I am usually not very “deep” when it comes to my topics here and I am certainly not the most experienced or insightful blogger dealing with issues related to (my interest in and practice of) Buddhism. If you want that there are much better places to go. I really do try not to take myself too seriously, although as I never know who may read my obscure corner of the web and what they may take away from it, I generally try to exercise at least some prudence in terms of inflammatory speech or idol chatter. Over the past month and change, however, there has been a debate brewing online over a Buddhist order known as the Amida Trust.
People associated with Amida Trust have replied to this blog and a couple have their blogs listed in my blogroll. They generate some really interesting posts. I am not writing about this to attempt to defend or discredit the Trust or to agitate the issue further. I simply believe that whatever one thinks of Brazier or the Trust, there have been some important general issues raised concerning who is or isn't qualified to do what in Buddhist circles and how that kind of thing should be decided. I am merely writing about what I have encountered and I am trying to be fair to everyone involved.
The Trust was formed largely through the efforts of a gentleman known as David Brazier and his wife Caroline. David Brazier has written a few books on his view of Buddhism, and the Trust is a (relatively) small group based in the UK which is rooted in the idea of engaged Buddhism as well as the practices associated with Amidism, a form of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. This form of Buddhism has traditionally been maintained and propogated by Jodo Shu (Pure Land School), founded by Honen several hundred years ago in feudal Japan, and Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School), which grew out of the work of Honen’s disciple Shinran. Jodo Shinshu is better known to most people simple as Shin Buddhism. Amida is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term Amita, a truncated reference for the Buddha known as the Buddha of Infinite Life (Amitayus) and Infinite Life (Amitabha). In the West this Buddha is commonly referred to by practitioners of various Pure Land schools either as Amida or Amitabha.
The controversy that has come up lately is in part due to another controversy, that of Edward Penny, which was covered extensively (see the articles listed here and here, for example) on the Buddhist Channel, a website featuring news from around the world about Buddhism and Buddhist events. According to the stories appearing on the Buddhist Channel, Penny had started his own Buddhist organization and claimed to have received training and permission to teach from various Buddhist lineages. When friends and family of one his students became concerned that their loved one had been indoctrinated into a cult, the story made its way to the Buddhist Channel. Many ordained clergy wrote in about the materials posted on Penny’s website, including his writings as well as photographs, claiming that it appeared as though the way he presented himself, including his dress and his credentials, was not authentic. Penny’s people replied and this was posted on the Buddhist Channel as well, leading more members of the Buddhist community to become involved in the dispute.
There is also a website, where Buddhists from countries around the world come to discuss their practice and debate their differences, known as E-Sangha. E-Sangha had previously had issues with people creating usernames or bios in which they claimed to have been ordained or to have received dharma transmission without giving some evidence of this fact. Given that some visitors to places such as E-Sangha may place more credibility on the responses of someone claiming to be a monk, nun, or priest, a rule was instituted that all registered users of the discussion forums wishing to claim such a status must provide verification somehow.
This brings us back to the Amida Trust. A post was made on E-Sangha this fall asking about the group, which led to questions about what lineage or lineages Brazier, the group’s head and founder, is associated with. It has been stated that he was ordained by a particular group but that he is not affiliated with that group, and that he had studied with various teachers. It has been implied that he is not formally affiliated a recognized lineage from which to base his order. This also lead to the question of whether one of the people defending Brazier was inappropriately claiming some kind of ordination or “official” status in the same thread. On the one hand, there are those who claim that while anyone can follow the Buddha, talk about the Buddha, write about the Buddha, etc, not just anyone should present themselves as a priest or monk or start their own order without being a part of an established lineage. The rationale is that this is a way of protecting the integrity of the teaching and practice as well as offering a standard of legitimacy to guard the unsuspecting seeker against charlatans. On the other hand, there are those who are claiming that one does not need a lineage to share the nembutsu or propagate the message behind it.
David Brazier (who is referred to in the Trust as Dharmavidya) has (so far) declined to participate himself and lay out what he sees as the necessary authority to do what he has done as well as the credentials he does or does not wish to claim aside from those listed under his bio at the Amida Trust website (which apparently some are not satisfied with). I can understand why one would be reluctant to do so in a thread where so much has already been said about the matter, but then again, what should the standard be? I am not judging the credentials of Dharmavidya or challenging the validity of the Trust and its practices. As far as I know, no one has suggested David Brazier is another Edward Penny. But looking at the bigger picture, is there an obligation to public scrutiny for people who found new Buddhist orders or sanghas? If so, what should it be? And what could be the impact of spreading the suggestion that Brazier has not met this standard? Is this just a tempest in a teapot? I welcome your thoughts and contributions on this issue.