An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.
In the summer of 2010, I sat a Dzogchen retreat at Garrison Institute with my teacher, a well-known Tibetan lama. He gave teachings during the day and then in the evening handed the microphone over to several academic luminaries who were also attending. In the morning and afternoon we received instructions on attaining buddhahood; in the evenings we heard lectures on how Buddhism’s contact with the West was leading to cutting-edge advances in brain-science research, medicine, and psychology.
One hot night—this was July in New York State—a professor was addressing the excited crowd about developments in medicine based on laboratory studies of meditators. Maybe I was strung out on the heat, maybe it was the effect of keeping silence or of sitting over the course of days with an accomplished master, but something hijacked my better judgment, and when question-and-answer time came I raised my hand.
As I asked my question, the buzz in the room came to a sudden stop. For what seemed a very long time, there was dead silence. One hundred pairs of eyes turned toward me and stared. A few people fidgeted. Somebody laughed.
This was my question: “Given the depth of suffering in samsara and the possibility of a solution to it; given that the very texts we study outline a path to that solution; given that we have a realized master right here who is, we believe, capable of leading us on that path to that solution—why would we devote our precious human lives to exploring whether meditation can lower blood pressure?”
At least some of my fellow Buddhists who stared at me across the meditation hall were, I am pretty sure, puzzled at my puzzlement. Perhaps more than a few imagined they were meeting a Buddhist fundamentalist. Others might have considered me just naive, scientifically uneducated, or even rude.
But however clumsy my attempt, I was trying to put my finger on was a very real tension, a discord between what our Tibetan teacher had been saying and what the community seemed to be hearing. It was visible right there in the structure of the retreat, palpable in the response to my question, and familiar—at least to me, and I imagine to others as well—in everyday practice. This tension points to an issue of key significance in the transplantation and adaptation of the dharma to the modern West, to what is an often overlooked and important difference between Buddhism as it has been traditionally practiced and Buddhism as it is practiced in the West today.
The experience of being a modern Western Buddhist is different from the experience of all previous Buddhists in one crucial respect: we are contending with a radically different environment of faith. In discussions about Buddhism’s transmission to the West, most of the discussion about belief has focused on particular beliefs. What has been off our radar for the most part is an appreciation of the very different background of assumptions within which belief itself—both ours and that of traditional Buddhists—is construed.
This difference has been overlooked not because it is unimportant but because it is hard to see. It is operating at a level that is implicit, and therefore hidden. But our failure to acknowledge it threatens to sabotage a rich and meaningful dialogue with Buddhist tradition and in so doing to hinder significantly the fullness of Buddhism’s transmission to the West.
We know this difference by its telltale sign—that familiar tension. It shows up most vividly when we consider big themes: how we understand the central project of Buddhism—the nature of our selves and our problem, and the purpose and possibilities of our practice. For example, for the first time in history, to suggest today in some Buddhist circles that the purpose of Buddhism is exactly what the traditional texts tell us it is—which is to say, that it is concerned with the transcendent—can be to come across sounding like a rube or to meet with condescension.