When the Buddha died at the age of 80, he had complete control over his doctrine. If anybody had a question about what he meant or what they were supposed to do, they could access the Buddha or his monks and get an answer.
Buddha, as I'm sure with Christ,
There was no debate, only dialogue. The Buddha, as I'm sure with Christ, had the answers and was the ultimate authority when he was alive.
But, as everyone must, the Buddha died, his relics were distributed, and the philosophers and practitioners got together and said, "Well, what did the Buddha really mean?"
Do you know how that works? It probably doesn't happen as often in Christianity --
PARTICIPANTS: Oh, oooooh.
REV. KUSALA: Good. I'm glad that's the case.
So we have that in common. It wasn't long after the Buddha died that eighteen different schools of Buddhism arose, eighteen different ways of looking at what the founder said, what he meant, and how to practice it.
Today there is only one of those 18 original schools left, it is called the Theravada, "Doctrine of the Elders." That is what I have been sharing with you this week, the teachings of the earliest school of Buddhism.
It's the one I'm most attracted to, I feel it's the one most closely linked to what the historical Buddha said and did, when he was alive.
Buddhism didn't just stay in India. Everybody suffers, so the Buddha sent his monks and nuns throughout the world carrying the message of why we suffer, and how to end suffering.
When Buddhism made its way to China, it got mixed with Taoism and Confucianism. The Buddhism of China is much different from the Buddhism of India. But they say, and there is a lot of truth to this, Buddhism is nondogmatic and the diversity of Buddhism found in the world today lends some truth to that statement.
When monks started to write down what the Buddha said, the Buddhist world changed dramatically, now lay people had access to the original teachings. Until then, the only people with access to the original teachings were the monks and nuns, their job was to memorize, recite, and teach.
Before the books, one monastery might learn the rules, the Vinaya. Another monastery the Majjhima Nikaya, the middle length sayings, and a third monastery might learn something like the Anguttara Nikaya, still another section of the Suttras. When monks and nuns wanted to hear all the teachings, they would gather and recite.
500 years or so after the Buddha's death, Buddhism went through a reformation. In some ways, like the Protestant reformation, it became known as the Mahayana, the great vehicle. The Theravada became known as the Hinayana. Hinayana means small vehicle. You can see the tension building between the orthodox and the reform, between -- yes, yes, I'll stop there.
I don't want to get too carried away with all this. Okay.
Now, Buddhism was doing well in China, and it moved into Vietnam, Korea, over to Japan, and became known as Northern Buddhism.
___The Theravada school is considered Southern Buddhism.___
The Theravada school of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, etc., is Southern Buddhism. In around the sixth century AD Buddhism finally made it over the Himalayas and into Tibet, it became known as the Vajrayana, the diamond vehicle. Vajrayana Buddhism brought Theravada and Mahayana together and added some of their own stuff, it's a really unique kind of Buddhism. Buddhism seems to change in every culture.
In the late 1800s, early 1900s, Buddhism came to America. It came for the most part because people from Japan and China moved to America to find work and make a living. The first temples were small and only for ethnic Buddhists.
It seems to me, a real turning point came about when Jack Kerouac, you know his story, and the other guys and gals from the beat generation of the '40s and '50s, when they found Zen. Zen seemed to give permission to live in a free and almost careless way.
Well, that worked for a while. The scholarship back in the '50s and '60s, I can see now by comparison, was lacking in some ways, but it must have been fun and inspiring to be on that cutting edge.
One of my favorite teachers from the 60's was Alan Watts. He had such a great voice, and a really good sense of humor. Anybody with an English accent immediately sounds intelligent to me.
Alan Watts would weave stories, personal insights, and the Dharma in a very special way, he would laugh and joke, I really liked the way he understood Buddhism.
But, one of the problems as I see it, with the Buddhism of the 40's, 50's, and even the 60's, was the lack of self limitation. A lot of folks in the 40's, 50's, and 60's who came to Buddhism, just sort of pushed all the precepts aside, and sat down to meditate.
I can't talk about the 60's without talking a little bit about the hippies and psychedelics.
There is a wonderful story about Ram Dass, a famous spiritual teacher. On one of his return trips from India, he gave a talk in San Francisco. The room was filled with people who looked very much like he did -- a lot of hair, dressed in white cotton, and wearing prayer beads.
Ram Dass was speaking about his psychedelic experiences, his yoga and his meditation practice, all the different ways he explored what it meant to be him. But there in the front row, was this little old lady, she had black lace-up shoes on, and a straw hat with fake fruit.
As she listened to Ram Dass, she nodded in agreement. Now Ram Dass picked up on this, and couldn't believe she understood what he was talking about. At the end of a Ram Dass lecture, it is customery to line up and give Ram Dass a hug. I've had the good fortune of seeing him a couple of times, and even given a few hugs.
Well, now, this little old lady is about to hug Ram Dass, and Ram Dass just has to ask. He says, "Did you really understand what I was talking about?" She said, "Oh, yes, and you said it so well." He said, "But how do you know? How do you know these things?" And she said, "I crochet."
There are many paths to enlightenment.
The '60s and '70s were a fun time for a lot of folks. It was a time of exploration. Young men and women all over America were challenging their intellect and their intuition, with chemicals. Some lost their way and didn't make it. The chemical path to enlightenment is a tricky one, and it may not even work at all, as far as I can tell. The meditation, discipline, and wisdom of the Buddhist path is gradual, useful, and time tested.
Some people still advocate drugs as a way of changing consciousness and attaining freedom?
I think, if you need drugs to gain liberation, it's not really true freedom, just another kind of prison. The Buddhist path starts with a foundation of morality and ethics, adds the vehicle of meditation and wisdom, which allows access to a totally new way of being the world. A way of being free and at peace.
I also think in the late '70s and up to the end of the '80s, a giant spurt in American Buddhist scholarship happened.
the year 2003
In 2003 we have many Buddhist monks and nuns born, educated, trained, and ordained right here in America. They are now writing about their experiences for a Western audience, and in some cases even retranslating Buddhist texts. In the future Westerners may even bring Buddhism back to Asia. Wouldn't that be cool!
PDP: The American translation, is it any different?
REV. KUSALA: Yes, in the sense that the authors culture is in there somewhere. Buddhist scholarship in the West is second to none.
One of my favorite translators is Bhikkhu Bodhi, I believe he was born in New York, and now lives in Sri Lanka. He retranslated the Majjhima Nikaya, and many other important texts.
I find the new translations more accessible. I might be culturally prejudiced, but I like the idea we are writing about Buddhism in a Western way. In every other country Buddhism has changed, why should it be any different here?
Every year for the last nine years there has been a Western Monastic Conference, some of the pictures from the last one can be found on my web site- www.urbandharma.org.
These are young men and women -- well, young and old-- have come together, ordained in various traditions, because there is no American Buddhism. You see Tibetan robes, Vietnamese robes, Korean robes, Thai Forest robes, etc.
They come together to talk about what it means to be a Buddhist monk or nun in America. It's realistic to say that monks and nuns in the West are in the process of defining an American Buddhist monastic system. In the West we have different issues... Where do Buddhists monks and nuns go when they get old? What do they do for health care, etc.
A lot of monks and nuns I've talked to don't even have health care. They rely on lay people for support, doctors and dentists from their temples and center to help them. If you are a Vietnamese monk, and you have a toothache, you go to a Vietnamese dentist.
IBMC the center I live and work at, gives me health insurance. Most centers don't or can't do that, I'm very lucky to live at the IBMC.
In the West we're trying to figure out how to provide for the monastics in their old age, and keep them healthy when they're young, so they can continue to teach and practice.
MGC: When you said you don't have American Buddhism yet, but is this what you are developing right now? Is that the idea?
REV. KUSALA: Yes, I think that's the case.
MGC: What will it take to have it, so to speak?
REV. KUSALA: Well first of all, we need to have our own robes. That's why I alluded to blue denim the other day in a humorous way. We need our own robes. We need to have our own identity, if you will.
___We need our own robes.___
Now, when you look at what Americans usually do, they sort of take a lot of different ingredients and stir them up, the great melting pot, you know. So, I've got a feeling that we're going to take the best parts of the various Buddhist traditions, put them together, and come up with something pretty unique.
We're going to have more equality between men and women in American Buddhism than you find in Asia, thats for sure. It may take changing some of the traditional precepts, but the Buddha gave permission to do things like that.
KM: I have several questions about Europe, Australia, and Africa. Are they like America in that there are different groups of Buddhists but there is not, you know, like a French Buddhism movement or Nigerian Buddhism?
REV. KUSALA: Exactly. Same thing. Maybe we need a European Buddhism as opposed to an American Buddhism, or maybe we need both. You're right, they don't have Australian Buddhism either, with their own robes and stuff.
KM: What about Africa, such a huge continent? Christianity has had such a enormous growth there.
REV. KUSALA: I'm not aware of any African Buddhism.
SR. MEG: I want to interject here, what Kusala is doing, is keeping it orthodox. There are Buddhist groups that keep it simple. But it's just like the cover of the book, rather than the orthodox teaching, which is what Kusala is doing in contemporary language.
REV. KUSALA: Thank you. I don't want to change the Dharma. I don't want to oversimplify the Dharma, and make it something it's not. I just want to make it understandable.
MM: Don't you think one of the ways Buddhism is reaching a variety of people is through the prisons?
REV. KUSALA: Yes, Buddhism is alive and well in the prison system.
MGC: The comparison between the monk and a lay person, is this similar to the Christian?
REV. KUSALA: I think so. In America there are fewer people who want to be monks it seems, and more people who want to be Dharma teachers. A Dharma teacher would be more like a minister or pastor, and the monk more like a Catholic priest.
SR. MEG: Really more like the Catholic monk.
MGC: You don't have priests as such, right? You don't have that distinction, right?
REV. KUSALA: Not really, but some Japanese Buddhist monks may be more like priests, they are oftentimes married, have families, and drink.
SR. MEG: Yes, some priests can marry and drink.
SR. MEG: Except in the Roman Catholic tradition, but there is nothing intrinsic to being priests that you can't marry. If the Pope would change that rule tomorrow, all the priests could get married, but none of the monks.
So, it's constitutive of our monastic life to be a celibate monastic, renunciants, but not of the priests and the pastors and the Dharma teachers.
REV. KUSALA: We have both Dharma teachers and monks at our Buddhist center. It takes the same amount of time to be a monk or Dharma teacher at our center, but there are different precepts to follow and ways to live in the world. The precepts of a Dharma Teacher allow him or her to live in the world pretty much in a normal way.
But, if we take monasticism out of Buddhism, and only have Dharma Teachers, it's no longer Buddhism. We may need to have both in the West. I live differently than a lay person or Dharma teacher, and I'm going to have a different perspective on Buddhism because of that. Buddhism in the West will need both the Dharma teacher perspective, and the monastic perspective in order to be effective.
LH: I wanted to just make sure I understand. You have monks and Dharma teachers, and you would then make the distinction that Dharma teachers are lay?
REV. KUSALA: Yes. An advanced lay person, or in some cases ex-monks and nuns.
LH: But are they also paralleling in some respects priests within --
KM: Are they analogous to oblates? Sort of like weekend monks, would that be analogous to oblates?
___Are they analogous to oblates? Sort of like weekend monks___
SR. MEG: Yes, right, because they are not taking the monastic spirituality. They are taking a pastoral spirituality, more apostolic. I think the Hindu tradition of householder and renunciant might be a good dividing line. The householder, everything that requires, would be your weekend pastors, your weekend supply. But the renunciants pretty much are the monks and nuns.
Now, there is a big variety among the monks and nuns. Some are under abbots. Some live in communities. The vows may be different, but still I think the householder and renunciant would be a good example of this.
Would you agree with that?
Rev. Kusala: Yes.
EE: Is there a relationship between the Buddhists and the Ba'Hai?
REV. KUSALA: There is an interreligious relationship between the Buddhists and Ba'Hai. There is a strong interreligious community in Los Angeles. But the theolgy and practice is very different.
REV. KUSALA: Yes I would be happy to. Before I was ordained, I would go on more retreats than I do now. It seems I do more Dharma work than retreats these days, but that's a good thing. I was meditating, and doing retreats and experiencing unitive states of consciousness and saying to myself, "Gosh, we're all the same. There is no difference. Men, women, Christians, Buddhists, we are all one. We are all the same. Life is so beautiful."
Well that way of thinking fell apart when I asked this girl out on a date. I had just started to meditate and was seeing the world in a much different way. So, I'm talking to her about, "Gosh, we're all the same. Isn't life wonderful? Look, there's no differences at all." Well, halfway through our date, she says, "Why did you ask me out, if we are all the same?" She was starting to get angry. So I think to myself, she's right I'm not allowing her to be a woman. I'm not allowing myself to be a man. Gosh we are different, for some reason I forgot men and women were supposed to be different.
I started to see the importance of diversity, after that date. Now, it could be just role playing, or or culture, or maybe there is a real difference in world view. Whatever the case, it's very important to be separate in relative reality, especially when you're on a date. It allows you to see and hear the other person.
So, ultimate reality is when we are connected but separate, and relative reality is when we are separate but connected.
I started to see how being different is important because it helps define our story, and our story is pretty much who we are, most of the time. Unity and diversity requires both a personal story and a cultural connection. Diversity allows you to keep your personal story, and unity is the way you connect to the culture story, that culture story leads to community.
I dislike the idea of oneness, I always use the word unity instead. Oneness leads to the idea of uniformity as being the ideal. We are all one and there is only one... But sometimes, someone doesn't fit into that oneness... What do we do with that one? Unity makes room for everybody, but still allows for a unique identity. Diversity allows for Self, and Unity allows for Selfless.
Gandhi said, "Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the
beauty and test of our civilization."
MM: In Buddhism you can be married and then ordained and take the vows. In Catholicism, can you do that?
REV. KUSALA: You mean like a deacon?
MM: You can become a monk or a nun?
SR. MEG: Yes, and you can even get married if you are not married at the time. It depends on which order you come in.
MM: In the Buddhist tradition, you can be married, and have children, then later in life decide you want to become a nun.
___Does that happen in the Catholic Church?___
Does that happen in the Catholic Church?
SR. MEG: It does today. We don't take anybody married in our community because you don't have total claim on their primary community. Once you are married and have family, you have another community that takes priority, and it's very difficult to renounce that community. And we say, and why should they? It's just as good as what we have.
It's always been that way among men all the way through tradition. Many a married man has become a monk at Meinrad, or whatever. The problem is with women.
In the Japanese Zen tradition, the monks all get married, and then they go to the temple on weekends. But the woman never can practice. They have to stay home and take care of the children. So, it's still a big problem to work out.
In the United States at this time, we were just hearing on the way here, we don't know any healthy intermarriage monk/nun combination. It seems to break down over and over again, and then they try it again over and over again. It's back to New Harmony, too, the Owenites.
Somewhere along life they have to provide for family and the next generation. There are more natural ways of doing that, I guess.
JO: The Harmonies were celibate; not the Owens, thank God.
SR. MEG: Thank you for that clarification.
REV. KUSALA: At my novice ordination in 1994 there was a Vietnamese family, a husband, wife and daughter. They all took ordination that day, and then went their separate ways after the ceremony.
I'd like to share a story about the Buddha's stepmother and how she became the first nun. The Buddha's stepmother raised him from the age of seven days, because his birth mother died. Eventually her husband the king died, and with no other obligations, she thought it might be good to be a nun.
Now, 2500 years ago if you didn't have a man in your life, you were in dire straits. She went to the Buddha, and said, "Can you ordain me? Can you make me a nun? I have no form of support. I have no man. I want to spend the rest of my life in a religious way."
The Buddha said, "I can't make you a nun because there has never been a nun in any religious tradition. If I ordain you, it might invalidate my teaching, and my teachings are very important to the world." They parted ways.
At the next village, she came up again and said, "But, I have no place to go. I raised you when you couldn't live by yourself. Why can't you make me a nun?" The Buddha said the same thing, "No. I'm sorry, but this teachings are too important. I can't invalidate them."
At the third village, his attendant, Ananda, also his cousin, was there and spoke with her first. She shared with him the story about the other two time she had spoken to the Buddha, and what the results were.
Ananda approached the Buddha, he was a very clever fellow, he asked the Buddha, "Can women achieve enlightenment?" The Buddha said, "Yes, of course."
Ananda said, "So, why can't they be nuns?"
Because of Ananda, the first nun was the Buddha's stepmother.
SR. MEG: We need to clarify. In your tradition, Buddhist tradition, ordained means final vows. It's not priesthood.
REV. KUSALA: Yes, that's right.
___So, ordained means final vows___
SR. MEG: So, ordained means final vows. We are having a meeting on this coming up at the end of May on nuns in the West, and that's one of our issues. By ordination, we mean very different things. Because we all make final vows in Christianity, but we can't be ordained as priests. And they can't either, in many of their lineage's, so they have to cross over to a lineage that has full ordination for women, usually the Chinese lineage.
REV. KUSALA: Okay one more story... So now the Buddha goes into a village, and his son and wife are there. His wife gets an idea, she says to her son, Rahula, "Go ask your dad for your inheritance. He used to be a prince. He had great wealth. Get your inheritance while he's in town."
So, Rahula runs up to his dad and says, "Dad, I want my inheritance." The Buddha ordains him.
So now his wife having lost her husband to Nirvana and her son to ordination, becomes ordained herself. It might sound odd that all his people were getting ordained; but if you are a Buddhist, ordination is a good thing, a really good thing.
Okay, really, just one more story... I remember when my teacher was dying, an an ex-nun whom he had ordained a few years earlier, came by to see him; she still felt very close to him, and wanted to see how he was doing. She had given back the ordination he had given her to get married.
After she left, he looked up at me and said, "Foolish girl, why did she gave back her ordination?"
Sister Meg | Rev. Kusala | Q & A