Brave New Buddhists

James Shaheen

Philosopher and trenchant social critic Aldous Huxley is best known for his ground breaking novel Brave New World. He is far less known for the extent to which he was influenced by the teachings of the Buddha, although the influence can be found throughout his work. "Desirelessness is the condition of deliverance and illumination," wrote Huxley in 1946. "The condition of an expanding and technologically progressive system of mass production is universal craving."

Yet as religion professor Dana Sawyer points out (here), if Huxley was in many ways a Buddhist in spirit, he was not "only a Buddhist"; with the formulation of his Perennial Philosophy, Huxley pointed to primordial truths underlying all religious systems. Far from having a monopoly on truth, Buddhism, he felt, was simply one of many paths to it.

Following Huxley's reasoning, then, doesn't it make sense for one to venture outside one's own tradition if meaning is to be found there? Perhaps the question is moot, since so many Westerners cherry-pick their way through traditions anyway. And, as a Therevadan monk commented to me not long ago, "Rumi is everybody's favorite Buddhist poet nowadays." Yet, for all the mixing and matching, most of us, unlike Aldous Huxley, do not have the spiritual aptitude to formulate philosophies richer and more meaningful than the ones we inherit. However, as the world becomes smaller, we can expect religious eclecticism, whatever its merits or pitfalls, to become ever more common.

Tricycle has often explored the implications of spiritual experimentation for Buddhism in the West. But in this issue, we turn things around a bit: What effect will Buddhism have on the Western traditions? In this issue, Stephen Batchelor interviews Don Cupitt, an Anglican priest whose forays into Buddhism have led him to what approaches a Christianity without God. Not widely known in this country and considered a heretic by some in his church, Cupitt is lecturer in the philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge. His views—with their emphasis on practice and navigating everyday reality—often sound more like those of a contemporary Western Buddhist than what we might expect of a Christian cleric. "The only religious convictions that are of any value to you," he says, "are the ones you have formulated yourself and worked out and tested in your own life and in debate with other people." In the most positive sense, Cupitt enriches his spiritual practice by placing it in a fluid historical context. It is a practice that is ever changing and adapting to conditions as they arise, helping people in "their search for values and practices that really do help them survive when life gets tough."

"Do we really want freedom?" Larry Rosenberg wonders in his dharma talk (here). "Can we handle the responsibility?" Many practitioners would simply put themselves at the disposal of any teacher who provides uncompromising certainty. Skepticism, however, as it is laid out in the Buddha's cautionary teachings to the Kalama clan, urges us to "test the teachings in the laboratory of our actions," as Rosenberg puts it. But, like Cupitt, Rosenberg does not come empty-handed to the investigation; years of dharma practice have left him well grounded in the tradition. "The Buddha," says Rosenberg, "is not saying that ancient teachings are irrelevant, or that you have to reinvent the wheel every time you think. After all, how else are you going to find out what's criticized and praised by the wise?" According to Rosenberg, the "responsibility" that the Kalama Sutta points to is the perseverance to find one's own way, using the teachings as a guide—not dismissing them in favor of comfort when they are most challenging, but testing them and "stretching" oneself and feeling "the ouch of it."

Gehlek Rimpoche, one of the last Tibetan gurus to be fully educated in his homeland and who now disseminates Vajrayana teachings in exile, understands more than most the resiliency of tradition. In an interview with contributing editor Mark Magill in a special section on Facing Loss, Gehlek Rimpoche speaks of a lost culture reasserting itself among new peoples abroad. Whatever changes take place as the dharma encounters new paradigms, he remains optimistic. "Much of our heritage was lost," he says. "Buddhism itself has been forced from country to country over the centuries, and yet it has popped back up each time, maybe better than before." Brave words for a brave new world.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.