March 14, 2011

Buddhism In The West: Lost In Translation? ~Guo Cheen

Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Ancient Wisdom Needed for Contemporary Spirituality.

More harrowing tales of sex scandals, money laundering, power struggles and coercive threats. . .

Apparently Buddhism in the West is no different than any other faith tradition. No matter how developed, an organizational structure comes to embody some aspect of unhealthy cultic dynamics— and the denial of such dynamics, or a lack of awareness of them, is one of the most common indicators of this disease.

Health is restored in acknowledging the gnawing games played, in offering an explanation, an expression of remorse and reparation, and in investing patience, open communication and large doses of the Dharma into long-term healing.

Large doses of the Dharma are glaringly absent in Buddhism in the West despite the pervasiveness of meditation and occasional emergence of sagely teachers. In this cynicism-prone society, we must admit there are role models; however, teachers are of only two types — exemplars and gauges.

According to Advice for Monastics, a compilation of exhortations by Buddhist teachers and specifically referring to Buddhist teachers here: 1. Exemplars are those who are wise and solid in their practice. They are like light in an enclosed room, filtering through the window cracks. 2. Gauges are those who understand but their practices are full of flaws. They are like crooks who light up the Way with a lamp.

Photo: R. M. Calamar

Obviously exemplary teachers are in the minority and rarely recognized as such, not to mention when they are immersed in groupthinking sanghas that condone or support misconduct or misdirection. This has been the case historically with Shakyamuni Buddha and Devadatta, the Sixth Patriarch and Shenxiu.

For modern societies in the West, instructions of ancient sages must henceforth inform our compass. The Great Wisdom Shastra further argues that we must rely on the Dharma and not on individuals. I believe Buddhism will be different in the West if potential Buddhists and Buddhists have access to a substantial number of Buddhist texts in English.

The quality of teachers and sanghas declined in Asia over time because monastics were too often simply going through the motions and engaging in secular affairs in ways more secular than the rest of society. Buddhist monastics in China, in retrospect for example, had enlightened teachers in their midst but continued on a downward spiral.

One of the major reasons for such decline is that many of the monastics were illiterate and received no further education. They had no interest in and ability to understand the wealth of teachings by the Buddha and sages as compiled in the Tripitaka (the triple basket of spoken words by the Buddha, commentaries and moral guidelines). Even to this day, monastics in Asia continue to be less educated; one online statistic on the literacy of monks and nuns in Taiwan is said to be 60% and 16%, respectively.

Buddhists in the West, whether monastic or lay, male or female, have the propensity and literacy to read about different practices, advice and exhortations from the Buddha and sages on those practices and biographies of those who have awakened through those practices. Unfortunately, only a drop in the sea of Buddhist Tripitaka (whether Tibetan, Pali or Chinese Mahayanan) has been made available in English.

To build that bridge between ordinary people and sainthood, the urgent call now is to translate as much of the Buddhist Tripitaka as possible, in language that is accessible and perhaps created in collaboration. Buddhists in the West need upcoming generations to exemplify this path of practice now!


Reverend Guo Cheen is a Buddhist nun who embraces compassionate action, interspiritual inquiries and circle leadership. She is the founder of TCN Buddhist Center,
a cocreator of Women of Spirit and Faith, and Ambassador for the Council of Parliament of World Religions.



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