One of my favorite spots in the Greater Boston area is the kiosk in the center of Harvard Square, which I visit every couple of weeks or so, looking around the rich collection of periodicals, and usually buying a few that I am not subscribed to. On my last visit I picked up the September 2013 issue of Shambhala Sun, a Buddhist bimonthly published in Boulder, Colorado. My attention was caught by the cover story, “You are perfect the way you are… and you could use a little improvement”. This is a quotation from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), a Japanese monk who moved to San Francisco in 1959 and established a Zen center there. In the center of the issue is a symposium of eight Buddhist teachers under the title “The Buddhist Approach to Becoming a Better Person”.
The Sanskrit term shambhala has non-Buddhist roots in India. It appears in the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic, where it refers to a place of perfect happiness, presumably hidden in a secret location somewhere in the Himalayas. It was adopted by the so-called Pure Land school of Buddhism. The latter is a branch of the religion which aims not so much at the attainment of perfect Enlightenment in this life and thus release from the endless cycle of reincarnations, but rather aims at reincarnation in a place of great happiness. In some variants of Pure Land shambhala has been spiritualized, not just a place to be reached in the next life, but a spiritual condition attainable in this life. The original geographical meaning of the term has caught the Western imagination in the notion of the peaceful kingdom of Shangri-La, hidden away somewhere in the vast mountain chains of Central Asia. It was celebrated in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (1933), and inspired a series of motion pictures.
A number of recommendations emerge from the aforementioned symposium. A recurring one, in different formulations, is to practice the basic Buddhist meditational practice of “mindfulness”. This means an emptying of the mind of all distracting thoughts and emotions, and being exclusively attentive to a slice of reality immediately before one. It is important to find time for meditating in this way every day, which in and of itself will make one “a better person”. Other recommendations are the following: “Be happy. Relax. Take a breath. Smooth out your mind before you do or say anything”. Giving up “self-cherishing”, in order “to love all sentient beings” (a Buddhist term which includes not only fellow-humans, but animals and perhaps all of nature). “Face what appears in front of you. Do what needs to be done. Make peace with the world you inhabit” – and start by making your bed when you get up in the morning!). “All of your confusions and negative actions share one positive quality; they can be purified.” “Regardless of what constitutes human nature, we are the judge and jury. We can follow our own road to happiness.”
There is a high degree of consistency between the recommendations throughout the symposium. All add up to a remarkable Americanization of the Buddhist message. Sociologists are in the habit of looking at marginalia as well as the major text. I was intrigued by the advertisements in the periodical. There are notices about different Buddhist events (including forthcoming visits by the Dalai Lama), centers and publications. Other advertisements are for Buddhist art objects, and furniture and equipment to facilitate meditation—such as benches and cushions, loose clothing, and even Tibetan prayers wheels. I thought that the piece de resistance is an ad for “dharmamatch.com”. [dharma is the Buddhist path to Enlightenment] The company offering its service here is “where spiritual singles meet”. There are two messages: “Searching for someone special…to share your life…and your dharma? Meet local singles who share your beliefs and values.” Of course, with some minor deletions and additions, this advertisement could be used for other religiously oriented dating services – “Catholic singles”, “Christian [that is, Evangelical] singles”, “Jewish singles”…
By coincidence (or could it be because of karmic forces), the September-October issue of the Jewish periodical Moment contains a brief article on the meaning of the Yiddish term “beschert”. As you would expect, the term has a long history in Jewish thought. Originally, of course in Hebrew versions, the term referred to whatever is predetermined by divine decree in the life of an individual. The Yiddish term is probably derived from the German Bescherung, the bestowal of gifts, commonly used in referring to the gifts placed under the Christmas tree). It is used today in Orthodox circles to mean the soulmate divinely destined to become one’s spouse—as in a young woman pondering the question: “Could he be my beshert?” The article ends with the observation that the providential meaning of the term (“yes, this is God’s will for me!”) has now been replaced by a very mundane consideration (“I really think we are compatible”). The latter meaning is intended by most websites targeting Jewish singles; indeed most of them don’t use the Yiddish term at all. (I suspect that Orthodox individuals to whom it still makes sense don’t look for a spouse online, but rather go and consult their rabbi.) In any case, here is another example of the Americanization of a traditional religious concept.
A number of questions occur as one reflects on the recommendations of the Shambhala symposium. Are the lessons given in the symposium authentically Buddhist? Not being a Buddhist, I cannot make a judgment whether anything is or is not “authentic”: Such a judgment is normative, not analytic. But also, in saying anything about Buddhism in general, it is useful to recall that Buddhism is about five hundred years older than Christianity: In this very long history of about two-and-a-half millennia, there arose numerous schools, some major, others not—what, for example, would be considered “authentically Buddhist” by Zen teachers in Japan, would be viewed as unacceptable in Thai or Tibetan monasteries. Nevertheless, even in a strictly analytic mode, one can ask whether there are aspects to the symposium lessons that are in accordance with important strands in historic Buddhist ideas and practices. (In other words, can I or any other non-Buddhist, ask this?) I think that the answer is yes. The meditational technique of “mindfulness”, supposed to lead to a better grasp of reality and consequently to a better way of coping with one’s life, has been a central characteristic of Buddhism from its beginning. However, the practice of “mindfulness” was originally imbedded in a specific cosmology—that is, a view of the entire universe, including what we today would call natural and supernatural dimensions. Can the practice be divorced from the cosmology?
Well, obviously it can. Here the practice becomes a way of “becoming a better person”, a psychotherapeutic or “wellness” program that could be followed by anyone who never heard of Buddhism—Christian, Jew, atheist, whatever. Thus divorced from Buddhist cosmology, could the practice be helpful to achieve, if not a “better” person, a calmer one? Not being inclined to meditate while making my bed in the morning, I’m rather skeptical. But I would not exclude the possibility for others: The most implausible therapeutic programs (for example, classical Freudian psychoanalysis) have helped some people. The famous sentence by the early American sociologist W.I. Thomas applies here: “If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” Nor is it a rare occurrence that people follow a practice that originally had a religious meaning although they do not share this original meaning, perhaps are even unaware of it: Thus a Jew, a Hindu, or indeed a Buddhist can put gifts for the children under a Christmas tree, without thereby celebrating the birth of Christ. In this last instance, as in the case of psychotherapeutic “mindfulness”, there is a process of both Americanization and secularization.
Without making either a negative or positive judgment about the merits of divorcing an idea or practice from its original religious context, here is what one can say quite objectively: Buddhism emerged in the context of a worldview with very ancient roots in Indian civilization. It is a worldview which, of course, Buddhism shares with Hinduism. Central to this worldview is the belief in reincarnation. This life was preceded by many other lives, and there are many yet to come after this life ends. Reincarnation, samsara, is often described as “the wheel of life”. In its psychological impact it might be better described as “the wheel of death”: Each one of us will die over and over again. This is a vision of horror, of endless suffering. This sense of horror led to the Buddha’s quest for a final release from the endless repetition of reincarnations, and the message (the dharma) he taught was a method of achieving this goal.
However much this original message may be reinterpreted by Buddhists today (as it has been many times before as Buddhism spread out from its original Indian location), one cannot understand the Buddha’s original message without understanding the desperate yearning for release from the horror of samsara. This is not easily grasped by a modern mind. The following may help to understand this idea of salvation: There is a Hindu legend about a meeting in a heavenly palace between a great sage and Isvara, one of the most powerful Hindu gods. The two are engaged in a highly philosophical dialogue. This serene intellectual exercise is interrupted by the sage’s bursting into laughter. When asked why he is laughing, the sage points to the marble floor of the heavenly palace, on which a line of ants is marching.“The ants! The ants!,” says the sage. Isvara asks: “Why do these ants make you laugh?” The sage replies: “Because every one of these ants was Isvara once, and will be Isvara again!” One has to let this sentence sink in slowly, word by word. One may then begin to understand the cosmological background of the Buddha’s original message.
A concept frequently used by the Roman Catholic Church with reference to the Christian presence in non-Western countries is “enculturation”. This means that the Church, without giving up its essential religious and moral message, should adapt itself as much as possible to the various indigenous cultures—not only in language, music or dress, but also in ideas and values that do not directly conflict with its basic teachings. A very important pioneer of this approach was the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who went as a (very discreet) missionary to China, attained a perfect command of the Chinese language (in which he wrote books), dressed and behaved like a traditional Confucian scholar. He also recommended some theological adaptations, which made the Roman authorities nervous. “Enculturation” nicely describes the posture of many churches as Christianity has been going east. Now Buddhism and other Asian religions are in the process of “enculturating” in Western countries; Buddhist missionaries have used the slogan “the dharma is going west”—a neat reversion of Ricci’s methodology.
As I have noted before in this blog, religious statistics are always iffy. Still, it is estimated that there are about 1.2 million Buddhists in the United States, the majority being immigrants and their children from traditionally Buddhist countries, but some 800,000 are converts. Studies indicate that most of the latter are white, upper-middle-class and well-educated. There are about 60 Buddhist centers in Greater Boston, representing just about all major branches of Buddhism. But the reach of Buddhism in America goes beyond those who actually identify themselves as Buddhists: Many Americans (who often say that they are “not religious, but spiritual”) subscribe to Buddhist ideas and engage in Buddhist practices, including the “mindfulness” recommended in the aforementioned issue of Shambhala Sun. There can be an Americanization of Pure Land Buddhism, just as there has been a “sinification” of Catholic Christianity.
American culture has favored an optimistic and problem-solving culture almost from its beginnings—“the pursuit of happiness” as a foundational value. The morphing of Buddhist techniques for obtaining release from cosmic reincarnation into a mundane method for wellness and self-realization, is not the first time that America has “enculturated” a pessimistic ideology by twisting it into an optimistic creed. The gloomy Calvinism of the Puritans mutated into the optimistic missionary outreach of most American Protestants—all are invited to come to the altar and be saved. Since I mentioned psychoanalysis before: Freud had a gloomy view of human nature and pessimistic expectations of the success of his own method of treatment. Classical Freudian psychoanalysis has not done too well in America, but it has triggered a huge number of therapeutic denominations oozing exuberant optimism. I suppose that a billboard I recently saw in Texas could be expanded to apply to the pragmatic optimism of the larger American culture—“If you want something done, tell a Texan that it cannot be done.” And so – “…tell an American…”
I suppose this characteristic of American culture is not difficult to explain. It belongs to a country with wide-open spaces, physical as well as social, and in recent decades it was a culture befitting a world power. This may now be changing. The geographical space has been mostly filled and mobility in the social space has become more difficult. American world power is probably in decline. Freudian therapy is too expensive and thus unlikely to overcome the competition. Curiously, full-blooded Calvinism (predestination and all, most of humanity destined for eternal damnation) is all the rage among theological students and young pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention (traditionally the most open in its call to all to come and be saved). Possibly the gloomier versions of Buddhism may also find a new market…
[Meditating woman photo courtesy of Shutterstock.]