What's Wrong With Western Buddhism: Is that Jesus Under the Bodhi Tree?

This is an entirely personal perspective on one of the things I perceive to be a potentially dangerous deviation  in Western Buddhist practice: I could well be completely wrong. Either way, it will probably polarize opinion-that's what happens whenever one expresses a point of view.

Over the past few decades, Buddhism has become increasingly popular among the Occidental middle classes. Almost without exception, the overwhelming majority of these converts have come from a Judeo-Christian background.

In response to this, numerous Oriental teachers have pointed to the common ground between the  religions: Lama Thubten Yeshe's FPMT  produced 'Silent Mind, Holy Mind' which considered Christmas from a Buddhist perspective and brought us the Jesus puja, Thich Nhat Hanh gave us his 'Living Buddha, Living Christ' in which "he explores the crossroads of compassion and holiness at which the two traditions meet". Even the Dalai Lama has attempted to bridge the gap between the faiths with his 'The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus'. 

At the more speculative end of the market, a vast body of writings has emerged concerning "the lost years of Jesus", with various 'experts' suggesting that, both before and after his crucifixion, Jesus traveled in  India and Kashmir, where he supposedly studied the Buddha's teachings and lived the life of a wandering yogi.

Identity crisis

Much of this literature is correct in its assertion of a common ground between Christianity and Buddhism: both have moral codes, both teach the importance of cherishing others, both have an emphasis on compassion and love for one's fellow man.

However, while there is obviously value in these comparisons, at many levels,  such comparisons can also be very dangerous, and can actually change the face of Buddhism, damaging it irreparably.

Walk into any Dharma center in the West nowadays and its not long before you are greeted by 'nice', kind, loving people welcoming you with open arms, expressing a very obvious concern for your well-being. Now, I wouldn't have this any other way (you certainly wouldn't go there twice if. on arrival, you were punched in the face) but I sometimes wonder whether these welcomes are based on the genuine wish for your happiness or the desire to recruit you  for the Buddhist alternative to the Salvation Army (or worse, the need to get you to divulge your bank details).

Is this a competition?

Moreover, I wonder what image of Buddhism these welcomers are actually trying to convey. Often, they speak in a calm, even ecclesiastic tone, and usually interject your personal introduction/explanation of symptoms with  a sporadic, drawn out and understanding "Yeeeees" (think 'psychoanalyst'). Personally, I find this all a wee bit creepy and 'holier-than-thou', as have many of my non-Buddhist relatives and friends.

While these kind people are obviously trying, and provide a pleasant alternative to the sometimes brusque manner with which one is greeted in today's increasingly impersonal and insensitive 'civilised' world, it seems to me that, simultaneously, they are doing irreparable damage to the Dharma, changing it to the point that it is becoming unrecognizable.In short, Buddhisms face is becoming contorted by Westerners using it to express attitudes which are, in some ways, foreign to it.

Two eminent Buddhist masters 
expressing the teaching gesture in a 
way appropriate to circumstance

Why? Because they are presenting themselves as representative of a Buddhism whose principle character is one of kindness, gentleness, and compassionI call these sangha brothers and sisters of mine 'Bleeding heart Buddhists'. (Anyone who has ever listened to one of Thubten Chodron's sermons will know what I mean)

 Now, I am not for one moment suggesting that such principles are not important, indeed essential aspects of the Buddhist path; the Dalai Lama has been teaching these practices as the heart of Buddhism for years, so they are obviously highly relevant. But is that it? Are such attitudes truly representative of the uniqueness of Buddhism? Is this all we have?
"I love you too man" No, really

 What is Buddhism for?

In the opening to the 9th, wisdom chapter of his Bodhicharyavatara, the 8th century Buddhist scholar and yogi Shantideva wrote:

"All of these elements of practice

The Buddha taught for the sake of wisdom.

So those who wish to pacify suffering

Must generate wisdom."

Shantideva: Buddhist scholar extraordinaire and flying yogi
Such a statement requires little interpretation (despite there being libraries full of it). What Shantideva is saying is that the key to escaping suffering is to understand selflessness, and that all of the previous practices such as developing compassion and the perfections delineated in the preceding chapters of his magnum opus, are subsidiary. In other words, a compassionate attitude is a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and the true, distinguishing face of Buddhism is wisdom. Thats the reason the perfections are 'transcendent'; because for them to be genuine, they must accompany wisdom.

This is a significant statement because it represents one of the traditions most eminent commentators telling us exactly where the principle focus of practice should lie,( not to belittle those whose aim is the development of the compassionate attitude of Bodhicitta, the wish to become a Buddha in order to liberate all beings from suffering-as yet, I am not fit to even clean the shoes of such beings).

Walk this way

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the only way to transcend cyclic existence and develop fully the ability to lead others is to develop the wisdom that recognizes the selflessness of persons and phenomena: as far as enlightenment is concerned,  ALL OTHER PRACTICES ARE SECONDARY TO AND SUPPORTS FOR THIS!

Now, as I say, this is not to belittle my compassionate colleagues. It is just to say that, while compassion and love have their own important place on the Buddhist path, they are certainly not our unique and greatest treasures. That accolade belongs to wisdom. So, if we really want others to be drawn to the way of the Buddha, we have something truly remarkable to give to others. We dont have to pretend to be something to fit in with the commonly held Western conception of what is 'holy'. We can just meditate,  be what we are as a result of our deeper practices, and share that  inner freedom with others. Its so much more honest and, more importantly, so much  more......... natural.

Of course, this shouldnt be seen as license for those who wear the deceptive mask of naturalness, an equally disingenuous and crass display of spiritual egotism to run amok and wear their brash, worldly uncouthness as an ornament. The point is though, people arent stupid, and if we are to connect genuinely with them, isnt it far better to be honest about what we are, 'warts and all', than it is to con them with false and ostentatious displays of  pseudo-spirituality. Again, if we are to realize what we truly are, isnt the best starting place exactly where we are, instead of pretending to ourselves and others that we are somebody else other than who we truly are? Didnt the Buddha teach us to lose  our masks, not to swap one false image for another?

Having said all that...........

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