Monday, May 30, 2005

American Buddhism In Retreat

Following up on the numbers from the survey of convert Buddhists in the U.S. by James Coleman, here is something I ran across on the Buddhist Channel (a website featuring news about Buddhism). It is also a familiar topic among Buddhists:

Mt. Shasta, Calif. (USA) -- A veritable retreat and spiritual guidance industry has sprung up in the last decade in the West. Apart from the ethical questions of turning spirituality into business (a practice as old as both), there is the question: To what degree are all these retreats and religious teachers actually helping people and transforming society?

Out of curiosity, as well as an urge to find like-minded people to question and awaken insight together, I’ve gone to a variety of day or weekend-long retreats over the last ten years. The only thing I’ve come away with is: 1. There is a lot of spiritual hunger out there; and 2. There are a lot of people willing to exploit it...

I heard about a retreat center recently where people paid a lot of money to come for a week of silent sitting, talks by the teacher, and quiet dialogues. A terrific storm had blown through the week before, knocking down many trees. To clear away the debris, chain saws were employed incessantly in the vicinity, much to the chagrin of the retreatants. (My spell check wants to make that ‘retreat ants.’)

Upholding the principle of passivity to the point of absurdity, the staff did nothing, and the teacher found the situation funny, which it was if you weren’t part of it. Finally a few of the guests insisted that the staff make the chain saw crews cease and desist for at least a few hours during the day, thereby temporarily restoring treasured tranquility.

The story illustrates a major flaw in the spiritual movement—that of removing oneself from the world, taking the attitude that nothing matters but one’s individual ‘here and now.’ Believing that only our individual responses matter is the great peril of the contemplative life.

One often hears from retreatants some variation of the mantra: ‘I cannot do anything about the world’s woes; all I can do is watch my own reactions.’ That risks viewing the economic and political injustices of this world as mere intrusions upon the placid settings of one’s personal and permanent retreat.

--from the article Meditations (Spirituality): The Retreat Industry by Martin LeFevre

Yes, it's as if Buddhism is supposed to be reflective nihlism, or a quiet get-away, or a stress relaxor/battery recharger kind of periodic therapy. And it's precisely this image (and the associated price tag/time commitment) that turns many people off from Buddhism. Buddhist practice, whether it is Theravada, Vipassana, Nichiren, Pure Land, Zen, Tibetan, etc., involves facing unpleasantness head on. It's looking at fear, ugliness, self-doubt, misery, dread, impatience--all of the things we hate or worry about in ourselves and then criticise in others. You see just how messed up you are. It's not about feeling great about yourself or getting control, it's about realizing just how miserable you really are and how little control you actually have. That's not the end, of course. It's only the beginning. The First Noble Truth. Human life is full of suffering. There are three more Noble Truths of course, and ultimately they form a guide for liberation from suffering. But how can you be liberated from something you downplay, or ignore, or deny? You don't need to go to a retreat to face your shortcomings, your frustrations, and your anxieties. Some may go to hear a great teacher. Sure, sounds great, but the greatest teacher is your own life experience. I have nothing against people wanting to spend some quiet time in nature to clear their heads--that's a good and healthy thing to do. I have nothing against people wanting to get first hand instruction or to hear dharma talks from an insightful instructor--that's a wise and beneficial thing to do. I just wish so many people didn't think that is the point ("goal" or "result") of Buddhist practice.


  1. That's a great post. Slavoj Zizek comes down real hard on American Buddhism for the same reasons that bother you. In his crazy way, he offers a radical (atheist?) reworking of Pauline Christianity to resolve the deadlock. Zizek claims that if Max Weber were alive today, he'd write "American Buddhism and the Spirit of Late Capitalism," which is pretty funny if you're into that kind of thing.

  2. I don't think there is a deadlock. Buddhism mainly came to America via immigration of Asian Buddhists, primarily Japenese Buddhists. The more academic/intellectual sounding traditions with less overt religious trappings, like certain forms of Zen, were adopted and propogated by the wealthier, better educated, and mostly white group of converts.

    The more populist forms of Zen as well as more generally popular and practiced forms of Japanese Buddhism, such as Nichiren and Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School), were not as popular among the aforementioned set of converts. Nichiren Buddhism managed to spread to working class groups and minorities because it was initially propogated by the wives of US service men. It spread because of the emphasis on sharing Nichiren's teachings with as many people as possible as well as the tactics for conversion practiced by one of Nichiren Buddhism's largest lay organizations (SGI, formerly NSA).

    Jodo Shinshu, on the other hand, never really spread outside of the Japanese American community. The temples were filled with 95-100% Japanese/Japanese descendants, and the service was in Japanese. There was no major emphasis on sharing or spreading Jodo Shinshu with other Americans, and given the discrimination the Japanese faced in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s in the US, that's not surprising.

    Vipassana became popular because, among other reasons, it was (like Zen) perceived among certain circles to be minimally religious. Tibetan Buddhism was very exotic and comes with the tragic story of cultural anihilation and the smiling wisdom of the Dalai Lama. (Note: I am not suggesting there is nothing more/little more to these forms of Buddhism or that one tradition is superior or inferior to another)

    What will be interesting now is to see how people who are not interested in the austere reresentation of Americanized Zen and the (relative)lack of religious mythos and imagery in Vipassana, etc., adopt and utilize the enormous source of philosophical, practical, and artistic reserves offered in Buddhism.


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