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.