Two Hundred Teachers Gather to Discuss the Future of Buddhism in the West
Introduction By Tynette Deveaux
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 moving moments of the conference was when the next generation formed two lines and the pioneers walked through the lines and we bowed to each one of you that walked through the line. My heart was so open during that moment. When we got to the end, the next generation prostrated toward the senior teachers, we all shared requests and statements back and forth, and the next generation presented a statement as a group.
Pat Enkyo O’Hara: When I saw all of these young people, I really began to think about succession and transmission and how teachers would be trained and certified. It was so heartening to see all of these young people who apparently want to dedicate their lives to spreading the dharma—in so many diverse ways. It inspired in me a sense of responsibility and an urge to look carefully at how we pass on our legacy while also learning from the young.
Ken McLeod: It had been eleven years since there was a conference of this kind. That’s a long time. It seemed to me that the teachers in the elder’s group, the so-called pioneers, had matured in some very inspiring ways. I was consistently impressed with the depth of experience, of thought, and of sincerity among my peers. I detected a similar sincerity and lively, vital energy in the next generation group. I felt in the end that the elders and the next generation were separated too long. It was good to begin in separation so that some cohesion could form, but I would have liked to have had more interaction with the next generation than the structure provided. Here in Los Angeles, I’ve been largely teaching my contemporaries and we all have matured together, so I have relatively few younger people with whom I work. It would be good to get out of that particular age trap.
Gina Sharpe: I took away a feeling of great promise for our future. There are some amazing people in our midst who are sincerely and penetratingly and deeply considering all of the issues we’ve talked about. That gives me great hope.
PAT ENKYO O’HARA is the abbot of the Village Zendo in Manhattan. She is the guiding teacher for the New York Center for Contemplative Care and co-spiritual director of the Zen Peacemakers family.
GINA SHARPE is a founder and guiding teacher of the New York Insight Meditation Center. She has studied and practiced Buddhism for more than thirty years across several traditions, and has been teaching since 1995, including at a maximum-security prison for women.
KEN MCLEOD is the founder of Unfettered Mind in Los Angeles, where he teaches Buddhist meditation and practice using a consultant–client approach. He studied under the late Kalu Rinpoche, and completed two three-year retreats.
DIANA WINSTON is the director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and coauthor (with Susan Smalley) of Fully Present. She is a member of the teachers’ council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and founder of the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) program.