Thursday, 25 June 2009
“Theravada and Vipassana- 2 Different Categories?”
written by Brooke Schedneck
Now that it’s summer and I have finished classes and exams in pursuit of a Ph.D., I was able to read all of the Buddhist magazines that have been piling up on my nightstand. These magazines (I subscribe to Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma, and Tricycle) are truly a treat for me. I enjoy reading the latest thoughts and insights about Buddhism in America. I always find something to spark thought about a topic I am researching as well as about Buddhist practice. During my consumption of a half year’s worth of these magazines, however, I noticed something troubling and that I think needs clarification.
In two different instances I noted an odd categorization of different Buddhist traditions. It seems that now ‘vipassana’ is its own sect of Buddhism in America, and has become divorced from its former home as a kind of meditation practice within the category of ‘Theravada.’ Here are the quotes from these two articles which use these new (for me!) categories:
“A Lotus in Mormon Land” Charles Prebish, Buddhadharma Magazine, Fall 2008
A quick survey of the Buddhist communities in Utah yields roughly the same array of sectarian sanghas that one might find anywhere in North America. Of the twenty-two Buddhist groups I located, six were Zen, four Theravada, three Pure Land, three Tibetan, two Soka Gakkai, one Vipassana, and three non- or multi-denominational (or what Don Morreale called “Buddhayana” in his Complete Guide to Buddhist America, published in 1998).
“Meditation Getaways” Alexandra Kaloyanides, Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2009
As for the style of retreat, just over half of survey respondents prefer their Buddhist getaways in the Zen tradition. Vipassana is a close second, with over 40 percent favoring this style. Not as many spend retreats doing tantric visualizations—only a quarter of respondents choose retreats in the Tibetan tradition. Slightly fewer respondents opt for days of sun salutations in Yoga retreats, but Theravada-style retreats are the clear path less traveled, with only 16 percent preferring them.
I assume that for both of these classifications, ‘Vipassana’ refers to meditation centers that are mainly composed of lay converts and lay meditation teachers, and that ‘Theravada’ refers to monasteries consisting of lay Asian immigrants and Asian monks. But I have at least three problems with this division. 1) I am able to assume the differences in these categories because I have been studying this for a while. However, a newcomer to Buddhism in America might not understand that vipassana is a form of meditation coming out of the Theravada tradition and instead might think this is an actual historical sect. 2) I think if an author makes this distinction they should clarify the types of communities they are referring to in order to reduce this possible confusion. 3) Most importantly, this distinction perpetuates the ethnic/convert bifurcation of Buddhism in America. More recently, younger scholars have tried to debunk this distinction by showing the connections between these communities and focusing less on this ‘two Buddhisms’ model. Meditation centers that focus primarily on practicing vipassana could also invite and host monastic members to teach and could also have Asian immigrants practicing there. As well, ‘Theravada’ communities could also have a number of converts who are members and could set aside time for lay meditation practice. Thus, this bifurcation of these categories is becoming more and more arbitrary.
In the case of the Tricycle article, the author is polling favored styles of Buddhist retreats in America, and because of the way the categories are broken down, this could skew the results. What this author's poll calls 'Theravada' and 'vipassana' may not be what the people polled think of their retreats as. Especially in this census situation, the categories should be clarified for accurate results and less confusion. The author of the Buddhadharma article, Charles Prebish, is a well-known scholar of Buddhism in America. He does not mention if these groups he located self-identify as 'vipassana' and 'Theravada' or if he is creating these categories. I think authors writing for the popular masses interested in Buddhism, as well as academic audiences, might do well to clarify these issues.