CULTURAL FACTORS SHAPING BUDDHA’S MESSAGE

In ACTIVISM by Ira Rechtshaffer2 Comments

Every culture through which Buddhism radiated its wisdom shaped the Buddha’s message to the mentality of its populace, and by doing so, offered novel and fresh opportunities for Buddha dharma to shine through. In the present cross fertilization of East and West, contemporary western culture and the ancient tradition of Buddhism, something very unique in the history of spirituality is being born.

As Buddhism is being transplanted in soil thousands of miles and years removed from its source, it is creating an intriguing paradox. On the one hand, the practice of meditation opens us up to direct experience of our mind which transcends history and culture. On the other hand, personal experience cannot be divorced from the culturally specific forms through which it radiates. These forms must be honored or else personal experience loses its social and cultural context.

Before the Buddha uttered the first word of his teaching there was already a sacred culture in sixth century BCE India that was in existence for a thousand years. For Indians living at that time, the world was already sacred, and the body was regarded as a temple that housed the transcendental dimension of spirit. Ordinary people experienced the sacred as an imminent presence in the world around them as well as within themselves. Humans, animals, plants, insects and rocks all shared the same divine life, which necessitated compassionate relationship with all of life.

In ancient India, and in many of the traditional Asian countries in which Buddhism found a home, space was not experienced as empty, but replete with gods and goddesses. Time was not a linear progression marked by material progress, but felt to be cyclical much like the four seasons. Geographical place was not just the neutral backdrop upon which to construct a city or civilization, but place was experienced as a unique configuration of mountains, streams, lakes and forests, including the pattern of the winds and the particular animals that habituated a specific landscape. Place had a distinctive character with its own special vibration, and was treated accordingly.
As we listen, study and practice the ancient teachings of the Buddha, we might reflect upon how different we are from the early practitioners of Buddhism, and how radically different our culture is from the various Asian cultures within which Buddhism took root.

Darwin, Marx and Freud.

Beginning in the 20th century the teachings of the Buddha have been mingling with the unique mentality and idiosyncrasies of our Western culture, with both our psychological sophistication and our materialistic orientation, our rugged individualism and our Promethean restlessness. Something very interesting is coming out of this brew. We should be aware of what our cultural history has transmitted to us, for it has shaped our view of the world and how we relate with our spiritual path.
We live in a culture that has been highly shaped by the God-centered theistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Many of us are left with a hangover of sin and guilt, and doubt about our intrinsic goodness. The teaching that all sentient beings possess Buddha nature is promising, but also extremely challenging for Westerners to embrace. In the theistic traditions, as taught institutionally, God is situated in a transcendent abode, and we humans are rooted materially here on earth. At best, we can dialogue with the deity through prayer and establish a relationship, but we never can be as God, that is, enlightened.
By contrast, Buddha was not a god, but a spiritually awakened human being who revealed a body of methods for how we may transform how our neurotic suffering into refreshing sanity, and realize that our essential nature is no different from his. This presents a radically different paradigm for we Westerners, as we struggle to align ourselves with our fundamental goodness and luminous awakened nature.

In contrast with the Buddhist message, which affirms the preciousness of our human birth and our original enlightened nature, there are psychological and socioeconomic forces in our western culture working in exact opposition. Several developments in our cultural history have dramatically shaped our view of ourselves, displacing us from cosmic significance and eventually led to a mood of nihilistic doubt about our awakened heart of compassion or bodhichitta in Sanskrit.
In the 19th century Darwin and his theory of natural selection proclaimed that we were an evolutionary link in a biological chain and not God’s noble creation. Sigmund Freud shocked the Western world with his pronouncement of an unconscious mind that shaped our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Human reason was now precariously poised on the surface of the primordial Id, which itself was a bull pen of sexual and aggressive instincts. We were no longer masters of our own house, nor did the universe seem to revolve around us. Karl Marx furthered our sense of displacement and disenchantment with his revelation that class struggle and the quest for power and control, were the underlying determinants of consciousness and history.
Darwin, Freud and Marx contributed to the pervasive belief that our human awareness is a product of unconscious, instinctual and socio-economic forces. This view led to significant doubt about an inner dimension of awareness that transcended our social conditioning and our unnecessary suffering. Each of their perspectives furthers the implication that there is no intrinsic meaning or purpose in nature or life itself, and we are left in a world that has been stripped of the sacred.

Due to the capitalistic paradigm and its view of the economic marketplace as primary, every aspect of our lives has become quantified and monetized. Our human relationships have been radically shaped by capitalism’s right arm of advertising. The whole industry of advertising focuses entirely on image or surface appeal in order to elicit desire, rather than depth of feeling.
Advertising and the digital information revolution have created a super samsara, as they cultivate obsessive desire for things that we don’t truly need which don’t touch our soul and eventually leave us empty. The unanticipated effect of this socio-cultural paradigm has been to radically shape our sense of time and space, so that we have a profound intolerance of silence and stillness, and are all too eager to fill in what feels like a deficient emptiness. This is in contrast with the Buddhist use of the term, emptiness, which is not in contrast to fullness, but rather the meditative experience of nakedness or radical openness. This is the experience of the mind’s natural clarity and brilliance, empty of our beliefs, assumptions, expectations, value judgments and our compelling inner narratives.

Yet, the very same social system that I’ve been critiquing may also shine a light in certain areas of the ancient tradition of Buddhism, making explicit what has been only implicit in its doctrines. Our emphasis on the primacy of the individual lends a personal face to the more universal Buddha nature. We, in the west, will have to reconcile the paradox of the Buddhist no-self doctrine with our fierce belief in the individual personality.
With the advantage of western psychology’s understanding of psycho-social development, its insight into repression and the creation of a shadow personality, we now understand that unfinished business must first be worked through and integrated within the personality before it can be disowned in meditation. Any suppressed psychic material gets channeled to the non conscious areas of the mind from where it is projected onto otherwise neutral situations. This is a major cause of our neurotic behaviors and our interpersonal conflicts.

Meditation could be misused to avoid or deny painful areas of ourselves, and could further suppress what needs dialogue and understanding. The potential danger of the teaching on egolessness for Westerners, especially women, is the tendency to sacrifice their own inner voice and their identities by merging with their significant others and their families.
For those who have been socially or politically marginalized in our society or traumatized for various reasons, their inner voices have been squelched for too long. They need emotional support and permission to first find their voice by permitting their thoughts and feelings so that they can be heard, understood and their issues and problems resolved. Only then can disidentification be a useful method.
Also those with poorly formed ego structures due to various developmental arrests, could bypass the need for processing unfinished business in favor of a conceptualized version of the egoless state. This would amount to a regression to a pre-egoic state, now confused with a genuinely transpersonal state of development.

Buddhism in the west is being challenged by women’s greater participation and assumption of teaching and administrative roles within various Buddhist communities. Historically, this may be the most radical influence in the transplantation of Buddha’s dharma in western soil. The feminist perspective emphasizes interconnectedness, the importance of body, nature and intimate relationships. It’s critique of Buddhism and religions in general, is that they have been historically male centric, emphasizing autonomy, independence and achievement, while the more feminine qualities of connection, relationship and communion have been devalued.

Such feminine qualities are a necessary counter-force to help balance the more prevalent androcentric qualities in all organizations, secular and spiritual. The resurgence of the feminine can be seen in the positive revisioning of the body, feelings, imagination and intuition. This reorientation balances our Promethean quest to be independent from nature, and to valorize the individual ego-self, while dissociating from the feminine and our own body.
The feminist perspective emphasizes embodied experience rather than detached observation, and the enhanced capacity to feel to balance cognitive understanding. Women place greater emphasis on embodiment and nature, healing and wholeness, as opposed to the more male tendency towards emotional detachment, transcendence and spiritual attainment. Women’s spirituality places greater emphasis on emotional bonding and communication, which could potentially heal the dissociation between men and women, and culture and nature.

The feminist emphasis on all-inclusiveness honors the naming of all dimensions of human experience, giving permission for multiple narratives to have a place, which may be at variance with and challenge many spiritual organizations’ party line. The cultural inhibition to name particular aspects of human experience, denies reality to what is not named, which is often the experiences of women and those who have been socially marginalized. The all-inclusive feminine perspective supports multiplicity, multidimensionality and complexity, all of which suggest that there’s no underlying solid, separate and continuous self, a view which echoes the anatman or no-self doctrine of Buddhism.

Lastly, the feminist emphasis on embodiment and nature, highlights the need to rediscover feminine faces for the sacred. This challenges Buddhist practitioners and communities to explore the interrelationship between our bodies and the body of mother nature. Discovering new forms of engagement and integration between ecology and the Buddhist sense of the sacred is of great importance in rendering Buddhism’s message relevant to the immediate global crisis facing our planet.
Within the ecological movement, we in the west are developing wider, more inclusive images of personal identity that include nonhuman life on our planet. We may be arriving at a novel understanding and expression of the Buddhist notion of egolessness or no-self, as we cultivate an ecological self, a more permeable sense of self that experiences our body as inseparable from the body of nature, the world, and eventually the cosmos.

About the Author
Ira Rechtshaffer

Ira Rechtshaffer

I hold a PhD in Buddhist studies and have been a Buddhist practitioner for approximately 40 years. I’ve practiced Zen Buddhism in Japan for four years, have been a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism since 1976, and have taught Buddhism in various seminaries, contemplative centers and graduate school programs. I am a practicing psychotherapist, integrating Buddhist with Western psychology, attempting to bring ‘soul’ back into the helping profession. My recently published book, Mindfulness and Madness: Money, Food, Sex and the Sacred, has been published by john Hunt Publishers and has received 5 star reviews on Amazon.

Photo by Tummen, England.

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Comments

  1. Wonderful, Ira. Such a timely piece. It’s not my aim to be critical, but I have to say that the nihilism you implicate to Darwin, Marx, and Freud doesn’t exactly paint a complete picture of who they were, for me. You say, “Each of their perspectives furthers the implication that there is no intrinsic meaning or purpose in nature or life itself, and we are left in a world that has been stripped of the sacred.” Marx was a non-believer but certainly a humanitarian and altruist with a sense of the preciousness of life, as well as a strong sense of ethics and responsibility to all others. He was also possessed of both feminist and ecological concerns. Lastly, he’s important enough to the current Dalai Lama that the latter has called himself “half-Buddhist, half-Marxist” and expressed admiration for his thought. Both Darwin and Freud expressed spiritual convictions in their lives; Freud himself said that of his work that “Human kind has always known it possesses spirit; I had to show there were also instincts.” (See the book GOING ON BEING by Mark Epstein, who is also a Buddhist practitioner/psychoanalyst.) I myself value these figures as investigators into the human condition, whatever criticisms might be made of them, which is exactly the same aim of a great deal of Buddhist philosophy.

    Figures like Darwin, Marx, and Freud paved the way in the west for there to be enough liberation of mind so that new visions, of the kind you so eloquently describe, could flourish. It’s my hope that this happens quickly. Thank you for the article and I hope my comments add to the general understanding–as before, my aim is simply to express my interest in and appreciation for the subject matter as well as your essay. Best wishes always–

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