CSM on American Buddhism

There’s an interesting article in The Christian Science Monitor on the growth of Buddhism on American shores ("American Buddhism on the rise"), which according to this piece is our 4th largest religion today.

Even a larger factor [in Buddhism's spread in the USA --Svend], he suggests, is that Buddhism offers spiritual practices that Western religions haven’t emphasized.

"People are looking for experiential practices, not just a new belief system or a new set of ethical rules which we already have, and are much the same in all religions," Surya Das says. "It’s the transformative practices like meditation which people are really attracted to."

I don’t know about Christianity and Judaism, but none of this is new to the Islamic tradition.  I have the utmost respect for Buddhism and awareness of how radically it differs from Islam in some fundamental respects, but I think comparable (if less ancient) practices are at the heart of Sufi Islam. 

Sufism has its own tradition of rigorous meditative practices and presents, I think, a comparably potent philosophical and psychological challenge to the Western mindset.  It also questions materialistic conceptions of life and reality.  In fact, the parallels between Sufi rituals of self-purification and its philosophical challenges to Western dualism and false dichtomies (inner/outer, mind/body, material/spirit, self/other, …) that "Eastern" religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism address are quite striking. 

One could certainly make a strong case that contemporary Muslims have failed to highlight these resources that exist within Islamic tradition in a way that Westerners naturally inclined to Buddhism would find appealing.  Actually, this is a bit of an understatement.  (Speaking of Salafism…) 

Judging by most "Islamic" discourse one encounters today, you’d never suspect that Islam also tackles these matters.  Sufism has its own tradition for attaining balance, escape from the material world and enlightenment, and it’s a path that I suspect practitioners of Asian religions would find quite familiar in key respects. 

The biggest difference is that it does so while maintaining the traditional Western belief in monotheism and the afterlife.

Another interesting observation:

Still, a healthy American Buddhism with its own characteristics is emerging. [...]

Perhaps most noticeably, "the role of women as leaders and teachers is very significant here," Seager says.

May we see comparable developments with American Islam.  Actually, I think this is already happening among America’s Muslims, if less visibly and quickly than among Buddhists.

  • http://twennytwo.blogspot.com TwennyTwo

    Hey Svend
    I found this post really interesting only because it connects to the very little I know about Sufism.
    Where would you point me to find out more? Like a ‘beginner’s guide to Sufi Islam’ ?

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    I’m glad you liked it.
    Well, I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask, as I’m by no means an authority, myself.
    There are some people who occasionally read my blog that know infinitely more than I. Anyone have suggestions?
    Perhaps you should ask Faraz at SeekersDigest or folks at MereMuslim.
    Or you could ask my better half. I’m sure she could give you good suggestions.
    If you’re looking for something that explicitly explores these East/West connections, I’m not sure off the top of my head what you’d want to read as a beginner. The text that really opened my eyes to these similiarities was Chittick’s SUFISM THE PATH OF LOVE, which presents Rumi’s thought through his own writings. If you have some exposure to the ideas of Buddhism (especially Zen), Taoism, and so on, the philosophical similiarities will jump out at you, I think.
    When you get to the good stuff, though, Rumi isn’t necessarily an easy read, as he’s talking about spiritual realities that defy human language. Chittick does a great job of guiding the reader, but the subject matter might be inherently challenging to a person new to mysticism (not that I’m an expert…).
    In general, I guess I’d suggest you start with Martin Lings’ classic WHAT IS SUFISM.
    My half-joking rule of thumb: Beginners should avoid stuff on Sufism by white people (non-Muslims). Excepted from the ban are folks like Lings, who have gone so native that they are no longer “white” for these purposes.
    No offense intended to anybody–and there are obviously honorable exceptions–but non-Muslims tend to butcher Sufism. Nothing’s more silly than a discussion of “Sufism” that deemphasize Islam or shariah. It’s ahistorical and ultimately incoherent.