The Death of Buddhism ~ first draft of an essay in The Shambhala Sun, by elephant journal founding editor Waylon Lewis.

Via on Nov 23, 2008

Below, the rough draft of my essay for The Shambhala Sun. I was one of “9 Prominent Buddhists” honored to be asked to declaim upon the future of Buddhism in West. ~ Waylon Lewis, ed.

Above, a totally chill climbing hold that folks climb and stand on at my local climbing gym.

The Death of Buddhism

I have a big mouth, which issues frequent opinions, loudly and confidently, out of the cold silence of my vacuous mind. So I wonder if anyone really ought to give a care just where I think that odd amalgam we call “American Buddhism” is headed. I have, however, been fortunate to grow up in an American Buddhist community—and over the past little while I’ve started up a little media company devoted to “the mindful life”—to bringing Buddhist values into the world, and putting them into action. So I ought to have tripped upon into a worthwhile observation or two.

At 34 years old, I’m still young, full of energy, ambitious. Buddhism is the axis upon which my life turns—I begin my every day with a few minutes of meditation, I end my every day by dedicating my actions to the welfare of all sentient beings, and our earth. And so it may come as some surprise that I see little hope for Buddhism’s surviving and thriving in the 21st Century.

Just as with the yoga community, Buddhism has flourished in the West. It’s done its time, in the 90s, as a hip fad that all the celebs were into. It’s had its moment on the cover of TIME. Just as with yoga, Buddhism made the difficult journey to the West, came to the fore thanks to the writings and teachings of a few charismatic teachers. Communities blossomed—with attendant businesses, schools, urban centers and rural retreats. But now, 40 years after Suzuki Roshi published Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Buddhism is widely thought of only as a vague, Eastern lifestyle that has something to do with peace, or the Dalai Lama. At my local café, I can drink a Green Buddha. As my climbing gym, one of the rock holds folks step on is a fat jolly Chinese Buddha. As the first pioneering generation of Eastern teachers depart this mortal coil, I see the teachings diluted, weakened.

This isn’t an original observation, of course. There’s the parable that transplanting Buddhism from one culture to another is as difficult, and takes as much patience, as “holding a flower to a rock.” And Chögyam Trungpa, my parents’ teacher, warned in his seminal Sadhana of Mahamudra:

This is the darkest hour of the dark ages. Disease, famine and warfare are raging like the fierce north wind. The Buddha’s teaching has waned in strength. The various schools of the sangha are fighting amongst themselves with sectarian bitterness; and although the Buddha’s teaching was perfectly expounded and there have been many reliable teachings since then from other great gurus, yet they pursue intellectual speculations…The yogis of tantra are losing the insight of meditation. They spend their whole time going through villages and performing little ceremonies for material gain.

On the whole, no one acts according to the highest code of discipline, meditation and wisdom. The jewel-like teaching of insight is fading day by day. The Buddha’s teaching is used merely for political purposes and to draw people together socially. As a result, the blessings of spiritual energy are being lost. Even those with great devotion are beginning to lose heart. If the buddhas of the three times and the great teachers were to comment, they would surely express their disappointment.

The good news, of course, is “Let East meet West, and the sparks will fly!” (as Trungpa famously said of his Naropa University). Particularly since Mao’s 1959 “Liberation” pushed Tibetans into our technologically-proficient, commercially-driven, multi-tasking modern West, we’ve inherited powerful teachings with which to combat our inner darkness and outer speed and aggression. Which way the future thread of the lineage of Buddhism wends is up to us—when the call of the meditation gong sounds each morning, do we answer it?

Despite been born and raised in a once-powerful, now mature Buddhist community (the average age in my community has gone from, say, 25 years old to, say, 55)—and attending a Buddhist Seminary at the age of 17, and then staffing four more over the next seven years—my personal practice has become shallow, consistent and practical. I’ve taken my Buddhist training into the workaday world—and left behind Marpa, Mila, Naropa, the Madhyamika, the Sutras or even regular Vajrayana practices I once swore to fulfill.

If the question is the answer, then, for me the future relevance of Buddhism lies in the Shambhala teachings that Trungpa put so much of his prodigious, short-lived energy into. Starting in 1978, Trungpa offered a new set of non-Buddhist, optimistic, accessible teachings that were designed for…well, anyone and everyone. He distilled 2,500 years of Buddhadharma into its essential teachings, values and practices, and offered up this remix as a secular, non-religious path that could be traveled in a series of meditation weekend programs.

My life is given meaning because of the Buddhist injunction to serve all sentient beings. My work (and play) in the world is consumed with this purpose. My practice, however, is simple, accessible, ordinary—I study a bit, I meditate consistently enough to keep my sanity, and I see my community enough so that our web of interconnectedness strengthens one another. I owe my allegiance to my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, who I see maybe once a year. And so, if intensive, deep-rooted, nearly monastic Buddhism is fading from this planet, perhaps it’s essential gifts to human culture—meditation, compassion, sanity, selfless mission—are spreading far and wide, making up for in breadth what we are losing in cultural, historic, intellectual and devotional depth.

About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | facebook.com/elephantjournal | twitter.com/elephantjournal | facebook.com/waylonhlewis | twitter.com/waylonlewis | Google+ For more: publisherelephantjournalcom

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14 Responses to “The Death of Buddhism ~ first draft of an essay in The Shambhala Sun, by elephant journal founding editor Waylon Lewis.”

  1. Todd says:

    I think you have some really valid points, Waylon, but I don’t think that all is quite lost yet. I do feel that Buddhism has become far, far more commercialized than I’m comfortable with: walking into my local Target and seeing sculptures of the Buddha for sale in the candleholder aisle, and I’ve seen that hold… and I won’t use it or climb on a problem that does; I can’t help but wonder what people would do if it was a sculpted Christ that people were climbing and stepping on.

    That being said, I think there are still people who take the teachings seriously and are learning to incorporate the Dharma into their lives beyond the surface. I’ve seen more and more people, particularly youth, making the commitment to the ideals of the Dharma. Even though many of them might not necessarily partake of the prescribed daily rites and rituals, they read and seem to understand the message and are doing their best to make it real for them. Then again, the Buddha himself didn’t necessarily see the need for the rites and rituals; after seeing the corruption of the Brahmin priests of his time, he wasn’t a big fan of authority, so maybe these “new Buddhists” foregoing every rite and ritual isn’t a bad thing.

    Is Buddhism in danger of becoming over-commercialized and trite? Yes, for sure. Especially if we allow images and concepts to be co-opted by business and used to make money. Perhaps instead it requires a polite, but firm, request to show more respect to a admittedly small, but growing faith.

    Is Buddhism evolving? Yes, for sure, and that’s a good thing. One of the constant complaints of other faiths, especially Christianity, is that it refuses to grow and evolve and is unable to provide real answers to its 21st century adherents.

    But is Buddhism dead? No, I don’t think so. I think Buddhism in the new century on the new continent promises some very interesting challenges for everyone, believer or not.

  2. Betsy says:

    Well written Waylon. You have created a paper that evokes critical thinking which is refreshing to say the least. I agree with Todd however that in these days and in the days to come, people will need more of a foothold (pun intended) in spiritual groundedness. With the economy in the tank, empty pursuits that crowd peoples’ existence will no longer be an option. They will want something deeper. Retail therapy (thank god) is starting to dissipate a bit and that leaves people scrambling for something else to make them feel good. Buddhism is free, at least the kind you and I and most people on this site know of. Maybe I am just a hopeless optimist, but I think Buddhism will continue to blossom here in the west, taking on many different forms and showing up in the strangest and most unexpected ways. I should mention that I’m not some highly enlightened being, as a matter of fact I don’t even meditate. Being mindful in as many moments as i can is what I strive for daily. I would love to see your final work once it is completed.

    Peace,
    Betsy V

  3. elephant journal admin says:

    Betsy: you can find the final, though severely edited (thank god) version in the current issue of Shambhala Sun.

    I agree, Betsy, that folks will need the real deal—I just don’t think they’ll want it. This culture is so ADHD, speedy…folks don’t want to, as Trungpa Rinpoche urged, “lean into the sharp points.” People, as he feared, treat genuine spirituality like a salad bar—a little of this, a little of that, whatever pleases. I’ll take some Jesus love with a little Buddha peace and some Judaism to go, thank you very much.
    Finally, I’d say your sentence: “I should mention that I’m not some highly enlightened being, as a matter of fact I don’t even meditate. Being mindful in as many moments as i can is what I strive for daily” reflects my point—that even we Buddhists are settling for a sane, good life, instead of really dedicating ourselves hardcore to the path of enlightenment. That’s fine, but that’s not necessarily going to nourish the deepest roots of the ancient Buddhist tradition.

  4. Heather says:

    As the holidays approach, I’ve been thinking lately about the meaning that Christian holidays still have for me, even though I have long denounced by Catholic roots and have practiced meditation for some time (though I have not yet taken refuge, I probably will in the next year.)

    It’s funny how much power the Christian holiday rituals that I practiced as a child still hold for me—like lighting the advent wreath every Sunday night and listening to crackling German Christmas records by candlelight, or setting up my mom’s collection of nativities, but leaving the cradle empty until we added the little baby Jesuses on Christmas morning. Whenever I watch a movie that has a Catholic church scene, I can’t help but recite the prayers and responses in my head, they’re so ingrained.

    Because of this, I wonder if I’ll ever really be Buddhist, or anything else other than Christian. My Christian leanings are totally cultural, and really have nothing to do with the actual teachings of the church, but a Buddhist ritual or Shambhala Day celebration will never mean as much to me as Christmas or even Palm Sunday, just because of the emotions and memories that are tied up with them.

    I wonder if this is why Buddhism tends to be practiced as more of a casual, yet practical psychological tool in the West, rather than as a religion? I also wonder if it’s different for you, Waylon, because you grew up in the Buddhist tradition? Maybe as more kids are raised Buddhist in the West, the religion will take on a more integral role in their everyday lives.

  5. elephant journal admin says:

    Thanks, Chris. My actual title was: ‘The Death of Buddhism,’ inspired in part by the galvanizing ‘Death of Environmentalism’ essay published a few years back by two young ecopunks that fomented a half-ton of conversation in the green community.

    Yours,

    Way
    elephantjournaldotcom
    …for fun yet fundamentally serious videos blogs articles reviews interviews on “the mindful life”: yoga, non-new agey spirituality, organics, sustainability, adventure, the arts, enlightened education, conscious consumerism.

    On Nov 25, 2008, at 9:32 AM, Chris Groutt wrote:

    Hey Waylon,

    Nice contribution in this month’s Shambala Sun. I think you are right on with the breadth vs. depth thing.

    Hope you guys are well over there.

    Chris

    Chris Groutt
    Exec. Vice President
    Peaceful Mountain, Inc.

  6. elephant journal admin says:

    Heather,

    Great comment. Great thoughts. I’d only remind you that ritual at its root isn’t about nostalgia, or emotion even—but rather connection. In Judeo Christian Muslim religions—connection with a higher power. In Buddhism, connection with the present moment. Pema Chodron talks about the meaning of ritual here…well I can’t find it, but here’s a different one: “In his own way, Trungpa Rinpoche devised such a course for his students. He’d have us memorize certain chants, and a few months after most of us knew them, he’d change the wording. He’d teach us specific rituals and be extremely precise about how they should be done. Just about the time we began criticizing people who did them wrong, he’d teach the rituals in a completely different way. We would print up nice manuals with all the correct procedures, but usually they were outdated before they came off the press. After years of this sort of training, one begins to relax one’s grip. If today the instruction is to put everything on the right, one does that as impeccably as one can. When tomorrow the instruction is to put everything on the left, one does that with one’s whole heart. The idea of one right way sort of dissolves into the mist. ”

    In any case I did grow up in Buddhism, and the ritual—while powerful, fun, sweet, boring…isn’t at all why I’m connected to Buddhism. I’m connected to Buddhism, simply, because of meditation, and the glimpse it gives me into a clear, open, actually wakeful and changeable mind. The notion that I can actually wake up still blows me away to this day, much as it did during one Shambhala Training meditation weekend at Karme Choling back in 1989 or something. My mind isn’t solid. My thoughts aren’t real. I can pop them, like bubbles. My depression is fragile. My aggression isn’t a genetic disposition. My mind is, as they say in the Buddhist tradition, like the sky–clouds may cover my wakefulness, but the sun is fundamental.

    And so while I love the Christmas tree, and red sweaters with reindeer on them, and wreaths and reindeer and caroling and dinner parties and presents and love and peace on earth, having been brought up with them by my ex-Christian Scientist Buddhist mommy, I love those rituals for the peace and love and familial warmth they point to, not for any religions they are or are not associated with (as we know the Tree came from Pagan traditions predating Christianity).

    My point? Meditate. Develop compassion, no matter what religion you are. And raise your children, if you choose to have them, in a way that honors the tradition of wakefulness, discipline and generosity to self and others. Whether you call those traditions Christianity or Buddhism, for yourself and your family—isn’t half as important as whether you practice meditation, in my view.

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  11. elephant journal admin says:

    From my mom:

    Dear Waylon,
    Even though snow-bound, or perhaps because of being snow-bound and just doing a modest in-house retreat, I have time to do things like read your bit in the January Shambhala Sun before it is February! I found it good if slightly cynical.
    I too think monasticism is beside the point of the buddhadharma taking root in the West. It is up to lay people to take it to heart or not.
    And perhaps it has always been true that only a few in each Buddhist culture went deep enough to realize the true nature of mind, but the incredible blessing of the Vidyadhara was that he gave us all the teachings usually reserved for tulkus. In Tibet it was rare for even nuns to receive more than second turning of the wheel of dharma. So I feel it is important not to waste this vajra gift.
    In many ways Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has made the Shambhala path even easier and more acessible and perhaps people will appreciate getting to the profundity faster, or perhaps they will miss it for just not having sat enough to be open to it. That remains to be seen.
    It was great you quoted VCTR’s S o MM and that bit from the opening of Naropa.
    You words will provoke contemplation and make the curious think about their priorities.
    Love to you,
    xxxooo
    mom

  12. Ryan says:

    Take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Does that mean Sakyamuni doesn’t mind if we step on the lucky Buddha on the way up the climbing wall?

  13. Greg says:

    Waylon,

    Enjoyed most your mom's comment (particularly the first line):

    "And perhaps it has always been true that only a few in each Buddhist culture went deep enough to realize the true nature of mind, but the incredible blessing of the Vidyadhara was that he gave us all the teachings usually reserved for tulkus. In Tibet it was rare for even nuns to receive more than second turning of the wheel of dharma. So I feel it is important not to waste this vajra gift."

    Maybe you and your mother could do a short dialogue on the subject. (I am reminded of The Monk and The Philosopher by Mattieu Ricard.)

    Perhaps the most outrageous thing I could say would be that the Buddha Shakymuni is not retired. The original sangha is alive and well. And though there have been moments of darkness, I believe Trungpa's comment (If the buddhas of the three times and the great teachers were to comment, they would surely express their disappointment.) is accurate, it is not final. It reflected a particular condition at a particular time — and that has passed.

    Trungpa used to chide me for being overly serious; his approach of the merry trickster was more useful, more effective, but he was under-recognized for his wisdom.

    The discussion of other religious traditions is worth noting — one does not always recognize bodhisattvas and the work they do as they are not restricted to wearing special clothes or insignias or speaking only in certain languages or traditions.

    Anyway, though I understand your pessimism, I agree with Mom. The gifts should not be overlooked.

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