Monday, December 17, 2007

Trusting Amida Trust?

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.

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13 comments:

  1. Thank you for the link. I visited Yogi Chen's website once as it was linked from another site I found instructive, but I have never read that particular essay before.

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  2. I've never heard of Shin Buddhists founding an order, only discussion groups.

    And I'd like to think the founder Shinran never wanted to make a name for himself, because of what he had learned by becoming associated with Honen.

    Even when offered the opportunity to head a temple late in life, he refused.

    Ego is sometimes so hard to curb.

    So, because in these times ordinary people in the West have been inculcated in the public school system to fear any religious or spiritual feeling and to be ignorant of such things in general, the awakened may decide instead on a life of poverty over a life seeking status and wealth.

    This includes obscurity, too.

    Somewhere else, I saw a Buddhist website where the author suggested such-and-such is an enlightening being because of his or her works. In Shin tradition, it is more about ignorant and uncouth people try to be very ordinary and simplie; calling attention to one's good works is like bragging about one's merits.

    If the two founders of their separate orders mentioned in your article were really deserving of their yellow robes, then their works will not declare this. It'd be in how humble they are when they are exposed to the light of public opinion.

    I guess it is because I am Japanese and of the Jodo Shinshu faith that I am like this. For I'd rather be a nobody than be in the hell some celebrities are going through right now.

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  3. I did read the thread you refered to on e-sangha. Thanks for your considered post.

    The Amida School is a new religious organisation. You can read more about it at the Amida-shu site, in particular, it is worth looking at its constitution. (See under "Provisions")
    http://amidatrust.typepad.com/amidashu/

    Pureland Buddhism is little known the UK although there is one Jodo Shinshu temple in London, the Three Wheels, which has strong links with the Shogyoji Temple in Japan. If you are looking for a more traditional pureland buddhist sangha I would recommend visiting them.
    http://www.threewheels.co.uk/

    My experience with the Amida-shu has been positive. David Brazier is a good teacher, with great passion, someone who is very open about his own spiritual struggles. But, that is only my opinion. I hope people will have the good sense to check these things out themselves and not rely on hearsay.

    Namo Amida Bu

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  4. Thanks for sharing your own direct experience Ray.

    I was hesitant to post this at all because I didn't just want to toss this out like chum in order to bait people, but considering how the Dharma has come to the West, I felt the issue of sorting, as it were, was worth discussing. Should it be up to the individual to do their own research - caveat emptor? Should there be some ecclesiastic body that gives a seal of approval? I am not really big on the latter option but I can also understand how the first may be troublesome if people new to Buddhism don't know what to look for.

    Nor should it appear that this is just an issue for some small Buddhist centers in the UK. After all, if I am not mistaken, there are Zen centers and the like here in the United States which claim to be teaching Soto but who are not formally connected to Soto Shu. I am not judging or condemning them any more than I am doing so to Amida Trust, but if we were really to dig into it I bet this is way more common than people realize (for better or worse).

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  5. Hello. I'm David Brazier or Dharmavidya if you prefer. I'm glad to see people trying to discuss this issue in a sensible way. Amida Trust did not become an order in order to aggrandize anybody - it simply followed from the fact that a group of folk were becoming increasingly dedicated to nembutsu practice and engaged Buddhism and did not find the prospect of having to go to Japan and join an ancient institution (with all its advanges and drawbacks) terribly helpful. We do not claim to be anything more than we are - people who have committed to following a certain practice and hold to a certain ethic that we hold in common. If people do not like that being called a religious order, we could accept different terminology, but that seems to be the natural thing to call it in English and we do have the support of a number of eminent Japanese authorities who guide us and encourge us in our faith. Their attitude seems to be basically that it is jolly good thing to have a vehicle for western people to learn about and practise nembutsu. We are not trying to be presumptious. We are just full of faith in Amida Buddha. It would seem to be a shame if the institutional structure of Buddhism were so arranged as to make that difficult or put many obstacles in the way. At this stage, Western Buddhism needs experimentation and diversity because we are all feeling our way. Pureland Buddhism in China began with the founding of the White Lotus Society at Mt Lu which was just such a free association and in Japan too Shinran encouraged the setting up of many independent nembutsu groups that only later congeled into the four or five denominations we have today. Amida Trust is just one contribution to the wider phenomenon of the emergence of a Western Buddhism. No doubt we will be superceded at some point as most of the present groups will be, but many people are attracted to Buddhism because it has reputation for being open, not closed, progressive, not conservative, about personal faith and practice rather than institutional control. If they are wrong, Buddhism will not make much forward movement in the West because we already have big conservative religious institutions and they are one of the main reasons people turn away. That is what many Western Buddhists became Buddhist to escape from. I have nothing against the Japanese organisations - I love them, but I am not Japanese. Amida Trust is not the last word on anything, but it is a group of sincere people doing our best in our own limited bombu fashion and we hope that other Buddhists can be friendly and not hostile.

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  6. Thank you for your time and considered reply. I have little knowledge about the details people are arguing over, but I decided that since the issue was already out there, it might be good to reframe it in a less hostile way (although I won't say non-hostile since any framing of the accusation, even one I don't endorse, still carries the insinuation of "fraud"). Perhaps some people feel that the only established way to evaluate groups and teachers other than from personal experience or word of mouth is ordination, being part of an established group, etc. But that isn't always a guarantee of reliability either. I still think it's best to see what effect an organization has its members and on the community when assessing their message.

    I don't really know that a few people arguing on E-Sangha over what the Amida Trust is or should or shouldn't be really means much in the final analysis, yet given the danger posed by cult leaders, con men, and other manipulators, I welcome constructive and fair scrutiny of groups associated with things like spiritual transformation and charitable work. I suppose the issue is whether people watching for problems are more concerned about keeping tradition for tradition's sake, keeping tradition for reputation's sake, or keeping tradition for the sake of the teachings and those who seek them. I am not, however, currently in a position to judge such organizations and without some other compelling reason for scrutiny of Amida Trust or some evidence of harm caused by said group, I have no interest in stirring this pot further.

    I thank everyone for sharing on this matter, and comments are still open if others have additional questions or statements they would care to make either about Amida Trust specifically or questions about authenticity (lineage, ordination, etc) generally.

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  7. Just a few words without entering into any debate:
    I trust Amida Trust because I personally know some of its members,like Ven Dharmavidya, Modgala, and others. I received a lot of good things from them, during the time. For me, they are very important as friends and companions on the Path to the Pure Land. I am happy that they exist in this form.
    Namo Amida Bu

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  8. Matthew Jee here. I was one of the persons intimate with Amida Trust who responded to some of the questions raised before the facts were wiped by the E-Sangha moderators.

    David Braziers Ning page description:

    ~~~

    About Me:
    Dharmavidya David Brazier is Head of the Amida Order. He lives at The Buddhist House in Narborough in Leicestershire, England, and also travels extensively in support of the diverse membership of Amida-shu and Amida-kai.

    Amida Membership
    Ordained Order Member <<<<<<

    Faith Background & Affiliation
    Amida Pureland Buddhist

    Occupation or Primary Activity
    Head of the Amida Order <<<<<<<

    Involvement in Spirituality/Religion
    Buddhist priest. <<<<<<<<<

    ~~~

    David Brazier - whom I have known since 2001 - before he aligned with Pureland Buddhism - is a Priest, self-appointed and self-ordained head of the Amida Order. He told me he does not recognise anyone living as being capable of being his "Buddhist Teacher".

    He really seems to think he knows it all - and his claims about Amida appear to be the product of cognitive dissonance more than anything - I watched Amida grow and morph into what it is today.

    I had a close affiliation with the Order for many years and often used to run the Suttra study evenings at the Buddhist House in Narborough, amongst other activities.

    David Brazier did reply to the E-Sangha criticisms by the way.

    He stated that the Amida Order was a "lay order". However his more recently compiled ning page clearly states once again he is an Ordained Priest. Look for your self:

    amidatrust.ning.com/profile/Dharmavidya

    David was ordained in the Soto Zen tradition of Throstle Hole Monastery under Master Jiyu Kennett and the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. However I have in my possession a confirmatory email from the current Abbott stating that David is not a member of the Order and not associated in the Order in any way.

    David is an affable, likeable, intelligent, well-meaning man with an over-aggrandised sense of his own Dhammic understanding. His wife describes herself as a Buddhist teacher but is quite unstable.

    The Amida Trust organisation is helping David and Caroline Brazier build their ego's - and refurbish their privately owned residences in France and England using trust money and volunteer labour.

    In one of the most recent years of the Trusts registered accounts - freely available through the UK charities commission website - Mr Brazier and his wife were paid more than the Trust spent on charitable causes.

    Not all Dhamma is good Dhamma. I do not think the Braziers cause much harm because they do not reach many people. Of the people they reach many quickly see through them and leave. Some do not and stay and get hurt. I do not think the Braziers mean to harm others - I believe their intentions are entirely honourable.

    Unfortunately they are the only paid executives of the Trust and are not subject to any real oversight - spiritual or secular.

    In addition, their relationship is a codependent one, started when David Brazier was Caroline's therapist - and which lead to the break up of two marriages.

    Such absolute power within the dynamics of a group in the hands of two codependent individuals is a recipe for disaster.

    The more famous of their supporters have unlikely spent enough time with them to see through the masks. Their names are being used as part of the Braziers publicity drive - which is their most important activity.

    One patron asked an Amida Trust member if he should be a Patron or not as he did not know anything about them.

    I am not a hater of David and Caroline but I see them hurting people through a lack of basic self-honesty. that was the point of the curtailed E-sangha discussions.

    This is clearly demonstrated in the manner in which David uses language and is prepared to bend semantics to accommodate perception over substance in his post above:

    "If people do not like that being called a religious order, we could accept different terminology..."

    If you are a religious order you do not kow tow to publicity. You stick to your principals. If you are not a religious order, stop pretending to be one. Face the fact you are just a layman wearing a monks robes.

    The Emperor may not be quite naked in this case, but it is merely a red bedsheet he sewed himself keeping him from being so.

    Matthew Jee

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  9. One can put an unfortunate twist on anything if one tries hard enough. Matthew knows that from his own experience since numerous people have sought to make him out to be a charlatan in a variety of ways, many of which can be found on the internet. How true they are one must judge for oneself. Perhaps because he has been hurt in that way himself he feels a need to attack others. I don't know. His campaign of insults was wiped by the E-Sangha for good reason.

    I don't think anybody who actually knows me at all closely holds the view that I "know it all" - quite the contrary. To say that "Mr Brazier and his wife were paid more than the Trust spent on charitable causes" is a transparent distortion. We have, in fact, never received more than £6500 in any one year, hardly a kings ransom, and often considerably less, from Amida Trust and we are not the only persons to receive payments as he claims. The idea that the head of the Amida Order has or could ever have "absolute power" is quite silly. I am in my present position appointed by the Amida Trust trustees to whom I am responsible and the Amida Order is a body of strong minded people who have no difficulty making their views and influence felt. On the one hand Matthew wants to argue that we should be more conventional and traditional, but, on the other, he is no supporter of convention and tradition himself. The idea that famous people who support us do not know us is wrong. Some know us very well and have known us much longer than Matthew has. The insulting remarks that he levels at my marital relationship are beneath contempt.

    The Amida Sangha is a 'lay order' within the definitions used by E-sangha according to which an order is 'lay' unless it adheres to the traditional vinaya. Amida Order, like many other Buddhist orders, has made the choice not to adhere to the traditional vinaya. It does, however, do its best to maintain a high ethical standard.
    Amida Trust is a group of people practising Pureland Buddhism in a way adapted to the modern world and it has a variety of participative procedures for ensuring that that adaptation continues to evolve in a manner suited to the membership. Many people have benefitted from involvement in it and, no doubt, will continue to do so.

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  10. "His campaign of insults was wiped by the E-Sangha for good reason".

    This is not true.

    My posts on E-Sangha were not a smear campaign. They were based on my experience and knowledge.

    The posts on E-Sangha were not wiped for good reason. They were temporarily suspended whilst a police investigation was underway into complaints made by David Brazier against a former member of Amida Trust.

    The police quickly disposed of the complaint as fallacious and the posts at E-Sangha have been re-instated as the police investigation has been (very quickly) dropped.

    They can be read here for members of E-Sangha:

    http://www.lioncity.net/buddhism/index.php?showtopic=11894

    There is also another thread where Amida Trust ordinations were discussed and it was made plain that Amida Trust ordinations are not recognised by E-Sangha:

    http://www.lioncity.net/buddhism/index.php?showtopic=62415

    "To say that "Mr Brazier and his wife were paid more than the Trust spent on charitable causes" is a transparent distortion. We have, in fact, never received more than £6500 in any one year, hardly a kings ransom, and often considerably less, from Amida Trust and we are not the only persons to receive payments as he claims."

    My words are not a transparent distortion - they are fact - however Mr Brazier's words are.

    Anyone can look at the accounts of Amida Trust on the charities commission website. I believe if they do they will see that in the year David and Caroline Brazier were paid £6,500 the total charitable donations were around £1,700.

    Therefore what I said, "In one of the most recent years of the Trusts registered accounts - freely available through the UK charities commission website - Mr Brazier and his wife were paid more than the Trust spent on charitable causes.", is absolutely true. Indeed you were paid around 4 times what you spent on charity that year.

    Your words again, David, are the distortion.

    Nor did I say you were the only persons who "received payments" from Amida Trust.

    I said "Unfortunately they are the only paid executives of the Trust and are not subject to any real oversight - spiritual or secular."

    Unless additional paid executives of the Trust have been appointed since your latest filed accounts what I say is true and you are the one distorting truth.

    Yes some other members of the Amida Trust Religious sect receive stipends or payments but there are only two executive paid employees of the Trust as per the last accounts filing: Mr David Brazier and Mrs Caroline Brazier.

    All the posts and information are freely available on E-Sangha where you chose not to respond. The E-Sangha moderators did not "wipe them" - they saw no good reason to but saw reason to leave them in place.

    These examples of David Brazier distorting truth to make me appear a charlatan cover the needed ground quite well enough.

    My comments on your marital relationship are not "beneath contempt". They are accurate.

    I am not going into this any further.

    Matthew

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  11. Actually, Amida Trust is an excellent organisation and I am very pleased to be associated with it. Amida Trust is a charity, not a contributor to charities. It does good work in accordance with its constitution and a well established record of good practice. It is financially sound and effective. It has a first class board of trustees to whom I and other workers are responsible. Neither the charity nor I myself have done anything improper, illegal or immoral. Efforts to imply otherwise are simply empty.

    Regarding the police complaint, it is perfectly proper to involve the police when one is receiving threats upon one's life. The police did not drop nor dismiss the complaint but issued a warning and no doubt will become involved again should there be any further cause. Why anybody would want to make light of such thing is surprising.

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  12. Up until now, despite the animosity displayed in some replies, they were written with a certain degree of civility. The latest reply (now deleted) was strictly vulgar, full of name-calling and bald personal attacks. It in no way was useful or informative to the debate this thread attracted. The characterization of Amida Shu by its supporters and critics is sufficiently robust in this comment section that I see no reason to allow it to descend into unrepentant mudslinging. Hence the comments for this post are now closed.

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