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15 Major Challenges

to Establish the Dharma in the West.



  1. Dharma teachers and elders (in years of practice and wise presence) in the Sangha can help such people work through their difficulties including issues around identity, a common inquiry in the Dharma. Who am I? Some may wish to stay free from the use of such a label as being a “Buddhist” while others may wish to define themselves as a “Buddhist.”

  2. There is a debate in the West about giving full ordination to women. There are few fully ordained Western Buddhist nuns. It is a similar situation in the East. Teachers and elders can help Western Buddhists talk through their issues with the patriarchal structures of Buddhism and can support them as they work for change. Monasteries served as the traditional resource for the preservation of the teachings over the past 2600 years. The West generates new centres for Dharma practice that far outnumber Western monasteries. This is a sign of the lay community coming of age. Teachers and elders can help direct Buddhists to go on retreats and give them any support required after attending retreats.

  3. There are cultural differences between East and West. For example, many Westerners are not concerned with a belief in rebirth whereas most Asian Buddhists take rebirth for granted. Teachers and elders can help Westerners come to their own understanding about rebirth reminding Buddhists that the Buddha used a provisional language at times about rebirth. See the Kalama Sutta (Discourse) of the Buddha.

  4. The Buddha described the Sangha as those men and women with deep realisation. In the East, the Sangha refers almost exclusively to the Sangha of the ordained in monasteries. The West refers to the Sangha as all practitioners. Teachers and elders can help make clear the broad use of the concept Sangha in the West. Sangha literally means Gathering. There is a general view in the West that monks, nuns and laypeople are equal partners in the Sangha.

  5. Buddhists in Asia generally regard celibacy as part of practice. The West generally treats intimate relationships and life as a single man or woman in much the same way. Teachers and elders can help show the development of the Western Dharma in this area. There is the opportunity to show equal respect for those living a celibate life and those in an intimate relationship as offering equal opportunity for practice.

  6. In the East, nearly all teachers are ordained monks. There are only a few exceptions in all the major Buddhist traditions. In the West, Dharma teachers are fairly equally distributed between men and women, lay people and ordained. Teachers and elders can help remind Buddhists that their practice includes listening to the voices of wisdom. The Buddha said there are four kinds of assemblies in the Sangha – monks, nuns (spiritual nomads) and householders, men and women. Practitioners need to check out voices of wisdom and compassion among, monks, nuns and householders.

  7. In the Theravada tradition, there is a common view that one will take ordination if one is fully committed to Dharma practice. Western practitioners do not share this view. Teachers and elders can help Buddhists be very clear about the importance of every aspect of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Some householders experience a calling for ordination and follow through. Some monks and nuns experience a calling to return to the householders’ life and follow through.

  8. Western practitioners have contact with other religious traditions and knowledge of various expressions of spirituality, lifestyle, and psychotherapy. These other traditions and disciplines are not readily available in Buddhist countries. Theravada tradition in Buddhist countries may know very little about Mahayana Buddhism or vice-versa. There is a more eclectic approach in the West to the Dharma than in the East. Teachers and elders can help make clear the distinctive features of the Buddha Dharma and the various Buddhist traditions while drawing on the wisdom of other teachings from other traditions and contemporary mind/body disciplines/institutions.

  9. Some Western Dharma teachers regard their role as being similar to a priest or rabbi. Other Western teachers see their role as a good friend while applying their authority and wisdom in certain situations. Teachers and elders can help Buddhists see their own priority in terms of finding a teacher. Some Buddhists benefit from contact with more than one teacher. It is important for the Dharma practitioner to keep in mind the essential reference point of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

  10. There is often an attempt to place the Dharma into a Western category such as religion, philosophy, or psychology. The Dharma simply does not fit into such categories. Religion often has belief in an absolute. Philosophy is the exploration of ideas and psychology deals with mental well-being. Teachers and elders can help make the distinctions clear between Dharma and the Western categories. There is much comparison and analysis between the Buddha Dharma and Western thought. Teachers and elders can remind Buddhists of the value of their first-hand experience to safeguard against getting lost in metaphysics.

  11. Teachers of the Dharma and meditation encourage their practitioners to examine the range of experiences, worldly and spiritual. Teachers and elders can encourage meditators to “squeeze the honey” – to quote the Buddha- out of these experiences for insight and understanding. What is the essential message in the experience? What are the causes and conditions that brought about the experience? What is the outcome of the experience? What do you want to apply to daily life? There is much to explore equally in the joyful and painful experiences. Teachers and elders need to ask short, precise questions to contribute to the resolution and understanding of whatever the practitioner is going through.

  12. Practitioners give a lot of attention to the tendency to cling. Buddhists use the word "attachment.”  Clinging and attachment has much the same meaning for many Buddhists. Attachment in Buddhism has a different meaning from the use of attachment in Western psychology where attachment of mother to her child is necessary and healthy. Pali word for attachment is “upadana” – literally means “to fuel or inflame.” In Buddhism, non-attachment means not fuelling an experience or situation. Teachers and elders can help Buddhists to see where they are fuelling a situation or clinging onto it.

  13. There are a wide range of Buddhist practices and explorations to open consciousness. Some practitioners get lost in the supermarket of choices or are stuck with a single method. Teachers and elders can help to simplify the practices or expand the sense of practice.

  14. A transformed life includes heart, mind, speech and body. Teachers and elders help the practitioner address all four of these areas rather than concentrate on exclusively formal meditation.

  15. It is hard for some practitioners to make sense of important spiritual experiences. Teachers and elders can help to direct the practitioner to respected senior Dharma teachers. The guide needs to ensure she or he can speak the same language as the practitioner and not try to use another religious or spiritual language, as this often leads to the practitioner feeling misunderstood. Dharma teachings and practices recognise the profound value of communication, the equally profound value of meditative silences in the midst of communication so the right words can emerge from the deep.




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