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Friday, June 23, 2006

Bad Feng Shui

In Which America Gets Dissed by a Chinese Buddhist Monk

Tonight Lila and I had dinner with our friend Mr. Wu and his family. Mr. Wu is a government officer--and a high-powered Buddhist. He and our friend Wang Fu Qing (who introduced us to Mr. Wu) took us on an overnight trip to a temple in Guangzhou last year, where we dined with the abbot; and Mr. Wu often takes us to Summer Tea House, an elegantly-decorated vegetarian restaurant that actually has a shrine room inside.

Tonight, Mr. Wu brought along a monk from Hong Fa Temple, who turns out to be the head of the Shenzhen Buddhist Association. As usual, Diego, Mr. Wu's son, served as translator. (Mr. Wu speaks no English, and Diego is a senior at Shenzhen Foreign Language Middle School.) Diego had two shockers for me. One was when I asked the monk if there were any monks at Hong Fa Temple--a big, showcase temple--who could speak English. "Mei you," the monk replied, meaning "we don't have any." That much I got without translation. Diego then translated the next comment: "We have one monk who can say 'Yes,' 'No,' and 'OK.'" Wow. A place like that, all those resources, and no English-speaking monks. Mr. Wu is going to check into the idea of me offering an official tour once a month, just so the temple will offer some English instruction. [Update 2023: That never happened.]

The other revelation was more disturbing. Just after I sat down, apropos of nothing, the monk volunteered to the table (and poor Diego had to translate) his view that the Buddha-Dharma has little chance of success in other countries (outside of China) because they "lack good feng shui." Feng shui is the Chinese "science" of geomancy, placing buildings and other features in harmony with the land and, as the two words say, the "wind and water."

So wait: We're doomed? The dharma will never penetrate our minds and hearts because we were born in the wrong place? We can never get enlightened?

This smells to me of the rankest kind of chauvinism.

Numerous retorts rolled through my head. I wondered, for instance, if the Indians who brought Buddhism to China felt the same: That the Chinese would never "get it" because they hadn't been born in India. But I calmed myself, realizing that like most of us, this monk was a prisoner of his upbringing. And as I calmed down, I realized what I should say.

[Regarding the picture: The story is that Hui Neng "struck" a spring here at Nan Hua Temple. Devotees still come to fetch water at the spring; this picture is immediately over the fountainhead.]

Most of the monks I have met are descended from the lineage of Xuyun, the 20th-century monk who restored Nan Hua Temple in Shaoguan and revolutionized the southern sangha (monastic order). And Xuyun in turn is a dharma descendent of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch. So I remembered a passage in The Platform Sutra and repeated the story for this monk (Hui Neng is speaking):

I then went to pay homage to the [Fifth] Patriarch, and was asked where I came from and what I expected to get from him. I replied, "I am a commoner from Xin Zhou of Guangdong. I have traveled far to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but Buddhahood." "You are a native of Guangdong, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?" asked the Patriarch. I replied, "Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature." He was going to speak further to me, but the presence of other disciples made him stop short. He then ordered me to join the crowd to work.

So the Fifth Patriarch had no reply to this. Well, neither did my monk. He changed the subject.

One of the long-running discussions in American Buddhism centers on the nature of American Buddhism itself. How can the Dharma be extracted, as it were, from its cultural bindings and be freed for "translation" into another culture? And prior to the question of how, some insist we must ask the question if: CAN the dharma be translated at all?

Anyone with a knowledge of history knows that it can, because it has. It moved from India to China (among many other places); and these two cultural spheres, the Indian and the Chinese, are quite different. The "translation" into China wasn't easy. Somewhat ironically, it has been noted that in some ways Indian thought is more "Western" than Chinese thought. Indian philosophy is more analytical, more linguistics-based, more "scientific" in the Western sense of the word. So the step from China to the West is a big one, but perhaps the step from Indian models to the West would be easier.

One of the obstacles to the translation of Buddhism to the West is the very attitude exhibited by this monk. Here is a Keeper of the Dharma expressing (against all rules of etiquette) his opinion that this precious knowledge can never go West. Later, he said that there are many holy mountains in China, where the practice of generations of holy monks can be sensed by the visitor; and that other countries lack this echo of sanctity. Again, the dharma is exclusive to China's geography. (This ignores its smashing success as planted in Korea, Japan, and other countries.)

[Regarding the picture: Ven. Miao Hsi (our teacher) and Ven. Hui Chuan (the abbot) with the English-Language Dharma Class on the steps of Hsi Lai Temple's Main Hall. I'm near the top left (in a white shirt)]

In my own experience, I have found the "cultural bindings" to be problematic. I had the pleasure and honor to be on the staff of Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California. (You can follow my extensive tour of the temple, "An Ascent of Hsi Lai Temple.") The monks and nuns there are delightful, dedicated, hard-working, compassionate, giving people. And yet it is tremendously difficult for them to pass on the dharma to the West because, with few exceptions, the sangha (monastic order) there is made up of people from the Chinese cultural sphere (especially Taiwan). In order for non-Chinese people to participate in the temple's activities, they have to climb over the "cultural threshold" to get in. This is not because of any malevolent design on the part of the temple; it is a simple side-effect of the Chinese-ness of the place. Look at the opening statement on their [former] English web page: "We are delighted that you have shown an interest in Chinese culture and in Buddhism and have chosen to visit us."

So I will finish with a question for you to ponder: How much of "Truth" is true regardless of culture, and how much is intrinsically woven into culture? How can we discern what is true and what is merely culturally conditioned?

And can the Buddha-Dharma be successful in a country with bad feng shui?

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Update, June 28: I hesitate to add this, because it sounds like I'm bragging. (And maybe I am. A little.) But I think it's important to see what happens when someone who grew up "cloistered"--in many ways--comes in contact with the outside world.

I saw Diego, my "translator," today, and we talked about the monk a little bit. Diego, too, was shocked by the apparent rudeness of the monk's comment. But he said that later in the conversation, after we left, the monk said he was impressed by my grasp of the Dharma. So perhaps he will discover that something as wonderful as the Buddha's teachings cannot be suppressed by feng shui?

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