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21st-Century Buddhism: 002: Buddha at the Intersection

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me.


Episode 002:

Buddha at the Intersection

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 or awakening 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:



Dennis Hunter publishes a popular website on Buddhism and spirituality, One Human Journey. His work has also appeared on Buddhist Geeks and in Bodhi magazine. A long-time resident of New York City, he is currently living as a temporary monk at a Buddhist monastery in a very remote part of Canada.

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Western Dharma

I am engaged in dharma teaching activities via a non-sectarian Buddhist Council group in Sydney. There seems a hunger for it to fill the gap left by materialist values, but few people seem willing to do the study or practise to really understand it - honourable exceptions being those who do put in the time to do the Vipassana Retreat, or something similar .

Buddhism at the end of the day has a religious attitude but one that you can 'learn by doing'. This is where it is so different to 'churchianity'. However materialism won't take it lying down. They are busily trying to co-opt whatever is good in it through 'validating meditation' via MRI scans and brain science, and finding 'atheist buddhist' representatives to strain out the devotional and mystical elements. It is true that 'faith' in the Buddhist sense is very different to faith as Christian fundamentalists depict it. But it is still faith.

Nevertheless I think overall the movement is developing positively. Again the Vipassana teaching centres of S N Goenka are doing a superb job of introducing newcomers to the real discipline of insight meditation within a mainly secular framework. As I understand it, more than 100,000 people went through a 10 day retreat in 2007. which is a remarkable achievement, considering how arduous it is.

Precedent and speed

I'm not so sure about the historical accuracy of your claims about different kinds of Buddhism coexisting together in the same place at the same time.
Central Asia was a crossroads not only of trade but of culture for millennia, and archaeological sites like Dunhuang and others testify to many different kinds of Buddhist teachings also crossing paths. Then look at Nalanda University, among the many prestigious Buddhist universities in India, where not only many traditions came together, but practitioners from dozens on cultures and language backgrounds did as well.
Of course things are unique now, but then again, the present moment always is, no?
Regarding the speed of transmission: with all of our technological ability to share information, including the dharma, we have that much more distraction and diversion from actually practicing the teachings.
So, I would say buddhadharma, as it always has, moves at the speed of breath.
I'm curious as to what your motivations are about making these sensationalist points about western uniqueness...of course I agree that we have different cultural and technological conditions including accelerated speed of communication and travel and a pluralistic social landscape, but the inner work and mental technology of human beings I don't think is much different than it was 2600 years ago.
Establishing Buddhism in a culture requires practice, study, and activity. We may be able to speedily accomplish a lot of things and accumulate a lot of information, but are we truly practicing? To me, that's the key, and something you alluded to in your first post and elsewhere, about people genuinely realizing the profound and ordinary truths of these teachings. Translation is also key, but that's another topic.
I feel very optimistic about all forms of buddhism being here all at once; there is incredible potential for sychronicity and mutual benefit. It's definitely a fascinating process, but one must be wary of making it into another melodrama to distract one from actually engaging in applying the teachings to one's life.

Yes but no but yes

Hello, Anonymous. You bring up some good points about previous examples of cross-pollination amongst Buddhist schools in Asia, but I think my main argument still holds true: in no previous case that I'm aware of did *all* of the schools of Buddhism descend upon a culture at more or less the same time, more or less out of nowhere. And in probably no previous case was there quite the same smorgasbord-like availability of all the various traditions in one place. I just heard this morning from a Twitter acquaintance who is a regular Vipassana practitioner; this weekend he's going to a Zen sesshin, and next week he's planning to do a Mahamudra program.

On the other hand, just to *get* to Nalanda University in ancient India, you might have had to travel for months or years on foot or horseback (if you were wealthy enough to have a horse, and fortunate to live long enough to get there and back). Nalanda was pretty large and diverse for its times, but I don't think it really compares to what's going on today, in terms of freedom of choice, openness, speed of transmission, and other factors.

I don't argue, as I've heard some do, that what will emerge from this smorgasbord of Dharma is some kind of "American Buddhism" or "Western Buddhism" that is a hybridization of all these different Buddhist traditions -- although I don't discount that theory, either. In many individuals' study, practice, and life that seems to be what is happening now. But for that kind of mixing to work, one has to be well-grounded in one tradition first.

I agree, though, that what is so often missing from the Western diet is a healthy amount of practice. As someone else pointed out in comments on my previous article, and I've noticed this myself, we Westerners tend to excel at academic study of the Dharma but lag behind in the practice and realization departments. That's a sweeping generalization, and there are some Westerners whom I would definitely regard as being highly accomplished practitioners (and there are some hidden yogis in the West, too), but as far as generalizations go I think it holds water. To carry the generalization further, as a culture I'd say we're really addicted to the rational, analytical part of the mind -- and that's both a strength and a weakness in terms of how we engage with the Dharma.

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