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Two Approaches to Buddhism

March 25, 2012

Andrew Sullivan links to this profile of Henry Steel Olcott, the 19th-century American military officer, journalist, and lawyer who made history by becoming the first American to formally convert to Buddhism. Like countless other educated Americans of the day, Olcott was attracted to Buddhism due to its apparent compatibility with science and progress:

The Buddha’s writings were not a demand of faith but rather an invitation to discovery — to which everyone had equal access — through practice, reason, and meditation. Olcott found the Buddha’s message of life’s transience suited to his progressive ideas and fully compatible with science. Not a few contemporary scientists agreed. Buddhism taught tolerance and non-violence — the vegetarian Civil War veteran was a firm believer in respect for all life. He liked the message of self-reliance in Buddhism; it felt comfortably American. He liked, too, the emphasis on morals and will. In Buddhism, Olcott saw an Eastern philosophy entirely compatible with modern liberal Western values and thinking. Here’s what he had been looking for: a democratic, methodological, procedural path to the Truth.

Sullivan seems to concur with Olcott’s assessment of Buddhism, commenting that “he may well be proven right in the long, long term.” Others, such as the scientist-turned-monk Matthieu Ricard, have emphasized the compability of Buddhism with modern science.

Without denying that Buddhism does in certain respects align with Western science and values, I worry that this point has been overstressed. To my mind at least, religion is not of interest insofar as it confirms and underscores ingrained cultural habits and values, but insofar as it challenges and transforms them. Americans emphatically do not need to be reminded to trust ourselves. But perhaps a serious encounter with the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta (no-self) might be enough to shake up our individualism. We are not particularly in need of a creed that emphasizes the material benefits of scientific progress. Yet prolonged reflection on the Second Noble Truth (which states that craving is the cause of suffering) might serve as a useful antidote to our consumerism.

In his essay on Olcott’s fellow 19th-century American Buddhist sympathizer Paul Carus, Martin J. Verhoeven points out that “the tendency of America to co-opt and absorb all that it touches is overwhelming.”* Buddhism in America today tends to be syncretic, with practitioners borrowing freely from multiple traditions, and individualistic, downplaying the communal practices and rituals important to “ethnic” Buddhism. As practiced by educated whites, American Buddhism is more closely akin to psychotherapy and self-help than to traditional religion.

Whatever the advantages of stripping Buddhist cultural traditions for parts (e.g. meditation techniques), something is surely lost by the characteristically American approach to Buddhism. Verhoeven’s essay concludes by pointing out an alternate approach, the approach taken by 19th century Harvard Indologist and translator Henry Clarke Warren. “A large part of the pleasure that I have experienced in the study of Buddhism,” Warren writes

has arisen from what I may call the strangeness of the intellectual landscape. All the ideas, the modes of argument, even the postulates assumed and not argued about, have always seemed so strange, so different from anything to which I have been accustomed, that I felt all the time as though walking in Fairyland. Much of the charm that the Oriental thoughts and ideas have for me appears to be because they so seldom fit into Western categories.

This “otherness” of Buddhism is very difficult for our liberal Enlightenment tradition, which tends to assume the universality of its categories, to grasp. And yet an understanding of how Buddhist cultural traditions defy Western categories is indispensible, both for those who would embrace Buddhism and those who would reject it.

*Verhoeven’s essay can be founded in the anthology “The Faces of Buddhism in America.”

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