issue 21 autumn 03
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Values of the heart

Seeking perspective on the views that shape and spur our practice, Vishvapani examines three myths of western Buddhism.

I once interviewed the critic and philosopher of the imagination, Harold Bloom, and we discussed the human mind's attempts to get to grips with reality. As I started to explain Buddhism's key philosophical teaching, the Middle Way, Bloom interrupted me. 'I comprehend,' he said, 'but I do not apprehend.'

For all its power as a guide to practice and understanding, the Middle Way, like other basic teachings, is an abstraction. We can comprehend it: understand the concept and even see how it can alter our views and attitudes. But it is something else to apprehend it: to mentally grasp the teaching, enter into its significance, and be changed by it. I took Bloom's complaint to imply that a satisfying account of life requires the flesh of emotion, imagery and narrative upon the bare skeleton of ideas.

History shows that the most powerful worldviews, upon which civilisations and religions have been built, include such non-rational elements and embody them in ritual, scripture, saints and heroes. This is true of Christianity, of Buddhism, and even - though in a more complicated way - of the predominant modern worldview, scientific materialism. Whatever reasoning they may contain, such worldviews mould experience in a way that is beyond reasons. For shorthand, let us call them 'myths': authoritative 'stories' about life that compel attention, command devotion and shape understanding.

The 19th-century English thinker Thomas Carlyle contributed a valuable insight in this regard. Anticipating Freud and Nietszche, he suggested that not only may our true beliefs differ from the respectable notions we espouse, but we may not even be aware what these beliefs actually are.

'A man's religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man's or a nation of men's. By religion I do not mean the church-creed he professes, the articles of faith which he will assert ... But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it, even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him and creatively determines all the rest.' ( On Heroes and Hero Worship)

Our western culture includes beliefs in a few overarching myths that form an individual's entire outlook on life, and in lesser ones that influence it. For example, there is belief in progress; in values like freedom, democracy and human rights; in nationalism and sovereignty; in human goodness (or human evil); in the saving grace of romantic love; in the relative superiority, or inferiority - or even equality - of men and women; in the therapeutic value of sex; in the American dream, the English idyll, or the European Project; in youth, beauty and fashion; in racism and multiculturalism; in the death of God (or the existence of God); in the empowering effect of money, and many others. The longer the list, the more complete an account it seems of our supposedly secular and rational modern society, and the conflicts between some of them reflect society's own conflicts.

The notion that we are influenced by such myths should come as no surprise to Buddhists. One of the Buddha's core teachings is that our views are manifestations of our desires. But how does that apply to Buddhists themselves? Answering this question requires more than identifying the 'wrong views' that distort our understanding of the Dharma. For what if our understanding of Buddhist teaching itself manifests our desire? What if we can never truly be free from culture and subjectivity? What if even our rational, idealised idea of Buddhism is another 'myth', another attempt to apprehend the Dharma and the world it explains?

This article explores Buddhism as apprehended by westerners, and proposes three underlying 'myths' or ways in which we have imagined the real meaning of Buddhism: the myth of secular religion; the myth of bare awareness; and the myth of contact with a magical reality. This list is not comprehensive - and even if it were, the approach on which it is based has limitations. It cannot do justice to the variety within western Buddhist practice, the activities of Asian Buddhist communities in western countries, nor the complex relationship between the expectations westerners bring to Buddhism and what it actually has to offer. And yet I find this approach reveals patterns and forces that remain invisible in a sociological or a sectarian perspective.

I should stress that speaking of myths is not intended to imply that the views they indicate are false. Although 'myth' can connote falsity, I mean it in the positive sense of a way of encapsulating meaning in terms that appeal to the emotions and imagination. These myths have become our images for the truths that Buddhism points to, and to examine them is to engage with the creative forces that truly inspire our spiritual lives.

The myth of secular religion

The context for the arrival of Buddhism in the West is the failing hold of Christianity over the unconscious views of western minds. Christianity, like other theistic religions, has been forced to choose between an embattled and an accommodating engagement with science and the rationality of the European enlightenment. Those who feel dissatisfied with a materialist outlook yet accept the authority of science and reason have sought a spiritual, ethical and philosophical path to replace 'empty heaven and its hymns' (in Wallace Stevens' phrase). And some of them have looked to Buddhism.

The rationalist engagement with Buddhism has been influential since the early days of its encounter with the West. Many Victorian admirers saw in Buddhism the religion without a God for which they yearned. They regarded it as a philosophy; an ethical path wonderfully free of superstition and dogma; a 'scientific religion' whose accord with reason contrasted with the conflicts between science and Christianity.

Many early enthusiasts of this 'pure' Buddhism were administrators in the British Empire, in which capacity they also encountered Buddhism as it was embodied in unmistakably impure present-day individuals and institutions. To square the circle, they needed to construct an image of Buddhism that fitted their aspirations while excluding what offended them. The result was exemplified by Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia, the hugely successful poem of 1879 through which Buddhism entered British and American popular culture. Arnold's admiration was for the Buddha himself (an exemplar of virtue to rival the Jesus of the Gospels) who, as they saw it, rose above historical Buddhism like a lotus above a muddy pool.

An image developed of a rational Buddhism focused on the historical Buddha. Though written in the heroic style of Tennyson, The Light of Asia formed the image of the Buddha as a human being, albeit an ideal one. And numerous novels, plays, biographies and latterly films have subsequently depicted him as a human character in the tradition of western fiction and psychology. This image is so familiar that it seems natural to us - until we notice how different is the emphasis in the classical Buddhist texts. These focus on the Buddha's teaching rather than his life, and favour an idealising depiction of the Buddha to a naturalistic one. But the image of the human Buddha now encapsulates the myth of Buddhism as secular religion.

Early translators of Buddhist texts also tried to distinguish the Buddha's original teachings from later 'interpolations', and emphasised those texts with the greatest claim to 'authenticity'. This led them to value the Pali texts and the Theravada school that derives its teachings from them. Scholars' preference for rational doctrines led them to stress Buddhism's philosophical backbone and to minimise popular, ritualistic and supernatural elements, considering degenerate even Theravadin practices that contradicted this picture. Thus originated the view that real Buddhism - as preserved in the Pali texts and perhaps in the Theravada - can be identified with rational, abstract teachings, and simple practices such as mindfulness meditation and observing the ethical precepts. Ironically, although adhering to a 'myth' is precisely what rationalists and secularists wish to escape, regarding Buddhism as a 'secular religion' is, none the less, an act of imagination and interpretation.

The 'secular religion' approach lives on principally among the many sympathisers of Buddhism who draw ideas or practices from it but whose core beliefs are humanistic, liberal and rationalist. Such Buddhism is easily assimilable, and there certainly are rational and abstract elements in Buddhist tradition, but an exclusively rationalist conception offers only a partial view of the whole. For this reason, as western engagement with Buddhism broadens, the influence of the secular religion approach - which was once so important - is lessening.

The myth of bare awareness

A new phase in western engagement with Buddhism - one with which I personally have much greater sympathy - started in the 1950s with 'the Zen boom'. In this a generation of American artists and intellectuals, inspired by D.T. Suzuki, found in Zen teachings a mirror for their concerns and an acceptable language for post-theistic spiritual life. Beside the intellectual interest came the diffusion of serious practice, especially meditation, and the development of the western Zen movement. Later years saw this extend to interest in Tibetan Buddhism, and latterly to the Theravada, especially in the Vipassana meditation movement.

Now that these Buddhist traditions have bedded in to the West, it is possible to see the distinctive ways in which they are being taken up. One striking feature (which shows continuities with the secularist approach) is the emphasis on inner, personal experience, and aversion to doctrines, beliefs and rituals. And this emphasis is raised to the level of a 'myth' in the belief that meaning is to be found through 'dwelling in the present moment'. This is what I am calling 'the myth of bare awareness', whose influence is most apparent in the us.

Within American Buddhism the most popular approaches - whether drawn from the Zen, Theravada or Tibetan Buddhist traditions - share an emphasis upon such 'bare awareness'. The term comes from Theravadin mindfulness meditation, but the approach of its us practitioners turns out, pragmatically, to be close to that of Americans who practise zazen meditation (from the Zen tradition) and the dzogchen practice of 'serene abiding' (taught in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism). Each of these represents just one strand of a broad Asian tradition that has been picked out by western interest in 'the present moment'.

As the vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein recounts in his recent book, One Dharma: the Emerging Western Buddhism, an increasing number of Buddhist teachers in the us trained in more than one of these approaches. He himself trained in vipassana, but has spent several years exploring dzogchen, and other leading figures moved from Zen to vipassana. It seems no exaggeration to say that, in its various forms, 'bare awareness' is becoming the dominant approach of American Buddhism.

While the secular approach is rationalist, bare awareness descends from Romantic anti-intellectualism, and especially the religious expressions it found in America. This is the cultural hinterland in which we must seek the origins of the contemporary elevation of 'dwelling in the present'. Romanticism in America grew upon a foundation of the Protestant culture of independence, the two being brought together most importantly in the mid-19th century by Emerson's advocacy of 'Self-reliance' - that is, reliance on the deepest, inner Self.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), the philosopher William James defined the American approach to religion that grew from such sources as comprising 'the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider to be divine'. Sitting meditation is an exemplary instance of solitary religious practice, and stripping awareness of concepts and ritual down to the simplest act of attention extends the meaning of pragmatic religious experience. Bare awareness also meets James' requirement for a signifying source of authority in 'whatever they may consider to be divine'. For the bare awareness school, the divine is imminent in this very instant.

Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970) urged his students 'to resume your actual being through practice, to resume the you which is with everything. Right now! ... It is possible this moment! It is this moment!'

A t the time of the Zen boom many artists recognised that engagement with present experience offered an imaginative opening into alternative spirituality that resonated with their American Romanticism. Poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen discovered Buddhism through Chinese landscape art. And the wandering Ch'an monk or Taoist sage who has lost his ego and become attuned to nature came to exemplify their counter-cultural ideal. Such images of self-forgetting and immediacy resonate with the messages of Zen, vipassana and dzogchen in America.

From Beat Generation origins grew two Buddhist shoots that connect to bare awareness. One manifested in the western Zen movement, and later in other strands of Buddhist practice that shared its non-discursive, non-dualistic values. The other is a profound influence upon a stratum of American culture. It is the 'bare awareness' model that the editors of Beneath a Single Moon (a recent volume devoted to 'Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry') had in mind when they wrote: 'In terms of American letters, at least, Buddhism has arguably come to be the most vital spiritual influence in poetry today'.

The exclusion of concepts and ideology from spiritual life for the sake of bare awareness leaves open the question of what one should believe, how one should live, and what actions to take. In the case of American Zen one response has been intense engagement with social activism, and many within the Vipassana movement have similarly engaged with psychotherapy and psychology. Whether, as critics suggest, such influences replace Buddhist values with western values that have not been reconsidered in the light of the Dharma, or whether they represent important syntheses, it seems clear that the cult of bare awareness is here to stay. It offers a viable, effective, believable way of conceiving the search for significance that we call the spiritual life.

The myth of contact with a magical reality

While bare awareness may predominate in American Buddhism, it certainly does not exhaust it. In stark contrast to the pared down practice of vipassana, zazen and dzogchen (which minimise faith, ritual and Asian culture) are the Tibetan Buddhist movements that overflow with them. So great is the contrast between these two approaches that it sometimes seems as if western Buddhism comprises distinctive religions that address different needs.

The first significant interest among westerners in Tibetan Buddhism came from the Theosophical Society founded in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky. This movement developed from spiritualism, which offered to meet the scientific challenge that religion be proven with tangible instances of the supernatural. For Blavatsky the spiritual world came to be identified with secret masters who lived in the Himalayas and communicated through her their messages for mankind. Still barred to western travellers, Tibet became established in the western imagination as the refuge of all that was sacred and mysterious, which had been displaced from the West by the incursions of science and learning. A substantial body of fiction, travel writing and esoterica attests to this fascination. This Tibet offered 'magic and mystery' and the synthesis of science and mysticism in its esoteric lore. It represented the sacred domain from which westerners felt alienated, and the yearning for contact with this realm could be termed 'the myth of contact with a magical reality'. The super-human Tibetan lama is its exemplary image.

Western engagement with Tibet changed with the Chinese invasion of 1959, which led many teachers to flee, and eventually brought them into contact with western seekers. Thus started the substantial world of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. In place of fantasies of Hidden Masters and Shangri-la, Tibet now materialised in flesh-and-blood rimpoches, the reincarnate lamas who manifested in their persons ageless streams of spiritual energy. And the empowerments they gave in teaching tantric practices offered direct contact with the magical realm of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. They communicated in symbolic language that transcended rationality and yet was allied to it through its underpinning in Buddhist philosophy.

Thus the world of Tibetan Buddhism in the West has grown out of powerful religious impulses that are a legacy of Christianity's decline and the shortcomings of materialism. Many westerners mourn the loss of the sacred from our lives and the natural world, and of images of a higher order of reality that earlier cultures represented in gods and angels. Several western commentators argue that upon lamas are projected fantasised images of archetypes that no longer have western embodiments including the sage, the perfectly wise father and the absent king.

Unsurprisingly, western idealisation of Tibetan Buddhism's human representatives has sometimes led to confusion. Discovering that lamas are flawed can produce disillusionment. And, despite being considered outside the worldly conflicts of history, they have led westerners into such political disputes as the controversies over the identification of the Karmapa's rebirth and the worship of particular Tibetan deities.

Western engagement with Tibetan Buddhism cannot be reduced to the fantasies that surround it in popular culture. Serious Tibetan Buddhist practitioners in the West - of whom there are many - have had both to distinguish na•ve fantasies of Tibet from the teachings it really proposes, and the culturally specific expressions of those teachings from their universal import. As with those attracted to Buddhism as a secular religion or a path of bare awareness, seekers after magical reality have found themselves engaged with a tradition that moulds their aspirations and perceptions, and which they in turn must shape in seeking a form that suits their cultural needs as westerners. And yet, Tibetan Buddhism truly offers a way of being in the world that is alive with magic and significance, and restores to us the colour and mystery of the visionary realm that we have lost and crave.

The Middle Way

Two years ago I took a long solitary retreat in a Theravadin vihara in Sri Lanka. I practised walking meditation on a hillside overlooking the island's central plateau; I read Pali scriptures, practised breathing meditation, and became fascinated by the richness of experience that came with mindfulness of the present moment. Last winter I was in the Himalayas, meditating for four weeks in a remote monastery above a sacred gorge. I was housed in a small room adorned with ancient, fraying images of Buddhas, stained dark by the smoke of butter lamps.

In my own experience I feel the power of the myths of bare awareness and of contacting a magical reality, and seek daily in my own Dharma practice the peace and illumination they both promise. And my understanding of Buddhist teachings is built on the rational core that was identified by the secular religionists.

This article is not intended to disparage these approaches, but to suggest they be seen as methods, rather than unconditioned expressions of the truth. However, proponents can feel that the experience of dwelling in the here and now, of opening to the world of the Buddhas, or of depending on the Four Noble Truths, reveals a realm of significance that cannot be gainsaid by clever theorising. Furthermore, their authority is buttressed by scripture, tradition and philosophy.

I believe our understanding of the truth to which Buddhism points is influenced by our cultural history. We cannot escape being products of our culture, nor hope to be fully aware of its influence. It is the space we inhabit, the eyes by which we see. It is inevitable that our ways of seeing are moulded by such myths as these - stories we tell ourselves about life, even in our most exalted, insightful, or intensely alive moments.

Seeing that our views of Buddhism, and the myths that motivate us, are conditioned does not make them wrong. This is who we are. Being more conscious of such forces can help us to avoid the grosser biases produced by our cultural conditioning. And, conversely, it can enable us to engage more creatively with the needs that drive our spiritual lives, which can be enriched through making connections with our cultural roots. Teachers such as Sangharakshita and Trungpa Rimpoche have mined western culture for symbols, metaphors and myths that encapsulate Buddhist values. Such explorations can help in engaging the whole of ourselves, including our irrational and unconscious responses, in the spiritual life.

All our Buddhist ways of seeing are acts of imagining: myths that may help or hinder. They are methods - a raft whose purpose is to help us cross the stream to the farther shore. We cannot do without such a vessel, but we should not mistake its roughly bound planks for solid earth. Changing the metaphor, we need a Middle Way between a credulous, uncritical approach that literalises Buddhism's mythic narratives, and presumptuous scepticism that disparages and discards them. As I might have responded to Professor Bloom, the Middle Way is not something to be apprehended in itself: it is Buddhism's method, its guidance on how to engage with our views of life, that becomes our way of apprehending.