Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Buddha at the Intersection

This article appeared yesterday at The Interdependence Project. The editors of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review wrote a commentary on the article (as they also did on my other recent article, "Christian Buddhism?").

When people talk about the establishment of Buddhism in Western countries, they often draw parallels with previous examples of Buddhism coming to a new land and taking root in the culture. While those examples are useful for illustration, I think it's time for us to admit that there are no precedents for what's happening this time around. Many conditions are converging to make this a totally unique moment in the history of Buddhism.

In the past, it was more of a one-to-one cultural exchange: Indian Vajrayana Buddhism came to Tibet, Chinese Mahayana Buddhism came to Japan and Korea, and so on. In the West (a convenient label that actually covers a conglomeration of dozens of different languages and distinct national and regional cultures), we are not receiving just a single tradition of Buddhism into one country, in a one-to-one cultural exchange. We are receiving *all* of the traditions of Buddhism in the West, all at once, and they are all mixing with all of the various cultures and languages in Europe and the Americas and Australasia. Nothing even remotely similar to that has ever happened to Buddhism before.

In the past, people lived in agrarian societies, and information traveled at the speed of horses. In the West, most people live in densely populated cities, and information travels through the Internet, television, radio and other media at the speed of light. Buddhist teachers are using Facebook and Twitter and webcasting to reach thousands of students around the world, all at once. People often say it takes hundreds of years for Buddhism to be established in a new culture, but that old rule of thumb was based on the spread of information in feudal cultures that don't exist anymore. Given the speed at which everything happens today, it's not unreasonable to think that whatever is going to happen with Buddhism in the West will happen much more rapidly than it ever has before.

As it enters the West, Buddhism is also meeting, for the first time, a formidable colleague in the form of Western science and secular values. At the moment, these colleagues are on friendly terms and mutually curious about one another, and Buddhism is finding common ground with neuroscience, psychology and other Western scientific endeavors. But just as Buddhism is bringing fresh insights to science, it is also being challenged to rethink many of its ancient ideas.

Urbanization and global travel and the Internet make it possible for people to actually study and practice with teachers from more than one Buddhist tradition -- creating a mash-up of influences from, say, Tibetan and Theravadan lineages. This is something that happened only to a very limited degree in the past. The fertile cross-pollination between traditions that is occurring among Western Buddhist practitioners today is unprecedented. People reading this blog run the gamut from Tibetan Buddhists to Shingon Buddhists to Zen Buddhists to Theravadan Buddhists to Jewish Buddhists to Christian Buddhists to people who don't call themselves Buddhists at all. Through our near-instantaneous conversations, we are all interacting and influencing one another's spiritual lives and sharing radically different perspectives on the meaning of the Buddhist teachings.

This kind of mutual influence across sects (or what I like to call "inter-section") can be tremendously fruitful, but also challenging. It can bring fresh insights and ways of looking at the teachings of one's own tradition, but it can also create cognitive dissonance. The Theravada and Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, to take one example, have very different ways of conceptualizing what enlightenment is, and this gives rise to different emphases in teaching and approaches to practice. Personally speaking, although I'm practicing in the Mahayana/Vajrayana tradition, I have often benefited from hearing the Theravadan perspective on things. It helps me take a larger view and better discern what is most essential about the practices and teachings I'm working with.

The many schools of Buddhism might be compared to various drugs that are used to treat the same spectral illness. Prozac works well for some folks, while Effexor works better for others -- and a select few with intense problems will need something like Haldol. At heart, we're all just suffering and trying to get well. What is different today, in the West, is that we suddenly have the entire range of drug options from the Buddhist pharmacy placed in front of us, and we -- the patients -- are free to take some of this drug and supplement it with a little of that one. Whether we end up curing our suffering through this experimentation, or only further heightening our neurosis, depends on how we go about it.

Buddhism has always melded with aspects of the dominant religious tradition in a new culture, but it is doubtful that such a pluralistic and cacaphonous hodge-podge of spiritual and temporal perspectives has ever before come together to shape the establishment of Buddhism in one place. As Buddhism stands today at the intersection where all these various influences converge, no one can predict what the fruit of such cross-pollination will look like in a hundred years, or even twenty, or even ten.

One thing seems certain: Western Buddhism in the 21st century is not going to look like the Asian Buddhism of centuries past. And that's okay. I just hope it doesn't end up looking like this:

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