Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Wine Tasting Sister, Kefraya, Lebanon, 2003
Nathan at Dangerous Harvests has an excellent post about the problems in Buddhist sanghas that have recently come to light. He points out that there appears to be a kind of naiveté about group dynamics in them—it's all about individual practice and responsibility, or some kind of vague institutional oversight, with Brad Warner who sees Zen teachers as artists who should be completely free agents in one corner, and James Ford who wants official certification and oversight in the other.
Weird shit goes down in groups, and extremely weird shit can go down in "spiritual communities" (for want of a better expression). At worst, such groups can degenerate into death cults. Buddhism isn't immune—a Buddhist cult is responsible for the only terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction that have yet happened, after all. Of course, that very rarely happens, but it's still a possibility: religious practice is dangerous stuff, even more so than punk rock or football.
The thing is, there's a massive body of knowledge about precisely group dynamics in spiritual communities right in the middle of the Buddhist tradition. It's so important that it's one of the three "baskets" in the original Pāli Canon. The Vinaya Pitaka.
From where I'm at, the Vinaya Pitaka has been pretty badly neglected among Zen groups in the West. Brad Warner points and laughs at stupid rules that say that yes, you can stop meditating and climb a tree if an elephant attacks you, or no, it isn't a transgression if somebody's having sex with you when you're asleep and don't notice it. Vinaya Masters of old are portrayed as prudish, domineering, and thoroughly inferior monks, compared to, say, Zen Masters—probably even worse than Kitchen Masters who do occasionally get enlightened. We're supposed to be beyond all of that.
We're not. The world has changed a bit since Siddhartha, but people haven't.
I don't think it's practical to apply the Vinaya in excruciating detail to our sanghas. For one thing, it assumes that the people involved are full-time monks, which is not the case in our practice. However, I would expect that a careful reading of the Vinaya Pitaka and its commentaries would reveal a great deal of rather profound understanding of the dynamics of spiritual communities—what goes right, what goes wrong, and so on. Perhaps we could try to apply that knowledge to devise remedies that take into account the rather different form that Western lay practice takes?
I wonder if the Theravadins would have anything to say about this? They know their Vinaya, and they've been running a pretty tight ship for, what, a few thousand years now. What about swallowing our famous Mahayana pride and hiring one of those yellow-robed Hinayana śravakas to consult?
Do Zen communities need a Vinaya Master after all?