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The Failure of Western Buddhism


Why are people in the West not flocking to Western Buddhists sanghas and instead giving more attention to Traditional Buddhism - whether it be Tibetan, Zen or Theravada? Obviously this is a topic of a lot of interest to those of us in Pragmatic Buddhism and I used to think it had an easy answer, but I don't anymore. I used to believe it was either a case of Exoticism or of Colonial Guilt - and maybe those do have an influence so let me define what I'm talking about in those terms.

Exoticism should be easy to understand since it's been afflicting the West for generations now. It's the fascination with the look of exotic cultures - usually without ever going beyond the surface appearance. This is definitely a factor in Traditional Buddhism's appeal in the West. There are colorful robes, shaved heads, incense, strange bells and chanting...just what the exoticist wants to feel like they've found something better, or older, or more enlightened than the Western culture in which they were raised. What this ignores however is that those things have nothing to do with what the Buddha taught; they are expedient means developed to transmit Buddhism to different cultures in the East.

Colonial Guilt is - I think - my own term for the reaction to the colonial expansion of the 19th century. As Westerners we feel guilty for our ancestors trying to turn the cultures of the East and of Africa into mini-Europes. To ameliorate this guilt we swing the other direction and embrace anything that comes out of the East as more civilized than Western culture - after all, they never tried to colonize us! This response is deeper than exoticism since it does look below the surface appearance to the meaning behind the actions, looks, sounds, etc. However, it shares with exoticism the fact that it forgets that all of these things are expedient means, not the actual Dharma itself.

As I started to look at how we could respond to these - and also read more about the expansion of Buddhism into China - I realized that maybe these aren't just things that Western Buddhism is dealing with alone and lonely.

In China they experienced the same need that is showing in the West to "get Buddhism right". They set up monasteries dedicated to translating and interpreting the Indian texts, comparing one against the other, trying to come up with THE official teachings of the Buddha himself. After several centuries of this an Indian monk named Bodhidharma came to China and told them they'd been wasting their time. Then he sat down. Eventually people came to study with him and over centuries Ch'an Buddhism was born - becoming Zen when it moved to Japan, Soon in Korea, etc., always changing and adapting to the cultures in which it found itself. The important thing for Western Buddhists to remember in this story is not the eventual adaptability of Ch'an but the fact that it took centuries of "trying to get Buddhism right" before Bodhidharma slapped the Chinese in the face and told them they still missed the point.

So what is the point? I wish there were a simple answer but there's not. Bodhidharma didn't give the Chinese an answer when they asked the same question; he just sat down.

There are two types of philosophies that mankind grasps onto - idealistic/spiritual and materialistic. The first holds that reality can only be seen in the ideal, the form to use Socratic terminology. In this philosophy material reality is at best a poor reflection of the ideal and at worst nothing but an illusion in which we live. Materialism is the philosophy of science, humanism - and to a large degree Pragmatism. It teaches that what we can observe and categorize is reality plain and simple. If there is an ideal or a spiritual existence it doesn't affect material reality so why bother with it.

Buddha took a radical departure from both of these and if you try to understand Buddhism through the lens of either idealism or materialism you are bound to fail - as the people of China did. Buddha taught a philosophy of action. Not a philosophy about action - why we act, how we should act, etc. - but a philosophy of action where action itself is the defining characteristic of reality. It doesn't matter whether that action is mental or physical; both are actions manifesting reality.

Humanity is collectively manifesting the action of dukkha by participating in the illusion that reality should be what we want it to be. We can bring an end to the manifestation of dukkha by consistently practicing appropriate intention, appropriate thought, appropriate speech, appropriate action, appropriate livelihood, appropriate effort, appropriate mindfulness and appropriate concentration. Dukkha is not an ideal form nor is it something that can be measured and understood from a purely material perspective, but it is a characteristic of existence because we manifest it in our lives by our actions - mental and physical. So what does all this have to do with the formation of a Western Buddhism?

Good question. When Bodhidharma sat down I don't think he was doing it as a statement that sitting was what the Chinese should be doing so much as a simple statement of frustration that they STILL didn't get it. They still wanted to be taught philosophy and religion, but Bodhidharma knew that only action was real. Only action was Dharma. Even as they began to understand this Ch'an moved from Bodhidharma's sitting of "doing nothing" by phases to Hui Neng's sitting of "having nothing to do". The little rituals that grew up around this were expedient means that spoke to the people enforcing their action of sitting in oneness.

What I'd like to propose in this time of transition for Buddhism in the West is a radical departure from both Classical Buddhism of the East and the current trend toward a purely Secular (meaning in most cases a rather bland and puritanical) Buddhism in the West. First, in this age there is no more East and West. Yes, there are still cultural divides between people in Japan and people in England - but there are the same degree of divides between people in New York City and people in Arkansas. Information, communications and transportation are making us one world. Not in a way that must enforce cultural homogeneity but in a way that should let us see cultural differences as expedient means of different people dealing with the same human imperatives of living.

That being said I'd like to see Buddhism in the West take the lead in becoming a Sangha of plurality not of homogeneity. We in the West can take the lead in saying all these traditions are expedient means leading us toward the action of removing dukkha from our world and we accept them all. Let the West lead the way not in stripping away ritual or in mimicry without understanding but in openness to all forms of expression. Let us understand that they are each just that - forms of expressing the action of bringing dukkha to cessation - and let us accept the action that we all strive for AND the form that each of us use to reinforce that action in our lives.

These are not necessarily forms we need to “grow out of” - as though advancing to a purely pragmatic ideal is more “mature” than having cultural identifiers that help us practice the action of mindfulness more readily. Yet, they are forms they we should not cling to as necessary for our practice either. They are expedient means - and that simply means they are the best way for us to learn and practice the Dharma right now. As we change we should be willing to let some go and begin practicing others; and it is never up to us to judge the means that other people in our community choose to assist their practice.

I'm actually really happy to see this happening in my sangha. I have people who greet me with a gassho and others who shake my hand; I have people who wear malas and those who don't; people who bow during practice and those who don't. Our rule has always been if it helps you to do this thing then do it, if it hurts you then don't do it - but the sangha is accepting of all forms within it, understanding that they're just that, forms not reality. The only reality is the action of our sitting together in compassion. The only thing I ask is that you reflect on your intent in all things - never doing something just because others do or “it’s proper in our tradition” but because it helps support action in your life.


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