Now, anyone who reads this blog with any regularity (meaning me, basically) knows that I started out with a Chinese/Taiwanese order called Fo Guang Shan, but lost interest in them for what I've called political reasons. You also know that I actually left Fo Guang Shan some time ago. Well, I'm making it official today, and using this forum to offer what I think of as constructive critique.
First, I should point out that "lost interest" may be a bit harsh, and probably isn't entirely accurate. But at some point, I made the decision to stop going there. For me, this wasn't a judgmental thing, I still like them and all that stuff. Fo Guang Shan are good people, and I love all the people I met there during my time with them. It's just that, as a worldwide Buddhist Order, they're missing some huge opportunities.
See, the idea behind Fo Guang Shan is to spread the dharma throughout the world. This is (obviously) the stated goal of all such organizations, right? To help facilitate that, Fo Guang Shan has spread itself throughout the world. They quite famously have a large temple here in Houston, for just that purpose. While not as substantial as Hsi Lai Temple in LA, Chung Mei Temple in Stafford, Texas is a sizable compound, built as part of Fo Guang Shan's mission to propagate the Dharma in all parts of the world.
So then, why aren't they doing it? A few years ago, my sifu at the temple told me that the idea was to eventually have American monastics running the temples in the US, Australian monastics running the temples in Australia, German monastics in Germany, and so on. But I spent three years in the temple in Stafford, and mine was one of only two non-Chinese faces there during that time (not counting those who were there for the Chinese language classes or the Tai Chi classes, etc). One major reason for this is that, during that time, absolutely zero instruction was offered in English. Dharma talks, meditation instruction, half-day retreats, chanting services and other liturgical ceremonies, even special guest lectures were all conducted in Mandarin. Even the Short Term Monastic Retreat at Hsi Lai Temple was almost completely in Mandarin. How are you spreading the dharma to non-Chinese people, if you insist on only using the Chinese language? Much of what I learned during my time there was because of the years I spent in the Chinese language classes.
The vision is a grand one: American Buddhists, with their American schedules and American interests, driving American vehicles or whatever, studying and following the teachings of the Buddha, according to an American interpretation, running their Buddhist temples, even if under the direction of the older and more experienced Taiwanese masters from Khaishiung. But a few basic steps need to be taken in order for the right conditions to be in place for anything like that to happen.
1. First, all services should be offered in English. I'm not suggesting that Chinese (or any other language) can't be spoken, or even that it can't be the primary language used in the order; but your devotees, parishioners or whatever need to be able to understand your message.
2. Some form of program should exist, whereby westerners can aspire to monastic service within the order. I once asked about the possibility of one day becoming a monastic in the Fo Guang Shan order, and I was told that it basically won't happen, because novice monastics live and train at the main temple compound in Taiwan, and instruction is given only in Chinese. Culturally and liguistically, I was told, Americans are a poor fit. This needs to change. When Americans see other Americans in the monastic robes, and when interaction has begun between the society at large and a cadre of American monastics, the American laity will begin to grow in earnest.
3. Buddhist orders serving the American people should stay out of politics. All are welcome to share their opinions, of course - this is the best of the American tradition - but scandals involving illegal campaign contributions, etc, only serve to damage the credibility of everything we're trying to achieve. Also, I would caution American Buddhists and those serving the American sangha to temper their political speech. Not everyone listening to your dharma talk will agree with your politics, and you'll offend more people than you'll help.
Again, I don't mean to bash Fo Guang Shan, only to offer assistance, maybe some guidance in their quest to propagate the dharma. I was at a lecture once in the temple, which had been advertised as "Open to the General Public." But when the speaker began, it was suddenly clear to all in attendance that the lecture was to be given in Chinese, and the few non-Chinese locals who'd shown up quickly got up and left. I think this event sums it up nicely. Play to American audiences if you want an American audience.
By contrast, in Tibetan Buddhism, a number of orders are flourishing here in the West. My next entry will be an exploration of my newest adventure in Buddhism: Shambhala.