The Future of Buddhism in the West

Article: The Future of Buddhism in the West

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

Editors’ Note: This is a talk presented at the East West Conference between Western academics and Tibetan Buddhist teachers at the Sacred Stream Center on April 21, 2014.

Summary: What is required for Buddhism to have more transformational impact in the Western context?


Arnold Toynbee, the noted British historian, remarked that the most important event for the West in the twentieth century was to be its encounter with Buddhism. We in the West are still in the early days of this encounter and there are still many facets of this encounter that have yet to be worked out or made evident. Yet, by examining the challenges that have arisen in this encounter, we may be able to discern the trajectory of the future of Buddhism in the West.

In the process of moving from one culture to the next, Buddhism has always adapted to its new environment, absorbing aspects of its host culture even as it has changed it. Some of the challenges that Buddhism is encountering in the West now are the same challenges it has always faced:

  • How to break down the societal structures within the new culture that foster unconsciousness, without inciting a negative reaction against the softening influence of Buddhist thought on the forces of unconsciousness
  • How to maintain the purity of the teachings, and the lineages in which they travel, while creating access points to the teachings that are relevant to the culture
  • How to prevent the “dumbing down” of the power of Buddhist practice as aspects of the new culture are incorporated into it

I would like to address each of these points within the context of the Buddhist encounter with the West in order to see where we are at this moment in time.

In the West, the forces that Buddhism encounters in the societal structures are not those of a monarchy whose king must be pleased with the practice for it to be allowed flourish in the new environment, as has often been the case. Rather, Buddhist practitioners have often felt they need to present themselves at the court of Western science in order to gain acceptance in the West.

There is a problem that Buddhists have not understood in this enterprise. Because Buddhism is truly scientific in its method of inquiry as it approaches the mystery of existence, its practitioners seem to have missed the fact that Western scientists are not actually that scientific when entering into an ontological dialogue with Buddhists. Buddhist practitioners seem to have been late to understand that there is a prejudice in the Western scientific community against spirit. This prejudice was born of the battle to eradicate superstition from inquiry during the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth century. The elimination of superstition is, of course, an important endeavor in establishing scientific method.

But indulging in a prejudice against spirit may corrupt Western scientists’ inquiry into the affairs of the mind and spirit. I have observed Buddhist “scientists” encountering this obstacle in dialogues with Western “scientists” that organizations such as Mind and Life have sponsored. In these dialogues, the Buddhist participants seem to have been unaware of how this prejudice was undermining the effort to establish a mutual basis of inquiry.

Although I understand the need for Buddhism to establish credibility in any environment in which it arrives in order to flourish, I don’t think that Western science is the monarch that must be propitiated in the West for Buddhism to establish itself. From my point of view, it is not important whether scientists “get” Buddhist ontology. It is more important for Buddhism to focus on the issue of suffering and the quite specific forms it takes in the West and establish its capacity to transform that suffering at a more grassroots level.

To this end, Buddhism can prove its merit and establish its credibility in more experiential ways, by bringing practice and inquiry directly to the places in which this suffering arises. Geshe Thupten Jinpa’s development of the Compassion Protocol within the Compassion Cultivation Training that is now being taught in many environments is one such method. It is an excellent example of using scientific method to prove the validity of Buddhism in relieving human suffering.

In this protocol, he developed a series of standards to measure improvement in well being after engagement with meditation practices to improve the practitioners’ understanding of and engagement with the concept of compassion. With this project, there is no debate about the effectiveness of this essential aspect of Buddhist practice. There is a simple, replicable demonstration of its effectiveness as subjects, one after another, demonstrate a measurable increase in well being after following the protocol. It is highly scientific in its approach to spirit and provides a firm basis and open access to any true, open-minded scientific inquiry. I think this type of approach provides a clear direction in which Buddhism could proceed in establishing itself in the West.

This experiential approach is key to the success of Buddhism in the West. This experiential approach is the hallmark of one of Buddhism’s big successes in making inroads into another pillar of Western culture: corporations. The Buddhist practices that encourage presence and attention have taken on a new meaning under the rubric of “mindfulness.” Mindfulness as a concept has a much deeper meaning within Buddhist practice than is acknowledged in the coining of the word as a code for “Buddhism” or “meditation” by practitioners of Zen Buddhism who seek to introduce Buddhism into a secular environment. The appropriation and adaptation of this concept has been a bit of a public relations coup for Buddhism in the West. It has helped foster consideration of Buddhist principles in Western circles and has offered a key to the door of the mind of Westerners inquiring beyond the boundaries of Western philosophy and spirituality in a secular environment.

The practices of the coined “mindfulness” appear relatively toothless in creating any kind of change that would topple the grip of corporate interests, so workshops on “mindfulness” manage to slip into the corporate culture and are beginning to change it from within. This success is due, in part, from the brilliant marketing of mindfulness as a tool to improve corporate employees’ productivity in order to benefit the corporation. This has allowed “mindfulness” a foothold in such corporations as Google, which now actually pays its employees to meditate on company time. Employees clock into the meditation room, and for each twenty minutes they meditate, fifty cents is donated to one of three projects: Mindfulness in the Schools, Mindfulness in the Prisons, or Mindfulness for Veterans.

The relative seeming simplicity of mindfulness practices as coined under the term “mindfulness” is at once a benefit and a challenge to establishing Buddhism in the West. The relatively widespread embrace of “mindfulness” has led to a kind of watering down of what true mindfulness practice is. This is perhaps inevitable and even necessary when one considers the almost total lack of presence that American culture fosters. Getting people to just pay attention to the present moment is a monumental challenge in an environment where video games, cell phones, and electronic distractions of every ilk dominate the cultural landscape. And it is a task that “mindfulness” addresses successfully.

However, the true practices of mindfulness are much deeper and penetrate much more deeply into the psyche of a serious Buddhist practitioner. While we must applaud and appreciate the inroads “mindfulness” has allowed the principles of Buddhism to make into the structures of Western culture, I think we – pun intended – must pay attention to the dumbing down of the practice that may be occurring with people now equating “mindfulness” with Buddhism.

The potential problem was very well demonstrated in an encounter not between Buddhism and science or Buddhism and the corporation but in an encounter between Buddhism and Buddhism at a recent dialogue sponsored by San Francisco Zen Center, which had invited Robert Thurman, a distinguished Tibetan Buddhist scholar, to speak at one of its events. During her panel discussion with Dr. Thurman, the President of Zen Center, a mindfulness proponent, stated that it was important to remember that Buddha had never posited the concept of reincarnation.

The concept of reincarnation, a concept fundamental to every aspect of Buddhist ontology, is a subject that American Zen practitioners often skirt for many reasons, not the least of which is an effort to make Buddhism more palatable and scientific to secular and theological Western circles. But this rejection of reincarnation was so blunt and so inaccurate that Robert Thurman almost leapt out of his chair to counter it.

Pointing to Buddha’s summary of his enlightenment experience under the tree at Bodh Gaya wherein he stated that he had passed through all of his past lives as part of his realization of the nature of reality; Robert Thurman refuted this statement eloquently.

This is a cautionary tale. We cannot afford to water down Buddhist practice in order to have it broadly accepted in the West. We must not allow the essential power of the practice to be eroded as Buddhism establishes itself and creates important and valuable change in an environment of deepening unconsciousness that the West seems to be embroiled in.

This brings us to the last point: how to prevent the dumbing down of Buddhism as it confronts a new level of unconsciousness in human experience that the West seems to be embracing. The way Buddhist practice has traditionally tried to preserve its purity is through lineage lines, where the teachings are transmitted from teacher to student in an unbroken line from the root teacher of the lineage. The effort is important and in many ways effective, but all lineage line processes have their shortcomings that are important to note but are not always acknowledged by lineage line members. Acknowledgement of these shortcomings is especially important as Buddhism seeks to meet the challenge of maintaining depth of practice while maintaining relevance in the modern environment.

First, just because a teaching is part of a lineage does not mean it has not been corrupted by internecine special interests, teachers who have not been able to hold the mantle offered them effectively, or by cultural prejudices permeating the teachings in unrecognized ways. These shortcomings can actually affect the integrity of the lineage in ways that may be invisible to those in the interior of the lineages – especially if they have become more wedded to the form of the lineage rather than the content of what the lineage carries.

This kind of problem can be seen in lineages that emphasize hierarchy at the expense of recognizing strong teachers that may arise outside the hierarchy. For Buddhism to truly establish itself in the West, it must examine what are essentially patriarchal practices that form the struts of its lineage lines. Buddhism must be able to expand beyond these limits to be able to recognize strong teachers who have been necessarily born and bred outside the standards and structures of lineage lines in the West.

It must be recognized that the same principles of demonstrable strength of practice that are applied within lineage lines can be applied to those teachers who may have access to wisdom through internal development outside the environments fostered by lineage lines. In this way, strength of Buddhist practice can be safeguarded in a more flexible way than the blind application of lineage to the multiplicity of weaker charlatan teachers that multiply like mushrooms after a fall rain in the West, particularly in California.

One of the most outstanding legacies the American culture has to offer Buddhism in its process of evolution as it moves into the new environment of the West is one of the many important legacies the Native American peoples of North America offered the new country of the United States at its inception. This is a form of governance that the founding fathers of the United States adapted and made their own – the legacy of equality. This is one of the most important principles America has to offer Buddhism in helping it expand beyond the limitations of patriarchal lineage lines. But it can also be applied in another area in which Buddhism has limitations it has absorbed from the surrounding cultural contexts in which it has evolved up until this point: gender equality. Women have held no place of equality with men in any of the cultures where Buddhism has flourished up until now. The struggle that Western women have engaged in to create gender parity is important to the evolution of human consciousness in general. And Buddhism, as a consummate tool for the evolution of consciousness, must incorporate gender parity in order for it to meet the responsibility it has in continuing to transform consciousness as it meets the West.

Gender equality must be emphasized and broadened within Buddhist practice if Buddhism is going to remain a relevant tool for the transformation of unconsciousness in the West. This is even more important for Tibetan Buddhism because His Holiness the Dalai Lama has hinted at the possibility of his incarnating as a woman in the West now that the Chinese government has made the possibility of his incarnating within the current lineage line of the Dalai Lamas impossible with their co-opting of the Panchen Lama. Strong women teachers must be cultivated and recognized within Buddhist practice if Buddhism is going to remain relevant to the West – or anywhere else for that matter.

This perspective of equality must also be applied in comparing and considering all the great schools that have emerged from the practice of Buddhism over the last 2,500 years. Buddhist scholars must develop an appreciation of the teachings of all Buddhist schools without the competition that schools have historically engaged in to try to assert the validity of their teachings over others. Institutions that foster the preservation of the teachings of each school and the development of wisdom holders within each tradition must be developed and maintained in the West so the teachings can remain strong. And they must all be considered equally and given the recognition due them for their contribution to the preservation of the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy and practice, even if differences of interpretation of the teachings are present.

Here, as in all fields of engagement where Buddhism meets the West, flexibility and rigor must be maintained in equal measure. Buddhism must be flexible enough to change where it needs to change. And it must apply the rigor of its method in the proper places in order to preserve the depth and breadth of its teachings. This may seem paradoxical, but Buddhism is no stranger to paradox. If Buddhism can meet the requirements of this paradox, the West can truly benefit from the power of this ancient wisdom and can remain relevant in the fast paced change of the Western environment.

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