JKhedrup wrote:The Chinese temples on the other hand often function as cultural centres for the Chinese diaspora. The cultural aspects can be overwhelming for people with no knowledge of Chinese language and customs. Many Westerners who I met at a Chinese temple where I stayed in Canada for a time specifically mentioned the dharma functions (fa hue??? forgetting...) as particularly alienating. Bowing in unison, trying to put the sash on the haiqing perfectly, and a very stern formal atmosphere are difficult for many to take. People feel uneasy and afraid to make a mistake (afraid to fart, as one man said).
Yeah, that is something they don't realize isn't so pan-cultural.
I once signed up for bodhisattva precepts and spent the first three days learning how to "properly" bow, prostrates, put on the haiqing robe, etc..., and then we went through the whole ceremony on a practice run (it didn't count). Finally on the morning of the fourth day we did it for real
. There is a stated belief in Chinese Buddhism that the more grandeur and choreographed the ceremony, the greater the impact it will have in transforming practitioners. This works for them and has its roots in very ancient Chinese customs, but that doesn't translate well into many other cultures.
This is unlike in Tibetan gonpas where you can prostrate any which old way you care to. Seating is usually first come first serve. I found the gonpas in Nepal and India to be pretty chill. There might dog shit all over the ground outside while the Lama is sitting there reading the paper, but that kind of atmosphere is just really relaxing. This is unlike in, say, a Chan hall where filthiness is somehow a sign of someone's practice lacking and must be corrected immediately.
Another thing to mention is that many Westerners like to study in a linear, progressive fashion- similar to how they studies in school. In many of the Gelug centres (perhaps this is the case in other centres too), this is quite possible. One can begin foundational studies on progressive text like the Lam Rim or Bodhisattvacaryavatara to get a firm basis, and then seek teachings on tougher topics like Madhyamika, and take classes on tantric practices.
That's a good point. Chinese Buddhism has plenty of similar treatises like those by Zhiyi, though they are largely left to scholars to read and study. Ordinarily people are taught how to do choreographed motions to music which is supposed to be a transformative process (again this goes back to ancient classical thought where Confucius had the same ideas), whereas with westerners we tend to want to understand the theory and see rites as entirely secondary (and unnecessary in many cases). With Taiwanese Buddhism they'll probably give little booklets by their grand master or Shifu detailing easy to understand ideas rather than introducing them to something more rich and critical.
With the exception of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, none of the Chinese temples I have visited offer a complete, in-depth study program with qualified teachers in English, other than very brief introductory courses. Even for the Western born Chinese kids, many of them told my they found the sutra lectures interesting but felt they were very piecemeal, and it was hard to develop a firm knowledge.
It has been suggested to me before that many Taiwanese people interested in Buddhist philosophy don't look to Chinese traditions and just go straight to Tibetan Buddhism. The bookstore certainly reflects the interest in TB in Taiwan.
Tibetan lamas are in general more casual and approachable than Chinese masters. While a Chinese bhikshu or bhikshuni might consider it inappropriate to appear in photos holding babies with an arm around the student, for most Tibetan lamas this would not be a problem. The emphasis on being "chuangyen" or dignified is what allows the Sangha to be respected in the Chinese community, but ironically to many Westerners it seems stiff and unwelcoming.
Yeah, this is pertinent, too. There is a stated belief that Venerables in Chinese Buddhism should maintain a strict image of purity and grandeur so as to preserve the faith of devotees for the fear that doing otherwise they'll be wrecked and abandoned Buddhism. I think this is also in response to the devotees perhaps wanting infallible monks and nuns to look up to. This leads itself to personality cults where a group's Shifu approaches divinity and the system does everything it can to preserve that image. It comes across as cultish to many outsiders.
There's also the belief that laity have no right to criticize renunciates, which many Chinese monastics like to repeat. The texts actually just say not speaking of the faults of renunciates (like seeing a monk drinking, you're not supposed to broadcast it to everyone as it harms the well-being of the sangha and community), though it doesn't say you can't challenge them on their opinions and criticize their statements. However, it isn't described like this at all. Criticism, both internal and external, is disdained and discouraged.
You have teachers tell people from the start to empty their cup and not have preconceived notions when listening to a teaching. This isn't a wise approach with critically thinking people who would much rather be able to debate and reason with a teacher rather than simply taking it all on faith or with a blank mind. Especially if you're addressing people who arn't entirely convinced about whatever it is you have to say.