(Warning: the following is a highly cerebral mini-treatise on Buddhist stuff. If you're not interested in Buddhist stuff, this will likely bore you to tears, and I advise that you read something interesting, like this post on the empirically validated benefits of mindfulness.)
In the ongoing, seemingly endless, but always somehow interesting discussion about the translation of Buddhism from a diverse, geographically scattered, premodern multiplex of religious sects, to a semi-unified, secularized, and modern/post-modern discourse on the tribulations of our hyper-tech moment, there is one topic that has, at least in my experience, not yet been adequately plumbed -
The difference between Asian and Western teachers.
There is a lot to unpack here. Culture, training, ethnic loyalties, geographic realities. But for today's post I'd like to look at an oversimplified-yet-still-helpful distinction that I've found to be true nearly across the board in my twenty-plus years of stumbling around in the Buddhist world.
1. The Asian teachers I've had are, for the most part, better practitioners.
2. The Western teachers I've had are, for the most part, better teachers.
Now, there are a host of problems inherent in the above declarations. Like the sheer impossibility of identifying who is a "better" practitioner. And the troublesome quandary of what it means to be a "better" teacher. But I like imperfect declarations because they allow imperfect conversations. And those, of course, are the only kinds of conversations there are.
Asians Teachers Are Better Practitioners
What I mean here is that my Asian teachers have, for the most part, more fully integrated the subtleties of their particular lineage dharma.
They have (usually) practiced more hours of meditation, sometimes by an order of magnitude. They (usually) have more impeccable ethics. They (almost always) have a more encyclopedic knowledge of the rites and rituals that carry the underlying meaning of the tradition. And they have (usually) memorized more texts, which is a surprisingly important corollary to advanced practice.
Taking all that together, and since they almost always started practicing at a young age, sometimes practically from birth, my Asian teachers have more often uprooted the destructive emotions, and more fully accomplished the promises of the Buddhist path.
Which is great. Amazing really. Incredibly inspirational.
And yet. Their ability to convey the depths of their understanding to a non-Asian audience is often limited. By language. By culture. And, I'm sorry to say, by a kind of ethnic chauvinism that too often blocks their ability to clearly perceive the very students they are attempting to teach, and to offer accurate and supportive feedback that will develop those students.
This dynamic often leaves their students lost in practice eddies, confused about basic doctrinal points, and, worst of all, convinced that they are hopeless meditators who couldn't possibly advance in the tradition.
Western Teachers Are Better Teachers
Taking the above categories, the reverse is often true of my Western teachers. They've usually practiced less hours of meditation, have a more complex relationship to ethics, don't know ritual all that well, and have less of the canon memorized.
And yet. In my view, and in my experience, their students advance far more quickly along the path. They nail down the outlines of the view, meditation, and conduct within months or a few years. They integrate the underlying meaning into their lives more readily and more seamlessly. And perhaps most importantly, they don't struggle with the same culturally sanctioned inferiority complex.
So What's the Answer?
To be clear, I am not saying "don't study with Asian teachers." I study with Asian teachers. I even study with Asian teachers who suffer from the very limitations I've stated above. I study with them because they are incredibly accomplished scholars and practitioners who offer a wealth of dharma teaching that can, very literally, lead the mind to the end of suffering.
I would offer, though, to those who choose to study with Asian teachers: know their limitations. Not to challenge those limitations, not to teach the teachers how to teach, but just to know for your own integration that these teachers have strengths and weaknesses, and you, as a student, are very much allowed to be clear about what those are. This is not, in my view, a violation of the student-teacher relationship, and does not, I don't think, interfere with the devotional aspects of that relationship, or with your ability to receive the teachings in their purest form.
On the other hand, I also believe it is essential for Western students to study with Western teachers. There is something tremendously fruitful about engaging the dharma with a qualified teacher who shares your cultural heritage and understanding, who was educated in a secular context, who has, quite frankly, suffered the sufferings of a post-modern, post-capitalist Westerner, and used the dharma to overcome those particular sufferings.
Finally, I see a new model emerging in some of the more successful Buddhist communities. A kind of hybrid, in which a highly qualified Asian lineage holder offers teachings, and their advanced Western disciples then interpret those teachings for Western students through the lens of their own secular, non-monastic lives and language. I happen to like this new model. Quite a lot. And I’m hoping more communities will begin to adopt it as we move forward with this grand experiment in translation we’re all so much in the midst of at the moment.
So that's what I've got. For now. I'm still thinking these things through for myself. Shoot me an email if you have anything to add or subtract.
Sending good wishes,