The Rocky Middle Path of Buddhism in America…

“Give me liberty or give me death” is America’s battle cry for independence, of course, as so brilliantly elucidated by Patrick Henry, and seconded by many others, notably the license plate slogan ‘Live Free or Die,’ among many others of similar emotion. And by ‘America’ I mean the USA, not the lower 40, though they are largely complicit, as is Europe the mother country, in the case of North America, which lacks the large indigenous base of many of the other more southern countries. Even Mexico is around 65% indigenous the last time I checked.

And freedom is all well and good, as long as we know the details of the liberties and freedoms referred to, but which can be detrimental, and even deadly, if left for imaginations to run wild and machinations to double down in derailing the original intent of a simple life without a lord and master to serve at every beck and call. So now we consider mask-lessness as an inalienable right, even during a pandemic, ditto vaccines, and any restriction on movement during the same world emergency to be a violation. So the Western insistence on freedom to the maximum extent comes very close to an implicit death wish.

The point is: it ain’t Buddhist, the myth of unlimited freedom(s). In fact many are the proud Buddhists, or Hindus, who have adopted some variation of the appellation ‘Das’—slave or servant—to indicate devotion to a favored figurehead, often the Buddha. But while Buddhism is often austere, by design, it is never death oriented. That’s Jainism. Buddhism is all about balance, non-violence, non-ego, non-attachment, etc. And if that sounds like a lot of ‘nons,’ then there’s a reason for that. Because it doesn’t really matter so much what you do, as long as you don’t do certain things: kill, steal, lie, cheat, etc. Sound familiar? It should.

So how did Christianity and Buddhism diverge so widely when their starting points are so similar? They both had their own respective set of causes, conditions, and circumstances, to be certain, but they also seem to each have had a certain set of pre-dispositions. And if that sounds like the stuff of DNA, then I’d have to say ‘not so fast.’ Because the DNA of the largest bloc of adherents in the West is not so different from the majority of the original adherents in India. But it must be noted that most of those original adherents settled for Hinduism while Buddhism itself went on to greener pastures more content with the discipline and training that the Buddha envisioned.

And that’s where most birth-Christian Westerners fall short, we with freedom embedded in us from the get-go, even when it puts our own lives in danger, as with the pandemic, hint hint. And besides our obsession with freedom(s), there is our obsession with violence, something which is strictly verboten in Buddhism, but which is celebrated quite openly in Western Christian societies. And I’m not referring strictly nor specifically to the USA, for which guns are almost something like a fetish, but also Europe, and South America, which have inherited much the same tradition, with or without the guns themselves.

But we Westerners love flirting with death, and living life at the extremes, most notable in sports—sky-diving, parasailing, even rock climbing, for Christ’s sake—which while not necessarily either homicidal nor suicidal, are certainly anathema to the renunciative traditions of India and the East. Those kinds of thrill and emotion creep into the religious traditions of the West, too, particularly the use of music, which is unknown to the traditions of Buddhism, yet vital to Christianity, weeping wailing and gnashing of teeth optional. Even the suicidal tendencies of Jainism are by inanition, i.e. starving oneself to death, not flirting with danger.

And Christianity defaults to abundance, while Buddhism defaults to Emptiness. But while the Middle Path is the sublime state for Buddhism, for the Christian West it’s the stuff of angst and indecision. Fullness is the ideal, and that’s not so bad, until you find out that that means ‘full to overflowing,’ which is the real deal for a real Christian: overflowing, i.e. eternity, infinity, and anything else that we can only worship for its lack of limits, which is the all-important default setting for Western Christianity. Most importantly it should have no controls, either implied or intended, which is the sine qua non for which we live—free or die, remember.

But Buddhism is all about self-control. So Buddhism has a tough row to hoe in the West, with its action-oriented predispositions, and its myth of abundance, which, when confronted with the coolness of Buddhism, is highly desirable, but preferably without all that restraint and renunciation, for which Buddhism is so famous. After all, even to this day, rishis in caves are still the heroes of Buddhism, in Asia, at least, and many a senior monk and luang paw will make the extra effort to get giddy with enthusiasm just for the privilege of coming closer and bathing in the glow of that transcendence.

Meditation is highly prized in the West, too, but often with somebody ‘guiding’ it, i.e. talking the whole time, which spoils the whole thing for me, and which I wouldn’t even consider meditation, but ‘mindfulness,’ maybe, itself a curious translation of the Pali word sati. I’ve never witnessed a guided meditation in the Theravada traditions in Asia, though I have witnessed it in the Tibetan, albeit by a Western monk, so go figure. But I have witnessed Thais in the Forest Tradition sitting still unflinching eyes closed and silent for hours on end, and for me that is by far the greater accomplishment.

Zen does better in America with its Dadaist koans, and the Tibetan tradition likewise for the mystical magical bent of its doctrines, both of which the Buddha himself might not recognize as his own. But this is the path of dialectic, and those are the two extremes that arose from the Buddha’s early practice. The Theravada tradition, though, is the closest to that original practice, and is growing in its reach in America for that very reason. One problem is that Buddhism is but one of many New Age factions to choose from, like menu selections at the local vegan restaurant, and so they must compete accordingly, without the presence of local tradition to guide one’s choice.

Then the issues begin after that choice is made, as to how to reconcile it with the American ‘way of life.’ The best and most obvious way would be to begin the change away from that way of life to a new one, but that is not so easy. For better or worse, re-definition is the usual process, something that has long been done within Christianity, especially when dealing with the well-documented slavery of the King James version of the Bible. So in the newer American versions they become ‘bond-servants,’ whatever that is. And so it is with Buddhism. ‘Dukkha’ is not really suffering anymore, but dissatisfaction, stress, spot of bother, bummer, dude. I exaggerate to make a point.

But if that is what it takes to get butts on meditation cushions, then that is okay, I suppose, even if that involves listening to Russell Brand, instead of sublime silence, the traditional ‘guide’ to meditation. Still it’s a start. The surprising thing is that modern American Theravada masters, and Pali translators, are some of the staunchest defenders of the doctrines of rebirth, past lives, and the karma of retribution, so go figure. I would expect that to be the first thing to go, and it is with the secular Buddhists. But those secular Buddhists might just be perusing the menu. Maybe the depth of karma acceptance indicates the depth of commitment. I don’t know. But I doubt it. I prefer the commitment to meditation, the silent kind.