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The Future of Buddhism in the West

August 21, 2010

David Nichtern
The Huffington Post
August 17, 2010

The essence of Buddhism, I think most Buddhists would agree, is to
cultivate awareness and compassion and to explore our existence in an
open and unbiased way. In some sense Buddhism has always been what we
Westerners would consider a fusion of religion and science. There are
no articles of faith, there is no dogma, nothing to believe without
verification. Buddhism is considered a non-theistic tradition, and
from that point of view it should mix well with scientific,
technological and rationalist thought.

Over the past 50 years or so, the Buddhist teachings have taken root
(to a certain extent) in our Western culture. Many great teachers
have worked hard to translate these teachings and practices into
English and European languages and into forms that are accessible to
Western students. Within some Buddhist schools, on the other hand,
the students have been required to learn the traditional forms in
their original language and cultural setting.

The process of transplanting the Buddhist teachings in the West seems
to have evolved in several different ways:

1. The traditional form is transplanted, takes root and grows (e.g.,
a Zen monastery in the West where the chants are recited in Japanese
and to a large extent the original forms are copied precisely).

2. A hybrid plant, a mix of the original Asian culture and language
and the "host" culture and language, grows. For example, the
Shambhala Buddhist lineage (which I am part of) has mixed certain
elements of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon with certain uplifted aspects of
European and American traditions.

3. Complete transformation of the original traditions into Western
modalities (e.g., well-being, medical, psychological, holistic, new
age, healing, stress management, relaxation, mindfulness, etc.) where
the language and cultural flavor is overwhelmingly Western with
perhaps only a faint trace of the Asian traditions that perhaps
inspired these approaches.

Despite exhortations of the Buddha himself and, in fact, many great
Buddhist masters -- that the student should verify everything that he
or she learns based on direct personal experience -- Asian Buddhism
(or at the very least Tibetan Buddhism) evolved toward a very high
degree of respect, devotion and even subservience to the teacher.
This devotion is actually found in many other Asian teaching systems.
It would not be unusual for a sitar student of a great Indian master
to bow to her teacher and place the teacher's feet on her own head,
but it's hard to visualize that happening at Juilliard or Berklee!

Despite their emphasis on encouraging critical intelligence and open
exploration, most Buddhist teaching systems are autocratic and very
much oriented toward the establishment of hierarchy and proper
decorum in relating to that hierarchy.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, the guru is considered to be enlightened and
equal in value to the Buddha -- in some sense even more valuable than
the Buddha because you have not had (nor will you have) the good
fortune to meet the Buddha in person. The guru is completely
identified with enlightenment, and his or her instructions are to be
carefully followed.

At the same time, the guru is telling you to use your own
intelligence to find out the truth. Even within the Asian Buddhist
system this dichotomy can catalyze a creative tension in the
student's learning process, but mixed with our Western democratic
bias, there can be at times an almost insurmountable dissonance in
the student, who is now struggling to synchronize two very divergent
leadership models, democracy and monarchy.

It might be too early to talk about "American Buddhism." History
tells us that it could take several hundred years to really have some
perspective on this kind of evolution. But it is intriguing to look
back over the last 50 years and also look at the current situation.

The fact is that many Western students who have moved into the
teacher role within their Buddhist communities have been able to
manifest as mentors, guides, teachers, or "spiritual friends" for
newer students. It is safe to say that there are many very highly
qualified Western dharma teachers serving in this capacity. But it is
also worth noting that there are few who would make the claim to, or
would be acknowledged by others as having achieved the level of, the
kind of mastery that would warrant the unflinching devotion, respect
and subservience that is directed at many of the Asian teachers. Just
visualize a Western teacher sitting on a high brocade throne (upon
which the Dalai Lama looks so natural to us), and everybody taking
that in stride. It is still a difficult image to visualize for many of us.

Either the time has not yet come for Western Buddhist gurus to
manifest fully, or we have a major culture clash on our hands here.
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