Ten Emerging Trends
by Lama Surya Das
For a number of years now, I have been observing religious trends and the transplantation of Asian Buddhism into the fertile fields of the Western world. From my particular vantage point, I observe what I call trends in Western Buddhism or American Dharma.
Speaking of the emerging Western Buddhism, there are many colorful, smaller threads woven into the larger tapestry. There seem to be groups variously emphasizing monastic Buddhism, lay Buddhism, ethnic Buddhism, meditation Buddhism, chanting Buddhism, ritualistic Buddhism and bare bones Buddhism; there is mystical Buddhism and practical Buddhism, academic Buddhism, therapeutic Buddhism, intellectual Buddhism, as well as anti-intellectual, no-mind Buddhism.
Some people are attracted to hermitage and retreat Buddhism, congregational Buddhism, socially engaged Buddhism, missionary Buddhism, health and healing oriented Buddhism, upper-middle path Buddhism, Jewish Buddhism, Christian Zen Buddhism, vegetarian Buddhism, pacifist Buddhism, tantric Crazy Wisdom Buddhism, to name a few.
The Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh said, "The forms of Buddhism must change so that the essence of Buddhism remains unchanged. This essence consists of living principles that cannot bear any specific formulation."
In The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture, Stephen Batchelor writes, "Buddhism cannot be said to be any of the following: a system of ethics, philosophy, or psychology; a religion, a faith, or a mystical experience; a devotional practice, a discipline of meditation or a psychotherapy. Yet it can involve all these things."
Like him I know there is really no such thing as Buddhism; there are only Buddhists. When I speak of the ten trends on Western Buddhism, I therefore do so with certain reservations, not the least among them that I am primarily emphasizing meditation practice groups. Remember, these are emerging trends and there is still a way to go to fulfill this vision.
Trend #1. Meditation-based and Experientially Oriented
As Westerners, we typically come to Buddhism for meditation and contemplation in an attempt to improve our quality of life. We want to bring more mindfulness to what we do. We are usually attracted to Buddhism not through academia but because we want personal transformation, direct religious experience and compassion into our daily lives. The Dharma is not just something we believe in, but something we do.
Trend #2 Lay-Oriented
Although there is certainly room for traditional monasticism -- both short - and long-term -- Buddhism in the West is obviously much more lay-oriented than it has been historically. Practitioners are now bringing personal issues of relationships, family and work to the Dharma center in an effort to make more sense out of life.
Trend #3. Gender Equal
In an effort to go beyond traditional patriarchal structures and cultures, we have already make great strides in supporting women as well as men in teaching and leadership roles. There are more and more women teachers, and they are providing some of the finest teaching. Gender equality remains an ideal, but one that seems reachable. We all -- male and female -- have an opportunity to refine our more feminine aspects and practice a Buddhism in which we keep the heart and mind balanced, respectful of both body and soul. We are trying to learn from the past so as not to unwittingly repeat the mistakes of others.
Trend #4. Democratic and Egalitarian
Western Buddhism needs to evolve in a much less institutionalized, less hierarchical and more democratic fashion. Almost by definition, personal growth and the purest interests of the individual are going to be stressed more than institutional preservation and growth.
Trend #5. Essentialized, Simplified and Demystified
For the most part, noticeably absent from Western Buddhism are the complex, esoteric rites and arcane rituals designed for initiates only. Western teachers generally stress essence more than form, as well as teachings that are tolerant for daily life. It is thus practical and this world oriented, rather than otherworldly and hermetic, with great emphasis on integrating Dharma practice via mindfulness and compassion into daily life.
Trend #6. Nonsectarian
Most Westerners seem to have a true appreciation for many different meditation techniques and traditions. We have seen how politics, the quest for power, and sectarian bias have created chaos within various religious communities. We understand it is essential that we strive diligently not to fall into those same traps. As practitioners, we are generally interested in broadening and deepening our experience of the various different Buddhist spiritual practices. I think it is safe to say that there is a true appreciation of the benefits of nonsectariansim, ecumenicism and cross-fertilization. In fact, many teachers are already synthesizing the best of the various traditions. American karma is our great melting pot. We have to live with that and make the most of it.
Trend #7. Psychologically Astute
There is a growing appreciation for explaining Buddhist principles within the idiom of transformational psychology. Faith and devotion are important and useful for some, but the larger appeal is to the individual’s spiritual development and psychological and emotional well-being. Dharma students are encouraged to bring spirituality into their lives as opposed to using spirituality as a way of avoiding personal issues. We are working on ourselves and there are any number of interdisciplinary tools and methods. Psychotherapy and Buddhism are most often taken as complementary.
Trend #8. Exploratory
In line with our scientific and skeptical upbringing, questioning and inquiry are encouraged. We are striving to be dynamic and forward-looking. I see contemporary Dharma as basically a non-dogmatic Dharma, which is inquiring, skeptical, rational and devoted to testing and finding out for ourselves. Western Dharma is trying to stretch beyond dogma, insularity, isolationism and fundamentalist thinking.
Trend #9. Community Oriented
Through our shared spiritual, ethical, and educational interests, we are strengthened and building our spiritual community as well as our connections to each other. There is a great emphasis on the needs of the Sangha in the sense of the larger community instead of individual priests and leaders. One day, Ananda asked the Buddha, "Is it true that the Sangha, the community of spiritual friends, is half of the holy life?"
Buddha answered, "No, Ananda, the Sangha community is the whole of holy life."
Spiritual friends, spiritual friendships and simple friendliness -- this is the holy life. Here in the West where more and more people are expressing their personal needs for spiritual growth, it is the challenge of the Sangha today to provide spiritual encouragement for generations to come.
Trend #10. Socially and Ecologically Conscious
Gandhi once said, "Those who say the religion has nothing to do with politics do not understand religion." Increasingly as Buddhists we are attempting to extend our sense of social and moral responsibility to include others, particularly those who are suffering from various injustices and deprivations. We are also searching for ways to express our deep concern for the natural world. The contemporary lay Sangha is like an interdisciplinary "Lobby for Wisdom and Compassion."
The Dharma is very suited to a Western way of life. It need not be complicated, mysterious or fancy. Buddha Dharma is ordinary life including everything from meditation to relationship yoga and parenting practice. Among other things, it involves itself with the body-mind connection, which might well include suggestions like eating right, exercising right and having a sense of humor. One of my teachers, the late Dudjom Rinpoche, once said, "The Dharma is not fancy. It’s like blue jeans: good for every occasion, every day. It’s good for work. It’s good for school. You can wear blue jeans to a wedding, to ride horses, anytime."