issue 18 spring 02
15 | 16 | 17 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | current

Global truths and noble hearts

We can find freedom in fellowship, argues Subhuti, if we expand our horizons through the practice of internationality.

Internationality is a spiritual practice. It requires imaginative identification with others and opens us up beyond our particular conditioning. The fact that the Western Buddhist Order embraces men and women from many different nations is a spiritual practice for each person individually and for everyone collectively. If we had 1,000 men and women as members of the Order who were all white English people of a certain social class, the Order would not be a true spiritual fellowship, and it is far richer for bringing together as it does people from roughly 40 nationalities. The same is true as far as the different elements of our own societies are concerned. We can gain a great deal through reaching out to different ethnic and social groups in our countries. But my strongest experience of this has been in encountering people from different countries altogether.

For the past 15 years I have been visiting the Buddhists who are involved in our movement in India, and over the past eight years I have spent longer periods there. As a westerner, when you go to India you face your own conditioning by contrast. No doubt that is true of going to any country, but for western Buddhists, visiting Indian Buddhists is probably the strongest contrast you could have. It's a question, firstly, of the basic matters of life: eating, sleeping, toilet habits. All those are done in a very different way, and the contrast confronts you with the extent to which you are conditioned. So you realise more fully your own conditioned nature.

Even more challenging is encountering a traditional society that is still based on the extended family as an intact social unit within a wider community that is an effective social context. In the East people feel they belong to a wider society that has direct impact upon them; and their membership of it is vitally important to them. Few people in the West have that. We do not often feel ourselves to belong to a family in the way people do in India, let alone to a wider community.

I was brought up in an English village, but I don't really know anybody there and none of them care much about what I am up to. But in India we encounter a social situation that is completely different from what we have in the post-modern West.

Now that I am well accustomed to it, I find it fascinating to watch westerners visit India for the first time. Their reactions vary from being totally overwhelmed (the commonest reaction) to making the arrogant assumption that they understand what is happening. Sometimes people seem to come to conclusions about Indian society and culture in the taxi on the way from the airport.

I recently observed some visitors of a few days discussing Indian puritanism - about which they were indignant. However, there is no puritanism in India, in the western sense. Where there are restrictions, for instance, on sexual behaviour they are not based on the idea that sex is sinful or anything of that kind; Indian conventional morality in this area comes from a different basis. Those westerners were reading their own assumptions into what was going on around them. However, if people stay a while longer, they have to recognise the extent to which they are looking from within their own conditioning. They start to see that we have to suspend judgement and learn to understand Indian conditioning more fully.

To do this we have to face our own conditioning. Certain people in the West believe they have broken through their conditioning. Many western Buddhists come from 'alternative' backgrounds and have gone to a great deal of trouble to rid themselves of various inhibitions. So they think it essential to being a full human being that one breaks out of one's inhibitions. This can lead them to look down on those who hold traditional values and to assume that they are more conditioned.

One visitor to India many years ago insisted on smoking cigarettes in public. Now, among India Buddhists smoking is considered morally and socially reprehensible. So he was gently asked not to smoke, at least in public. But, no, he said he wouldn't stop because he wanted to break down Indians' conditioning. Actually, we have our own conditioning. It is a different kind of conditioning, a post-traditional conditioning; but it is still conditioning, it is strong and it has its own limitations.

This works the other way for Indians as well, but there is more to it for them. In India most 'New Buddhists' are socially isolated. They belong to a strong social group of their own, but that group is not regarded kindly by most other groups in India. (This is partly because they came mainly from the poorest social group, previously known as 'Untouchables'.) In response Indian Buddhists tend to isolate themselves yet further. So meeting westerners shows them that they are not completely on their own. There are people from different backgrounds, different continents, who regard them as their brothers and sisters and who want to be in effective contact with them.

They can experience themselves not as an isolated social grouping within a hostile social context, but as valued and appreciated members of a worldwide community. And in that meeting they have an opportunity to examine and experience their own social and cultural conditioning. In that way they can begin to grow beyond it, although it is important to add that this does not mean simply adopting western attitudes and conditioning.

When we get together with someone with the same conditioning as ourselves, it is usually quite easy for us to understand each other. For example, we know how to interpret gestures and facial expressions. I have noticed with my Spanish friends that they often haven't a clue what British people mean by their facial expressions - or perhaps lack of them. A Brit knows exactly what is indicated by the merest twitch of the side of the mouth or deflection of the eyes. But these are virtually invisible to a Spaniard - he has no idea what is going on.

When you are with people who share your conditioning there are things that you take for granted, because you understand the background and assumptions against which they are said. You know, for instance, that the way the British continually have little goes at one another does not mean they hate each other. It is just their way of being affectionate.

Certain things that people from one culture find unpleasant are taken in another culture as normal, friendly behaviour. Actually telling somebody what you feel about them bluntly is bad manners in middle-class England. Whereas, for Spaniards, it is normal that if you feel irritated with somebody you tell them so. Then the problem is often cleared up quickly. But if you put the two sets of people together, the English may try to let the Spaniards know by indirect means that they had irritated them six months before, and the Spaniards find this all very contained and puzzling.

However, although we may easily understand people who share our background, we do so generally only to a certain level. It is easy for us to stay on that level and rub along imagining we are in tune with each other, without touching greater depths. An Order of British or American Buddhists could easily remain a group of Brits or Americans with a degree of interest in Buddhism. And the narrower the range of backgrounds, even within a single country, the more this applies.

When we meet someone with a different conditioning, we have to connect at a deeper level, in order to go beyond the incomprehension and incompatibilities that our different backgrounds throw up. The effort of imagination that is required is much greater, and we have to touch the other person as a human being.

In the context of the WBO, that means meeting as human beings who Go for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I had a strong experience of this during my first visit to India. I was talking with an Order member called Bodhidharma and we told each other our life stories - which could hardly have been more different. At a certain point I realised, with a sense of wonder, that I could never have met this man under normal circumstances, and far less have shared so deeply with him. But we met at the point of greatest depth and greatest significance to both of us - the point at which we committed ourselves to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha when we were ordained.

It was because there was so much we did not have in common, that we had to meet at the deepest level. In this way, when we are with somebody whose conditioning is different from ours we are challenged or even forced to go beyond ourselves to find what we have most profoundly in common.

This is why in our Order we try to reach out to people of different backgrounds. You might almost say, we urge ourselves to come into contact with others with whom we have relatively little in common in terms of culture, or even language, because that makes us touch what is deepest in ourselves and what is deepest in the other.

The practice of internationality forces us to become a genuine spiritual Order because it helps us to avoid settling down with a set of assumptions, or a certain way of relating. If we think that our habits and attitudes are Buddhism, we are in danger of mistaking our own culture for the Dharma. So the practice of internationality, by forcing us to reach beyond any boundaries that we have presently established, takes us deeper into what a true spiritual community really is.

Internationality is a powerful way in which we can put into practice our effort to transcend all limited perspectives, without denying the value of individual cultures and conditionings. Transcending our own conditioning does not mean obliterating difference nor ignoring the values of individual cultures. It means recognising them and meeting beyond them. After all, we hold it important in the FWBO that we find points of connection between the Dharma and the culture within which we are operating; and we seek ways of communicating the Dharma through those cultures and conditionings. At the same time it is vital to go beyond particular cultures and conditionings in the sense of not identifying ourselves exclusively with them. We need to recognise that whether we're American, British, Indian, Spanish or whatever - and whether we're black, white or hispanic - we are first and foremost human beings who are trying to follow the Buddha's teaching.