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.