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March 13, 2014

Is Western Dharma a Fraud? ~ Ty Phillips

Blue Buddha

“In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.”

~ Buddha

I recently came across a comment that all the books and teachers of the dharma in America are essentially a fraud; that we have all become a tool of a gentrification of the dharma. I thought for a moment, several actually, about this statement.

Is it true?

Would any ‘true dharma master’ recognize what we are trying to accomplish here in the west? Are any of us legitimate teachers of the dharma? How do we know? What are the signs of true dharma teachings and true dharma teachers?

To take the absolute reductio ad absurdum view on this idea, we first have to rule out the name Buddhism and all of its sects, whether they are Theravada or Mahayana. So what is absolute pure and true dharma? Is there even such a thing? The Buddha said that he teaches two things and two things only:“Suffering and the freedom from suffering.”

So, we have no title, no teachers, and a man who said to “question everything, be a light unto ourselves, find and pursue our own path and strive on with diligence”.

So is there such a thing then as a true dharma teacher? Can we compare an old master to a modern teacher?

When the Buddha was asked about other paths, he said that there were many. What he was sharing was the path he had found and walked; an eternal truth that had no distinctions, no classes, no sexes and no titles. It was simply a teaching on the human condition and how to properly relate to and deal with the human condition. He never specified that only Indian’s could teach dharma—in fact he sent his students out, much like the later Christian great commission, to share the dharma with all the world.

He created a system that was in tune with the customs and practices of his time, but also in opposition to those practices which he saw as corrupt. For anything to survive it must adapt and evolve. When Buddhism spread it became a reflection of the customs of the land around it; Chan, Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan and now American.

The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept.

In order for it to be effectual, as the great Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh  said, “The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept.”  This part of right speech is part of it’s evolution in America. The fundamental aspect of speaking words that heal and uplift remain the same, but its trappings, its outer wear are what change from culture to culture.

A robed, small Asian teacher who has never lived in America, trying to talk to teens that just came out of a death metal concert, is likely not going to be received well. While a large heavily tattooed person, who was at the concert with them, and later takes them for coffee and has a small informal dharma talk with them, may reach a heart or two. One of those teens might start digging deeper and deeper into the truths of suffering and find the road out of suffering and the purity and openness in true dharma; a teaching without judgments and sins, but of self mastery and responsibility.

The change in that teen’s life will ripple, it will touch his friends and his family, how he talks to his teachers, treats his piers, and it all started from a non traditional approach that would may not have been recognized by dharma masters of old. What is a dharma master then?

The other side of that coin is this: American Buddhism in several aspects has gone the way of capitalism and greed. Hundreds of websites and temples sell the dharma. We have stylized malas, meditation cushions and thousand dollar Buddha statues in our homes.

Dharma magazines are filled with ads for the latest and greatest in dharma designs, t-shirts and the materialistic craze goes on. In this regard, dharma masters of old would recognize the continuing cycle of the human condition.

There is nothing new under the sun and our pursuit of material progress is little more than trying to free ourselves from suffering.

Is it the right way? Probably not. Can the dharma be bought and sold? Is there a real American dharma for dummies that can help us reach enlightened corporate titanhood?

No—the dharma is a lifestyle. It is a way of compassion and love for all sentient beings. But again, the Buddha taught rich and poor, male and female. He made no distinctions, he passed no judgments, he simply said, “I teach two things—suffering and freedom from suffering.”

So what is a real dharma teacher? Can they be American? Again, I will leave those answers up to you and ask instead did they offer you hope? Did they teach you the truth about what suffering is and show a better way? Did they do it out of love and ask nothing in return except that you offer it to another in kind?

I think the answer is clear.

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Editorial Assistant: Lauryn DeGrado/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/elephant archives

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