Saturday, June 8, 2013

Four Western Theravadas

     Several years ago a German monk sent me an article, "American Buddhists: Who Are They?" by Jan Nattier (which can be accessed by clicking here), describing, from a sociological point of view, the main types of Buddhism in America. According to this article, Buddhism in the US can be conveniently divided into three categories: Ethnic Buddhism, Evangelical Buddhism, and Elite Buddhism. 
     Ethnic Buddhism is practiced almost exclusively by Asian immigrants, and to some degree by their descendants; it tends to be based on Asian cultural traditions, and there is negligible interaction with Westerners not born into those traditions.
     Evangelical Buddhism, according to the author of the article, is essentially the sect, tradition, or organization of Soka Gakkai, an originally Japanese lay Buddhist society which I think is an offshoot of Nichiren, a Pure Land sect of Mahayana Buddhism. It actively recruits followers and seems to have a very secular orientation, but I personally know little about it, so I'll leave it at that.
     Elite Buddhism refers mainly to Buddhist meditation traditions found in the West, such as IMS-style Vipassana, Zen, and some Tibetan Vajrayana traditions. It is called "Elite" by the author because its followers tend to have university educations and to be relatively affluent financially. In fact many meditation centers in the "Elite" tradition are prohibitively expensive for those who are not wealthy. This form of Western Buddhism, according to the author, tends to have few people from ethnic minorities participating, and mainly involve people of European descent. Also, the participants tend to be middle-aged "baby boomers," and recruit relatively few younger people to their ranks.
     My observations of American Buddhism, however, cause me to think that there are at least four distinct categories of Theravada alone. I don't know nearly as much about other systems and their various forms in the West, so I'll restrict my analysis to American Theravada, which is probably similar to what is found in most other Western countries. The four varieties I will call Ethnic Theravada, Western Monastic Theravada, Elite Theravada, and the Goenka System. There is overlap between these four categories, so their edges are a bit blurry.
     Ethnic Theravada is essentially the Theravadin fraction of the Ethnic Buddhism described in the aforementioned article. Most Asian temples in the West seem to serve more as cultural centers for a local immigrant population than as a place for serious monastic practice or even for missionary work. What missionary work is attempted usually is not particularly successful, as traditional Asian assumptions about Buddhism as a religion, heavily based on culturally conditioned unquestioning faith, are offered to Westerners, most of whom cannot assimilate much of it. So, these Asian Buddhist temples often have relatively little English spoken on the premises, and the supporters of such places often go there to speak their own native language, eat their own native food, and perform their own native ceremonies. Westerners who come often feel out of place, even though they are often warmly welcomed. So this form of Dhamma is unlikely to have much of an impact on Western culture, except for the effects of a few charismatic Asian monks and nuns who become popular with Westerners. If Theravada is to take root and thrive in the West, it is unlikely to occur from this direction—unless some extremely charismatic Asian monk or nun comes along and inspires it.
     Western Monastic Theravada is an offshoot of Asian Monastic Theravada more than of Western Ethnic Theravada. Most senior Western monks, as far as I know, have spent years in a Theravada Buddhist country before living as monks in the West. Possibly the most obvious difference with Ethnic Theravada is that the monks at the temples are more Caucasian than Asian, and thus speak lots more English. The monks also tend to be much more strict in their monastic practices, for example following Vinaya more strictly and meditating more. And of course, the starting assumptions are somewhat different. However, there is overlap with Ethnic Theravada, as Western monastics tend to be strongly supported by immigrant Asian communities, possibly more so than by fellow Westerners of European descent. This is largely because earning merit by supporting the "Sangha" (in the traditional Eastern sense of the word) is fundamental to traditional Asian Buddhist culture, but not so in the West. Sometimes the monks of these two varieties of Theravada will meet together and interact, for example by performing formal ecclesiastical acts together; they may even mix together in the same monastery or temple. This form of Western Theravada does not consist entirely of monastics; it also includes lay participants in the system, including some rather conservative Westerners who can appreciate the fact that Dhamma has always been primarily based on a Sangha of renunciants, with the Buddha himself having been one of them. 
     One might naturally assume that this form of Theravada is the most viable form in the West, as Western monks and nuns are ordaining new Western monks and nuns. But its heavy reliance on Asian communities for support, and its general lack of regard from perhaps most Western people professing Theravada, cause this form also to seem rather limited in its potential to inspire Western culture with Dhamma. Also, of course, there is the question of how well a system designed for ancient India can be assimilated by the modern West. Charismatic Western monks and nuns may be less successful in facilitating this than charismatic Asian ones, largely because they're less exotic, and seen more as eccentrics: at least the Asian monastics are wrapped comfortably and respectably in their own cultural traditions. 
     Elite Theravada corresponds to the more or less Theravadin portion of the Elite Buddhism described above. It seems to be rather more popular with Westerners than the two previously mentioned forms of Dhamma practice. As far as I can tell, the two great capitals of this Buddhist genre in America, its Mecca and Medina, so to speak, are the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock in Marin County, California. These two organizations are looked to as role models by countless Vipassana meditation societies in the US. Many places of this genre are rather luxurious, expensive, and markedly politically correct. The followers tend to be older, and leaning more toward Western materialistic hardheadedness than toward "woo woo." I know of one society that has candles and incense forbidden at the altars, because so many are worried about breathing toxic fumes, and at their main altar they have placed next to the Buddha image a statue of a female Mahayana Buddhist deity, for the politically correct sake of gender equality. This form of Theravada has sometimes been called "Dharma Lite." This is in large part because in order to be popular it must appeal to many; and in order to appeal to many it must be easy, convenient, comfortable, and non-threatening. 
     Although it is apparently more popular in the West than the other two mentioned thus far, I feel that it is not an ideal conduit of Dhamma to the West. The majority of the teachings in the Theravadin tradition are either ignored or studied intellectually, leaving a pale shadow of a dismembered fragment of a great tradition; and furthermore Theravadin Dhamma is mixed up in a very eclectic manner with various other traditions, including rather non-spiritual secular traditions. I don't consider eclecticism to be a bad thing in itself (which should be obvious to those of you who regularly read this blog), but mixing to the extent that genuine Theravada cannot be actually identified anymore is rather much. It should be borne in mind that Theravada Buddhism began as a systematic method for becoming enlightened in this very life, and renunciation (nekkhamma) is a fundamental aspect of it; so any version of Theravada that disdains radical renunciation and making Liberation one's very top priority in life is bound to represent only a partial and elementary aspect of it.
     The fourth variety of Western Theravada is the Vipassana system founded by S. N. Goenka. It may be that the article mentioned above tacitly included this system with Elite Buddhism, but it is so divergent in many respects that I figure it deserves a class all to itself. It is the vehicle for a kind of satipaṭṭhāna, or mindfulness meditation, similar to the Mahasi tradition on which other Vipassana schools in the West have been based, plus its origins also are Burmese, but the similarities practically stop there. Goenka meditation retreats are free of charge, place great emphasis on determination and moral restraint, and involve some rather spartan self-discipline. I have never practiced the Goenka method, although I've read some of their publications and know several people who are or were followers of the system; and to a trained Theravadin it may seem overly simplistic in its approach to Dhamma. Yet it obviously appeals to many—so much so that retreat centers which charge no money have been established all over the world, and many followers of the method follow it with a kind of starry-eyed zeal which is relatively rare in Western lay Theravada. Long ago, when I was more sarcastic (and possibly more cynical) than nowadays, I used to call the Goenka people "the Jehovah's Witnesses of Buddhism."
     I think a big reason for this is that the Goenka method is more difficult to practice than easygoing "Dharma Lite": for example there are no chairs, and two or three one-hour sits per day, in addition to other sits, in which the meditator is advised not to move, even if in a fair amount of discomfort. (The Mahasi method on which most Vipassana methods in the West are at least partly based used to emphasize this kind of "heroic effort" also, using slogans like "Pain is the friend of the meditator," and "Pain is the key that unlocks the door to Nibbana," and exhorting practitioners to remain motionless for the full hour even though the pain might be so intense that they fear they may die; but as comfort-requiring Westerners adopted the method more and more, this kind of teaching was heard less and less, even in Burma.) Anyway, because it is more difficult, completing a ten-day retreat or "course" is a real accomplishment, giving the practitioner not only the benefits of more strenuous practice, but a feeling of deep satisfaction from successfully doing something difficult. And doing what is difficult makes us stronger.
     And so, although I'm a follower of the "second Theravada" (pretty much!), and personally don't follow the Goenka method, it strikes me as probably the most viable and successful form of Theravadin Dhamma that I've seen in the West so far—it seems to be getting more of the spirit of Dhamma to more people. It involves considerable practice, self-restraint, and even a moderate amount of renunciation. It's rather simplistic perhaps, but easily understood and relatively undiluted by other systems (although some feel that Goenka's own views on Dhamma are somewhat unorthodox and misleading). Plus it apparently changes people's lives profoundly, and for the better.
     What I've been doing since my return to America is looking for some way for Dhamma to thrive, or at least survive without fatal mutations, in the West in such a way that it can have the most positive effect on an increasingly dysfunctional secular culture. Or maybe it would be fairer to say that I'm looking for a way for me to thrive while practicing it here. I'm still looking.

Venerable Tipitakadhara Sayadaw U Gandhamala, 
a Burmese monk who memorized by heart the entire 40-volume Pali Tipitaka
while still in his thirties, and who visited the west coast  of the USA recently, 
delivering Dhamma talks  to Burmese audiences, 
as almost no other Buddhists know of his existence.


  1. For a slew of comments on this article, please refer to the Dhamma Wheel Buddhist forum, at

  2. Yes, saw those. Will you respond there or here?
    I like the article BTW.

    1. Well, I wasn't actually planning to respond to them anywhere. But if there's something someone would like my response to, I would likely post it here instead of there. (I'm not registered on Dhamma Wheel yet.)

  3. [quote]...Soka Gakkai, an originally Japanese lay Buddhist society which I think is an offshoot of Nichiren, a Pure Land sect of Mahayana Buddhism...[/quote]
    Nichiren & Jodo Shu/Shinshu (Pure Land) are two distinct Japanese Buddhist traditions. And Soka Gakkai is not regarded as 'orthodox' by many from within the Nichiren fold and the larger Buddhist world, something I think best not to elaborate on.
    [quote]It should be borne in mind that Theravada Buddhism began as a systematic method for becoming enlightened in this very life, and renunciation (nekkhamma) is a fundamental aspect of it; so any version of Theravada that disdains radical renunciation and making Liberation one's very top priority in life is bound to represent only a partial and elementary aspect of it.[/quote]Agreed Bhante yet in real life, in many places, how oft one hears about 'next life', 'just do good', parodied in concession for a less altruistic & willing audience?

    1. True, most Buddhists are not in a position to strive wholeheartedly for Freedom in this life. This presumably is inevitable. Consequently it became a tradition for Buddhism in Asia to be somewhat of a spectator sport, with the monastic renunciants being the pro athletes, so to speak, and the lay supporters being the fans supporting their favorite team. The West, however, seems to prefer amateur athletics, so the higher levels of practice get little attention.

      Traditional Theravada speaks of two paths, one for renunciants seeking Nibbana, and one for the virtuous layperson seeking a better rebirth next time around. It appears that in America the second path is viewed as somewhat inferior and demeaning, so people try for Nibbana, except without the requisite Right Effort, Right Concentration, etc. Christianity has already followed that route, so there's definitely a precedent here.

  4. Were you trained in any particular meditation system?

    1. I was originally trained in the Taungpulu method of Burma, which is essentially similar to the Mahasi method, a kind of satipatthana. I also spent two months at Panditarama in Rangoon, trying the Mahasi method. Over the years I gradually developed, through intuition and trial and error, a method that works pretty well for me.

  5. Venerable,

    Thanks for answering questions here. I would be very interested in your take on the different meditation systems. Taungpulu vs. Mahasi vs. your own development.
    Of course, talk about siddhis would be nice as well. :-) Even if it is only hearsay as I know your vows prohibit you from speaking about your own experiences.

    Many thanks,

    1. With regard to meditation techniques in Theravada, I'm mainly familiar with those prevalent in Burma, with some knowledge also of what's being practiced in the USA. The main methods in Burma include Mahasi (with various variations including Shwe U Min), Pah Auk, Mogok, Sunn Lun, Ledi, Goenka, and many others that are less well known. They can be divided roughly into two categories: Samatha and Vipassana, with Pah Auk being the most popular of the former, and Mahasi the most popular of the latter. It's really too much information to cover in a comment box, so maybe I'll wait till I'm uninspired and work it out.

      Mahasi and Taungpulu are similar, although the Taungpulu method does use Samatha techniques sometimes; doesn't note the rising and falling of the abdomen, but mainly notes an adjustable combination of sitting, hearing, touching; and does not place nearly so much emphasis on the standard sequence of Vipassana insight knowledges, or on Abhidhamma. Taungpulu Sayadaw was less of a scholar and more of a forest ascetic, and his tradition reflects that. I like it because it is flexible, and because it is an austere forest tradition.

      My own preferred method resembles, as far as I can tell, the Shwe U Min method taught by Sayadaw U Tejeniya, in that it keeps noting and labeling to a minimum, and emphasizes wide-open awareness. The more restrictions, the less freedom.

      One aspect of Burmese meditation techniques that I consider to be of interest is that most Burmese meditation instructors are not very sophisticated with regard to judging the efficacy of a technique, and often equate any strange experience with some kind of supernatural or other high attainment. Much or even most of what passes for jhana in Burma, in my opinion, is really hypnotic trance. The meditator hypnotises himself/herself and sees very vividly whatever the subconscious wants to produce. Many "siddhis" arise as symptoms of this kind of hypnotic meditation, as hypnosis really can produce psychic phenomena. Of course some meditation masters know the minds of others, etc., via more spiritual means.

      I've considered writing of my experiences with the Tankyidaung method, and also with the Mahasi method, which were, in both cases, disillusioning experiences for me. My karma with meditation instructors has not been very good in this life.

    2. It's actually a shame there isn't more scientific investigation into the efficacy of different meditation methods and systems. It would be fairly easy to give a test that measures wisdom (This has actually been developed, it's called the 'Berlin Wisdom Model') to the students of each particular school and see which works best. I am under the impression that the students of Ajahn Chah are particularly wise, and I've wondered about how Chah instructed those students in order to foster such wisdom. Turns out he didn't teach much technique, mostly just vinaya, and let his students work out the meditation which suited them best. I'm convinced such technical freedom is necessary in the fostering of wisdom in monastics.

    3. One thing I've read about Ajahn Chah's teaching methods is that he would require his monks to live in ways that were in conflict with their character and preferences. For example one monk who was attached to human society might be placed alone in a forest cemetery, while another who preferred forest solitude might be stationed in a big monastery near town, with lots of visitors.

  6. Venerable,

    Thank you for your reply. I am looking forward to more of your writings on the subject. They might not interest you but they are definitely interesting to a layperson such as myself.
    So, what happened with Tankyidaung and Mahasi instructors?
    Also, would you mind sharing a little about Taungpulu Sayadaw himself? He must have been an amazing being/person. Don't know what to call someone like him. Arhat maybe?

    1. Well, the experiences at Panditarama and "Ithi Pyinnya Dewa Guru Kyaung" would constitute one or two entire articles, which maybe I'll write someday. As for Taungpulu Sayadaw, there are some who believe him to have been a fully enlightened being, although those who knew him well claim that he had made a multi-life commitment and was a bodhisatta.

  7. Those are three articles I would love to read! Thanks for taking the time here.