How Is Buddhism Good For Westerners?

[Part two of this post is now up, here]

Good, that is, for Westerners already living a deadened, deracinated, and spiritually empty life? For those who still dwell in a living Western religious tradition, it would be far better to stay with the ways of one’s ancestors. Catholics, Protestants and Jews — if they feel their tradition to be still alive — will probably be much wiser and happier if they remain Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.

But many people — especially among Jews and Protestants — are only nominally members of their own traditions. And many other people of the generations now living in the West don’t even feel nominally connected to a living Western religious tradition.

These people are products of history and environment every bit as much as are the religious. The other half of Western tradition is the mother that birthed them: rationalism, democratism, egalitarianism, scientism, agnosticism tending toward atheism, materialism (in both the philosophical and the colloquial sense), social atomism, individualism, utilitarianism. All these tendencies (almost) all Westerners possess, whether they are also religious or not. Joe might be libertarian and therefore more interested in individualism than in egalitarianism; whereas Bob the socialist inverts the two in his value system. But it’s not hard to see how they are children of the same mother.

So, operating under the assumption that the world is in fact divinely ordained and created, that everything we do is imbued with meaning, that every flower, sunrise, death, and candle is mysterious and laden with the angelic or the demonic. Believing, essentially, in the supernatural view of the world (that nearly all humans throughout all continents and ages of man have believed), one may then ask whether the already deracinated, atomized, atheistic Westerner would do well to practice Buddhism?

***

What are my qualifications to talk about this?

I took Buddhism quite seriously for a long time. Though ultimately I was still just a dilettante of the kind common in the West these days, I did work harder at it than almost anyone else I’ve ever talked to. That is, as far as silly dilettantes go, I was pretty serious.

My interest in Buddhism started as a teenage romantic; I wanted to be like Jack Kerouac, meditating on mountaintops, drinking red wine and reading poetry late at night and making cross-country trips without a care in the world. Buddhism seemed the perfect religion for that kind of life. [Please allow me to leave aside the tedious question of whether Buddhism is properly called a "religion" or a "philosophy." Who cares?]

By beginning with a sort of fake Buddhism, I taught myself how to meditate and visited some local temples (there are many East Asians in my neck of the woods, and so many temples). I did not go to meditation groups for white people in yoga pants; rather I went to Chinese temples, Japanese temples, Thai temples, where there were Asians with shaved heads and robes who spoke heavily accented English. These places were almost always empty.

Two years into my exploration of Buddhism, I was meditating every day — usually twice a day, but not always — and attending services once or twice a week at a Japanese temple, on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons. I abstained from alcohol because that is a common rule among Asian Buddhists. I made a vow every morning to speak no lies and to speak no ill, and at the end of the day I reviewed my actions and confronted myself about the poor actions or poor speech I had engaged in.

I also attended groups and discussions with other white Westerners. (I was not only going to Asian temples.) So I made friends and did activities and volunteer work with them too. It was a community for me as well as a spiritual discipline.

By meditating I found out how incredibly hungry and clamorous my own ego was, how consistently I thought about me, me, me. It was much more than I ever realized. I also had some very strange and intense experiences. Some of them seem to have been mere trance-states, like a feeling of levitation sometimes, or a feeling of incredible expansion as if my body were hundreds of miles in scope.

Beyond these trance states, I also had some morally-instructive experiences. Meditating on compassion one night at the temple, I suddenly felt an incredible stab of pain thinking about the suffering of innocents. I began to weep silently and uncontrollably, and this went on for twenty minutes or so… a constant outpouring of intense emotion. I believe from that day on I was a much kinder person in my daily life (not perfect by any stretch, but morally improved even if only the slightest bit, and therefore it was a good thing to have happened).

And beyond even this, I attempted something that was very difficult for me. There is a supernatural side to Buddhism that most Westerners completely ignore. This is called “folk Buddhism” and I — like almost all white Buddhists I have met — considered it unfortunate and embarrassing. It was Buddhism for the rubes, for the plebes. I viewed this religion just as I viewed the religion of people who literally believed that God made a covenant with his chosen people or who literally believed that some guy named Jesus was the only Son of God: with smug condescension bordering on open contempt.

“Folk Buddhism” believes in supernatural powers and influences. It has an entire theory of angelic and demonic beings that is remarkably similar to the medieval Christian one. It believes praying to long-dead saints can lead to their beneficent intercession. It includes elaborate rituals of veneration and prayer. Etc.

In other words it is not deracinated!

This is why atomized, self-important, materialist, functionally atheist Westerners — as I was — sneer at it. It’s very threatening!

[Interestingly, I note that the Dalai Lama has spent so much time among his deracinated, empty-souled, atheist Western followers and lionizers, that he has denounced his own tradition. His own lineage goes back 14 generations, and he has taken it upon himself to end the tradition in favor of “democracy.” Apparently the 14 generations of previous Lamas and all the people who lived under them and venerated them don’t get a vote! The Dalai Lama and his Westernized, atomized, rootless new international Buddhism just know better than those hopelessly backward rubes.]

Anyway, this is the roundabout way of saying that I at least made a gentleman’s effort to practice “folk Buddhism” too. Which means that I tried prayer and veneration of Buddhist saints and Zen masters, etc. I don’t think I ever really was able to get past my feeling that it was all a bunch of hooey. But even just going through the motions opened up a little corner of my mind … enough to one day give serious consideration to the idea that perhaps the world is infused at every turn with the supernatural and the divine.

So I include this in my list of positive influences of Buddhism. And now you know my resumé!

***

So then, believing as I now do that traditionalists with their rituals and their specificity and their belief in the meaningfulness of the universe are correct (or at least more correct than strict materialists), how is Buddhism good for Westerners?

  • Serious meditation tames the ego and opens one’s eyes about the nature of one’s own selfish desires.
  • Seriously practiced Buddhism can be the source of chastity and continence. The moral rules of serious Buddhism are good ones (Do not lie, do not steal, do not become drunken, do not slander, etc).
  • Group services are good in that they bring people together in the name of a shared desire to practice seriously and become more moral beings.
  • Meditation can open up the moral core of a person, as in my experience of weeping for innocents.
  • Powerful experiences during meditation (expansive, pleasurable, enlightening) can chip away at the convictions of materialism. They can be explained away by “brainwaves” or whatever, but they are awfully convincing as supernatural experiences nonetheless.
  • Traditional Buddhist practice can open up the deracinated person to the concept of angels, demons, saints, etc. Essentially, Buddhism is not — at its traditional core — as content-less and drab and grey as the Westerners attracted to it wish it were. It plays in the West the role of the nothing-religion that’s “safe” for modern materialist atheists to practice. But in fact it does have content. And it could even function (for some individuals) as a “gateway religion.”

Therefore, I do not dismiss Buddhism out of hand. It is not obviously a silly nor an evil thing in my experience.

However, neither is it an unmitigated good. In fact, there is a great deal of error, danger, and I believe even perhaps evil, in it.

In my next post, I will ask “How is Buddhism bad for Westerners?” [Click here to read it]

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9 comments on “How Is Buddhism Good For Westerners?

  1. bgc says:

    That’s extremely interesting – will hold off commenting until after part 2…

  2. fsg says:

    Very interesting post. You seem to imply that very few Westerners were into folk Buddhism as you call it. Is that true?

    I have one very close, very intelligent and accomplished friend, a Westerner from a deracinated background, who has gone precisely into the intense praxis of Japanese religion (tea ceremony, temples, pilgrimages) even moving to the country probably permanently. He does not care much for the metaphysics/philosophy, though he is not uninterested. So my only data point on this trend is in the opposite direction.

    • outofsleep says:

      Yes, I’m splitting hairs a bit and also trying to multiply anecdotes into data. I might know more white Buddhists than you, but probably not THAT many more.

      There are two very popular forms of Buddhism that are still strongly culturally specific in the West. One is Japanese Zen (and usually the Soto sect, not the Rinzai sect). The other is Tibetan Buddhism.

      I think your friend is still an exception. Of the two “popular” Buddhisms, they mainly seem to be popular for their flavor, if you will. Zen (and the quiet side of Japanese culture in general) has such remarkable, distinct aesthetics. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking… the tea ceremonies, the flower arranging, the architecture, the painting, etc. Lovely. Tibetan Buddhism is popular for its wildness, its exoticism, and of course the cult of the Dalai Lama. For most people choosing “Tibetan” amounts to hanging some colored prayer flags, reading a few books about universal compassion (in English) that were ghost-written for the Dalai Lama , and maybe listening to a CD of chanting noises.

      Very few are reading the collected teachings of the 8th century master, Padmasambhava (for example). Likewise with Zen, I think your friend is the exception. For most Westerners, the “specificity” of choosing Zen involves putting up some calligraphy on the wall.

      • fsg says:

        Oh, I am sure my friend is very unusual. Your explanation rings true to my impressions of the greater picture, which is that most Western Buddhist involvement is a tack-on to liberal universalism,

        I suppose, having solipsistic tendencies, I am always surprised at how few people are disturbed by the spiritual condition of the modern West.

  3. Wyandotte says:

    Oh, boy. What a treat (really)! This is a topic that interests me, though I can’t say exactly why. I’ve never investigated Buddhism of any stripe in a serious way, but I’ve noticed a few things and if it’s okay with you I would like to make a few (disconnected) comments.

    The image we have of Buddhists, especially the monks, is that they are peace-loving, not unlike the goofy Bahais, who will not commit violence even to defend themselves from a predator threatening their life (a Bahai told me this.) This brought to mind seeing on the news a few years ago, I think it was Korea, dozens of robed Buddhist monks throwing stones at the police during a riot. FWIW.

    I have seen several interviews of white western Buddhists on television over the years. This was my impression: they are a serious irritant. Their feelings of superiority over the rest of us were pretty obvious. I have never felt so talked-down-to, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, their main advice to those of us wanting to investigate Buddhist further was to meditate. As you did, and benefited from.

    However, I’d like to point out – I guess you already know this but maybe some others here don’t – that the occurrence of identification with the suffering of “innocents” as well as personal experience of transcendence can certainly happen without any deliberate attempts. I’ve had both occur spontaneously. There’s a place for these feelings, though, and I don’t know if they should be fed forever. We are carnal beings, after all.

    That was most interesting to hear of a folk version of Buddhism and your comparing it to the lowbrow evangelical Christians, those given to literal interpretation of the bible. I didn’t know this.

    I wonder how your deracinated white western Dalai-lionizer Buddhists would handle this, their beloved Dalai Lama being a … RACIST.

    http://mediaherd.wordpress.com/2008/04/27/the-dalai-lama-is-a-racist/

    You said that “Powerful experiences during meditation (expansive, pleasurable, enlightening) can chip away at the convictions of materialism.” and that this is good for weterners. But maybe we weren’t intended or designed to make light of “materialism”. I recall seeing on an evangelical program where the guest, an ex-Buddhist (white westerner) took this viewpoint to task, saying that Buddhism (as he had known it) was about the taming or extinguishing of “desire”. But that Christianity represented the eruption of desire. Me, I like the latter point of view – without the rest of the evangelical folderol. Pick and choose, I always say.

    Can’t wait for Part II!

    • outofsleep says:

      A serious irritant, indeed, can they be. Thanks for your comment. I’ll save the reply till after I get part 2 up. But for now I’ll just say that it is admittedly amusing to see a website called “media herd,” which presumes to be the one thinking “outside the herd,” talking in totally brainwashed ways about the evils of “ethnic purity” and taking the Dalai Lama to task for saying one of the most sensible, irrefutable things he’s ever said. Being PC sure does involve a lot of gymnastic aptitude!

  4. Aurini says:

    I think this is a far healthier, funnier response (though I don’t donate to breast cancer – it’s an over-fed monkey): http://ca.movember.com/

  5. [...] of Sleep considers the positive and negative consequences of Western secularists dabbling with Buddhism.  He thinks it can serve [...]

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