Ethnic Buddhism


Much trouble that Buddhism stirs in the West stems from what I call “Ethnic Buddhism”. Those who adept to it (not always consciously) attach to the special characteristics of a Tibetan, Japanese or whatever country’s Buddhism. They are then easily convinced that initiation into ceremonies like “Kalachakra” (done by the Dalai Lama e.g. in Switzerland for a mass of people at the same time) or “Phowa” (where you might get into contact with the dead) is necessary and, of course, has to be paid for. The zen fraction, traveling from one sesshin to the next, is not much better, and to have a say there you better bring up some enlightenment or certification (also at the same time some do not hesitate to quote that “zazen is good for nothing” or you do not meditate to reach any goal). Another ethnic element is the recitation, often in languages that the adepts do not speak (but beware, it gets more ridiculous if you translate them, as Shasta Abbey has, and publish a whole liturgy that comes in books like the hymnbooks in church). You may think twice before you follow a guy who opposed the CIA (Thich Nhat Hanh) and lets his nuns wear Vietnamese shawls, or one who worked hand in hand with the CIA (Dalai Lama) and who travels with bodyguards and in armored cars  although claiming to know that he will die “at about 90” . So what is Buddhist practice about, someone asked in a forum?

It is about dropping addictions and overcoming barriers. Developing helping hands and brains. Accepting sorrow and pain (and thus, for example, abbreviating the “steps of remorse”). Cutting unhealthy relationships. Sharing possession. Realizing responsible (though maybe uncommon) sexuality. Searching for constructive work. It is active, not passive.

Shenhui (670-762), dharma-heir of Huineng an an apologet of sudden enlightenment, once answered to the question what sitting in meditation is: “To teach people to sit … is to obstruct bodhi (i.e. enlightenment). When I say ‘sit’ now, [I mean that] ‘sitting’ is for thoughts not to be activated. When I say ‘meditation’ now, [I mean that] ‘meditation’ is to see the fundamental nature. Therefore, I do not teach people to have their bodies sit and their minds abide in entrance into concentration. If it were correct to declare such a teaching, then Vimalkirti would not have scolded Shariputra for sitting in meditation.”*

Don’t be surprised that Shenhui’s lineage did not survive long, it was just too original. (But the old masters didn’t care, Fayun (d. 766) answered to the question if the Buddha’s teaching had been transmitted to him: “I have a sandalwood image of the Buddha to which I pay reverence.”)  In old zen we find the reason why it is possible to be ‘enlightened’ without any study of the Palicanon or any formal meditation, why so many non-Buddhists come to similar conclusions as zen masters. What then was ‘wisdom’ for the old zen masters? “When the mind does not activate on the basis of the eye’s perception of form, this is fundamental wisdom. … If realization [of the transcendence of body and mind] were not first, then knowing and perception would be completely defiled. Know clearly that the autonomous [spontaneity of] knowing and perception is attained after that realization and is called successive wisdom.”** So to be wise one has to realize transcendent first, than he/she will spontaneously know and perceive. Look for yourself if the agents of Ethnic Buddhism have done so.

*(in “Seeing through Zen” by John McRae, Berkeley 2003, p. 54, a book which has some flaws in overlooking the findings of what McRae calls ‘Proto-Chan’ and I see as the real early chan, described by Jeffrey Broughton, and in overlooking the martial arts tradition in Chinese Chan temples like the Shaolin where monks could actually be armored, see the studies of Meir Shahar)

** (dito, p. 89)

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