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.