Saturday, April 9, 2016

With All Due Respect

     Last year when I was in Bali I was asked to give a talk about Respect. I started the talk by pointing out that an American teaching Asians about respect is like a turtle teaching birds about flying. But, we do the best we can, which is really all we can do.
     Then not so long ago, shortly before my return to the USA, a friend of mine whom I've never met advised me that, when I return to the West again, I shouldn't expect the same kind of respect that monks receive in the East, and I certainly shouldn't insist upon it. After a few years of attempting to find a place in America and interacting with Western Buddhists, this advice was so plainly obvious as to go without saying. Even to expect even one fifth of the respect that monks receive in a Buddhist culture like Burma would be laughably unrealistic.
     This is a matter of American culture, and of Western culture in general—so it would be foolish to blame Westerners for being Westerners. This is just the way it is. In a humanistic, egalitarian society like America, where everyone is supposed, theoretically at least, to be equal, and thereby just as worthy as anyone else, then it follows that deep reverence pretty much flies out the window. I recently had a strange disagreement with an American person about respect which is a case in point. We had both attended a brief talk given by an American Dharma teacher in which he referred to a Buddha image, which he was officially installing under a Bodhi tree, as "this little sucker," twice, in possibly the most devoutly Buddhist country in the world, with Burmese people in the audience, and I pointed out the ironic strangeness of that, the strange contrast of the two approaches to Buddhism. She stated that in her opinion Americans have plenty of respect…and then went so far as to cast an aspersion or two on the validity of the Burmese version. Now, I have been totally overwhelmed by Burmese respect, sometimes even embarrassed and shamed by a relentless respect onslaught, and have gone hungry in America due to the indifference (or worse) of an American Buddhist community; and so this riled me a bit, and I didn't let it slide. So, I pointed out how, in my opinion, American respect and Burmese respect are like night and day, with the American version corresponding to night...and one statement led to another, resulting in her becoming so annoyed, or something, that she informed me she didn't want someone like me in her house or around her kids...which was the most extreme disrespect I had ever experienced coming from her direction. I admit, though, that from an American point of view she may have been perfectly justified. That whole interaction still strikes me as ironic, and very strange. 
     I am sure there are many genuinely respectful people in America. Not just polite or friendly, but deeply respectful. I have no doubt of it. Yet some folks in the West may consider themselves to be respectful; they may feel some respect sometimes and thereby have sufficient evidence that they are indeed properly respectful; and so if they are told that they aren't respectful they may become annoyed, even a little abusive. Yet, from what I have seen in rural Burma over the past twenty years, the average Burmese villager probably has at least ten times the amount of respectful feeling as the average American, at least with regard to religion and to other people. Maybe even fifty times as much. In this respect (no pun intended) the Burmese are so completely off the Western scale as to be incomprehensible. I've mentioned in a previous post the young village women who knelt along Taungpulu Sayadaw's path, bowed down, and spread their long hair over the path for him to walk on it. Even the old Indian tradition of showing reverence by touching an elder's bare feet is beyond the scale of most Americans. It's degrading. It's demeaning to one's own dignity and equality. It's obsequious bootlicking. It's even unsanitary. In America respect is shown by treating others as one's equals; and since most Americans, apparently, do not believe in themselves all that much, they don't believe in others all that much either. Or, in other words, most of us lay unnecessary, negative limitations on ourselves, and so in order for everyone to be equal we lay unnecessary, negative limitations on everyone else also.
      Even though monks must not expect much respect in the West, and certainly not insist upon it, still there is a minimum amount, a minimum daily allowance, below which the whole situation becomes, according to the Pali texts, inappropriate and unacceptable. In other words, a monk is pretty much obligated to clear out of such a situation, in the Buddhist equivalent of shaking the dust from his sandals. Even if people do not have respect for a monk personally, still there is the matter of respect for what he represents, what he has done with his life and why, and what he is able to share, in order for it to be appropriate for him to share it. Even if people dislike some monk in particular, still there is call for respect for the ideals of Dharma and Sangha, and maybe Buddha also. But this kind of respect is clearly not an established part of Western society, and it does not come naturally. Once I noticed on a Buddhist forum that one Asian person had mentioned that I had lived in a Burmese forest for years (often not even in a building), and another (Western) person's response was along the lines of, "So what. Forest rangers live in forests too." Living the so-called Holy Life appears not to be valued much in the West. A few people actually seem to resent its very existence. And this is setting aside the more practical rock-bottom issue of lack of respect for renunciants resulting in lack of support with regard to the requisites of life, such as food.
     To some degree the issue may be seen as a matter of Buddhist etiquette. For example, sitting on a chair or high seat when a monk (especially a senior one) is sitting on the floor or on a low seat has been considered crass bad manners in Buddhist culture for 2500 years. To Westerners it is nothing. It is no big deal at all to sit in a chair with a senior monk sitting at one's feet. I remember once when I was a very junior monk in California an older American woman came to visit me, and while I was sitting on the floor she sat in the only chair in the room—one reserved for the senior monks, so that even I was not supposed to sit in it. Burmese monks would look in and see something moderately outrageous (one could see it in their eyes), while the American woman probably thought absolutely nothing of it. There is actually a rule of monastic discipline forbidding a monk from teaching Dhamma to someone so disrespectful that he or she would sit on a higher seat than the teacher. This has nothing to do with American culture, however, and most people don't see it as a matter of respect at all; it's simply a desire to be comfortable, a matter of common sense. So, many monks in the West, including me when I'm there, let the rule slide and teach Dhamma sitting on a mat on the floor to people sitting on chairs.
     Of course one could say that Westerners simply are not familiar with Eastern etiquette, including traditional Buddhist etiquette. But even if they do become familiar with it, they may still have aversion for behaving in accordance with it. "Why should I have to sit on the floor? It's hard. I'd probably get sore, or at least uncomfortable. Besides, a monk is just a human being like anyone else." A more obvious example is bowing. Most American Buddhists don't bow to monks, at least as far as I have seen. I'm an American too, of course, so I can speak from my own experience on this: For the first twenty times or so that I bowed to a Buddhist monk, I felt very awkward and self-conscious, somewhat like the way I used to feel when I would dance without being drunk yet. But in my case it was't much of an option, since I was intending to become a monk at this monastery, and I wan't about to start acting uppity. Besides, I really did respect some of them—all of them, at first. And I had great respect for what they represented. 
     Still, though, if people do not have respect for Dhamma, if they attend a Dhamma talk as though it were a college seminar or public library lecture, employing cool, critical reasoning, or following a desire for entertainment, without regard for Spirit, then they probably aren't going to get much out of it. If you go to the ocean with only a cup, you get only a cupful. 
     Recently in Rangoon/Yangon a fellow from New Zealand was sentenced to two years in prison for publishing an advertisement for his pub showing a Buddha image wearing stereo headphones. Two years in prison for that. I assume that he vehemently assured the judge, more than once, that he meant no disrespect at all toward the Buddha, or toward Burmese religion; yet passive, unintentional disrespect is still disrespect. The guy may have been a clueless blunderer, and I suspect the Burmese government deliberately made a harsh example of him to show the Westerners flooding into the country that Western irreverence toward religion and Dhamma was not going to be ignored; yet even Western Buddhist teachers can behave in similar ways. Recall the "little sucker" incident. We Westerners just don't know any better. We may not mean to be disrespectful, we just naturally are. Or unnaturally are. Anyhow, that's the way we are conditioned. And again, since we've been conditioned that way since infancy, there's no point in blaming anyone. 
     But here's the thing: With respect, if someone tells us a truth that we very much don't want to hear, out of respect for who said it we may actually hear it, and maybe even act upon the advice in a beneficial way. Without respect, we simply won't hear it, and may spend the rest of our lives beating our head against the wall that we refuse to see. We Westerners acknowledge that a surgeon knows more about surgery than we do, and an auto mechanic knows more about fixing cars, but many of us assume that we know more about what is good for our spirit than anyone else, including extremely wise saints.
     Here's another thing: When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he notices are his pockets. And America, my friends, is a nation of pickpockets, so to speak.  
     We each create our own version of reality; and most of us in the West are creating a "reality" without sacredness, without anyone or anything being deeply respectable. The situation reminds me of René Guénon's observations about modern humanism and rationalism—humanism teaches us that anything higher than us is unimportant, if not totally nonexistent, and rationalism teaches us that nothing is higher than the reach of the human intellect. That is, that critical thought can understand anything, even the mind of God, if such a being actually were to exist. Thus everything in the whole Universe is brought down to the human or intellectual level, and rendered thoroughly mundane. We have an artificially created ceiling over us, limiting our world to what we can criticize. Wide-eyed wonder is for children. As for respect, maybe that's not even for children anymore, since children in Western culture are more and more viewed as the equals of their parents and teachers, and tend more and more to see themselves that way.
     In a sense, of course, we are all equal. Actually in more than one sense. Yet modern ideas of equality seem not very conducive to respect, let alone full-blown reverence. If we do not revere someone as being better than us or wiser than us or closer to Enlightenment than us, then it would seem that another valid sort of mutual respect could be found in the sentiment of the Indian word "namaste," which means, or so I've been told, "I honor the Divine within you." It is a word that is extremely egalitarian, since it acknowledges that we are all equally a manifestation of the Ultimate. But the Ultimate is beyond humanism, rationalism, and mainstream Western culture, and so we have not been taught to have much appreciation for it, if any. But because we are alive we cannot help but have a deep, subliminal consciousness that it is there.
     Getting back to the Burmese and their much more traditional culture, it's not just to monks and nuns, statues and pagodas, that they show respect that is off the scale by American standards. They respect their worldly teachers, and loyally support them and bow to them for many years after they stop being their students. For example, if a man learns how to fix cars from another man, he may stick up for him, his teacher, for the rest of his life, even though the guy might be a drunken troublemaker. They respect their doctors, too—once a monastic friend and I were visiting a Burmese surgeon (who ran a clinic in his house and performed throat operations in a room next to his sitting room), and two of his clients came in and bowed to him before they bowed to us monks. They really got down on their knees for it, too. In the villages near my cave monastery in upper Burma there are festivals held in honor of everyone in the village at least seventy years of age; they offer them a feast and gifts, and then they sincerely bow to them and ask for their blessings. Even the standard respect of one person for another, at least in village culture, is remarkable. It helps to explain why the Burmese don't care all that much about their appearance (unless maybe they are trying to attract a mate); people accept them even if they have a pot belly, one milky white eye, and missing or black teeth. And even the village idiot or crazy person is treated with a certain dignity, even if he gets really difficult sometimes. But in the West, as a general rule, things tend to be different.   
     We are creating an unspiritual modern world for ourselves. The stereotypical Western mind insists upon spiritual destitution, upon a spiritually comatose society that now appears to be in the process of dying. We feel a certain respect for the earth (the likes of which the Burmese do not pretend to understand—that is completely off their scale), yet in general we refuse to stop afflicting this same earth with our energy consumption, waste, and contributions to the birth rate—our convenience is more important than Gaia, or our respect for her/it. We live in a culture in which selfishness and alienation are actually encouraged by the system. We give everyone the same Please, Thank You, I'm Sorry, etc., out of a kind of mechanical, mandatory politeness, yet deep down we really don't trust each other all that much, and try to protect ourselves behind a wall of institutional regulations that don't work, instead of believing in each other, and in the human spirit, the divine spirit honored by the word namaste. But honoring each other, really respecting each other, let alone spiritual teachers, may be our only real chance of survival. The current way doesn't work so well, and is going to stop before much longer, whether we like it or not. Everything is impermanent, and our way of living is becoming impermanenter and impermanenter. 
     So, what do we do? Just saying "Be more respectful" isn't going to work. If you don't have it, you just don't have it, and talking about it is pretty much futile; on the other hand, if you do have it, then talking about it is pretty much still futile, in the sense of unnecessary. I really don't know what is going to happen with modern society. I do suspect, though, that a major change is necessary, and that it may be the result of a nationwide or worldwide crisis, something big enough to knock us out of our convenient ruts, and out from behind our convenient walls and barricades. People won't change until they have no choice. Maybe, after that, respect, including respect for teachers, spirituality, and Dhamma, will come into fashion. Once it's in fashion people will really go for it. But until then, I dunno.
     Anyway, be well and happy, and I hope you're not out there giving me the finger for suggesting that you, and we Westerners in general, are disrespectful.
     I conclude this harangue with a quote from Sai Baba which I have quoted before. He made his point in Hindu terminology, with regard to God in the form of Krishna, but it could easily be translated into the language of any spiritual tradition.
If you take Krishna to be a mere cowherd, a man of the world like others, then for you he will be just a cowherd! You too climb only up to that stage….You will have noticed that Uddhava who looked upon Krishna as his Guru benefitted more than Arjuna who looked upon him as a Sakha, a friend. If you have faith that he is God, He will be God to you; if you dismiss Him as a mere man, He takes on that role and becomes useless for you. Search for Him with the heart, not with the eye for externals. The superpower has to be sought in the super-state itself, not in the lower states. Then, if you have the eyes that are fit to see and the wisdom to understand, you will find Him. 

I'm pretty sure this isn't the picture
that got the New Zealand guy thrown into prison, 
but the one I think is the right one is so ugly
(lurid pink, with thick, ugly features)
that I don't want to publish it on this blog

Appendix: A Few Pointers on Buddhist Etiquette

     Even if we Westerners are "respect retards," at least we can learn some simple good manners from a traditional Buddhist point of view. Remember that, even though they are not Western manners, still one will appear like a rude and/or ignorant barbarian to those with a more traditional attitude if one ignores them. One may even unnecessarily offend people, or undermine one's own credibility as a Buddhist.

~Don't offer to shake hands with a monk or nun. It's better just to put your palms together in front of you and smile (especially if you don't feel like bowing).

~Don't point your feet at anyone, especially at a monk, nun, teacher, or elderly person, or at a Buddha image, Buddhist text, or anything else which could be considered sacred.

~Don't sit on a seat higher than a monk, nun, teacher, or elderly person; and if you yourself are elderly or injured and just can't sit on the floor, at least explain the situation and ask permission first.

~Don't sit listening to a Dhamma talk with your knees up, hugging them. (It shows one's butt to the teacher, and there's actually a rule against teaching someone who is sitting that way.)

~Don't even touch a monastic of the opposite gender—especially if you don't know their attitude on such matters.

~Don't approach a monk, nun, or teacher with your shoes on if that person is barefoot, especially indoors.

~Don't place Buddha images or scriptures on low or dirty places (like on top of the toilet tank), unless maybe a Buddha image is too huge to place on a shelf.

~Don't help yourself to food that has been offered to a monk or nun (this may seem obvious, but a few people have actually done this with me, even while I was eating it). Ask first, and then offer the food again, since your taking some of it may technically have broken the original offering.

~If you are walking with a monk or nun, don't discuss Dhamma with them if you are walking in front, or if you are walking on the path and the monastic is walking beside it.

~Try to remember that some monastics are relatively very innocent, and many of the remainder are attempting to regain their innocence; so exercise some restraint about what you choose to talk about. Casual conversation between laypeople is often much too irreverent and spicy to be appropriate, especially for Asian monastics that have been ordained since they were children.

~And remember that many monks (probably at least half of the Western ones) don't handle money, and they're simply not going to survive without the generosity of others. To offer food to a monastic is really not all that difficult or expensive, and you gather up treasure in heaven.

I'm sure I've forgotten plenty of important ones, but this is a fair sample. If you know of some crucial ones I've forgotten, feel free to let me know.

(written one year ago, in Yangon


  1. This post was totally right and totally wrong. It was right in that everything in it was true. Burmese Buddhists are more respectful than American Buddhists, and they no doubt gain much meaning and many benefits from it, both on the giving and receiving ends. But it was also like you pitted Bayern Munich against the Seattle Seahawks, then had them play American football. Of course the Seahawks win. And of course Burmese Buddhists look better, when the comparisons are on areas where they have been conditioned to act in certain ways. If the contest is on tackling and receiving, the Seahawks win. And if the criteria is bowing and offering food to monks, Burmese Buddhists look better. But I’m not saying the game was rigged. The Seahawks tackle better not because of trickery, but because they practice and hone these skills. And Burmese Buddhists are better at showing respect in those ways because their culture values and requires it.

    The post was totally wrong because you could use different criteria and come up with the opposite answer. I could say that Americans respect each other enough to provide everyone with clean water (sorry Flint), functional electricity and indoor plumbing. Americans respect each other enough to provide the poor and unfortunate with a relatively strong safety net. Americans respect each other enough to run their government in a way that everyone can voice an opinion on how it should operate. Sadly, these things are not available to many, possibly most, people in Myanmar.

    Note, I did not say this means Burmese don’t respect each other enough, because that statement would be wrong. I do think respect is a factor in the relative success of the American system, but I also recognize that comparing the availability of clean water in both countries and then concluding Americans respect each other more would be majorly off base.

    But I want to go even further and defend the respect shown by my fellow spiritual Americans, including Buddhists. I have never been a monk in a Burmese village or an American city, so our experiences have different contexts for what it means to show and receive respect. Nevertheless, I can say with full confidence that I rarely feel so respected and valued than when I spend time with spiritual Americans, Buddhists included. I have some experience in East Asian spiritual communities, and I have found them to be colder and more hierarchical. I have a very small amount of experience in Burmese spiritual communities, where I felt very respected and valued, at least on par with U.S. communities. I would even include extremely new-agey Americans in this ultra-respectful and -loving crowd. I have many problems with these types of people, but I have found them to be some of the most respectful people on the planet.

    I also question the inherent value of such respect. If you traveled back to the America of the 1840s, you would find a society much more willing to show the forms of respect you describe. No, they didn’t get on their knees and bow, but it is safe to say the idea of respecting and providing for religious figures was much more ingrained. I can picture a home where everyone attended church weekly, the family Bible had an honored place on an ornate reading stand, significant donations were given to support the local church and missionary work, and no family member would ever treat a visiting clergyman with anything less than reverent formality. And then I can picture walking outside this home and encountering the dozen human beings the family kept in slavery to obtain their economic success. Am I equating respect for religion with slavery? Of course not. My point is, I don’t know how to value the kind of respect you describe in a vacuum. Context seems so important.

    I concede your point about American Buddhists being unwilling to offer material support. But this says nothing about American culture, since there are many thousands of (non-Buddhist) religious figures supported purely by donations in the USA. But it does say something unflattering about American Buddhist culture.

    1. How about totally right and partially wrong.

      I agree with your idea that New Age people are more open-hearted, accepting, and respectful than the average Western person, regardless of any strange ideas they may accept. I have also interacted with one or two Christian people over the past few years who are more obviously sympathetic and respectful than the average joe. I think this is largely based upon a world view that still allows that materialism is inadequate, and that people contain an element of divinity, regardless of whether it is articulated as such. With an extraverted, materialistic world view, which Westerners have to a greater degree than the average inhabitant of earth, respect loses an entire dimension; it loses respect in the sense contained in the word namaste. So mainly it represents a more intellectual sentiment of egalitarianism. Genuine interpersonal respect is drastically reduced in the West due to the alienation of the cultural world view. And as a Westerner myself, I must admit to being handicapped in this sense also, so I'm not exactly trying to pick on Westerners.

      I fail to see how electricity, filtered running water, and a welfare state are necessarily manifestations of respect. The welfare state in particular could be argued to represent less actual respect, not more: it foists the responsibility of personal altruism onto an impersonal government agency, so that the average person doesn't have to bother with it.

      This post is admittedly somewhat of an outtake, rather like a song on Led Zeppelin's album "Coda." I put off posting it for a year because it always seemed too negative or uninspired or something. But it wasn't so bad that I could bring myself to delete it. And now the blog has reached coda stage, so I finally posted it. I think that essentially the same ideas are probably better expressed in different posts, like in "Believing in Each Other: A Heresy."

    2. My point about running water, etc. was not that those things are proof of greater respect among Americans. I do think respect is a factor in creating systems that runs smoothly. Corruption, neglect, and indifference all involve a lack of respect in certain ways, and would lead to poorer outcomes in the areas I mentioned. However, my point was that clearly respect is not the only factor in having clean water. If you look at the behavior of Burmese Buddhists, they are certainly respectful, but there are many other factors encouraging that behavior, some of which are negative (social pressure, guilt, etc.). So if you look at a behavior (like bowing) where all the factors are aligned to encourage it, of course you are going to conclude that Burmese Buddhists are more respectful.

      That said, just because respect might be more evident in different areas in different cultures, I think sentiments like in your post are important to express. Things like respect and generosity are extremely deep, and it is good to explore unfamiliar aspects of them.

  2. Mahatma, or Brotha or Dude, whatever the Honorific of the moment is let me interject a concept at this juncture: If after reading the above post from Mr. Anonymous you still think this venture into pixelated Dharma is without merit you are mistaken.

    And on another note, watching the Seahawks kick ass and take names is a thing of beauty. I have growled and scratched and hemorrhaged in this ritual and it is cathartic;I think the Romans were onto something.


  3. There is much to say on this subject. But I shall only say that Dr. Rina Sircar cannot visit the monks when they do ceremony because her health inhibits her from sitting that way. She is an extremely noble being whose presence and impact on reality exceeds perhaps even a Sangharja. I will not continue to explain what my rational intelligence thinks of this.