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Categorized | Religion

How Liberal Westerners Distort Buddhism

In societies which hold the individual as the focus of ideological progress, many people become excited at the idea of becoming “different” or more “original.” Westerners tend to cherish individuality to the point of rebellion, attempting to stand out and draw attention to themselves by their lifestyle, clothing, hairstyles, or adoptive cultural tendencies. In the last few decades, a variety of people – from Christian apostates and atheists, to crypto-Marxists and reform Jews – have been part of an interesting current.  Perhaps, in an attempt to reject the “old clothes” of Christendom, they have decided to take on the “new clothes” of Buddhism.  In America and Europe, the s0-called “progressives” are attracted by the mere idea that it is a an ultra-permissive religion and the antithesis of Western thought.  Those Western individuals find Buddhism “exotic” and are spurred on mostly by the superstitious, secret, and arcane qualities they perceive in this religion.

This is not Buddhism

Such people convert under a spell of delusion, because ultra-permissiveness is not inherently associated with traditional Buddhism, any more that it is associated with Christianity.  In this sense, the when progressives attempt to incorporate Buddhism into their lifestyle, they are in reality attempting to hijack Buddhist ideas for themselves and make them fit into their secularist lifestyle.

Much of Buddhism in the West has been combined, in varying degrees, with the New Age movement.  The New Age movement has little to do with any of the mainstream branches of traditional Buddhism. As the eminent scholar, A. K. Coomaraswamy once stated, Buddhism today is “most famous today for everything it originally never taught.”  In the East, where Buddhism existed under the patronage of the Chinese, Indian, Tibetan, or Japanese cultures, there was a certain regard for tradition, self-cultivation, and  a metaphor for the divergence of heroic spirit from the sentiments of modern people.  According to these versions of Buddhism, a man can, as Evola describes it, “overcome the state of caducity, restlessness, ‘thirst’ and the forgetfulness typical of ordinary people” by his secession from the visible and material world.  In this doctrine, there is a metaphor for the divergence of heroic spirit from the sentiments of modern people. 

‘Western’ Buddhism – if there is even such a thing – is the exact opposite of this.  In fact, it overtly panders to the sentiments of modernity.  Buddhism, as practiced by many people in the West, exists in name only, attracting the most miserable ex-Christian rejects and atheists. It has degenerated into an extremely sick religion inhabited by atheists, agnostics, and at best, pantheists. These people congregate together at ‘dharma-centers’, which are little more than outpatient mental wards for depressed materialists, and engage in idle chatter about attainment of oblivion and the denial of all things spiritual. The crisis of Western Buddhism is therefore characterized only by secularism and its worldly character.  This criticism is supported by clear textual evidence (atthakathas), which can not merely be explained away as a matter of diverging interpretations, or even the product of historical evolution. The modern, revisionist, version of Buddhism lends itself to an unspiritual historical exegesis according to the letter. It is an exegesis which virtually ignores a deeper meaning implied in the Nikayas and explained in the commentaries. As an example, Siddhartha said “the six senses and their world are not the soul” (cf. Chachakha Sutta, MN 3). It seems odd, then, that modern Buddhists should say of the Buddha that he taught the rejection of the soul, because this would mean clinging to the six senses. Rather than denial of the soul, the Buddhism does teach one to distinguish the distinguish predicates of the soul from the very soul itself, and thus transcend base instincts.

Western Buddhism is almost entirely modernist.  Contrary to what its purveyors might believe, it is not ancient or traditional, and certainly not traditionalist.  Western Buddhism has been heavily influenced by the concepts of freethought and secular humanism. It has become a platform for mundane social activists, who incorrectly fancy themselves “experts” on the topic because of their involvement in purchasing all manner of trinkets and implements.  The fact is that Western Buddhists largely ignore any aspect of Buddhism which requires self-discipline, as they have distorted the original message of Buddhism into an amoral doctrine in order to mix politics and religion.

If the modern portrayal of Buddhism is representative of the teaching of the Buddha, then it is certainly an ingenious exposition which can prove war to be peace and freedom to be slavery.  However, if the premises of this portrayal are flawed, then the modern explanation of Buddhism is certainly not worth studying except as a lesson regarding the famous “principle of degeneration” which was already well-discussed by other Traditionalists like Evola. Traditional Buddhists worldwide need to take back the religion from the modernist heretics, and not allow Buddhism to turn into a rubbish-heap of mystical spiritual suicide and nihilism.

The author of this article was raised in a Buddhist family.  He is currently a Roman Catholic.

About Hong Kyung-Jin

HONG Kyung-Jin was born in Korea, and moved to the United States at the age of 7. He is a former Buddhist, and is now a Roman Catholic. Mr. Hong holds a dual degree in computer science and civil engineering from the University of Western Ontario. He is interested in comparative religion and East Asian politics.
  • Michael Anderson

    This is a common them among Western liberals and progressives and any “exotic” religion they come across. Not only Buddhism, but also Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, etc. Much of their knowledge or exposure to Eastern faiths often come from popular media (notably Japanese anime) or among peer groups in colleges and universities.

    One theme is the notion that Eastern religions are something of an “adventure” instead of set lifestyle of rules and morals. Buddhism in it’s true root has a pretty strict set of morals, ethics and expectations of the individual to himself, his family and his community. A Buddhist is discouraged from drug use, alcohol, adultery and of course, homosexuality is a very big no-no in Buddhism. However, the Western liberals see fit to innovate Buddhism as an advocation of worldliness, humanism and sometimes sexual openness, only to abandon the innovated Buddhist lifestyle when it becomes inconvenient to them (ie: when they get jobs and have to interact with normal people)

    However, there is one oriental faith that the liberals and progressive can not and will not and dare not try to innovate for their own needs and agenda; Islam. Islam is very much set around the Qur’an, the Pillars of prayer, fasting, charity, pilgrimage and Shahada (identity as a Muslim) and the Hadiths, and with them, the steadfast morals and obligations the faith requires from it’s followers.

    Yes, there are Neo-Sufis who wish to innovate the Qur’an, the Sunnah and other core aspects of the religion, but they are few in numbers and can only exist with the support of foreign governments and funding. Often times, the Neo-Sufis are weak and can easily be destroyed.

  • crow

    You should see what westerners have done to Taoism :(
    There exists a “Taoist Reform Church” to rectify everything Lao Tzu “got wrong”.
    This is the nature of the “progressive” delusion.

  • Kristof

    The Buddha said to Subhuti, as recorded in the Diamond Sutra, “Subhuti, the so-called Buddha Dharma is not Buddha Dharma.”

  • Robert Layne

    That figures … they even get the definitions wrong, nirvana is a great example.I always thought the term meant oblivion and not existing. Many try and tell me “No it’s the bliss of oneness with everything,blah,blah,blah” Well if you are one with EVERYTHING then you are NOTHING (No thing) . I don’t hate Buddhism but as I (and Nietzsche) see it at it’s core Buddhism is a kind of Nihilism with a strict moral code. Excellent article btw, Cheers!

  • Greg

    A few points:

    1) Buddhism originated in India and later traveled to East Asia. Why should it not now travel to the West? Buddhism has always been a proselytizing religion. In fact it has almost died out in the land of its birth and seems to have become a possession primarily of foreigners.

    2) When East Asians got Buddhism, they completely transformed it to suit their temperaments and purposes. The extreme case of this was Zen, which made Buhddism into a warrior religion, which is the height of absurdity. But the point is that Buhddism has always been transformed by the people who adopted it, and there is no reason why the West should not to the same thing today. Furthermore, the Buhddism practiced in Japan or Korea, being remote from the original, has no more claim to being authoritative than anything the West is doing with it today. Buhddism, like all religions, has always been highly mutable, and no one dispensation can claim final authority. This is exactly like Christianity.

    3) The purest form of Buhddism, that found in Sri Lanka and South East Asia, is itself in many ways quite remote from the teachings of its founder. To take one example – belief in Gods and supernatural helpers, something the Buhdda explicitly abjured, has become an integral part of Buhhddism in these regions. Much the same thing has occured in Tibet, which is also seen as a very pure and authoritative form of Buhddism. Yet it too is saturated with the supernatural, something utterly abhorrent to the original teachings of the Buhdda, and can lay no better claim to authenticity than any other form of Buhddism.

    At the end of the day, what is happening in the West is clearly just one more step in the march of Buhddism through distance lands and centuries.

  • JJ

    Fantastic piece (and site). By the by, the RSS feed does not work.

  • amara

    The lay devotees need to obey the fundamental percepts of buddhism,and most of the traditional followers stick to that,but many westerners want to do micro scrutiny of scriputures,quotes etc,which is better left to monks.It would be better to concentrate on ending of suffering by following the fundamentals rather than micro scrutinizing and debating endlessly..leave it to monks,they have read the original scriptures,and are knowledgeable in the pali or Sanskrit languages.

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