Buddhist Modernism and the “Problem” of the Sangha

By Rev. Peter Hata

In 2004, Tricycle Magazine, the leading Buddhist periodical, published the research of Dr. Robert Wuthnow, a noted Princeton University sociologist, which estimated the number of people expressing an interest in Buddhism at about 12% of the U.S. population. In a local sense, that means that one out of every eight houses in any neighborhood is sympathetic to the Buddhist teachings, which is an incredibly high number of people. Why then, you might ask, are these people not flocking to Buddhist temples, and for that matter, to West Covina Buddhist Temple (sponsor of the Living Dharma Website)? If 12% of the people in West Covina alone decided to attend our services, we’d have to put out about 12,000 additional chairs!

Of course, whether or not people might attend a Buddhist temple is a complex issue that involves many considerations such as the fact that there are of course many Buddhist traditions to choose from, even just within this city. Another factor is that, although the situation is improving, Shin Buddhism is still one of the most invisible Buddhist traditions in America due to its history of being largely unknown outside of its ethnocentric Japanese-American community. But also, one reason Buddhist temples in general, not just our temple, don’t see hoards of new visitors at their front doors is probably due to a phenomenon called “Buddhist Modernism,” which is actually a common but arguably misguided view of how Buddhism really works. I’d like to talk about Buddhist Modernism today.

First of all, have you ever heard someone describe themselves as “SBNR,” or "spiritual but not religious?" These are people who are interested in developing their inner spirituality, but who are not particularly interested in being affiliated with a religious tradition or institution. Another term that I think describes basically the same type of SBNR mentality is the term “Nightstand Buddhist.” These are people who are probably part of that 12% and, though they don’t attend services, keep a book or two of Buddhist teachings on their nightstands looking for Buddhist answers to their spiritual questions. They are generally very eclectic and may end up with a kind of “hodgepodge” of beliefs from several traditions.

Both types of Buddhists are part of what some scholars term “Buddhist modernism.” Essentially, Buddhist Modernism refers to the way that many Americans who are otherwise sympathetic to Buddhism view the Buddhist teachings as something they can freely “appropriate” for their own usage without having to necessarily belong to any particular tradition or institution. Buddhist Modernism not only facilitates this sort of appropriation of Buddhist teachings and practice but actually views it as the preferred way to practice Buddhism. It might be preferred for several reasons, such as the suspicions people seem to have today about organized religion in general, or because the exotic or foreign nature of much Buddhist ritual is either intimidating or is simply assumed to be unnecessary for attaining enlightenment. Moreover, a distinctly Western “modernist” approach to religion usually involves a dislike of rituals, which are seen as relying on “non-scientific” matters of the heart, such as faith.

However, according to Berkeley Professor of Buddhist Studies Dr. Robert Sharf, the assumption that in America we all have a sort of “carte blanche” to extract and use for our own enlightenment whatever Buddhist technique we find most in line with our way of thinking is ultimately misguided. Dr. Sharf criticizes Buddhist Modernism, which tends to endorse only those practices that it views as consistent with our so-called modern sensibilities—and this usually means the popular varieties of meditation such as Zen and Vipassana—and dismisses all else. On the contrary, Dr. Sharf, and of course, the teachers of many authentic Buddhist traditions, all say that we cannot reduce Buddhism to just the practice of meditation.

I suppose all could be forgiven if we saw many “success stories” of Buddhist modernists who, all on their own, and by using only meditation, were able to experience some kind of “peak,” transformative experience and become enlightened buddhas. But as Dr. Sharf points out, “Unfortunately, these experiences look clearer in theory than they do in real life. In real life, meditation masters often argue over what constitutes such experiences, who really has had them, who is genuinely qualified to judge such things, whose method leads to the authentic experience, and whose leads to some inauthentic version.” Of course, he isn’t saying that the problem is the overuse of or over-reliance on meditation as much as it is that Buddhist Modernists tend to believe that there’s some practice that will instantly transform the whole of one's existence. As he says, “Buddhism, like life, isn't that simple.” And of course, when absolute emphasis is given to one’s own individual spiritual experience, as Prof. Sharf says, “The Sangha gets lost. Buddhism has what it calls its Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, or his teaching, and the Sangha, or the religious community. Throughout history, each of these has been interpreted in various ways, but the idea that one of them might not be that important would never fly.”

Now, in stark contrast to the views of Buddhist Modernists, I’d like to look at the views of Dr. Nobuo Haneda, who is another contemporary Buddhist scholar.

In one of his essays, Dr. Haneda looked specifically at this issue of the Three Treasures, but he seems to have come to exact opposite conclusion as Buddhist Modernists. He sees the Sangha as being very significant. In fact, he goes so far as to say, “Of the Three Treasures, of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, the Sangha is the most important thing. There is nothing more important in Buddhism than a Sangha. It is only in the Sangha that the Buddha and the Dharma can exist. A Sangha is everything in Buddhism…If a person thinks that they can study Buddhism without a Sangha or that there can be Buddhism apart from a Sangha, they are greatly mistaken. There is no Buddhism apart from a Sangha.” But also, Haneda-sensei clarifies that the Sangha’s importance is not because in the Sangha, we also find the Dharma and therefore that the Sangha is the “means” through which we study the Dharma. According to Haneda-sensei, “If a person thinks that a Sangha is a means through which they study the Dharma, they are mistaken. A Sangha is not a means; it is the goal.” Isn’t that interesting? I think you can begin to see why scholars like Robert Sharf and presumably, Nobuo Haneda, would say that Buddhist Modernism is “misguided.”

To back up his statements, Dr. Haneda quotes from two sources, one very ancient and one very modern. The ancient source is of course, one of the most often-quoted passages from Shakyamuni Buddha himself, which is in the Samyutta Nikaya, one of the five sutra collections that make up the official Pali Canon. The passage is a dialog between the Buddha and his closest disciple Ananda:
-Ananda: “O, Venerable One, when I think carefully, it seems to me that my having good friends and being with them is equivalent to my having already passed the middle milepost of the Holy Path. What do you think about this view of mine?”
-Shakyamuni: “Ananda, that's wrong. Such a view is not correct. Ananda, our having good friends and being with them is not equivalent to our having passed the middle milepost of the Holy Path. Our having good friends and being with them is itself the entire Holy Path.” Dr. Haneda emphasizes how inadequate Ananda’s appreciation of the Sangha is and that Shakyamuni says that having good friends and being with them is everything in Buddhism. As Haneda-sensei points out, “Shakyamuni says that there is nothing greater than having friends and being with them. It is liberation itself; apart from it, there is no liberation.”

The modern source that Dr. Haneda quotes is from Rev. Rijin Yasuda (1900-1982), a student of Ryojin Soga; Soga-sensei himself was one of the Higashi reformer Manshi Kiyozawa’s most famous students. Dr. Haneda quotes Yasuda-sensei as saying, “People say various things about birth in the Pure Land. But could there be any greater birth in the Pure Land than the fact that we are now sitting and learning the Dharma together? All of us are selfish and self-centered. We are always thinking about ourselves. Being like that, none of us deserve to be part of the Sangha, of such a wonderful tradition as this. But now we are fortunate enough to be part of it. We are now forgetting our petty selves and are listening to the Dharma. This place where we are sitting and listening to the Dharma together is the Pure Land. Our being allowed to be part of it is birth in the Pure Land.” If what Rijin Yasuda says is true, that to be a part of a Sangha that is gathered together to listen to the dharma is in fact the realization of the Pure Land in this life, then can one experience the Pure Land, can one reach the “other shore” of Nirvana at all without being a part of the Sangha? If what Shakyamuni says to Ananda is true, that the fellowship of the Sangha is not half of but all of the path, what does this imply about those that label themselves “SBNR” or “nightstand Buddhists?”

I’d like to quote again from Dr. Haneda, who clarifies what the Sangha is and why it is significant. As Haneda-sensei says: “Both Shakyamuni and Rev. Yasuda consider that the Sangha is not a means but the goal. But a mere gathering of people is not the Sangha. The Sangha is the tradition of awakened individuals. Entering the tradition is ‘birth in the Pure Land.‘ There is not a greater goal in Buddhism than that.”

Of course, what does it mean though to “enter the tradition” as Dr. Haneda says? I think that the reality is, depending on one’s causes and conditions, simply entering and joining the Sangha may in fact be the most difficult thing. For example, we probably all know people we’d love to see here as regulars—they might be friends or family members—but they don’t come, or have said they want to come but don’t, and so forth. They are not part of the Sangha in the sense of having truly “entered the tradition.” But whether or not someone else enters the tradition or not isn’t really up to us. All we need to understand is that, once this “entering” is realized, everything becomes easy. A member of the Sangha is effortlessly nurtured and guided to Buddhahood by the power of the aspiration for buddhahood of their fellow seekers in the Sangha.

On a personal note, I think that one illustration of the significance of the Sangha is the fact that I began here over 20 years ago as a very skeptical and non-committal Buddhist Modernist, but then through fortunate causes and conditions, ended up receiving my kaikyoshi (resident minister) appointment last year. When I began here, the thought of my possibly becoming the temple’s minister someday never entered my mind. Trust me—it absolutely never entered my mind. But as we all know, due to a myriad of causes and conditions—due to my being a member of this Sangha—well, I did in fact become a resident minister. I think this clearly illustrates the significance of the Sangha. Now, as a temple minister, I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to serve the Sangha and at the same time, to listen as a member of the sangha.

As you know, in Jodo Shinshu, we don’t have the so-called “modern” or preferred practices such as Zen meditation. Instead, our only “practice” is listening to the Dharma. And because our tradition is a Mahayana tradition, and Mahayana in particular emphasizes the importance of the Sangha, in a profound sense, there is actually no individual growth per se in Mahayana. Because of the truth of interdependence, not only does our personal growth depend on our being a part of the Sangha, our growth depends on the growth of our fellow Sangha members. This is another way of expressing the Bodhisattva ideal—I cannot become a buddha until all beings everywhere become buddhas.

In conclusion, I know that those of you who are here today enjoy being a member of our Sangha and enjoy listening to the Dharma. I hope you continue to enjoy coming to temple and listening. If you do, your enthusiasm will naturally spread to your fellow Sangha members. And I think a Sangha that sincerely enjoys listening to the Dharma together is all that is needed for this temple to grow and thrive.

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