How is Buddhism Bad For Westerners?

This is part two. You can read part one here.

***

Yesterday I made the distinction that when I say “Westerners” in this case I am talking about deracinated Westerners who have never been, or no longer feel themselves to be, part of a living religious tradition indigenous to the West (the various flavors of Christianity and Judaism). I’m talking about people with a gap in their lives when it comes to religious belief.

I’d also like to clarify why I keep saying “Westerners” and not just “people” in general. It is because I don’t think I am the right person to pass judgment on whether entire societies have got their religion wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t prefer one to the other. I prefer, for example, Catholicism to Islam. But I have no agenda to make Arabia shed its Islam. (Perhaps this would be a good thing… but I’m simply not the man for that job).

Likewise, monks and laypeople in the north of Thailand have been practicing Theraveda Buddhism longer than the Greeks have been practicing Christianity. If a Thai person living in Thailand practices the ancient religion of his ancestors, I am not one to protest!

So when I criticize Buddhism in this post, though I must necessarily talk about its actual inherent qualities as a practice, I have my eye specifically on how these qualities affect our deracinated Westerner.

And finally, this is not a straw man! I know because I was him, and so are/were many of my friends.

***

Buddhism is presented to Westerners as a religion of choice. Naturally, all religion is a matter of choice, at least in a free society such as mine. No adult is forced to adhere to any one creed, obviously. Also obviously, the dice are loaded for some creeds. Any given man is most likely to adhere to one of two creeds (or some combination of the two, very likely):

  1. The creed of his clan and of his ancestors. Hasidim beget more Hasidim. Mormons beget more Mormons. Etc.
  2. The dominant creed of society, which I would characterize (at least where I live) as utilitarian individualism that is atheist at core but agnostic in rhetoric, and which is tinged around the edges with the remnants of Christian ethics and assumptions (about, say, the nature of time, the nature of good and evil, etc.)

So people choose these creeds a little less than they choose something they convert to, if you will.

Of course, people still convert to Western religions all the time, and not just in Africa. There are new Catholics, new Evangelicals (especially), and new members of non-mainstream churches, especially Mormons in the USA. Etc.

But I would argue (and I admit I’m getting on some thin rhetorical ice here; I’m really just arguing from a gut feeling) that these kinds of conversions come from a deeper — or at the very least more fervent — conviction than do “conversions” to Buddhism. In fact, it sounds weird to say “converted to Buddhism” though we have no problem saying “converted to Islam” or “converted to the Catholic church.” In my own story which I posted yesterday, I said it (without even thinking) the way most people say it. “I began practicing Buddhism.”

Just like I “began practicing” the violin last year.

Do you see what I mean? It’s a lifestyle choice. Hopefully that feels intrinsically wrong, to choose a religion for lifestyle choice reasons. But why, exactly?

***

Because it makes a mockery of the most important thing a man can do with his time on earth.

***

Just as I picked up the violin last year but I hardly practiced it at all this summer (I was busy!), a religion that’s an accessory, a lifestyle accoutrement, comes and goes with convenience. Yesterday I described how Buddhism could function for some people as “gateway religion.” But that gate swings both ways. I think it also functions as a gateway away from religion. And I think it serves this function more often and more thoroughly than the other way around.

But how can a religious practice serve to lead people away from religion? And besides, am I trying to say that only Buddhists are dilettantes? Surely passing enthusiasms happen in other sectors of life, both inside and outside of specific traditions.

Ah, but it is the special character of Buddhism that makes it serve this anti-religious purpose, and more thoroughly and more often than other major traditions. And this same anti-religious character is the same reason it’s so popular in the West.

Essentially, Buddhism (serious Buddhism) asks the practitioner to look within for the answers. It is not other-directed, not at its core. Though it comes with a set of ethical rules that show consideration for others, and though some schools emphasize compassion practices in meditation, philosophically speaking, Buddhism is self-oriented. The whole point of the religion is for the self to save the self.

Christian readers will understand what the problem is here. And even non-religious readers must recognize that while the notion of the self saving the self is very attractive and seductive, it raises a lot of questions. Like, for instance, if the self is so wise and powerful, what’s it doing being non-saved in the first place?

But it doesn’t stop there. Buddhism is also fundamentally an elitist religion. Now we’re really getting down to brass tacks. Buddhism, as founded by the historical/legendary Buddha, was never intended to be a religion for the masses.

It is a practice to be followed by an elite class of monks, those who are already close enough to enlightenment due to countless past lives of practice. The average man at the time and place of the Buddha was what we today would call a Hindu. And he was intended to go on being a Hindu. Only the very, very wise elite was intended to reach Nirvana through the Buddha’s teachings.

To this day in many places (such as Mongolia, Cambodia, Burma), the pattern holds. The average person lights incense to minor (now Buddhistic) deities; he offers food to the mendicant monks; and the monks are the ones who get saved. By helping the monks, the laity can move up the reincarnation ladder and maybe be a monk some day (er, some lifetime) themselves.

I’m not here to criticize the social arrangements of clergy and laity in Mongolia. I’m just pointing out how lovely and seductive this would be to a deracinated, PC, atheistic leftist. It’s essentially gnostic. A religion for an enlightened elite to practice, that claims at the same time to believe in universal compassion.

***

Buddhism has been described as “Hinduism stripped for export.” Hinduism is very specific to India and Indian people. Buddhism, by lifting itself out of its cultural context, by — yes — deracinating itself, spread like wildfire throughout Asia in the first 15 centuries AD. The “folk Buddhism” I talked about yesterday is essentially the lay-Buddhism that naturally grew up around the core of monks in the various countries to which it spread. While folk Buddhism exists in many flavors, Westerners are in fact correct when they intuit that there is something context-less and universalist at the heart of Buddhism.

[Christianity, of course, is universalist in its own way too. But the universal salvific message of Christianity is rooted in a specific, carnal, historical instantiation. Buddhism — while founded by one person — is not rooted so.]

Interestingly, Buddhism can also claim never to have been spread by war or conquest. This is, of course, one of the Western Buddhist’s favorite things to point out.

***

Buddhism does have a moral code that, with a few variations, is pretty consistent from sect to sect. It’s based around lists of “precepts,” such as not to steal, not to lie, not to kill, not to drink alcohol, etc. One of these precepts is usually “avoid improper sexuality.” In books for Westerners this is usually glossed as meaning avoid hurting people through sex, and it’s left purposefully vague. Traditionally this meant avoid all sex for monks, and avoid homosexuality, masturbation, and fornication for laity. (You can see why no Westerners want to talk about that one.)

What’s interesting about these “precepts” is that they are not commandments. They are suggestions. This is a selling point for Westerners. No authoritarian meanie God decreed these things. No no. These are merely suggestions.

Why are they suggestions? Well, the wise old masters (I say it without sarcasm) discovered that to commit these evil acts roils up the mind and the spirit. The goal of Buddhist practice is to calm the mind to the point of total clarity. Committing evil clouds the mind with turbulence. Therefore, commit no evil so as to have a clear mind.

[Left unanswered: Why do these acts cloud our minds? Why should this be so?]

Anyway, it’s up to the practitioner to decide which rules apply to him. It’s all good, as long as you end with a happy, feel-good mind.

And don’t think too hard about those cumbersome old rules about sex and whatnot. After all, if it feels good, do it.

***

So this practice — this Buddhism for Westerners — is many things at once.

  • Elitist and gnostic
  • Exotic and yet “stripped for export” at the same time. Both pleasingly foreign and yet conveniently open to interpretation.
  • Makes claims about universal compassion without all that troublesome business of a universal God. Focuses on being a “nice guy” without any authoritarian “mean guy” side to it.
  • Moral rules are just suggestions, explicitly open to interpretation.
  • The point of morality is that it makes you feel good about yourself.

It’s almost as if Buddhism was tailor-made for arrogant Western leftists. It pushes every button and rewards its followers with strokes of pseudo-holiness.

***

So these are the specific ways in which Buddhism serves as a reverse-gateway religion.

People have a natural yearning in their souls. A materialist with an empty feeling in his heart can try filling it with drugs, or sex, or television. But, sensing the futility of that, he might try and fill it with religion.

Christianity, Judaism, Islam… oh these are all so authoritarian, so passé. Ah, but Buddhism. That’s nice. That has caché. And it’s so easy!

So the searcher gets a little hit of spirituality. As I said yesterday, it’s not a worthless practice by any stretch. It may indeed be the proper practice for certain people and certain cultures.

But for the deracinated Westerner, it is precisely the wrong practice. It reinforces everything that makes the Westerner feel so empty in the first place: his rootlessness, his sense that he is the only proper source authority in his life, his desire to pick and choose his beliefs as if from a buffet, as if shopping for a natty outfit.

And when spiritual or temporal crisis comes to this person, where is his rock? I’ll tell you from personal experience: nowhere. There is no rock. Buddhism seemed like the only sensible religion, and yet even it has failed. Therefore: all religion is false.

Buddhism convinces the empty-souled, universalist Westerner that it contains too much religion. Whereas, in fact, it does not contain enough.

He’s like a starving man who eats a single bite of rice and finds his stomach so tight and dry that he can barely keep the food down. So he concludes that food is the problem.

***

I find I have even more to say on this topic, but I have rambled on long enough and this post is starting to lose any discernible structure. I do believe Buddhism grasps some universal truths, but incompletely so. I’ll try to address specifically how this is so, very soon. But please do not withhold comments (if any) on this post, as I’m not sure when I will get around to it.

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14 comments on “How is Buddhism Bad For Westerners?

  1. Kristor says:

    Great post. Buddhism is for the deracinated Westerner then rather like being really into food or wine, or the outdoors. Indeed, lots of the wilderness adventure culture tilts Buddhist. Viz., Gary Snyder.

    Is Buddhism the Hindu version of the European Nominalist Enlightenment? I.e., is it Hindu deracination? And, is this why it disappeared from India? Did the Indian immune system reject it as poison?

  2. outofsleep says:

    Thanks, Kristor.

    I’m not sure if your questions are just rhetorical, but I’ll take a stab at answering them anyway.

    1) I think that might be a bridge too far… apples and oranges.
    2) Yes, I think essentially it is.
    3) That’s an excellent question and I’ve never considered it before however… and appropriate to your last question…
    4) We must remember that Buddhism positively thrived for centuries in India. It was alive and well ˜250 years after the Buddha when Ashoka the Great converted and made it the official state religion. Of course, that just begs the question. Ok, so Buddhism was not rejected immediately — in fact not for a very long time — doesn’t that make it all the more remarkable that it was? Also… along these lines, China used to be much more heavily Buddhist than it became later (and I don’t just mean under communism. Chinese Buddhism was well into cultural senescence long before the colonial age). Confucianism and ancestor worship predate the influx of Buddhism and they soldier on strongly even as Buddhism fades. What’s going on here? I have no idea. Could be coincidence, or confirmation bias… or it could be something deeper.

  3. Wyandotte says:

    This ought to strike you just right:

    “In 1991, Jobs and Powell were married in the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park, and the marriage was officiated by Kobin Chino, a Zen Buddhist monk.”

    • outofsleep says:

      Ha ha… Yes I saw this. I wanted to make an addendum to the post, talking about the cult of Jobs, of commercialization branded as “individualism.” The outpourings over Jobs are truly creepy. He was truly a master of the zeitgeist. Empty platitudes, making gobs of money in the name of individuality and empowerment. Technology in the pursuit of distraction.

      • outofsleep says:

        from a yahoo.com article about Jobs and his connection to Buddhism:

        Jobs made computers and hand held devices that have allowed people to become “disembodied” on a certain level — “to escape and transcend the mundane reality of bodily existence,” according to Modern.

        Such spirituality begs for freedom from the trappings of tradition, he said, but they have a down side.

        “These machines are amazing,” said Modern. “For the last 12 hours, I have been seeing people on Facebook and Twitter in praise of how the devices he made allow ease and convenience and empowerment.”

        “I love my iPad, precisely because it feels like an extension of my mind and I can’t live without it,” said Modern.

  4. bgc says:

    These two posts on Buddhism were terrific – and among those few things that I read and I expect to stick in the memory.

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

  6. Roke Feller says:

    religion is supposed to be practical it is supposed to be useful Buddhism is not to save the “self” if you had studied buddhism for as long as you said you did you would realize that buddhism and enlightenment is a study of the mind conscious and unconscious what other people think is irrelevant there is a great number of westerners who do not thoroughly understand the teachings. I admit it took me a while to and I still don’t have it all down. Dependent Origination helped me understand the reasons why I did things and meditation helped me be more aware of my thoughts and actions. Most people are at different points in their life because of their karma whether in this life or previous existences and westerners that claim to be buddhists and come of as arrogant or elitist clearly do not yet comprehend the buddha’s teaching compassion, non attachment, inquiry and investigation into the inner workings of the mind. Buddhism should not be taken lightly and you will not understand everything right away. And as with everything it can cause suffering. Buddhism is not about going to temples or meditation retreats buddhism is about heavy introspection and investigation about human nature and the nature of the mind. The buddha was like jesus in many ways he lost his ego many so called “western buddhists” still have a very pronounced ego a false idea of the self there is no self there is only conditions. To all of you who have converted to Buddhism keep reading the suttas keep reading the teachings. Lately I have been investigating hypnosis and meditation and going deeper into the inner workings of the mind. Do not be attached to labels such as white, jewish, christian or westerner or even to the fact that I am of this religion or that. Take the teachings seriously and always show compassion not arrogance when dealing with people that is spirituality. If you are still suffering in the mind you are still ignorant in some way keep studying keep investigating keep practicing and you will get better as a person. Best of luck to you all

    • outofsleep says:

      Thank you for the comment, Roke. I don’t think what you are saying is incorrect, in terms of the teachings of Buddhism. Regarding some of your specific criticism of my own past approach to Buddhism, I’m not going to respond point-by-point. Most of this I deal with in the companion piece to this post, “How is Buddhism *Good* for Westerners,” which you can read here:

      https://outofsleep.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/how-is-buddhism-good-for-westerners/

      If you read that, you will see that I think that there is a great deal to be said in favor of Buddhism. It is in many ways an excellent and coherent tradition. It has been the foundational religious and moral code for a great many societies and it has functioned rather admirably in that sense. There are also a great many Buddhist sages and saints that were excellent, moral people.

      The key mistake here is in this comment: ” Lately I have been investigating hypnosis and meditation and going deeper into the inner workings of the mind. Do not be attached to labels such as white, jewish, christian or westerner or even to the fact that I am of this religion or that.”

      It’s all well and good to try and understand one’s one biases, but to do so at the expense of one’s own group (Christian, Western, what-have-you) is a mistake. We should not “pay no attention to labels.” This is what Movement Feminists, Cultural Marxists, etc, would have you do (except of course when such labeling suits their own agenda).

      The problem is that human beings *do* have a specific nature. No amount of meditating on universal principles will stop me from being a male, for example, with higher testosterone levels and more muscle mass and a greater aptitude for spatial thinking, and with deficiencies of maternal love and relational thinking (for example). Yes, my eternal soul is something I have in common with all people of all kinds. But the particular features of my own soul are unique and they do in fact depend on the fact that I am white, that my family and all our ancestors were Christians, that I am a man, etc etc. To acknowledge this is not to “hate others” but rather to be humble before creation, to accept the specific articulation of one kind of existence that God chose to manifest when he created me through my parents, my society, and all my ancestors. The kind of individualistic self-analysis you are talking about here ironically encourages egotistical thought in the name of universality. The later Confucianists said the same thing in response the Chinese Buddhists. Buddhism needs a stable, specific culture in which to function because if everyone followed the Buddha’s teachings to their logical conclusion what we would end up with is not paradise but a world of bland and self-centered people. The reason that Buddhism, a noble creed, is poisonous to the West is precisely because it comes into the West at an era in our history that we are, for our own internal reasons, in the process of dismantling our own traditions and our own society. The last thing we need is a pseudo-religious creed that further encourages atomization and the seeking of one’s own internal god-likeness. And in fact the same reasons that Buddhism is poisonous to the West are the same reasons that it’s currently in vogue. Because it appeals to the facile, unthinking rejection of traditions with which the West has already been busying itself for some time now.

      There’s nothing wrong with particularity. It’s not some embarrassing stain that needs to be erased. If too great a focus on group-identity leads to hatred and suffering, then yes, it is a bad thing. But the answer is *not* to pretend that such identities don’t exist.

      The point of spirituality is not to create a conflict-free Heaven on Earth. I would not have the Lion lay down with the Lamb, at least not here on Earth. The point is to be silent and to ask God what His desires for us are. To the degree that your meditation or mine helps us do this, it is a good thing. To the point that it makes us atomized, individualistic and in denial about actual reality, it is misleading and in fact dangerous.

      Thanks again and best of luck to you, as well.

  7. James says:

    Hi there,

    I am one of the genuinely questing individuals that you mentioned in one of your other posts. I am very interested in what you have to say about Buddhism and how you went from that to Christianity (and which type – I’m sorry if you mentioned somewhere and I missed it!), how you understand Christian doctrines (e.g. whether you have a more Buddhistic take on traditional Christian themes). I am interested in what you might have to say because what you described sounds a lot like me (white, secular, former knee-jerk lefty, etc.). I can’t usually talk to most Christian evangelists because they just don’t get where I’m coming from – it’d be refreshing to mebbe have a candid ‘talk’ with someone who’s ‘been there’ (even to the extent that we are both west-coast people, albeit I’m up in Vancouver, BC).

    Anyway, interested to hear back from you, if you’re up to it.

  8. Michael Nostrant says:

    My wife has been studying Buddism for 1 year, it now consumes more than 6 hours or more a day. I feel i am loosing her to this practice. of course she says she would curtail her study’s if it is coming berween us and our family, but she enjoys this so much that i feel it is not fair or selfish of me to ask this of her. i have tried to engage in the practice myself but do not feel the connection or committment that she has. this would be my biggest complaint to my limited understanding of this practive. how to balance or lives so all or needs are filled. advice?

  9. osolev says:

    You use the term supernatural but I suggest you use the term superstitious.

    You also say that Buddhism is some kind of a script as with all religions (I don’t try to trace here where you said it), I suggest you use the word drama.

  10. osolev says:

    When you get older and older in life and always thinking and observing, first yourself and then everything else and everyone else, you will feel and ‘mentalize’ more and more the way you do in this write-up about why or how Buddhism is not good for Westerners.

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