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Buddhism Do Americans Understand Buddhism?


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
by Owen Flanagan

Last month when my new book, "The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized" (MIT, 2011) was published, I was deep in the jungle among the Achuar, an indigenous people living on two million acres of primary rain forest in southeastern Ecuador and northeastern Peru. The Achuar had not been contacted until the 1970s, and they are -- despite the thirst for the oil on their lands -- committed to living harmoniously and sustainably with nature. Nowadays the Achuar say -- but only as an afterthought, a courtesy, and perhaps only to well-off Westerners like me -- that they are "Catholic." But there are no churches. There are numerous shaman. The Achuar interpret their dreams every morning in order to plan their days. They shape shift. They use hallucinogens to see their futures. And many men have multiple wives.

I was raised as a Catholic, so I was amused and perplexed by this odd and ill-fitting appendage to a noble form of life. In what sense of "Catholic" are the Achuar people Catholic? Are they Catholics (as many as 40%, are Evangelical Christians, but even they say they are Catholic) primarily because they have learned to say that the spirit of the rain forest, arutum, is the spirit of Jesus Christ? The question generalizes: What beliefs or practices are enough to make one a bona fide member of any spiritual tradition?

This question arises in a serious way for American Buddhists. What kind of Buddhists are American Buddhists? Buddhism is first and foremost a complex philosophy about the nature of reality, the self and morality. Philosophically what is interesting is the connection between understanding that I am no self and that I have reason to be maximally compassionate and loving to all sentient beings. Do most American Buddhists know about the philosophy or enact the moral message of Buddhism?

In my experience the answers are "no." Most Americans who say that they are Buddhist mean they meditate, possibly regularly. The code for this is to say that one "practices." If you ask why a person who "practices" practices, typical answers involve vague new-agey and self-satisfied slogans about "centering," "mind clearing," serenity -- possibly, if they are really bullshiting that they are "getting in touch with their Buddha nature." If you ask what kind of meditation they do, most only know about mindfulness meditation, which unlike lovingkindness meditation, is almost entirely self-centered.

Many Americans -- who tend towards the "spiritual but not religious" answer on social networking sites -- know enough about Buddhism to know that it countenances no creator God. What they make of the hocus pocus about karma and rebirth is another matter. Many who have read the Dalai Lama's best-seller, "The Art of Happiness," and heard about some of the neuroscientific research on meditators, will claim that it has been shown that meditators are especially happy. So the idea I take it is that meditation is good for the person who practices because it makes him or her happy.

My best surmise is that most American Buddhists think that most "real" Buddhists, for example, in Asia, meditate, and that they do so as a sort of mental-moral hygiene that makes them more relaxed, nicer and happier. But this is false. Buddhism has about as little to do with meditation as Jesus's message of love has to do with prayer, which is some, not entirely nothing; but almost nothing. Thinking that meditation is the essence of Buddhism would be akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking that real Catholics say Mass everyday because priests do.

In Thailand (and Myanmar and Sri Lanka) possibly the most Buddhists countries in the world, most everyone gives monks gifts (most monks are "short-timers," men preparing for marriage) for "merit" (better rebirth). But few ordinary Thai Buddhists meditate. They learn how to meditate. But it is not a central part of most lives. Among Tibetan Buddhists at large monastic universities the size of Ohio State (now mostly in India), there is lots of soccer, lots of memorizing texts aloud, and lots of debating, but very little meditating. According to George Dreyfus in his wonderful "The Sound of Two Hands Clapping," virtuosity at meditation among Tibetan Buddhists is left to a few adepts who are able in meditation to reconfirm the truths of Buddhist philosophy: that there is abundant suffering, that much suffering is caused by avarice and clinging to what we want but don't need; that everything is impermanent including my self; and that I ought to live like a bodhisattva, attuned to the exploitation and misery in the world, not only in me. If you think that, at least, most Zen Buddhists have regular meditation practices, go to Japan and ask around.

What about the claim that meditation produces happiness? I was lucky enough to be a participant at the meetings with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India in 2000, where several excellent neuroscientists hatched ideas for studies on the effects of meditation. Dan Goleman's "Destructive Emotions: Scientists Collaborate with the Dalai Lama" is a fine report on our meetings. There is by now evidence that meditation -- now mostly completely "de-Buddhistized" in the style of Jon Kabat-Zinn's program of "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR) -- does no harm and likely produces good health effects. Does MBSR or any genuinely Buddhist meditation also make one happier? You will hear that it does, but there is no scientific evidence that this is so. None. Zero. Nor is there any evidence that meditation makes people nicer, more compassionate, loving and kind. But, in any case, the question about happiness is itself a trick, at the end of which lies a sucker punch. Americans love happiness. We have a right to pursue it. If a spiritual tradition offers happiness, we are all over it. But really, how important is happiness? When I ask my students, 'Was Jesus happy?' -- Was Buddha or Confucius happy? Was Mother Teresa happy? Socrates? Martin Luther King Jr.? Gandhi? Sojourner Truth? -- they immediately see that meaning, purpose, significance, flourishing and fulfillment are different from happiness and that happiness is not the main or most important thing. One wonders whether American Buddhists, especially those who think that Buddhism is largely about meditation, and the personal psychological goods, the self-satisfaction on offer from sitting in, what has become, a laughably bourgeois pose, aren't missing something essential about Buddhism, about what Buddhist philosophy is mainly and mostly about, namely, wisdom and goodness.



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