Changing Patterns of Authority

One of the central questions facing Buddhist communities is the issue of how traditional Asian patterns of authority may need to be transformed in the American context. In most Buddhist communities, the traditional roles of monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... are of necessity changing. As one monkA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... in Phoenix put it, “We have to take the plant of BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... out of its Asian pot and plant it in the soil of America.” And the soil of America is filled with strong nutrients of independence and democracy.

Many Asian immigrant templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... have one or more resident monks, but the traditional role of the monk has been called into question in the American context. How can a monk go on begging rounds in an American neighborhood? Can monks loosen the rules regarding the donning of robes and wear warmer clothing? Can monks drive cars? Can monks carry money and go shopping? Can monks hold jobs outside the templeA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref...? These questions challenge the traditional way of life of monks in most Asian societies. Some of the older members of the community look disapprovingly when monks drive to a meeting or take classes at the community college.

The role of the laity has also been changing in many temples. Some immigrant monks, for example, may not be equipped to handle the specifically American aspects of temple administration. In American cities and towns, a temple typically may deal with the city council, the planning commission, and the zoning board. In the U.S. context, religious bodies are nonprofit corporations and must follow rules set down by the Internal Revenue Service. They must have directors and officers, a group of persons which may or may not include the monks. Thus, lay leadership has grown of necessity. The relation of a board of directors, which has legal responsibility and authority to make all decisions, to the monks, who traditionally have held unquestioned authority, has often been complex and even strained.

Of course, American convert BuddhistConvert Buddhism tends to refer to groups of Euro-American Buddhists that have converted to Buddhism rather than being born into the tradition. Generally speaking these Buddhists are focused more on personal and social transformation than their immigrant ... centers also have boards of directors and the impetus of American democratic ideals. In a typical Zen center, for instance, while the resident abbotAn abbot or abbess is the title of the superior of a monastery or convent. Some scholars and practitioners have used these titles to apply to the ranking monk or nun of a Buddhist monastic community as well. or roshi may have the spiritual authority of enlightenmentEnlightenment means awakening to or realizing the true nature of reality. The term is used with various nuances in the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions to express the spiritual awakening that is the goal of religious life. “The Enlightenment” also..., laypeople with ordinary insight are active and sometimes critical voting members of the board. Questioning the judgment of the revered teacher from Japan or of that teacher’s American-born dharma heir may be difficult, but it happens. Holding the teacher to accountability may become the burden of the board and the center members. For example, the San Francisco Zen Center, after a scandal involving Suzuki-roshi’s dharma heir Richard Baker-roshiRichard Baker was one of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi’s earliest students in the United States. In 1971, Suzuki installed Baker as his successor and leader of th. San Francisco Zen Center. Under Baker’s leadership the center and its two branches—Green Gulch..., decided to elect its two abbotsAn abbot or abbess is the title of the superior of a monastery or convent. Some scholars and practitioners have used these titles to apply to the ranking monk or nun of a Buddhist monastic community as well. to four-year terms. The idea of electing an abbot is, no doubt, a distinctively American innovation in a centuries-long pattern of religious authority.

In American convert communities with TheravadaTheravada, literally “the way of the elders,” was one of the eighteen earliest sub-schools of Buddhism. Today, the term designates the various traditions of Buddhism most prominent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Although these traditions differ in i... roots, such as the VipassanaVipassana is a form of Theravada Buddhist meditation, also called “insight mediation.” This method directs the attention toward the moment-to-moment workings of the mind and body, thereby developing “mindfulness” of the contents of consciousness a... tradition, there has been a marked shift away from ordinationOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... and monasticismA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... of any kind, though Asian monks are welcome and frequent visitors in American Vipassana centers. The impracticability of full Buddhist monasticism in the U.S. context has led to a new style of fully committed lay leadership. There are no trappings of authority at all: no robes, no special garments, even for the most revered of teachers. The most prominent American teachers of the Vipassana tradition are non-ordainedOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... and stress the integration of Buddhist life with daily life, not its separation. They may be full-time resident and guiding teachers of major institutions, such as Joseph GoldsteinJoseph Goldstein is one of America’s foremost teachers of vipassana or insight-meditation. After graduating from Columbia University, Goldstein went to Thailand with the Peace Corps in 1962, staying on after his two year stint to study vipassana in Bodh... and Sharon SalzbergSharon Salzberg has been practicing vipassana meditation for over three decades. She is a founding member of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and has taught meditation at Buddhist centers around the world. Her book Loving Kindness: the ... at the Insight MeditationMeditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is commo... Society, or they may combine their Buddhist teaching vocation with professional work as psychotherapists or doctors, such as Jack KornfieldJack Kornfield is one of America’s first vipassana meditation teachers. After a stint in Southeast Asia, Jack Kornfield stayed on in Thailand to study with the Buddhist forest monk Achaan Chaa. In 1976, Kornfield teamed up with Joseph Goldstein to serve... and Sylvia BoorsteinSylvia Boorstein is a practicing psychotherapist and an active teacher of vipassana at Spirit Rock Center, located north of San Francisco. She also leads an annual retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. As is readily apparent in he... at Spirit Rock Center north of San Francisco.

Asian Buddhist traditions, now firmly planted in American soil, continue to grow. There is no question that the democratization of Buddhism is one of the distinctively American developments of the tradition.


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