Can Westerners respectfully engage with Buddhism?
Western Buddhists have been criticised for distorting centuries old traditions and doctrines. Is there a way that they could engage more respectfully?
Over the last few centuries the beliefs, practises and philosophies of Buddhism have slowly permeated the Western world. Settling on a precise point of origin can be difficult, but we know that the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer undertook serious study of Buddhism as early as 1815. The degree to which this influenced his philosophy is still the subject of debate, but his interest lives on in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche — perhaps the most important philosopher of the last few centuries — who described Buddhism as “a hundred times more realistic than Christianity”.
Westerners engaging with Buddhism need to be acutely aware of the problems of dislocating Eastern philosophies. When the worldviews of vastly different cultures collide — as in, say, Western scientific materialism and Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism — a great deal of translation, interpretation and omission takes place. This is in part because Tibetan Buddhism draws not only from Indian-Sanskrit texts, but also draws on aspects of Indian and Tibetan tantra, Tibetan traditional medicine, and the shamanic, pre-Buddhist traditions of Tibet. How can a lay person possibly grasp the depth and nuance of such a cultural inheritance? It has taken generations of scholarship to attempt this task, and yet the project remains in its infancy.
While we might habitually think of theories and ideas as separate and distinct entities, in truth they do not spring forth from the ether. Rather, ideas emerge from specific social, cultural and historical contexts. To understand an idea in full, one must also understand the underlying conditions, assumptions and influences that lead to its creation. In short, context is important. Failure to appreciate this has hobbled the project of post-Enlightenment rationalism, whose proponents have historically had a tendency to dismiss the philosophies of other cultures out of hand.
This tendency is demonstrated in the work Richard Dawkins. In books like The God Delusion, Dawkins absurdly seeks to reduce religion to the literal interpretation of holy texts. This narrow conception requires him to reject the immense body of religious ritual, practise, belief, mystical experience and mythology that exists outside the text — and which, in reality, comprises the bulk of the lived experience of religion for believers.
Dawkins’ work demonstrates how the embedded prejudices of the individual — in this case the preferencing of metaphysics and dogma over practise; literalism over mythic or non-literal readings; and detached intellectual pursuit over engagement with actual human beings — can so thoroughly colour the analysis being undertaken. This problem has marked Western engagement with Buddhism from the very beginning. It pays to be conscious to this process: when we engage with a tradition, what is it that we choose to keep or discard? To emphasise or marginalise? To translate or reinterpret? And how do we justify these decisions?
There is a passage in Jack Kerouac’s 1955 novel The Dharma Bums (1955) which gives a flavour of Kerouac’s Buddhism. Kerouac was strongly influenced by Gary Snyder’s study of Zen, and is part of the popularisation of Buddhism that took place with the Beat Generation in the 1950s. In this semi-fictionalised novel, the character Ray Smith (Kerouac) says of Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder):
“[h]e knew all the details of Tibetan, Chinese, Mahayana, Hinayana, Japanese and even Burmese Buddhism but I warned him at once I didn’t give a goddamn about the mythology and all the names and national flavors of Buddhism, but was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths, All life is suffering. And to an extent interested in the third, The suppression of suffering can be achieved…”
Here we can see the tendency of Westerners to brashly reject any element of Buddhism they do not deem ‘essential’, and one has to question whether Kerouac was conscious of this process. At the time battling with depression, alcoholism, drugs and a loss of existential meaning, he certainly didn’t come to Buddhism free of biases. What he sought in Buddhism was a cure for his suffering, and perhaps a salve for his lost Catholic faith. This heavily coloured his interpretation of Buddhism, and reduced it to an instrument to solve a specific problem. And so, for the Kerouac of 1955, vast swathes of Buddhism were deemed irrelevant.
The term ‘Buddhist Modernism’ attempts to capture the phenomena of modern (re)interpretations of Buddhism, of which there are a multitude. This process is not just confined to the West. In his book The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw, Erik Braun traces the evolution of Burmese Theravada Buddhism in response to the threat of colonialism, and the advent of print culture. This wonderful study aptly demonstrates how complex social, political, cultural, historical and technological forces can influence the development of new ideas and religious practises.
In the West, Buddhist Modernism often take the form of the search for a ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ Buddhism — that is, a Buddhism that can fit the small space that Western scientific materialism has carved out for it. The Secular Buddhism of Stephen Batchelor is one such attempt.
Batchelor, who was born in the UK, formed his particular vision of Buddhism after spending ten years as a monastic practitioner in the Tibetan Gelug and Korean Seon schools. As a monk, he struggled deeply with pressure to believe in reincarnation, which he perceived as a contradiction of the Buddha’s refusal to entertain metaphysical propositions (the validity of which is debatable). After disrobing, Batchelor began to argue for a reinterpretation of the Dharma in secular terms, which takes its more coherent and substantial form in After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age.
Putting the specific example of Stephen Batchelor to the side for a moment (and I will deal with his work in a more substantial manner in future), why is it that we be concerned about Western interpretations of Buddhism? Consider the arrogance of Western thinkers who, sifting through the immense wealth of Mahayana, Theravada and Zen traditions, come to believe that they have unearthed the ‘true heart’ of Buddhism, and so brand these centuries-old schools as sectarian corruptions of ‘real’ Buddhism. Depending on the individual, these corruptions might take the form of ritual, culture, morality, myth, mysticism, monastic institutions, or metaphysics — but what is consistent is the devaluation of knowledge from other cultures.
The relevance of Richard Dawkins should be clear, for these individuals often focus purely on the foundational texts of the Pali Canon to the omission of all else. Meditation practise, having received some level of scientific validation, is also usually preferenced, but is usually detached from the broader context of Buddhist ethics, ritual and non-meditative practise. Here we should consider the relevance of post-colonial studies, which emphasises the ways in which the mindset of colonialism — its elitism, racism, inflexibility and arrogance — still permeates many of the structures of thought in the West.
As practitioners, it is important to understand that our engagement with Buddhism is not value-neutral: we all come to the tradition with embedded values and perspectives. If left unchecked, the result can be uncritical and shallow readings of Buddhist ethics and philosophy, which are never permitted to challenge the ideas that help construct your sense of self, or that are part of your own cultural inheritance.
Matthew O’Connell of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast would call this ‘ideological entrapment’: the inability to recognise that we are operating from within a specific ideology, which, in turn, leaves us unable to question the assumptions that are implicit in our worldview. This is, in a way, the death of critical thought, where our thinking becomes entirely subordinate to an ideological system.
On a societal level, the stakes are higher. As we struggle with the alienation, anxiety and nihilism of late-stage capitalism — not to mention the looming threat of climate change and the mass extinctions that accompany it — we are in desperate need of practises that will help us reconnect with each other and the natural world. But if we are unable to untangle our engagement from the dominant belief systems of our age — consumer capitalism, neoliberalism, and scientific materialism — then we will remain powerlessly trapped within them.
Take meditation as an example. Ronald Purser has traced the ways in which mindfulness has been so cleanly separated from its wider Buddhist context — from the philosophical concepts of co-origination and impermanence, to the deep sense of ethics and morality, and even the broader program of Vipassana meditation practise. This decontextualisation has allowed mindfulness to be sold as a stand-alone secular technique — which is big business. The mindfulness industry is thought to be worth more than $4 billion USD.
Why is this a problem? Well, consider mindfulness as offered by corporate human resource departments: the technique is presented as a way to self-regulate stress in the workplace. In the practise, you are asked to become aware of any thoughts, feelings and sensations during your meditation, and then to simply accept them. If you’re feeling anxious, then you are encouraged to accept this and let it go. (And then get back to work.)
This mightn’t seem particularly nefarious, but there are considerable differences with how the technique plays out within a wider Buddhist framework. The technique is used in Vipassana meditation, not to blindly accept whatever we are feeling, but rather to become more consciously aware of our thought processes and sensory experience. As that meta-cognition becomes sharper, we find that we have the opportunity to intervene and disable previously reactive patterns of thought and behaviour.
While this is a positive benefit, it is ultimately subordinate to the goal of directly realising the truth of Buddhist philosophical propositions — the impermanence of all things (anicca), the illusory nature of the self (anattā), the interconnectedness of phenomena, and that craving (taṇhā) is the root of all suffering/unsatisfactoriness (duḥkha). This is accomplished through close examination of psychological and sensory experience. The aim is not to passively accept the cycle of craving and suffering, but to seek liberation from it.
Meditation has the potential to help us deeply interrogate our mind, our behaviour and our environment, and can lead to dramatic shifts in lifestyle and behaviour. But in the corporate context this more revolutionary potential has been neutralised. By focusing on an individual’s ability to cope, corporate mindfulness works to internalise and normalise the conditions which produce anxiety, and transform any discontent with conditions into self-criticism. Encouragement of passivity and acceptance works to prevent any deeper interrogation of causes, of which there are no shortage in Western societies: stagnant wages, the rise in insecure work, the sky-rocketing cost of housing, the slow erosion of public health care, accelerating wealth inequality, the rise in cost of education — the list goes on. While a therapeutic technique can help build resilience, it fails to address the conditions which actually produce suffering.
Subconsciously, each of us works to inoculate ourselves against critiques of our worldview. It’s a survival mechanism of the ego, which protects our sense of self from destabilisation. Our challenge is to cultivate the self-awareness, humility and open mindedness required for meaningful engagement with new bodies of knowledge, and to resist the temptation to retreat into our familiar shell where the outside world can no longer harm us. To do this, we need to become more comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, and hold a little less tightly to the ideologies we’ve grown up with.
Given the climate emergency, rising inequality and increasing rates of suicide and depression, there are enough signals to suggest that we desperately need new and original thought to help break the cycle. And herein lies the promise of Buddhism.
Be sure to hit follow to get alerts about my new articles on Buddhist practise and philosophy.