Open Buddha

Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery
Bay Area, California

What is a successful model for Buddhism in the West?

View of Bell from Zendo

My post on whether Vajrayana can survive seems to have gotten more attention than many recent posts. I should poke the anthill more often, it seems.

A question related to my last post is “what is a successful model for Buddhism in the West?” By this, I mean organizational model. Now, certain die-hard purists will point out that the Buddha personally established a model, that of the monastic sangha that begs for alms and receives donations of land or other property. My reply to that is that many forms of Buddhism have not actually followed that model, either altering it somewhat (such as the spread of Buddhism in China and Korea) or much more severely, such as the Buddhism of Japan, where Vinaya-based monasticism really doesn’t even exist and hasn’t for quite a while.

It has been noted by religious scholars that many religious groups in America undergo an organizational shift that renders them somewhat similar to the congregational model used by Protestant Christianity. (I’m sure there is a term for this but I don’t have the sources handy for this.) This is done as either a conscious or unconscious means of cultural assimilation to the model that is familiar to most of us here in the United States. I’m not sure if it happens as much in Europe but I would expect that it does. This process leads to a “church” model in which one has a congregation led by one or more religious specialists, often called “ministers” if not “priests.” I believe that, for example, the Jodo Shinshu sect chose this model for the Buddhist Churches of America partially because of concerns about seeming too foreign as a largely immigrant Japanese church, especially around World War II when there was much anti-Japanese animosity. (I’m sure one or two of my blog readers will correct me if I’m grossly wrong.)

There is nothing inherently wrong or incorrect about this church model, so please don’t read this as a criticism of it. It is a response to the question of how to organize. You see this in other, non-Buddhist, religious traditions as well. I’ve seen a number of Neopagan organizations set themselves up as churches led by a priest or a priestess, having a board of directors, etc. It seems to happen as a default choice for some when things grow to the point of requiring organization. Even if we call the churches, “Dharma Centers,” they are still effectively following the same model and may be carrying hidden assumptions on the part of members as they function within the structure.

(As an aside, the matter of people going to Buddhist priests or monks for counseling and on certain life issues has been commented on as a phenomena that happens here that does not necessarily occur elsewhere. People expect priests to minister to a group and to act as guides because of historical expectations from Christianity, I feel.)

There are other models though. If nothing else, there is the “living room” model of fellow travelers meeting together in each others’ homes. There is the traditional Buddhist model of setting up a monastery with celibate monastics (if funds can be raised and maintained). There is the temple model, much like a parish church, with hereditary priests overseen by a larger organization for a sect.

I’m not sure which of these, if any, is the best model in the longer term. Natural selection will play a role as we see what survives over time but as someone who is a priest within a larger organization, how we organize and what the role or roles of a priest may be (and of non-priests, for that matter) is something that I’ve been thinking about off and on.

Also, reading books like “Shoes Outside the Door” about the crisis at the San Francisco Zen Center reminds me that these questions are very important, as is the relationship between various roles in an organization and the expectations people have for their teachers or priests. (For those that haven’t read the book, it deals with a specific sexual scandal, the issues around it, and how the community did and did not address it before and after it became a crisis. It has been required reading within my teacher’s organization in the past.)

I’m curious as to what models people reading this are working within, if they are Buddhists. What do you think will work best and why? How do you see see yourselves organizing to practice the Dharma? How do you want to pass it to the next generation?