Buddhism in the West: Make-Believe or Authentic Spirituality?

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Aug 10, 2011
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“It is essential that we bring the correct understanding of Buddhism into the western world, not one bound by cultural chains. When everything is clean-clear in your own mind, nobody can create obstacles for you.” ~Lama Yeshe

Spirituality, for so many of us, is a solution or an escape from the discomfort found in our daily lives. We come to spirituality in search of “something else.” We want some “thing” set apart from the aggravation and monotony of our everyday life. The cue to search for fulfillment is undeniably intelligent, but the tendency to do so in a realm of time-&-space that is disconnected from the reality of our day-to-day affairs is a gross misunderstanding, because our imagination is the only point of departure from the immediacy of our life. Imagining happiness is the path of The Secret©, not the Buddha.

Since true fulfillment is not the product of an hallucination, Buddhist spirituality begins with a recognition of our personal disappointment and proceeds with an internal investigation of the causes and conditions that created this seemingly inescapable atmosphere of despondency. We cannot reject the relative truth of our life for two reasons: First of all, our relative existence is a physical event or a natural dimension of our absolute Self. Second, our subjective experience contains the fundamental misunderstandings that conceal a direct experience of our larger Self, which is the source of true fulfillment. In order to discover what we are looking for, we must first understand how we lost it. One could say that spirituality is the observation of confusion, because when confusion is seen for what it is, it is immediately transformed into wisdom.

There is an inborn urge in each and everyone of us that seeks fulfillment. This primordial drive is the human imperative to transcend the perverted tendency to think about ourselves, and actually be ourselves. This movement seeks expression in every aspect of our lives—food, art, conversation, music, sex, business, and solitude. Unless we are able to move beyond our limited self-conscious narrative and begin to explore this ever expanding experience of our true Self, we will continue to be plagued by dissatisfaction and pervasive restlessness. But moving beyond requires that we first move through, which begins with us embracing our relative existence.

Embracing our subjective experience does not mean continuing to blindly believe in the solidity and continuity of the ego; rather it is an invitation to open up, observe this pattern of personified thought, and recognize the limitations of a compunded state of mind. In meditation, we observe our minds. We watch as our subjective narrative is constructed by one thought interacting with another thought, creating the illusion of a solid personality. In observation, the ego’s true nature is revealed to be an open-ended process that isn’t in a state of fluctuation, but is fluctuation. As a result, we become intensely curious about the gaps in this endless process of revolution—the space between the dissolution of one self-conscious moment and the emergence of another—and begin to explore the unlimited nature of our true being. This exploration is the most fundamental of human instincts, as it is a moment towards who and what we truly are.  

Enlightenment, which is just a word used to describe the fruition of this fundamental imperative, is something most of us want in theory, but few of us are willing to work for. In practice, we go out of our way to avoid it. When we come to spirituality the ego is in the driver seat. We do not want to change the dynamics of our lifestyle. Rather than rediscovering our intrinsic courage or capacity to sit in and move through our personal disappointment, we keep “dealing with it” by applying more pressure and speed. We resist change with every ounce of energy at our disposal. Instead, we want the spiritual path to conform to our self-centered agendas. We don’t defend sanity by uncompromisingly setting aside time for silence, we put meditation on the back burner. We practice when it is convenient for us, so that we do not have to sacrifice the apparent solidity and speed of our limited self’ image and its endless agendas. When the ego outlines the path of practice, the criminal is in charge of the crime scene.

Many of us window shop spiritual traditions until we find a path that demands little or nothing of us. This is the appeal of new-age spirituality. Transforming the spiritual path into yet another mechanism that validates pre-existing patterns of consciousness is what Chogyam Trungpa referred to as spiritual materialism. However, spiritual materialism is not limited to new-age circles. It is a problem that manifests within traditional religions as well. Spiritual materialism is present when we manipulate the teachings in order to preserve the belief that the small self is our true Self. The best way to manipulate the teachings is to ignore them all together.

So many people in the west are participating in Buddhism as if it were a hobby. I have suffered from this delusion (click here to read about my adventures as a Buddhist Dumb-Ass). I tried to keep the path of transformation at a safe distance by convincing myself that the east was spiritually superior. I thought of Tibetans as wizards, and related to Buddhism as if it were nothing more than a role for me to play. So, I read the books and remembered my lines. I bought the mala and got the “Om Mani Pade Me Hung” tattoo. I engaged in wordy debates about Buddhist philosophy without the slightest god-damn clue as to what I was talking about. Even when I did develop some intellectual understanding, it was totally divorced from practice, and therefore empty and unsatisfactory. I loved applying Buddhist standards to Christian theology, in order to assure its insufficiency and my own superiority. I was the same old miserable person with a new wardrobe and vocabulary. I had created some fairy tale apart from my daily life. I was still trapped in my imagination, and as a result nothing changed.

I cannot begin the spiritual journey—an exploration of the deeper truths about myself—by adopting the persona of another person, nor can I postpone transformation. The path is the most powerful urge in my life—the path is my life, and true contentment is contingent upon my conscious participation. Everything in my being is calling me to the path. This innate inspiration is the indestructible drive to be myself. No justification—I think too much to meditate, I don’t have the time, I’m too busy, Americans are too materialistic, or westners are not spiritually inclined—will prove to be a sufficient excuse to ignore the call to participate in our life. We will continue to be tormented by dissatisfaction and restlessness, which is nothing more than the friction between the imperative to rest with the totality of our original being and the habitual tendencies that seek to evade this primal mandate.

The spiritual path consists of fully embracing this life. We must begin where we are at. For westerns, this means that we must fully embrace our 9-5’s, anglo-saxon names, and the culture that wrote our narrative. We must be willing to see the movement of our own dissatisfaction and the causes and conditions that set it in motion. These are relative truths. We cannot embrace the relative truth of our existence by relating to someone else’s station in life. I have to be willing to relate to my own unwillingness. I have to confront my own dishonest attempts to avoid open and honest relationships; rather than trying to mimic the as seen on TV/ ideal relationship. Getting a bumper sticker that says, “Loving-Kindness is my religion” or wearing a mala is no substitute for directly relating to my own inability to soften-up and be authentic. I can no more cultivate compassion by mindlessly reciting prayers in a language I do not speak, than I can produce a patronus charm by parroting Harry Potter.

Spirituality is about rediscovering the capacity to allow our life to flow from the source of authenticity, which is the silence that is at the core of our being. There are a great many obstacles that prevent this discovery. The path is about relating honestly and directly with these obstacles. Many of these hang-ups lay dormant, and only manifest when provoked. Only the reality of our daily life is provocative enough to shine a light on our shadow side. Our daily life is immersed in western culture, and our personal narrative is an example of our cultural narrative. So, our daily life can push our buttons because our daily life installed them.

When you combine mindfulness with your daily life you begin to notice that fundamental awareness expands beyond the personal narrative, because you get the opportunity to un-do the traps that keep you locked up in your limited self. When we create an alternative spiritual-verse where we pretend to be something we are not, we remove the possibility of transformation from the spiritual path. A path that ignores the possibility of transformation is neither spiritual nor a path; it is neurotic and cyclic. For Buddhism to take root in the west it must be grounded in our western lives. Otherwise, it is an irrelevant distraction to the western search for spiritual fulfillment.

Reggie Ray, of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, speaking about some of these spiritual pitfalls, as it relates to Buddhism’s migration to the West.


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About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


11 Responses to “Buddhism in the West: Make-Believe or Authentic Spirituality?”

  1. Roger Wolsey says:

    i'm not surprised by the lack of comments. not because this isn't a great article – it is. rather, most folks don't care to look into such a clear and potent mirror… and certainly not to reflect upon it. thank you for your authenticity and bravery.

  2. Daisy says:

    "We will continue to be tormented by dissatisfaction and restlessness, which is nothing more than the friction between the imperative to rest with the totality of our original being and the habitual tendencies that seek to evade this primal mandate." That made a lot of sense to me. Great post, thanks.

  3. yogiclarebear says:

    This really affirms my feelings about these practices…I've never felt like I cared about "enlightenment." I just want to live, to be, every day, content and peaceful and true. That is the seeking, the yearning of my heart I guess. Not a goal, or end point, just a way along the way…

    All the talk about enlightenment…I always felt odd about it, left out. Like I was supposed to have this clear picture in order to shape the discipline around. Maybe that would help, make it easier, or more concise. I think it helps in many aspects of our lives, to have a “goal.” But with this stuff…I'm not sure. I think it would boil down to being likely another ego-attachment? We had a good discussion in my local group tonight about this whole topic, and I’m so pleased that you brought it up here.

    Anyways, I appreciate your rawness and openness about your path and grapples with spiritual materialism. I am glad, very much a beginner, to have people like you to read and learn from. I also enjoyed Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path by Mariana Caplan, she talked about many of the same topics in the spiritual "culture."

  4. […] continues at ELEPHANT JOURNAL View Escape The Illusion's Profile      Subscribe via […]

  5. Tod Brilliant says:

    It's all make believe.

    All of it.

  6. Scott Nanamura says:

    The article was inspirational, but as with many articles on Buddhism the misunderstanding comes from outdated terminology that leaves the reader even more confused. Many of the Buddhas teachings have either been mistranslated or they are still using translations that don't accurately convey the real meaning of the word, thus leading back to more confusion. I have seen this time and time again where this does nothing to encourage the seeker to follow something that they can't even understand therefore abandoning a spiritual practice that has so much to offer. We must seek to morph the teachings into the modern world using common terminology that relates everyday situations or once again, we will lose the interest of the short attention span minds of the current time.

  7. Amy Black says:

    I enjoyed this article because it was so open and addressed some of my concerns regarding spirituality. I have begun reading articles, blogs, etc on Buddhism over the past year and am very interested in beginning practice. How can I find someone, honest and real, to get me started on this spiritual path?

  8. […] concepts of ego and moving beyond it are present in many spirituality structures, including Yoga, Buddhism, and contemplative Christianity. When one moves into these practices, the possibility of moving […]

  9. Kunga Rangdröl says:

    Hi Amy~ I don't know where you live, but there are Zendos (Zen Centers) and Shambhala Centers all over the United States, Canada, and Europe. there are also Insight Meditation and Vipassana retreats–but one usually needs to have some experience with meditating for days at a time before attempting a retreat environment.
    ::find something in your area, check it out and see what resonates with your heart, keep looking until you find a teacher or sangha (meditation community) that you are comfortable with::


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  11. […] I think many of us, myself included, have the misconception that being Buddhist means being passive. But this is not the case at all. Really embodying the teachings in daily life means that we have to be skillful when dealing with another’s unskillful behavior. Sometimes we have to engage others by calling them out. We can do this with kind, loving hearts without taking the situation personally, without being defensive or aggressive ourselves, without clinging desperately to our own egos. […]