August 05, 2010

Is Western Buddhism in danger of being turned into spiritual fluff?

In today's installment of her Buddhism blog, Barbara O'Brien delves into the difference between spiritual fluff and religion when it comes to Western Buddhism and voices her concerns that Buddhism in the West is in danger of being overly romanticized and watered down. O'Brien cites the Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a minister of the United Church of Christ and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who recently said in a post on the Washing Post's On Faith blog that much of what is presented as Buddhism to Westerners is actually "a kind of Xerox copy of Buddhism that is based on the old 'I'm Okay, You're Okay' psychology of the 1960s."

O'Brien argues that in order for spirituality to really transform your life, it must be "directed by the strength of tradition, the discipline of practice, and the wisdom of those who have gone before" and she worries that Buddhism in the West, especially Zen, is being reduced to a palatable spiritual fluff before the more serious elements of the tradition have a chance to take root:

I have two concerns. One is that many people are been so turned off by western religious institutions that they run screaming from anything that looks like a religious institution. So they cling to faux Buddhism and run away from the real thing, which is sad.

My other concern is that marshmallow fluff Buddhism will supplant the real thing before the real thing has thoroughly taken root. This is a particular danger for Zen, I think, because it did have the misfortune of becoming popularized and then romanticized in books and film, but it's something that's an issue for all of Buddhism, I think.

Is Buddhism in the West in danger of being reduced to spiritual fluff? Share your thoughts with Tricycle readers. To read more about what it will take for an authentic Buddhism to take root in the West, read Tai Situpa Rinpoche's recent Tricycle article "It Takes a Saint." If you're wondering what we mean when we say "West" or "Western," check out our recent post "Is it OK to say 'the West'?" and if you're interested in the religion vs. spirituality debate, check out "Spirituality without Religion."


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jjwalker7730's picture

"If you think vaudville is dead, you only need to look at the spiritual community in America." Rev Don Gilbert (Ta Hui, Great monk), Zen Master.
Pick a couple of good practices, avoid the smorgasborg.

Barbara O'Brien's picture

Mark -- certainly Buddhism will adapt, and is adapting, to western culture. But it takes a massive arrogance to dismiss the Asian traditions so easily as ossified superstition. The Asian ancestors kept the dharma alive for 25 centuries with those ossified superstitions, and we who are new to it should not only be grateful but should also take the time to thoroughly examine the old forms and traditions before we pitch them out.

The several schools of Buddhism are very different in their approaches to dharma, and frankly some are too encrusted with old myths and magical thinking even for my taste, which is why I'm a Zen student and not something else. But some people do very well in the other schools, and I respect that. Most of the time, anyway.

You cannot possibly know what might open the door for you in the future. I've been in practice for many years, and I cannot tell you how many times I've heard someone say that the part of practice they found most annoying and stupid when they started was the very thing they were doing when they first experienced kensho.

It is nearly always the case that the stuff that most annoys us, that really pushes our buttons, is where our most powerful practice can be found. I fear that if we get in a big toot to remodel Buddhism to fit us, to be comfortable for us, we could toss out the very stuff we need most.

And yes, institutions will be corrupt and stupid much of the time, but that's life. And as far as hierarchies go, just remember "authority figure" is a delusion created by "submissive figure" or sometimes "rebellious figure." When you thoroughly realize none of these figures has intrinsic existence, the hierarchy issue isn't necessarily a problem.

But that's up to you. May your practice go well.

Craig's picture

I personally don't mind that Zen is all over the media and is the name of electronic equipment, a bar here and there, and so forth. There are a lot of people that won't ever come close to being serious about it, but can nontheless benefit from even the fluff. For religion or spirituality to be relevant, it can't be hung up on idealizing pioneers from thousands of years ago or that all truth was discovered way back when and now the only way to realization is to find exactly what they found. Lots of people will consider that idea to be seriously irreverent, but my understanding is that historically Zen was exactly that.

Mark's picture

Trying to remain compassionate . . . trying to remain compassionate . . .

But when someone insults you like that, it's difficult. Why, does Ms. Obrien suppose, do so many people run screaming from religion? Could it be because of all the evil it facilitates? Could it be because its persistent opposition to critical thought (as demonstrated in Ms Obrien's column, for instance) runs counter to deeply held Western values? Could it be because the traditional forms Ms Obrien is at pains to defend so universally become ossified ends in themselves, useful chiefly for perpetuating hierachies of social power? The Zen Ms Obrien laments as not having taken root here never will take root here, because it is a artifact of a foreign culture and an ancient time, and is dying out even in its countries of origin. The reason we have Buddhism at all today is because it adapted to the world views of the cultures into which it spread, and that is what we see happening in the West today. That is to be celebrated, not dissed.

When Ms Obrien denegrates those who seek the dharma's benefits without embracing Asian mythologies and the dogmatic rituals that express them, she is insulting many people who practice seriously and have made the dharma a central part of their lives. That kind of reactionary attack will do more to discourage the spread of the dharma in the West than declining to wear robes and bow to statues.

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Duff's picture

First off, marshmallow fluff is delicious!

Secondly, Transactional Analysis is not nearly as shallow as people who don't understand it and use a popular book on it as a benchmark for shallow self-inquiry.

Thirdly, there is a lot of shallow religion and practice in all countries, as well as deep religion and practice. There is shallow Buddhism in the East, deep Buddhism in the West, and everything in between.