in the teacher’s seat, or have you ever been a victim of some kind of abuse within the dharma community. Lots of people crossed that line, which made me think of the amount of silence that exists within the Buddhist world. It made me deeply sad. What forms can we create to address the silence and work with healing in this area. Some of us are imagining a kind of Buddhist truth and reconciliation commission for 2015. That’s our vision.

Gina Sharpe: That’s a really beautiful idea. Someone should work on it. For me, one of the most moving experiences occurred in a breakout group. It was originally billed as a group for teachers of color, but we expanded it to teachers of color and allies. It was almost like a fishbowl, the teachers of color speaking together and the teachers not of color who came were able to hear a conversation that I don’t think they have had much opportunity to hear. It was a beautiful experience, because of the response we got from the teachers who were not of color about hearing the conversation. We don’t have enough of that in our Buddhist world, enough of people really talking to each other. The gaps between our communities are very wide, and I’m glad the conference gave us a chance to begin to bridge some of those gaps.

Buddhadharma: Were gender issues discussed at the conference?

Diana Winston: Gender issues certainly came up in the power shuffle, but I also saw ways in which the conference itself was being conducted that was not taking a very balanced approach to gender issues. There were panels without many women on them, or men taking a lot of space and not allowing women to speak. But we spoke to it as a community and began to make some changes in that direction, about halfway through the conference.

Pat Enkyo O’Hara: At a certain point in the conference, we decided to alternate between a man and a woman for people coming up to the microphone. That did change the lengths of the remarks, and the men became quieter. There were also many different kinds of remarks and not just people going back and forth. I’m glad that happened, because often women, including senior women teachers, will step back when there are a lot of men talking. It still happens.

Gina Sharpe: I agree. A very big gender issue that was only raised peripherally is the issue of ordination of nuns in our Theravada tradition. That is clearly one of the elephants in the room that needs attending to.

Ken McLeod: I’ve been a sounding board for a nun who’s been very heavily involved in that. Frankly, it is horrific how legalistic the discussion has become. It’s the antithesis of what the Buddha intended. I’m really quite ashamed at what’s being presented as the view of some Buddhist organizations.

Buddhadharma: How are you feeling as you contemplate what was achieved at the conference?

Diana Winston: It was so powerful for the next generation to gather and to look at some of the issues that are relevant to our community, such as how we will support ourselves and other newer teachers and how we will encourage diversity and social action. The power shuffle came out of the meeting with the next generation. We did it among ourselves and then brought it to the larger group. One of the most mov

Tynette Deveaux

Tynette Deveaux

Tynette Deveaux is the former editor of Buddhadharma.