Sunday, July 4, 2010

Helping Buddhism advance in the West

Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji zendoImage via Wikipedia
There is generally a great deal of discussion in American Buddhist circles about whether and how Buddhism is catching on, what is should look like, even whether this or that person or group is a genuine Buddhist. Here is a brief summary of four things that are to some degree holding back Buddhism in the West, particularly in the English-speaking parts of North America (with a focus on the United States):
  • emphasis on all things Asian
  • emphasis on seated meditation
  • emphasis on contrast with Abrahamic religions
  • emphasis on self-improvement

Let's go through each one in more detail to see how it ended up on the list.

Emphasis on all things Asian

Yes, Buddhism began in India and became deeply entrenched in central and east Asia. Yes, many of those spreading Buddhism to the US have come from or studied in Tibet, China, Japan, etc. And yes, there are certainly political and human rights issues in such areas that need to be brought to the attention of the public. That is fine. And yes, much of the cultural form and language is Asian. There is nothing wrong with that either. Yet despite all of that there is still an inordinate focus on Asia and Asian issues.

I am not suggesting that people try to make clumsy or artificial analyses trying to shoehorn American issues into the language and frame of Asian culture or wisdom. That just shoes how entrenched the Asian distortion is. But what about speaking plainly with a Buddhist-informed perspective. And by Buddhist-informed again I don't mean just saying things like "The Dukkha of D.C." or "The Dharma Lesson of the Groundhog that Sleeps on My Back Porch." That might be something worth writing, but the idea is to show the relevance if a Buddhist perspective to the main issues facing Americans (and hopefully without having to give them a vocabulary or religion lesson).

What kinds of things? Parents worrying about their kids being on drugs or having a teen pregnancy. The stress of cut throat business culture and trying to pay your bills on a stagnant salary. Things that people who can't afford week long retreats or go to day spas or buy a hybrid care about, in places like the inner cities or the Rust Belt. The concerns of lower middle class, the blue collar and service workers, and the poor.

Emphasis on seated meditation

There is much more to Buddhism, even Zen, than seated silent meditation. This point has been made again and again by people more articulate and better informed than I, but it bears repeating. And this is a good thing. Meditation can be done in all things. It's a disposition, not a behavior. And we cannot leave out songs, chanting, devotions, etc, which are both beneficial and better suited to many people who might otherwise be disconnected from or turned off by sitting Burmese style on a zafu in a zendo.

Emphasis on contrast with Abrahamic religions

And not just contrast, but hostility. Like it or not, while there are structural differences in how Buddhism and, say, Christianity, are put together, when you examine each in their own context they share many important insights on a more profound level of analysis. This is one reason why there have been so many fruitful interfaith dialogues between Buddhism and Christianity and Buddhism and Judaism.

Judeo-Christian culture and tradition is much richer and deeper than even many of its more vocal contemporary proponents, especially the Protestant fundamentalists, give it credit for. This includes amazing imagery and practices for going beyond labels and categories and for silent reflection and revelation through inspiration by nature. Whether one was raised in an actively religious home or not the lessons and stories of Judaism and Christianity permeate the culture, often in subtle ways not visible to those living in the culture.

This means that there are already many figures and stories and other things which can readily be used to illustrate or convey important lessons. This is the impetus behind the book by Clark Strand titled How to Believe in God Whether or not You Believe in Religion. As Buddhism flowed through Asia it picked up the flavor of and was often discussed using the language and images of local religions. This kind of syncretism is nothing new. So why create unnecessary barriers for people who may be curious about what Buddhism has to offer?

Emphasis on self-improvement

Yes, Theravada isn't selfish because enlightenment for oneself benefits/requires assisting others. Yes, Mahayana vows to save all sentient beings. But in many ways Buddhism has come to be seen and practiced as a self-help program in the US. Here is where Buddhism in general but especially Buddhism in America can benefit from taking a cue from traditions like Christianity with its focus on serving and befriending the poor and disenfranchised, building and supporting local communities, fighting for social justice, etc. And not just in an individual way, but in an institutional way and as part of the Christian identity. This includes an emphasis on the communal aspect of religion over strict individualism. There has to be a prophetic aspect to Buddhism in America, calling for action and calling to the conscience.

Have anything to add? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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