The popularity of selected elements of Buddhism in America, Canada, and Mexico may actually hinder Buddhism's ability to liberate people fully from samsara if they never go further to discover the deeper nature of Buddhism.
One of the interesting things about Buddhism is that it has always coexisted alongside other belief systems and worldviews, and has often done so in ways that blended Buddhism with non-Buddhist religions. In fact, this may be one of the keys to how Buddhism was able to spread so successfully from its origins in northern India throughout Asia, including places as far apart as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Siberia, and Japan. As Buddhism encountered other religions, a process of negotiation took place, typically over hundreds, even thousands, of years, as both systems influenced each other. Often Buddhism was successful in integrating into a new culture when it managed to provide its new devotees with something that they wanted - different cultures adapted Buddhism to meet their specific needs and situations. For example, Daoists in China had long sought supernatural powers and immortality through breath and energy manipulation, so the Chinese sought new techniques for self-cultivation through Buddhist meditation and yogic exercises. The Bon religion in Tibet was used to protect people from dangerous spirits of the mountains and sky, so when Buddhism arrived, it was used to tame the fierce nature deities and make them Dharma protectors. This sort of pattern has now been repeated in North America, where Buddhism has encountered a new set of competing belief systems and principles and thus is being adapted to meet the desires of Western culture.
The most obvious examples of beliefs competing with Buddhism are other religions. The dominant religion of the United States, Canada, and Mexico is Christianity, of course. Christianity comes in a wildly diverse number of forms, but in general it places more emphasis on belief than practice, says that the essence of religion is the individual's relationship with God, and holds the Bible up as the source of spiritual truth. All of these contrast sharply with Buddhism, so we might assume that Buddhism and Christianity would have very little to say to each other. But in fact, Christian-Buddhist dialogue and even Christian-Buddhist practice are popular in North America, particularly among liberal Christians. Beyond the specifics of its doctrines, Christianity is about personal spirituality, and Buddhism offers many ways to enhance one's spiritual life. Borrowing from the Buddhists, there are Christians who meditate in order to still their minds and thus connect with God, while other Christians explore the ethics of the Buddha in order to gain new insights into the nuances of Jesus's teachings. Some of this comes from individual Christians exploring Buddhism, but awareness of Buddhism's potential benefits for Christians has also been raised because internationally respected Buddhist monks such as the fourteenth Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have written respectfully and insightfully about the relationship between the two religions.
Although smaller in numbers, Judaism is another historic faith in North America, and if anything, the impact of Buddhism on Judaism has been even larger than on Christianity. Although we don't have exact data, the number of Jews involved with Buddhism is very significant, and many lamas, roshis, monks, and meditation instructors in America and Canada were brought up in Jewish households. The very first person to convert to Buddhism in America was a Jew, near the end of the nineteenth century. Like Christians, Jews have sought spiritual renewal through contact with Buddhism; in fact, a major movement in North American Judaism is called Jewish Renewal and draws noticeably from Buddhist practices to provide a fresh perspective on Judaism. For example, at this year's summer institute in Colorado, Jews will be able to take a course called "How the Hindu and Buddhist Traditions Can Clarify Our Understanding of Jewish Practice." The movement's spiritual leader, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, is a former professor at Naropa University, a Buddhist school, and has been highly active in the Buddhist-Jewish interfaith encounter.
A third religious community in North America is neo-paganism. Pagans are interested in reviving ancient polytheistic belief systems from before the advent of Christianity. Because they have to reconstruct religions that have passed away, they frequently draw inspiration from non-Christian religions that include multiple deities and objects of devotion. Native American and African religions, Hinduism, and other sources are easily assimilated by modern pagans, and Buddhism, too, has had a measurable impact on this movement. Pagans enjoy adding various buddhas and bodhisattvas to their developing pantheons, especially ones associated with the earth, such as Jizo, or ones that can be depicted as female, such as Kannon and Tara, since modern pagans are especially concerned with the feminine side of religion. It is common to find statues of Kannon Bodhisattva on pagan altars alongside gods and goddesses taken from many religions. Modern pagans are also influenced by Buddhist teachings on reincarnation and karma. As with Christians and Jews, pagans take from Buddhism what they find most useful and appealing based on their particular religious interests and needs. In each case, the Western religion is changed by its encounter with Buddhism and grows in new directions.
However, religions are not the only types of belief systems operating in North America. There are many other forms of belief and elements of culture that Buddhism has made an impact on. One good example is the environmentalism movement. Environmentalism is not a full-blown religion, but it does contain beliefs such as seeing the planet as sacred, practices such as recycling, and values such as respecting other living things and even the soil, water, and air. For many environmentalists, Buddhism offers a sophisticated vision of interdependence that mirrors the way all things interact with one another in natural systems. For example, there is the famous Kegon concept of Indra's Net. This is a vast web of shining jewels that stretches across the sky; in each jewel one can see the reflection of all the other jewels, as well as the reflections of all those reflections, and so on. This serves as a metaphor for how everything in the universe is connected to everything else, and whatever affects one person will surely affect all others in some manner. When environmentalists learn about Indra's Net, they are reminded of how all human actions have consequences on the environment, and they feel a sense of union with nature by imagining themselves as part of the web of all things, living and nonliving.
One of the most interesting developments in American spirituality at the present is the application of mindfulness meditation to all sorts of activities other than Buddhist practice. America and Canada have strong self-help industries, and mindfulness has been taken up by self-help gurus to promote their pet concerns. For example, many people advocate mindful eating, which means to eat your food slowly, paying close attention to each bite and the sensations as you chew, taste, and swallow. According to mindful eaters, this attention gives you greater control over your urges, and thus you can avoid overeating, poor eating, and obesity. Given the North American obsession with slimness, beauty, and body image, this is a movement with great potential to go mainstream. Other people believe in mindful recovery, meaning the application of mindfulness techniques to combat addiction. Paying attention to the grasping that accompanies the desire to have anything that we are addicted to - alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, even shopping or the Internet - gives us the ability to resist these urges and can point us to the deeper feelings of anxiety, stress, trauma, or low self-respect that lead to addiction in the first place.
Self-help doesn't just refer to getting over negative situations, though. Others are applying mindfulness to their time at work so that they can be happier and more efficient. Many books have been written on mindful parenting, telling people how to use awareness practices while interacting with their children so that they become a better listener and more patient and respond more naturally to their child's needs. It seems that there is an almost endless list of ways that mindfulness is being applied by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike in North America: we even have mindful divorce lawyers, mindful soldiers, mindful sex, and other surprising combinations.
One of the most pervasive influences in North American culture is psychotherapy. Since at least the mid-twentieth century, some psychologists and psychiatrists have taken an interest in aspects of Zen Buddhism. More recently, mindfulness meditation has penetrated this profession, so now psychologists are trained to employ meditation practices in helping their clients deal with stress and problems. In the medical world, mindfulness-based stress relief is a big movement now, as doctors prescribe meditation as a way to augment or replace pain medication, deal with stress, and lower blood pressure. Some studies suggest that Buddhist meditation can even change the shape of the brain and how it functions.
Buddhism has always been connected to the process of dying, and now Buddhist practices are being promoted in some hospice situations. Besides mindfulness, patients may be taught visualizations like metta and tonglen. Metta means "loving-kindness" and is a technique that involves sending loving thoughts to others. First you picture someone close to you, such as a family member. Then you keep expanding the circle of kindness until it encompasses all people, including those you don't like. This encourages feelings of love and happiness, which ease the process of dying. Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice carried out by imagining that you are breathing in someone's pain and illness in the form of a black cloud, transforming it into a mist of white healing and loving energy, and sending it back to the person. This can be done by a patient to develop a feeling of empathy for others beyond his or her own painful situation, or done by a hospice worker to help patients feel healed and cared for. One of the hardest parts of dying is the feeling that one is all alone in such a difficult transition, so Buddhist practices that support a sense of connection with others can be very helpful.
There are many other examples of Buddhism's being selectively adapted to meet the preexisting desires and preferences of North Americans. We can see Buddhist influence in the arts, such as painting, sculpture, music, and especially writing, such as poetry and literature. Bioethicists use examples from Buddhism to debate issues like organ transplantation, abortion, and stem cell research. The entertainment industry uses Buddhism as a source of exoticism, putting monks in Hollywood movies and television programs. And of course capitalism and marketing are enormous forces in America, Canada, and Mexico. Merchants promote their products by sticking words like Zen on them to imply that they will somehow make you calmer, more patient, or even enlightened by eating their breakfast cereal, sleeping on their pillows, or using their cell phones.
All of this is similar to how Buddhism has been used in the past. People in Asia use Buddhism to improve their luck, seek healing, protect themselves from accidents, and win the lottery, among other activities. This doesn't mean that the pattern is exactly the same in North America, of course. For one thing, different cultures have different needs, so they use different tools from the Buddhist toolbox or apply them to different purposes. For another thing, Buddhism in Asia typically exists as a complete, traditional religious system: believers may consult a monk for lotto numbers, but they also know that the Dharma is there to teach them when they are ready for it. Buddhism has been growing for more than a century in North America, but it is still not well represented in most places. Before people have a chance to learn about the fullness of Buddhist thought and practice, they may mistakenly come to think of it as simply a way to deal with mundane problems or to improve their health and therefore never investigate it further. The popularity of selected elements of Buddhism in America, Canada, and Mexico may actually hinder Buddhism's ability to liberate people fully from samsara if they never go further to discover the deeper nature of Buddhism. And there is the risk that even dedicated Buddhists will come to see their practice as mainly a form of self-help or spiritual therapy and dilute the Dharma from inside.
But perhaps all of this is normal for the first few centuries of contact between Buddhism and a new cultural area. Since modern-day Buddhists are connected with Buddhists in all parts of the world, it is easy to receive helpful correction if one area begins to exploit Buddhism too much for worldly ends rather than Dharmic ones. And it can be argued that there are real advantages to this appropriation of Buddhism for non-Buddhist uses. On the one hand, it enables many non-Buddhists to at least practice part of the Dharma and thus gain some higher level of peace in their lives. And it has given Buddhism a very positive image in the North American mind. Buddhism is associated with helpful techniques like meditation, rather than with superstition or fanaticism as some other religions are. That's a very good position to be in, and may bode well for Buddhism's future in the West.
Jeff Wilson is assistant professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Renison University College, an affiliate of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He earned his PhD in religious studies at the University of North Carolina. He specializes in Buddhism in North America and is the author of many publications on such topics as abortion rituals in Western Buddhism and Buddhist pluralism in the United States.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2011 issue of Dharma World.