Three important issues emerged: (1) the tension between the monastic and householder leadership models, (2) the content of leadership training, and (3) new gender expectations.
At a 2010 forum hosted by the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in suburban Philadelphia, presenters addressed adaptations occurring in the leadership of four Buddhist traditions in the United States, while ensuing discussions touched on adaptations across American Buddhism. Three important issues emerged: (1) the tension between the monastic and householder leadership models, (2) the content of leadership training, and (3) new gender expectations.
I will discuss each of these leadership issues in turn, drawing upon the forum presentations1 and other sources. I will conclude with a comparative analysis of the Buddhist and Christian contexts and advocate the benefits of sharing insights about leadership across religious traditions.
Tension between Monastic and Householder Leadership Models
The Buddha privileged the monastic path to enlightenment. "There are two kinds of happiness, O monks," he says in the Anguttara Nikaya. "The happiness of the home life and the happiness of monkhood. But the happiness of monkhood is the higher of the two."2 The Buddha established monastic orders that renounced the householder path in order to pursue a holy or sacred life (brahmacariya) under a disciplinary code (vinaya) with celibacy as its primary rule.
This monastic model of religious leadership has maintained a powerful hold on Buddhists even when alternative models arose. In Japan, for instance, the great majority of Buddhist clergy have been married since the Meiji period (1868-1912). As Richard Jaffe explains in Neither Monk nor Layman (whose title evokes the tension between the monastic and householder models), "The departure of Japanese Buddhism from the monastic and ascetic emphasis of most other forms of Buddhism is striking."3 Jaffe reports that Japanese lay Buddhists generally prefer married clergy, whereas clergy opinion is mixed - the disconnect between the practice of clergy marriage and the monastic ideal "has continued to trouble many clerics until the present day."4 One Nichiren Shu minister, himself married, expresses his dismay: "Monks do not get married in Taiwan, China, Tibet, and so forth. It is only in Japan that Buddhist priests get married. . . . Thus, from the beginning, Japanese priests are looked down upon. This is a big problem, and Japanese Buddhism will be ruined in the near future."5
The founder of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan, Nichiren Daishonin (1222-82), considered monastic precepts impractical for most people in the present era, emphasizing instead adherence to the Lotus Sutra. Yet not only did Nichiren himself follow a monastic lifestyle, he advocated that "though one may have had a wife and family when one was a follower of the provisional schools, in a time of great trouble such as the present, he should cast all these aside and devote himself to the propagation of the correct teaching."6
Even so, like most Japanese Buddhist clergy today, Nichiren Shu ministers are typically married. Ryuei Michael McCormick, an American minister and one of the presenters at the 2010 forum in Philadelphia, was not required to cast aside his family or leave his secular job when he was ordained as what he calls a "householder-clergy." He believes that this model is "very compatible with the needs of North Americans who . . . do not wish to renounce family life or career" in order to pursue a ministerial vocation.7 The key is to maintain a "priestly spirit" while living in society, as this excerpt from the Nichiren Shu ordination materials explains: "Those priests with priestly spirit, who will never become contaminated by the worldly evils while associating with the secular world and who will walk with confidence on the way of saving the society, are disciples of the Eternal True Buddha."8
Brought to the United States by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-87), Shambhala Buddhism considers the Tibetan models of householder yogi and married lama well suited to Western society and thus trains nonmonastic meditation teachers and ministers as its primary leaders.
Yet Trungpa established Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia as a monastic complement to lay practice. Trungpa's son and the current leader of Shambhala, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, emphasized the importance of a symbiotic relationship to a group of monastics: "Lay people could develop a better understanding of and appreciation for monasticism. At the same time, the monastics need not hold themselves completely separate from the community at large. What you do can be inspirational for other people, and it can all bounce back and forth. . . . I feel that having practice centers and having people who are there dedicating themselves completely to dharma practice is kind of a cosmic support for other people within the community."9 Gampo Abbey residents live under monastic vows whether they intend to do so permanently or merely until resuming lay life.
Won Buddhism's founder, Sot'aesan (1891-1943), recognized the advantages of monastic life but criticized institutional monasticism in Korea for being disconnected from the experiences of lay Buddhists. He envisioned the ordained devotee (in Korean, cheonmuchulsin) as a leader who connects religious practice and daily life, thereby providing a powerful role model for laypeople in how to practice the Dharma.
But the adaptation of the Korean model of the ordained devotee to the American context has become a topic of discussion. Currently, ordained devotees cannot take an outside job. This can place an economic strain on the family of a married ordained devotee and can also weigh heavily on his wife, since she is responsible for maintaining the household finances. (Female ordained devotees cannot marry; see below.) Moreover, it is not uncommon for married ordained devotees to neglect their familial duties in their wholehearted commitment to their clergy calling. The Won Institute's Bokin Kim contends that "in Won Buddhism in the U.S.A., it seems more realistic to encourage ordained clergy who wish to marry to have special skills or knowledge that will allow them to earn a living. In addition, they need to be trained in how to balance those two responsibilities [clergy and family]."10
A symbiotic relationship between the monastic Sangha and householders has been a hallmark of traditional Theravada Buddhism. The number of Theravada monks in the United States has increased steadily in recent decades, with more than one thousand now residing in approximately 360 temples, including about two dozen non-Asian monks. In addition, as many as twenty-five Theravada nuns now reside in at least 10 temples in the United States and Canada, a significant development given that the Theravada bhikkhuni order was only reestablished in 1996.11
But the traditional monastic leadership model has been rejected or modified by some Theravada and Theravada-inspired groups in the United States. For instance, the Vipassana or Insight Meditation movement prefers lay meditation teachers, some of whom studied under monks and/or took monastic vows for a time. A few temples, such as Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles, have developed innovative religious statuses for laypeople, partly to accommodate individuals who wish to exceed the expectations of ordinary lay practice. Some of these statuses require celibacy.
Content of Leadership Training
Buddhist groups must determine the kind of training that will prepare effective leaders in the United States. Often this requires adapting or supplementing traditional protocols.
In my experience, most foreign-born monks in U.S. Theravada temples are well trained in Buddhist studies but have only a rudimentary understanding of American society and struggle to communicate with American-born Buddhists. In an attempt to address such shortcomings, Thai monks undergo a three-month training period before leaving for the United States, which includes topics in English language, American culture and law, and clergy ethics. This last is particularly important in light of the leadership scandals in a number of American Buddhist groups.12 We are beginning to see cases of clergy misconduct in American Theravada temples, and it remains to be seen whether the ethical checks provided by the monastic disciplinary code (vinaya) will suffice to stem this development. Other Buddhist groups have implemented ethical safeguards for their leadership, including the Vipassana movement and Shambhala.
Clergy roles and expectations in the United States can differ greatly from Buddhist home countries, thus calling for applied training here. Rev. McCormick, an American Nichiren Shu minister, explains that Buddhists in Japan tend not to look to their ministers for spiritual counseling. But it is different here. "In my own ministry in San Francisco over the last nine years," he reports, "I have found that people will come to me looking for spiritual answers or advice in regard to infidelity on the part of spouses or children with mental health issues or drug addiction." This leads Rev. McCormick to advocate continuing clergy education and perhaps certification: "Buddhist ministers in North America should be trained in how to deal with these issues, and depending on state laws they might need to enter additional programs to get certification in things like marriage counseling. So the Japanese Buddhist clerical model is indeed compatible with North American lifestyles but still in need of adaptation and transformation if it is to meet the needs of North American people in the twenty-first century."13
Won Buddhism has faced the challenge of striking the proper balance between what Bokin Kim calls the "experiential wisdom" of Buddhism on the one hand, and the emphasis on the "academic learning and critical awareness" characteristic of secular education on the other.14 Kim describes the difficulties at Wonkwang University and Youngsan Seminary in South Korea, as well as the faculty debates at the Won Institute in the United States that resulted in a decision to balance its curriculum with three components: (1) Won Buddhism, particularly the eleven basic subjects of The Principal Book of Won Buddhism; (2) practice, which focuses on sitting, walking, and mindfulness meditation; and (3) Western learning/methodology, including studies in comparative religion. Commenting on the third component, Kim writes, "Without comprehensive study of other religious traditions and secular thinking in this pluralistic society it seems impossible to be a spiritual leader."15
New Gender Expectations
New expectations for women and men in the American context affect leadership in different ways across Buddhist groups. In some cases, women's involvement and status have been enhanced, as in the Vipassana movement, where half of the meditation teachers are female.16 In other cases, women leaders have encountered obstacles or ambivalence, as in mainstream Theravada, where the reestablishment of the bhikkhuni order remains controversial and so-called lay nuns occupy a marginal status vis-à-vis the (male) institutional Sangha.17
Expectations about celibacy can differ for female and male Buddhist leaders. Whereas most male clergy in Japan are married, virtually all female clergy are not.18 As Won Buddhism evolved in Korea, a policy of celibacy for female ordained devotees was formulated even though Won's founder allowed both men and women to choose either celibacy or marriage.19 Bokin Kim of the Won Institute praises the celibate clergywomen for the spiritual and financial benefits they have provided to the Won order for almost a century, but now it is time to "recover the founder's vision by allowing a choice." She finds "no rationale to support the argument for unequal rights and treatment between male and female cheonmuchulsin [ordained devotees]," and thus "Won Buddhism's current regulation which requires celibacy of the female cheonmuchulsin is wrong. The order should not interfere in the individual's decision." In Kim's mind, the benefits of a policy change are clear: "Female cheonmuchulsin, if married, just like male cheonmuchulsin, would function as a role model to female laity."20 Of course, like their male counterparts, female cheonmuchulsin would then need to learn how to balance the demands of being both clergy and householder.
I was trained in the comparative study of religion, which investigates the similarities and differences among religions. All three leadership issues in American Buddhism are also found in American Christianity, with variations specific to each religious context.
New gender expectations have affected both religions. The involvement and status of female leadership vary across Christian groups just as across Buddhist groups, at times enhanced, at other times opposed or treated with ambivalence. Bokin Kim's appeal for equal rights and treatment for female leaders finds echoes in many Christian circles. A key difference between the two religions is the discrepancy regarding celibacy in those Buddhist contexts where women (but not men) are expected to be celibate, which is not the case in Christianity.
In some respects, leadership training in American Buddhism lags behind its Christian counterpart, due in part to the longer history and larger constituency of American Christianity. The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada has more than two hundred member institutions, whereas only a few Buddhist graduate schools have been established to date. Yet similar questions arise in both contexts: What is the proper balance between experiential and academic education? What kind of practical training is necessary to produce effective and ethically upright leaders in the American context? How does one represent a religious tradition with integrity in an increasingly diverse world?
The tension between the celibate and married leadership models also appears in Christian circles, even though the monastic ideal is not as pervasive in Christianity as it is in Buddhism. While Protestant pastors often find it difficult to balance the competing demands of ministry and family, celibate Catholic priests avoid that dilemma but then may be criticized for being disconnected from the experiences of lay families. Like some Buddhist leaders, Christian leaders may struggle to make a decent living in their religious vocation and sometimes take secular jobs to supplement their income, thus creating strains in their individual and family lives. The intention to maintain a "priestly spirit" while living in society is often expressed as "being in the world but not of the world" by Christians, a difficult ideal for anyone.
Educators of leaders across religious traditions in the United States would benefit by holding regular summits to explore common issues and share best practices. Such gatherings could nurture better leaders who could then better serve the spiritual and moral needs of their constituents and influence society in positive ways. "It has never been more evident," we read in the Carnegie Foundation's study of clergy education, "that public as well as private life in America is powerfully shaped by traditions of faith commitments and religious observance."21 Buddhist, Christian, and other religious leaders play a significant role in this shaping process.
1. The presentations made at the 2010 forum hosted by the Won Institute of Graduate Studes in Philadelphia are "Sot'aesan's Vision for Won Buddhism" by Bokin Kim, the Won Institute's academic dean at the time, now its acting president; "From Itinerant Mendicants to Married Ministers" by Ryuei Michael McCormick, an ordained minister of Nichiren Shu (not to be confused with Nichiren Shoshu); "Passing the Banner of Dharma: Training Teachers in Shambhala Buddhism" by Elaine Yuen, a Shambhala senior teacher and Upadhyaya (Buddhist minister of religion); and "Religious Specialists in North American Theravada Buddhism: Present Situation and Future Prospects" by Paul David Numrich, from my perspective as a scholar of Buddhism.
2. Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. and eds., Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1999), 44. For more on Buddhist monasticism, see my "The Problem with Sex according to Buddhism," Dialog: A Journal of Theology 48, no. 1 (Spring/March 2009): 62-73.
3. Richard M. Jaffe, Neither Monk nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 2.
5. Quoted in Gen-ichi Oikawa, "Thus I Heard . . . ," Nichiren Shu News 118 (June 1, 2000): 3.
. "Letter Sent with the Prayer Sutra," Writings of ND II,
460, http://wnd2.sgilibrary.org/wnd2/wnd2-229-p0460.html (retrieved January 2, 2011).
. See Ryuei Michael McCormick in note 1.
. Kyotsu Hori, trans., Nichiren Shu Center for the Training of Faith and Practice: Reader
(Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Administrative Headquarters, 1998), 12-13.
. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, "Establishing Shambhala Monasticism," http://www.gampoabbey.org/home/sakyong-view.htm (retrieved December 31, 2010).
. See Bokin Kim in note 1.
. Documents expressing various views of Theravada bhikkhuni
ordination are available on the Web site of the Alliance for Bhikkhunis, http://www .bhikkhuni.net, and Bhikkhu Bodhi's supportive piece, The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition
(Penang, Malaysia: Inward Path, 2009), can be viewed at http://www.bhikkhuni.net/library/venbodhi-revival-bhikkhuni-ordination.pdf (retrieved January 20, 2011).
. See Stephanie Kaza, "Finding Safe Harbor: Buddhist Sexual Ethics in America," Buddhist-Christian Studies
24 (2004): 23-35.
. See Ryuei Michael McCormick in note 1.
. Bokin Kim, "Training vs. Education in Forming Won Buddhist Kyomus in the USA," Teaching Theology and Religion
9, no. 2 (2006): 112.
. Gil Fronsdal, "Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," in The Faces of Buddhism in America,
ed. Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 178.
. See Sandy Boucher, Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism,
updated and expanded edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), for an overview of women leaders in American Buddhism.
. Jaffe, Neither Monk nor Layman,
. "The Master said, 'Under the system of devotees in this order, one can pursue the religious practice and public service either as a married person or as a celibate person, male or female, with special aspirations and vows discarding worldly desires.'" Bongkil Chung, The Scriptures of Won Buddhism: A Translation of the Wonbulgyo Kyojon with Introduction
(Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, 2003), 322.
. See Bokin Kim in note 1.
. Charles R. Foster, et al., Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination
(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 1.
Paul David Numrich, PhD, is Professor in the Snowden Chair for the Study of Religion and Interreligious Relations, Methodist Theological School in Ohio, and Professor of World Religions and Interreligious Relations, Trinity Lutheran Seminary. His publications include Old Wisdom in the New World (1996), Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America: A Short History (co-author, 2008), and North American Buddhists in Social Context (editor, 2008).
This article was originally published in the July-September 2011 issue of Dharma World.