1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Western Buddhism: A "Xerox Copy"?

By August 5, 2010

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Is much of western Buddhism a "xerox copy" of Buddhism? The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says that much of what is presented as Buddhism in western  culture  "is a kind of Xerox copy of Buddhism that is based on the old 'I'm Okay, You're Okay' psychology of the 1960s."

The quote comes from the Rev. Thistlethwaite's thoughts on the "spiritual but not religious" movement. "Spirituality is the sweetness of religion, the effervescent taste of the divine," she writes. "Religion, on the other hand, is the fiber. You've got to have some fiber, some strength of tradition, ritual and sacred texts, to get you through the day."

I like the metaphor. Spirituality usually is something experienced, some sense of awe or transcendence or something. But spiritual highs can be like marshmallow fluff -- sweet, but without nutritional value. The high wears off, and you are back where you were before. For spirituality to transform your life or your understanding, the spiritual path needs to be directed by the strength of tradition, the discipline of practice, and the wisdom of those who have gone before.

Marshmallow fluff spirituality is pervasive these days, the Rev. Thistlethwaite says, and much of this is the fault of religious institutions. A lot of today's religious institutions are no better than junk cereal themselves, she writes. The packaging makes claims of being nutritious, but what's in the box is all corn syrup and artificial coloring. And this is a point I'd like to come back to in a future post. But for now I want to go on to what the Rev. Thistlethwaite says about Zen and the rest of western Buddhism.

So, what kind of spirituality is this spirituality that is not religious? Partly, the spiritual language is taken from Zen Buddhism. Zen is now part of American culture, both through the increasing practice of yoga, and by the use of some Buddhist themes in popular culture. Zen Buddhism is a huge part of the way in which the culturally influential film, The Matrix (1999), defined the problem of reality and spirit and it was pivotal for today's "spiritual but not religious" generation.

The "Zen" presented in The Matrix was pretty superficial, I thought, but let's go on.

Zen Buddhism is centered in a meditative practice that emphasizes direct experience rather than formal creeds or scriptures. Wisdom passes from teacher to student, not in words but through the practice of meditation and eventually mind to mind. Of course, actual Buddhist enlightenment takes years and years of intense work in meditation with knowledgeable teachers. What floats through American pop culture in films and even in most yoga classes is a kind of Xerox copy of Buddhism that is based on the old "I'm Okay, You're Okay" psychology of the 1960s.

Yeah, pretty much. I know I complained last week about another writer who portrayed all western Buddhists as privileged dilettantes who don't practice seriously. But the Rev. Thistlethwaite is not saying that. She's saying that the language of Zen, or a superficial understanding of Zen, has been coopted by the "spiritual but not religious" people to rationalize their marshmallow fluff spirituality diet.

I have two concerns. One is that many people are been so turned off by western religious institutions that they run screaming from anything that looks like a religious institution. So they cling to faux Buddhism and run away from the real thing, which is sad.

My other concern is that marshmallow fluff Buddhism will supplant the real thing before the real thing has thoroughly taken root. This is a particular danger for Zen, I think, because it did have the misfortune of becoming popularized and then romanticized in books and film, but it's something that's an issue for all of Buddhism, I think.

Comments
August 5, 2010 at 4:31 pm
(1) claudio vazquez md says:

A bit grandiose/pretentious to generalize that Western Buddhists are not ‘real’ practitioners. as if anyone held the key to the truth

August 5, 2010 at 4:45 pm
(2) Kumar Malde says:

“You’ve got to have some fiber, some strength of tradition, ritual and sacred texts, to get you through the day”

My experience is different. I do not practice any religion, but meditate regularly. Not only it has helped me get through the day, but it has made me experience the connection to the UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS that the scriptures or books can never lead you to.

August 5, 2010 at 4:57 pm
(3) Paul says:

All this quibbling about what “Real” Buddhism means in the West in absurd. It is not a Xerox copy – bad, bad, metaphor! – but it is indeed not the same as Asian Buddhism. By neccesity, Buddhism in the West is going to be different than Asian Buddhism for reasons both Hitorical & Cultural that are too deep to go in to here. Western Buddhism is still in the process of defining itself and will be for some time to come – and it may be radically different from Asian Buddhism in some ways. That does not mean it is a Xerox copy.

August 5, 2010 at 5:11 pm
(4) Jeff says:

It seems to me that Zen, or Chan, has since its inception rejected scriptures and claimed a spiritual or metaphysical transmission independent of words, directly from the mind of the master to the disciple. In that sense, it was probably called something like marshmallow fluff Buddhism, or maybe “dim sum” Buddhism, by those aware of traditional Buddhism even in those early days in China.
I also think American Buddhists should not be too caught up in worrying whether their forms are traditional when compared to how they were or are practiced in their Asian countries of most recent origin.
Buddhism, its philosophy, beliefs, traditions and application has always adjusted itself dramatically to the country and culture in which it spread. Chinese and Japanese Zen is one example.
Is there any reason to expect that Americans should not take the essence and core of what they learn from Buddhism and synthesize it into something that actually has a chance of enriching their Western society? After all, ours is a culture whose spiritual, philosophical and linguistic foundations differ profoundly from Asian countries.

August 5, 2010 at 8:33 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

It seems to me that Zen, or Chan, has since its inception rejected scriptures and claimed a spiritual or metaphysical transmission independent of words, directly from the mind of the master to the disciple. In that sense, it was probably called something like marshmallow fluff Buddhism, or maybe “dim sum” Buddhism, by those aware of traditional Buddhism even in those early days in China.

Zen never “rejected” scripture, it just does not “depend” on scripture. Zen has always been influenced by scripture, especially the prajna sutras (which include the Heart and Diamond sutras), but also the Avatamsaka, the Lankavatara, the Vimalakirti, and others. Japanese Zen is also deeply influenced by the Lotus Sutra, although I’m not sure if that’s true of Zen elsewhere. The second thing I learned as a Zen student, after how to sit zazen, were the words of the Heart Sutra, chanted over and over, as it is in Zen monasteries everywhere.

I also think American Buddhists should not be too caught up in worrying whether their forms are traditional when compared to how they were or are practiced in their Asian countries of most recent origin.

The thing is, Jeff, you have no way to know what part of those traditional forms are valuable, and which are not, until you’ve worked with them over a period of years. So while I agree we shouldn’t be “worried’ about whether we’re being properly traditional or not, neither should we be in a big rush to chuck the stuff that doesn’t look nice and shiny right out of the box. You never know, going forward, what’s going to open the door. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that the practice they found most annoying and useless at first was the one they were doing when they experienced their first kensho.

Buddhism, its philosophy, beliefs, traditions and application has always adjusted itself dramatically to the country and culture in which it spread. Chinese and Japanese Zen is one example.

Yes, but those adjustments didn’t happen overnight, but over a period of centuries. Patience, bro. We’re just laying foundations now. We won’t live to see what’s built on top of those foundations, but the foundations need to be laid with great care, and with the strength of tradition.

Is there any reason to expect that Americans should not take the essence and core of what they learn from Buddhism and synthesize it into something that actually has a chance of enriching their Western society? After all, ours is a culture whose spiritual, philosophical and linguistic foundations differ profoundly from Asian countries.

If we’re just going to rework it so that we’re more comfortable with it, why bother? Just stay Episcopalian, or whatever. I mean, I’m happy if you want to take whatever it is you think the “essence” or the “core” of it and leave the rest, if that pleases you, but some of us would like to practice Buddhism, thanks.

August 5, 2010 at 5:28 pm
(6) Hein says:

Sadly I have to agree with Barbara’s conclusion. And this I say based upon my own experience. People who move away from organised religion and then encounter Buddhism wants only the basics; i.e. Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. All the other “stuff” (as they call it and which I rather call “practice”) is considered irrelevant and unnecessary.

Is religion something that first have to be lost before it can be found again? Regrettably not so, me thinks. All phenomena are interrelated, and the one thing is the building block for the other. Like the flightless birds of the Galapagos Islands; once you lost the ability to fly that is it; you going to take a long while before you are going to learn the art of flying again. Once you accept “marshmallow fluff Buddhism” as the norm, then that is it!

Perhaps the post-modern world with its materialism and other sense entertainment only needs – at most – “the flavour of religion” and not the substantive “meal”. Westerners might feel that do not have the time to “sit down for the meal”. C’est la vie.

Namo Amitofo

August 5, 2010 at 5:28 pm
(7) Gregg Winston says:

Dogen: Zen master Baoche of Mount Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, “Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?” “Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent,” Baoche replied, “you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.” “What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?” asked the monk again. The master just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply. The actualization of the buddha-dharma, the vital path of its correct transmission, is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent; because of that, the wind of the buddha’s house brings forth the gold of the earth and makes fragrant the cream of the long river.

August 5, 2010 at 5:35 pm
(8) Lee says:

whether zen or baptist there are those who package it up and sell it … there are those who need it packaged and buy it … and there are those who are sincere and committed and the precise form does not matter … the intent … the willingness to surrender the wiley self; to walk through the moments of bliss and the moments of grief, content to keep on … whether one is good and one is bad or one is fluff and one is hard core doesn’t really matter … fluff to you may be hard core to joan and hard core to barbara may be fluff to paul … The person with a sincere desire for truth and spiritual growth will only momentarily pass through the sellers and packagers (and they may be helpful too)each of us is here alone and responsible for what we do not what the others do.

August 5, 2010 at 7:06 pm
(9) Bruce Williamson says:

It is better called Boutique Buddhism. Pick any Buddhists magazine (which is strange in itself) and see advertisements for things like Zen Enso meditation timers. Or Nicely designed fancy things to sit on while meditating. Do you really need a $400 chair to meditate? In the West Buddhism has become just another thing to possess.

August 5, 2010 at 7:19 pm
(10) philip says:

You have to have “strength of tradition, ritual and sacred texts”? Why? The Buddha had none of them in fact he denied all three.

August 5, 2010 at 7:56 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

You have to have “strength of tradition, ritual and sacred texts”? Why? The Buddha had none of them in fact he denied all three.The Buddha had none of them in fact he denied all three.

No, he didn’t “deny” all three. And please don’t bother quoting the Kalama Sutta at me; I’ve read it. All the way through, actually.

The Rev. Thistlethwaite was speaking as a Christian (who is a lovely person; I met her once). I wouldn’t have used those exact words to apply to Buddhism. The words I used were “the spiritual path needs to be directed by the strength of tradition, the discipline of practice, and the wisdom of those who have gone before.” What you don’t do is just kind of float around randomly deciding whatever it is you’d like to practice or like to believe. That’s how you end up with marshmallow fluff Buddhism.

The historical Buddha realized enlightenment through the strength of disciplined practice, and he taught his monks a very disciplined practice. The meditation practice he used was based on techniques that were already ancient in his time. The suttas (which is where we come to know what we know about what he taught) tell us that he came to an understanding of how to take the meditation to a deeper level, but this was not something he came up with by himself in a random moment. Although Buddhism is a departure from Vedanta, it also has deep roots in Vedanta.

The historical Buddha actually established some of the first rituals, and he encouraged people to listen to wise people. The Kalama Sutta councils people who to judge who is wise and who isn’t, but he didn’t say “don’t listen to anybody but yourself.”

August 5, 2010 at 8:33 pm
(12) Rick says:

The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and from what I’ve tasted, there’s really isn’t much fiber. A bit of flavor, yes, but that’s about it. After more than a century on Western soil, Buddhism is floundering, with little to show for itself and a future that looks a lot less promising today than it did a half century ago. We need a Dogen, and all we get are amicable nuns who pat us on the head tell us we’re all okay.

August 5, 2010 at 8:41 pm
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

We need a Dogen, and all we get are amicable nuns who pat us on the head tell us we’re all okay.

There have been some really strong teachers in the west, and still are. The thing is that the strong teachers are being shouted down by the New Age fluff crowd.

August 5, 2010 at 8:34 pm
(14) JoeBuddha says:

Now I’m confused. Is Yoga Buddhism now?

Also, the whole thing smells bogus. Asian Buddhism? Isn’t Indian Buddhism somewhat different from Chinese, which is somewhat different from Korean, from Japanese? Why should Western Buddhism be the same as Asian Buddhism? It’s a different culture, so we need a somewhat different approach.

August 5, 2010 at 8:37 pm
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Why should Western Buddhism be the same as Asian Buddhism?

I was under the impression you were an SGI student. Don’t you chant in Japanese every day?

August 5, 2010 at 8:42 pm
(16) Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore says:

I agree with much of what Rev. Thistlethwaite has to say about being a Xerox copy. Let me offer an essay I wrote on this theme, Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork, in which I try to relate what specifically has faded in American Buddhism to what particular types of people are seeking in Buddhist practice.

August 5, 2010 at 8:44 pm
(17) JoeBuddha says:

But of course! However, you need to compare the mode of practice here with the mode of practice in Japan. We’ve had the challenge of seperating Buddhism from Culture. It’s still a challenge, but some of us have made the change.

August 5, 2010 at 9:37 pm
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

Joe — I think SGI is having a different sort of challenge from other schools of Buddhism. First, you may still be feeling your way around the break with the priesthood, and second, it is still very much directed by a head authority in Japan. This is not at all true of most other schools of Buddhism in the West. Zen doesn’t even have a head authority in the West, never mind in Asia. The teachers are autonomous and can make decisions about what or how to practice in their own monasteries or centers; they aren’t taking directions from Japan or anyone else. Of course, once someone has put in the years required to become a lineage holder they tend to be highly respectful of tradition. They aren’t tossing the traditional forms out, by any means.

The first generation of western-born Zen teachers had some cultural clashes with their Japanese teachers, but nowadays most of the teacher are western-born students of western-born students of western-born students. Maybe it’s just that I’m used to Zen as it is, but I just don’t think separating Buddhism from culture is a big issue in western Zen.

August 5, 2010 at 8:49 pm
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

A bit grandiose/pretentious to generalize that Western Buddhists are not ‘real’ practitioners. as if anyone held the key to the truth

Again, that’s not what she’s saying. She’s talking about the watered down New Agey-stuff that gets mistaken for Buddhism.

August 5, 2010 at 8:56 pm
(20) Barbara O'Brien says:

My experience is different. I do not practice any religion, but meditate regularly. Not only it has helped me get through the day, but it has made me experience the connection to the UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS that the scriptures or books can never lead you to.

That may be so, or you may be just kidding yourself. UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS can be just mental entertainment. Does it lead to wisdom? Does it change your perspective? Is it founded on the Eightfold Path? You don’t have to tell me, but ask yourself those things.

August 5, 2010 at 9:06 pm
(21) Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore says:

“We need a Dogen, and all we get are amicable nuns who pat us on the head tell us we’re all okay.”

A Dogen would be good, he is probably a good model for how Buddhism might develop in the West. He was very much a traditionalist; I remember he expressed dismay that monks in Japan ate with chopsticks because no one knew the correct forms the Buddha followed when eating. Yet he developed something uniquely Japanese; he couldn’t help it.

It is important that we start out as traditionalists, otherwise we will begin to lose elements before we understand what they are for, and make changes only when, as Americans, we can’t help it.

I should mention that Dogen was pretty obscure during his lifetime. We may already have a Dogen out there, in fact probably do, and not know it.

August 5, 2010 at 9:43 pm
(22) Barbara O'Brien says:

I should mention that Dogen was pretty obscure during his lifetime. We may already have a Dogen out there, in fact probably do, and not know it.

Yes, thanks, good point.

August 5, 2010 at 10:17 pm
(23) ko shin Bob Hanson says:

I love the UCC and their ability to be into everything. I just came from a powerful to Sangha session with nine inmates, some of them have been practitioners of Zen and meditation for years in prison. There ain’t no fluff there or here for that matter. This lady has been smoking something or she does not know Buddhism. West or East. My 13 years in Japan, looking in from the outside, I did not see the same thing going on here over the lst 18 years of practice. BPF (Buddhist Peace Fellowship) Prison programs, AIDS work, get a life pastor! Oh, I have been ordained 44+ years in the Lutheran Church, lots of Fluff there, and other things I can not mention. Love all creatures even statement makers

August 5, 2010 at 10:29 pm
(24) Barbara O'Brien says:

This lady has been smoking something or she does not know Buddhism. West or East.

One more time — the Rev. Thistlethwaite was not writing about western Buddhists, but the trendy New Agey stuff that gets confused with Buddhism. I agree with what she writes about “spiritual but not religious,” and I hope you read her entire piece (it’s short) before you judge it. If you want to see somebody who disses western Buddhism, see this guy.

August 5, 2010 at 10:52 pm
(25) Mila says:

Now I’m confused. Is Yoga Buddhism now?

On this particular point, I believe it is Rev. Thistlethwaite who is a bit confused. There are indeed forms of Buddhist yoga, e.g. the Six Yogas of Naropa, and Trul Khor, but the vast majority of what gets called “yoga” in the U.S. is a form of hatha yoga with roots in Hindu rather than Buddhist traditions.

Though actually, many of the same issues re: authenticity vs. innovation are being hashed out within western yoga communities. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that a majority of western yoga students along with a large percentage of yoga teachers in the west remain largely ignorant of the historical and spiritual roots of the hatha yoga traditions.

As a result, it’s probably not all that uncommon for yoga students to hear the word “Zen” in the context of a yoga class — and for the two traditions to become, in the mind of the culture at large, part of a single ill-defined & deluded mish-mash.

On a happier note: there seems also to be emerging a deeply intelligent conversation between serious Buddhist and Hindu Yoga practitioners — about ways in which the two traditions may be mutually supportive.

August 6, 2010 at 10:00 am
(26) Barbara O'Brien says:

On this particular point, I believe it is Rev. Thistlethwaite who is a bit confused. There are indeed forms of Buddhist yoga, e.g. the Six Yogas of Naropa, and Trul Khor, but the vast majority of what gets called “yoga” in the U.S. is a form of hatha yoga with roots in Hindu rather than Buddhist traditions.

I believe a more careful reading of what the Rev. Thistlethwaite wrote is in order. She is not at all saying that yoga is Buddhist. She’s talking about undirected and undisciplined spirituality disconnected from a spiritual tradition, and that people are using the language of Buddhism — and mostly Zen — to justify the disconnect. However, she says, this is not genuine Buddhism, but a misappropriation of the language of Buddhism.

August 5, 2010 at 11:03 pm
(27) martin says:

To be a Christian means you have to understand and practice devotion to the principles, to be a Muslim means that you must understand and practice devotion to the principles, same for Judaism and Buddhism. There is no difference, east west north south in principles, only in application which are the traditions, rituals, and in some cases the texts used to support these. The end is the same.

August 6, 2010 at 10:01 am
(28) Barbara O'Brien says:

There is no difference, east west north south in principles, only in application which are the traditions, rituals, and in some cases the texts used to support these. The end is the same.

I suppose many things look pretty much alike when viewed from a distance, but as you get closer you see differences.

August 6, 2010 at 6:29 am
(29) Lisa says:

Buddhism has been my religion for about a year now. I don’t have a teacher, and I don’t have a temple to access guidence from. However, what I do have is my actions. Every day I practice what it means to be Buddhist. Have I read and studied all the sacred texts? No. This blog is my only teacher. But I am grateful for that. I refuse to believe that my western location somehow makes my study invalad and insignificant. I know in my heart my level of devotion. I don’t have to prove that to anyone, especially an individual who seems ignorant to our religion in the first place. Perhaps she doesn’t know any better. Hopefully she finds more fulfilling ways to spend her time than to question us “westerners” on how authentic our practice is.

August 6, 2010 at 10:18 am
(30) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hopefully she finds more fulfilling ways to spend her time than to question us “westerners”ť on how authentic our practice is.

I’m really sorry, and deeply frustrated, that so many of you have misunderstood what the Rev. Thistlethwaite wrote. She was not at all saying that western Buddhist practice is inauthentic, but something else entirely. And I agreed with what she said.

Let me try one more time: She was not talking about westerners sincerely practicing Buddhism. Are you with me so far?

She was talking about the “spiritual but not religious’ movement that is encouraging a kind of free-floating spirituality untethered to a specific discipline or tradition. She brought up Buddhism because people are co-opting the language of Buddhism, and mostly Zen, to justify remaining untethered to scriptures or text or tradition. But as she acknowledges herself, genuine Zen is not at all like that.

Some of these mistaken ideas are showing up in this thread, such as comment #4 from Jeff. He believed that Zen rejects scripture, which is not at all true (see my comment #11). And then there’s Jeff, comment #9, who believes the Buddha rejected “strength of tradition, ritual and sacred texts.” People get this stuff from cherry-picking the sutras, but if you have a broader knowledge of what the Buddha taught you know he did not at all “reject” tradition, ritual, and scripture.

August 6, 2010 at 7:17 am
(31) Engyo says:

Hi, Barbara -

Maybe it might be interesting to focus on instances where Buddhism in North America is NOT fluff – where the “fiber” is present, and see how such groups, temples and sanghas are doing, and how they have adapted to North American culture.

Namaste, Engyo

August 6, 2010 at 8:14 am
(32) G.P. Helpingstine says:

I disagree. Buddhism has always evolved and taken on the personality of the country and society that has adopted it.

August 6, 2010 at 9:56 am
(33) Barbara O'Brien says:

Buddhism has always evolved and taken on the personality of the country and society that has adopted it.

I don’t see anyone saying otherwise. Please be more specific.

August 6, 2010 at 11:47 am
(34) Chuan Zi says:

#1 I don’t know what a “Western Buddhist” is. Let the Westerners suffer their own samsara with every attempt to segment and parse Reality and operate on them as if they in fact are Dharma. I am a Buddhist, which in and of itself is a convenience we afford Westerners due to their limitations and perceptions.
#2 The Western attempt to understand the East through their lenses always fails simply because it is not even a apple to oranges comparison. It is more of a galaxy to grain of sand comparison. I leave you to do the math.
#3 It sounds like a reaction to the fact the Western churches are losing congregants as their fear of damnation subsides, the facts of their church histories emerge and the religious icons’ mythical cloaks are removed.
#4 Ignorant and arrogant. ‘Nuff said there.
#5 Judgment is not only unrealistic it is unRealistic. That requires for something to exist outside of the self. Since their is only Self, the objects are delusional. Any practice is better served as an artifice of interface, interaction and self-measurement.
#6 I suppose by definition I am a Westerner even though I provided my Dharma name given to me after taking my Precept Vows. More specifically I am African-American and, trust me, I know how Westerners thrive on segmenting humanity in order to feed their delusions.

August 6, 2010 at 12:12 pm
(35) Mumon says:

Thanks for the catch; I’d tried to comment on her post, but it didn’t work for some reason. It’s not helping those who insist on “no, religious” that some folks think Buddhism is indeed “spiritual not religious” such as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on the Huff Post.

I answered that point on my blog today.

August 7, 2010 at 12:40 pm
(36) Mike Tuckey, Sr says:

I am new to the pursuit of Buddhism. Like some of the people you have referenced in your notes, I was attracted to Buddhism by its apparent nature of “seeking” the truth. As I mentioned, my pursuit is new, only a few months old. I am beginning to read the lessons of Buddha. I am moving forward; but, this article discouraged me.

I was raised in the Christian traditions of the Roman Catholic church. I recognize the many truths within its teachings; but, I also recognize the diversity in their practices. Additionally, I have spoken with the clergy of many of the different “religions” under the Christian umbrella. There appears to be a pervasive attitude, that; “This is how you should practice and believe:” The Christian Dogma. It changes with whom you speak; but, it always boils down to, if you don’t believe this way, you can’t be Christian. The same appears to be true in Islam and Judaism. The attraction of Buddhism is the the apparent belief that; “It is a journey, a seeking, not necessarily accomplished in a brief 75 years; that is, until I read this statement.

The newness of my journey will probably define me as a “Marshmellow Fluff” Buddhist. I don’t know, I only seek.

Although I acknowledge that; we learn from the traditions and practices of those who came before us, I was of the belief; these were suggested “Roads” not dogma. Of the ones I have learned, they are universally helpful; but, I also acknowledge that the journey is mine.

I will continue my journey, I will continue to read and learn what I can. I will not judge the pursuit of others. I will learn from them. I will help in guidance, where appropriate. I will continue to practice meditation. I will not concern myself with those who choose to judge my pursuit; rather than help guide me in our joint pursuit. I will read and learn. I will do all this, not because of this article; but, despite this article.

August 7, 2010 at 1:02 pm
(37) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mike Tuckey, Sr,

The newness of my journey will probably define me as a “Marshmellow Fluff”ť Buddhist. I don’t know, I only seek.

Not at all. You’ve completely missed the point. What we’re talking about here is not Buddhism so much as what I call “New Age Mush” that passes for Buddhism. It is exemplified by the attitude that to be a Buddhist means you can believe whatever you want and can kick the tradition itself, including the rituals, scriptures and liturgy, out the door. However, if you are sincerely seeking and keeping an open mind, that’s not fluff at all, even if you started a second ago.

In other words, it’s attitude, not seniority, that determines whether a practice is “fluff” or not.

Buddhism is a guided discipline, and practicing Buddhism means practicing the discipline. In the West, because of the paucity of teachers, a lot of people who are sincerely seeking dharma must seek by themselves for periods of time, and I certainly understand that. I’ve been there myself. But there are also those who think they’ve got Buddhism figured out because they’ve read some books about it and have decided they don’t need the discipline; they can just float around being “spiritual,” or something.

And then the next step is for the bookstore Buddhists to attack those following a more traditional practice as a pack of anal fundamentalists who don’t get “real Buddhism” and are hung up on being authentically Asian. You saw just a little of that on this thread. I’ve been communicating with people about Buddhism for many, many years and I’ve seen this over and over. If you’re new to Buddhism I can understand that you haven’t seen it yet, but it’s an Issue.

The Rev. Thistlethwaite wasn’t criticizing Buddhism. Nor was she criticizing western Buddhists. She was criticizing the “spiritual but not religious” movement that insists people can follow a self-guided spiritual path unconnected to any one discipline or tradition. And I say that maybe once every 500 years or so an individual comes along who has a successful go at that, but the remainder of “do it yourself” mystics are just kidding themselves.

August 8, 2010 at 1:10 am
(38) JonJ says:

And for those who think that it’s something peculiar about the U.S. and its culture that produces fluff instead of “real Buddhism,” just spend some time looking at the present state of Buddhism in that fabulous, far-off, traditionally Buddhist nation, Japan.

Only an infinitesimal fraction of today’s Japanese know what Zen or any other form of Dharma teaching and practice really is. For almost all Japanese, Buddhism is either the mortuary business or, yes, “New Age fluff.”

Real Buddhist knowledge and practice is very hard to accept and understand in any culture. Recall the traditional story of the Buddha’s own life (which is probably mostly mythical, but does have important lessons to teach): his first thought after reaching full enlightenment was that he shouldn’t even try to communicate what he had learned to anyone because it would be impossible to get anyone to understand it. It took some high-powered persuasion from the gods to convince him to give it a try. And that was in ancient India, the supposed heartland of spirituality, centuries before the Internet and American “pop Zen.”

In all cultures, there is a very popular, superficial understanding of the world and of life that pervades the whole culture and has to be swept aside before one can get to what is authentic; “East vs. West,” or “Buddhism” vs. “Western religion,” has nothing to do with it.

August 8, 2010 at 10:39 am
(39) Mila says:

I appreciate your comment, JonJ. And in relation to –

It took some high-powered persuasion from the gods to convince him to give it a try.

– I really love that it was a Hindu god (Indra, as I recall) who ended up convincing him to go forth with his teaching … a part of the story that seems often to be omitted by Buddhist teachers, when portraying, in public talks, the historical/mythological beginnings of Buddhism :)

August 11, 2010 at 12:06 pm
(40) Richard Prangnell says:

I agree that many westerners are rather superficial in their approach to Buddhism. I’m referring to those who want the highs of the Jhanas/Dhyanas but are somewhat averse to the preparatory grunt work of perfecting their moral conduct (Sila). I think the correct attitude to the spiritual highs should be “holidays have their place, but don’t neglect the work that pays for them!”

August 12, 2010 at 10:00 am
(41) Lee says:

In the beginning of anything I would think people are superficial…cause they know no better… I began training deeply committed to finding ‘truth’ and superficially read for 15years prior to beginning real training … I would think most people who go into a monastery are superficial in the beginning no matter how deep the desire to understand. I really don’t see anything wrong with people coming for the fluff or the magic … they will learn something and may even stay and really train.

August 12, 2010 at 4:31 pm
(42) Barbara O'Brien says:

I really don’t see anything wrong with people coming for the fluff or the magic … they will learn something and may even stay and really train.

I disagree. What I’m seeing are people who settle for the fluff and don’t feel a need to train at all. And then the “settlers” campaign against traditional Buddhism as some kind of superstitious anachronism.

Someone who actually goes to a monastery or dharma center will have superficial understanding and maybe superficial commitment at first, but as long as they’re staying open and respect the tradition that’s fine. The marshmallow fluff Buddhists, on the other hand, usually are closed to understanding because they think they’ve already got it all figured out, and they tend to be antagonistic to the tradition.

August 13, 2010 at 9:17 am
(43) Lee says:

I understand your point of view. Human nature is just what it is and probably few are really going to ‘practice’ and deal with the issues that arise … and does it really matter who is antagonistic to the tradition … it probably has always been this way … the ego is a wiley slippery critter and for many the barriers it throws up will keep them swimming around in circles ’cause they’ve got it all figured out’ … their antagonistic attitude to the ‘tradition’ will not effect the few who are ‘dead serious’ about the work.

August 13, 2010 at 12:07 pm
(44) Barbara O'Brien says:

does it really matter who is antagonistic to the tradition

It matters a great deal where the tradition is not yet firmly established. It could create a real setback. It won’t affect people already committed to the tradition, but it could easily discourage people from becoming committed to the tradition because they won’t learn what the tradition actually is.

August 16, 2010 at 3:06 am
(45) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara, I don’t know why you support this article? As we know any religious institution is a “baby walker” which helps us to walk. Is it necessary in the growing up? I will say “may be”..but is it necessary even when one is learned to “run”..a big NO. It become a baggage. The importance to “religion”, “rituals” etc to be given importance to only that extend. This article says, the walker is always relevant. Which is nothing but a mere propaganda. I don’t think so. The churches and mosques institutions(Some Buddhist temples) have grown to such an extend that they don’t allow the individuals to leave it and walk by them self. This imposing makes people to runaway. Then sometimes, the problem is, since they got used with the baby walker, they run to another and hold it…Irony…but anyways, I am very much aware of the institutionalized religions and their agendas. Which is horrible. I see this article as one such effort. If one thinks, he can walk without much dependency can and should walk by themself…let them get hungry, let them fall..but, the Buddha inside them will make them to get up and walk. But, has to take this risk. Why church wanted to avoid this fall you know…they don’t want to see people walking by themself…with compassion.

August 16, 2010 at 3:26 am
(46) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara, I don’t know why you support this article. This article looks like another effort of the organized religion to keep the slavery back. We know religious institutions and “rituals” are baby walkers. Once a practitioner shows courage to leave and walk by himself, these “baby walker” custodians are worried. Even if it comes out of “compassion”, like a responsible parent they should allow the kid to leave the baby walker and walk. Allow them to fall. We, know only then the inside Buddha nature will probe further and make them to get up and walk. I can only sense this article as another propagandist nature of church to make people further afraid saying “You are going to be hungry, you are going to fall down etc”. Being an Indian, I am very much aware about the horrible agenda of institutionalized religions and the games they play according to situations. I prefer to walk by myself. Whether Buddha born in India or Korea, I am not bothered. Whether I negate my tradition or protect it, I am not bothered. I ready to be hungry, I am ready to explore. May be just fluff now. May be later I may pierce through skin and flush to bone. As I am sure, those who are ready to make this walk alone, will definitely will make some headway. Make mistakes (not sin as church propagates) without which no one will progress. With compassion to all in your effort, I know Buddha will show the path when we realize our mistake.

August 16, 2010 at 10:27 am
(47) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rajeev G, I think you’re misreading the article. I’ve met and talked to Susan Thistlethwaite, and she is one of the last people on earth to be a “baby walker custodian.” She’s very open minded and part of a small group of liberal, progressive Christians trying to rescue Christianity from fundamentalism. You’re reading your own experiences and agenda into this; what’s going on in the U.S. is very different from what’s going on in India.

August 16, 2010 at 9:11 pm
(48) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara, I do not know her personally, I have to judge by the article. What I see from the article remains with same view point. All religious supporters, lures followers by giving/saying what others interests to hear. “Tradition” as she mentioned is what? Going to churches on Sundays?, Chanting bible? or some rituals? If it is disciplining oneself, which religion talks rationally than Buddhism? Even Hindu religious supporters talk temples are just to start with achieving “Brahma” is ultimate. I never saw anybody thinking beyond temple and idol worship. They remain Idol worshipers. So, in the name of tradition, what I understood from this article is following rituals. Getting confined to addictive habits. She may be “a liberal christian”. Trying to get back people by offering “liberty” now. In India, when Ambedkar saw the horrible cast system and effect, he asked lower cast people to join Buddism. I will say, this also as a wrong move since, they are joining something without knowing where it leads to. Also, let me tell you, I have no Agenda other than “Loka Samastha Sukino Bhavantu”(Let the whole world be happy)

August 16, 2010 at 9:25 pm
(49) Barbara O'Brien says:

“Tradition”ť as she mentioned is what?

Any tradition. Take your pick. Just please understand that the context of what’s going on here with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd is light years away from what you’re describing. You’re reading stuff into this that doesn’t have anything to do with what she’s talking about.

August 17, 2010 at 5:08 am
(50) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara, you know what her intention is. Wanted to make the institution called church more liberal. Why she wants that is to attract those so called “strays” who left Christianity to come back. You may be a fan of her. But, I have read her article fully. This is nothing but “Liberalism” is also told in Bible so come back” message(not explicitly). Nothing academic. No deep content to discuss or argue upon. This is the problem with “Christianity”. Christianity wants all kind of people in their fold so make the changes and interpretations accordingly. I am not claiming all Buddhist teachings are going to lead to “Nibbana”. Buddhism cannot be liberalized just because that religion needs more people. I know there are people in Malaysia, Vietnam, Burma and even in Sri-lanka, who does an Idol worship kind with Buddha statue without actually knowing anything about his teachings. It is difficult to say them as “Buddhists”. They are religious. But not spiritualists. Spiritualists should leave tradition, fall, get hungry and walk…I think my message is clear. As Buddha told, “question everything, if found good, walk the path”. We are our ultimate guru. Being a Zen practitioner, how can you support this article? You and me can discuss whether the religious practice on Buddhism is right or wrong. When we discuss things about other religion, we look through our view points. Susan Thistlethwaite looks at “New Practice of Buddhism” or old practice of Buddhism through her prism. Her agenda is clear as you have mentioned in your own comment as “She’s very open minded and part of a small group of liberal, progressive Christians trying to rescue Christianity from fundamentalism”. Her idea is to rescue Christianity. Not Buddhism. So, she may criticize Buddhism and its practitioners to grow or lure other people. This is what I told the propagandist nature “according to situation”. I am not seeing anything to support her view point. I respect you for your deep knowledge about Buddhism. But, here I wonder how “a very knowledgeable Zen practitioner like you is not able to get the message.

August 17, 2010 at 7:39 am
(51) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rajeev G — I grew up in a part of the United States called the “Bible Belt,” which means I spent a big chunk of my life among hard-core fundamentalist Christians who reminded me frequently that I was going to hell because I wasn’t “born again,” meaning I hadn’t received what they considered the right kind of baptism. I had been baptized as an infant, and I went with my family to church every week, but that wasn’t good enough for the fundies. I even had something like a seven-year perfect attendance record at a Christian Sunday School, but that wasn’t good enough. One had to be baptized their way, or it didn’t count. I’m telling you this to let you know that I can spot Christian fundies a mile off, and I know exactly what pathological evangelism is like.

Susan is not at all like that, nor was she writing anything about brings “strays” back into Christianity. She was writing about the movement here in the West for people to dissociate from ALL religious traditions, Christian and otherwise, because they think all religious traditions are bad and should be avoided. They call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Susan’s point was that a spirituality that is completely disconnected from ANY religious tradition, not necessarily Christian, is more likely than not to be just spiritual junk food.

And she points out, correctly, that much of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd are cherry picking teachings from Buddhism to justify their refusal to take refuge in anything, and to hold up a highly revisionist idea of Zen as some kind of role model for what they’re doing. This is really happening; I see it myself. And she’s writing very respectfully about Zen, saying that Zen actually is an exacting discipline and not some kind of hippy-dippy “whatever feels good, do it” indulgence.

You need to look to yourself, and the obvious anger you are harboring to make you so badly misread what Susan wrote and to project your own ideas onto what she is saying. The message you see is one you are projecting yourself, not what Susan wrote. Don’t harbor anger, even to the fundies.

August 18, 2010 at 1:15 am
(52) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara, First I thought of stop commenting to your this blog. Then thought, it may be a disrespect to you. I am a follower of dhamma. So, please do not say basic things. I have no anger to anybody. I know people in almost all major religions with varying degree of belief from fanatics to liberalists (A good thing of being in India). If I get angry to all these, I will not have time to practice Buddhism. But, I request you to do an introspection on your conditioning.

Blessed Buddha once said:
Make an island of yourself,
Be lamp and light for yourself,
Make yourself your refuge:
There is no other refuge!

I, with all respect to you and your knowledge stopping the discussion here, as I think, I am giving more importance to this article than it deserved…with compassion to all living beings around

August 18, 2010 at 6:51 am
(53) Barbara O'Brien says:

But, I request you to do an introspection on your conditioning.

I’m not the one who projected hateful intentions onto something that was not hateful. I say again, look to yourself.

August 23, 2010 at 2:04 am
(54) Paul Lynch says:

I saw nothing angry in any of the posts Rajeev G. made, don’t cling too tightly to your opinion.

July 12, 2011 at 12:08 am
(55) jordan dossett says:

I came across this article reading a post from Rev. Thistlethwaite in the Washington Post on July 12, 2011. Rev. Thistlethwaite was giving her overview of the Dali Lama’s 2011 visit to Washington DC which she did pretty poorly but I don’t blame her for that, I think most media were not given good means to cover the event, nor was the intent of the event explained well. I think what I am in a bit of shock about or revolt about if I can muster that is this 2010 article stating that Zen is built into our culture. I guess I can go for that as much as homosexuality is built into our culture or interracial relationships are built into our culture.

Being gay, having an interracial relationship or practicing Zen may be more clear or apparent on the West Coast or perhaps the bigger cities of the East Coast but it is not prevalent in the United States as a whole. Let’s take a gay, black Buddhist and walk him down the street of any Louisiana backwater and well… it will become how apparent quickly this country is still Christian and still mainstream.

The crazy factoid for all, the event the Dali Lama did in DC in 2011. Kalachakra 2011. His words were not about becoming a Buddhist or about any other religion being wrong. They were about anti-hate, anti-violence. They were about acceptance and peace. A kind of acceptance and peace that will be required to survive for many moons past my or my children’s lifetime.

Jordan

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