Bluegum Sangha in the big picture

by Winton Higgins

— based on a talk given to Bluegum Sangha in Sydney, Australia, in 2007

 

For the last 2000 years at least, what we now call Buddhism has been a particularly diverse tradition. When most of that diversity ends up represented in one city, as is the case in Sydney, both veterans and new inquirers can experience disorientation, not least in seeking out a niche that suits them.

A few years ago, the old, broad division of the Buddhist tradition into Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana provided some guidance, but nowadays many groups – the Bluegum Sangha included – fall outside this sort of classification. We need to go back to first principles to situate a group like Bluegum in a meaningful way. This sangha belongs to the Buddhist wider tradition, so what does that mean?

Recap on tradition

As the contemporary moral philosopher Alisdair McIntyre suggests in After virtue: a study in moral theory, every practice worthy of the name is held and informed by a tradition, which preserves experience to date and guarantees coherence and effectiveness in how we practise in real time, in the now.

A living tradition (as opposed to a dead one) is an intergenerational conversation in which the participants know how the conversation began – the original questions the founders addressed – and how it has developed since then. How both questions and answers have been honed.

A tradition does not resist change in either practice or doctrine – rather, it informs development and guarantees its coherence, and means we don’t constantly have to muddle around and re-invent the wheel as we evolve and adapt.

A dead tradition, on the other hand, is one that does resist change, because the original questions have been lost, together with memory of how present practice and doctrine actually evolved. In this case practitioners and adherents are stuck endlessly reproducing what they find they’ve inherited; they don’t have the requisite background knowledge or incentive needed to move forward. As the old adage has it: to have a future, you must first have a past.

Since I began teaching the dharma, I’ve been highly conscious of the ‘tradition thing’, and I suspect all Bluegum’s regular teachers have shared this experience.

Which categorisation is that?

There are at least three ways of dividing and specifying the Buddhist tradition now. The most obvious is the Theravada-Mahayana-Vajrayana distinction already mentioned. Today it may be the least useful way of them all as well. Another is Stephen Batchelor’s division between dharma practice and religious Buddhism, which may be a bit too blunt an instrument, but worth bearing in mind.

The third and perhaps more promising approach is to look at four developmental periods in the tradition’s 2500-year-old history – developmental periods that suggest certain ‘ideal types’ in the Buddhist world, and thereby a new analytical perspective. (An ‘ideal type’ is a pure model, not usually found in ‘the real world’, which is far more complex, but nonetheless useful in sorting things out.)

In his 2001 article ‘Global Buddhism: developmental periods, regional histories, and a new analytical perspective’ in the Journal of Global Buddhism, Martin Baumann suggested this approach, and in a nutshell, here it is:

  1. Canonical Buddhism, from the life of the Buddha, c 480-400 BCE, up to the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (273-232 BCE). (I would suggest, however, that the canonical period proper really ended with the Buddha’s death);
  2. Traditional or historical Buddhism, from Ashoka to the mid- or late-19th century CE (maybe this could also be called ‘religious Buddhism’);
  3. Modern or revival Buddhism from the mid/late-19th century to the mid/late 20th century; and
  4. Global Buddhism (alternatively ‘postmodern’ Buddhism) of the last three decades.

Note that these stages are not mutually exclusive; often the different types of Buddhism overlap in time, especially at the present time. In particular:

  • traditional Buddhism is still alive and well in many parts of Asia, to say nothing of Sydney’s western suburbs, and
  • many currents in today’s global Buddhism have an enormous appetite for interpreting the canonical period, and the Pali canon itself, just like modern Buddhism.

Those who followed our study of Nanamoli’s Life of the Buddha, or have read Stephen Batchelor’s account in his Confession of a Buddhist atheist, will have a good sense of the canonical period, or at least the early part covering the Buddha’s own 45-year teaching career. This was, of course, the inspirational, pioneering phase, a time of experimentation, trial and error, and of tentative and makeshift institutional arrangements. But let’s have a brief look at the other periods and ideal types:

Traditional or historical Buddhism

After the Buddha’s death, his tradition gradually religified. He did his utmost just before his death to cut off this development, by refusing to pass on charismatic authority to any successor, and by refusing to formulate any fundamental tenets. The integrity and diligence of individual practice was the only basis on which his tradition could thrive, he said. The adjective ‘traditional’ here, may I suggest, invokes a dead rather than a living tradition.

Religification made Buddhism a religion like any other – one moulded to the social-integrative role of institutionalised religion rather than to the teaching of the founder. It involved the following developments, which are comparable to the development of all the major institutionalised religions:

  • Dominant institutions (in this case monastic orders) sedimented and claimed to exclusively embody the tradition, practice and doctrine;
  • The institutions gradually became more dogmatic, hierarchical, patriarchal and socially conservative (because their elites formed alliances with economic and socio-political elites, above all temporal powers);
  • These institutions attracted and lived off a laity to which they taught certitudes and consolations, not least in the inevitable life transitions (birth, puberty, marriage, death) and more contingent crises, while their own functionaries enjoyed high prestige and social security;
  • The living tradition’s focus on open investigation and practice fell away in favour of rituals and a usually pre-Buddhist or folkloric belief system, especially for the laity. The Buddha’s starting point – the four noble truths – became metaphysical beliefs, no longer inquiry questions to inform practice. Lay observance came to turn on a rigid belief in rebirth, and the gaining of merit in this life to secure a fortunate rebirth in the next. Apart from basic ethics (above all, donating to temples and monasteries to gain merit), lay people were not encouraged to practise, especially not meditation;
  • The Buddha became a transcendental privileged religious object like a god, to be worshipped – not understood in the context of his own human life, and not to be emulated through a rounded spiritual practice.

In traditional Buddhism, full awakening and liberation became an ever-vanishing horizon, something that the lay faithful could only approach over many lifetimes. (In the Buddha’s time it often occurred within months – and sometimes just minutes – of first contact with the teaching!)

In this ‘traditional’ phase, different sects arose, and with them the Mahayana and (later) Vajrayana. So the Theravada-Mahayana-Vajrayana distinction properly belongs to ‘traditional’ Buddhism and its immediate aftermath. The Mahayana represented a genuine (and at times awe-inspiring) re-flowering of the tradition, albeit in poetic and mythic directions that might have caused some bemusement for the Buddha himself if he’d come back to life.

But those who, a thousand years after his death, came to claim the mantle of his most faithful disciples – the Theravada – had an equally problematic account of the original teachings, one now turned into an orthodoxy based largely on Buddhaghosa’s commentary, The path to purification. NB that the Theravada – contrary to its claims and appearances – arose out of a sectarian development around 1000 years after the Buddha’s death, and is more orthodoxy-driven than the Mahayana or Vajrayana.

All these institutionalised forms of Buddhism ensconced themselves within the social fabric and the folkways of many widespread Asian communities.

Modern or revival Buddhism

This form of Buddhism began in Sri Lanka (but set a trend followed in Burma, Thailand and Japan) as a response to western colonialism and its companion, missionary Christianity. Especially Protestant missionaries set out to convert colonised peoples from Buddhism, and a movement began to thwart this project by reforming Buddhism, bringing it back to its original spirit, and challenging the monastics’ monopoly on serious spiritual practice.

Ironically, this movement emulated the Protestants in putting great emphasis on lay practice, piety and charitable works; criticising the pretensions of the monastics; and discarding the overlay of superstition and folk belief that had accumulated around popular observance. Modern Buddhism had a rationalistic temper, but under its auspices, lay people gained access to the suttas in written form for the first time.

One commentator has actually dubbed this kind of Buddhism ‘Protestant Buddhism’, and it represents a partial de-religification of the tradition. At least among the new Sri Lankan middle class, it was highly effective. In the process, the heritage of the Pali canon was revived and made accessible lay people.

Certain aspects of earlier models remained, however. The monastic-lay relationship was rejigged to some extent but remained important, and the idea of dharma transmission through teacher lineages still held sway as the basis of ‘spiritual authority’. As with the culture of modernity as a whole, modern Buddhism espoused the idea of rational progress through fidelity to a ‘right way’, in relationship to which all alternatives were ‘wrong’.

The beginning of significant western conversions to Buddhist practice in the last three decades of the 20th century was largely inspired by this modern Buddhism. Many of the great revivalist late-19th and early/mid-20th century meditation masters of Burma, Thailand and Japan exemplify this stage in the tradition’s development, and their students are now (appropriately disrobed) the most senior native-born westerners in teaching positions in western countries. The revival of vipassana (insight) practice has its origins in this distinctively modern development.

Modern Buddhism arrived in the west at the same time (especially the 1970s) as a number of radical social and political movements which themselves expressed the modern spirit – feminism, democratic ways of associating, environmentalism and pacifism. These important moral causes have tended to mould so-called western Buddhism.

Global Buddhism

In recent times, Buddhism has established itself on all continents of the planet, including Africa and Latin America. Asian traditions, which had for many centuries developed in isolation from each other, have now made contact with each other, thanks to air travel and new information and communication technologies. And often these Asian traditions meet each other in western countries.

In other words, the myriad forms of Buddhism have now become de-territorialised and thrown into the mix together. Diversity is the order of the day, and ‘one right ways’ are out, and teachers no longer depend on lineage-based ‘transmission’ to gain acceptance. In many western cities like Sydney, virtually all of the more established and once-national schools and traditions have a foothold, as do many self-generating groups like Bluegum.

Martin Baumann tells a nice little story to get the flavour of global Buddhism. A friend of his, a fellow Hanoverian, converted to Buddhism and went to live in a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery in Hanover as a novice monk. In March 2000 this ordinary German sent an email in English to 70 friends around the world which said: ‘Hallo everybody, I’ll be absent for the next 2 weeks (leaving Germany for Australia to become a bhikshu/monk(ey)).’

To take this senior ordination you need a number of senior monastics to be present at the ceremony. The order he wanted to join was inaugurating a new temple in Perth, and senior monastics of the order were coming to it from many different places around the world – enough for our friend’s purposes. So it was just a matter of getting a taxi to the airport, and off we go! No need to set foot in Vietnam. And note the self-ironic humour in the reference to ‘monk(ey)’ – unthinkable in any previous era. But that’s the postmodern condition, not taking grand narratives too seriously. Even one’s own. Incidentally, it’s also the dharmic condition.

The increasing numbers of westerners who are becoming involved in dharma practice are creating organisations (the Bluegum Sangha among them) and ways of doing things that lack precedent in the 2500-year-old tradition, such as all-lay, democratic associations that insist on feminist principles in spreading influence, leadership positions and senior teaching roles.

Global Buddhism thus exhibits marked creativity and hybridity. But also a strong revivalist streak, with close study of the Pali canon a major feature in many quarters, especially some of those practising the highly popular insight meditation that our own sangha focuses on. This keeps the living tradition going and saves us from falling into an incoherent, eclectic mishmash.

Back to the Bluegum sangha

My own sense of this sangha’s trajectory is that it started in the modern-Buddhist mould, but is becoming increasingly oriented towards global Buddhism. One indication of our shift here is the extent to which we now use information and communication technology to access dharmic material and compare our practices and experiences with our distant fellow practitioners.

Not only do we use this technology to access the worldwide dharmic conversation and the more specialised insight conversation, but we ourselves have evolved in eleven years from an invisible little group meeting in a Castlecrag sitting room once a month, to a much larger and busier group whose doings any biped on the planet with an internet connection can check in on.

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