Saturday, August 22, 2009

Buddhism light?

I am having mixed feelings about an apparent trend in Western Buddhism, which I am presuming is being led by American Buddhism, toward a reinterpretation in how Buddhism in the West is approached, digested and practiced. The features of this trend are identified in a post at Wandering Dhamma.

Among the features in this trend is a shift toward a “hard core” practice of Buddhism from a former, “New Age” style of practice. If such a shift as this is indeed happening, I am delighted by the prospect. It’s been my experience that “sanghas” or other Buddhist organizations initiated by Anglo individuals tend to attract people who call themselves Buddhist as long as they are comfortable with the “demands” made on them by whatever doctrine they are exposed to. As soon as the requirements become uncomfortable, such individuals discard their “Buddhism” like an ill-fitting garment. I wish I had kept track of the people I encountered who called themselves Buddhist, but hadn’t ever read a lick of Dhamma. One even told me, “I am Zen, and all we do is meditate.” Imagine if I called myself Christian, but never read the Bible; instead, I relied entirely on someone else telling me what is in the Bible. Oh, wait, I know a lot of people like that.

Perhaps my skepticism is based on a perception that many “converts” to Buddhism get their first exposure to Dhamma either through an academic class or a book. And because of that, they develop a cerebral attitude toward Buddhism, which inevitably leads to elitism. These folks never really practice Dhamma: they read about it and think about it, and they love to talk about it, but that’s as far as it goes. Ask them how they bring the Noble Eightfold Path into their lives and you’re met with blank stares.

Perhaps that is why too many white “Buddhists” fail to help out with the dirty work at festivals and events at predominantly Asian sanghas. “I know Buddhism, I don’t do Buddhism.”


  1. This reminds me of something Robert Thurman said regarding practice and performance of Buddhism.

    "I have become somewhat averse to the idea of merely 'practicing' Buddhism and would prefer to dedicate our efforts to those who have had a lot of practice and are now striving to 'perform' the buddhadharma. Or, if they are not ready to perform, they practice with the intensity of one who is determined to perform as soon as possible"

  2. Thanks for this post. This weekend I thought about how my blogging isn’t really part of my “practice” — and even distracts me from my practice. I also feel your point about reading the Dhamma, versus a wholly academic approach to the Dhamma. I sit and listen to lectures a lot, but ultimately it’s important to go back to the recorded texts and see what Lord Buddha really said (or what we say he really said). Again, much appreciated :)

  3. You make a good point. For Buddhists, the first step--and for some the most difficult and the most neglected step--is to study the dharma. In contrast, contemplation and meditation (or what passes as contemplation and meditation)may seem less like work (or like school!). But what exactly do people who don't study the dharma contemplate/meditate on?