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Alexander Wynne (March 2018) reviews Buddhism in America


#1

Relatively new article by Alexander Wynne (Religious Studies Review, Vol 44 No 1, March 2018), reviewing two books (2013 and 2014).

One surveying the mutual influences of “Buddhist Meditation” and “American Culture” – more or less often discussed ideas.

The other, a bit more interesting, traces the effects of Ledi Sayadaw (and his progeny, i.e. down to the Mahasi Sayadaw etc.) in “rejuvenating” Burmese Buddhism in the face of colonialism. This is paralleled to contemporary USA, as in a summary passage near the end (bold emphasis added):

"The American version of “Guild Monasticism” [a theme from Wynne’s book “Buddhism – An Introduction”, 2015] has of course jettisoned Buddhist myths at the expense of enlightenment values. But if social function is deemed more important than ideological orientation, perhaps progressive politics and the enlightenment goal of saving humanity do not really matter; perhaps it does not even matter that the American Buddhist sort of mindfulness lacks a soteriological goal. What matters, in contemporary America as much as colonial Burma, is the creation of local centers of spiritual meaning, in which people come together to participate in values and practices based around the Noble Path. Such, at least, is the vision imagined in the early Buddhist texts. In response to the claim of one of his chief disciples, Ananda, that half of the holy life consists in having “good friends” (kalyana-mitta), the Buddha replied as follows:

'Do not speak thus Ananda, do not speak thus. Just this is the entirety of the holy life, namely, having good friends, comrades and associates. For when a mendicant has good friends, it is to be expected that he will develop and fulfil the Eightfold Path.’ "


#2

Looks interesting. Could someone more versed in the books explain the “nirvana without buddhism” line?

The line of development is unusual: “Buddhism with-out Nirvana” has given birth to “American Secular Mind-fulness” (or what could be called “Nirvana without Buddhism”).


#3

Good question.

I’ve not read either of the reviewed books (nor am inclined to), but it would seem Wynne is, s/w loosely, associating “Nirvana” with “Enlightment” and (Christian) social “redemption” concepts, as in the quotations (emphasis added):

p.52
It seems, then, as if American mindfulness, both Buddhist and secular, has been turned into an Enlightenment project. The American promoters of mindfulness have, entirely unwittingly, transposed Buddhist spirituality into their own post-Christian world-view: Hegelianism, positivism, Marxism, constructed in the shadow of Christianity with a view to its replacement, purported to give an account of the development of mankind as a whole, an account of the destiny of the species: this included an alienation or fall, followed by a political or social redemption, leading to a final salvation of humanity.

p.54
…the enlightenment goal of saving humanity

p.55
At present, spiritual localism (the Awakening Project) and the commitment to rational liberalism (the Enlightenment Project) are both important factors in American Buddhism and the mindfulness movement.

By which he (Wynne) apparently makes a s/w stronger distinction than he presents literally between “American Buddhism” and “the mindfulness movement” – i.e. the latter as being “without Buddhism”?


#4

Perhaps this is the key idea:

[T]he creation of Buddhism without Nirvana has allowed mindfulness to be refocused entirely on well-being in the here and now. And this has, in turn, allowed the aim of mindfulness to be re-imagined as an enhanced version of mundane experience. In short, “Buddhism without Nirvana” has paved the way for “Nirvana without Buddhism.”

I.e. a redefinition of Nirvana in terms of enhanced mundane experience, rather than transcendence of the mundane.

So, to put it in an extremely simplistic way, perhaps he is saying there are two groups: 1. people using mindfulness to reduce stress (with no intended connection to Buddhism); and 2. People with an interest in Buddhism using mindfulness to work towards a re-defined Buddhist goal - blissful living in the here and now.


#5

Bhikkhu Cintita characterises these approaches as “American Folk Buddhism”:


and, as in Wynne’s article, and the books he mentions, he sees it as a necessary support of “Adept Buddhism”, rather than a negative .


#6

Some of what we think of as “western Buddhism” is actually a transplanted variant of Asian Buddhism, which is itself an very diversified tradition. The idea that nibbana consists in a achieving a transformed view of samsara seems to be part of some zen and tantric traditions.


#7

That’s a good point, but I don’t think that those traditions “dumb down” nirvana. They still see the transformation as something extremely deep and profound.

Soundbites like: “There is not the slightest distinction between samsara and nirvana” or “The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences” don’t fully capture what Nargarjuna or Seng Can were getting at, but unfortunately they often seems to be plucked out as slogans…


#8

I think this is the key. I used to think that ‘enhanced mundane experience’ could be a useful stepping stone towards the N8fP but, alas, enhanced mundane experience is rapidly becoming so institutionalised that it may become a block to the real deal.


#9

Yes, I don’t think they dumb things down. I’m just trying resist the idea that Buddhist ideas that run counter to Theravada ideas are all due to “westernization.”


#10

To me what is most distinctive about the popular western forms of Buddhist-inspired culture these days is that they are bound up with a meditation industry that is an extension of western psychotherapy and self-help. These variants on Buddhism basically accept the value systems of the social, political and economic orders in which they are embedded, and only seek to help people experience less stress or neurosis as they try to function in them.

What is lost in this is that the Buddha walked away from his own social, political and economic systems to take up a life of ascetic wandering in search of the deathless.


#11

This is terrible news for anyone interested in therapy or social engagement (said a little bit tongue-in-cheek). It is terrible news for anyone who is attached to their comfortable western lifestyle (said in absolute terror). But it is the bottom line (said with belief).


#12

Exactly! What is oft-decried as watered down Dhamma in the west is really our equivalent of what mostly happens in “traditional” Buddhist cultures. It’s been part of Buddhism since the beginning.

Beautifully said. Buddhism is not comprised of organic automatons stamped out by the template of their dogma. It’s comprised of people, who, suprise!, are messy and complicated and diverse.

Surely entirely is a little strong. There is some degree of self-awareness and reflectiveness, even if it falls short of what we might want. As just one example, Ven Thanissaro wrote a widely-read article many years ago on Buddhist Romanticism, which addressed some of the ways in which modern American Buddhism adopts ideas from the western Enlightenment.


#13

It seems to me that is the appropriate historical perspective. What is happening in the west’s adoption of Buddhism has many parallels and similarities with how other cultures adopted and adapted Buddhism.

The reason I think I can somehow understand the EBT’s is because I image that I can understand and think somewhat like how the Buddha thought. That in some important ways we think alike. In doing so I’m sure I get him wrong and misunderstand him by projecting my own thoughts and perspectives over his.

This is the limitation of human communication. Why is why the stress on is going forth and experiencing it for oneself.


#14

Note: those are quotations are from Wynne’s article.

Than-Geof wrote several versions of that article, starting ca. 2000 and culminating in a full book (2015). I’ve read it a couple of times and attended a weekend workshop on it (2016 at IMC, Redwood City, CA), as (1) he’s the one (monastic) teacher I have access to and have followed for 10 years or so; and (2) I share a background in cultural history, which is, roughly, the genre of this book.

Noteworthy might be Chapter Two, “An Ancient Path”, which is a remarkable, relatively succinct (ca. 14 pages) summary of the Dhamma (as he understands and teaches it, of course).


#15

Interesting reviews, particularly the second.

One point I noticed was the deprecation of jhana/samadhi, starting with the ‘modified’ forms of mindfulness disseminated by Ledi Sayadaw and later adapted by S N Goenka. I have noticed on other Buddhist fora, that jhana/samadhi is generally deprecated, or said to be non-essential to ‘awakening’. But I do wonder whether this is in part because they require a very high degree and kind of discipline that most lay practitioners and secular followers have no hope of realising. But then, a related point is, in their absence, what remains is to all intents ‘a belief system’ supported and reinforced by a network of like-minded associates and peers; by which time it has drifted quite a long way from its original soteriological orientation.


#16

That does seem to approximate what Dr. Wynne is saying.

Most of what I’ve seen is that modernist “Buddhists” – notably the “secular” sort and explicit in the ideas of Stephen Batchelor – dispense with the “nirvana” / “nibbana” idea altogether. (Batchelor, if I recall, classes such as “metaphysical”, prefers terms like “eudaimonia” – Greek/Aristotelian idea of human well-being.) Ironic that they then fail to take the Buddha (at least as per the Pali Canon) at his word, hence ending-up with a sort of new-age, romantic (in V. Thanissaro’s sense), psycho-therapeutic humanism.

(B. Cintata is a peculiar case – a sort of “designer” monk, having excelled in family life, the business world, and academia, (according to his Wikipedia bio), he’s now the superlative monk-teacher. Having perused much of his “Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants”, I found it rather facile how he comes to the conclusion that Burmese / Sayadaw Pandita type practice is the embodiment of “EBT”. (From some hints in his writing, I suspect he hasn’t really read Mahasi Sayadaw’s works to any depth.))


#17

I can see why he is concerned though. The West and its capitalist culture has a tendency to appropriate ideas and “make it their own”.

The mindfulness craze could be seen as a historically similar “folk buddhism” pattern. But it could also be a different kind of thing, one based on secular appropriation and absorption.

Instead of being the folk elements on the margins of the Western Buddhism, the mindfulness movement could be seen as being yet another new element of modern secular western cultural life, a “natural” Xanax, part of the “wellness” subculture and so on.

However, since I originally came to Buddhism through MBSR, I can see how its sort of both, occupying a sort of liminal space between secular culture and the religious, and can lead others to the Dhamma, albeit circuitously.