Tuesday 21 December 2010

Is today’s American Buddhism tribal and myopic?

My answer to the question that titles this article is a resounding YES, but I raise the issue, not to bury Caesar or castigate Brutus -- though I WILL get a castigating swat or two in before this blogpost is through, judgmental pundit that I am -- but to raise the discussion.

Buddhism isn’t about only those of us that claim the designation of Buddhist, but about the circumstance of everyone. It’s not as if we were all Hawai’ians and our discussions were about the archipelago where we live, and things narrowly pertaining to we’uns, the surfing, hotel management and telling tourists about what it's like living close to a volcano.

I submit that Buddhism is about suffering. And, I submit that suffering is universal, endured by all humans except a scant few with a vaulting pole in their head or in a far-advanced stage of dementia. And that suffering is a circumstance that waylays cows and dogs and squirrels from time-to-time and a thousand other species of our fellow traveller animals on this big blue whirling planet. Doesn’t our concern reach out to all of them?

Just as massive air pollution that emanates from here in the US affects the world, suffering all over the world HAS TO affect us, involve us and concern us. And yet, American Buddhists’ interests in the world [at least, when we see ourselves in the narrow category of “American Buddhist” is focused on Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other nations that have significant Buddhist populations. Why is this?

Is the circumstance of a Buddhist suffering of a different order of misery that we should favor it at getting our keen attention, as opposed to the misery of non-Buddhists? Basically, are we all here just to look after the tribe? Is our spiritual maturity that ill-advanced? In other words: Are we all just yahoos (in the Swiftian, not online, sense) on this freakin wayward bus we call earth?

“Our” magazines and some of the buddhoblogs that discuss issues of worldwide significance talk about Buddhism, as well they should and must, but not in the context of suffering soldiers In Afghanistan near Pakistan. Why is that? JUST because there are no Buddhists to frame the story?

Sebastian Junger wrote this tremendous book, WAR, that ventures far afield to a place where intensity and fear and courage are most extreme. Isn’t Buddhism there, no matter that self-proclaimed Buddhists aren’t? Shouldn’t the farthest places be within our reach -- from the heights of heaven to the pits of hell?

Must we go to India or Nepal to find Buddhism? Don’t you think the fount of Buddhism is already close by, and if we don’t know that it is close by and everywhere [and not especially so in those "special" places], haven’t we lost it?


  1. Does it have to be either/or? Either I am taking care of the tribe or I am concerned about the whole world? If I am expressing a concern for Buddhists in Tibet, does that necessarily mean I have no concern for [affiliation unspecified] individuals in Afghanistan?

  2. All the Dharma is right here in front (around, in, beside) you. It's all you'll ever need. That's your teaching.

    Your job, as you learn, is to give back to the world wherever you find it --- under your feet or the other side of the planet.

    So these two don't conflict. One is how we learn the other is how we act.

  3. I am very new to Buddhism, & am only beginning to learn about it's teachings & history. I do not call myself a Buddhist, only say that I practice Buddhism - because I'm not sure that I qualify as a Buddhist! As I learn the teachings, I try to 'practice' them in my daily life, & showing concern & compassion for all beings is certainly a part of that practice. It may be because I'm so new, but I have never limited my concern for the suffering of others to only Buddhists - or even to humans, so the question you pose is a little surprising to me.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Re Barbara's comment: Yes, we can best learn in a kind of seclusion before we mature in our practice and venture into the marketplace. I would say -- and you may not disagree -- that the marketplace is the macro-space, the LARGE sphere of interactions. And yet, I would maintain, and it is the intended message of this post, that we tend to remain within the tribe. And what this inculcates within us a backwards, immature, unventuresome tribal attitude.

    star: I would maintain that tribalism brings with it a sort of conceit that divides US and OTHER, losing the fullest sense of "shared suffering." Certainly, we can focus on something less than the whole of the world, and we must to 'know what's small,' but giving a priveledged status to Tibet or Thailand, et al, makes us advocates for "a side" in suffering, when suffering has no sides.

    Anon: Perhaps I should say that American Buddhists tend to limit their focus to Tibet, et al, and we start to fail to see Buddhist principles as universal. American Buddhist blogs, magazines etc, when looking at worldwide issues certainly seem to look only where Buddhism is being practiced. I think that is a many-layered mistake.

  5. Buddhism is alive and abstaining from kicking in Amman, Lagos, Baghdad, Pretoria, Beijing, Wichita and yes, even here in Jerusalem. Why would anyone think otherwise? We all believe that Buddhism has universal principles to offer. And we all belong (in varying degrees of commitment) to other tribes as well as the Buddhist one. From where I sit, Buddhists look a lot less myopic than the tribes surrounding them.

    Like my college friend Bruce used to tell me, "If you can't find nirvana in Indiana, you better forget about Tibet."

  6. Dan: Wow, I like the sentiment of your friend Bruce! "If you can't find nirvana in Indiana, you better forget about Tibet."

    And that IS the point. If we are "selective" about where we see suffering, the universality of it gets lost.

    We only 'save' Tibet if we save the world. If we are stinting, then the whole project goes out the door.