Friday, 17 April 2009

The Western Buddhist Movement - Part 2 - Individual Awakening

I find generalizations, even in a relative sense, to be counter productive and usually end up doing more harm that good. In Buddhism, this problem of Dukkha, confusion, pain and suffering is not an American or British problem nor a Western problem, it is a human problem, carried by all races and peoples, all cultures and societies. However, I must make an exception here, to talk about the general characteristics of the Western culture and its relation to Buddhist principles. We all know very well that what works for one culture can not be translated so easily into another.

"It is impossible to say just what I mean!"
~TS Eliot

Some anthropologists would argue one of Western Civilizations most defining modern characteristics is this notion of individualism. "Don't try to pull the wool over my eyes, I want to see for myself!" Certainly on the surface this trait, which is bound closely to ego and pride, would seem to be a great detriment or obstacle to awaking. It stands seemingly in opposition of anatta or the teaching of no-self, which is one of the three basic pillars of Buddhist teachings. Perhaps though, if we reflected upon this for a moment, we could see our individualism, our distinct brand of Western self identification presents unexplored benefits to those in search of the true essence of these Buddhist teachings.

"Jesus knew — knew — that we're carrying the Kingdom of Heaven around with us, inside, where we're all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look..."
~J.D. Salinger

This path we choose, our seeking of understanding and wisdom, is a most solitary and individual task. After all the lectures are over, after all the books have been read, blogs surfed and knowledge of the teachings conceptualized, the real understand and acceptance can only be done by individual practice and seeing these things for what they are. At the end of the road, it is only you, with single minded effort, that will experience the true nature of our existence. No one can tell you what it is, they can merely point the way. It is you who must realize this understanding.

I liken it to ones experience of being born from a mothers womb. Just for arguments sake, lets say, inside the womb you could get all the literature and essays describing the process of growing from a zygote to birth. Maybe you are able to have access several renowned scholars and are able to read the most beautifully composed prose from the finest literary masters describing what you will find on the other side of that great tunnel into that other place. Perhaps a nice poem or lovely sonnet can almost capture that first moment of contact between mother and baby, and touch your emotional mind with that instant bond and unconditional love. Truth is, the journey, while perhaps greatly aided by all these explanations, can only be fully known and understood as experienced. No amount of lessons, or reading or memorizations could possibly prepare you for what is to come.

Our stubbornness and opinionated individualistic tendencies, which most certainly has its exceptions, can be looked upon as strength of our Western culture. Many of us are beings not satisfied with what someone else tells us is truth, we want to see for ourselves. We strive to dig deeper, explore further and not take a half-assed answer in exchange for the real thing. Westerners have made science almost a new religion, constantly challenging conventional wisdom, seeking out new ways of doing things, taking different perspectives on old problems. It is this drive, this determination which can enhance our practice to test and see for ourselves this understanding.

"The art of our necessities is strange,
And can make vile things precious. "
~William Shakespeare, King Lear

Not to be outdone, but perhaps out of necessity, our cultures have seemingly embraced the best fitting parts of other cultures and integrated them into our own. We have shown we are able see when something works better or is more effective than what we currently have and build it into this quilt-work fiber of society. Once reason and good judgement are found, which sometimes takes a long time, the xenophobic leanings seem to be quickly forgotten. In Buddhist teachings, we have already shown that we can take a certain practice from one Buddhist culture and integrating with another from a totally different culture.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Hurdles remain and probably will for a long time to come. Closed mindedness, lack of compassion for other cultures and customs and those in the West that cling to belief in truth as told to them and not experienced will remain a difficult obstacle. The ego which sees itself as infallible and righteous is and will always remain the peril of individualism and it is up to our good judgment and conviction of sensibility to over come it.

"Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one."

This does not mean our journeys should be embarked on alone. Guidance, teaching, encouragement and friendship from a community of those knowledgeable and other fellow travelers can greatly help us on our way. Our Sangha or whatever label you place upon it, however unconventional has shown itself to be selfless, compassionate and full of wisdom. Will we lose this sense of community, this flowering revolution of spirit and allow it to pass into history?

"In reality there are as many religions as there are individuals."
~Mohandas Gandhi


  1. This was very motivating. I'm glad you didn't neglect that the sangha can be a source of motivation.

  2. Indeed Diomedies, a supportive and helpful community, or Sangha, is vital I think.

    Thanks for the comments!

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    CEP 74001 970 Goiania, Goias, Brazil
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    Mr. Alves Pereira