I have decided to take a more conciliatory stance towards Buddhism again, as my agitation with the dharma community appears to be fucking up this horse who is one of my most favorite sentient beings. (I realize that is a weird new agey statement. I would like to point out that I am pretty clear on when I am making weird new agey statements vs. engaging in purely logical reasoning, though.) Perhaps it’s coincidence, but the horse I’ve been working with seemed to regress to being aggressive and pissed at the same time as me and they’re even talking about putting him down now, so I feel I should tone down my vaguely hostile stance. But if I re-like your pages on FB, dharma community, that does NOT, in any way shape or form, mean I am ok with your sentiments on law enforcement, it means I care about this horse, who seemed much calmer when I was really ‘into’ meditation, not barely engaging in it with a bit of a side eye.
But I do still have my reservations about Buddhism in the West (Jung, interestingly, did not think Buddhism was an appropriate path for Western minds, although he thought it worked magnificently for Easterners.) On the pros and cons side, I would say:
- Buddhism is politicized in the West in a way that I don’t think it typically is (with some exceptions,) in other places. On the pro side, the Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism can learn from the Christian tradition of ‘works’ - building hospitals, advocating for the poor, starting charities, and so on. I think that manner of activism is great. On the con side, I really have no interest in living in a country where we have the Christian Right and the Buddhist / New Age Left, which is a direction we seem to be trending in. Jesus did not give a sermon on the mount about voting Republican. Buddha did not talk about not clinging to ideas and views unless they’re liberal ideas, which you should totes cling to. Love. No cling. Neither one of them added a “But but but but…” to that.
- I think Buddhism in the West has been married to psychology and psychoanalysis in a way that may be good or may be a watering down or reinterpretation of the original teachings, I’m not sure. On the pro side, why wouldn’t we want to bring the best of modern psychology to such a practice? The Dalai Lama, again, seems quite happy to meet with psychologists at the Mind Life Institute to work on keeping concepts as up to date as possible. Even Buddhism needs continuing ed, most likely, to grow and develop with the times. That said, I think at times Western ideas about psychology leak into the structuring of Buddhist practice in almost imperceptible ways. The idea of going on retreat, for example - that practice was, as I understand it, established as a renunciate path for people who were already considered ‘qualified’, so that they could be in monasteries long term and give up worldly attachments to see the true nature of reality. While I find retreats enormously beneficial (almost like having electrical stimulation to damp down nerve pain - when the ‘self’ is overactive, sitting with nothing but the self for days on end will damp down that particular program in a way that makes many things in life more pleasant even after the retreat is over), I also think there’s are embedded psychoanalytical assumptions in the way that infrequent, short term Western retreats are structured. The idea that problematic emotions are a ‘goose that laid the golden egg’ situation, a layer of strata buried in the subconscious. Sit there and that will inevitably ‘come up’, you will ‘be with it’, dig through it or whatever, and all will be well. My view is more in line, again, with the goose and the golden egg - the goose was not, it turned out, stuffed full of gold that could be removed by digging into the goose, the goose continually produced eggs under various conditions. Sometimes criminals do really well with the structure of jail, wild young men do well with the structure of the army - I’d say there’s a similar dynamic at play on retreat. You’re sitting in a 100% structured environment on a tight schedule, needs taken care of, not talking to anyone, under the advisement of teachers who are kinda paid to be nice to you (that’s extremely cynical, I know, and I prefer free market to totalitarian religious systems, but I won’t pretend that dynamic isn’t there - you are paying them the money they’re going to live off of at the end of the retreat.) How many environmental issues does one really have to deal with in a setting like that? Again, my understanding is that in Buddhist countries that type of practice is for a very select group of people, not for ‘laypeople’, and I’m not 100% sure about the translation there.
- There are some Buddhist concepts that I think are extraordinarily helpful and novel to Western minds, some that I think should be reworked for our particular psychology. Mindfulness? I think that’s awesome. I think the idea of dropping ‘the story’ and simply experiencing ‘what is there’ was something that I had literally never heard of growing up in this country, and makes such a huge difference in the perception of so many things. Such a difference between being ‘in the story’ (“I’m bored! I’m tired! I don’t feel good! I hate this paperwork!”) and just seeing what’s really there at an actual, felt level. Stuff like that has been huge for me. On the other hand, I do not like talk of ‘karma’ (even secular karma - you reap what you sow type stuff) in a Western context. To my mind, that concept was developed in places that did not have our ideas on individual responsibility, free will, and so on. It’s one thing to talk about karma as sheer causality - someone pushes you out of a tree, you fall - there’s no blame there, just a recognition of cause and effect - and another to use it to assign blame because ‘you should have known better’. Assuming there is no libertarian free will, people do not choose not to know better any more than they choose to fall out of trees, and yet I think that is a foreign (at an intuitive level) concept in the West. Or ideas like ‘letting go’ - a concept that has become so iconic that pretty much every preschooler in America is able to belt out the words to that song while doing a Princess Elsa impression - that means something very different to a reified ‘self’ looking out at dualistic world that is ‘passing by’; vs. someone from a culture where the sense of self was always more relational, more condition dependent. “Letting go” while viewing oneself as an unchanging self ‘over here’ implies a sense of stoicism - sucking it up even as ‘things’ that are ‘out there’ go away. Feeling self changing and transforming with whatever new set of conditions arises invokes a sense of fluidity, of connectedness where there would almost be no possibility of letting go if we wanted to, as we are infinitely embedded in the conditions of the present moment. Again, same concept, but it’s probably going to mean two very different things to people with different starting mindsets and intuitions.
So, that is my two cents on Buddhism in the West. I think there is a ton of good in it but I also have my reservations about certain aspects - as with all things, I guess. I suppose time will tell what it looks like as a Western practice over the years. Adaptation of the original to a new time and place or creation of a ‘new’ religion that is not ‘really’ the Buddhism of yore any more than a Jesus who loves him some gun rights seems a little… er… ‘off’ from the original? I guess, again, time will tell. In the meantime, I shall try to be more open to it again.