Study after study has shown that mainstream Buddhism, both lay and monastic, has adapted itself thoroughly to the various societies into which it has been introduced — so thoroughly that the original teachings seem in some cases to have been completely distorted. From the earliest centuries of the tradition on up to the present, groups who feel inspired by the Buddha's teachings, but who prefer to adapt those teachings to their own ends rather than adapting themselves to the teachings, have engaged in creating what might be called designer Buddhism. This accounts for the wide differences we find when we compare, say, Japanese Buddhism, Tibetan, and Thai, and for the variety of social roles to which many women Buddhists in different countries have found themselves relegated.
The true practice of Buddhism, though, has always been counter-cultural, even in nominally Buddhist societies. Society's main aim, no matter where, is its own perpetuation. Its cultural values are designed to keep its members useful and productive — either directly or indirectly — in the on-going economy. Most religions allow themselves to become domesticated to these values by stressing altruism as the highest religious impulse, and mainstream Buddhism is no different. Wherever it has spread, it has become domesticated to the extent that the vast majority of monastics as well as lay followers devote themselves to social services of one form or another, measuring their personal spiritual worth in terms of how well they have loved and served others.
However, the actual practice enjoined by the Buddha does not place such a high value on altruism at all. In fact, he gave higher praise to those who work exclusively for their own spiritual welfare than to those who sacrifice their spiritual welfare for the welfare of others (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Fours, Sutta 95) — a teaching that the mainstream, especially in Mahayana traditions, has tended to suppress. The true path of practice pursues happiness through social withdrawal, the goal being an undying happiness found exclusively within, totally transcending the world, and not necessarily expressed in any social function. People who have attained the goal may teach the path of practice to others, or they may not. Those who do are considered superior to those who don't, but those who don't are in turn said to be superior to those who teach without having attained the goal themselves. Thus individual attainment, rather than social function, is the true measure of a person's worth.
I came across Upasika Kee Nanayon's work very recently. Her writings resonate of Ajahn Chah for me: simple, alight in wisdom. The essay, in part quoted above, describes Upasika Kee Nanayon as autodidactic.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu's contrast between Buddhism and "mainstream" or "designer" Buddhism may carry more weight for someone who is a solitary practioner. In forums like this one, and as I've recently encountered in Buddhist magazines, there is so much scholarly discussion and hair- splitting of matters which are not essential. So much twisting and spinning of meditation and teachings in commercial avenues, so much feel good fluffy stuff.... and supposedly Buddhism is growing in the West.
This essay tells us what we should already know, individual attainment is essential. Attainment in morality, concentration, and wisdom: the seeing of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and perfecting the path to its cessation. A handful of simsapa leaves. But even here in a Buddhist environment, this very simple direct teaching gets lost in complexities of linguistic acrobatics. A mind play. How much Buddhism is found in Western Buddhism?