26 January 2017

Anti-structure

Some years ago, there were about 120 Order members living in Cambridge and attendance at our public events was declining (which is no longer true). We were having Order meetings in those days and the subject came up. I suggested that instead of our usual offerings of graded classes for beginners led by "teachers" that we should instead all turn up on one night a week, meditate, perform a devotional ritual, and then have a cup of tea and a chat with whoever was around. I suggested that 120 of us, in one place, at our best, could inspire a lot more people to join us, just by befriending them, than by relying on the atmosphere of the classroom that we cultivate at present. My plan was to eschew any formal instruction, but to allow people to interact with a large number of Order Members in an unstructured way and thus absorb our culture more naturally. Anyway, we are mostly not teachers per se, but exemplars, i.e. people who strive to cultivate virtues and transform our minds, and to relate to other people on this basis. A classroom-style setting is really not the best way for people to experience this. A period of formal practice followed by a social interaction seems to me to be far better. It is better when it happens.

But the response was lukewarm at best. One Order member present said she would not participate in anything that was required of her. Other's felt that even the structure that I suggested was too rigid (!). No one saw the point I was making about members of the Order being exemplars rather than teachers. The idea was a complete flop. I still think, however, that our approach is wrong. It's geared to middle-class British people. They have a particular kind of relationship to school and education that makes it hard for them not to see the paradigm as attractive.

So we still offered structured classes and formal study groups. We have no events that are aimed at socialising. We don't see ourselves as exemplars we see ourselves as teachers. And I don't see how this helps us to build a community.

Perhaps this avoiding of purely social events is because of a bias that goes beyond our movement. There is a tendency in WEIRD countries to see the "real Buddhism" as being about inner transformation and to relegate all the other aspects of Buddhism to a lower category that might scornfully be called "cultural Buddhism". We can call this Two Jewels Buddhism, in contrast to Three Jewels Buddhism which values Saṃgha alongside Buddha and Dharma. Buddhism is often reduced to mere meditation. But ethics is part of our path as well, and ethics is all about how we interact with other people. So opportunities to see how Buddhists interact with other people must be valuable. The more formalised such opportunities are the less we see how ethics shapes the Buddhist's life. We have to see Buddhists in informal situations, and share their lives to some extent to really see how being Buddhist shapes that life. 

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