While the Buddhist religion is much older than Christianity, it is still a new and fragile import in western countries. In recent years there has been a lot of public interest in the Buddhist teachings. This interest has fueled an ongoing debate in Western Buddhist circles about the most skilful ways to integrate these originally Asian teachings into the very different cultures of Europe and America. In Buddhist countries, the religion has always been structured around a solid core of monasticism. In South-East Asia the sight of a line of robed monks walking silently on their daily almsround is a common one. To most Asian Buddhists, it would be impossible to imagine Buddhism without monks and monasteries.
Some Western Buddhists have questioned the relevance of this institutionalized form of practise. These critics claim that the Buddhist monastic order preserves a patriarchal hierarchy incompatible with Western values of democracy and gender equality. Underlying these objections may be a more basic perception of the incompatibility of an ancient institution with a modern civilization. Western culture is based on the idea of progress and innovation, whereas Buddhist monasticism is deeply conservative, preserving rules and modes of dress and life from two and a half millennia ago. Western culture is materialistic and hedonistic, whereas Buddhist monastic practise is centered on renunciation, celibacy and sense restraint.
Perhaps even more fundamental is the historical fact that much of the West deliberately rejected its own monastic tradition in the upheaval of the sixteenth century Reformation. The Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman has argued that the rejection of the contemplative tradition and lifestyle turned Northern European society pathologically extrovert, and that the energy that had been turned inward was now turned outward in colonialism and war.
While Thurman's thesis may be debated, it does point to the value of monasticism as an institution supporting contemplation, simplicity and non-violence. In this increasingly violent and insane world, it may be critically important to our sanity, possibly to our survival, that such islands of peace and calm as monasteries provide continue to exist. To the chronically "practical" the life of the contemplative recluse seems useless or even frivolous. Nevertheless, the simple existence of a monastic lifestyle serves the greater society immeasurably, as an example and perhaps as an admonition. It serves as living proof that it is possible to live a humane life based on contentment and compassion. There are alternatives to greed and violence.
I recently had the privilege to attend the Seventh Inter monastic Buddhist Conference held at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a Chan monastery in California. This meeting brought together monks and nuns of several different Buddhist lineages to discuss the possibilities and problems of maintaining monastic practise in the West.
This kind of meeting is important in a couple of ways. First, the coming together of the various schools in harmony is something of historic importance. The various branches of Buddhism have long been separated by geography, and having grown apart in Asia, are now rediscovering each other after hundreds of years. We are finding a lot of common ground to talk about.
Second, the meeting demonstrates the ongoing vitality of Buddhist monasticism as an institution. I went away very encouraged for the future. While I got a definite sense that all the lineages have a strong commitment to preservation of their respective traditions, there was also a healthy willingness to discuss and consider problem areas like gender equity. Outsiders may think of monasticism as an ossified anachronism, but from the inside it looks very much like a growth industry. The crucial problem will be to find ways to make the traditional forms relevant in this new culture.