December 02, 2013

Buddhism with a Western Face

Will Western adaptation of the dharma challenge contemporary culture or accommodate it?Lama Jampa Thaye

courtesy of author

Something called “Buddhism” has certainly been growing in the Western world during the last few decades. Surveys on both sides of the Atlantic—the Pew Survey in the US and the recent census for England and Wales in the UK—indicate a rate of growth second only to Islam. Yet, I must admit, I felt a little uneasy about this picture of robust health. Mixing effortlessly into our culture, will Buddhism, a two-and-a-half-millennia-old system of philosophy and contemplative practice, be capable of challenging that culture? Will the resultant mixture be conducive to awakening? It was with such thoughts that I accepted the invitation from my friend Lama Surya Das to attend an informal gathering of dharma teachers held in New York City on November 18. The venue was the New York Insight Center, where we were warmly welcomed by resident teacher Gina Sharpe. The format was no format—a sharing of experiences, observations, and concerns. About 15 people drawn from such traditions as Theravada, Zen, and Vajrayana were present. Among them were well-known American teachers Jack Kornfield, Nancy Mujo Baker, Roshi Enkyo, Shinzen Young, and Tulku Sherdor.

It was a good day. Many topics came up, ranging from the impact of new technologies on spiritual life to the question of whether new forms of pedagogy would be required. Most of the discussion, however, circled around the seemingly competing demands of innovative adaptation versus preservation—sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. At times the group seemed to divide into two parties corresponding to the weight given to each side of this semi-subterranean debate.

I was left wondering if I had caught a glimpse of the face of a new Buddhism slouching westward to be born. However, I wasn’t sure whether my Tibetan teachers would recognize it, or even whether it was the dharma at all. Hearing how some believe that Buddhism has no ethics, that science will likely be able to engineer enlightenment neurologically, and that the stages of the path toward (as well as the actual signs of) buddhahood were outdated myths, convinced me that things have changed—and not necessarily in a positive way—since I found the dharma back in the 60s. It also made me suspect that, if we so crave Buddhism with a Western face, we might end up with a Buddhism that is merely a mirror image of ourselves and our present culture, a hybrid of superannuated Protestantism and narcissism marketed by Spirituality Inc. for upscale liberals.

One might say the principal spiritual feature of Buddhism’s history up until now has been the transmission of a body of doctrines, contemplative methods, and organizational forms. While the exact constituents of this transmission vary somewhat from tradition to tradition, in Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism the key mechanism for transmission is the relationship between teacher and student, between the holder and the recipient of knowledge. It is through this nexus that initiations, transmissions, and oral instructions—the three principal forms of Vajrayana teachings, which we may define as a collection of methods designed to bring about a transformation of the psyche—are passed from one generation to the next. Such an emphasis on transmission from the master might lead one to conclude that a rigid conservatism or traditionalism must necessarily follow. But since the knowledge of the tradition—its repertoire of spiritual methods—is transmitted in a living form from person to person, the idea of a static, unchanging body of knowledge is mistaken.

One can see this illustrated in the lives of the early Kagyu and Sakya masters in medieval Tibet. As a link in the chain of transmission, each successive master had to re-create the teachings in the context of his or her own contemplative experience and personal and social circumstances. The first Tibetan in the nascent Kagyu tradition, Marpa, was a family man, gentleman farmer, and translator that had to assimilate the teachings of his masters Naropa and Maitripa. Their knowledge was drawn from a combination of the highly refined monastic university system of Buddhist India and the wildly unconventional customs of tantric yogins, two milieus worlds away from his own. There also persisted a striking difference between the lifestyles of the autocratic Marpa and his principal disciple Milarepa, a penitent sorcerer turned ascetic. Yet Milarepa, like Marpa, was able to utilize his master’s teachings to attain the pinnacle of spiritual achievement.

A similar pattern of fluid and responsive transmission is equally evident in the early Sakya tradition. The transmission from the lineage’s spiritual antecedents of Indian tantric yogins like Virupa through its first three masters in Tibet, lay practitioners all, reached its settled form with Sakya Pandita, who successfully blended the scholarly and the contemplative, the monastic and the tantric.

It’s instructive to reach back to these examples of earlier cross-cultural transmissions to guide us now in our not-so-dissimilar situation. Indeed, it cannot be mere coincidence that Sakya Pandita, in order to preserve the liberating force of the teachings, devoted much of his energies to disentangling 13th-century Buddhism from ungrounded and maladroit Tibetan adaptations. Educated by both his uncle Drakpa Gyaltsen and some of the last generation of Indian Buddhist masters, Sakya Pandita was able to subject contemporary Tibetan forms of Buddhism to a critical scrutiny that could discern those spurious adaptations that accorded neither with major textual and contemplative transmissions from India nor with reason. One can safely assume that a Buddhism stripped of ethics, one reduced to mere mindfulness, recast as materialism or one in which enlightenment becomes a fleeting psychological state, would not have passed Sakya Pandita’s test of acceptable innovation. Neither should they ours.

So, to return to the seemingly irreconcilable claims of adaptation and continuity that echoed through that gathering in Manhattan, maybe we do not need to choose one over the other in the development of Buddhism in the West. As we have seen, adaptation and continuity were both evident in the transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet. The element of continuity endowed the new Tibetan schools with the resources and strengths accumulated by Indian Buddhism over one and a half millennia; yet, at the same time, the element of innovation endowed the traditions with flexibility to respond to their new cultural settings and, in effect, be reworked by masters who were both grounded in the central concerns of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and subtle enough in their perceptions of Tibetan realities to present the traditions felicitously. Our first task, then, as practitioners who wish buddhadharma to prosper in the West, is to receive and master the inheritance of dharma. We have not yet done so, but we have made a start.

Thus, if the question is adaptation or continuity, the answer is both, just as it was in India and Tibet, so it has to be here, whether in Los Angeles or London, New York or Paris.

Lama Jampa Thaye is a scholar, author, and meditation master from the UK, trained in both the Karma Kagyu and Sakya traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

Further reading: We Are Not Kind MachinesThe Myth of ProgressBuddhism and the Age of CompassionTaking Vows (and Buddhism) Seriously

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Dominic Gomez's picture

You have the heart of a bodhisattva, Zumacraig, feeling the pain of all living beings. Buddhism is common sense. It also teaches that change comes from within. In our case as fortunate Americans we change the outer, detrimental effects of capitalist consumption from within the system itself. Become the change you want to see. Discuss with your friends, neighbors and professional associates the life-affirming, compassionate philosophy of Buddhism.
In Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism this one-to-one transformation of society is called "human revolution".

Tharpa Pema's picture

Dear zumacraig:

I think that feeling crippled and depressed by any other human being's sarcasm, derision and dismissal is to attribute too much power to human words. Those words don't have to hurt this much.

Apply your analysis to why mere expressions of opinion are affecting you so deeply. Is this much suffering necessary? Don't let it cripple you.

Perhaps you can more effectively contribute to changing the world if you work with your own mind to become, not insensitive, but less crippled by your own emotions about what other individuals are saying.


zumacraig's picture

This is part of the work, I agree, but human words have causal power. Language is the raw material of our ideologies. This is one of the things modern American Buddhists don't seem to see is that although conventional truth is empty, it still has causal power. Capitalism is just an ideology, but it has wreaked havoc on the earth and all sentient beings. I'll keep my sadness and anger as they fuel the real work of change that others are oblivious to.

msdrummond's picture

Of interest to your question is the fact that Zinn borrowed the U-Ba-Khin-Goenka body scan/sweep, which is one of the main practices in the 10-day course taught by SN Goenka.

In looking at the book, "The Mindful Way Through Depression" we see that the book has a 75% focus on the mindful observation of bodily feelings. Zinn is a co-author of the book.

Wisdom Moon's picture

It doesn't capture what is essential in the Dharma because it doesn't consider the suffering of future lives. The essence of Dharma is liberation - Jon Kabat-Zinn is just using Dharma as self-help to solve temporary problems that will reappear later because his methods to do not eliminate the root cause of stress.

Dolgyal's picture

Many people who experiencing anxiety and depression find a useful tool in CBT/mindfulness techniques. They do not particularly need to change their name, wear red robes and adopt a pre-packaged belief system –now that would lead to madness. Some western Buddhist groups are very much in the self-help milieu or industry, offering relief, supreme maha-happiness, liberation from one's self-loathing if only recruits buy the package. This is dangerous and also cannot eliminate the root causes.

alalaho's picture

thanks for this Lama Jampa.

this is an interesting time. it's also interesting to reflect on how long it took for the Dharma to take root in Tibet, China, and South East Asia. one could say we in the West are still babies.

one thing i find is that we are in a culture were the idea of "self" is very much ingrained. from a very early age into our adult lives. we are bombarded with the message of "you deserve the best". "you are #1". "Strive to be #1". also the messages of quick results. "i want it now".

we see it with education, food production, industry, fitness. "how much is this going to cost and how quickly can i get it?" i see the same thing happening with the Dharma. a friend of mine told me a funny joke, "i vowed to sit for 60 minutes. i nailed it in 30!"

so, i feel, these mindsets will be very challenging to transform, but not impossible. one can only contemplate the time it takes to learn to play an instrument, learn a profession, or even the time, discipline and effort it takes to master a sport.

some people feel why is there a need for transmission, lineages, teachers? they find it suspicious. i feel there is also some good in this. using our critical mind. discriminating wisdom. but it is also up to us to investigate and recognize what is the underlying motivation behind these thoughts.

after all, i don't believe many of us would hire a lawyer whose only credential is a 10 day seminar on law or have someone remove a tooth, who is just beginning dental school.

i am sure we are in the wishes of all the Buddhas & Bodhisattvas. i trust the Dharma will flourish in the West.

Morann's picture

Agree completely. Everybody wants to be a teacher but nobody wants to do the work. In light of our dominating consumer culture coupled with lowering attention spans and the instinctive need for instant gratification, Western Buddhism, in its quest to remain relevant, may end up supporting the consumer lifestyle out of sheer desperation. Adapt or die as they say.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The West has also been influenced for some 2,000 years by a belief system rooted in the concept of a permanent "self", i.e. the soul. It behooves the Buddhist to be mindful of this as we speak with our friends, relatives and associates about the Law.

alalaho's picture

that's very true Dominic. the influence from a spiritual perspective.

wilnerj's picture

Why all this discussion of that which always remains for us unknown?

Just sit, study scripture, pray or chant, that is, engage in japa, but most of all act out of kindness for others. That is all!

Buddhism is just an 'ism. It does not exist. People exist. Sentience exists.
May all sentience attain happiness.
Loka samasta sukhino bhavantu.
It matters not from where these words of transliterated Sanskrit emerged or from what school or religion What then matters are not words but action in the service of bearing a compassionate heart.

Ah... too many words and so little time.

marginal person's picture

Excellent insight about the non existence of abstractions such as Buddhism, though I fear a bit too subtle for those who constantly proclaim about the "Law" etc.
A question evoked by your comment is do people truly "exist" for us or are they simply externalizations of our own hopes, fears, longings and desires?

Richard Fidler's picture

" One can safely assume that a Buddhism stripped of ethics, one reduced to mere mindfulness, recast as materialism or one in which enlightenment becomes a fleeting psychological state, would not have passed Sakya Pandita’s test of acceptable innovation. Neither should they ours."

One might take issue with the way the author has characterized certain tendencies to be found in Western Buddhism. "Buddhism stripped of ethics" might refer to not taking the precepts, something that is not always done at the beginning in some sects, notably Zen. "Mere" mindfulness is, of course, a putdown to traditions that hold mindfulness to be most important in changing our lives. "Recasting the dharma as materialism" is clearly an affront to secular Buddhists. And "[recasting] the dharma as a fleeting psychological state" is a backhanded way of casting aspersions at those who get hooked up with electrodes to figure out what is going on with brain when one meditates. Honestly, with regard to this last assertion, I know of no Western Buddhist tradition that sees "enlightenment" as a fleeting psychological state. That is a perception of the author, not most students of the dharma.

I am bothered by the word "should" in the last sentence. After characterizing traditions with which he does not agree in language many would not accept, the author insists that those traditions are on the wrong track. Somehow this approach does not feel right: mischaracterization and judgment are not appropriate. The dharma will evolve in the West and will branch out in many directions. Why is it of such great concern that those branches be alike in certain ways? In past history, they have diverged considerably--and that has been the strength of the Buddhist tradition. In diversity there is strength: that is the Truth as it has always been and as it is now.

Wisdom Moon's picture

It is necessary for Buddhism to be accessible for people with busy modern lifestyles where you don't have to learn an arcane language and the concepts ae explained in a way that relates to your own experience. To formulate such Buddhism requires a realised Master otherwise it's quite possible that you would throw the baby out with the bath water. If Buddhism is reduced to neuroscience or pop psychology or its metaphysical and religious elements are removed, it won't function to produce enlightenment, therefore much care must be taken when adapting the Buddha's teachings to modern life.

Dolgyal's picture

Having hundreds of hastily trained semi-ordained teachers running around in red sheets only degrades the actual tradition. Wisdom Moon states "concepts ae (sic) explained in a way that relates to your own experience". This is cute but simply not the dharma which is beyond the network of concepts–period–no matter how slickly 'Modern Buddhism' is merchandised commercially for dumbed-down consumption. I agree with aldrisang's 'applied skepticism': that was the method of the Nalanda masters.

Wisdom Moon's picture

It's incorrect to say that Dharma is beyond concepts. Good luck with teaching a Dharma that is beyond concepts without the use of concepts, to modern people or anyone else! Although it is true that enlightenment is non-conceptual it cannot be reached without developing conceptual minds.

Dolgyal's picture

Anyone who desires to teach or evangelize without being a genuine lineage holder is highly suspect, this is the favored ego-enhancing activity of bullies as far as I'm concerned.

davide's picture

Not being a genuine lineage holder, Buddha is highly suspect. That's why you should investigate the truth of what he, or any other teacher, says before you believe it. Believing in lineages is less useful than believing a particular teaching.

Richard Fidler's picture

Do you mean, "Only lineage holders have something useful to say about the human condition?" I hope not.

Goodness, certification is so important to you. How about being open to teaching from whatever direction it comes: a monk, your mother, a child, or the toad in the garden? Not sure where the "ego-enhancing activity of bullies" comes from. Could you explain that?

wilnerj's picture

Yes, all of this is dharma.

Thank you.

aldrisang's picture

It seems to me that "Western Buddhism" will really be Buddhism reworked through the lens of applied skepticism. It will keep what works and what can truly be said to be known, while leaving out the unknowable (unsubstantiated and non-falsifiable) metaphysical claims that are the hallmark of religious belief. That's not a bad thing, so long as the essentials are preserved.

Dominic Gomez's picture

A Protestant-like reform of Buddhisms overgrown with ritual, clerical hierarchies and deity worship?

aldrisang's picture

Possibly, but depending on how you look at it that may already have happened several times. Generally speaking, Buddhism gets tossed and shaken about with elements of existing cultural traditions and religions when it moves from place to place. This could happen in America, creating a Judeo-Christian/Buddhism mix of sorts... or it could instead be stripped away of its existing cultural accretions and metaphysical claims that are similar to those claims found in faith-based religions. Often I've seen forms of Buddhism that seem to be halfway, from what I take it that the Buddha intended, toward being Hinduism. They're heading back toward a "self"-focused view, and they use faith-based metaphysical claims to feed the ego's desires of "personal" rebirth or reincarnation, whereas that does not seem to be the way things actually work (and we should be skeptical of such claims). The less there is to be caught up in that will feed the ego, the better (at least IMHO).

Dominic Gomez's picture

Part of the confusion is the belief that the Law exists outside of people's lives and are "goods" in the possession of an elite lineage of clerics. Buddhism befits the times and it's within our present time and place that we find its value. Culture and education are two obvious entries to the Law for the general public. They functioned that way for me 40 years ago when I first started finding out about Buddhism in San Francisco.

aldrisang's picture

I think most of the confusion is that it's too simple. The mind craves complexity, and we miss the obvious (or downplay its significance) and spend all of our time concentrating on the mystical-sounding deepities or the metaphysical claims that speak to the ego.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Minds lost in the fog of their innate greed, belligerence and ignorance have trouble seeing beyond the tips of their egos' noses. So they settle for peanuts, presuming the pointing finger to be the moon.

aldrisang's picture

Aye. In the end, the only want that is useful is the want to stop wanting. Any ideas of gain, attainment, fame... roadblocks.

drleroi's picture

Having followed the Dharma for 40ish years, studied with many teachers, etc. The primary source of my inspiration remains Chogyam Trungpa, in a brief meeting, he somehow transmitted to me "big Mind" primordial awareness, or something like that. All my subsequent studies, initiations, etc. with a variety of great teachers, Have been a response to that. A lot of the teachings are like instructions on how to build a fire. Until someone comes along with a match, they remain inert.

Dominic Gomez's picture

More impactful was the implantation of this foreign South Asian life philosophy to an East Asian culture already 1,400 years old when Shakyamuni was born. Improbable as it might have seemed, Buddhism did take root and thrive in China. Today the Western world is at a similar point of transition. In Buddhism, time is of great importance. When the time is right, a people are able to recognize the value of and arrive at an understanding of the Law, no matter how different it may appear to their own religio-spiritual traditions. The growing numbers of Westerners gravitating towards the sutras attest to that.