Twenty-eight men and women sit in a loose circle on a tatami- covered floor. All have shaven heads, all are wearing robes but there are several different colours and styles. We are watching as one of the group, an American women in Tibetan robes, demonstrates the method of making a mandala offering. She carefully pours coloured beads from her hand onto a metal disc while chanting melodically. This is the opening day of the eighth annual Western Buddhist Monastic Conference, which was held from Nov. 7- 11, 2002, at the Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas monastery near Ukiah, California.
This annual conference brings together Buddhist monks and nuns from a wide range of traditions. This year's conference saw representatives from the Theravada, Zen, Chan, and Tibetan schools. Most participants were born in North America and are converts to Buddhism, all have taken precept vows and ordination in a traditional Asian lineage. The gathering is a small and quiet affair, which doesn't get much notice even in the Buddhist periodicals. Nevertheless, the very fact that such a meeting can be held at all represents an important historical development in modern Buddhism.
For one thing, it has traditionally been accepted that the Buddha-Dharma is established in a country when native sons are ordaining native sons. This is beginning to happen in several lineages. The monastic form represents the institutional aspect of a mature Buddhist tradition, and this is now firmly established on North American soil.
An even more exciting development is the interchange between schools that have been sundered for many centuries. In Asia, geography, language and culture separated the original Buddhist teachings into several very different branches. The life of a Thai Forest monk is very different from the life of a Soto Zen priest or a Tibetan lama. They wear different robes, they follow different rules and the institutional structures are very far apart.
But now, in the twenty-first century west, all these lineages are coming together and meeting on common ground. We are finding that we have a lot in common, and a lot to learn from each other. This intra-Buddhist dialogue is an important aspect of the wider movement to inter-faith dialogue. The more people of various faiths get together and share ideas and experiences in an open-hearted way, the less misunderstanding and conflict there will be.
This inter-school dialogue is beginning to move beyond the stage of talk. The Abhayagiri Forest Monastery (Thai Forest Tradition) and the Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Chinese Mahayana) now send representatives to participate in each others' ordination ceremonies. This is another quiet but significant movement towards Buddhist unity. It is most importantly a formal recognition of each other's status as genuine representatives of the Buddha's lineage.
The theme of the conference this year was "True to the Source." This highlights the principle challenge facing Buddhists in this new world, and new era. We must find ways to move with the times, incorporating new technologies and adapting to living in non-Buddhist cultures, and yet we must do so without abandoning the core of the tradition, the "heart-wood of the Bodhi tree". Speakers at the conference dealt with various aspects of this challenge such as carrying forward our teachers legacy and finding suitable ways of living as monks and nuns in either urban or rural settings.
This was a serious mature level of discourse, some of the participants have been in robes twenty or thirty years. It was heartening for anyone who cares about the future of the Dharma. It seems like Buddhism is here to stay as part of the religious mosaic of North America.