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  • [芬兰]Pekka Airaksinen:Thoughts on Sangha in the Western culture

    Pekka Airaksinen

     

      The Western countries have been dealing with Buddhism to an increasing extent for about a hundred years. (It is true that also earlier, but not to a very great extent.) In particular Buddhism has become well-known through countries which have been dealing with the Eastern cultures and which have had colonies and trade relations in the East, such as England, the British Isles. Also theosophy has had some influence in the Western countries since the latter half of the 19th century. In the beginning they showed a particular interest in Buddhism. During the Second World War there arose another greater contact; for instance, from Japan Zen came especially to America, but also to other countries. Gradually Buddhism gained more footing in many European countries and in America.

      In Finland Buddhism has been more active for about 40 years. Also earlier than that there have been some individual groups and persons who have been interested in it. The first organization in Finland was established in 1974-75. The activity has been scarce numerically, but in the 1990’s it has increased to a certain extent. It was then that there arose several Buddhist groups. Also the immigrants from Vietnam and Thailand have established their own groups, but they don’t deal very much with the original Finnish inhabitants. Even though there has been Buddhism in Finland for several tens of years, no traditional monk societies have arisen. There have been a few novices, but for instance at the moment there are extremely few monks or nuns living in Finland. There are a few persons who have been in Japan, Korea or Thailand for some time, but who have then renounced monkhood. Instead of that there are some communities, and there have been contacts and communications and permanent relations between people who practice meditation together regularly.

      The Eastern and Western societies differ from each other to some extent. In the East there are traditionally societies, such as family societies, clans, tribes, castes etc., which are very important. Instead of that the development has been different in the Western countries so that the thought emphasizing the individual arouse already a thousand years ago. When one thinks that a person starts to practice Buddhism in earnest and engages in Buddhism entirely, it normally means in the East that one becomes a monk. By becoming a monk he is placed above the limits of clans, society and castes, and doesn’t belong to them any more, but instead lives free from such binding structures of the society. This is made possible by the fact that there are institutions such as the monastic organization, which is supported by laymen. In that way the monasteries are financially more independent, and the monks and the nuns have the possibility to concentrate on spiritual life and spiritual practice. In the Western countries, especially in northern Europe, possibly also in America, there hasn’t been any monastic organization for five hundred years, in some cases for a thousand years. It is not easy to establish it in a Buddhist frame, because there is no historical perspective, neither is there any support from the laymen nor financial independence, which goes without saying in the East. Another matter is the fact that culture and history are different in the Western countries. In the west there has been more interest towards sciences than towards religions, and the thought emphasizing individuality and the independence of people as regards interest groups arose about a thousand years ago. Also the influence of the Renaissance in the 16th century has been significant. It has moulded the concept of man, the historical perspective and the attitude of persons towards themselves and surroundings. Also the French Revolution and the Philosophy of Enlightenment have been significant, since by their influence the emphasis was shifted away from religion to a great extent, and the importance of science was emphasized. These historical phases have taken place in the West, but not in the East. I venture to say that as a result of these events the westerners are a bit different from the Eastern people. It has an effect on behaviour, and one can think that it has had an influence particularly on the development of the thought emphasizing individuality. Individuality is a different matter than the ego, which in the Buddhist tradition is seen as a less developed and as a lower personality and identity that has to be won. I think that this individuality thought has had its impact on the fact that it is more difficult for a westerner to adopt the traditional eastern monastery thinking and to set up monastic like societies. At least seen from the point of view of Finland the situation seems to look like that.

      Thoughts on Sangha

      The monastery Sangha here already mentioned is one of the most crucial thoughts on the Buddhist Sangha, but one can also think of the Sangha in that way that it is based on spiritual friendship and then the crucial factor in the Sangha is the mental development and refinement of people. In ordinary life friendship may be formed on a different base, such as attachment, gain, weakness or occupation/profession. In spiritual life caste, occupation, status or wealth are not decisive factors, but what is important is the interest towards spiritual growth. The spiritual friend –thought means the fact that in an effective spiritual development a person gets benefit from having spiritual friends who can set an example, be very developed or know more about spiritual development. A spiritual friend can be an ordinary person like us. In the more developed phase a spiritual friend has possibly realized something spiritual, he is spiritually more experienced or he has literary information about teachings, sutras etc. If we think still further, a spiritual friend can be a Bodhisattva, Buddha or the historical manifestation, the Sambhogakaya of Buddha, the Dharmakaya of Buddha. This kind of thought about a spiritual friend is expressed by Gampopa, for instance. Generally speaking Sangha and spiritual friends mean knowledge on what spiritual life is, how to solve problems, what should be practiced, what should be avoided. A spiritual friend provides courage and an example. It is almost impossible to lead a spiritual life without spiritual friends, without Sangha. Naturally one can think that if there are no spiritual friends, the texts and books can in some cases act as sources of information and as spiritual friends. Thus a spiritual friend and Sangha are essential as regards spiritual life.

      So how will Sangha develop in the Western countries? It is difficult to answer this question. Naturally there will arise spiritual centres and practice centres, which are essential. Also contact and communication between different Buddhist groups and traditional Buddhist groups and teachers is essential. It is especially essential in that respect if Sangha is seen as a Bodhisattva Sangha. Then the international contact and communication is especially important, because there are necessarily not Bodhisattvas in every place and great teachers can give people a lot all over the world. In that respect internationalism and global contact between Buddhists is essential.

     

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