America

Over to the Land of the Fork.

Buddhism has been seeping and then flooding into the Land of the Fork for roughly two centuries.  All three major branches of Asian Buddhism are represented in the West both in the ethnic Asian communities and among non-Asians, generally all together in any major city. The initial influence beyond the ethnic Buddhist communities in the West was through primarily Western scholars and translators, then interpreters of Asian texts. This influence excited many of its Western intellectual consumers, such as Arthur Schopenhauer and William James, and continues to influence Western philosophy and psychology. Later on, the development of Western practice began through contact with ethnic Buddhist communities in the West, through the study of Westerners in Asia, often ordaining and practicing for many years with Asian teachers, and eventually through the invitation to Asian Buddhists to come to the West to teach. Now more and more books are written and read on Buddhism, people are sitting with meditation groups, certain key Buddhists are becoming celebrities and certain celebrities are becoming Buddhists.

Who are the Western Buddhists?

A snapshot of Buddhism in the Land of the Fork reveals a number of distinct populations for which Western culture is in encounter with Buddhism. The future of Buddhism in the West will evolve out those communities and in the possible growth and blending of those communities.

Asian Buddhism is that understood and practiced in the various Western Buddhist communities of Asian origin, e.g., Asian-American communities.  These communities are the most conservative; Asian Buddhism in the West is for the most part simply an extension of Buddhism in Asia, sometimes supported organizationally and financially from Asia.  Asian Buddhist communities for the most part sustain a dedicated order of primarily monastic adepts trailing into a community of diminishing erudition.  Asian Buddhism very much part of the religious life of almost every Western country, certainly of America and Canada. Within Asian communities the encounter of Buddhism with Western culture is also very real, as these become increasingly Western. This is true in Asia as well as in the west as the economy becomes increasingly globalized. In the West this is particularly pronounced as the younger generation goes to school with and hangs out with non-Asians. Also Asian Buddhism has provided the first generation of leadership for the Western non-Asian styles of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, both Asian Buddhists, are Buddhists of the highest stature in the West. Asian Buddhism is really the foundation of all Western Buddhism and will continue to be invaluable in its future development.

The Upper Middle Way is what is most commonly understood as Western Buddhism. However Asian Buddhism is now very much a part of the Western landscape, and two additional primarily Western groups will be distinguished. No one has yet come up with an satisfactory name for this group; “Upper Middle Way” has the advantage of humor, as it reflects its somewhat socially elite membership. (Please let me know if you find this term derogatory, I can look for another term. I grew up myself in the Upper Middle Way and like this designation.) It is the type of Buddhism that has probably most deliberately explored the interface of Buddhism and Western culture, and although it represents almost every school of Buddhism, its members enjoy broad channels of communication with one another and tend to be people of social influence. However, it takes its inspiration from a relative very small number of teachers from the Western Asian community, from Asia, and from the first generation of students of these, almost all of them current or former Theravada or Tibetan monks or Japanese Zen priests, but for the most part does not enjoy much communication with the Asian Buddhist communities. A number of Asian Buddhists have actually realigned themselves with the Upper Middle Way, described below, to work primarily with non-Asians. These include, for instance, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche. The Upper Middle Way has also been called Import Buddhism.

What is most characteristic of the Upper Middle Way is that it is on average remarkably well educated, most of its members are college graduates, many are scholars or other kinds of professionals. It is also politically very progressive; a not-so-recent poll indicates that Republicans are outnumbered three to one … by members of the Green Party. It is almost entirely white, middle to upper class, sometimes wealthy, and includes many celebrities. The Upper Middle Way is practiced by a population that is unrepresentative of the broader demographics. It is currently the most influential Buddhism in terms of shaping the future, but at the same time probably the least sustainable in the long run. For instance, it is disproportionally represented by members of the aging baby-boomers, both in terms of long-standing members, who joined in the Sixties and Seventies, and new members, who have joined after having had careers and raised families. I suspect that the current essay will be read primarily by members of this group, so it will be the target of much of my advice.

Inclusive Buddhism is Buddhism of very wide appeal, that successfully incorporates ethnic Asians along with many other racial groups, and tends to have strong humanistic concerns and a willingness to adapt to Western culture quite readily; it is often said to resemble American evangelical churches rather than Asian Buddhism. . It is most notably represented by adherents to Soka Gakai, Buddhist Churches of America and other forms of New Buddhism primarily of Japanese origin. Although it is not generally as well known as the Upper Middle Way, it is quite sizable; I understand that Soka Gakkai is actually the largest Buddhist organization in America. This community has largely shed its monastic component, like a comet without its head. On the other hand it also is much more racially and socially diverse than the other Western Buddhist communities, and perhaps most reflective so far of the demographics of a thriving future Western Buddhism. It tends to have a humanistic orientation and to be socially engaged. Soka Gakkai is known for its work on behalf of world peace. Interestingly there is little communication between Inclusive Buddhism and the other groups and many do not realize this group exists in such great numbers.

Uncommitted Buddhism possibly represents the biggest group. A recent survey indicates that one out of eight American adults considers him- or herself to be significantly influenced by Buddhism. The Buddhist section of almost any bookstore in America would tend to confirm this, as would the success of Buddhist subjects in popular entertainment. This group is uncommitted in that its members are unlikely to identify themselves as Buddhists (many Upper Middle Buddhists also do not) and do not belong to actual Buddhist organizations nor for the most part know any actual Buddhists. Usually their familiarity is through reading, and if they do become affiliated it is most likely in favor of the Upper Middle Way. These are armchair or potential Buddhists, or Buddhists waiting to happen. How this large population chooses to involve itself in Buddhist practice and community life may largely write the future of Buddhism in America.

These four groupings into Asian Buddhism, the Upper Middle Way, Inclusive Buddhism and Uncommitted Buddhism, leave a lot of cracks to fall through. There are for instance ethnic Asian Buddhists who are primarily active Upper Middle Way-style centers. Of course there are many Upper Middle Way Buddhists, in terms of their connections and orientation, with modest income and educational levels. I myself, long part of the Upper Middle Way, now find myself affiliated with Asian (particularly Burmese) Buddhists, because my monastic aspirations find the most natural support there. In fact almost all fully ordained monastics in America of non-Asian origin, generally have some degree of Asian affiliation.

The Culture of the Fork.

Aside from eating implements, the following are roughly characteristic of American culture at this time in which Buddhism is finding its way into the Land of the Fork. I will more often refer below to America than to the West as a precaution; most of what I write probably applies to the West in general, but America also has its own peculiarities, which I might miss as peculiarly American.

Religious life here (in America) is very complex indeed. It is largely represented by various sects of Protestant Christianity, but their range in terms of doctrine and practice is substantial. Also a large percentage of the population is Catholic, and a large variety of non-Christian religions are present, particularly Buddhism, Judaism and Islam, largely in Asian communities or among recent immigrants. Many Americans are very suspicious of religion in general, even among those who are personally religious. Scandals involving religious clergy are reported daily in the press. Interestingly Buddhism is generally treated in the media in a much more positive light than other religions.

It has been said that the dominant religion of America is actually consumerism; the values of most Americans seem to center around stuff, and these attitudes are fueled by a relentless marketing industry that seems to be able to find a way to commodify almost anything, even water and what used to be personal attributes, like sloppiness. Religion is often marketed similarly. America has a perpetual war-time economy and confrontational mind-set. Violent crime is endemic, strong uninformed opinions and the ability to humiliate those who disagree with you are values. Standards of ethical conduct or responsibility seem to be very weak, greater value is generally placed on personal rights than on responsibilities.

Americans are heirs to the European Enlightenment which has largely secularized society and seems to have undermined aspects of religion that are considered irrational, including mystical elements and the Christian monastic tradition. There is a widespread expectation that religion should be true in a scientific sense. Perhaps in reaction to this secularization much of American religion has gone to the opposite extreme, clinging to a variety of scripturally revealed beliefs and practices with a furious stubbornness.  Much of religious discourse is very dogmatic and alarmingly ill-informed, which can also be said of political and social discourse. Hatred of and even violence against those of other religious persuasions is not uncommon; there seems to even be a growing fundamentalist atheist movement characterized by forms of rhetoric not unlike that of fundamentalist religious groups.

In short, America is a land in spiritual crisis. This is reflected in high rates of mental illness, and of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as in the unhappiness and anxiety of the population, all of which we can see around us all the time. This is also reflected in the popularity of psychotherapy and  pharmaceuticals. It is also reflected in the number of spiritual “seekers,” those who learn about and experiment with ancient or newly formed but previously unrepresented religious movements such as Sufism, Wicca, Gnostic Christianity, Scientology, … and Buddhism, often hopping restlessly from one faith to another. Psychotherapy and popular psychology function as secular counterparts of religious pastoral care insofar as they attempt to address the deep suffering in our society.

At the same time there is a high degree of religious tolerance at the governmental and political level. America enjoys a long history of religious freedom which effectively protects the rights of minority religions. This is perhaps more like historical India than like China or Japan, which although for the most part tolerating a variety of religions, occasionally suppressed them or interfered in their internal affairs.

There is also a strong tradition of charitable giving and nonprofit corporations abound. Americans tend to be individualistic, perhaps a relic of frontier America; we are not known for systems of social support. Family structures are also very weak and the population very mobile both geographically and socially. America is the center of the world of intellectual thought, artistic creativity and technological progress, and there are many local communities and subcultures in which these influences manifest. On the other, for most of the population the level of education is poor and the rate of literacy low.

Selection and Adaptation in the Land of the Fork.

We can expect a great deal of adaptation of Buddhism in the Land of the Fork for two primary reasons. First, the culture of the Fork is quite distinct from either that of the Hand or that of the Chopstick. We have seen how Buddhism in the Chinese cultural area underwent many changes that correlate closely with the differences from Indian culture, yet tenaciously retained its integrity and its broad outlines. Second, America is a nation of inventors; we enjoy a vibrantly creative and inquisitive culture with  a dynamic intellectual undercurrent. We have seen how Buddhism developed in innovative directions in the intellectual milieu of Northern India during the first millennium CE. This process has only just begun, primarily in the Upper Middle Way. Let’s look at how it’s progressing.

Community and Leadership. The typical Asian community is centered around a temple, which is both a monastery and at the same time a community center. This has a long tradition in Asia that stems from the Vinaya model, and has survived the Mahayana movement and the great transmission to the Land of the Chopstick. It puts the monastics at a focal point in a dana-based community. Typically lay leaders found new monastery-community centers then seek monastics to house there (a Vietnamese temple in San Antonio described this stage in its history in terms of, “A temple without monks is like a house without furniture.”) Unfortunately there is a shortage of monastics in almost every tradition in America; younger members of the communities seldom aspire to become monastics, so monastics commonly must be recruited from Asia. The monastics for the most part provide as a resource to the community a high level of attainment in practice and/or knowledge, and encourage lay people to practice at a suitble level. Lay leaders care for the infrastructure, and dana is the lifeblood of the community; for instance, there are rarely fees or any other kind of monetary exchange.

This model is almost unknown in the Upper Middle Way, even though it is almost a corollary of the Buddha’s teachings in the Vinaya, because this is also almost unknown in the Upper Middle Way. Instead, the most typical model of a Buddhist organization in the Upper Middle Way is the Western Buddhist Center, which, unlike what is generally found in Asia or in American Asian communities, is roughly a combination of Protestant church and yoga studio, a hybrid in which many members relate to the center as fee-paying customers, but others become involved as donors and volunteers. Outside of such centers much Buddhist is conveyed through public lectures, through books and at retreat centers. There are many Buddhist non-monastic teachers with various kinds of authorization, common among which is Dharma Transmission in Japanese Soto Zen, which entails a series of training and qualification steps. However teachers at other centers are self-authorized or simply have self-identified disciples, but have had no specialized course of training. There are a number of Buddhist scholars with academic appointments at Western universities, who provide a level of expertise in the teachings but not all of these are well grounded in practice. Many teachers have monastic experience, which is generally perceived as strengthening one’s qualifications, but the importance of a monastic Sangha is not widely recognized.

Why did the Western Buddhist Center arise? First, the influence of the Protestant church that dominates the American religious landscape is unmistakable. First-time visitors expect to find a minister offering pastoral care and advice to his or her flock. This expectation might have be encouraged through the early influence of Japanese Buddhism which was actually restructured in the Nineteenth Century by the Meiji government with the intention of making it more closely resemble Western churches.Second, newcomers often start with the mindset that Buddhism is about mental health, and come with expectations not unlike those who with regard to physical health take up yoga practice, or even working out in a gym. Third, relatively few non-Asians have ordained monastically and without a monastic presence the traditional monastic-centered structure of the Buddhist community could not be realized. As more non-Asians have ordained in recent years, this has tended to have had little influence on Buddhist Centers, as they have tended to become affiliated with Asian communities that better understand their functions.

Interestingly a common view within the Upper Middle Way is that we do not need monastics in the West, that we are creating something new, a more lay-oriented Buddhism. There is really no merit to this view. It seems that a highly educated lay community that is drawn to what is traditionally a sophisticated adept understanding of the Dharma can collectively achieve, as long as the community retains this demographics, a degree of expertise, but this so far falls far short of the adept leadership of the Asian communities in terms of authentic Dharma, as discussed below, or of inspiration. If one considers the Upper Middle Way model of community and leadership, but with fewer college professors and more cashiers and plumbers, one can see that even this level of expertise is unsustainable without adepts. An additional aspect of the Western Buddhist center is the almost total lack of family support. Children seldom have a role or are given education or training in Buddhism. This is in sharp contrast to the traditional Asian community model which integrates children almost from birth.

This raises the issue whether the monastic Sangha is culturally suitable in the West.
As far a I can see, Americans actually seem to have a natural appreciation of monastics when they encounter them, whether the former are Buddhist or not. I can report this from my own experience as a Western monk, although I must say I am a cultural novelty. Claude Anshin Thomas, a European-American mendicant monk who lives on alms, reports that this seems to be surprisingly true among conservative Christians. Monastics are just not yet available in great numbers.

Western Understanding of the Dharma. The Upper Middle Way, on the forefront of the encounter between Buddhism and Western culture, has not settled into a stable shape, but several trends stand out: a narrowing of the scope of Buddhist life and practice, a strong emphasis on meditation practices and an alignment of Buddhism with psychotherapy or self-help programs.

The scope of Buddhism has tended to be narrowed in several ways. First, there have been attempts to secularize Buddhism, to remove those aspects that are considered most obviously “religious,” such as ritual and ceremony, devotion, norms of respect, experiential, mystical or transcendental aspects of religion, faith and myth.  This trend can be attributed to the Western suspicion of religion and to personal histories of those in the Upper Middle Way, often including an open rebellion against the family religion. The common statement, “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion,” is comforting to many, insofar as they are not thinking about their 501(c) status. Buddhists of the Upper Middle Way commonly regard the broader scope of Asian Buddhism as too centered on devotional and culture-specific practices with little emphasis on meditation or intellectual understanding of the Dharma, essentially as being too “lay.”

Simply in terms of the basic practiced enumerated in the Noble Eightfold Path many Buddhist sox have gone missing. Almost the whole area of Ethical Conduct is missing and he area of Wisdom is critically compromised. The practices of generosity and renunciation are not only seldom understood, but seem rarely to be recognized as fundamental Buddhist practices. I discuss this narrowing of the scope of Buddhism further in Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork .

Buddhism is often regarded as a cousin of psychotherapy. This is attributable to the broad familiarity with psychotherapy among the demographic group of the Upper Middle Way along with the high regard for the psychological insights of Buddhism. This is probably also reinforced by the role of psychotherapy as a secular counterpart of religion along with the will to secularize Buddhism. It may also account for the great emphasis on meditation practices, long recognized in the West for their therapeutic value. The language and conceptual framework of psychology as well as those of general Western science and philosophy are undoubtedly shaping the way Buddhism is understood in the West, perhaps much like the language and conceptual framework of Taoism began to shape Buddhism in China, eventually to produce Zen as its most extreme example. The expressive means of Zen, in turn, so far persist in the West alongside the probably more tractable Indian means. This language is at once difficult and beautifully concise.

The lack of regard for ethics in Western Buddhism may have three sources I can think of. The first is the general meagerness of ethnical education in the West, and the perhaps corresponding attitude of self-interest. The second is the common equation of Buddhist with psychotherapy just mentioned, which generally is not seen in an ethical dimension, but as a matter of self-help.  The third may be that East Asian Buddhism, which has been particularly influential in the early transmission of Buddhism to the West, seems to have come with an ethical gap.  This is because Buddhism in East Asia has relied on the ethical standards of Confucianism, as discussed above, and the Confucian component has been left behind in Asia. Instead, the Upper Middle Way has focused, often exclusively, on meditation practice, which has been taken up by many with quite a bit of energy. On the other hand many in the Upper Middle Way have taken up the banner of (Socially) Engaged Buddhism, which interestingly has been developing in parallel in Asia but whose origins are often seen in Christian charity.

Another factor that is very pronounced in the Western interpretation of Buddhism has to do with the status of women. In most Asian countries women have been marginalized as adepts. Women are taking on important leadership roles in the West and given the recent Western history that has moved us away from our own traditional patriarchy unthinkable that it should not continue. Since the Sutta/Agama and Vinaya traditions are even more equitable than most of subsequent Asian Buddhism this is easily justified, but Western standards are likely to be higher than the original sources. Reestablishing the role of women may be one of the first ways in which Buddhism in the West is beginning to significantly influence Buddhism in Asia.

The various trends in the Upper Middle Way seem to be happening, for better or worse, across the board in all the schools of Buddhism. This can be compared to what happened to the nikayas in the Mahayana movement in India, then to the various schools of Buddhism that entered China and became suitable to that culture. At the same time the fluidity of the Upper Middle Way creates a lot of cross-breeding among the various traditions. Regardless of what changes will endure, the end result will certainly be that the various schools of Buddhism will tend to become more alike than they are presently in Asia; the Asian schools will become indistinguishable, but a distinctive Western Buddhism will emerge, perhaps a new -yana.

Within the Upper Middle Way there is quite a lot of discussion about how Buddhism is changing or will change in the West, much of it assuming it is encountering an unprecedented cultural hurtle, one that will challenge Buddhism’s capacity for adaptation. We forget that there was already a world of difference between the Land of the Hand and the Land of the Chopstick. In fact, recall that India is a part of the historic Indo-European or Aryan cultural region; most of its its languages are related to most of the languages of Europe; the Vedas came to India from the West. The Land of the Fork may be much closer to the Land of the Hand than either is to the Land of the Chopstick. So Buddhism has already weathered what is probably an even greater cultural divide in moving up to the Land of the Chopstick than it is experiencing in moving over to the Land of the Fork.

If Buddhism is to retain its authenticity, Western culture, or at least subcultures, are expected to adapt to Buddhism rather than the other way around. This undoubtedly happened in China. If Buddhism fails to challenge Western culture, what is the point? Given that many forms of Buddhism have come to the West from differing cultural areas of Asia, there may in fact be more selection than innovation involved, and it is a pretty good bet that any feature that Buddhism has retained in all cultural areas, such as the bifurcation of the community into monastic and lay parts, will survive here if Buddhism is to retain its authenticity.

NEXT (Future)

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