What is the future of Buddhism in America? Does Buddhism even have a future as we head deeper into an age that identifies more and more as non-religious? These questions seem more pertinent than ever before and as a Buddhist, and I would be remiss if I wasn’t honest with myself and those who come to me for advice.
The teachings of the Buddha were never intended to be Buddhism. A revolution in social conscience, the path of wisdom, later to be known as Buddhism, went from the anti-cult of personality to openly, the cult of personality. We need only take the briefest of looks both currently and historically, to see that what Buddha taught and what has been handed down to us have taken greatly divergent paths.
Now before I offend everyone, let me be clear in saying, Buddhism not only evolved to meet the cultures that accepted it but also had to evolve in order to meet the needs of the place and time. Many beautiful and helpful cultural forms of Buddhism have emerged over the centuries and I have benefited from them, as have countless others.
That being said, I think in order for Buddhism to continue to hold meaning in modern America and elsewhere, it needs to be stripped of all pretense and be presented as needed to the culture at hand.
A perfect example of this thought is seen in a story the Dalai Lama told of his encounter with non-Tibetans who dressed liked Tibetans, spoke and used cultural icons from cultures alien to them. His reaction was to laugh. He told them that what they were practicing was nothing aside from a form of culturalism. Buddhism is not about robes, malas, sandals and funny hats, it is a path of emotional freedom.
Something that I have come back to time and time again within my writings is the quote by Buddha that says he teachings suffering and the freedom from suffering. This is his central theme and one that we need to hold onto. Everything else—aside from appreciating and preserving cultures—is irrelevant. We need to see this as we march forward in our lives and in our culture. We don’t live in a culture that is open to thousands of men and women walking around in robes and begging for food. We need to move past this.
We also need to be clear in that the teachings of the Buddha were not designed to make the rich more comfortable. So while mindfulness is for everyone and beneficial for everyone, it was never intended to be a board room power move. It was never intended to be trendy and packaged with a brand new set of Lululemon leggings. It was and is, a path of letting go and seeing clearly what truly is, here and now.
Buddhism needs to continue down a path of the current movement of Engaged Buddhism—a revolution of emotional and social conscience. It needs teachers from the streets, the prisons, the slums and the hospitals, who are engaged in actively loving people and showing them through example how to relate to each other; not through forced political maneuvering. It is a hand in hand interaction of leading by example that s devoid of self praise and justification.
We are currently seeing a cultural movement of who studied with whom, and who wrote the latest best seller, or dharma for a dollar. We are thriving in what Chogyam Trungpa called spiritual materialism and the dharma of credentials. We can sell it, make it google ready, and charge $2300 for a week long seminar with the Lama of the hour, but we are not living it. We are simply modeling it for our own sense of gratification.
The Dalai Lama recently wrote a book entitled Beyond Religion. He spoke and continues to speak about this very issue and a need for a sense of ethical values that are stripped free of cultural colors, boundaries and insinuations. These things are found at home.
We can sit in front of our paintings and wall hangings and appreciate them where we are, but they will remain useless and as little more than distractions until our feet are on the pavement. They will mean nothing until we are knuckles deep into the same mire that the rest of the world lives in; understanding their suffering and helping to lead the way out.
When we read the Pali Canon, we see a teaching directed to the people of his time. Much of them can be translated into meanings that are helpful now, to us, but often they are not. There is a widely held belief that the Buddha gave 84,000 teachings and they were all unique for the time and place they were given. They addressed the wounds of his day. In order for Buddhism to be relevant, we need this again and we cannot do this if we are still busy trying to sell the dharma.
Relevance is addressing the issues of here and now. It is applying the truth of suffering and freedom from suffering to the open wounds of our time, of our global culture. It is compassion in action. As long as we are so busy trying to make ourselves into something different—something outside of the rest—we are only building walls. We are avoiding a need.
An American Buddhism needs to be free of credentials. It needs to be free of identity. It needs to be a process of willingness to engage what is over what we wish things to be. An American Buddhism needs to understand the reality of suffering and treat the cause instead of the symptom.
In the words of Shantideva, it needs to be a benefit to all beings.
“May I be a guard for those who are protectorless; A guide for those who journey. For those who wish to cross the water, may I be a boat, a raft a bridge.”