As Tom Armstrong argued:
Strand believes that rituals and tradition and chanting and marriages and burials and birthings, as well as prominent religious holidays, act as family-cohering events within a religion, something the Christians and Jews have in plenitude, while we stinting Buddhists have very little of that group-hug, dress-up bonding crap.
These are valuable things in a culture that adheres to such beliefs, but America is largely moving beyond these older value systems. We are, as Americans, essentially a post-modern culture now. Certainly, many people still need these rituals to feel connected -- and I have no problem with that, the Buddha tailored his teachings to reach a wide range of people. Some teachings were far more advanced than others, both intellectually and culturally. But many Americans, especially Buddhists, are living in a post-ritual, post-mythic world.
When the Buddha was liberated, the culture was predominantly pre-rational, and many of the rituals and ceremonies of this cultural mindset survive into current Buddhist practice, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, which arose in a richly shamanic culture (the Bon tradition). But that was 2,500 years ago. The world has changed, and with it, so has Buddhism as it has moved to the West.
Science has shown that it is highly unlikely that we share the world with demons and other non-corporeal beings. Likewise, it is highly unlikely that there are hells or heavens, other than those we create for ourselves.
So what does this mean for American Buddhists?
When we discover Buddhism, we accept the Four Noble Truths and embark upon the Noble Eightfold Path. Many of us, especially in the Mahayana tradition, take the Bodhisattva Vow to work toward the liberation of all sentient beings before seeking our own liberation. This is very post-rational value system -- putting others before ourselves.
Throughout history, Buddhism has tended to remain aloof from political and social concerns. But in a global community, this is no longer feasible. When we vow to serve the liberation of all sentient beings, there are no exceptions. This is now being very clearly demonstrated by the Buddhist monks in Burma who are demonstrating against an oppressive and violent government.
Many would argue that this is not an appropriate behavior for Buddhist monks. And even their Thai neighbors have refused, so far, to support their efforts. But what can be more appropriate for Buddhist monks than working to free their fellow citizens from tyranny? How better to assist their fellow beings to be free of suffering than to help free them from an oppressive military junta that has blocked all efforts toward democracy?
A post-modernism Buddhism must recognize that we live in an interconnected world -- that Buddhists can no longer stand idly by as oppression happens around them. Thich Nhat Hanh advocated an Engaged Buddhism, after having lived that approach for many years. There is no other responsible course of action.
As Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, moved into the West, many teachers failed to recognize that their new audience is so culturally different than their homeland in Tibet or India. While some Americans have been willing to adopt Tibetan traditions, such as prostrations and other archaic rituals, many more are not.
One of the few early teachers to recognize this cultural difference was Chogyam Trungpa. He brought a Westernized version of Tibetan Buddhism to American in the 1970s, the Shambhala tradition. He understood that Americans have different values and mindsets than Tibetans. It has been, sometimes derisively, called secular Buddhism. As such, it might be the first truly post-modern Buddhism, one devoid of rituals and traditions. [The lineage's new leader, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, declared in 2,000 that Shambhala is a Buddhist path, not a secular path.]
In a similar vein, many Western Buddhists, and Americans in particular, do not follow a single tradition. We might practice Big Mind, as developed by Genpo Roshi -- a combination of Zen practice and Voice Dialogue, a development from modern psychology. We might also practice mindfulness and Tonglen, as described by Pema Chodron in her many wonderful books. Many American Buddhists have come to the Dharma from other religions, and consequently may still believe in God, however non-anthropomorphic that belief might be.
If Buddhism in America is to survive and prosper -- and I have no doubt that it will -- we need to be less concerned with bringing in mythic rituals than with being open to the ways Buddhism can evolve to serve people in our current culture. And we also need to accept that our Buddhist values inform every area of our lives, including politics.
Even the Dalai Lama is willing to reject traditional beliefs if current science proves them wrong. We too need to be able to release pre-modern traditions to allow Buddhism to evolve with the current understanding of the world -- our post-modern world.