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11-10-06 - updated from 1/16/02 - from Steve Mandelker in Bangkok, Thailand. I just replaced the old message with the new (except for the first paragraph which I kept). I always tell people they can edit what they say here.  - DC.

Gotta question for you even though all that expensive Zen training you got has been utterly wasted on you. Might have been addressed in your recent book (Crooked...), but I think I missed it...I only had time for a quick reading due to my professional duties here in Bangkok, Thailand.

Why has so much manual labor become a prerequisite for serious Zen study at Green Gulch/Tassajara (which I don't even know whether you're affiliated with anymore)? Traditionally, couldn't you enter intensive training for several months in Zen without first doing months of manual labor and very limited amounts of zazen (which is how they appear to have it?)


DC answered: Interesting question. Especially so since your letter comes from Thailand where, as I understand it, there's not much work expected of monks. The SFZC's centers have always had a lot of work included in the practice, not just at first, but forever. That's what I like. For me there's too much zazen at Tassajara now and not enough work - unless you go in the summer which is when I go. So I suggest you stay away from Green Gulch and Tassajara because work is part of the trip there.


Steve Mandelker then wrote:

I can tell you something about the Thai sangha if you like. I lived there for three years, and have a low opinion of most of the Thai sangha. I have a better opinion of the Burmese sangha because there seems to be a lot more serious meditation practiced in Burma than in Thailand. I spent six weeks in Burma. Huge numbers of Burmese laypeople meditate. Intensive 10-day courses are very popular. But when I spoke with some of these laypeople I learned that lots of Burmese do a 10-day course annually and never meditate the other 355 days of the year!


The quality of teachers in Burma seems to me to be higher than in Thailand. Also, there is a lot more English spoken in Burma so it is easier for Westerners to practice there. Several hundred Westerners are meditating in Burma, generally---often for three or six months at a time of intensive practice. But it's very open-ended...usually you can stay as long or short as you like provided it is at least ten days. The vipassana practice is also at some Burmese centers more flexible than the zen practices at centers I am familiar with because you may be meditating according to your own private schedule as opposed to a fixed schedule of sitting imposed on an entire group. (This isn't necessarily a good thing for all meditators!) In Burma and Thailand, vipassana seems to be done almost exclusively (as opposed to, say, zen), though there are many varieties. In Burma, there is Goenka, Mahasi Sayadaw, Mogok, and perhaps twenty other varieties that haven't made it to the West yet. Mogok method exists in the US in two locations. In the US, of course, Goenka method is available all over, with Mahasi Sayadaw method a distant second. I was surprised to learn that most practitioners of the Goenka method in the West aren't even aware that there are other types of vipassana which are quite different from the Goenka or ''Sayagyi U Ba Khin'' method (although Goenka himself alludes to some other vipassana methods, without mentioning them by name, on the tapes used in his excellent 10-day course). It would be an interesting project for a Western scholar to learn Burmese and go to Burma to study the numerous varieties of vipassana practiced there and write them up for a scholarly publication. Maybe it's been done already, but I haven't run across it. When I was in Bangkok, the Burmese community at Assumption University (''ABAC'') brought in several Burmese vipassana masters asnd I learned from them techniques I hadn't heard of during my brief stay in Burma.

The Southeast Asian sangha in Thailand and Burma usually don't work. But all too often they don't do anything else, either... a lot of sitting around and wasted time. A bit of chanting. 

Finally, I want to add that I have rarely seen anything of a scholarly nature on Buddhism by a Thai or a Burmese that was worth reading. On the other hand, popular, practical handbooks and advice on life or on meditation abound, and seem useful and worthwhile, at least in the cultural context of Southeast Asia. The best theoretical works on Theravada Buddhism have been written by Americans or Europeans. I heard a rumor while I taught in Thailand that there's an excellent Thai Buddhist scholar in Bangkok but that his books haven't been translated into English.

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