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Preservation&Adaptation:Challenges of American Buddhism & the Chinese Buddhism Experience-Ven.JianHu

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 Ven. Jian Hu, Chung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale, Chung Tai Chan Monastery
2008 Buddhism in Foreign Languages Forum, Shanghai


My name is Shi Jian Hu. I was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United State at 14. When I was 30 I received my Ph.D. in Computer Science but then decided to return to Taiwan to become a monk under the Grand Master Wei Chueh, founder of Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Puli, Taiwan. In the year 2000 Master Wei Chueh sent I and four other bhiksus to set up the first Chung Tai branch monastery in the U.S. Today, we have a total of seven monasteries or Zen centers in America, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Seattle, Oklahoma City , Houston, and Atlanta.

Today I would like to take this wonderful opportunity to briefly discuss the many different issues and challenges we have encountered in teaching and spreading Buddhism in the West. I have listed 14 issues and will give a very brief overview of them. They are organized according to a concept popular in Chinese Buddhism, that of “substance, form, and function”. Next, I will discuss three of these issues in more detail. Finally, I will summarize how the Chinese Buddhism experience can provide insights for the Western Buddhism experience. I hope that the learned audience here will generously share your thoughts and suggestions with me.

A. The Essence of Buddhism (Proper Understanding of the True Dharma)

If Buddhism were to take root and prosper in the Western countries, we should consider how to “preserve the essence while adapt to conditions”, i.e., allowing Buddhism to adapt to local cultures and environments without losing its essence or substance. So issues related to the “substance” or “essence” of the Dharma is what does not change and should never change, while issues related to “form” and “function” should adapt and integrate into the culture without distorting the message. This concept of “substance, form, and function” therefore help us sort out the issues and discuss them in an organized way.

Issues in this section deals with what should never change: that is, the learning and understanding of the True Dharma.

1. Buddhist Scriptures and Their Proper Translation

For proper learning and establishment of Buddhism in the West, accurate, complete, and fluid translations of original texts are necessary. However, many current translations lack one or more of these criteria. Some translators have very limited, even erroneous understanding, of the meaning being conveyed in the texts.

2. Establishment of the Sangha

The monastic Sangha is one of the three pillars of Buddhism, yet its establishment in American Buddhism is far from being mature. Many Western Buddhists have a very vague idea, if any, of what the Sangha precepts and regulations are.

3. Thorough Understanding and Scholarly Studies of Buddhism

Academic studies of Buddhism have brought many insights into the history and development of Buddhism. Careful and scholarly prepared translations, though still contain inaccuracies, are very valuable references. However, since only a small part of the Buddhist corpus have been translated into English, a thorough understanding of the breadth and depth of the Buddha Dharma is still lacking in the West. The most complete canon of Buddhism exists in Chinese, and then Tibetan. Besides works from India, original Chinese Buddhist works have contributed greatly to the philosophy, systemization, and explanation of Buddhism. Important, classic works in Tientai, Huayen, Weishi, and Chinese Chan for example, are yet little known to the West. Therefore I encourage the Western monastics, scholars, and lay practitioners delve into the great Dharma treasury as preserved in the Chinese canon to fully appreciate the vast scope of the Dharma.

4. Enlightenment

While every generation we've had enlightened Buddhist masters to preserve and continue the Dharma, we must have enlightened Westerners to truly establish Western Buddhism for future generations. Western practitioners should humbly learn from the Asian traditions and gain certification from true masters to continue the lineages.

B. The Form of Buddhism

From monastic architecture to rituals to the way monks dress, the forms of Buddhism vary widely from country to country. We face some challenges in adapting and presenting Buddhism to the West.

5. Buddhist services and liturgical chanting

Chanting and services have become an important form of religious gathering where followers cultivate together and build a sense of harmony and community. Whereas many liturgies and services have become standard and popular in Chinese Buddhism, English liturgies and services still need to be composed and developed. Individual monasteries have made various efforts, though none receiving wide acceptance. I believe this area need to mature to build a stronger sense of religious identity in Western Buddhist communities. Another issue, the traditional monastic clothing and shoes are somewhat inconvenient in the modern world, we may want to consider how to modify them while keeping their dignified style.

6. Ordination and Observation of Monastic Precepts

When Buddhism first came into China, the first Buddhists had very vague ideas of the Sangha and Buddhist precepts. Only after several hundred years was a strong Sangha and Vinaya tradition established. In the process, Chinese Buddhist masters have made some important adaptations while preserving the form of the precepts (though some have become impractical). These changes were deemed necessary for Buddhism to survive in China. Currently in the West the understanding of monastic precepts is also quite confused and incomplete, with some monastics never receiving formal full ordination, or having to go to e.g. Taiwan or Hong Kong to receive them, where English translation is often not available. The proper observation of precepts is also a challenge.

7. Teaching Meditation and Buddhism

One of the great contributions of Buddhism to the modern world is the introduction of meditation methods, which has been scientifically proven to have positive effects in reducing stress, anxiety, and increase quality of life. Buddhism offers a wide range of wonderful and profound topics of study, as well as many practical methods of meditation. These require more structured classes to learn and practice. Chung Tai Chan Monastery, for example, is one of the first monasteries in Taiwan to recognize this and developed a well-organized system of teaching Buddhism and meditation. These courses are in effect in all its 90+ Zen centers and teaching monasteries. Most monasteries in the East and the West still do not yet have well-structured teaching programs and the newcomers are left to wander in the vast ocean of Buddhist Dharma.

8. Support of the Sangha/Monastery

How the Western Sangha can become self-sufficient and expand is an important issue. Whereas Westerners are accustomed to support the local churches or synagogues with their religious offerings, many Buddhist Sanghas have difficulty surviving on offerings (dana) alone; therefore, they have resorted to charging a fee for the lectures, classes, CDs and tapes, selling books, and meditation retreats. Some Western monastics even have to find a regular daytime job. In Taiwan, Buddhist programs, retreats, and materials are typically offered for free, and voluntary donations of participants usually exceed their cost. This is a two-way dana, where the Sangha gives the offering of the Dharma, and the followers give the offering of material support. It would be nice to raise awareness of the dana spirit in Western Buddhist communities so they can survive and prosper.

C. Functional Aspects of Buddhism: Operation, Development, Influence

Many issues abound in these functional aspects of Western Buddhism, namely its operation, development, integration, and influence in the Western societies.

9. Architecture Style and Western Buddhist Art

Take a drive in any American city, one will notice many well-designed and diverse-styled churches. What is the Western Buddhist monastery architecture style? This remains to be developed. Also, religious art are among some of the finest and most revered artworks in any human civilization. We await to see how Buddhism can inspire the Western art world.

10. Governmental Regulations and Permits

Anyone who has tried to build a Buddhist monastery in America probably has a basketful of hardship stories to tell. Many of the governmental regulations are based on church usage, which are different from Buddhist usage. Monks are often not allowed to live in the monastery and have to find other abodes. They have to explain why they have a morning service at 5 in the morning, and morning bells and drums are usually forbidden, etc. City governments need to have new regulations that accommodate Buddhist requirements and traditions.

11. Buddhism Becoming Part of the Western Consciousness

While many Westerners do not have any understanding of Buddhism, those who do have some encounters tend to view Buddhism in a positive way. Many see meditation as a positive endeavor even though they do not engage in it themselves. This is a great advantage and we hope to preserve this image.

We have tried to bring Buddhism into the mainstream consciousness where possible. For example, many American middle and high school curriculum involve a general introduction to the different religions. Some school will ask me (a Buddhist monk) to give the school children an introduction to Buddhism. Islamic organizations has achieve much more in this regard. I know of one organization which accepts hundreds of invitations to schools and grups a year to educate them about Islam.

12. Involvement in Social Concerns

Traditionally the Buddhist community is not viewed to be as active in social welfare, issues and environmental concerns as Christian communities. In reality, many traditional Buddhist practices, such as unconditional compassion, tolerance of different views, vegetarianism, and great respect for the lives of humans and animals immediately translate into a worldview that is consistent with the ethical, environmental, and socially conscientious modern citizen of the world. So this is an area we can, and probably should, improve on.

13. Interfaith Relations

Religion should be a source of peace and harmony, yet in human history it has often become the opposite, the source of repression, social conflict, corruption, and warfare. Buddhism has the best track record in this regard, and should play a major role in interfaith relations, bringing about tolerance of different views, harmonious coexistence, and even cooperation of different religions.

We (Chung Tai) have actively engaged in interfaith dialogs, services, and cooperation in the San Francisco Bay Area in the past seven years. But we find that prior to us, Buddhism is often not represented in this events. I can imagine that the overall Buddhist participation in the American interfaith scene is still quite minimal, and we need everyone to work on it.

14. Buddhism for Children

Many established western religions have a problem convincing their young to follow their faiths. This is also true for Buddhism in the Asian countries. However, I believe that properly taught, Buddhism can help build character, integrity, and compassion in the children, which is beneficial for them regardless of which religion they eventually choose.

At the Chung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale, we have a fairly successful children program in English where we tell lively Buddhist stories, design Buddhist-themed activities, and teach meditation to children. It takes much more effort to plan, design, and teach the children than to adults, but it is something of vital importance.

At Chung Tai Chan Monastery, we run one of the most successful Buddhist camps for children in Taiwan. Every year the “Little Star Children Camp” attracts five hundred to over a thousand children to the monastery. Parents keep telling us of noticeable changes in the children after attaining the camp.

D. Three Issues in More Detail

Even though each of the above issues deserve a detailed consideration, due to time constraints I will only discuss three of them in more detail.

1. Buddhist Scriptures and Their Proper Translation

Buddhism was introduced to the Western World in the late 19th century, and Buddhist sutras and texts were published starting in the early 20th century. Original sources for Buddhist text translation were mainly in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan. My discussion is limited to my familiarity, which is in the areas of Chinese and English.

From the English texts translated from Chinese, I have observed many inaccuracies and misrepresentations resulting from (1) misunderstanding the Chinese phrases in meaning or contextual usage, (2) misunderstanding the original meaning because of a lack of practice and experiential knowledge in Buddhism, and (3) injecting personal views into the translation, resulting in the loss of objectivity.

I believe in Buddhist text translation there is an additional great obstacle compared to translation of other texts such as literature: the translators should have a practicing knowledge of the meaning conveyed in the texts. This is the case for all the major translators of Chinese Buddhism, such as Kumarajiva, Xuanzang, Paramartha, and Amoghavajra; they were either monks or serious practitioners who have in-depth understanding and respect of the Buddha Dharma. On the other hand, many English translations are done by scholars or people who neither believe in the validity of the Dharma nor have in-depth experience in Buddhist practice.

Many important Chinese Buddhist texts are translated under the patronage of the Chinese emperors, providing first rate accommodations and scholarly resources, and are done under serious scrutiny. However, many English texts are translated by a single person whose expertise in Chinese is even in question, without the benefit of cross-scrutiny. I know of a case in a top American university, where a group consisting of professors and graduate students is discussing the Avatamsaka Sutra, but the one Chinese is not a Buddhist and the others do not have good knowledge of Chinese.

2. Establishment of the Sangha

The Sangha is part of the three pillars of Buddhism, the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, whose establishment is necessary for the preservation of Buddhism. In most traditional contexts the Sangha means the ordained monastic community, observing Buddhist sramanera, bhiksu/bhiksuni, and optionally the bodhisattva precepts. However, this is far from being the standard in America, with the monastic Sangha being in the minority of the Buddhist teaching communities.

In fact, many American Buddhists do not even know about the existence or importance of the monastic Sangha, thinking that is natural that Buddhist monks can marry and have families, which are strictly forbidden by the Buddha.

While our Buddha nature is equal in everyone, that monastics and lay alike may attain enlightenment, and the contribution of lay Buddhists are enormous. Still, the establishment of monastics fully devoted to the studying, practice, and teaching of the Dharma cannot be replaced by lay practitioners, who have many secular distractions and responsibilities such as family and work that are obstacles to deepened practice. Western Buddhist communities should understand this and eventually build a complete system for full ordination and active Sangha.

3. Architecture Style

What will the Western Buddhist architecture style be? Current Buddhist monasteries in America basically are of two types: (1) where allowed by the city government, the architecture is the same as its originating country, be it Chinese, Japanese, Thai, or Tibetan, to name a few. (2) Often it is too much trouble to build it like its originating country, or the city does not allow it for conflict of cityscape style, then it basically maintains the building's original architecture, whether it is a church, office building, residential housing, or even warehouse.

I believe that there should be new architecture styles for Buddhist monasteries in America, so that they are elegant, solemn, spiritual, and easily identifiable as Buddhist monasteries. In China, for example, most of the Buddhist monasteries still follow a two-thousand year old traditional style without much change. While this style is beautiful and easily recognizable as Chinese monasteries, they lack in creativity and do not reflect the change of times. In Taiwan there has been more innovations in monastic architecture, a prominent example is that of the Chung Tai Chan Monastery, which integrates Indian, Chinese, and modern architecture elements, at the same time creative, symbolic, and functional. Where possible, Chung Tai monasteries in the West has tried to integrate both Eastern and Western elements while making the interior space traditional yet open, bright, and approachable. It is exciting to imagine what future American/Western Buddhist architecture styles will be like.

Another issue is an identifying mark. Churches in America have many diverse styles, but as long as there is a cross outside, people know immediately it is a Christian church. What is a corresponding symbol for Buddhism? The "卍" (doulbe-z, swastika) symbol is commonly recognized in Asian Buddhist countries, but feared in the West due to the unfortunate Nazi misuse of this ancient auspicious symbol. In the West, the Dharma Wheel symbol, a circle often with eight spokes inside, representing the Noble Eightfold Path, has become the de facto symbol of Buddhism. So perhaps this can become a standard identifying mark outside of Buddhist monasteries.

 E. Learning From the Chinese Buddhism Experience

Chinese Buddhism is one of the most successful examples of implementing Buddhism into a foreign culture. In its two-thousand year history, Chinese Buddhism has integrated into the Chinese society, culture, philosophy, literature, and the arts. Further, via China Buddhism spread also to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. In addition to having a clear grasp of Indian Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism is also able to develop and extend in new and innovative ways, such Chan (Zen) Buddhism, Tientai, Huayen schools, etc. Many aspects of Chinese Buddhism may be useful in the growth of Buddhism in Western societies. We have talked about some of it already; here I summarize them together.

1. Understanding of the Dharma. Chinese Buddhism has one of the most complete corpus of Indian Buddhist works. Innovative and significant Chinese Buddhist works also abound. Many enlightened great masters came out of these scriptures and training. I foresee that Chinese Buddhist traditions and works will be a rich source of authentic Dharma for the West to explore for hundreds of years.

2. Scripture translation. Chinese have also developed elaborate systems for translation of the sutras, taking great care to preserve its authenticity and beauty. It is worthwhile for Western translators to study this system.

3. Adaptation of monastic life. Chinese monasteries, especially Chan monasteries, have had to adapt and change many of the original monastic ways, e.g. in rituals and services, dress, alms-round, internal regulations, etc., hopefully without losing the essence of the Dharma. Also, Chinese has one of the most elaborate systems of monastic ordination, that is still vibrant and active today. This system and development can offer insights into adapting Buddhism to the West.

4. Architecture. Modern Buddhist temple architectures, especially in Taiwan, are successful examples worthy of study in terms of their integration of tradition, innovation, beauty, and function.

5. Next generation. Taiwan has close to twenty years experience in modernizing Buddhism and teaching it to the kids. With the rampant drug and addiction problems reaching the youth, building character, focus, and tolerance in the next generation is a task the Western societies desperately need.