Examples: Monday, today, last week, Mar 26, 3/26/04
Welcome home! Please contact lincoln@newbuddhist.com if you have any difficulty logging in or using the site. New registrations must be manually approved which may take up to 48 hours. Can't log in? Try clearing your browser's cookies.

Is Western Buddhism even possible?

Hello all :)

I read this in Heinrich Harrer’s book Return to Tibet (1984), which is his account of a trip to Tibet the previous year and gives an account of the situation there since the Chinese “liberation”. It’s a little pessimistic about us Western Buddhists. Tell me what you think.

More than ever before, people in our hectic age are dreaming of imperturbability, tranquility, and harmony, and are hoping to attain these through mysticism and meditation. But I believe we can only dream of it – we can never achieve that state. It is too deeply rooted to be simply transplanted into Western culture; it is a spring which we must discover for ourselves. One has to be an Asian, to have grown up in that environment, in order to practise yoga genuinely – for us it will always only be a gymnastic exercise without spiritual effect.

Comments

  • Bull. Sorry, but I disagree.

    No apologies, @federica, he isn’t alive anymore ;)

  • BunksBunks Australia Veteran

    Yeah, can’t agree....give us a millennium or two and we’ll be mysticising and meditating with the best of em...

    SnakeskinpersonShoshinspencerstone
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think 'Merica! Veteran

    @Snakeskin said:
    I won’t speak for the rest of the Western World, but for the U.S., at a broader cultural level, I agree with him. As a society, the U.S. doesn’t value personal qualities of “imperturbability, tranquility, and harmony.” Those can’t compete with other values embedded in the culture. However, individuals and subcultures in the U.S., both before and after 1984, do negotiate cultural barriers to meditative development of those qualities and with “spiritual effect.” So, I think, in the U.S., Western Buddhism is possible, but only at an individual and subcultural level. Anything beyond that will be commercialized or politicized.

    At present I think I agree with you. Over time though I hope (if I dare use that word) that the example shown by those who do practice might shine forth and provide a previously unknown example of an alternate way of being in the world.

    Even if a broad cultural impact isn't made, the west is more and more multicultural so it's impact may be greater in some areas than others.

    I look at my more conservative family members and these days among the women things like natural foods, healing remedies and essential oils have entered into their worldview, formerly things relegated to the hippies. So I think, over time, seemingly unlikely change can and does happen.

    SnakeskinNerida
  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    The Buddha Dharma (thus have I heard) is free to a good home mind ....wherever the five clinging aggregates might call home mind :)

    "Different strokes (of the Dharma paddle) for different folks (on the raft)"

    (...84,000 different strokes... :) )

    Snakeskin
  • DavidDavid some guy Veteran
    edited April 14

    He is projecting his own weakness on the rest of his home country.

    Alas, people are people.

    If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. - Wayne Dyer

    Snakeskinherberto
  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    I remember hearing about a Tibetan teacher who looked confused when a Westerner student mentioned lack of self esteem ....and the teacher was still somewhat confused when it was explained to him what it meant..

    From this teacher's view point, Tibetans never suffered from self esteem issues, it was a foreign concept, something he had never come across before...

    So I guess there are some quite obvious cultural differences and this may be along the lines of what the quoter was getting at :)

    It is too deeply rooted to be simply transplanted into Western culture; it is a spring which we must discover for ourselves. One has to be an Asian, to have grown up in that environment, in order to practise yoga genuinely

    Snakeskin
  • seeker242seeker242 Zen Florida, USA Veteran

    Is Western Buddhism even possible?

    No, because the teaching of the Buddha is beyond divisions, including divisions of eastern vs western.

    DavidSnakeskinNerida
  • DavidDavid some guy Veteran
    edited April 15

    @Shoshin said:
    I remember hearing about a Tibetan teacher who looked confused when a Westerner student mentioned lack of self esteem ....and the teacher was still somewhat confused when it was explained to him what it meant..

    From this teacher's view point, Tibetans never suffered from self esteem issues, it was a foreign concept, something he had never come across before...

    So I guess there are some quite obvious cultural differences and this may be along the lines of what the quoter was getting at :)

    Not sure if you're talking about H.H. the Dalai Lama but he's expressed the same surprise.

    This bolsters my disagreement with the o/p here though because it seems to me that a lack of self esteem would drive at least a portion of the people towards a process like Buddhism.

    The fact that it has pretty much renders the assumption moot.

    I think I agree with you on the cultural differences but that is not to say we are wired differently. If we had grown up being taught that we could tap into Buddha Nature which is just sitting within us waiting then self esteem issues would seem illogical also.

    ShoshinSnakeskin
  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    Yes... The Dalai Lama sounds right....For the life of me I couldn't remember :)

    I agree @David ...However i'm just looking at the possible angle he was coming from with his statements...I guess cultural conditioning does play a big part, especially for us 'Westerners' born into god-centric societies with different sets of beliefs and values...

    But in the long run ( getting to the nuts and bolts of the 'matter'...pun intended ;) ) the five aggregates are the five aggregates... regardless of where they call home...and unsatisfactoriness is unsatisfactoriness and the Dharma is the Dharma..whichever way one chooses to look at it...

    SnakeskinDavid
  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    I feel it’s true, to an extent. Growing up in an atmosphere of “imperturbability, harmony and tranquility” gives you a different view of humanity, and a different set of reflexes, than someone who grows up in a western playground-slash-jungle.

    But I think that while it may be true for the general outlook, the core teachings of the dharma still apply. The concepts stay the same, and learning the dharma is not different, we face many of the same challenges in overcoming negative mind states and building mindfulness.

    That said, there is a certain wildness to the energy of a westerner, a certain lack of cultivation, but there are westerners who have overcome that to become excellent meditators. Maybe prolonged exposure to tai chi or yoga will change ones inner nature.

    Snakeskinperson
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    While it's true that eastern culture helps support things like monasteries and renunciates more than western culture, I think everyone has the potential to be a good contemplative. I've known many westerners who are amazing contemplatives, many within the Buddhist tradition. I don't think anyone would accuse Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Pasanno, etc. of not being good Buddhists. They just had the right character and motivation to do well in the practice. And just as many in the west practice well, many in the global east don't and make not-so-good practitioners. Buddhism isn't an identity so much as a practice, and anyone can be good at it if they have the desire and conducive surroundings. There may be more eastern or western trappings to it, but I think the core of contemplativism is essentially the same.

    personherberto
  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    Ken Wilbur has a book on the so-called "5th turning of the wheel" which is what is to become of Western Buddhism. I don't think we will see Eastern Buddhism take over the west, the cultures are just too different. Even if we were to shift to a culture of tranquility would it really look the same as the East? It doesn't seem likely. There have been many suggestions by modern teachers that for Buddhism to take root in the West, it will have to become it's own thing.

    Truthfully, I'm not sure I'd want to see that happen in our current culture simply because when you start to create more institutions then you need leaders and then you start running into all the same troubles all religions have. Imperfect humans thinking they are the only ones who know and understand and can control things from the top. Because are so in the thick of that type of thinking in the west, I'd rather keep things as they are, at an individual and sangha level.

    We tend to have this western belief that Buddhist countries are utopias, but they have major problems as well, including falling victim to the same issues we have in the west of wanting to preserve things to the point we will defend them to no end. See Myanmar as an example. Or even Thailand which touts itself as a major Buddhist country yet is home to some of the worst child exploitation that happens on the planet. Some of the top Buddhist countries have some awful human rights issues, like Singapore and Malaysia. They really aren't so tranquil despite very high numbers of the population claiming Buddhist as their religion. Just like here with Christianity, people claim it but do not truly practice it. So it is up to us as individuals. More institutionalized religion doesn't seem like a great ideal no matter what the religion is.

    lobsterherberto
  • adamcrossleyadamcrossley Explorer
    edited April 15

    Thank you for your responses, everyone. I appreciate your optimism about Western Buddhism. I personally think Buddhism will have to (and has already had to) change a lot in order to make itself comprehensible to Westerners. But I don’t see this as a bad thing, just an example of uppaya, ‘skilful means’, the Buddha’s great virtue in adapting his teachings to different people and cultures.

    For example, Tenzin Palmo has said that the West’s great contribution to Buddhism so far has been the struggle for women’s rights. (The right for nuns to be treated equally with monks, for instance.)

    I like Heinrich Harrer a great deal as a writer. He has a wonderful way of describing the people he meets on his travels. He’s very empathetic. But I do think he’s wrong here. Perhaps the Eastern psyche is subtly different from the Western, more “tranquil” or whatever, but you’re right: it can’t be a universal truth.

  • genkakugenkaku Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran

    Hmmmm... does suffering recognize international borders? Pardon my lingo, but I think the question itself is utter bullshit ... another way of wasting time that might otherwise be spent in practice. Practice what? Why suffering, of course.

    What is referred to as "Buddhism" changed its stripes as it moved from here to there, but the tiger remains the tiger.

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran
    edited April 15

    Is Western Buddhism even possible?

    Change Is Inevitable...Suffering Is Optional

    Buddhism adapts to different cultural settings and different cultural setting adapts to Buddhism :)

    Example

    Buddhism in India is deeply influenced by Hinduism(local culture of India) and Buddhism in China is influenced by Taoism(local culture of China)

    ...And I guess one could say the same about Buddhism in the West being influenced by European culture, philosophy & psychology ...( and visa versa ...mix & match :) )

    For example ....
    Socrates Aristotle, Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hume...Freud, Jung and so on..(No doubt there are more examples to choose from) ....All shared something in common with Siddhārtha Gautama, all were inner scientists venturing deep into the human psyche and coming up with (not quite the same but) similar findings....

    One adapts to change.... or suffers

  • DakiniDakini Veteran

    OP, I wasn't aware of that book. Thank you for posting about it. I'll look it up; it sounds interesting. :)

    Harrer is equating the practice of yoga with Buddhism. There's a lot more to Buddhism than yoga, and how is he defining "yoga", anyway? That's a Hindu term. Zen has meditation, but it's not based on a Hindu tradition. So, is that something else, something non-yoga? If Zen meditation isn't yoga (it comes from Taoism, from what I understand), does that mean his statements don't apply to Zen practitioners? Or does he mean "yoga" more broadly, as a synonym for any kind of meditation?

    I'll have to read the book, to understand his perspective better. But in any case, I say, "Piffle!". A Western Buddhism is not only possible, it already exists. Well, for that matter, Harrer should define his view of "Western Buddhism" for the reader, so we know what he's referring to.

    Is anyone up for reading Harrer's book with me?

  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    Would Eastern Buddhism even exist without Greco-Buddhism?
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Buddhism

    The term 'yogi' is often used by Tibetan monks to describe their practice even though they may only practice Padmasana/vajra position/lotus posture in meditation.

    herberto
  • NeridaNerida Denmark New

    @person said:

    @Snakeskin said:
    I won’t speak for the rest of the Western World, but for the U.S., at a broader cultural level, I agree with him. As a society, the U.S. doesn’t value personal qualities of “imperturbability, tranquility, and harmony.” Those can’t compete with other values embedded in the culture. However, individuals and subcultures in the U.S., both before and after 1984, do negotiate cultural barriers to meditative development of those qualities and with “spiritual effect.” So, I think, in the U.S., Western Buddhism is possible, but only at an individual and subcultural level. Anything beyond that will be commercialized or politicized.

    At present I think I agree with you. Over time though I hope (if I dare use that word) that the example shown by those who do practice might shine forth and provide a previously unknown example of an alternate way of being in the world.

    Even if a broad cultural impact isn't made, the west is more and more multicultural so it's impact may be greater in some areas than others.

    I look at my more conservative family members and these days among the women things like natural foods, healing remedies and essential oils have entered into their worldview, formerly things relegated to the hippies. So I think, over time, seemingly unlikely change can and does happen.

    I agree with both of you.

    Snakeskin
  • @lobster said:
    Would Eastern Buddhism even exist without Greco-Buddhism?
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Buddhism

    The term 'yogi' is often used by Tibetan monks to describe their practice even though they may only practice Padmasana/vajra position/lotus posture in meditation.

    @lobster, that's a very interesting Wikipedia page, thank you for linking it to us. And I think you've raised an interesting point as regards Harrer's use of the term "yoga". He might be referring to the Tibetan Vajrayana. But I think it's more likely he's referring to yoga as it's understood and practised in the West. He's using it as an example of the kind of spiritual practice which he doesn't believe can flourish outside of Asia.

    @Dakini, thank you for your comment. It is a very good book, although the bulk of it is travel writing/journalism, or even anthropology, rather than Buddhist scholarship. This was just a passage that piqued my interest, and I wanted to see what the community thought of it.

  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited April 16

    @adamcrossley said:

    @lobster said:
    Would Eastern Buddhism even exist without Greco-Buddhism?
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Buddhism

    The term 'yogi' is often used by Tibetan monks to describe their practice even though they may only practice Padmasana/vajra position/lotus posture in meditation.

    @lobster, that's a very interesting Wikipedia page, thank you for linking it to us. And I think you've raised an interesting point as regards Harrer's use of the term "yoga". He might be referring to the Tibetan Vajrayana. But I think it's more likely he's referring to yoga as it's understood and practised in the West. He's using it as an example of the kind of spiritual practice which he doesn't believe can flourish outside of Asia.

    @Dakini, thank you for your comment. It is a very good book, although the bulk of it is travel writing/journalism, or even anthropology, rather than Buddhist scholarship. This was just a passage that piqued my interest, and I wanted to see what the community thought of it.

    I'm definitely up for some anthropology on Tibet.

    And I want to second Lobster's comment about Greco-Buddhism. I had wanted to post originally, that the Buddha, himself, was a "Westerner", an Aryan, but thought better of it. But Buddhism, especially around NW India, the Tarim Basin, the Buddhist kingdoms in the area of Pakistan, Afghanistan and NW India, was primarily a "Western" phenomenon; it was developed and promulgated by a variety of Indo-European peoples and kings. In China, it became Easternized, and morphed into Zen, which combines the Buddha's teachings with Taoism.

    But some of the translators originally responsible for translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese were "Westerners" living in the Tarim Basin oasis towns; in fact, Westerners had founded those towns and kingdoms. Frescoes in the caves at Dunhuang portray Westerners in monks' robes, as well as Easterners.

    The Kushan Empire, which did much to strengthen and spread Buddhism throughout the region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was, IIRC, responsible for creating the famous Bamiyan sculptures of the Buddha that were destroyed by the Taliban, was the creation of Westerners, including some of those Tarim Basin folks, who were chased out into Afghanistan by Huns from the East. .The early history of Buddhism is to a great extent, a history of Westerners in the East, and their extraordinary leadership in the spiritual/philosophical realm, as well as in the political realm.

    person
  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    @lobster said:
    Would Eastern Buddhism even exist without Greco-Buddhism?
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Buddhism

    Thanks for this @Lobster, very interesting!

  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    I have recently taken up again my practice of Hatha Yoga. It is marvellous.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatha_yoga

    It is very much informed by my meditation practice.

    I totally agree that most western 'yogis' are advocating little more than calisthenics. Just as Tai Chi is barely/rarely a martial art. I recently wanted to post a youtube of mindful yoga practice. In other words yoga as meditation. Sadly despite much searching, nothing. I am sure it exists, may try again some time ...

  • FoibleFullFoibleFull Canada Veteran

    Of course Western Buddhism is possible.
    Buddhism tells us that our search for "imperturbability, tranquility, and harmony," is just as much of a trap as our desire to get away from pain.
    It just takes us Westerners longer to get this point is all .. it never fails to amaze me who patient our Tibetan lamas are with us as we struggle to finally understand what Buddhism is saying.

  • SnakeskinSnakeskin Texas, USA Veteran

    @FoibleFull said:
    Buddhism tells us that our search for "imperturbability, tranquility, and harmony," is just as much of a trap as our desire to get away from pain.

    In MN 106 the Buddha describes their development more as a means to an end than as a trap, like catching connecting flights to reach a destination.

    "Now, Ananda, I have taught the practice conducive to the imperturbable (here meaning the equanimity of the 4th jhana). I have taught the practice conducive to the dimension of nothingness. I have taught the practice conducive to the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. I have taught the way to cross over the flood by going from one support to the next, the noble liberation."

  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    @FoibleFull said:
    Of course Western Buddhism is possible.
    Buddhism tells us that our search for "imperturbability, tranquility, and harmony," is just as much of a trap as our desire to get away from pain.
    It just takes us Westerners longer to get this point is all .. it never fails to amaze me how patient our Tibetan lamas are with us as we struggle to finally understand what Buddhism is saying.

    <3 Tee Hee
    Too true. Imagine a Buddhism, we unmaster ... we practice, not practicing and still do ...
    It is explored quite well here ...
    https://zen1.space/viewtopic.php?f=27&t=292

    It is similar in yoga, we relax into potential painful asanas but only through relaxing does the pain go.

    There are many wisdom systems in the West, for example teaching through stories or rituals used in Celtic cultures and Freemasonry. These may emerge as influences or perhaps the Jesus prayer/mantra will be translated into Buddhist mantra ...

    However a culture is not required. Just a cushion ... and not even that ...

Sign In or Register to comment.