I would like to caution the reader, before getting any farther with this than the absolute beginning, that this post might possibly offend most of the people who read it. That is not my intention, and it may not happen at all, or not much anyway, but still, some people will probably be offended. The reason for this is that I intend to compare the strengths and weaknesses of Eastern vs. Western Theravada, with the two examples I know best—Burmese and American—serving as representatives; and since there is quite a lot of weakness in both camps, if you belong to either of them this article will to some extent be a matter of badmouthing your religion. But again, my purpose is not to be gratuitously insulting. I consider it to be at least as important to understand the limitations of a system as to know its strengths, so the following information may actually be useful, and beneficial, to those who want to know the truth. Anyway, you have received fair warning.
There is an old tradition in Zen Buddhism called mondō, which might literally be translated “question and answer,” but which in English is often rendered as “Dharma battle.” It is essentially a kind of verbal duel or sparring match between two Zen masters as a way of testing each other’s attainment, and to help ensure that both parties will be wide awake, alert, and ready for anything. In a way it is like the mythic duels between wizards for the purpose of testing each other’s worthiness. They are primarily carried out verbally, as the literal “question and answer” would suggest, but sometimes the questions and answers are non-verbal, for example by silently stacking one stone on top of another or simply raising a finger, and sometimes physical blows are exchanged. One of my favorite examples of a simple, straightforward mondō is case 75 of the Blue Cliff Record, called “Ukyū’s Unfair Blows”:
A monk came from Jōshū Oshō’s assembly to Ukyū, who said to him, “What do you find in Jōshū’s teaching? Is there anything different from what you find here?” The monk said, “Nothing different.” Ukyū said, “If there is nothing different, why don’t you go back there?” and he hit him with his stick. The monk said, “If your stick had eyes to see, you would not strike me like that.” Ukyū said, “Today I have come across a real monk,” and he gave him three more blows. The monk went out. Ukyū called after him and said, “One may receive unfair blows.” The monk turned back and said, “To my regret, the stick is in your hand.” Ukyū said, “If you need it, I will let you have it.” The monk went up to Ukyū, seized his stick, and gave him three blows with it. Ukyū said, “Unfair blows! Unfair blows!” The monk said, “One may receive them.” Ukyū said, “I hit this one too casually.” The monk made bows. Ukyū said, “Oshō! Is that how you take leave?” The monk laughed aloud and went out. Ukyū said, “You could do it like this! You could do it like this!”
While I’m at it I may as well include the commentarial verse of Setchō, compiler of the Blue Cliff Record:
Easy to call the snakes, hard to scatter them.
How splendidly they crossed swords! Although the sea is deep, it can be drained;
The kalpa stone is hard, but wears away.
Old Ukyū! Old Ukyū!
Who is there like you?
To give the stick to another—
That was truly thoughtless!
(—text and verse from Two Zen Classics, by Katsuki Sekida, with the translation of the case very slightly modified)
I consider it bad form to try to explain a koan, but I will observe that when Ukyū calls the monk Oshō, or “master,” he is treating him as an equal, if not as a superior. And when a Zen poet calls a master “thoughtless,” he is giving genuine praise.
Anyway, the kind of “Dharma battle” which follows is not of this kind. It is derived less from medieval Chinese Zen than from modern American television. Back around 2001 I came back to America from Burma for a brief visit with my family; and at first I would occasionally stay up late at night with jet lag and watch some TV. At my father’s house they had some kind of deluxe cable setup with access to around 300 channels, yet much of the time I could surf through all the channels and fail to find anything I considered to be worth watching. So I wound up watching a lot of documentaries on the Military Channel, for lack of anything more interesting or challenging. There was one show in particular that was intriguing: Two pieces of military hardware used on opposite sides of a war would be analyzed by experts to determine which was the better weapon. One episode compared a British biplane (I don’t remember which one) and the German Fokker triwing of WWI (they were approximately evenly matched until more powerful engines were developed which caused the air resistance of the Fokker’s extra set of wings to become a liability). One compared the American Sherman tank and the German tiger tank of WWII (the tiger tank won hands down, with everyone unanimously agreeing that if they were on a battlefield they’d much rather be in a tiger tank). Another one compared the American M16 rifle with the Russian AK47 (the M16 was more accurate and lighter, but the AK47 was considered slightly superior because it was less likely to jam, packed more of a wallop, and, because of the heavy wooden stock, was more effective in hand-to-hand combat). I recently discovered that this kind of show is still in fashion: There’s some kind of pseudoscientific hype program in which scientists, or maybe just guys playing at being scientists, compare great generals of the past to determine who would win if they got into a fight with each other. I watched a few minutes of Hannibal vs. Genghis Khan on YouTube, but turned it off when the goofy fellows were using a live elephant and a technologically advanced crash dummy to determine the squish factor of Hannibal’s elephants when they would step on people. Also, I derived the title of this here post mainly from Epic Rap Battles, like this one, between Eastern and Western philosophers. And so, basically, the purpose here is to determine which version of Theravada—Burmese or American—is the more viable system, and comes closer to “true Dhamma.” Which is the more effective system? That is the question.
Before proceeding with the “battle,” I will point out something that runs the risk of being a spoiler from the very get-go, rendering the conclusion fairly obvious. Much as the decisive factor for judging a piece of military hardware is its conduciveness to victory in war, even so, the decisive factor for judging a form of Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism, is not worldly practicality or objective Right View, but conduciveness to enlightenment. The word saddhamma, or “true Dhamma,” could theoretically be defined as any system correctly representing established Theravada Buddhist orthodoxy; but I’m much more interested in universal, generic Dharma with an “r,” so that saddharma or “true Dharma” is not necessarily represented by a book like the Visuddhimagga, or even a canonical Pali text, but may be defined as any system conducive to enlightenment, ideally in this very life. Considering that we are discussing two forms of Theravada, however, conformity with Pali texts is a viable consideration, and will not be totally ignored. But it really should be remembered, constantly borne in mind even, that the primary purpose of the teachings of Gotama Buddha was freedom from all dukkha and suffering, and from all delusion, and liberation from Samsara. A form of Buddhism which dismisses enlightenment as its primary purpose is analogous to a form of Christianity which dismisses God and redemption. It may be very useful in certain worldly respects, but if it is not conducive to enlightenment (or “salvation”), then it could hardly be called “true Dharma” or saddhamma, with or without the “r.” So the battle boils down to this question: Which form of Theravada—Burmese or American—is more conducive to enlightenment?
Also before proceeding I will mention an event that occurred not long ago, within the past few years, as it has a moral which may be useful to bear in mind. One of the most famous and influential Vipassana teachers in America went to Burma and was introduced to a Burmese lady, the likes of whom are very rare in America but not so uncommon in Burma—she keeps eight precepts, always wears the brown clothing of a yogi, studies the Pali texts in depth, and takes Theravada Buddhism very, very seriously. Anyway, the famous Western teacher gifted her with a number of copies of the famous books he had written and then proceeded to explain to her what was wrong with Burmese Buddhism and how it ought to be changed. The Burmese lady was so indignant at his superior American attitude that as soon as he left she had all of his books thrown out of her house. I’ve never met the famous Vipassana teacher but I have met the Burmese lady, and I know that a granite-like faith such as hers is a force to be reckoned with. Anyway, the moral of this little tale is this: A firm conviction that you are right counts for nothing, since everyone is the same way, including those who believe the exact opposite as you. Everyone considers their own way to be right, or at least more right than other people’s way; and these two “rights” don’t make a wrong, but simply cancel each other out. They add up to zero and can be left out of account. The Burmese can see the faults of Western Buddhism no less clearly than Americans can see the faults of the Burmese version, and both sides are largely blind to the most important shortcomings of their own systems. So again, if you are a Westerner and can see plainly enough that Western Buddhism is an improvement on the Asian traditions, it counts for pretty much zero, because those Asians can see that Western Buddhism is not an improvement, and they can see it just as clearly. So it’s good to have an objective perspective of the Big Picture, as I will try to have in what follows.
When comparing Burmese Buddhism and American Buddhism it will be useful to distinguish between two very different (yet related) bodies existing within each system—the monastics and the laity. So, I will begin with the Burmese, and with Burmese monks.
It has occurred to me that, rather like the precision of an M16 being an asset, but also a liability in that it causes the rifle to be more easily jammed by sand and dirt, the strengths of the various types of Theravada tend to have a “dark side” which turns a strength into a weakness. Consequently I won’t discuss strengths first and then weaknesses, as was originally the plan, since many of the strengths are bound to their own weaknesses, like the two sides of a coin. One such plus/minus of the Burmese monastic Sangha is its emphasis on scholarship. Many monks and nuns in Burma are phenomenal scholars, with few in the West, or even in Thailand, who could compare with their knowledge of the Pali texts and the commentarial tradition. This emphasis on book-learning, combined with a profound faith in Theravada Buddhism which will be discussed a little later, produces a kind of rigid, narrow dogmatism which can be an insurmountable hindrance, a box that cannot be escaped. Critical thinking and attempts to think “outside the box” are relatively very rare in Burmese monasteries, with the exception of some “progressive” places which for the most part are extraordinarily lax in practice, partly as a result of loss of the fundamentalist spirit. Which leads to one of the most conspicuous weaknesses of Burmese monastic Theravada, namely lax practice.
Based on what I have seen during almost 25 years of associating with the Burmese monastic Sangha, I would estimate that the proportion of Burmese monks who make a conscientious, serious effort to follow the rules of monastic discipline is less than 5%, maybe as little as 2%. For example, only around 2% of Burmese monks do not handle money—even though it is strictly prohibited by the Vinaya, and the fundamentalist Burmese cannot deny that the Buddha himself forbade it. (With regard to monastic discipline things are a bit better in Thailand, but possibly even worse in Sri Lanka.)
There are numerous reasons for this laxness of practice. First is that, like most people in general, most Burmese monks simply are not “ripe” for living an intensely spiritual life, and many of them are ordained as monks more for the sake of taking life easy, or getting a free education, or whatever, than for striving for enlightenment. Also they tend to be very gregarious, and follow along with the majority in order to fit in. An abnormally strict monk in Burma may actually be in danger at some monasteries, since such a monk may be bitterly resented by those who very much do not want to be reminded of their own astronomical distance from the ideal. As is the case in many Asian cultures, and to a lesser degree in pretty much all cultures, not to follow the majority is a source of awkwardness, discomfort, and embarrassment, and it is easier just to follow along and fit in. And to follow the majority is practically by definition to follow mediocrity.
Another shortcoming, for similar reasons, is the weakness and lack of asceticism in most Burmese Buddhism. The monks of ancient India were homeless wanderers with no money, wearing only three robes (plus maybe a felt blanket) even in the coldest weather, sleeping outdoors under trees, and often not knowing where they would sleep or what they would eat until they found themselves in the situation in question. In other words, they had to be tough. This kind of ascetic spirit is almost dead in Myanmar, with monks taking things as easy as possible, often wearing (illegal) stocking caps and socks even in tropical environments much warmer than northern India.
As I have already mentioned, the Burmese are gregarious, and most of them genuinely like people. They have metta, and a relatively deep appreciation for their fellows. So although most of them are poor excuses for Buddhist mendicants, the overwhelming majority, though certainly not all of them, are good people regardless of their lack of skillfulness at Dhamma practice. A good monk and a good person are not necessarily the same person. An incompetent doctor or musician may still be a very good and likable person, and monks go the same way. Besides, Burmese monks know their chanting and ceremonies even if they don’t practice much actual Dhamma. They serve the laypeople as a kind of secular clergy.
So a summary of the Burmese Sangha would be something like: Strong scholarship, rigid fundamentalism with regard to theory, and very little actual practice beyond chanting, worshiping statues, and occasionally thumbing a rosary. Many monks do actually meditate seriously, though, although they are almost certainly in the minority.
Burmese laypeople, being Burmese, have some of the same qualities, plus and minus, as Burmese monks. The rigid fundamentalism with regard to view is similar. Oddly, I assume in part due to national pride, many of them look at non-Burmese monks with a skeptical eye, as though only a Burmese monk could have Right View—with Right View naturally being considered more important than right practice. Many Burmese villagers believe that even the Thais follow Mahayana Buddhism instead of “real” Dhamma. (Consequently I was amused recently when I heard a Sri Lankan lady saying she thought the Burmese were Mahayanists.) The plus side of this fundamentalist rigidity is the profound faith which supports it: Burmese laypeople, especially those from traditional village culture, have no doubt whatsoever that Theravada is gospel truth. Dhamma comes first, with other theoretical systems, including scientific materialism, coming second at best.
And it is largely this same deep faith which inspires the Burmese lay communities to support the Sangha of monks with such extravagant generosity and reverence. Many of them are literally afraid of having a low opinion of a monk, considering that to be a possible road to hell, with the most outrageously sloppy monks being overlooked with a kind of hysterical religious blindness. (Just a few days ago I happened to be in the same room with a very sloppy Burmese monk who was talking on his cell phone with some credit card representative who was warning him about overcharging his credit card. Two or three Burmese laypeople who were present looked glassy-eyed and uncomfortable as they tried hard to ignore what was going on.) And I suppose the knowledge that Burmese laypeople will support and revere them no matter how they behave is another reason why so many Burmese monks are so extraordinarily lax.
Scholarship is relatively common and well developed among the laypeople also. One negative aspect of this, in my opinion, is a kind of mania for Abhidhamma philosophy. Many Burmese, ordained and lay, consider Abhidhamma to be by far the deepest and most important part of the teachings of Gotama Buddha, despite the fact that most non-Burmese scholars are skeptical as to whether the Buddha ever taught it.
One Asian thing rather than a specifically Burmese or Buddhist one is that the Burmese are, by Western standards, extraordinarily non-alienated, and can be extremely hospitable even to total strangers. Some of their generosity, it is true, is a result of “spiritual materialism” in which they consider righteous behavior to be karmic money in the bank. This aspect can stray over to the minus side when devout Burmese Buddhists would much rather feed an obese monk who already has too much food in front of him than to feed a hungry child—they think they will receive more merit for feeding the monk. The Burmese invest virtue as though it were money. But much of it is genuine open-heartedness to a degree very rare in Western culture.
With regard to Americans now, I start with American monastics. I have to be careful with this since I am one of them.
One obvious difference from the Burmese monks, not just with Americans or even Westerners but with anyone not born into a Buddhist society, is that the practice of monastic discipline tends to be, on average, much stricter, with usually more emphasis on meditation and the goal of enlightenment in this very life. It may be that more than half of Western monks are really trying to follow the rules of monastic discipline; certainly more than 20% are, which is an order of magnitude beyond the Burmese Sangha in that regard. This is largely because we have renounced our society much more radically than have the Burmese monks: They remain within their own Buddhist culture and are highly respected and generously supported, with even their own parents calling them Venerable Lord, whereas Westerners have to have sufficient determination, inspiration, and samvega to go against the wishes of their own family and friends, and to make an almost total break with their former way of life. Also, they tend not to renounce the world for the sake of taking it easy or of upward social mobility, and thus are less likely to follow along with lax modern Asian traditions. Enlightenment tends to be a much bigger part of the picture for Western monks than for Eastern ones. This is not always the case, though, as the apex of the Sangha, the wisest and saintliest of the saints, tend to be Asian.
With regard to faith/fundamentalism/narrow-mindedness on the one hand and skepticism/lukewarmness/open-mindedness on the other, Western monks (or rather monks not born into a Buddhist culture) are all over the map, ranging from Asian style narrow-minded Tipitaka-thumping fundamentalist types to lukewarm eclectics who are more inclined to read the Upanishads or a cognitive science text or Time magazine than a Pali sutta. Some of this eclecticism, combined with a less narrow view in general and generally weaker faith in theory, results in what to a Burmese Buddhist could appear as ignorance of Dhamma and Wrong View. But with regard to this, greater variety in outlook may be seen as either a plus or a minus, depending upon how one looks at it.
(And before moving on, I would observe that my own position in the strict/lax Western divide is irrelevant. Whether I am seen as a strict monk or a lax one, or maybe a loose cannon that can go either way, the figures come out essentially the same. On the other hand, regardless of my practice, my theory is clearly not orthodox Theravada. By traditional Burmese standards I am a heretic with pernicious Wrong View. I don’t even like Abhidhamma.)
Finally we come to American laypeople. I like to start out with something positive, although with this group it is not as easy as with the other three, especially if relative broad-mindedness in one’s approach to Dhamma is seen as not necessarily positive or negative. The Western point of view is pretty obviously less rigid and narrow, but by contrast it tends to be much more shallow. I hypothesize that the volume of the mental box one is trapped in is not so much a matter of cultural conditioning as it is a matter of the size of one’s own psyche; so the shape of the box may be culturally conditioned, but of course it cannot be smaller than the mind of the individual person. So the narrowness of the Burmese view has the upside of depth to compensate, and the Western view is broad, yet so shallow as to be deeply unsatisfying for many spiritually-oriented individuals. Nevertheless, the very ideas of critical thinking, of accepting the wisdom to be found in other systems, and of getting outside the box may be seen as positive aspects of the Western approach to Dhamma/Dharma.
Western broadness of thought and consequent eclecticism go hand in hand with weaker faith in the system. But worse than this is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Western lay Buddhists, from what I have seen, have deeper faith in worldly materialism than they have in Dhamma, with the latter simply being adopted as a secondary factor in their life, being essentially no more than a hobby. This, plus a deep faith in materialism to the extent of rejecting fundamental aspects of Dhamma like karma or even Nirvana, and a Western lack of reverence in general, greatly weakens the strength of the Western approach, if not actually shooting it in the head.
The average American Buddhist probably meditates more than the average Burmese Buddhist, largely because meditation is the central feature of the American version while it is just one feature of many for the Burmese. Many Burmese lay Buddhists do meditate quite a lot though, which is facilitated by the great multitude of meditation centers to be found in Myanmar. Enlightenment is not necessarily a more central issue for Westerners, however, since, as was just mentioned, many of them do not even believe in its existence, with meditation being practiced more as a stress-reduction technique than a spiritual one. Spirituality is greatly downplayed, in accordance with the old dilemma of “God vs. Mammon.” One cannot serve two masters.
The materialistic, more or less scientific approach to Theravada Buddhism is not necessarily a minus, however. So long as one can still muster the motivation for serious practice one is still doing relatively well. But in general, from a deeper point of view than Western culture can easily accommodate, the Western approach is too watered down and lukewarm to compete well with the attitude of devout Burmese villagers.
Thus far the laypeople of the West may not be too far behind those of the East; yet there is one fatal flaw which should not be ignored. As was mentioned above, the test of true Dhamma is its conduciveness to enlightenment; and also already mentioned is the fact that the majority of Buddhists, Western and Eastern, are simply not “ripe” enough seriously to strive for it. But members of a system may promote enlightenment in two different ways: They may be some of the few who really go for it, or they may be supporters of those few. Most American laypeople are not ready or willing to go for it, and they just do not support the few who are. They appear not to see the point of it, and this for many reasons, including lukewarm Protestant Christian cultural conditioning (regardless of whether they were ever Protestant Christians), Western egalitarianism, Western belief that people should work for a living, disrespect for “beggars,” lack of respect in general, lack of belief in the Goal at all, being “too busy” and too distracted running in worldly circles to bother with it, general apathy, etc. etc. So with laypeople unwilling to try for enlightenment in anything more than a half-assed way and unwilling to support those who are trying, the system collapses. Thus true Dhamma is almost nonexistent in the American version of Theravada Buddhism; thus far it appears to be stillborn, dead on delivery, with the most serious practitioners (i.e., the renunciants) supported almost entirely by Asian communities. If Asian immigrants suddenly stopped supporting monastics in America, possibly every Theravada Buddhist monastery in the country would quickly collapse. Most American Buddhists would like to believe that renunciation of worldliness is not necessary, but by the same token they are unwilling, as a rule, to practice any more than superficially, as a hobby. The Buddha himself was a monk, and Dhamma obviously was originally a radical system of enlightenment which practically begins with renunciation and dedication of one’s life to the cessation of delusion and suffering. Laypeople were originally intended to practice as much as they were able in their worldly circumstances and to support those really dedicated to practicing the system. So I repeat, the American lack of support for the more advanced levels of the system, which arguably are the most important levels, is a fatal flaw which undermines the whole thing. It’s like a flaw in a military airplane which prevents it even from getting off the ground. An airplane that won’t fly is not much of an airplane.
Before the official declaration of the winner of this epic Dharma battle I will try to make a brief synopsis of each side.
With regard to Burmese Buddhism, I think the best way of describing it in few words is to say that it is like Christianity was in Western Europe around 500 years ago—around the time of the Renaissance. In the cities modern secularism is gaining ground fast, but in the countryside people are still living in a traditional, essentially medieval world. And like 16th-century Catholicism, there are in Burma a few genuinely saintly monks and nuns walking around, usually minding their own business in some quiet retreat, with most of the “clergy” being extraordinarily corrupt. There are probably more crooks and clowns in the Burmese Sangha than saints or sages. Meanwhile, the laypeople live in a religious world and have profound, iron faith in Dhamma. They generously, reverentially, and naively support a corrupt Sangha, mostly being unwilling to face the prevailing state of corruption. But too much in this case is better than not enough: At least they keep the door open to those few who genuinely aspire to following Dhamma to its end.
On the other hand, I think American Theravada does not yet exist as a viable system. Americans do have some advantages Dhamma-wise over their Burmese brothers and sisters, but mostly we have liabilities. For example, we were not raised into a centuries-old set of Buddhist beliefs and habits which although limited can be an invaluable foundation and starting point. Instead we were raised into a non-dharmic set of beliefs and habits which do not include respecting and supporting religious mendicants. Recently an American man suggested to me that what we have in America now is just a preliminary stage of the process, and that eventually true Dhamma will exist and be supported by American Theravada Buddhists. Maybe, but thus far that does not appear to be the direction in which American Theravada is headed. In fact at present it seems to be moving more in the direction of shallow commercialism and “McMindfulness,” Dhamma as a stress-reduction technique, a means of feeling better about oneself—not a way of waking up, but a way of sleeping more comfortably. A few elementary meditation techniques and some jargon are extracted for use in a predominantly worldly system, and the rest is thrown away, or just ignored.
According to legend, the great Indian emperor Asoka sent his own son, a monk named Mahinda, as a missionary to convert Sri Lanka to Buddhism. He was doing a good job of it, too, and one day the king of Sri Lanka asked him if the Buddha Sāsana had been established on the island. Mahinda replied that the seed had been planted, but the roots had not yet descended deeply into the soil of Sri Lanka. When the king asked what that would require, Mahinda’s answer was, “When a son born in Sri Lanka of Sri Lankan parents becomes a bhikkhu in Sri Lanka, studies the Vinaya in Sri Lanka, and recites it in Sri Lanka, then the roots of the Sāsana are deep set.” I don’t have the original Pali on hand, and this may not be the best translation: I seem to remember the meaning of it being that a Sri Lankan monk ordained in Sri Lanka would recite the rules of monastic discipline in Sri Lanka before a Sri Lankan Sangha, that is, he would carry out an Uposatha observance there. But at any rate, for the Buddha Sāsana to take root in America one more criterion must be met: An American Sangha of monastics, ordained in America, learning and carrying out formal acts of the Sangha in America, would have to be supported mainly by American laypeople, not Asian immigrants. Until then, true Dhamma in America is a potted tropical plant living in an artificial quasi-Asian environment, not naturally—with, I presume, a few anomalous laypeople who are really striving for enlightenment as their top priority in life.
So the Burmese have a relatively strong laity supporting a predominantly weak Sangha, while Americans have a stronger Sangha (stronger in practice anyway) hardly supported at all by a weak American laity. So the Asian laity generously supports both Sanghas, and keeps the door open for when a genuine saint or sage comes along. American “true Dhamma” is not yet a self-sufficient system, except maybe for a few stray individuals. And so in this epic Dhamma Battle, regardless of lax monks and everything else, Burma cleans America’s clocks. They kick butt.
I’ve expressed the opinion before that Dhamma in the West may assume a non-monastic form, or maybe just a semi-monastic one. But regardless of what form it takes, there simply must be people who make Dhamma their top priority in life, with Western secularism, materialism, alienation, lukewarmness, and being "too busy" just not cutting the mustard. And if the really dedicated ones, regardless of whether or not they are wearing brown robes, are striving full time for the transcendence of Samsara, then they will need support. I suggest that any Theravada Buddhist organization in America that does not support at least one spiritual renunciant is somewhat of a sham, especially if its members are calling themselves “sangha.” Theravada is a system first and foremost for renunciants, regardless of whether worldly Americans like that idea at all. And if you don’t like me, that’s fine. Support someone else then. Please. Ciraṁ tiṭṭhatu saddhammo.