Buddhism Alone

Doing Buddhism Alone In America

Earlier this month, the Buddhist online magazine Lion’s Roar published an interview with Rev. angel Kyodo williams entitled The Radical Buddhism of Rev. angel Kyodo williams (here).   One of the many things williams said in the interview was that in her view, the

“trouble with the American Buddhist world, is that its older, white, male, middle-class adherents find it difficult to connect with the suffering that exists beyond their privileged circumstances.

“’I’m obsessed with the question of how we shift that,’ williams has said, adding, “There’s something in the way we are practicing Buddhism that actually seems to make us more insulated. Even this practice, which is supposed to be about how we relate to the world and to the people around us, becomes hyper-individualized.’”

Let’s Open Our Hearts to Suffering!

Personally, I admire Rev. angel Kyodo williams’ intelligence, courage, energy and mission. And I generally agree with her when she identifies American Buddhism’s older, white, male, middle-class adherents and our, I don’t know what the right word is here, let’s say “shyness,” to connect with the suffering beyond our horizons as one part of what’s ailing the American Buddhist world—and the world as a whole. I don’t think this is the only problem with the American Buddhist world, but I agree she’s identified a big one.

We older, white guy Buddhists generally fail to connect with those suffering beyond our particularized horizons in a consistent, roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty kind of way.  That is, we don’t connect in a way that would actually make us and the world better and kinder, and more humane.

Rev. williams is puzzled by our slowness and our refusal. I’m puzzled by it too. I think we can all benefit from discussing and reflecting and acting on this problem. I say this as an older, white, male member of the American Buddhist world.

I’m also interested in how we shift that shyness to respond to the suffering of the world.  Especially, I want to ask how do we do this against a mounting tide of pressures that Rev. williams says are insulating and hyper-individualizing American Buddhist practice? I’m interested in figuring out what these forces are and how to counter them as well.  That’s what the remainder of this post is about.

“Walk over the earth for the blessing of many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world.” ~The Buddha

In my view, we live in a hyper-individualized time. For example, when I was young, whole families shared a single telephone.  Now, even small children have their own personal phones and computers and sometimes TVs too.

In my earliest schooling, one thing that connected my classmates was a shared world of children’s TV programs. Today, as I understand it, more and more children watch their own individualized programs on YouTube.

When I was a child I played with the neighbor’s children.  Now many children never even talk to or meet their neighbors–even those living next door. These are simple examples of a kind of hyper-individualization in our culture that may weaken our sense of shared reality beyond what we perceive as our own particularized, individual interests.

These are hyper-individualizing times!

Contemporary sociologist have remarked on the hyper-individualization in our time in books like Robert Putnam’s now classic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (here), and  books by social critics like Malcolm Harris’s, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (here) have pointed to the same phenomenon

And historians and psychologists have noted that part of the process of hyper-individualization has to do with the modern tendency to psychologize everything that ails or irritates we modern people.

So, for example, if your boss is domineering, if he disrespects you at every turn, if your work is dangerously unsafe, and if your wages are too low you’re likely, sooner or later, to become depressed and exhausted and without hope.  What then are you likely to do?

Well, these days, if you hope to make your life better, you’ll be urged to do one of two things.   Either look for another job, which in itself is a highly individualized approach to the problem. Or, you’ll be encouraged to “face the fact” that you are having a hard time adjusting to your job and modern life.

What’s more, you’ll probably be urged to find  yourself a good psychotherapist and perhaps to take medication to help you work through your individual, very personal maladjustment.

“Don’t Mourn, Organize!” ~Mother Jones

An “old fashioned” alternative to this hyper-individualized response to modern living would be to try to organize your co-workers to make the workplace a more humane place to be. But, in my lifetime at least, as I observe the situation, organizing to right social ills is, much more than less, a thing that people do less and less. It’s seen as a quaint but mostly invalid response to the ills of the world.

Today, more often than not, what we have replaced a socialized response to social problems with is an industry that profits by tacitly promoting the idea that people simply must adjust to the multiplying dystopian characteristics of modern living through medicine and therapy.  Or, perhaps medicine and therapy together with mindfulness meditation and/or yoga.

There are many places where you can read about this critique of the isolating, insulating, and de-socializing consequences of the rise of psychotherapy.  One is here.

“I live everywhere and nowhere. But I don’t know who lives next door to me. Who’s in the next flat? Who’s in 14-B?” ~James Hillman

This psychologizing and medicalizing of everything is just one example of the modern pressures that may be adding to the isolating and hyper-individualizing tendencies in Western, modernizing Buddhism. The pressure that our hyper-individualizing capitalist economy places on people to compete against others can also be counted, I think, as a further conditioning factor that may lead to modern Buddhists thinking they can, or even should, go it alone in practice.

Another factor in this insulating process is the fact that Buddhism itself has a current of teaching that valorizes the lone pursuit of enlightenment. When one reads the ancient teachings one discovers an individual path of practice.  It’s well known.

We see this in a phase in the Buddha’s own life. When he left home questing to end human anguish, at first he practiced with two teachers and their communities. Yet soon the buddha-to-be grew disenchanted with the approach of the two teachers and so became a wondering ascetic. Next, he practiced with a group of five ascetics. He then abandoned that group and their extreme austerities to practice alone.

It was while he was alone that he experienced awakening. Yet, once he did, he returned to the world, he build a vibrant, wholesome community, and got on with the job of relieving the suffering of the world. This trajectory of practice is also reflected in the Ten Ox Herding Pictures that were once very  popular in Chan and Zen practice as descriptions of the trajectory or practice.  The tenth picture shows the adept returning to ordinary life to serve the world.

Barefooted and naked of breast,
I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden,
and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees
become alive. ~The Tenth Ox Herding Pictures

What I have observed in my life and study is that lay Buddhist practice, at least in some circles in the Dharma world, has become more and more individualized, insulated, and isolated from the widespread suffering in the world. There is so little time in people’s lives to practice sangha, to learn to take refuge in sangha.

This has happened because we are working many more hours than in the past, we are working further from home than in the past.  The demands of this capitalist economy are more pervasive and intense than in the early years of my life.  And more than in the past we tend to  equate the ends of Buddhist practice with the ends of the individualizing therapeutic practices of modern psychology, medicine, and psychotherapy and with the phase of Buddhist practice leading up to awakening.

The idea is that through Dharma one becomes more and better able to cope with the stresses, strains, and irritations of modern life, and that this is the point of practice. So people who may even have a taste of awakening simply abandon the welfare of the world and the rigors of post awakening practice altogether to shelter from the ever increasing unpleasantness they encounter in life all around.

It is crucial and wonderful to find relief from the pressures of modern life in practice.

We do this because we’ve picked up some meditation techniques and calming technologies along the path of practice that have made it easier to adjusted to the irritations of modern living.   And, of course, this is wonderful. Hopefully knowing these strategies adds to the health and wellbeing of the practitioner, to the wellfare of her or his family, and to that of the world.

And, in my view, the individualizing tendencies in the best practices of both Buddhism and psychotherapy are necessary stages in a person’s progress to becoming an effective human being in the world.

Yet, it is also my view that people are not often encouraged to move beyond the individualizing stages of psychotherapy or spiritual practice. I think that’s an unfortunate loss for  the practitioner—and a terrible loss for the welfare of the world.

This moving past or beyond the individualizing stages of practice is in large part what sangha is all about.  But we have little time for sangha these days.

Just imagine if the Buddha had decided that his individual awakening was the end of his path of practice.  And, we know it was indeed otherwise; he spent the last 45 years of his life building the community of practitioners, lay and monastic, male and female practitioners of all ages and casts and skin colors, and working to save all sentient beings– a charge and a vow he shared with and transmitted to we American Buddhists too.

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May your life go well!

The photo at the top of this post is by Islam Hassan.