Can Buddhism survive in our culture?
Chögyam Trungpa (photographer unknown)
Humans want relationships, happiness and meaning in their lives. For this, some will rely on accessible forms of Buddhism comprised of their own rituals and teachings. Accessible Buddhism moves away from conventional, monastic traditions to better suitthe modern-day consumer. In a contemporary world, we know that altering traditions and beliefs is nothing new. Take yoga, for example, which is no hidden practice in Toronto. Whether you know it as physical exercise or a post-workout fashion statement, it’s also linked to Buddhism, amongst other religions. Maybe you didn’t know that because yoga in the Western world is known mainly as a physical discipline rather than as a mental and mystical activity. But that aside, even though some Buddhist teachings are lost to lay practitioners in the West, the essence of it lives on only to confirm that society needs Buddhist spirituality in some capacity.
A consumerist culture lends to comparisons and self-judgements. Seekers of Buddhist spirituality—defined here as acceptance and presence of inner and outer realities—learn to catch the mind during negative self-statements. And while it may not be possible to expel these thoughts entirely, a commitment to Buddhism can help one see through emotional and mental attachments as a way to reduce emotional suffering. In so doing, learners can accept, and even reframe, their attachments to convey kinder messages toward the self, and in turn to others. After 15 years on the path of Vajrayana Buddhism, psychotherapist Oona Fraser said she’s become “confident about the reality of her suffering.” Instead of succumbing to painful emotions, she’ll ask herself questions like, “What does your wise mind say?” Fully aware human development grows from many influences, and Fraser extracted what she needed from her Buddhist practice to do so.
Traditional Eastern Buddhism is a foreign religion to many people. Jargon, monastic lifestyles and extreme rituals can prevent seekers from welcoming the intensive religious practices. However, accessible Buddhism in Western lay organizations—albeit with whittled rituals, altered philosophies and varied techniques—attracts a larger following. Thomas Esakin, a Theravada Buddhist practitioner for over 10 years, cautioned that some “Buddhist concepts create barriers. They separate us from our own experiences and truth. Don’t get caught up in the language,” or you’ll miss out on the message and its meaning for you. Okay, so this might sound more self-focused than community-based, but oftentimes a personal revolution needs to happen before wisdom can be shared with others.In a materialistic society that obsesses over appearances instead of the inner experience, it’s no wonder that we have some personal work to do first.
Consumer cultures look outward for answers, whereas Buddhist practice looks inward. Greater access to Buddhism means realizing the power of our internal resources, a path that can teach us how to balance our surrounding influences and challenges. Tony Meers, a Mahayana practitioner and general director of Soka Gakkai International Canada, said, “Buddhism directs us to our own inner capacity to receive. Everyone has wisdom,” which comes from a Buddha nature within. Inevitably, being open will invite dialogue about ideas even if the goal isn’t to accept what’s being said. If individuals learn to reflect and accept their internal experience, their need to look outward for satisfaction will diminish.
From birth onwards we strive for an identity that is ours alone. We tug at it in our teens only to have it explode in our twenties. But as Fraser put it, “spiritual materialism [a term coined by Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa] can feed an identity of radical people.” In other words, even diluted forms of Buddhism can pose challenges. For instance, when Buddhism is reformed and then pursued without an understanding of its concepts, it can stall progress. At its worst, it can lead to self-importance and narcissism. Fraser commented that Buddhist misconceptions and “jargon can be a barrier” to the spiritual path, including the popular worldview that spirituality is something only attainable in the future, if at all. Understanding Buddhist philosophy is an intellectual exercise that demands self-reflection and wisdom. Even when some teachings are lost, the essence of Buddhism—no matter how basic—is available to seekers who can attain the knowledge without touting phoney embellishments that bamboozle the practice.
Knowledge acquisition takes time, but Western society wants it now, not tomorrow or 10 years from today. The drawbacks to this mentality are many, but it speaks to how our culture needs to have instant access to spirituality without having to renounce conventional lifestyles for monk-like asceticism. Fraser emphasized that the key is “thinking about spirituality as ordinary.” In other words, it’s not about reaching an end state for lay practitioners. Turning traditional Buddhism into an accessible practice can speak to urgent needs. Practicing meditation, self-reflection, karma (cause and effect) and replying with compassion can serve us now if integrated into daily activities and habits.
For many, the attraction to the unconventionality of Buddhism is the inner philosophy, because it explores the deeper questions in life. As Esakin said, “allow your insights to become gifts.” All Buddhist practitioners agree that no matter what Buddhist branch they study, it was existential questions that led them to this religion. After all, humans are curious and throughout life our questions become more serious. When asked what draws individuals to faith, Buddhist monk Venerable Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche confirmed they are “looking for answers; facing mental obstacles to overcome inner and outer circumstances.”
The benefits of Buddhist practice are the same across the board. You learn to let go of attachments, to be accountable to your own suffering and to not discard the ego. You “realize the selfless nature of the self,” said Pasquale LaMontagne, from the Diamond Way Buddhist Center.
Questioning the meaning of life isn’t just a task for philosophers, just as the psyche isn’t only for psychologists. Similarly, Buddhism is no different. It can be activated now.comments powered by Disqus