Tradition in Transformation

James Shaheen

For all the opinions put forth about what form Buddhist teachings should take, Western Buddhism continues to unfold in unpredictable ways. The process of assimilation will no doubt be a long one, measured in centuries rather than decades. But that Buddhism in the West will take on a distinctly Western flavor is inevitable, whether taught by Asians—many of whom broke with tradition themselves when they left their native lands—or by their Western heirs. As writer and teacher Stephen Batchelor points out in a recent interview “At the Crossroads,” we cannot “expect a Westerner to fully identify with and take on a given Asian orthodoxy.” On the other hand, we cannot dispense with orthodoxy altogether, he cautions, for it is the foundation upon which the Western model rests. Yet the middle way between narrow traditionalism and self-serving revisionism is a difficult path to walk. To what extent are we simply seduced by the allure of the new, sacrificing the essence of the teachings as we “reinterpret” them in ways that suit us? To what extent, driven by nostalgia, do we ossify them, stubbornly resisting change?

Contemporary teachers like Batchelor face the challenge of walking this middle way by neither denying the value of their former masters’ teachings nor turning a blind eye to the exigencies of contemporary life. Drawing from multiple Buddhist traditions, they have begun to formulate a new paradigm, expressing ancient truths in a language that resonates with a growing number of Western students. This syncretism is nothing new. As the Dalai Lama points out in his preface to Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma, “Buddhism has often been reinvigorated when a new synthesis has been created from existing traditions.”

It is easy, however, to get carried away with the seemingly limitless possibilities a paradigm shift represents. We would be foolish to imagine that we are free of cultural bias, or that in a few short years, Western Buddhism will attain the depth and breadth of its Asian predecessors. As Batchelor observes, “Buddhism is not just a kind of souped-up, self-applied psychotherapy that with a bit of tinkering and a taking on of the right ideas will sort out your existential questions. What Buddhism proposes is enormously demanding, sometimes almost impossibly demanding. Seeing that brings a realism to one’s practice that a . . . less philosophically rigorous approach to Buddhist practice will not.”

Coming at contemporary Buddhism from another angle, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (“Modern Buddhism”), contends that much of the dharma as it is practiced in the West has its roots in colonial Asia. Its proponents claim that their Buddhism “is not the result of a long historical evolution, but the Buddhism of the Buddha himself.” This Buddhism, continues Lopez, “seeks to distance itself from those forms of Buddhism that immediately precede it and even those that are contemporary with it.” In spite of its adherents’ claims, “Modern Buddhism,” as Lopez calls it, bears marks of the West’s most cherished ideals: reason, empiricism, universalism, individualism, tolerance, and the rejection of religious orthodoxy. “In fact,” writes Lopez, “what we regard as Buddhism today is a modern creation [with] its own lineage, doctrines, and practices.” In short, rather than the Buddhism of the Buddha himself, it is run through with various components of Western ideology.

While such ideas may disappoint purists who envision virgin spiritual territory free of cultural trappings, it can be quite amusing for the rest of us to guess at the ideological divides of the future: centuries hence will Buddhists in North Carolina argue about whether it is appropriate to forego the black-eyed peas on the altar (see Jeff Wilson’s “Down Home Dharma”)? Will a sect emerge whose primary practice is housecleaning? After all, according to Gary Thorp's "The Dust Beyond the Cushion," it was attention to the mundane—in particular, to housekeeping—that rescued the Zen tradition from slothful perdition.

While many of today’s teachers in the West lament the passing of the great masters who brought the dharma to the West, a generation who came to the dharma a decade ago can hardly miss teachers they never knew. For those who may worry about the future of the dharma, the ancient Buddhist adept and philosopher Nagarjuna has some words of wisdom:

When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.

© James Shaheen



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