Looking to the Future
A Dharma Talk by Maha Candana Karuna / I.B.M.C. Dharma Teacher
12-28-08 - International Buddhist Meditation Center

This is the last Sunday Dharma talk of 2008. In past years, Ven. Karuna has often spoken on this Sunday about New Year’s resolutions and the wisdom of avoiding them. I’d like to talk about a different kind of resolution, intrinsic to Buddhism.

Three weeks ago, I was given full ordination as an I.B.M.C. Dharma Teacher which is a form of really big resolution, of ever re-forming intent and purpose.

If you were here that day, thank you. Attending an ordination is a bit like being at a wedding: you may not realize it, but you are not simply an observer – you are making witness – you are offering support by your very presence. Thank you.

During my ordination, I took 25 precepts. Precepts, themselves, are very much like resolutions in that they are statements of conscious intent, rather than commandments or vows which will bring down heaven if they are broken. Ven. Shanti told me, back when I first took Refuge, that I would break precepts before the day was out. He was right; he’s always right about that. It was true then and it was true on December 7th. It has been true almost every day since, and if I say “almost every day” it is only that on some days I haven’t been paying enough attention!

Precepts are resolutions or intentions that are re-formed again and again, over a very long time.

Precept practice is exhausting and invigorating. It’s been said that precepts are not only prescriptive of the Buddhist way, but they are descriptive of the life on the 8-fold path. I’ve thought quite a bit about precepts and have had many questions, personally or posed to me. Since my ordination I’ve been asked about my 25 precepts, what are they? Are they secret? Why?

There is an historic tradition that precepts are revealed only to those who become candidates to take them, so that as one advances in Buddhist ordination, one learns each succeeding level. It’s one of the few esoteric (meaning “hidden” or intended only for a specific group) aspects of Buddhism as I have learned to practice it. And, as with most of the Buddhism I have learned here at IBMC, it seems more confusing the more you know. Which is one of the reasons many precepts are secret: they sound simple and straightforward, but are complex and nuanced. To understand, you need to know the stories behind them, the applications, the culture they came from, the way they are followed and what happens when they are not.

But there is an exoteric (or public) aspect to the precepts. You may know that when one first becomes a Buddhist by taking Refuge, one takes five precepts, variously worded, but boiling down to these:

1) not to take life,
2) not to take what is not given,
3) not to indulge in improper sexuality,
4) not to speak falsely and
5) not to become intoxicated.

These precepts probably weren’t much of a secret at any time, although it’s easy to misunderstand some of the distinctions without in-depth study and guidance. Precepts are taken voluntarily. If you have been at an ordination here at IBMC, you may have noticed that the preceptor tells the ordainee that he or she does not have to take all the precepts, and if unable to commit to any, to remain silent for that precept. I’ve often thought that precepts should only be given to groups; although I was able to commit to each of my 25 precepts, I wondered how the silence of a reluctant ordainee would echo and, perhaps, build.

Most branches agree on those first five precepts, but with the onset of Mahayana Buddhism some of the subsequent precepts changed: specific wording, order, number total and placement, as well as application vary. The story behind the precepts is that, first, the Buddha simply gave the Dharma, but he had to develop precepts when members of the Sangha acted against or in ways that were perceived as contrary to the Dharma. When you take into account that Buddhism was entirely oral for some 400 years and that it has been translated through so many languages and cultures in the 2500 years since Buddha’s death, any consistency is amazing.

After taking Refuge, there is a higher lay ordination called attanga-sila, or 8 precepts. At IBMC, the first five of the 8 are the same as those taken in Refuge, and the next three are based upon Theravadan precepts as recorded from Early Buddhism. These are different from Mahayana precepts and are kind of a secret in that they are not listed in our liturgy or literature here at IBMC. You can find them on the internet. You can find lists of all of the precepts on the internet; sometimes it seems as if you can Google anything.

The next step is to commit to “leaving home” by taking s’ramanera/s’ramanerika ordination with 10 precepts: the first five plus five more which are pretty much common knowledge today, although they differ whether Theravadan or Mahayanan.

Today, some traditions simply take 10 precepts, no more, but in most Buddhist temples, taking 10 precepts means becoming a novice, a “little” monk or nun, one who would truly leave home, take vows of celibacy and commit to the religious life.

Why “leaving home”? Originally this meant to become a mendicant, one who wandered, without worldly goods or cares, supported by foraging and charity. The term for monk, bhikku/bhikkuni refers to begging. Although there are still forest monks who adhere to the mendicant model, modern Buddhism has become a temple-based monastic community and, within this model, to take s’ramanera/s’ramanerika precepts usually means the person will seek high ordination as a bhikkhu/bhikkhuni, taking 227 precepts if a monk or 348 precepts if a nun. Again, the number of precepts may vary. For example, some monasteries use the word “monks” for both men and women as monks and have adjusted the number of precepts.

Japanese Buddhism moved away from the s’ramanera/s’ramanerika standard, largely through political intercession or intra-Buddhist territoriality. Very simplistically, Meiji politics “encouraged” monks to marry, starting the priest order. Then various political power-grabs resulted in schisms where groups disagreed on precepts or divested from those associated with a particular sect. Zen’s insistence on a “transmission outside of scripture” loosened the hold of the Vinaya. Although there are Japanese priests who are celibate, many are not; in fact, the priesthood at certain temples have become a patriarchal perquisite, passed down by father to son.

IBMC offers another s’ramanera/s’ramanerika path, that of the Dharma Teacher. We are a “grafted” form of cleric, committed to spreading the Dharma out in the world. As the IBMC website says:

“Ven. Thien-An's vision of his work in the U.S. was to bring Buddhism into another culture, as always adapting to the national values and understandings. He understood the American mind and culture and had a sense of how the practice needed to differ for Americans to develop. He mentioned often how the West would eventually bring Buddhism back to the East…Suto's vision of Buddhism in America included a softening of the lines between different Buddhist traditions, and the Center has always included teachers from Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, as well as monks and students from many different countries. He encouraged interfaith as well as interBuddhist activities, and provided opportunities for students who wished to become an I.B.M.C. Dharma Teacher and continue to live the householder's life, rather than becoming monastics.”

I am profoundly grateful to Dr. Thien-An’s vision and the opportunity he and Ven. Karuna have provided to me and others unwilling or unsuited to the Monastic life.

I identified with Buddhism when I was nine years old. I read a book by Alan Watts and thought, “Yes, this is how it is. This is true to my experience of life,” (this from what little I knew at age nine). I remember telling my visiting uncle Eddie, who was an anthropologist specializing in Japanese fishing village culture, that I was a Buddhist and was studying Zen. He took me seriously and asked if I was practicing zazen, a totally new term to me, and thus gently pushed me from an interesting intellectual pursuit to the application of sitting on the mat. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the two ever since, trying to integrate them within living Zen.

For a long time, I held a secret thought that I, like many Buddhist householders would eventually, after obligations to family and work have been filled, leave home and become a nun. I thought I would like to do that, eventually. Someday. It’s still possible. I could take celibate vows and train in the Vinaya as a novice nun. It’s possible. But after spending the last several years here at IBMC, I can tell you that’s probably not in my future, even under the Americanized version of monasticism found in this community. The sheer number and literal implication of the nun’s precepts indicate to me that I would make a very bad nun. I doubt if my husband, David, would be thrilled at the idea. In truth, he’s the one who opened my mind to the possibility of becoming a Dharma Teacher.

He was driving the car when I told him that I finally was going to take Refuge, formally become a Buddhist, after 40-some years of practice, and he glanced over at me, with a slightly worried expression, and said, “You’re not going to have to shave your head or anything, are you?” I laughed and said, “Oh, no, of course not, it’s just….” Meanwhile, my brain stopped and stuttered and I realized that at IBMC I did have an option to shave my head (although I hadn’t particularly thought of that as a good thing). It wasn’t the shaved head that called me, although I’ve learned to value that discipline and outward symbol.

No, it was a deep resonance, a “Yes, this is how it is. This is my experience of life,” that echoed back to 1963 Ven. Karuna told our Dharma Teacher, Rev. Maitri Dasi, in her Tricycle interview, “Ven. Thich Thien-An introduced an additional ordination as a Dharma teacher. This ordination compares to the Japanese Zen tradition. So, a person taking full ordination at I.B.M.C. has the choice of taking traditional bhikkhu/bhikkhuni ordination or Dharma Teacher ordination. These ordinations are on the same level. The candidates receive the same training as bhikkhus, except for Vinaya studies, and are ordained in the same ceremony.”

There was a possibility of ordination for me, and I took it when I felt the call. Where will it lead? Honestly, I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my ordination.

Ven. Karuna has said, “…if you want to be more like a missionary type, out there with the people, not living in a temple, it’s best that you take the 25.” Do I want to be a missionary type? Only insomuch as I want to be out in the world. One of my 25 precepts involves not speaking Mahayana teachings without being asked; which is such a relief! I have a great disinclination to proselytize.

I’m working in the interfaith peace movement but I don’t know what I’ll be doing in the future. For the time being, I’m considering where I am now: emotionally, physically and spiritually. I have spent many years going to different teachers & temples, all the while reading, studying, meditating and talking to Buddhists, and I have felt most comfortable here at IBMC.

I’ve often asked myself why I feel such commitment here, halfway across town where the parking sucks, when community shows its less-attractive underbelly or when I find that I, myself, have proved so very unskillful, with my spiritual warts and all. Some of it harks back to Dr. Thien-An’s vision of an inclusive Buddhism, where dogma isn’t prescriptive, but individual, and respect is allied with compassion. Some is the honor I owe and the fondness I hold for Ven. Karuna and for her continuing ministry and ordination in the face of Buddhist doctrinal sexism, homophobia and general intransigence. Some of it is related to the people here, each and all of you, and to someone who is not here today.

December 7, 2008, was not only my ordination, but it will also be known as the day Ven. Karuna named Ven. Vajra Karuna as her first Dharma Heir. When Ven. Karuna made the announcement, I had a realization that I’ve carried around with me ever since. I had expected to be changed by ordination. I’d been working, looking forward to it, and expected some feeling of completion? I don’t know: validation? relief?

I didn’t notice at the time, but what I felt was that I was the same person, living the same life. What changed was that I was the same and I saw it.

What changed was that my reaction to the Dharma Heir announcement was pure mudita or sympathetic joy, rejoicing at the simple rightness of the choice, rejoicing in being a part of honoring Ven. Vajra and Ven. Karuna.

Ven. Karuna has given a form of Dharma transmission to others in that she has given the red robe, the symbol that a Dharma Teacher, bhikkhu or bhikkhuni has been fully ordained for five years or more, and has been authorized to teach on their own and to perform the ceremonies of giving precepts within our Americanized Vietnamese Zen tradition.

However, Dharma Heir is the highest form of Dharma transmission. Ven. Karuna formally identifies Ven. Vajra to carry on her lineage, the link from master to master that we’re told goes straight back to the Buddha. This is a very big thing in Zen; she is validating his insight and his teachings. She is designating him as # 1 Son of her Dharma, her spiritual heir. It’s mind-blowing. And my experience of joy in that moment resonates within me still: it’s right and it’s true to my experience.

However, Dharma Heir does not mean that Ven. Vajra is next up to run IBMC, as some people have thought. The spiritual heir does not necessarily “inherit” the temple, and Ven. Vajra plans to retire. In fact, at this point, both Ven. Karuna and Ven. Vajra have announced their intentions of “retiring,” which can mean various things and is, of course, subject to reinterpretation by either or both of them.

It’s hard for me to envision IBMC without them. I remind myself to try to look to the future with a “don’t know” mind, not to become attached to outcomes, to preconceptions that things will be as they have been or that they will change or that they will even continue. Everything changes, and changes are in the works at IBMC. Plans and contingencies are being considered. For example, Ven. Karuna has announced the establishment of a nunnery on the ground floor of Thien-An house to coincide with Vinaya training for the nuns. This is very exciting.

I wonder what is the future for the Dharma Teachers, here and in the world? We’re sort of betwixt and between: outsiders, yet parts of the temple. Not dependent on the temple for our livelihood; in fact, we support it. Because of this, I think of myself as lay-clergy, but usually call myself a Zen Priest, because there are pitfalls in taking ordination as a Dharma Teacher.

In the Buddha’s time, there were householders and those who had left home, not much in between. In other Buddhist traditions, there are Dharma teachers, with a small “t,” who are honored, trained and authenticated, but they are laypeople, not considered clergy. Even the term “priest” is relatively new to Buddhism; some are uncomfortable with it. When Rev. Maitri Dasi interviewed Ven. Karuna about the recognition of the Dharma Teacher ordination, Ven. Karuna told her:

“I have no idea if they [Dharma Teachers] are accepted worldwide. Some of my Sri Lankan friends say that we’ve added another level of ordination. But they accept when I tell them that I see Dharma Teachers as being on the same level as bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. That’s the way I look at it and that’s the way Dr. Thien-An looked at it. I have no idea how everybody else looks at it.”

And I, personally, can’t tell you how everybody looks at it, but I have found that some Buddhists, particularly those with a strong monastic tradition, view it with suspicion or discount it. Perhaps it would have been easier to simply be identified as a lesser ordination, but it is what Rev. Maitri Dasi and Ven. Karuna call “Dr. Thien-An’s revolutionary change.” Change is integral to Buddhist theory; change is omnipresent in Buddhist history.

My own status and legitimacy as an I.B.M.C. Dharma Teacher only concerns me in passing. I am a small fish in a big pond, with no interest in claiming Dharma superiority or accumulating some kind of power.

How many of us can honestly say that we exactly practice the original Dharma? Precepts are broken and renewed daily. Buddhism recreates itself as a living faith.

Ordination was simply the right thing for me to do and I am grateful. Now, I will simply follow the path as well as I, a householder who has “left home,” am able.

Everything changes. I am the same and I have changed; I feel as if something has swept through me and, although I can’t see the future, I will meet it.

I began by talking about the new year and, obliquely, about resolutions. We have less than a week until the Western New Year. However, if we go by the lunar calendar used in Vietnam and China, the Year of the Earth Ox begins on January 26th. In that tradition, it is important to begin the New Year afresh – clean, neat and in good repair. Only things which are useful and valued are kept, and they are brought out and enjoyed along with the new. We have plenty of time to clean out our expectations, tossing regrets and resentments. We can take these weeks:

to rediscover our joys,
to rededicate our intention to keep the precepts,
to prepare to meet and make changes.