—from the Buddha’s last instructions
The first large-scale gathering of Western Buddhist teachers, held in September 1993 in Northern California, was marked by surprising honesty concerning both practice and personal life. One-hundred-fifteen teachers from Zen, Theravada, Pure Land and Vajrayana centers across North America joined together at Spirit Rock Center and Green Gulch Farm Zen Center to discuss the art and role of teaching as Buddhism develops in the West.
The goal of the conference was to foster dialogue among the first generation of Westerners to become lamas, Zen monks and meditation teachers about how to keep the Buddhist tradition alive and adapt it to best serve their North American students. In the past, there has often been sectarian competition and it has frequently been considered dangerous for Buddhists from one tradition to mix with those from other traditions. To hold such an open gathering, in contrast to the few formalized councils held in Asia, made a remarkable cultural statement.
It was heartening to see the ease, immediacy and pleasure with which the teachers spoke to one another. Right away difficult issues were raised. These came from formal presentations by a dozen teachers on topics ranging from the evolution of Buddhist forms (Should the Zen students keep their Chinese-style Tang Dynasty robes?) to deeper questions of adaptation (Does the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche’s encouragement for his Jesuit students to visualize Jesus in place of Bodhisattva Chenrezig still constitute a Buddhist practice?). Presentations explored how to distinguish the essence of Buddhist practice from Tibetan, Japanese, and Thai cultural practices and how to reinvigorate the role of women and reclaim the abandoned feminine in patriarchal Buddhism. The one African-American dharma teacher present passionately spoke about the need to address racism and to include all races in American Buddhism.
Then the presentations turned to the inevitable problems facing teachers in the area of power and authority. Should Western teachers present themselves in the traditional way as enlightened masters, to be bowed to and visualized as embodying the wisdom of the Buddha’s perfection? Or should Western teachers be more like guides in the areas of meditation and dharma studies? Should teachers choose the role of “perfect teacher,” or admit their own weaknesses?
One teacher’s presentation directly confronted the gathering with the question of our wounds. What do dharma teachers do with their own wounds? And what about the great number of deeply wounded students who come to practice? Are traditional meditations alone enough or should we also learn from the practices of Western psychology and healing?
To start off, a Tibetan lama, a Zen master and a vipassana teacher each told their dharma stories, how the joys and struggles of long years of practice were intertwined with years of difficult integration, how, in the midst of family problems, divorces, wrestling with money, and the death of children, they sought to deepen their wisdom and to find ways to make all of life their practice. They spoke not so much of the ideals of enlightenment but of the growing compassion and understanding that is needed to bring one’s humanity into the path of practice.
In the following small groups, some teachers described “holding the most intimate discussions of teaching they had ever had.” Discussion topics ranged from the joy of working with the awakening of committed students to the feeling of failing one’s true responsibility as a dharma teacher or the experience of difficulty with one’s own lineage.
Several mythologists and psychologists were invited to join the teachers—Michael Meade, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Amy Weston—to speak to the teachers’ dilemmas through the universal language of story and myth. They warned about inevitable betrayal on the path. They taught about the success of teachers who expose their own vulnerability and hold the role of the wounded healer, and they illustrated the essential need to balance the masculine in Buddhism with the spiritual feminine. As Zen teacher, Jan Bays described it, “The gathering was a wonderful smorgasbord of offerings, meditation and drumming, music and myth, laughter and grief, dancing and psychology, to mysticism and self-mortification, practical hints and grandiose statements, group therapy and academic papers. Where else could we get three days of this, great food and famous people, for only $100?”
As the gathering developed its own momentum, the unspoken problems of teachers and students were expressed more openly. When Peter Rutter, a Jungian analyst who has worked with the San Francisco Zen Center and the Zen Center of Los Angeles, discussed the problem of boundaries and ethics, he was joined by one teacher’s frank presentation of her own participation in the cycle of abuse in her community . . . the planned presentations on dharma livelihood and engaged Buddhism had to be postponed as more personal stories poured forth.
The Buddhist scriptures begin with many volumes of such difficult accounts, describing the troubles of various practitioners, what was learned, and how these troubles were solved by the Buddha. In this spirit, the Gathering of Western Buddhist Teachers became a spontaneous circle for those with a dharma history of grief and betrayal. Previously unspoken accounts of loss, abuse, isolation and secrecy, were voiced aloud. Teachers described the ensuing fiery journey to search for the true dharma in the midst of these difficulties.
Throughout the meeting, the teachers expressed tremendous gratitude and devotion to the Buddhist tradition and to their own teachers. They made clear how deeply their lives had been transformed by the generosity of their lineages, and how much love and respect they carried for the dharma. So for many, the outpouring of grief was not easy. This process did not leave the dharma tied up as a universally neat and transformative package. It challenged all present to reject secrecy, and for members of each community to separate any unnecessary misuse of the teachings from the wisdom and living spirit of the dharma.
As the meetings moved forward to their close, final presentations were made on kundalini and spiritual emergency, and teaching stories offered with ways to transform the loss of trust and reawaken the wise knowing that is at the core of every being.
To end, the teachers sat together, chanted blessings, and offered the sharing of merit. It became clear that the three days together raised more questions than answers, and that this conference was simply a beginning. An expanded organizing committee, chaired by John Tarrant Sensei and including teachers from most of the traditions represented, is planning the next gathering to be held on the East Coast in May 1995. The topics will be expanded to include monasticism and its connection to lay practice, engaged Buddhism, teachers’ relation to money, authorization and empowerment of teachers, and more.
As Buddhism becomes more fully established in the West, we hope that “holding regular and frequent assemblies” of teachers can aid us, as followers of the way, to “prosper and not decline.” It was an honor for Spirit Rock to act as one of the hosts for this first gathering.