This began as a response to a blog.
I’ve been reading more and more about how ‘real’ Buddhists are worried (read: offended) that western Buddhists aren’t ‘doing it right’. Then a bunch of examples are trotted out about how ‘they’ aren’t being authentic. Mainly it seems like people are annoyed that Buddhism is turning into a self-help trend or is becoming about ego gratification. These are valid concerns, i suppose, but what has always struck me as authentic in Buddhism and zen in particular is that the Buddha was very clear on one thing. Mind your OWN path. If your own back yard isnt clean (and whose is) then what business do you have trying to tell your neighbor to clean up his yard?
If I have one criticism of western Buddhism its that we seem to have a hard-on for pointing out how “WE” are doing it right (whatever IT is at the moment) and “THEY” are doing it wrong and need to be stopped! It seems like we believe that if we can point to anothers failings (in our opinions) then somehow that makes our way feel that much more correct. Its silly and it causes suffering. The Dead Kennedys lead singer once said “If you don’t like our music you don’t have to ban us, just change the channel!” and the same goes for western Buddhism, if you don’t like how its being done then dont do it that way! You don’t need to bitch about it, it doesn’t require your defense, I can guarantee that you aren’t going to change it by any means other than simply making your own Buddhism is as true as you know how.
Its a difficult path we walk. Trying to balance between honoring all the work those before us have done while still working on an authentic practice for ourselves. Joseph Campbell used to bemoan the state of religion when it stopped being about the lives of the people who practiced it and instead became the mere repetition of stories that no longer meant anything to the people who practiced it. “If your myth needs to be explained to you” he said “then it isn’t working for you”.
For a lot of us we confuse the exotic elements of Asian/Indian culture with being ‘really” Buddhist. I think in doing so we don’t honor the tradition of Buddhism, we fetish-ise it! Steven Hagen wrote an amazing book on Zen buddhism called “Buddhism: Its not what you think” that is as authentic a book on Zen as Ive ever read and yet it contains none of the ‘exotic orient” type fluff that so many zen books do. After I read it I had no doubt as to how serious and faithful it was to true Zen awakening, but the only traditions it upheld are the ones core ones the Buddha taught via his own example. It taught me that there is a real core to Buddhism that is apart from whatever cultural traditions have been attached to it over the years. No incense, no statues, no magic chants, no pithy saying written in a language I cant read is going to be more true than rigorous honesty and daily practice.
Now a read a lot in magazines and blogs about how western Buddhism is ‘doing it wrong’. I have a suspicion that all this hand wringing and worry about ‘authentic’ Buddhist tradition is wasted effort. Buddhism will do what it has always done, it will be an authentic path to freedom from samsara for a some, a comfort to many , and an excuse for lousy behavior by a few. It (and all faiths really) have always been this way regardless of how upset we get about it. It will adapt to whatever local custom(in our case I suspect that the idea of ‘self-help” is our authentic tradition in the west). Perhaps what is so offensive to so many ‘real’ Buddhists is that western Buddhism doesnt seem exotic and strange enough. Maybe the reason so many Westerners dig on Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism is that it seems to foreign. Its like we cant accept that something presented to us in a form we recognise could have that magical ‘deeper’ truth we are seeking, Im beginning to suspect that thats the ONLY authentic place we are going to find it. Tibetans don’t go looking for French or American style Buddhist practice, they follow their own tradition and maybe its better that we do that for our tradition (however young it is) too.
We do have a part to play though in making Buddhism into what we would like it to be in the west and it isn’t by bitching and finger wagging, if we simply do what we believe is the right thing and try to make our personal Buddhism as honest as it can be. We protect what we feel is honest about Buddhism with our example. Finally, Im not at all sure why these folks are so upset. Even if you could tell ‘real’ buddhsim from the ‘wrong’ kind, how would that matter!? If some yahoo wants to go around telling everyone that buddhism is standing on one foot with an egg on your head, and even if millions believe him, it still wont change anything in your own practice! And guess what, the only practice you should be worrying about, keeping ‘pure’, and protecting is your own.