Posted inOther Teachings

Buddhism in the West, by Maria Reis Habito, Part 7 Conclusion

September 5, 2016

The ultimate goal is to completely break through and let go of the self-centeredness or “I-dolatry”, which prevents people from relating to others in wise and compassionate ways. 


Click to read the previous parts of Buddhism in the West: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 Part 5 and Part 6.

From the beginning, all beings are Buddha… This opening line of Hakuin`s Ekaku`s (1686-1769) “Song of Zazen”, which forms part of the list of chants in most Zen-Centers today, expresses the basic enlightenment insight of Buddha Shakyamuni, namely that all beings, without exception, are originally enlightened.  Hakuin was a very influential reformer in Japanese Zen Buddhism; all of the Rinzai Zen Masters today trace their lineage back to him; and all students in that tradition apply his teachings to their practice.

When a student who is serious about Zen-practice has his or her first interview with a Rinzai Zen teacher, the teacher normally asks the reason why the student wants to take up this practice.  Is it because of curiosity — because of something he or she read, saw or heard about Buddhism?  Or is it the wish to improve his or her health? Or is it because he or she wants to attain enlightenment?  All of these motivations are accepted as valid.  And with this in mind, we may want to return to the issues that have become a major point of criticism of and concern about the development of Buddhism in the West- its commercialization, involvement with the wellness culture and inability to provide a thorough criticism of Self and society.

While the commercialization and popularity of Buddhism concerns many Western and Eastern Buddhists alike, not everybody sees this development as entirely negative.  Never before has there been so much information so easily available on Buddhism, and many Buddhists see this as a good thing – because it allows a great number of people to discover and pursue Buddhist teachings in ways not ever possible before. Does the marketing of religious objects and tools for mass consumption dilute the teachings by suggesting that one can buy spirituality instead of practicing it? While many would give a definite “yes” to this question, others think that the aesthetic offerings of Buddhism, such as amulets, statues, Zen-gardens, meditation cushions, mandalas, calligraphy, music, incense etc. etc. can be seen as “skillful means” that draw people to Buddhism.

The discovery of Buddhist meditation practices by propagators and participants of wellness-culture programs is not altogether surprising.   In the broadest sense, wellness culture advocates the cultivation of an individual, healthy lifestyle, which is at the same time supported by and reflected in organizational and community culture.  Buddhist teachings aim to restore wholeness on the spiritual as well as physical level of our existence.  Buddha Shakyamuni was given such titles as “peerless physician,” “supreme surgeon” or “supreme healer”.  In the Theravada Tradition, this refers mainly to his teaching of the Four Noble Truths-in which he diagnoses the illness (dukha or dissatisfactoriness) like a physician, and lastly applies the remedy (the Eightfold Noble Path) as a cure.

Texts of the Mahayana and Tibetan traditions contain many medical prescriptions and remedies, which are traced back either to the historical Buddha himself or associated with the celestial “Healing Buddha.” But needless to say, these methods are not as easily accessible as focusing one’s attention on the breath, the main tool in Zen-meditation, or mindfulness practice in the Theravada tradition.  In the USA for example, the well-known physician and author Jon Kabat-Zinn has introduced mindfulness meditation into therapeutical programs for people with chronic pain and stress related disorders.  The combination of meditation and breathing techniques help patients to cope with pain, stress and illness by using moment to moment awareness.

In Zen-meditation, the full attention to the present moment, also described as “becoming one with the breath” or “being in the here and now” is taught as the method leading to awakening.  While the side-benefits, such as greater power of concentration, stress-reduction and improvement of one’s health are taken for granted, they are not the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.

The ultimate goal is to completely break through and let go of the self-centeredness or “I-dolatry”, which prevents people from relating to others in wise and compassionate ways. 

In Buddhism, self-realization means the realization that there is no self to hold on to, and the compassionate practice that naturally flows out of this realization. This goal is not something that can be achieved in just one sit, or participation in just one retreat, even though those can indeed lead to very fresh insights. In Buddhist understanding however, the practice of compassion is something that has to continue moment for moment, not just during this present life, but during future lives as well.  It takes nothing less than this to transform self-indulgence into self-realization, to completely awake to the reality that Buddhism describes in terms such as “groundlessness,” “emptiness” and “No-Self.”

Is this realization possible in the West, even among people from Judeo-Christian cultural backgrounds?  The fact that there are so many Asian teachers of the different traditions in the West and that they have given full transmission to Western students would point to an affirmative answer to this question. In fact, the late Yamada Koun Roshi, who was the teacher of Father Hugo Enomiya Lassalle and other priests as well as Catholic nuns and lay Christians who now teach Zen meditation in different parts of the world, felt that the Christian notions of “dying to the Self” and love are a most fertile ground for practice and attainment of realization.

And what might contradict Zizek`s assumption that being engaged in Buddhist practice leads to throwing the Judeo-Christian legacy over board is the fact that many disaffected Christians and Jews rediscover and reclaim their spiritual roots through their practice of Buddhist forms of meditation.  This would confirm Graf Durkheim`s opinion that a meditative form of consciousness is necessary for Europeans to come back to their spiritual roots.

In a similar vein, Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926), one of the initiators of “Engaged Buddhism,” a reform movement which spread through Vietnamese Buddhist monks and Western Peace activists at the time of the Vietnam war, emphasizes that the formation of a Western Buddhism is only possible in dialogue with the spiritual foundations of Europe and America, not by rejecting them.  Quite a few of the Buddhist reformers like Thich Nath Hanh had either attended Christian missionary schools, received part of their formation in Western universities or otherwise encountered Judeo-Christian ideas and practices of social reform.

Engaged Buddhism has motivated Buddhist monks and nuns to leave behind the walls of their monasteries to go out into the streets and get involved in numerous causes ranging from helping the disadvantaged to engaging in ecological projects. In the West, Buddhist teachers such as for example Bernie Glassmann in New York, and his student Anna Gamma in Zurich, have led their students out of the safety and comfort of the meditation hall to do retreats in the streets among the homeless and to become engaged in peacemaker movements.


In conclusion, this review of Asian and Western approaches to Buddhism suggests that in the Buddhist tradition, it is not enough to focus on overcoming delusion, greed and anger on a purely personal level; these also need to be addressed on social and institutional levels, where they can be promoted by collective selves and can take the institutional forms of delusion, greed and ill-will.  It may well be that socially engaged Buddhism, both in Asia and in the West, has many answers to offer to the criticism of Buddhism as a fetish or “I-dolatry.”  It emphasizes that the suffering created by the notion of an individual, separate ego-self is directly tied to and reflected in the problems of society.

If a path that is “spiritual, but not religious” can lead to overcoming the source of suffering, namely the sense of separation between oneself and the rest of the world, and with that to genuine engagement, compassion and care, it is a way to self-realization.  But if, on the other hand, it leads deeper into that place of physical comfort and mental complacency that the Buddha had recognized as an impediment to awakening and left behind, it ultimately misses the goal.

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: Blue Buddha, by hurleygurley, CC BY-ND 2.0, from


footer support banner image

Support Mountain Cloud

You can show your gratitude for Mountain Cloud events, retreats, podcasts and other teachings by making a one-time gift, or by becoming a supporting member.

Donate to Mountain Cloud Become a Member