When East is West.

Author:Leithart, Peter J.

In an epilogue to his 1998 book, Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das, a popular American Buddhist writer and lecturer, surveyed the current state of "Western Buddhism" and identified "ten emerging trends." They make for curious reading. Western Buddhists are more "lay-oriented" than traditional Buddhists, although they allow "room for traditional monasticism." Western Buddhists support "women as well as men in teaching and leadership roles" and believe the "ideal" of "gender equality" is "reachable." Western Buddhism lacks "the complex, esoteric rites and arcane rituals" of traditional Buddhism, emphasizing "essence more than form." More and more, Western Buddhists recognize "the benefits of nonsectarianism, ecumenicism, and cross-fertilization," now that they find themselves in the "great melting pot" of "American karma."

Most revealing, however, may be Surya Das' observation that "the Dharma is very suited to a Western way of life." Indeed. Buddhism is flourishing in America and in Western Europe. But the Buddhism that's booming is what Boston University's Stephen Prothero calls "Boomer Buddhism." Promoted by Surya Das, Jack Kornfield, and famous Hollywood converts such as Richard Gere, the "new Buddhists" practice an egalitarian, feminist, tolerant, ecumenical Buddhism that doesn't have to bother with religious tradition. Stephen Batchelor is perhaps the most radical of the new Buddhists: he advocates a hyper-Puritan "Buddhism Without Beliefs" that eliminates priests, rituals, icons, and various devotional practices. Others promote Buddhism as a mechanism for achieving typically American goals of success, money, and great sex. George Santayana, who had a bust of the Buddha on his mantle next to the bust of Kant, would not be surprised: "American life is a powerful solvent," he wrote. "It seems to neutralize every intellectual element, however tough and alien it may be, and to fuse it in the native goodwill, complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism."

Not surprisingly, traditional Buddhists are reacting with horror. Responding to Surya Das' trend-watching, Ngakpa Traktung Yeshe Dorje and A'dzom Rinpoche charge that Surya Das' true agenda is revealed in his 2000 follow-up book, Awakening to the Sacred, where he "encourages each spiritual seeker to make up his or her own religion from scratch." They see American Buddhism as the agenda of "a small coterie of passe academics" who want to promote "egalitarianism and collectivism in a...

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