The stresses and intensity of modern American society have influenced many people to adopt and adapt the principles of Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Some recent statistics from the US department of Health and Human Services show that 75% of the General Population experiences at least “some stress” every two weeks (National Health Interview Survey). Half of those experience moderate or high levels of stress during the same two-week period. It is common knowledge that stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and other illnesses in many individuals.
Stress also contributes to the development of alcoholism, obesity, suicide, drug addiction, cigarette addiction, and other harmful behaviors. It was reported that tranquilizers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications account for one fourth of all prescriptions written in the US each year. With so many mental health problems, it is almost reassuring that Eastern religions are steadily growing.
Eastern religions have been practiced in Asia and the Subcontinent for thousands of years longer than Christianity.
Buddhism, a main religion of Asia has been practiced in Tibet for Millennia. Buddhism, Zen and Hindu were first introduced to the western world in 1893 at the World Religions Conference in Chicago. The Dalai Lama represented Buddhism and D.T. Suzuki represented Zen. However, Eastern religions went relatively ignored until 1959, when the Chinese invasion of Tibet left 1.3 million Tibetans dead and 6,000 Buddhist monasteries destroyed. Tibetan refugees escaped to bordering countries and some fled farther to the US and Europe. Those who fled remembered how the Buddha taught his enlightened disciples to continue to spread his teachings. “With the Chinese Invasion of Tibet, it was as if a dam had burst; suddenly Tibetan wisdom began to flow freely down from the roof of the world and to the West…and there to fulfill the prophecy come Westerners looking for guidance and eager to develop their own spiritual lives and transplant the flowering tree of enlightenment to their own lives.”(Das, 29)
The first westerners to begin to adopt Eastern principles were often people on the fringes of society or in the avant-garde of the arts, literature, and philosophy. The beatniks in the 50’s, the Hippies in the 60’s and 70’s. Evidence of eastern thought in the writings of Jack Kerouac, Hippies – George Harrison and the Beatles studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga. Richard Albert turned his name to Baba Ram Das.
In our society today, it seems like everyone knows someone into Eastern religion. From businessmen to politicians to celebrities individuals are joining meditating groups while still maintaining ties to their traditional faiths to “wet their feet” in more satisfying and less materialistic lives. “At retreats you’re likely to find yourself sitting next to a stockbroker or a therapist or a retired social worker who may or may not claim to be Buddhist.”(Wood, 3) “Unlike the rush of mostly younger Americans to Buddhism that occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the new ranks include a larger percentage of seekers over 50”(Wood, 2). Now in the West we see many variations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen, such as Mahayana, Pali, and Vajpareena. Our new, multi-religious land that combines Eastern and Western religion can be described as “the scientific West arriving at something like the fusion of the Confucian cultivation of virtue through the bonds of family and community, Taoist laissez-faire and yearning for nature, and Buddhist compassion for man’s need for Nirvana.”(Layman, 80) We have adapted religions in many ways to fit our lives.
“Buddhism in America is characterized by great diversity, with both conservative and liberal trends within the same sect and denomination of course, differences in furnishings and hairstyles are superficial, and are either tangential or irrelevant to the Buddhist system of beliefs and basic way of life. But fundamental and widespread changes in American Buddhism are occurring. Its priests and adherents are recognizing that Buddhism must be shown to have relevant approaches to the problems which plague American Society. Accordingly, sermons and lectures delivered by the clergy are making less use of illustrations recounted by ancient Buddhist saints and are becoming more applicable to everyday living in modern American society.”(Layman, 32) As a result, “The ancient religion of Buddhism grows even stronger roots in a new world, with the help of the movies, pop culture, and the politics of repressed Tibet.” (Van Biema, 1) Because of the inroads that eastern religions have made in our country there is an increase in personal reform via retreats, “sanghas” – a circle of friends who regularly meditate together, and self-help groups. We are also undergoing social reform, creating a more accepting society, and building upon an ancient religion. “The number of English language Buddhist teaching centers coast to coast has grown from 429 to almost 2,000”(Wood, 1).
What makes Eastern Thought so different from Western Thought.
What we currently have in the West, “which is a sort of anti-religious, psychological way of thinking…these psychologies often work against our spiritual side. Buddhism, on the other hand, can help by providing psychological bridges that will reinforce the spiritual side.”(Toms, 143) Unlike Western religions, Eastern religions do not teach commandments, rather, natural ways of ordinary human practice. Nor do they teach right and wrong – correct and incorrect or wise and ignorant.
The Buddha is different from a God or Jesus in that Buddha became perfectly aware of the nature of reality and nature of the self, and he was then able to remove limitations on manifestation and could actually manifest whatever was most helpful to those around him. He was known as Shasta, or teacher, and his objective was to remove the cause of all suffering to find true happiness. The Buddha can be perceived as omnipotent, he was enlightened and awakened, but he was not the creator. Hinduism, Brahma, Buddhism, Zen, and other Eastern religions are consistent in the belief that there are many gods and one creator, only, they are not sure of the true creator.
There are no set areas where one must practice, however, quiet, natural places are encouraged and it can be practiced any time one feels necessary. It can be a daily, weekly, yearly or once in a lifetime act, there are no rules as to when a student must pray.
The basic tenets and ideas of Eastern religions are generally very different from those of Western religions. Mindfulness – the Zen practice of embracing the present, is being profoundly aware of each moment so that people can better appreciate their own lives, and being more compassionate about the suffering of others. Buddhism tries to make sense out of life without fear and guilt that some other religions induce. You find the way that you want to live, open up that way, and then pursue that way. The best way to live the life you want is to “actualize what you realize.” In other words, make real your dreams. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in Zen that, “The other may be a beautiful sunrise. The other may be your friend, your husband, your wife. The other is love. Mindfulness helps you recognize what is there that makes life real, that makes life possible.”(Toms, 19). Buddhism doesn’t believe in God, but believes in the nature of god. They are theistic, only not sure of true creator.
The Tibetan vision of reality is in a way, the most super-positive vision of human evolution that one could imagine. The Buddha regarded himself as an empiricist, only relying on that which is known and testable in experience. What is new to Western thinking is the Buddhist idea that ethics and spiritual development are also governed by universal laws. “In the West we have a clear sense of personal and group responsibility for the government and welfare of everyone, set forth by Locke, Rousseau, and others in the late 18th century and developed for the next 200 years in the democratic societies in Eastern Europe and the Americas. As Western Buddhists, we are building on one tradition of social responsibility that has been cultivated in monastic settings… with such a synthesis of traditions, Buddhism in the West is sure to apply the precepts in a new way.”(Aitken – written by Tworkov, 53) The forms of introspection that have, to date, been available to Western Philosophers as the raw materials of their craft, have been very limited in their scope and have consequently produced limited world views.
Eastern religions have become as accessible as Western religions, because they have spread to every corner of earth. If all else fails, the Internet is a wealth of information. “One of the key elements in all of spiritual life is making ourselves available to others. What young men need is initiation, someone to whom they can show their stuff and prove it – otherwise they do it on the street.”(Toms, 849)
The main ideas and themes appeal to many, Buddhist belief in using the mind to change our lives provides practical methods and exercises that we can use every day to change our perception of reality. “Rather than turning us away from what is best in Western Culture, Buddhism can help us return to it, for the west today is in the grip of a major cultural crisis of confidence.”(Kulananda, 210) Buddhism has become so popular in the West, because it teaches one how to be happier and more aware by use of; seeing things as they are, living a sacred life, speaking the truth, loving, attention and focus on what is important to you, and meditation. These concepts work with us, because they are easily adaptable and understandable to the Western way of life. “Zen can be adapted to be useful I modern times. Like water it takes the form of the vessel that contains it without any change in its nature: water remains water whether it is held in a rice bowl or a coffee mug. Many who seek enlightenment in this day and age may not be able to fulfill their destiny within a purely monastic lifestyle.”(Simpkins, p.61)
Another aspect of Eastern religions that attract Westerners is the ability to be independent in the search of enlightenment. Jakusho Kwong, Soto Priest and abbot of the Soto Zen Buddhist Temple in Genjoji, expresses, “There’s a lot to read, and there’s a lot to learn. But for me, the most important thing is what’s yours. What can you call your own? And to know that. Not what Suzuki Roshi said, or Maezumi Roshi said, or Katagari Roshi said. What you say. What it means to you. That’s the only way.” (Tworkov, 103) “In Zen terms, we are born alone, we die alone, and we have realization alone.”(Toms, 131)
Maintaining a clear awareness of our feelings and sensations, we can open out the gap between feeling and craving. This experience strengthens our intuition of how things really are and a series of ever more intensely positive mental states therefore follow. Hindu promotes the ability to listen when people need to be heard. When asked “What’s your road man?” Jack Kerouac answered, “Holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, it’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.” By saying this, Kerouac means that his path in life is to follow his Taoist religion, be free from others, seek happiness and peace, innocence of youth, and that the path he is on can be universally reached. This just shows how conclusive people can be with their words when they learn what the really important things are.
Eastern religions seek to fulfill self and understand the nature of self. They teach the seeker to let “body and mind fall away” and look at the greater picture (Toms, 73). “In going for refuge to the Buddha one commits oneself to becoming more than one is now.”(Kulananda, 72) “In seeking happiness by clinging to a restricting, ego-identity, again and again we cause ourselves and others to suffer.”(Kulananda, 87)
More and more public figures such as; Richard Gere, Michael Yauch, Steven Segal, Courtney Love, Oliver Stone, and more, practice the eastern religions and praise their effectiveness. “Yauch is slight and soft-spoken, he says Buddhism, ‘felt real, not hokey.’ Two generations ago, given his milieu he would have been a curiosity, today he is something of a role model.”(Van Biema, 8-9)
Eastern religions can be a cheap alternative to psychotherapy because they are very similar. “Given the sophistication of the Buddhist analysis of the mind and its preoccupation with the eradication of suffering, it is only natural that strong similarities have come to be seen between Buddhism and the contemporary Western Psychotherapy.”(Kulananda, 222) As Buddhism and psychotherapy become closer acquainted with one another, there is an emerging trend towards a kind of psychotherapeutic Buddhism, where the drive towards enlightenment is replaced with the overriding impulse to simply come to terms with oneself and feel better about oneself and the world.
Why has it become important to our society.
“Anything infused into our world today about nonviolence can only help.”(Scorsesce)
Most people in our society struggle to find the right views. “Right views bring us in touch with some of the most important concepts in Buddhist philosophy. How do you perceive life, death, impermanence, suffering, dissatisfaction, and cause and effect? Do we really believe, and know, that we reap what we sow, or do we regard that as just another cliché? In the west, we are typically conditioned to push these serious matters aside, and deal with them later. Buddhism says deal with them now, and you’ll transform your life.”(Das, 95) Maintaining a clear sense of our feelings and sensations, we can open out the gap between feeling and craving. This experience strengthens our intuition of how things are and a series of ever more intensely positive mental states therefore follow. Two Buddhist ideas, that there is a natural hierarchy of values and that reality is perceived in the imagination, contain within them the seeds of Western Cultural renaissance. What Buddhism most has to offer Western Philosophy is the notion that ways of conceptualizing are intertwined with ways of being and although one can go about philosophy as if it were a purely intellectual exercise, there is little value in that – thought alone cannot apprehend reality.
“Dharma is timeless not culture bound.”(Das, 378) Dharma, the cosmic law underlying all existence; combines with the Buddha and the Sangha (the community of believers), to form the Three Treasures of the faith. It is one of Buddhism’s great strengths that it has at its heart the ideal of spiritual fellowship. “Today, Buddhism is at a critical juncture as it encounters the West. It is no surprise that there have been formidable culture, linguistic, political, and material barriers to overcome in the transmission of Buddha Dharma from the East to the West and from the past on to the present and the future. This is a transition through time as well as through space, spanning continents and oceans, from a traditional Oriental world to a scientific postmodern Western Culture.”(Das, 378) “Modern Western culture is marked by an unprecedented degree of technological sophistication and material abundance. It is highly complex and deeply fragmented.”(Kulananda, 25) All over, people seem torn between a sincere desire to conquer ego and the drive to be doing so. A great benefit to our society has been the increase in people who maintain less interest in self and more for the benefit of others, as well as the increase of knowledge of the effects. The majority of Eastern Religions promote the ability to listen when people need to be heard. Everything that lives is subject to decay. All conditioned things are impermanent. To be alive is to change. Without change we would be absolutely inert, but the un-enlightened human condition is to fight change every inch of the way.
A following of well known peoples (celebrities, business men, politicians, etc.) has made Eastern Religion appealing to those who were originally skeptical. A poem that appeared in New Yorker Magazine shows how Buddhism has practically become a “household term” – “The huge head of Richard Gere, a tsonga blossom / in his hair, comes floating like a Macy’s / Parade balloon above snowcapped summit / of sacred Kailas.” Some very outstanding people of the Eastern religions have reached out to those in need, like Roshi Bernard Glassman, founder of the “Bakery Zendo” in Brooklyn, who uses what he learns and teaches to benefit his community. He employs the local homeless and unemployed in his bakery, garment company, and building-renovation services, and houses them in his large suburban New York mansion where they are allowed to study Zen with the great master.
There has been much progression of Buddhism in the US because, “Americans have always been a do – it – yourself culture, and this is a do – it – yourself philosophy.”(Van Biema, 8). But it is definite that there will be much more progression. As Richard Gere said, “There has not been enough time to ferment and intoxicate the culture in America, but our approach, because were so new at it, has a certain eagerness and excitement that you sometimes don’t see in Tibetans. Westerners ask questions, they take notes.”
Individuals join meditating groups while still maintaining ties to their traditional faiths to “wet their feet” in more satisfying and less materialistic lives. The progression of Western views to adapt Eastern ideas can be explained as, “Combining monastic views with secular lifestyle has nonetheless served two functions. It has introduced the monastic dimension of the Japanese Zen tradition to the United States, where it may someday figure prominently. It has also been a skillful means for establishing the authority of Zen teachings both within and without the communities.” (Glassman – Tworkov, 153)
People become more aware and accepting
hoiward, j amdas.
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