Our habit of treating institutions as second-order elements that “mean” less than such first-order categories as doctrine and belief is not purely a Eurocentric imposition, but has been encouraged in part by the discursive frameworks that East Asian Buddhists have formulated to inspire religious effort. An example is the Buddhist notion of the Two Truths. This conception pits the ultimate truth of buddha nature, which is what the Buddhist must grasp to attain salvation, against the conventional truth that institutions represents (Faure 1991, 18). The Chan religious imagination chose to distinguish the phenomenal realm, where the senses give rise to the illusion of permanence, from the realm of the impermanent and absolute, bracketing the one with the other. Being of the former, institutions are vulnerable to the charge of contributing to the illusion of permanence rather than working to dispel it. Institutions are left to “mean” less than they “are.” And yet, institutions the customs, usages, practices, and organizations that shape the lives of Buddhists are what provide and perpetuate the very possibility of the Buddhist life, furnishing the rituals, gestures, stories, and training through which people have access to an understanding of the Buddha.*
Institutions are big scary things to some. But they serve an important role in our social lives and, inevitably, help Buddhists be Buddhists. Institutions carry within them our stories they publish our books, they provide training, they house us on our retreats, they feed us cookies and tea after a meditation session or Sunday morning services. Institutions create spaces in which we can meet others along the path, that third and no less important part of the triple refuge, the sangha. So while we’re busy writing our polemical ramblings about sudden bursts of enlightenment and the horrors of institutional hierarchies, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
That’s about all I have to say about that.
* from “Institution” by Timothy Brook in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism edited by Donald Lopez, Jr., emphasis mine.