Seven Reasons Westerners Like Buddhism
A growing number of people in Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States are turning to Buddhism for guidance at two levels: personal transformation and social engagement.
They are interested in Buddhist meditation and Buddhist hospice care, in Buddhist psychology and Buddhist approaches to community development. They want to live lightly on the earth and gently with others, and they think Buddhism can help.
They were not born Buddhists, and they do not necessarily convert to Buddhism in a formal way. They may be affiliated with another wisdom tradition: Judaism, Christianity or Islam, for example. They may find great meaning in their tradition, grateful that it gives them some things that they do not find in Buddhism: a sense of community, an opportunity for praying with others, trust in God's love.
Or they may be religiously unaffiliated, finding their home in what one of our authors in JJB, the essayist and photographer Stephen Hatch, calls a Theology for Nones.
Nevertheless, these people are reading books and listening to podcasts about Buddhism; and some are also meditating, participating in Buddhist retreats, and studying under Buddhist teachers. They are influenced by wise Buddhist teachers such as Joan Halifax, interviewed by Krista Tippett.
In order to understand why they turn to Buddhism, watch the interview and, if you are in a time of suffering, listen the meditation. In any case, here are some reasons why some people in the West find Buddhism attractive.
1. MIndfulness in the Present Moment: They want to live more mindfully, to become better listeners, to be more grateful for the miracle of daily life, to be more responsive to the calling of each moment. Buddhism invites them to live in the present, to remember that this moment, here-and-now, is holy ground.
2. The Interconnectedness of All Things: Buddhism reminds them further that this moment is not isolated from all other moments; it is the very place where all other moments come together. William Blake invites people to see the universe in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. Buddhism invites people to see the universe in each present moment. The converse is true, too. Each moment is what it is in relation to the whole. The universe is not a collection of self-contained entities; it is a living organism: a seamless web of interconnected events, each of which depends on and mirrors the others.
3. The Primacy of Wisdom and Compassion: People in the
West who are attracted to attracted to Buddhism also appreciate its emphasis on personal experience rather than textual authority as a guide for living. And they appreciate the fact that it highlights two virtues which are at the heart of good living: wisdom and compassion. Many Buddhists say that wisdom and compassion are more important than religion, and that religion at its best is merely a tool for helping people grow in these two virtues.
4. Meditation: Many in the Weat are grateful for Buddhism's provision of a practical means -- namely meditation -- for growing in one's capacities for wise and compassionate living in daily life. Some among them experience the text-based Abrahamic traditions as too wordy, too lost in the head, and thus practice-impaired when it comes to helping people find peace of heart.
5. Freedom from Greed, Hatred, and Confusion. Buddhists do not typically speak of sin, understood as rebellion against God, but they often speak of three poisons that can pollute the mind and heart: greed, hatred, and confusion. And they typically suggest that these poisons can be purged, not by appeal to external authorities, but by systematic approach to mind and heart transformation. Many Westerners find it refreshing to discover a wisdom tradition the problem of evil in this psychological and therapeutic way.
6. Freedom from Authoritarian Images of God: Many forms of Buddhism are non-theistic and none of them require belief in a creator God who is a lawgiver and judge. Many westerners who are drawn to Buddhism are seeking a spiritual alternative to these images of God, which they experience as oppressive, overly patriarchal, and guilt-producing.
7. Appreciation of the Buddha-Nature within all of life, not human life alone. Mahayana Buddhists often emhasize that all living beings, not human alone, either have a potential for enlightenment or are already enlightened in their own ways. Many westerners are attracted to Buddhism because it lends itself to a life of respect and care for the entire community of life.
Let's be clear. Not all forms of Buddhism emphasize the seven ideas above, and many forms of living Buddhism fall short of the ideals just identified. Buddhists, too, can be violent, selfish, greedy, and confused. They can be overly "religiious" at the expense of being wise and compassionate. Still, it is these ideas that inspire so many in the West.
Is it Really Buddhism?
You may have images of Buddhism in your mind that are much more Asian, more focused on another world, and less American. Indeed, you may even have taken a course in college on Buddhism which focussed exclusively on Asian Buddhism, neglecting emerging forms of Buddhism in other settings.
In order to get a sense for American Buddhism, you might consider a book by Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, called A New Religious America: How a "Christian" Nation become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. The chapter on Buddhism in America will provide context.
Christianity and Buddhism
JJB has a special section called Christianity and Buddhism. You may find these articles interesting:
Can a Christian be a Buddhist, Too
Why Christians Turn to Buddhism
The Bible and Zen Meditation
Zen ahd the Trinity
The Listening Side of Love
Adam and Eve Seek Marriage Counseling
All is Void: There is No Buddha
Can a Christian Believe in No-Self?
"On Being with Krista Tippett "is a spacious conversation — and an evolving media space — about the big questions at the center of human life, from the boldest new science of the human brain to the most ancient traditions of the human spirit. The program began as an occasional series on Minnesota Public Radio in 1999, then became a monthly national program in September 2001, and launched as a weekly program titled Speaking of Faith in the summer of 2003...more"
Joan Halifax is a Zen Buddhist roshi, whose home is at the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is deeply shaped by a Buddhist tradition which originated in China and which emphasizes being present in the here-and-now. Some say that historical Buddhism has two sides: one emphasizing liberation from the round of rebirth in order to find a trans-worldly nirvana and one emphasizing being present in the world itself, moment by moment, in a way that is wise and compassionate and free. These two sides may be complementary or in tension. You will hear an emphasis in her talk. Buddhism is a diverse and evolving wisdom tradition. There is more to Buddhism in the future than has existed in the past. The Zen-influenced, socially-engaged Buddhism articulated by Joan Halifax is at its leading edge.
Buddhism and Process Thinking
If you are influenced by process thinking, you recognize that each of the six themes identified in the column on the left resonate deeply with process or Whiteheadian points of view. Process thinkers, too, emphasize (1) experience in the present moment, (2) the interconnectedness of all things, (3) the primacy of wisdom and compassion over religion, (4) the withness of the body as a context for spiritual awakening, (5) freedom from greed, hatred, and confusion; (6) freedom from overly authoritarian images of God, and (7) the presence of something beautiful and worthy of respect -- intrinsic value or the Buddha-Nature -- in all living beings.
Indeed, in relation to God, many Jews and Christians and Muslims are drawn to process theology precisely because it offers a way of thinking about God which emphasizes divine wisdom and compassion, not divine control. The One of whom Rabbi Bradley Artson speaks in A Constellation of Process Theology is not all-powerful but is indeed all-loving, not unlike a Buddhist bodhisattva.
Does process theology have anything to add to Buddhism that is not already contained in Buddhism? It doesn't really matter. What is clear is that the kind of Buddhism emphasized by Joan Halifax can enrich those among us who are in the process tradition, that we have much to learn from her, and also that, in addition to personal transformation, we are both interested in two hopes for the world today: hope for the planet and hope for local communities. We are both interested in relational thinking and ecological civilizations.
Imagine that you live in a world where a new kind of thinking is needed. Let's call it relational thinking. It is not necessarily a religious way of thinking, but it can be deeply informed by religion and also by science. Relational thinking is more than thinking, narrowly understood. It is feeling and perceiving, listening and responding, with heart and mind, day by day and moment by moment. It is living lightly on the planet and gently with each other for the sake of the well-being of life. A Buddhist might say that it is an awakened way of living in the world.
This is what we process thinkers, influenced by Whitehead's philosophy of organism, mean by relational thinking. We believe that this way of thinking is important socially and personally,. neither to the exclusion of the other. We see many forms of Buddhism as inviting and encouraging this way of thinking. Buddhism and other Asian traditions, including Confucianism and Daoism, seem inherently relational in orientation. All speak of a human person as a person-in-community not an ego-in-isolation.
Socially, relational thinking leads process thinkers to the idea that the world is, or ought to be, a community of communitie of communities, each of which are relatively sustainable in two senses: (1) they can be sustained into the indefinite future given the limits of the atmosphere and the earth to absorb wastes, and (2) they provide sustenance -- material and spiritual -- for human life. Our hope is that local communities in a globalized world can grow into localized embodiments of what the Chinese call ecological civilizations, before it is too late.
Some among us feel that, in many respects, it is already too late. We are moved by the work of Bill McKibben. Listen to his The Moral Math of Climate Change in On Being, and you will understand. As he is interviewed by Krista Tippett, he makes clear that, ecologically speaking, the world is already like a patient in a hospital who is having a heart attack due to too much cholesteral. Our heart attack is global climate change. The only real hope is for an alternative way of structuring our corporate lives. The only real hope is for the emergence of ecological civilizations.
Many kinds of ecological civilization are imaginable and desirable: African, Asian, Latin American, North American, European. And always their concreteness lies in local relations: local manufacturing, local agriculture, local energy sources. They are not enveloping situations that suffocate the world in a single meta-narrative, they consist of local communities which are creative, compassionate, equitable, participatory, respectful of diversity, ecologically wise, and humane in their treatment of animals -- with no one left behind.
These kinds of civilizations do not yet exist, and they will never exist in an ideal form. But they can be approximated, and without such approximation there will be even more sadness and suffering, even more violence and tragedy, in our world. This is the social hope of process thinkers and, of course, many, many others.
As we listen to Buddhist teachers such as Joan Halifax, we sense that these are her priorities, too. We are grateful to her and to the Buddhism she presents to us. Even if we are not Buddhist by affiliation, we want to be Buddhist in spirit. We process thinkers speak of Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet. Joan Halifax provides a spiritual underpinning for those ten ideas and also reminds us that, in many respects, the planet can save us, if only we have the compassion to listen with open hearts to each person, each living being, breath by breath.