Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Buddha Dharma Comes to the West

Thinking about Buddha Dharma coming to the West.

The Buddhism of the West, that eventually becomes identifiable as such, will be as different from the Buddhism of the “Far East” (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean Buddhism), Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism as they are different from the Buddhism of India before the 8th century.  Personally, I push against the trends that currently go under the labels of “naturalizing” or “modernizing” Buddhism because it tends to be too one sided leaning towards the materialism of the West.   

Western Buddhism will have to acclimate and accommodate to certain Western perspectives as well as appropriate certain Western language terminology and frames, and this will mean bridging the language and cultural divides with appropriate imagery and symbolic language.  Thus, Buddhism will need to use the language of both science and the religions of the Levant, in order to relate to Western cultures.  

The problem with much of the “modernization of Buddhism” approach is that it is appropriating the wrong parts of modernization. That is, instead of relating to the cutting edge of 21st century physics, general relativity, quantum theory, and string theory, it is just adopting a materialist inspired scientific framework of the 19th century.  In its attempts to be modern and remove the “superstition” from Buddhism, this “naturalization of Buddhism” movement has actually adopted the worst of the denatured materialistic psychology of the 20th century that has removed mind and psyche, and all depth, from psychology as just neuroscience and genetics.

Likewise, there is not much evidence of the necessary bridging of language memes with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in Buddhism’s coming to the West.  For example, Buddhism needs to unashamedly use the word “God," but in a Buddhist sense as a synonym for such Buddhist terminology as tathagata, sunyata, or dharmakaya. This is like the appropriation of the word Tao (the Way) when Buddhism came to China.  We need to tell the followers of the Abrahamic religions, “Yes, there is God, but it is not what you think.”  God is inconceivable, and if one conceives of or has a concept of God, then that is really the basic sin of ignorance as a human being.  

In this sense, John Lennon was right when he said “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” but it is the sense that our concepts of God are the concepts by which we measure or pain, i.e., measuring our understanding of Buddhism’s First Noble Truth that Life entails suffering.   To the extent that Lennon was singing “there is no God” he was wrong, but to the extent that he was singing to remind us that our concepts of God are not what God is, then he was absolutely correct.  This is actually what the mystics of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have said all along, but Buddhists need to speak of God in such a direct manner that reminds them of the mystic truths of their own religions in order for Buddhism to convince them that Buddhism’s not having an anthropomorphic God is not anti-religious.

For the transplantation of Buddha Dharma to the West, Buddhism needs to take up wholeheartedly such Western terms as “God,” “mind,” and “reality” and repurpose them within Buddhism’s frame of reference to accommodate itself to Western Culture.