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Religion & Secularism

Buddha Travels West

Peter Abbs follows Buddhism’s path towards becoming a Western humanism.

Some years ago, I started a course of meditation. Although ‘mindfulness’ was in the air and meditation programmes were being offered in almost every other institution, I knew virtually nothing about meditation or mindfulness or the Buddhist traditions from which they came. ‘Mindfulness’ seemed obviously a good thing, for it was the opposite of mindlessness. Who could oppose that? But what exactly did it mean? How had it become so widely esteemed across so many institutions in the West? And what was happening to Buddhism itself as it entered our highly eclectic postmodern Western culture?

My Buddhist course was practical. It was about physical posture and following the breath in various ways. As my speculative questions remained unanswered they became more restless – until I decided to embark on my own journey. Being a poet and teacher of literature, my instinctive first move was to take a fresh look at T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for I remembered that this iconoclastic poem famously ended in Sanskrit. But it was soon to become a much more complicated quest, forcing me to go further back in time, to make unexpected connections and to see entirely new constellations. I had to discover the importance of the philosopher Schopenhauer, the febrile influence of Madam Blavatsky, the power of Zen especially during the 60s, the charisma of the Dalai Lama, and finally, enter the modern world of neurology and contemporary therapy. I discovered that in the West, meditation and mindfulness not only had a history many people were unaware of, but that as Buddhism adapted to the culture of the West its identity was changing. Without gods or a supernatural realm, it was fast becoming a form of philosophical humanism, committed to personal well-being and living the good life.

Invading the Cultural Waste Land

My search began with The Waste Land. Ever since its publication in 1922, this has been hailed as a definitive poem, capturing the broken rhythms and confused juxtapositions of the modern world. Memorably, and prophetically, The Waste Land ends with an ancient mantra: ‘ Shantih, shantih, shantih’. The words, Eliot explains, are taken from the Hindu scriptures the Upanishads. Eliot then offers a Western equivalent in the phrase of Saint Paul in the New Testament: ‘the peace which passeth understanding’. Yet those words could not have formed the same powerful ending to the poem. The concept of redemption or, perhaps, atonement (or personal reconciliation: at-one-ment) is explicitly there, but I think there is a certain irony here since the words actually chosen come not from the Bible, but from sacred Hindu texts. The most renowned lines of Modernist literature which offer peace of mind amidst the maelstrom thus come from the East, like the sound of a singing bowl. Nor is this sacred refrain tagged on at the end like an arbitrary improvisation: it is crucial to the whole intricate polyphony of the work.

At the beginning of the twentieth century The Waste Land may have been disturbingly original in its style, but in its Eastern spiritual orientation it was, in fact, becoming part of an emerging zeitgeist. In the very same year of its publication, Herman Hesse brought out his novella Siddhartha. What an extraordinary synchronicity and sign of a shifting inner landscape! For if in Eliot’s poem the key word is Shantih, in Hesse’s fable it is OM. This sound, sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, forms the title of the penultimate chapter, and when Siddhartha (not to be confused with Buddha) is on the edge of committing suicide, it is this primordial word that rises up through his body like an incantation. The sound heals and saves his stricken life.

It is well known that in the middle of his own tortured struggle to complete the work Hesse embarked on a course of therapy with Carl Jung, and there can be no doubt that this life-saving encounter influenced both the form and outcome of the narrative.

As Western psychology met Eastern spirituality, a cultural transformation was evidently taking place. But when did this creative cultural encounter between East and West begin?

© Clinton Inman 2020 Facebook: clinton.inman

Schopenhauer the Buddhist

For T.S. Eliot the encounter had one root in the courses he took at Harvard, in lectures on Japanese religion and literature and in his study of Indic philology and the Upanishads. In contrast, Hesse’s knowledge of Eastern spirituality derived partly from his adolescent reading of the atheist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. A hundred years before The Waste Land and Siddhartha, Schopenhauer had announced that Sanskrit literature will be no less influential for our time than Greek literature was in the fifteenth century for the Renaissance. One might question his timing, but not the insight.

Born in 1788, Schopenhauer was the first great Western philosopher to extoll the wisdom of the Upanishads, and, later in his life, to identify his own ethical stance with that of the Buddha. He consistently praised ancient Indian literature and saw it as an essential corrective to the Western orientation. Schopenhauer certainly claimed that the Upanishads formed the most elevating reading and should be grasped as the greatest gift to his own disorientated epoch. On his desk were statues of two figures: one was Kant, the other Buddha. They must have represented two forms of Enlightenment: one rational, the other spiritual. He himself pointed out that the conclusions of his own philosophy had emerged from a critical tussle with Kant and other Western philosophers, but that they coincided perfectly with the conclusions of Hinduism and Buddhism, which, he felt, had been reached by their exponents largely through intuition. “The mystic,” Schopenhauer wrote aphoristically, “is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within; whereas the philosopher begins from without.”

Schopenhauer’s philosophy contains no God, no revealed dogmas, and no supernatural agencies. Some decades before Nietzsche, he wrote: “Mankind is growing out of religion as out of its childhood clothes… Christianity is dead and no longer exercises much influence.” But his understanding, put forward most systematically in The World as Will and Representation (1818/19) does seem remarkably close to Buddhism. Schopenhauer says, for instance, that the meditator “best understands who methodically assumes the right posture, withdraws into himself all his senses, and forgets the entire world, himself included.” What is still left in his consciousness is primordial being.

What stands out here is the resonant phrase ‘primordial being’. It is a crucial term which has become badly obscured in our culture and yet remains central to any understanding of the current fascination with mindfulness. With a kind of clairvoyance Schopenhauer saw that while the West would be preoccupied with objective knowledge and the control of external nature, the East would engage with inner wisdom and the power of being.

Theosophy Then

There were further manifestations of a changing constellation of consciousness in the West. In 1879 a long narrative poem by Edwin Arnold on the life of the Buddha was published entitled The Light of Asia. It became an instant bestseller. But the book’s influence was soon surpassed by a much more powerful force, connected to an eccentric Russian aristocratic called Madam Blavatsky and her powerhouse the Theosophical Society, which was founded in 1875 to promote the noble aim of transforming consciousness. She set up her headquarters in India and converted to Buddhism. The Society, taken over by Annie Bessant, continued to expand, bringing into the West a whole new range of Eastern concepts and orientations.

Then in 1929 everything changed. At an international congress in Holland, the chosen heir and messiah, a man called Krishnamurti, stood up before three thousand Theosophists and disowned the role they had given him. To a cult addicted to hyperbole, Krishnamurti gave a remarkably simple speech: “You are all depending for your spirituality on someone else, for your happiness on someone else, for your enlightenment on someone else,” he said, adding that inner peace could only come through self-knowledge, but obtaining that was an extremely difficult task.

Krishnamurti’s speech was a model of mindfulness, being existentially grounded; but in the context of the expectant congress it was dynamite. It was as if the romantic pilgrimage to the East had suddenly come to a shocking halt. The Theosophical Society continued, but never regained its former eminence. Yet that movement had opened the gate to Eastern traditions of philosophy and meditation for thousands of people.

However, the influence of the Society can be over-stated. For at around the same time, the academic world had also begun to turn its attention to the East. The French scholar Eugene Burnouf became Professor of Sanskrit at the Collège de France in 1832, and later published his seminal study, Introduction to the History of Buddhism. About three decades later Max Muller, first Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, began editing a magisterial fifty volumes of sacred texts from Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism: a formidable act of organisation, translation, and dissemination. It is significant that it was an academic who coined the word ‘mindfulness’ in its current meaning. In 1910 Rhys Davids decided to render the Pali sati – meaning something equivalent to ‘present moment recollection’ – as ‘mindfulness’. He could have had no idea that a hundred years later his word was to become one of the mantras of the age. But, at last the methods of mindfulness as taught by the historical Buddha were becoming clear, free of evangelical drives and romantic projections.

There is a certain irony in the fact that just as the practice of mindfulness began to penetrate Western culture, so Buddhism began to decline in many of the countries where it had previously flourished. This was largely to do with the triumph of Communism, a movement which had scant regard for the individual and a contempt for all religions. For the Communists, the ‘opium of the masses’ had to be destroyed. During those decades of repression in the Communist states of Asia, a diaspora took place and the geographical shape of Buddhism changed. The religion crossed national boundaries and for the first time became an international force, a world-historical energy.

In the midst of this ideological turbulence a further mutation took place, in the Western experience of Buddhism.

Zen Then

Partly as a result of the Communist Revolution, and partly because of growing internationalism, it was not the original Theravada but the later Mahayana tradition of Buddhism that now entered the West, first inaudibly, and then with the intensity of revelation.

In 1927 an obscure Japanese scholar published his Essays on Zen Buddhism in English. On the Richter scale of cultural tremors there was barely a quiver; but it may have been this book more than any other which changed the cultural landscape. The transformation took two or three decades to become visible; but by the 1960s, Zen was ubiquitous. By that time, the author of that slim volume – an energetic and ageing monk named D.T. Suzuki – had become a visiting lecturer at major Western universities, a guide to artists from Gary Snyder to John Cage, a challenge to psychoanalysts, particularly Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, and a beacon attracting thousands of shipwrecked individuals.

Suzuki was the most renowned Buddhist writer of the age. In his work he gave scant attention to the concepts of reincarnation or nirvana, but rather affirmed the immediate here and now instant of insight, like a flash of lightning. The moment was caught in thousands of aphorisms and chiselled haikus. By the middle of the twentieth century many different schools of Buddhism were beginning to flourish across Europe and America, but without doubt, Zen had taken centre stage. In fact, it was Suzuki’s understanding of the Zen moment which inspired the Beat poets and helped to ignite what became known as the counterculture, with its celebration of spontaneity, the lived moment, and going with the flow.

The Compassionate Engineer

There’s at least one other branch of Mahayana Buddhism which exerted, and continues to exert, a powerful influence. It is linked indissolubly to the charismatic figure of the Dalai Lama. One of the most influential representatives of mindfulness in our time, his contribution to Western culture since his flight from Tibet in 1959 has been formidable.

At the heart of the Dalai Lama’s teaching is an approach which prizes compassion above all other values. This has its historic source in the Mahayanan concept of the Bodhisattva – one who refuses nirvana and escapes from the wheel of resurrection to return, again and again, to save all sentient life until each individual has achieved enlightenment.

For the Dalai Lama, compassion resides at the centre of morality. But the mindfulness that the Dalai Lama proclaims is no easy matter. The Tibetan tradition of Buddhism does not flirt with the moment of sudden illumination; it tends rather to talk about continual practice and relentless application. In the Dalai Lama’s many speeches one finds two key words: transformation and training. The mind, he insists, has the capacity to change, but it needs to take up a repertoire of techniques which foster attention, generate insight, and culminate in an over-arching compassion. Transformation is made possible only through training.

Since the mid-Eighties the Dalai Lama has sought an intellectual dialogue with the West, but one more related to science than philosophy. Once asked what he would have liked to have been had he not become a monk, he replied that he would have been an engineer. He has argued that Buddhism shares with science a common investigative approach, using empirical methods and recognising the law of cause and effect. Indeed, the Dalai Lama said at an address given in Central Park in 1999, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon these claims”. At the same time, he has cogently argued that ethical concerns must be brought to bear on scientific investigation, and that the two frameworks of the scientific and spiritual must recognise and retain their intrinsic differences.

Buddhism as Therapy

A claim constantly reiterated by the Dalai Lama is that through meditation individuals can change the narratives which shape their lives. Scientific research seems to support the idea that sustained periods of meditation can alter neuronal patterns. The evidence is that following particular meditational regimes, people can begin to change. Buddhism is beginning to enter not only the world of empirical research, but the world of therapy. At the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who trained under the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and the Zen Master Seung Sahn, pioneered a health movement cumbersomely titled MBST: Mindfulness-Based Stress Therapy. The project was committed to using the many techniques of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness to alleviate and even cure depression and anxiety.

While not so directly shaped by the practices of Buddhism, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy reveals a similar commitment to compassionate mindfulness. Part of its method consists in the art of creating a gap in experience so that the individual can separate himself from his own involuntary reactions and not be determined by them. CBT cultivates a freedom in the very act of focussed attention: I am other than my reactions. I can look at them. And at best, I can let them go. This is extremely close to sati, the phenomenology of present moment recollection, the mindful practice of meditation; and it similarily requires a withholding of judgement within the play of compassion.

A number of Buddhist psychotherapists have had to struggle with the concept of the unconscious. To engage with this concept is always to alter, even destabilise, a tradition. For instance, if we accept the influence of the unconscious, how can we be sure of any account of, or even the conclusions of, mindful experience? Yet as Carl Jung realized, at the same time, the idea of the unconscious can offer new psychological understandings of, for example, the process of resolving Zen koans.

Buddhism as Western Secular Ethics

If Buddhism has influenced the consciousness of the West, it in turn has also been influenced, even transformed, by the host culture. Travelling West, Buddhism became Westernised.

The Dalai Lama himself provided the term to describe this mutation. In an address given in New York’s Central Park in 1999, he claimed: “Again, I must emphasize that we are the same… we have the same potential… Spiritual growth need not be based on religious faith. Let us speak of secular ethics.”

Evidently, the position of secular ethics is utterly inclusive and non-hierarchical. The dialogue is between individuals: a human being is talking to other human beings. The key word is ‘secular’. It derives from the Latin saecularis, meaning generation, age, the world. First coined in English in 1846, it gave birth five years later to ‘secularism’. According to the OED, this is “the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state.” Many recent developments might further suggest that Buddhism in the West is now being welded to what Kabat-Zinn calls a moment to moment awareness. So could it be that Western Buddhism is becoming a species of philosophical humanism? Is it becoming less a religion and more an ethical orientation and existential path, where the aim is to achieve flourishing right here and now – ‘the well-being of humanity in the present life’?

Since the Sixties counterculture, Buddhism has had a continuous influence on mainstream Western culture; sometimes directly, but more often in a diffuse and subliminal way. Generally, it has helped to foster a more reflexive disposition towards experience, a non-violent politics, and a compassionate relationship towards all sentient life. Its impact on education, therapy and medicine, is dramatic and overt. But there have also been changes inside Western Buddhism. For, as the Eastern religion has slowly adapted to the West, it has imbibed some of the ethical values which have characterised Western democratic and liberal societies since the French Revolution. There has, for instance, been the notion of liberty in relation to gender and sexuality. Some Buddhist groups now offer specific programmes for gays and lesbians. Would this have happened in Tibet before the exile of the Dalai Lama?

Here one begins to sense a broad mutation. If the first stage of Buddhism in the West mostly concerned Theravada Buddhism, and the second Mahayana Buddhism, then the third stage might be identified as Secular Buddhism. Each stage includes the one that went before and is more encompassing.

The Present & Future Path of Buddhism

The current Buddhist secular reformation can certainly be seen as both more inclusive and more eclectic, putting its emphasis not on doctrine or hierarchy but on the exploration of the immediate moment and the place of being. Not reincarnation or karma, but presence and attention. Perhaps at the gleaming edge of the creative change Buddhism is now dissolving as specifically a formal religion (a category it never fitted very neatly) and instead incorporating daily therapy and an existential way of life: a path rather than a religion.

One of the most incisive writers currently proposing a comparable conception is Stephen Bachelor, a scholar and ex-Buddhist monk. Over four decades he has published a stream of pellucid books examining the origin and development of Buddhism. His most recent volume is called After Buddhism (2017). Even the title has a postmodern resonance. It aims to deconstruct Buddhism by repositioning it inside our contemporary world. Towards the end, before codifying what he calls ‘The ten theses of secular Dharma’ [coming from a Sanskrit word difficult to translate, Dharma refers to the inexorable truth of things and our best way to meet them], Bachelor writes: “Only taking Buddhism off its romantic pedestal and bringing it down to earth gives us a chance to imagine what kind of culture the dharma might be capable of engendering in a secular world grown wary of charismatic priests and inflexible dogmas.” So, after the deconstruction of Christianity comes the deconstruction of Buddhism – or should we say, the birth of Secular Buddhism? Or perhaps a new form of philosophical humanism?

What matters most for Bachelor is the search for personal meaning. He links this to the historical Buddha, who always demoted large metaphysical questions and their dogmatic answers and promoted an open quest for understanding based on the mindful examination of experience, on meditation, and on work within the sangha – the community. What may be perennially significant in Buddhism is precisely this pilgrimage for wisdom within and solidarity without – a search which in the West has been darkly overshadowed by the blinkered pursuit of objective knowledge and technological mastery. We now need to place alongside science and technology the counterpart of wisdom and the courage to be. Or to express it more politically, we need to marry the political triad of liberty, equality and fraternity with the spiritual triad of being, reflecting and caring. For in our bewildered global age the marriage of two forms of enlightenment is now possible: of the rational and the spiritual. This is an awakening which Schopenhauer envisaged two hundred years ago. The two statues on his desk, of Kant and the Buddha, may strangely prefigure the union of our broken consciousness. And our very survival may well depend upon it.

© Peter Abbs 2020

Peter Abbs is a poet, educationalist and Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Sussex. His books include The Flowering of Flint: New and Selected Poems (Salt) and Against the Flow: Education, the Arts and Postmodern Culture (Routledge). Please visit www.peterabbs.net.

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