Friday, July 8, 2022

Roshi Ignatius

Planting Buddhism in the West

The early Jesuit model might be something to explore because it matches the scale of our project--creating a new cultural model, even a revolutionary one, for Buddhism in the West. It captures the enthusiasm for change, along with the scholarship and spiritual discipline required for creating new forms.

With due respect to Ignatius who inspired the Jesuits’ operation, some other dynamic kicked in that created a genuine spiritual movement, one that would be derailed at various points by the normative Roman ecclesial culture of the day, but still persisted. I am not suggesting that we should expand the list of Jesuit Roshis, much less appoint a Father General Roshi to spearhead the endeavor, but I do want to at least examine the foundational tasks the Jesuits undertook. 

There is a saying among Catholic religious, “Our founders had visions. Their disciples built hospitals.” Creating a vibrant, sustainable Buddhist culture will take time, money, and a lot of organization, but most of all it will take talent and inspiration, the kind of religious pride that the Irish used to build Saint Patrick's or the spiritual and intellectual discipline that the Jesuits used to found Georgetown, the first Catholic University in America. 

The Catholic, mostly Irish experience of planting the Roman Church in the New World was a European tradition arriving in the New World along with European immigrants. It is different from an Asian practice taking root in foreign soil among people who do not share any cultural or family ties. Saint Ignatius parish may not easily translate into a small local Buddhist temple, but the Jesuits did far more than just lend their founder’s name to a parish church.

The Jesuits based their success on a few simple operating principles. I have outlined the ones that I think were important, but I am certainly open to hear other points of view.

Service based on need 

This may be a bit of a stretch to get “service based on need” from the Jesuits’ organizational principle that they would go wherever the Pope wanted them to go, and do whatever he directed (commanded), but bear with me. This was not always done by fiat, but with dialogue, needs assessment, manpower, as well as securing the money. Less than a year after the Jesuit Constitutions were approved by Paul the Third in 1540, Francis Xavier, one of the first companions of Ignatius, boarded the Portuguese warship Santiago bound for Goa. This unleashed a series of important historical firsts in the history of religion. More Jesuits quickly followed Xavier into Asia with their particular skill sets. In a relatively short time there were the first Indo-European dictionaries for several Indian languages, Tibetan, and Japanese; the first translations of the Gospels; the first encounter between Christians and Zen Buddhist monks; the first attempt at crafting Christian rituals in Chinese; the first seminaries in Asia; the first Christian congregations in Japan and China. 

Dictionaries, check. Translations, check. Rituals, check. Contact with local religions, check. All within a generation. Enlisting the assistance of the US or a European navy, No. Churches, check. Seminaries, partial check, after a fashion. These efforts are ongoing, but substantial progress has been made, all within the first generation of Western Buddhists.

Scholarship & Inquisitiveness

Back in Europe, the Jesuits began to marshal their considerable intellectual force to combat the Protestant Reformation (a dubious initiative in the eyes of some, but a response to the times). With their openness to the new humanistic scholarship, they attracted some of the best minds from universities, but not so much from existing monastic colleges. As a matter of fact, they started to develop an alternative “ratio studiorum*.” Although heavily doctrinaire, mostly as a formulation for the Counter Reformation that they would lead, it still laid the foundation for Jesuit scholarship and universities that would help shape the intellectual backbone of the Enlightenment. 

Their scholarship forged institutions and a line of inquiry that yielded profound results.

A crop of bright intelligent Buddhist scholars, thoroughly trained in Buddhist philosophy, linguistics, epistemology and hermeneutics, check. Again within a generation. This scholarship is not limited to Zen Buddhism. A huge area of inquiry has been the Tibetan practices. Sometimes Zen scholars and Tibetans scholars do talk to one another--when they have to. But the parochialism remains parochial. I will have more to say about Zen “our wayism,” when I draw my tentative conclusions.

Seeking common ground & Communication

Francis Xavier began a famous conversation with a Zen Roshi, whom he calls “Ninxit,” (whom I've traced to an actual Roshi, Ninjitsu, the abbot of the Zen Temple, Kinryu-zan Fukushoji). We can read about the encounter in Xavier’s letters to Ignatius; he describes Zen meditation practice in some recognizable detail, at first with admiration and then, when he put on his missionary hat, with an eye to finding the weak points for polemical debate. 

Beginning with Father Enomiya-LaSalle, S.J, followed by several more Jesuits and religious sisters, an Episcopal priest, Unitarian and Church of Christ ministers, there are fully trained Zen teachers with feet firmly in both Buddhist and Christian religious traditions. 


The hallmark of this unprecedented exploration, coupled with a zealous missionary effort, was communication. Given the technology of the day, there were problems. Delivery of Xavier’s letters to Ignatius took at least 6 months even aboard the fastest Portuguese caravel. Brother Tom Marshall, a great Zen adept as well and the archivist for the Jesuit California Province, told me about his discovery exploring the archives at the Gesù in Rome. Father Nobili had decided to follow the 49’s to California; the letter from Father General ordering him to establish a mission for indigenous tribes in the Northwest arrived after he had accepted the invitation of the Bishop of Monterey to establish a college at the old mission of Mission Santa Clara de Asís. If the internet had been around in 1851, Santa Clara University would not be. 

The communication also involved careful observation of the people with whom they interacted. A whole new field of ethnography from places as far afield as Tibet and the cultures of central America flourished in the 17th century.

Friends who have worked with teachers in Japan tell me that there are Rinzai priests who have never had a serious conversation with a Soto monk. If that is the baseline, the communication between the various schools in the West is revolutionary. There are students with experience in all the major schools of schools in Zen, plus some training with Tibetan and vipassana teachers even if our leadership remains somewhat parochial given the amount of time and effort to become fluent in the particular practice.

Seeking common ground, check. Without for the most part any polemical, doctrinal conversion motivations. Check plus+!

Mobility & adaptability

The early Jesuits, pledged to poverty, chastity and obedience which helped their mobility, and with the generous support of European colonial powers to be sure, traveled to the ends of the earth. Within the first generation, Jesuits had traveled, and settled in Japan, China, India, Tibet, Africa, North and South America. Siberia would have to wait until 1814, and Australia until 1848. Even with a fair amount of philanthropic support, Zen teachers and their relatively small communities have been restricted to the major university hubs in the West as well as several well-heeled retirement communities where aging Buddhist boomers go to watch the setting sun. The mobility of our mostly middle class senior teachers is restricted by the economic realities of middle class life. The few attempts to foster meditation practice in marginal communities have fizzled out. I have personal experience with two. 

No pass. I don’t know how or if this situation will change. Buddhists cannot print their own money. The real costs in establishing and funding practice centers is a luxury item for people struggling to put food on the table.

Education, including Developing Spiritual Leadership 

The Jesuits created and staffed their new Colleges to educate the sons of the elite class. They also founded a series of houses of formation for the spiritual education of their own leadership. They also changed the system for educating the ordinary clergy. In the current Zen model, again coming from the Japanese teachers who founded the first practice centers, and the resources available to them, any formal Buddhist education, sutra study, ethics, philosophy comes mixed in with meditation practice. 

We don’t have the numbers to support institutions such as the Rinzai Hanazono or the Soto Komazawa Universities. Western students cannot go to Japan without fluency in Japanese language. There are more than a few Western Zen students who have done serious work in Buddhist studies, but their numbers haven’t reached the critical mass required to staff a university even if the other necessary support systems were in place. Here where I live in northern India, all Buddhist education takes place in monastic colleges. There are a few auxiliary programs for Westerners, some taught in English but for the most part, advanced training require proficiency in Tibetan; one I am familiar with, The Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo Translator Program, focuses on training translators for the geshes who teach in Europe, the US, and South America.

There are excellent Buddhist Study Programs at Emory, the University of Virginia, Harvard and Stanford just for starters. But it is a huge commitment of time and money to undertake this level of academic training as well as, for example, mastering the koan curriculum. I know of only one or two people who have done both and lived to tell the tale. Most people I know on the academic scholarship side perhaps have a sitting practice, but they’re not on a Zen teacher track. Because university teaching positions for Buddhist scholars are limited and highly competitive, practitioners who opt for an academic degree are more likely to slip into a mindfulness based psychology program such as California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) where “right livelihood” career opportunities have a higher pay scale. One of the few Buddhist Universities in the United States, Naropa in Boulder, has adopted a similar program as one of the main economic engines of their enterprise.

The Institute of Buddhist Studies, a Jodo Shinshu Seminary, is the only non-Christian graduate school in Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. The ethnic Buddhist Churches of America have been in decline, and face a shortage of priests. The enrollment at IBS must be low also as they have only a dean and 4 core faculty on staff, one of whom heads a chaplaincy program, non-denominational chaplains becoming a career opportunity for serious practitioners. I went to IBS as a special student, hoping to fill in the gaps in my understanding of Buddhist texts, philosophy and epistemology. Although modest, it became an expense that I could not manage struggling with my career in a small non-profit. 

In our examination of the core operating principles for aiding and abetting a spiritual revolution, Education and Development of Spiritual Leadership gets non-passing marks. I think most serious Buddhist practitioners are aware of the problem, but good solutions have not yet appeared. Part of the reason is that it takes time, energy and money. Most centers are independent, small operations that struggle financially to begin with. Systematic careful analysis of the texts, and their commentaries, as well the history of the spread of the teaching is not seen as critical. Offer a Tuesday night class reading the latest book promoted in Tricycle. Handled. The Zen emphasis on immediate experience also leaves the troublesome side effect of an anti-intellectual bias which is not helpful. And finally there is a “Our Way” parochialism and rivalry, not just for example, between Tibetan and Pureland schools, or Zen schools that include koan study and those that emphasize sitting practice, but also between teachers whose teachers were Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai or Burmese. 

If we are to make progress on this front, the New Buddhist Universal University has to cut through these barriers and be non-sectarian in the broadest sense; it has to develop innovative programs that are affordable and available to people who work, practice and perhaps even have family obligations; the programs have to be basically in English or Spanish, with as little academic jargon as possible; the courses have to be developed and taught by Buddhist practitioners who have the highest level of academic professional training. I know that the elements for a solution exist. They just haven’t been assembled in the workable form.

Forgive me for mixing Francis Xavier and the Jesuits into the recipe. I don’t think that the title Roshi comes with a Ph.d or vice versa. Roshi also doesn't mean Saint. Not even in the lose usage.


 *The Ratio atque Institutio Studiorum Societatis Iesu, often abbreviated as Ratio Studiorum, was a document that standardized the globally influential system of Jesuit education in 1599. It was a collection of regulations for school officials and teachers.

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