The Huffington Post website carries a blog with the title “Faith Shift” written by Jaweed Kaleem. Last year, the blog reported on a large conference in Garrison, New York, supported by major Buddhist centers and periodicals. The focus of the conference was the future of Buddhism in America. The religion is represented in this country by two very distinct groups: immigrants from traditionally Buddhist countries, and converts to Buddhism without such an ethnic background. The conference was mostly attended by people in the second category.
If the future of Buddhism in America can be discussed as a problem, it is that as a result of success rather than failure. Todd Johnson may be called the dean of religious nose-counters. In a forthcoming book which he co-authored with Brian Grim (The World’s Religions in Figures: An Introduction to International Religious Demography), the number of Buddhists in North America is estimated at about four-and-a-half million. The Huffington Post story gives an estimate of two million for the non-ethnic component of this population (converts and their families). These figures must be read with some skepticism. They are probably on the low side, because ideas and practices derived from Buddhism have become widely diffused in America, often without the label “Buddhist” being attached to them. Even so, explicitly labeled Buddhism has become a considerable religious phenomenon—one that has evoked remarkably little animosity.
For example, in the Greater Boston area there are at least sixty Buddhist centers, representing just about any significant branch of Buddhism—including branches deriving from the two principal traditions of Mahayana (dominant in East Asia) and Theravada (concentrated in Southeast Asia), with strong representation of Zen (brought to America by Japanese missionaries) and Tibetan Buddhism (which has very distinctive and partly esoteric characteristics). Two dynamic international movements have centers—Soka Gakkai (coming from Japan) and Tzu Chi (with its origins in Taiwan). Some centers are labeled “non-sectarian”. One operates out of a Unitarian church (not surprising), another from an Episcopalian one (slightly more surprising). What one may observe here is a veritable orgy of American denominationalism. But in addition to these explicitly Buddhist organizations there is a rich assortment of “holistic centers”, offering alternative therapies for both physical and psychological maladies; many of these therapies include Buddhism-derived methods of meditation. The conventional medical establishment has become more open to these approaches, and some have been adopted by corporate “wellness” programs (the very term is self-consciously “holistic”).
Of course Buddhism is not the only source of this large phenomenon of what the British sociologist Colin Campbell called the “Easternization of the West” (in a 2009 book of that title). The widespread practices of yoga and martial arts are not primarily based on Buddhist ideas, neither is the appeal of traditional Indian and Chinese medical techniques—some herbal, others (such as acupuncture) not. Then there is so-called “engaged Buddhism”, which has espoused various political causes of American progressivism—notably environmentalism (restoring an allegedly more harmonious relationship between humanity and nature), communalism (overcoming the supposed evils of “excessive individualism”), sexual liberation (so called Tantric ideas serve here as a bridge between Buddhism and originally counter-cultural sexual liberation), and, last not least, social justice and pacifism (understood much of the time as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism). The Dalai Lama, perhaps unintentionally (he is by all accounts a serious and scholarly teacher of a Buddhist worldview), has become a popular celebrity serving to legitimate this multicultural amalgam.
What is attractive in all this to contemporary Americans? I would take it for granted that there is more than one attraction—after all, some individuals may practice meditation to reach unity with the divine, others to experience better sex or to lose weight. But it seems to me that there is one Buddhist practice that is close to the heart of the attraction: the practice of “mindfulness” (sati in the Pali sources, smrti in the Sanskrit ones). It means concentrated, quiet attention to reality, beginning with one’s own physical processes (notably breathing) and the seemingly trivial objects in one’s immediate surroundings. If properly undertaken (and this can be taught), “mindfulness” leads to an experience of great tranquility, first in the act of meditation, then (one hopes) expanding to life as a whole. A well-maintained rock garden or a well-performed tea ceremony, both Japanese cultural artifacts of Buddhist inspiration, perfectly express this sense of pervasive calm. On my first visit to India, years ago now, I spent some days in Benares (now called Varanasi). There is a tumultuous scene on the shore of the Ganges in one of the holiest sites of Hinduism—multitudes of pilgrims coming and going, people bathing in the river, funeral ceremonies being conducted at the riverside ghats where corpses are cremated. There is something distinctively Hindu in this exuberant (and noisy) celebration of life and death on the side of a river which, like all rivers, symbolizes the flow of all beings toward absorption in the ocean of divinity. On one day I went out to visit the Deer Park, just a short distance from the city—the location where Gautama the Buddha is supposed to have preached his first sermon after achieving Enlightenment. The contrast could not have been any greater. The estate is quite large, dotted with temples and monasteries run by organizations from the Buddhist countries of East and Southeast Asia (Buddhism has been virtually extinct in India since the Muslim conquest and persecution). While I was there, no service was going on that I was aware of. Several Thai monks were quietly passing by. It was an experience of perfect calm.
Back to the American reception of Buddhism: Much of what I have described here is hard to quarrel with (leaving aside the foolishness of some of the counter-cultural adaptations); some of it may be beneficial (so say a few professors at Harvard Medical School), some may even be admirable. What does it have to do with the original message of the Buddha?
The history of Buddhism is five hundred years older than the history of Christianity. Needless to say, over this huge expanse of time the religion has taken many forms—some popular ones intertwined with magic, some of profound sophistication (from the Madhyamika philosophy of ancient Indian Buddhism to the twentieth-century Kyoto school that tried to establish links with modern Western thought). Certainly no outsider can decide what is and what is not “genuine” Buddhism (and, by the way, there is no central Buddhist authority to do so). But it is possible to understand the questions to which the Buddha sought to find answers. These questions are deeply rooted in the religious experience of ancient India, going all the way back to the Vedas (scholars disagree as to when the term “Hinduism” should properly be applied to this experience). At the very core of this experience, and of the bodies of thought that tried to reflect it, is the notion of reincarnation: Every individual soul migrates across many lives. This is often called the “wheel of life”. It seems to me that this phrase does not accurately describe what the notion of reincarnation implies. A more appropriate phrase would be the “wheel of deaths”: Every individual must die over and over again. This is a vision of horror. To this day ordinary Hindus (as indeed many ordinary Buddhists) simply live in such a way that their next incarnation will be better, or at least not worse, than the present one. But “high” Hinduism and Buddhism have sought for ways to escape the horrible wheel altogether. Within the Hindu fold the “high” efforts to achieve this were classically represented by the Upanishads (part of the canon of sacred scriptures) and the Vedanta philosophy. Buddhism produced its own path of escape.
The distinctive worldview of Buddhism is very clearly expressed by the so-called Three Universal Truths, which are affirmed by most if not all Buddhist schools. Here they are: All reality is transitory (anicca, in Pali). All reality is non-self (anatta). All reality is suffering (dukka). The path to Enlightenment begins with the abandonment of the illusions that deny these truths: the illusions of permanence, of self, and of enduring happiness. Desire is what binds us to these illusions; therefore desire must be suppressed (or transformed, in Tantric versions of Buddhism). When Enlightenment is achieved, the result will be perfect equanimity in this life, and after it liberation from the wheel of deaths. Buddhist schools differ as to the end state of the liberated being (Pali nibbana, Sanskrit nirvana)—literal nothingness or blissful existence in a “pure land”. (The paradox of an illusionary self existing in some sort of heavenly afterlife need not concern us here.)
To the extent that American culture has been decisively shaped by notions derived (even in secularized versions) from Christianity, the Buddhist worldview is not readily plausible. (I have argued elsewhere that the gist of an “Abrahamic” worldview may be formulated as a denial of each of the Three Universal Truths.)
Yet (to use a term favored by Catholic missiology) Buddhism has been successfully “encultured” in America. What happens in this process?
In Asia, both in “high” art and in airport souvenir stores, one often comes across “laughing Buddhas”. Why would a Buddha laugh? I think he laughs in post-Enlightenment relief at having been delivered from that nightmarish wheel. To be “encultured” in America, the Buddha has to acquire what may be called the “Protestant smile”—the somewhat bland, but nevertheless sincere benevolence of what the late American sociologist John Murray Cuddihy called the “Protestant aesthetic” (in his No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste, 1978). It is (let us call it) a Methodist smile, which replaced the Calvinist scowl. It is infectious. Everyone who gets settled in America learns to smile this way. The “Protestant smile” greets us in Methodist churches, in Catholic churches, in synagogues (at least this side of ultra-Orthodoxy), in mosques eager to establish their non-Taliban respectability—even, as I discovered recently, in a Hindu temple in central Texas.
Americanized Buddhism has spouted denominations, much on the Protestant model. Conservative Catholics, upset by what happened to their church since the Second Vatican Council, have bemoaned what they call “Protestantization”: uppity lay people practicing supermarket religion. But this is not due to Protestant propaganda. Rather, it is the result of the combination of religious pluralism and freedom of religion. All religious institutions, like it or not, become voluntary associations; the loyalty of the laity can no longer be taken for granted, so it has to be wooed; even naturally scowling cardinals learn to smile. But Americanized Buddhism has also absorbed the cheerful optimism, which (at least thus far—it may not persist if the future should bring economic and political decline) has characterized American culture for a long time. This is the country in which individuals and groups are free to re-invent themselves. It is the country of second chances. Thus meditational practices invented in austere Asian monasteries have become cheerful techniques for self-realization and “wellness” (not to mention bigger and better orgasms). A few years ago there was a debate in an American Buddhist magazine on whether a belief in reincarnation is essential to Buddhism. Opinions were divided. Some were quite willing to give up the notion entirely—the Buddhist path (the dharma) then becomes a fully secularized vehicle for a more satisfying lifestyle. Alternatively, reincarnation itself is Americanized—as a second chance!
Is this “enculturation” a bad thing? Not necessarily. Every religious tradition changes. Buddhism changed as it moved out of India into the very different cultures of eastern Asia. It should not be surprising if it changes again as “the dharma goes west” (to use a phrase much favored by American Buddhists). There is much to be said for American optimism and benevolence, even if it is often bland. I for one rather like the “Protestant smile”; I learned to practice it myself soon after I arrived in America as a young man, still steeped in European existential gloom. As Cuddihy understood, this (no longer exclusively Protestant) smile expresses an important cultural dimension of American democracy. However, it has little do with the anguish that drove a young Indian prince to give up a life of privilege, to leave his family, and to go out as a begging pilgrim in search of a way to extinguish desire.
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