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Buddhism in the News


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Buddhism: Opium for the Masses?

Buddhism has long been ignored in America but now that it is gaining in popularity, it is often being labeled as being practiced mostly by "New Age" types looking for the next spiritual fad. That seems to be the general thesis of Mark Vernon's recent article, "Buddhism is the New Opium of the People" for The Guardian news outlet. His example upfront is that of David and Victoria Beckham's four foot golden Buddha in their living room and how it smacks of consumerism.

And, perhaps he would be right if we were all like David and Victoria Beckham but most of the "western Buddhists" I know (and ones I am in contact with) are just as concerned about the commercialization of Buddhism as anyone else. Read any Buddhist blog for a time and eventually they'll write about Buddhist iconography and concepts being manipulated to sell everything from booze to yogurt. But, what can any of us do in the long run to get such companies to not manipulate our religion for their commercial gain? No much. Unfortunately, religion has long been usurped by those would seek to make a buck off it. However, that crass commercialism does not automatically delegitimize a belief system in and of itself. Sincere adherents can't be expected to answer for opportunists who don't even know what Dharma means, let alone practice it.

Unfortunately, that's not the only gripe that the author has with Buddhism in America. Vernon's article goes onto make the claim that Buddhism in America is a form of "zoning out" and avoidance of the problems of modern life. In doing so, he relied heavily upon a quote philosopher, Slavoj Zizek that paints all of western Buddhism as nothing more than a drug:

Western Buddhism presents itself as a remedy against the stresses of modern life though, as Slavoj Žižek has noted, it actually functions as a perfect supplement to modern life. It allows adherents to decouple from the stress, whilst leaving the causes of the stress intact: consumptive forces continue unhindered along their creatively destructive path. In short, Buddhism is the new opium of the people.
James: Firstly, this quote does nothing to define what Zizek (or Vernon for that matter) mean by, "Western Buddhism" which is an amorphous label of a brand of Buddhism that doesn't even exist in any concrete terms. It's just a catch-all phrase that sweeps up all American Buddhists into a convenient box that is then labeled with nearly every possible misconception of Buddhism imaginable.

It's easy to attack all American Buddhists as starry-eyed, "New Age," wannabe Buddhists when you lump them into a conveniently undefined category. Especially since there are no "Western Buddhist" monasteries to visit, no "Western Buddhist" lineage to consult and no "Western Buddhist" doctrine to define it. In other words, "Western Buddhism" is a blank canvas that anyone can color to define American Buddhists/Buddhism in any way they like-good or bad.

But, getting to the meat of the above quote, Buddhism is not interpreted by most American Buddhists as just another self-help fad that allows you to zone-out of life, disconnect from everyone and feel groovy. You can't compare David and Victoria Beckham's flirtation with Buddhism to all American Buddhists who are trying sincerely to practice what Buddha taught to improve their lives, and the world. And, simply because Buddhism is new to Americans doesn't mean that we see it as a commodity to flash around like a jewel encrusted necklace or watch--even if some high-profile celebrities do so.

The majority of Buddhists I know in America live very humble lives, have small Buddha statues (if at all) and a sparse altar space from, which to meditate. We do seek to "decouple" (to use his word) from the mental poisons of greed, hatred and delusion but that is not the same thing as numbed-out nihilism and disconnecting from the world. Other than that, we buy books from teachers to guide our practice who are highly respected people in their storied lineages and throughout Buddhism world-wide. And to label "Buddhism" as practiced in Asia as "medieval" is demeaning and purely ignorant of 2,500 years of tradition. If Buddhism, at its roots, is "medieval" then why are scientists today finding much to agree with in Buddhist philosophy? Such as seeing comparisons between concepts of rebirth and the first law of thermodynamics?

Vernon digs his hole of confusion deeper by saying, "For if Buddhism is to live in the modern world, it must be treated as a living tradition, not a preformed import." Is he honestly saying that the only valid form of Buddhism that can be treated as a living tradition in America has to be American made? If so, that's just plain absurd. There is no reason why Zen in America can't be a living, valid tradition for American culture despite it's Japanese roots. That's just silly. We'd have to say the same for Christianity; that's it's just a preformed import from Israel and not a valid living tradition. It seems, for someone who has a lot of strong criticism of American Buddhists, Vernon doesn't seem to understand the adaptability built within Buddhism very well.

As for meditation, it's not seen as the defining Buddhist practice except to a few traditions; namely Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. It preposterous to claim that meditation was never apart of early Buddhism because that was how Buddha realized enlightenment. Now, the modern, English word, "meditation" surely wasn't used but the concepts are still the same. But don't believe my supposedly ignorant, "New Age" American Buddhist, mind. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a lengthy book on the Buddha's life, and if meditation wasn't a fundamental aspect to Buddhist practice then the 82 year old Zen monk Nhat Hanh must be a liar?

Vernon then makes the implicit claim that most American Buddhists don't even know what meditation is about; that we see it as just some "feel good" vibe in an isolated moment and not something that helps us deal with the real world in a more balanced and responsible way:
What is also missed in the focus on meditation is the ethical challenge implicit in his call. Any practice must concern your whole stance towards the world, and it's a stance that is intensely, relentlessly critical. The aim is to enquire into all aspects of your form of life.
James: Anyone who is practicing Buddhism as a way to escape life hasn't fully studied the Dharma from long-time practitioners and teachers. And, to lump those people in with all American Buddhists is irresponsible and makes the authors come across as simply looking for away to demean and discredit the growing number of sincere Buddhists across America.

~Peace to all beings~

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BD said...

Wow, you would think that as a journalist / writer that he would do some research before spouting off that kind of rhetoric.
Two thumbs down for him.

Jayarava said...

I quite like Mark Vernon's writing usually, but this really was crap. Zizek is trendy but bonkers. The article was factually inaccurate, and gratuitously provocative. The article was bitchy British journalism at it's worst. It's probably just a reaction to the rising popularity of mindfulness based therapies - the Brits hate nothing more than success in others. (I think it reminds them that they lost the Empire and can't win at football!)

BTW anussati (Skt anusmṛti), as in the practice of buddhānussati 'recollection of the Buddha', means more or less exactly the same as English 'meditation' - if the Oxford English Dictionary is any kind of authority on English ;-)

husse said...

Letting go

Two monks were returning to the monastery in the evening. It had rained and there were puddles of water on the road sides. At one place a beautiful young woman was standing unable to walk accross because of a puddle of water. The elder of the two monks went up to a her lifted her in his alms and left her on the other side of the road, and continued his way to the monastery.
In the evening the younger monk came to the elder monk and said, "Sir, as monks, we cannot touch a woman ?"
The elder monk answered "yes, brother".
Then the younger monk asks again, " but then Sir, how is that you lifted that woman on the roadside ?"
The elder monk smiled at him and told him " I left her on the other side of the road, but you are still carrying her "

let Vernon go.

Embracing Freshness said...

Mark Vernon apparently allowed the difference between discernment and judgmentalism to become blurred. One can smile at the reminder of why it was Buddha said: people with opinions just go around bothering each other.

Sara said...

Personally I find it absurd that anyone thinks Buddhists use Buddhism to "escape" our problems. Perhaps the practice does serve as a "refuge", but those of us who are serious about it know that in order to build compassion and wisdom we have to face our problems head on. I find meditation is a way to work through problems and unwholesome emotional states, not a way to leave them behind. Otherwise we'll never be free, which is the whole point of the path. I feel sad that he is too ignorant to see that his time would be better spent trying to understand what we do so he could try it himself, rather than dismiss us.

They call him James Ure said...

I agree with much of what you are all saying. Thank-you for commenting and sharing your views and opinions.

Doug Scrivener said...

Meditation and mindful practice and training is not escaping reality. Its difficult and deals with reality head on, shines a light on it, and helps remove delusional interpretations of reality.

Awakened Yeti said...

The opportunity provided by this has more to do with understanding your own internal reaction, rather than simply a chance for intense debate and finger wagging.

In particular when people identify with something, they will become defensive when this thing is attacked or "disrespected" in some way. The need for respect should be investigated thoroughly. It is often no more than the supplication of egocentric motivations, unconsciously disguised as nobility.

Its not much different than sports fans chanting "go team!". And we all know how many teams there are out there in the wild world of sports.

"But people need to know the truth! This injustice cannot stand! Someone has to do something about it!" - perhaps this may be the case. Or perhaps this is just the excuse which is being used to justify the useless activity of self aggrandizement by proxy.

I would encourage all "buddhists" to seriously investigate the subtle self-image behind the self-image. Guatama was not "buddhist" and did not teach "buddhism".

Serafim_azriel said...

I've never read any of his articles before, but I have to wonder if he is one of those people who thinks all religions and any form of spirituality [as a whole or except their own] is bunk. I've run into this before with some people.

With those that it's any religion or form of spirituality, they usually tend to believe anyone following a religion is delusional and just trying to "escape real life". Which I find funny because they often argue their point with "life is pain."

Dan said...

Thank you for posting Mark's essay, and your response. My response, which can also be found on my blog, follows:

Mark has penned a provocative piece. Perhaps that was his purpose.

Buddhism for me is not an opiate. I do not practice Vipassana meditation in order to reduce my stress. I do not sit so that I might experience transcendent moments of serenity. I meditate so that I might increase my awareness. I meditate in an effort to gain insight into how my mind works. Meditation practice is part of a journey of honest and rigorous and compassionate self-examination, not an escape from reality. In fact, quite to the contrary, Vipassana meditation is a journey toward reality and away from the various melodramas and illusions that characterize normative cultural values in the West.

Perhaps nowhere is our penchant for melodrama and illusory thinking more powerful than in the competitive arena. Athletes, both young and old, often attach themselves to thoughts and beliefs and perceptions that are rooted in falsehood and that are borne of a lack of self-awareness. Meditation offers the practitioner the chance to step away from his attachment and identification with his perceptions, and to, in a lighthearted and non-judgmental way, see things for how they really are.

Athletes can benefit greatly from such a practice---not because meditation might get them "in the zone" so to speak, but but because, through a dedication to discerning truth from fiction, they might participate in their chosen endeavor with the clarity , confidence, wisdom and generosity that come with self-knowledge.

They call him James Ure said...

@Yeti...I do believe what you say about not letting these things feed our ego but I do believe, as well, that it's important to make sure people have the right understanding of the Dharma.

My motivation one of correcting misunderstandings to hopefully help others get a more accurate interpretations of it.

However, as you said, in the end we must not identify with it. Point taken. Thanks for the input. :) Bowing...

Dr.MianFarhanIshaq said...

All religions are opium, buddhism is the most realistic one and a lesser "opium" its more a pseudo science. it teaches you the cause of the problem and how to help it. Is is even being implemented in many psychology application. If wisdom and and success are opium than i want to be a addict.

Buddha bless

check out my blog too regarding Zen and Health

Della said...

I just sent you an email about doing an interview on Buddhism! I would appreciate it if you could read it. Thank you so much!

kamagra said...

Let's just respect the religion of other people. We had no right to judge them or insult their way of believing in gods.

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