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Buddhism in the West, by Maria Reis Habito, Part 6

September 2, 2016

…many people in the West today are on an inner emigration into Asian culture; that they take over Buddhist ways of thinking without knowing either their own or the other culture well enough. –Franz Johannes Litsch


Click to read the previous parts of Buddhism in the West: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

Some Psycho-spice of Self-acceptance

While many Buddhists in the West are seriously devoted to their practice, Buddhism has acquired a popularity that reaches far beyond the walls of the meditation hall or temple.  It is precisely the fact that Buddhism is able to present itself as a resource not tied to any particular institution, dogma or ritual, which makes it able appeal to the desire for spirituality more than any of the other established religions.  While the mix of Buddhism, New Age, Esoteric, Pop-and Wellness Culture since the Nineties contributes to the image of Buddhism as a short-lived, self-indulgent and exotic lifestyle among its critics, it greatly adds to the appeal of Buddhism among many people who look for physical and spiritual well-being. Buddhist symbols are used to market anything, from cosmetics to gardening, interior design to financial planning, and Buddhist ideas appear in medicine, psychology, sports and business.  American Buddhist scholar Carl Bielefeld describes this situation in the US as follows:

We seem to be dealing not with a religion, but with something that might be called an ‘American secular spirituality’ – a longing among many (especially the white and upper classes) who are still not satisfied with what they have and who want something more; who have all they can eat but are still searching for that special flavoring, some psycho-spice of self-acceptance, perhaps, some ‘inner herb’ of guilt-free self-satisfaction.  This longing for something more, though in most societies very often associated with religion, seems in our society to be associated with a suspicion of religion. We want something more than institutional religion – something more personal, private, more narrowly focused on “me” and how I feel about myself – what I might call I-dolatry.

It is precisely at this point – Buddhism as “psycho-spice” – that Slavoj Zizek launches his own criticism of Western Buddhism.   Zizek sees in the present exchange between Asia and Europe the “ultimate postmodern irony of today.” For him, the irony consists of the fact that, while European technology and capitalism are taking on a world-wide scale, the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened by New Age “Asiatic thought” ranging from Western Buddhism to different other forms of expression. In this exchange, Buddhism, far from being able to counteract the globalized and highly technologized economy of greed in the West, functions like a fetish, which…

enables you to participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is, and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw.

With this, we find ourselves in a very interesting situation. On one hand, an Asian Buddhist critic of Western Buddhism, like Victor Hori, says that, as long as Buddhism cannot change basic Judeo-Christian ways of thinking, which emphasize the autonomy of the individual person over the community, it will remain incapable of criticizing Western society. On the other hand, a European critic of Western Buddhism says that giving up the Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage in exchange for Buddhist ideas makes Westerners incapable of criticizing society, since Buddhism functions as the perfect ideological supplement to capitalist dynamics.

Zizek`s criticism, which appeared in a major German Newspaper in October 2000 under the title of “Westlicher Buddhismus? – Nein Danke (Western Buddhism? No, Thank-you) was taken up by Franz Johannes Litsch in the 50 year anniversary edition of the German Buddhist Magazine Buddhismus Aktuell in 2005.  Litsch implicitly supports both Hori`s and Zizek`s criticism by saying that…

many people in the West today are on an inner emigration into Asian culture;  that they take over Buddhist ways of thinking without knowing either their own or the other culture well enough. 

At the same time, they continue to feel, act and think in ways deeply informed by the Jewish-Christian heritage without being aware of their cultural conditioning. He contends that this leads to the creation of “Western Buddhism,” which is based on insufficient knowledge of both cultural backgrounds, and which therefore cannot lead to true self-realization or liberation.  While Litsch points out that Zizek does not really know Buddhism or Western Buddhism well, he affirms that Zizek has made an important observation, which should worry everyone who is seriously interested in Buddhist teaching and practice, because, clearly it was not the goal of the Awakened-One to contribute to this “pursuit of happiness” of everybody, such as it is at the foundation of the American Constitution and propagated with missionary zeal all over the world, and as it increasingly becomes the civil religion of Western consumerist societies.  Because this is about the unlimited realization of all dreams, wishes, illusions, likes and aversions, which the individual “I” wants to grasp for the confirmation and aggrandizement of its existence.  But the Buddha is all about liberation from every kind of grasping for an “I” or for things, and with this, about attainment of a kind of happiness that is not tied to anything.

So does Buddhism in the West turn out to be some sort of psycho-spice or fetish; is it a carrot that makes the donkey move in the wrong direction – back to the start, rather than to the finishing line? In other words, does Buddhism make people enclose themselves in a palace of material and spiritual comfort, where they shut themselves away from reality?  Do they retreat precisely into the place that the Buddha had left behind on his search for enlightenment?

Click here for Part 7, the final installment, of Buddhism in the West.

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: Diversity, by Francois Bester, CC BY-ND 2.0, from

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