Is “American Buddhism” dead?

Thoughts from somebody who is nobody

What a time for Buddhism in the United States. My teacher, who I have studied under for 15 years has been accused of sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of the Shambhala Buddhist community, has been accused of sexual assault, Brad Warner declared, “American Buddhism is Dead”, and renowned teachers across the country are advocating and teaching the use of psychedelic drugs as part of practice. As a practitioner in the United States, what are we supposed to make of this?

I am not a teacher, I have been practicing Buddhism for about 15 years. I first came to Buddhism while working in Christian ministry. I wondered, if the Bible taught to meditate on the “word of god day and night” why did I not see anyone doing that or teaching that. After I was rejected by the church because of my gender and sexuality I started to study the teachings of the Buddha. The focus of the teachings was to be in the present, the here and now, that foundational truth resonated with me.

Today I was sitting a guided meditation from Bhikkhu Anālayo, “Exploring the Four Satipatthanas“. In this meditation he says, “This body is painful. Its nature is to create pain and we are consistently involved in alleviating the painful feeling […] There is a subtle pain involved in having a body. When we are aware of mental feelings we also notice a subtle feeling and this is pleasurable. The pleasure of being in the present moment […] as we keep noticing it, it becomes stronger, the pleasure of being aware of the present moment. And another thing we notice is that these feelings constantly change from one to another. All feelings are impermanent, all feelings change, every feeling is a message of impermanence, a message of change, like winds blowing in the sky. […] Every feeling is a message of impermanence.” As I sat, I realized that part of the issue right now is that Buddhism, as sold in the United States, was dead on arrival.

The Buddha didn’t teach escape, he taught being in the present. For many of us, the present is hard. The Buddha didn’t teach living the good life with fancy cars, alcohol-fuelled private parties, gambling, sex, and drugs. He wandered the earth living on the gifts of others and renouncing material goods and sex. “American Buddhism” was dead on arrival because like the rest of this country is based on capitalism and escape.

Personally, I do agree with science of the long recognized therapeutic potential in psychedelics. However, that is not the practice that I read from the Buddha. Yes, I am sure you can gain insight from guided experiences with psychedelics. But, is that Buddhism? I actually think that meditating on psychedelics is probably a rather cool thing to do. But, the teachings as I read them, says that anything that takes me out and away from the present moment is not the practice of Buddhism. I thought part of the reason I was following this practice and teachings was to incorporate the teachings and my practice into my daily life. Being present when I am doing dishes, and the laundry, and being at work seems to be part of the point for a lay practitioner.

Why are we surprised that teachers are abusing their power sexually? Why are we surprised that teachers are advocating for escape in drugs as part of the teachings? Why are we surprised when our teachers gamble? I am no longer surprised.

In my opinion, the core issue of “American Buddhism” is capitalism and the model of most Buddhism in the US is based on money. I started my formal practice in Shambhala. But the smells and bells and exchange of money for teachings and trainings made me run the other way. It reminded me of the mega churches I had been to where money was traded in exchange for coffee and donuts and where doves were released, only to be recaptured, on Easter. I didn’t have the money for the Shambhala level trainings and thus would not progress in my formal practice, this did not seem to be the teaching of the Buddha. I read a book that was new at the time called Dharma Punx by Noah Levine. His story resonated with me. No, I am not an addict in the traditional sense, but I grew up in So.Cal just a few years behind him. I had rejected much of what I was raised with because of the focus to look and act a certain way, to make money and feed the system. Levine offered teachings showing another way. He talked about coming back to the original teachings of the Buddha. He talks in this book about peer support and not following a guru, about rejecting the crap that has been added onto the teachings of the Buddha. Just as in my days in Christian ministry where I focused my studies on the teachings of Jesus and not his followers, Levine was focusing on the words and teachings of the Buddha and I was drawn to that.

Right now what we need in Buddhism is restorative and transformational justice. I am no longer surprised when my teachers stray from the teachings because my teachers are human. This does not excuse their actions but puts their actions in a real place. We as lay practitioners are complicit in the behaviors of our teachers because we feed the capitalist structure upon which “American Buddhism” is founded on. To change this we need to support our teachers by offering dana that is in line with our ability to pay so that retreats and teachings can be offered freely. We need to stop demanding that our retreat centers offer saunas and Michelin rated meals and instead look to the simplicity of the Buddha and sit in places that all of us can afford where we can focus on our practice and the teachings and not the atmosphere. We need to stop privileging in our sangha those who have the disposable income to sit long retreats and instead support our teachers to teach us where we are at. The dharma should be accessible. It shouldn’t matter what shoes my teacher wears or even if the center I practice in has air conditioning and nice flooring. What matters is the practice.

Teachers, we need to demand less of you. Many of you are lay teachers; you have not taken vows, you have families to support and many of our communities are hella expensive to live in. How can the sangha better support you so that you do not have to charge for teachings and teach at the fancy retreat centers? How can we support you without forming a nonprofit or for-profit foundation and dharma empire? I know that we as practitioners encourage these ways.

From our teachers though, I do ask that you stick to the teachings. That you, like the Buddha, admit to us that you are human and fallible. That when you are wrong, when you teach us something that is not right, when you get called out for abusing the power we give you, you need to come to the community and right that wrong. The core teachings are about sickness, old age, and death. And yet, we all act surprised when we observe and experience our teachers living in samsara and struggling with temptations from Mara. We should not be surprised. We should hold each other accountable, but we are all susceptible to this human form and Samsara. This should not surprise us. The Buddha said in the Dighanaka Sutta, “A pleasant feeling is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen, subject to ending, subject to vanishing, fading, ceasing. A painful feeling is also inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen, subject to ending, subject to vanishing, fading, ceasing. A neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling is also inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen, subject to ending, subject to vanishing, fading, ceasing.”

I agree with Brad Warner it looks like American Buddhism is dead. But, if by chance “American Buddhism” isn’t dead yet, it should be. “American Buddhism” has never been much more than capitalism. What I am looking for is a sangha based on the teachings of the Buddha. I am looking for a sangha that is for the poor. I am looking for a sangha that is for those of us in rural communities, not just in urban centers. I am looking for a sangha that doesn’t culturally appropriate other cultures and that embraces people of color. I am looking for a sangha that stands up for justice. I am looking for the teachers who recognize this and will make the dharma accessible to all. I am looking for a sangha that forgives and teachers who admit when they are wrong. I believe that this is possible.

Golden Buddha in jeans