By John Author
Is Buddhism anti-American? What is Buddhism anyway?
Is it possible to ferret out some kinda genuine Buddhadharma by looking at what remains as it migrates across the world? Answers to these questions and more in the following unnecessarily rambling article that I re-wrote half a dozen times.
Life’s rough. So often the ups just deepen the downs. Love becomes loss, have becomes have not, birth becomes sickness, old age, and death. The wheel spins round raising us from the earth and bringing us to a pinnacle, before tearing us down and crushing us under time’s grinding weight.
It’s no wonder we feel the urge to escape from it.
Buddha knew that urge because he had it himself, and he used it as a way to entice people to his Middle Way. Nibbana was originally thought of as an escape from the wheel. It was freedom from the inevitable, repetitive decline of all that we find pleasant.
Samsara, rebirth, karma, Nibbana—none of these were native to Buddhism; they’re borrowed ideas that were used to connect with the culture Siddhartha found himself in.
Even seeing clinging and craving as the root of suffering wasn’t original to Buddhism. The genuine Buddhist teaching is dependent arising: if there’s this, then there’s that; that depends on this. When this rises, that rises. When this dissolves, that dissolves.
When we apply that to all phenomena, we see that the “self” is really a matrix; it’s a collection of nodes that share information. These nodes include all of time and space. When the Mahayanists got a hold of that model, they made it into emptiness—which can easily lead us to nihilism or a fanciful “something behind the curtain” approach.
Some translations call Buddha-Nature, “The Matrix-of-the-Thus-Come-One,” but that has also enticed our imaginations, even luring the Tibetans into a devotional panentheism.
Buddha’s other contribution was the Middle Way, the way of balance and moderation. There is nothing balanced or moderate about American culture. We rush around trapped in strangling tunnel vision, trying to consume, as the Eagles said, “Everything all the time.”
Our culture breeds inconsideration, selfishness, and impatience. I would even say that these are the Three Poisons of our time. While working as a cart pusher, in a chain store, I saw those poisons every day.
Buddhism is a culture.
That insight crept up on me while reading Stephen Asma’s The Gods Drink Whiskey. The beliefs, practices and views are just window dressings. The Buddhadharma is something you can see in someone. It’s in the way they walk, talk, eat, work, play and listen.
Buddhist cultures seem to encourage a cool heart: patience, detachment, moderation, and friendliness. American culture encourages a hot heart (it’s like a freaking furnace). It constantly demands firewood, catching it ablaze and devouring it to ashes in a matter of minutes. But it’s the slow burn that keeps us warm all night.
That said, I don’t want to romanticize the East—they have issues too. Namely, the people are taken advantage of by brutal kleptocracies. They’re forced to live in poverty because their cool Buddhist hearts say, “Eh, whatever.”
Yet many seem to endure poverty with a grace and dignity that’s utterly foreign to Americans. Dignified is definitely not a word I’d use to describe our culture.
So to be a Buddhist in America is, essentially, to be an expatriate—to be a foreigner in one’s own homeland.
It means to renounce the society we live in while still engaging with it in skillful ways. The rat-race has always been the antithesis of Buddhism. Some of the traditional teachings say that householder Buddhists can, through practice, be reborn as monks; that the release from samsara and the cessation of suffering are so rare in lay life that we might as well shrug and say, “Well, better luck next time.”
I don’t believe in such things because I’m not a 5th century B.C.E. Indian. Karma, rebirth, samsara, etc. were part of Indian culture, they’re not necessarily parts of Buddhist culture. Buddhist culture is what remains as the Buddhadharma travels the world.
While each nation in the East mixes its own folk traditions with Buddhism (most also mix Hinduism with it as well), there’s something that remains with it wherever it goes: that cool heart. That’s the heart of Buddhism, yet it’s hard to find among American Buddhists—including myself.
Many of us talk the talk and go through the motions, but we don’t take the next step and embody the Buddhadharma. Looking over this post, it’s easy to see why. Embodying the Dharma means, to a large extent, turning our backs on American culture and changing our way of life. Moving slower, talking softer, eating less, trimming opinions and asking, “Do I need this?” is about as un-American as you can get. Yet there are certain elements of Buddhism that do vibe well with our culture: the suttas that encourage autonomy, self-discovery, and control over our minds.
Autonomy, curiosity, and control are definitely part of American culture. Well, I guess they’re really part of our cultural ideals rather than our culture itself.
Anyway, I don’t ever see Buddhism taking off here. If it does, it’ll probably go the way of Christianity—millions of followers who know the teachings but don’t emulate the one who taught them. The parts of Buddhism that contradict the American life will either be ignored or twisted to suit our hedonistic tendencies.
But there’s hope for a strong sub-culture to develop—ordinary people who detach themselves from the ruckus while living among it. Urban hermits who wade through the crowds like they’re walking in a poppy field, who see no difference between a suburban home and a forest-hidden hut. The buildings are no different than stone monoliths, the stream of cars a whispering river.
Brushing aside the madness that’s crept into everyone and seeing each person as a Buddha. This is possible.
Why would I want to be an American when I can be a Buddhist?
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”