|The New Buddhism: An essay-review by Dan Barnett|
|Source: Magill's Literary Annual 2002 (2 vol.), edited by John D. Wilson and Steven G. Kellman. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2002, pp. 571-575.|
|THE NEW BUDDHISM
The Western Transformation of An Ancient Tradition
Buddhism began with Siddhartha Gautama who lived in northern India in the sixth or fifth century B.C.E. Tradition says he became “the enlightened one” (the Buddha) after a period of deep meditation under a bodhi tree. The remainder of his long life was devoted to three intertwined teachings: an ethical teaching that one’s intentions in this life determined one’s future rebirth; a teaching that the nearly endless cycle of rebirth could be ended by enlightenment, by seeing reality as it really was; and a teaching that a state of mindfulness and deep meditation could produce such wisdom.
This wisdom, according to James William Coleman in The New Buddhism, is not discursive but experiential. The reality that all is flux, that even a human being is nothing more than constantly changing bundles of experience, means there is no core self to be protected. Clinging ceases and with it suffering (the effect of clinging), and there remains nirvana, a state of unspeakable bliss no longer subject to the karmic laws of cause and effect.
Though in its long history Buddhism has been characterized as world-renouncing, and the development of Buddhist monasticism would seem to affirm such judgment, the reality is far more complex. Varieties of popular Buddhism have emphasized the prospect of a good rebirth by the doing of meritorious deeds or by the chanting of certain phrases. Even some elite Buddhist groups engaged with the world in study, ritual, and politics. “Western Buddhism,” Coleman writes, “has drawn its primary inspiration from a relatively narrow spectrum of Asian Buddhism: the meditation-oriented elite Buddhists who do not see monastic renunciation as an essential component of the path to enlightenment.”
As Buddhism left India, and all but perished in its homeland, it took root in various forms in Sri Lanka and Burma (where Theravada Buddhism or “the way of the elders” began to flourish), in Tibet (where several sects developed that emphasized esoteric and ritualistic Buddhism), and in China (which saw the rise of the schools of Hua-yen and T’ien T’ai, the development of the popular Pure Land form, and Ch’an Buddhism). In turn, China heavily influenced Buddhism in Korea, Vietnam and Japan (where Ch’an became Zen). Japan itself produced an innovative form of Buddhism that arose from the teachings of the Japanese monk Nichiren, whose aggressive condemnation of all other forms of Buddhism, and worship of a sacred text known as the Lotus Sutra, made it unique.
Buddhism adapted to new cultural conditions as it spread throughout Asia and continued to do so in Great Britain and the United States. Coleman distinguishes between ethnic Buddhism in the West, part of the cultural tradition brought by Asian immigrants, and the “new Buddhism” which attracts Western adherents, most of whom are “wealthy, liberal, highly educated Anglos.” The author’s survey of 359 people at seven Buddhist centers, conducted from 1992 to 1996, while not scientific, is nevertheless instructive. The new Buddhism finds adherents among the well-educated middle and upper classes because, Coleman writes, it “is an intellectually challenging religion that demands an extraordinarily high level of dedication and discipline among its members, and, of course, lots of time to devote to spiritual pursuits. Unlike Asian Buddhism, it lacks the emotional appeal of the devotional faiths that history has shown to hold the greatest attraction for those in the less privileged classes.”
Though Buddhism was not unknown in the U.S. and Britain by the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the so-called Beat Generation of the 1950s, including such notables as the poets Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, and novelist Jack Kerouac, brought Japanese Zen to the attention of a larger reading audience. Essayist Alan Watts, though allied with the beats without identifying himself as one, promoted an intellectualized Buddhism in The Way of Zen (1957) and many other books. There was a new wave of interest in Zen in the late 1960s and early 1970s as those in the counterculture sought more stable alternatives to the experiences provided by psychedelic drugs.
Certain other Western students traveled to Asia to study, and brought back what they had learned. Among them were Philip Kapleau, founder of the Rochester, New York, Zen Center; Robert Aitken of Hawaii’s Diamond Sangha (sangha is the community of Buddhists); and Peggy (Jiyu) Kennett who founded the Shasta Abbey monastery in Northern California. Asian Zen teachers themselves, most notably Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam, have also had considerable influence in the West. Shunryu Suzuki, the son of a Zen priest, taught Zen in the United States and founded the first Zen Center there in 1961. He taught that sitting meditation (zazen) with the right posture was itself enlightenment. No special state of mind was needed.
Tibetan Vajrayana (the “diamond vehicle”) in the West, more emotionally outgoing and colorful than Zen, was shaped in large part by Chogyam Trungpa. Trungpa came to North America in 1970, founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado (which offers degrees in Buddhist studies), and warned of the dangers of what he called “spiritual materialism” which produced only egocentricity under the guise of spiritual attainment. Trungpa was an advocate of “crazy wisdom,” a kind of uncomfortable spontaneity. A controversial figure, he “openly had sex with his students, smoked, and drank heavily enough to be characterized as an alcoholic by many who knew him.”
The Theravada tradition of southern Asia made its appearance in the West in more secularized fashion. Called Vipassana, this form of Buddhism is promoted by Western teachers as akin to psychotherapy. Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield founded the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. Kornfield left to found the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California.
Finally, the Japanese sect called Soka Gakkai promotes a Buddhism for the masses, emphasizing not meditation but praise of the Lotus Sutra which, it is believed, will bring wealth and happiness to the adherent. Unlike other forms of Buddhism Coleman considers, Soka Gakkai in the West is under the direction of one central authority, the parent organization in Japan. Though influential in the West, Soka Gakkai is itself worthy of an entire study, and Coleman mentions it only briefly.
As Buddhism becomes entrenched in the West, Coleman finds signs of increasing eclecticism, a mixing of “insights and approaches of all the Asian Buddhist traditions, often combined with a healthy dose of such things as Sufism, Taoism, the nondualistic schools of Hinduism, and Western psychology.” What’s more, some Western groups, such as the Springwater Center in New York, have given up Buddhist identification in an effort to overcome clinging, even to Buddhism itself.
Coleman’s survey of Buddhist centers in North America is supplemented by formal interviews, personal experience as a practicing Buddhist, and a reading of the relevant literature. The author provides a comprehensive overview of the emerging responses of Western Buddhism to individualistic postmodern (mostly American) culture. If a Buddhist is defined as a person who looks for refuge to the Buddha, the sangha, and the dharma (the universal truth about reality), then there were perhaps from one to four million Buddhists in the United States by the end of the twentieth century. Involvement varies, from “bookstore Buddhists” to those deeply involved in small Buddhist groups which often sponsor meditation retreats and “dharma talks.”
As Western Buddhism develops, it poses a challenge not only to more traditional Asian forms but faces its own temptations. “One of the great paradoxes of Buddhism,” Coleman writes, “is that the respect, prestige, and authority the teacher receives are a powerful encouragement to the very kind of ego attachments that Buddhist practice is expected to help the practitioner transcend. More than a few Western Buddhists have been deeply troubled when, for example, they have seen high-ranking Tibetan teachers being chauffeured around in a limousine, attended by a team of servants, or giving their dharma talks from a golden throne. Traditional cultural forms or ego delusion?” In response certain Western groups have tried to put less emphasis on the authority of the teacher, and some have worked out policies of shared governance within the community and promulgated codes of ethics.
Western Buddhist centers were rocked by a number of sex-and-power scandals in the 1980s. Perhaps the most significant in terms of its lasting effects on Western Buddhism involved the successor to Chogyam Trungpa. Leadership of Trungpa’s sangha was given to Osel Tendzin in 1987, who continued the pattern of open sexuality and heavy drinking. The community was split a year later when it was revealed that Tendzin, who had known he was infected with the AIDS virus, failed to tell his sexual partners and failed to use protection. Coleman writes that “Complete realization is rare indeed, and the actions of even the greatest teachers must be questioned when they appear wrong. Of course, it takes great courage to stand up and challenge a powerful and revered teacher, but those raised in the individualistic culture of Western democracy seem to be uniquely suited to the task.”
The new Buddhism has also had to consider the place of women and the family. Traditional Buddhism, while philosophically open to the full equality of women and men in the quest for enlightenment, in practice tended to be patriarchal and sexist. Western Buddhism has taken a far more egalitarian approach and Coleman writes that “The most important transformation Buddhism has undergone, and the one that seems most likely to be a permanent fixture in the West, has been the growing power of women and the trend toward full gender equality.”
New forms of practice are also evolving in relation to families with children. Early Buddhism advocated celibacy for its adherents so monks (and nuns) would not be distracted in their practice, and Coleman observes that “most Western Buddhist centers have failed to come up with any viable institutional alternatives to allow the full participation of parents with heavy child-rearing responsibilities.” Though Buddhist meditation appears inimical to the life of the family, the author suggests a more careful understanding shows that “If parents seek to bring the attitude of practice into their daily lives, a crying baby can be as much a reminder to come back to the here and now as the great bells of the temples.”
But Buddhism is more than just the psychology of being “present.” Some may come to Buddhism seeking therapeutic answers to personal problems, but that makes Buddhism simply another coping mechanism for the self. Instead, Buddhism’s “most profound teachings do not offer a new identity or a new set of techniques for managing our problems but deconstruct the whole project of the selfto bring us to see the pointlessness of our desperate efforts to construct, maintain, and protect our self-identity that consume so much of our lives. . . . Although self-identity remains, the attachment to itwhat Buddhists call self-clingingand the suffering it causes do not. Self-identity is recognized as simply one more pattern of thought that arises and passes away as conditions dictate.”
Coleman finds a bright future for the new Buddhism, which he believes may become part of the Western religious mainstream. While much of traditional Asian Buddhism emphasized the place of social withdrawal in the path toward liberation, Western Buddhism is more socially and politically involved, “a profoundly subversive force in postmodern consumer society.”
Written in a popular style, The New Buddhism is a sympathetic yet critical guide, a model of engaged objectivity.
Sources for Further Study
James William Coleman, a professor of sociology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, has also published The Criminal Elite: Understand White-Collar Crime. A practicing Buddhist, Coleman graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in the sociology of religion.