Posted inDharma, Other Teachings

Buddhism in the West, by Maria Reis Habito, Part 1

August 15, 2016

Does Buddhist spirituality in the West lead to self-indulgence, rather than self-realization?


“I am not religious, but I’m spiritual”. This is a commonly heard statement, especially among younger people, many of whom are disaffected with organized religion, but seek some form of secular spirituality.  For many Westerners who would describe themselves in the above way, the teaching of Buddhism holds great attraction.  Different from the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism is not based on a revelation by God, but takes its starting point from the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Gautama, an Indian prince of the 6th to 5th century BCE, called Buddha, literally “the Awakened One,” by his disciples.  Even though the new movement that he founded developed in India and in other regions of Asia as a monastic-based institution, Buddhist teachers coming to the West established practice centers for lay followers rather than monasteries for celibate communities.

The attraction to spirituality, however it is understood and practiced, rather than to an organized form of religion has to be understood from the context of secularization– one of the long-term effects of the enlightenment and modernity.  With the advent of modern thinking, and also scientific, technological and economic developments, religions have lost the comprehensive power that they once possessed.  Whereas before the enlightenment, religion was used to explain every aspect of life, this of course is no longer the case, except in the most fundamentalist forms of religion that regard modernity as a threat or at least something to be resisted.  The violent reactions to the Muhammad-cartoons and the Regensburg speech of the Pope are recent examples of religious attitudes judged by many to be backward, fundamentalist and “unenlightened,” which caught the attention of the media and the world.  For most people in the West, religion or religious beliefs are no longer something to fight about.  They are often not even deemed a good subject of discussion.  In a Western culture, religious choices are regarded to be personal ones, and most certainly not something that should be imposed on others.

What is the Buddhist attitude to religious beliefs, including belief in God?  During a recent conference of World Religious leaders in India, an orthodox Rabbi put this question to Ven. Khandro Rimpoche, a world renowned Buddhist teacher, who took the group to visit the sites of Dharamsala, the small town in the foothills of the Himalayas which is the residence of H.H the Dalai Lama and his government in exile.  Since visiting Buddhist temples is forbidden to some orthodox Jews for religious reasons, the question was posed to her in a Museum – a place where Buddhist icons are displayed in show-cases but not actually venerated.

Ven. Khandro Rimpoche`s answer reflects a genuine Buddhist attitude, one which those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” might have no difficulty relating to, while it obviously creates a challenge for those who do not espouse a pluralist attitude towards religion.  She said: “When I was a small child, I read the story by Dr. Seuss called  ‘The Monkey`s Race.’  It goes as follows:  a monkey decides to enter a horse-race, but can only find a donkey to ride on. Everybody makes fun of him for his naiveté to believe that he would have a chance in this race.  Undeterred, the monkey puts a carrot on a stick and, as the race begins, lets the carrot dangle in front of the donkey’s nose.  The donkey, trying to reach the carrot as best he can, runs faster and faster, bypasses all the other horses and wins the race.”

We stubborn human beings are just like the donkey,” explained Khandro Rimpoche, “and the religions are like the carrots which make us stubborn beings move. It does not matter what the carrot looks like or what it is called – as long as it makes us move it is useful and fulfills its raison d`être.”

In the upcoming pages I will look at the phenomenon of Buddhism in the West as the spiritual carrot that makes people move, or rather, sit in meditation in increasing numbers.  To do so, some background information about basic Buddhist teaching and the development of Buddhism in the West is necessary.  For the latter part, I will have to limit myself to the US and Germany.  The focus here is on issues that inevitably emerge when a religion is transplanted from one cultural context to another….

What happens to a patriarchal tradition in a Western context, which is shaped by democratic ideals, women’s aspirations and their inroads into leadership positions?

How is genuine practice affected by a culture that expects instant gratification and quick fixes?

What is the relationship between ethnic Buddhists and Western converts?

This also touches on one of central questions to be raised here, one that relates to the fundamental Buddhist teaching of No-Self as taken in a Western context, wherein the strong emphasis on individualism and the fulfillment of one’s dreams is diametrically opposed to the Asian notion of community as being more important than the individual.

Is Buddhism, as some critics put it, just a “psychospice of self-acceptance” for those who have everything, “some rare ‘inner herb’ of guilt-free self-satisfaction?”  And does the use of Buddhist terms disguise the fact that “fundamental Western attitudes about self, society and consciousness have not changed much?” Or, more seriously, does the Buddhist carrot, in the words of Slavoj Zizek, turn out to be a “fetish,” which functions as the perfect ideological supplement to capitalist dynamics?   The concern is that the commercialization of Buddhism in market and media and its growing popularity as part of the wellness culture threaten to make the dharma into a middle-class commodity that mainly caters to the consumerist drives of the individual needs; and this concern needs to be seriously addressed.

Does Buddhist spirituality in the West lead to self-indulgence, rather than self-realization? 

Or does it open up a new and creative venue, which leads to transformation and, in some cases, even a new appreciation of the religion of one’s childhood?  Before turning to these questions, some explanations about basic tenets of Buddhist teaching and development are in order.

Click to read part 2 of Buddhism in the West which explores Buddhist’s Indian and Asian beginnings .

Maria Reis Habito is a Zen teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas Texas. This article was published on their website as Buddhism in the West: Self Realization or Self Indulgence.

Image: Observer, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0,

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