Several years ago I corresponded with a German bhikkhu who tried to persuade me to live at Pah Auk Forest Monastery, in southern Burma. I tried to explain to him that I had serious doubts about the validity of the Pah Auk approach to Dhamma: to give just one example, its theory is based heavily on Abhidhamma and the commentarial tradition, neither of which I considered to be particularly reliable. Thus in order for me to live amongst the community at Pah Auk I would have to be a pretty serious hypocrite. The German monk replied that not believing in the system was no problem (he had doubts about it also), since ven. Pah Auk Sayadaw considers all foreigners to have Wrong View anyway! As though the Sayadaw's conviction that I was a hopeless case of an ignorant barbarian could be an incentive for me to want to go and live with him.
Actually, this view attributed to the Sayadaw—that all foreigners have Wrong View—is relatively common in Burma, especially among university-educated people and those with relatively high social status. (This applies not only to us Western barbarians, but even to the Thais and the Sinhalese.) Thus Western monks, even senior ones who have lived in Burma for years, may find themselves in situations where a polite, well-bred Burmese gentleman is speaking to them as though they don't know much of anything, trying to explain to them elementary principles of meditation, or trying to explain who Mahasi Sayadaw was (one of the most famous and influential Burmese monks of the 20th century), or suggesting that this or that Sayadaw ought to be their teacher. But after years of living in Burma, I started wondering if maybe things were the other way round—I wondered if any of the Burmese could ever really understand Truth, considering how thickly culturally conditioned they are. How can they get out of the box? How can they escape from such a rigid container?
Then I came back to America in 2011, and gained some insight into ven. Pah Auk Sayadaw's (alleged) perspective. One of the first things that really struck me about American Buddhism is that most of its followers appear to be devout materialists. And by "materialists" I don't mean people just chasing after money and identifying themselves with their material possessions. I mean scientific materialists who are thoroughly convinced not only that physical matter is ultimately real, but that science is the ultimate authority for explaining reality, that we are totally enslaved by scientific Laws of Physics, that our minds are totally enslaved by brain chemistry and physiology, that anything taught in Buddhism that cannot be explained by science is to be ignored or rejected, that miracles or psychic powers (or even the findings of parapsychologists) are simply artifacts of superstition, gullibility, and/or fraud, that karma is just a metaphor, that heaven, hell, and rebirth probably don't exist, and that Nirvana, if it exists at all, is necessarily just a scientifically measurable psychological state. Even many teachers of Buddhism in America are materialists in this sense. I can't help but wonder sometimes, is this true Dharma? And if not, can its followers truly be called Buddhists?
The whole issue of who is and is not a Buddhist may be a difficult and complicated one. Long ago I read of a Western Buddhist conference in which one of the topics for discussion was, What is it that qualifies a person as a Buddhist? Considering all the different schools of Buddhism, from Theravada to Nichiren and beyond, and considering how some of them teach mutually contradictory principles, the best they could come up with was this: A Buddhist is anyone who considers himself or herself to be "a Buddhist." But that's not a very satisfying definition, is it.
A few examples may help clarify the whole question, if not the whole answer. Plenty of Christians in the West nowadays do not believe in miracles. They have stopped resisting scientific theory, and accept the idea that science explains reality. I once read a Bible commentary written by an Anglican clergyman, and officially approved by the Church of England, which declared that even Jesus of Nazareth did not perform miracles. He didn't walk on water. He didn't raise Lazarus from the dead. He didn't turn water into wine. And if he did actually heal the sick, he simply used the persuasiveness of his charisma to cure them of psychosomatic hysterical symptoms, all in accordance with scientifically explainable principles. But if the miracles of faith are out of the picture, and if the universe's workings can be explained entirely according to physics and chemistry, then it would seem that the miraculous power of God would be pretty much unnecessary—in fact God Himself might be pretty much unnecessary. Which leads to the interesting question, Could a Christian be an atheist? Can a person believe in Christianity and not believe in God at the very same time? I suppose a person could be an atheist, yet revere Jesus of Nazareth as a very great man and adopt his life as a kind of role model, and his ethical teachings as a standard to live by—without, of course, Jesus being his personal savior, since Jesus was just a man, and he died, and, let's face it, when you're dead you're dead. It may be perceived that this kind of strange, atheistic Christianity begins to resemble Western Theravada Buddhism, since even traditional, orthodox Theravada asserts that there is no Creator God, and that Gotama Buddha was only human, and is now dead. This may help to explain, a little, why Theravada is becoming so popular in the West. But I suppose I'd better switch to a different example now.
Imagine there is a person who vehemently declares herself to be Jewish; she proudly insists that she could walk into any synagogue in the country and be acknowledged by the rabbi there to be a legitimate Jew. However, she is not a monotheist, and considers Yahweh to be merely the patron deity of the Hebrews, somewhat like the ancient Brahmins' Indra or the ancient Romans' Mars or Quirinus, and not really the Creator of the Universe. Also, she doesn't follow Jewish law, not even all Ten Commandments, and even breaks rules that, according to the authority of the Old Testament itself, disqualify her from being a Jew. (Let's say she eats baconburgers during Passover week.) On the other hand, she is a devout practitioner of Theravada Buddhism: she sits in satipatthana meditation every day, takes Three Refuges and keeps Five Precepts, has large passages of Pali memorized by heart, and considers the Pali Tipitaka to be at least 90% authentic, true, and reliable. She obviously believes in Buddhism more than she believes in Judaism. But even so, she vehemently denies that she is a Buddhist. She is Jewish. Well, what can we say of this person? What is her real religion? Let us hypothesize, for the sake of convenience, setting aside this person's outward declarations and considering only her spiritual beliefs and practices, that she is 25% Jewish and 75% Buddhist. Well, should a person who is 25% Jewish be called really Jewish, or would it be more accurate to call her a crypto-Buddhist? How about 5% Jewish? How about 1%? For the sake of convenience again, and for the sake of eliminating confusion with regard to, say, whether someone bearing trace amounts of Jewishness could realistically be called a Jew, for the remainder of this article I will go with the following assumption, which, after all, seems pretty much self-evident:
One's main religion, or belief system, is the one that one has the most faith in, or believes in more than any other; and if one is to be called a follower of a religion or belief system, say a Buddhist, Christian, or ____ist, then one is most accurately and correctly called a follower of one's main religion, or belief system.
One reason why I threw in the term "belief system" is because many people in the West, including some Buddhists, have a certain emotional antipathy for the word "religion," especially with regard to themselves. The same goes for "faith" and its equivalent. Another reason is that many people in the West are religious without even realizing it, so "belief system" may make the following line of discussion somewhat less impossible to swallow.
A couple of years ago, mainly in response to the American Buddhism I was seeing, I wrote a longish article entitled "Buddhism and Scientism," in which I put forth as strong a case as I could manage to the effect that scientific materialism, or "Scientism," is a faith-based religion. I doubt that the article produced a significant effect on anyone who read it. For the Buddhists who already believed Dharma more than they believed Scientism, I was just singing to the choir; but I would make a wild guess that all the materialists who read it (and I know there were some) simply disregarded it—possibly without refuting a single point I made—and continued to believe, with profound faith, that scientists explain Reality, and that materialism is not just a belief system, but a plain, obvious fact. This is because popular religions are based upon unquestioning, irrational faith, regardless of how much intellectual systematology rests upon this foundation. It is the nature of belief to be unaware that it is only belief, and not knowledge. Thus, delusion is built into any belief.
I won't recapitulate here the points I made in the article. Those who are interested may find it on the website nippapanca.org. I'll just briefly hammer away at one point, since this one point is the bedrock, or rather shifting sand, upon which the structure of scientific materialism is built. The point is this: That the very existence of physical matter cannot be proven at all, and is thus only a guess, believed on faith. The easiest way of demonstrating this, that I know of, is to refer to the Immaterialist philosophy of George Berkeley. According to Berkeley—and he apparently really believed this, and wrote about it brilliantly and eloquently—all that exists in this entire Universe is minds (or spirits, or "souls") and perceptions. That is all. There is no physical matter. So how it works is, there is a central mind, called "God," who coordinates the perceptions in all the other minds to produce an effect as though there were physical matter. So if we look at, say, an oval coffee table resting on a Turkish carpet, then the only places where that oval coffee table resting on the Turkish carpet exists is in our mind, and in God's mind, plus in the mind of anyone else who is observing it. That is all. There are a number of different perceptions, but no oval coffee table made of physical matter. Esse es percipi; "To exist is to be perceived."
Now, I freely admit that I do not believe that Berkeley was right. However, I have no choice but to admit that I cannot prove that he was wrong. You also cannot prove that he was wrong. I double-dog dare you to prove that Berkeley was wrong. Many people have tried to prove him wrong, but nobody on this planet, I dare say, has ever really succeeded. It doesn't occur to philosophically naive scientists even to try. How could one possibly prove such a thing? Seriously. But by that very same token, if you cannot prove that Berkeley was wrong, then you cannot prove that physical matter exists. And so, like it or not, acknowledge it or not, the existence of physical matter is not an obvious fact at all, but a guess—and a guess believed in ultimately out if faith, religiously.
Berkeley's Immaterialism is just the tip of the iceberg. There are potentially an infinite number of coherent, self-consistent ways of explaining empirical experience without involving physical matter. The Christian Scientists have their own way of doing it. The Vedantist Hindus have their own way. The Mahayana Buddhists have their own ways. 19th-century German philosophers had their ways. Even some rather non-Scientistic scientists have ways of going about it. In fact, many of the most spiritually advanced beings on this planet have taught that worldly phenomena are not ultimately real. But we are living in an age where intellectual advancement takes precedence over spiritual advancement, where cleverness takes precedence over wisdom. It appears that in America "wisdom" may be even degenerating into a kind of superstitious word, somewhat like what happened with "sin."
So, if you cannot or will not stand up to the "Berkeley challenge," then you ought to have the honesty to admit that scientific materialism is not an obvious fact, but a huge guess; and if you are a materialist, then you should have the courage to admit that you are only guessing, and believing that guess through a kind of religious faith. Materialism is not obviously true. For example, what we see in a dream at night seems pretty solid, but after we wake up we realize that it wasn't material at all. Scientific materialism appears as proven fact, even as Reality, to us modern people not because it is obviously factual, but because almost everyone around us believes in it with implicit faith; we believe it not due to any obvious factuality, but largely due to cultural conditioning and herd instinct. Furthermore, to add one last hammer stroke, it is not only not obvious; it is not even verifiable. But the priests of Scientism don't want you to know that, and they don't want to know it either. Really, in at least one respect, modern Westerners are more narrow-mindedly fanatical than their European ancestors of 700 years ago: at least a medieval peasant was willing to accept the possibility, not only of miracles, but of transcending this mundane system in which we seem to be imprisoned.
And so, going with the "pretty much self-evident" assumption made above (which some readers may have accepted at the time, but may be having second thoughts about now), and also going with the idea that scientific materialism is the overwhelmingly predominant religion of modern Western culture, it is evident that most Westerners who call themselves Buddhists (and the case is similar for Christians) would be more accurately and correctly called scientific materialists—with a little Buddhism added as flavoring, or as an attempt at "doctoring up" an essentially spiritually bankrupt belief system. In America it would be illegal to take a beverage containing only 10% real fruit juice and sell it as "orange juice." That would be considered dishonest. In a similar vein, it might be more appropriate in the long run for many or even most Westerners calling themselves Theravada Buddhists to adopt a label like "Vipassana Sangha," or some such, considering what a small fraction of their belief system is occupied or influenced by Theravadin Dhamma. Also, if traditional, orthodox Theravada turns out to be true, it might reduce their odds of being reincarnated as centipedes or goblins. (← a joke)
One could reply that any spiritual system must adapt to new cultures that it enters, and that any system that refuses to adapt to changing cultural conditions commits suicide. To some degree, at least, this is very true and valid. For instance, if Theravada Buddhism had to be practiced entirely within the context of ancient Indian culture, then one would find no more Dhamma in the modern West than one would find, say, togas or woolly mammoths. That the Burmese a thousand years ago modified their own culture to fit Dhamma was possible partly because an autocratic king decreed it, and partly because their lifestyle at that time wasn't all that different from an ancient Indian lifestyle anyway (and in rural Burma it still isn't all that different). So from this point of view, American popular Buddhism with scientific materialism taking precedence over Buddhist metaphysics, and liberal political correctness taking precedence over traditional Buddhist ethics, is a necessary adjustment.
On the other hand, the exact opposite point of view could also be maintained, also, to some degree, with truth and validity: Any spiritual system that does adapt to changing cultural conditions commits suicide. That is, any enlightened system that is modified to fit a worldly, unenlightened culture is very likely to become FUBAR, sooner or later (and for those of you who are unfamiliar with 1970's-era American acronyms, FUBAR stands for "fucked up beyond all recognition"). Compare what Christianity was like during the first few hundred years of its existence—when the Roman government was persecuting the Christians, and they were gladly dying for what they believed in rather than compromising their principles—with what Christianity has become in modern consumer culture. Consider the following statement from Lewis Mumford's book Transformation of Man:
During the Industrial Revolution all but one of the seven deadly sins, sloth, was transformed into a positive virtue. Greed, avarice, envy, gluttony, luxury, and pride were the driving forces of the new economy.
As Christianity goes, that's FUBAR. "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." But consumerized Christians don't want to see it that way, because they are members of a culture that doesn't want to see it that way. And American popular Theravada doesn't need to go through any such gradual transformation, as it is starting out, right off the bat, already conformed to a worldly, samsaric culture. It seems to have passed through a powerful filter during the process of importation.
The trick appears to be, from a spiritual point of view, for a system to adapt in order to exist within a new culture (or perhaps better yet on the outskirts of one) without it ceasing to be a spiritual system. Which brings us back to the question of: What is true Dharma?
I'll make another assumption, for the sake of argument and, like the first assumption, because it seems pretty much self-evident. I use the word "Dharma," with an "r," because I don't want to imply that Pali Theravada necessarily has a monopoly on enlightenment.
True Dharma is any system that is conducive to full enlightenment.
I'll further assume that this implies two things: 1) that the system is not purely samsaric, and offers the possibility of transcendence of this world into an unconditioned state, which would include transcendence of our own conditioned brain chemistry and physiology; and 2) that the system is self-transcending, or self-destroying, like a snake swallowing its own tail, designed in such a way that the more advanced one becomes in the system, the more able one is to let go of it all. In Buddhism this is exemplified in the Buddha's simile of the raft: Dharma is like a raft made of convenient rubbish that we are not advised to insist upon keeping, but which we are to leave behind once it has served its purpose.
So now the inevitable question arises, Does mainstream American Theravada represent True Dharma? Consider this quote from Jay Michaelson's obituary for S. N. Goenka (may he rest in peace) in the Huffington Post:
Studies suggest that one million more Americans take up meditation every year—mostly in healthcare contexts. These people are not interested in enlightenment or awakening, and they aren't about to spend ten days in silence watching videotapes of spiritual teachings. They're taking up mindfulness (basically, paying attention to present-moment experience in a particular, focused way, whether in formal meditation or in other activities) because they're suffering from chronic pain or post-traumatic stress. Or they're doing it because they work at Google, or Twitter, or Apple, or one of the dozens of technology companies using mindfulness to improve the performance and well-being of employees. This is how the teachings known as the "dharma" have evolved—beyond religion, beyond spirituality, into every walk of life. And S.N. Goenka is largely responsible for it.
America is on the threshold of a mindfulness revolution. As the data regarding mindfulness's economic impact becomes better developed and better known, we are going to see mindfulness offered everywhere—not for reasons of spirituality, but for sheer economics. These technologies decrease healthcare costs, improve productivity, and speed processes of healing. The Buddha may have taught them to lead to enlightenment—but they also save a ton of money.
Now, there's nothing bad or wrong with practicing meditation for the sake of improving one's health or reducing stress; there's not even anything necessarily wrong with corporations requiring their employees to meditate for the sake of increasing their productivity and reducing the cost of their health-care benefits. But going with the definition offered above, it could hardly be called "True Dharma." As the author plainly states, its purpose is manifestly not enlightenment, in this or in any other life. It is thoroughly samsaric, even capitalistic. It's more a matter of techniques, or "technologies," extracted from the Buddhist system than that system itself. But still it's not necessarily a bad thing. Meditation is good.
The thing is, though, that most of what is passing for Theravada Buddhism in America (based upon what I've seen, and I can't presume to speak for other Western countries) involves a world view, an attitude, an interpretation of Reality, that more closely resembles the above description than it resembles what is prescribed in the original Pali texts. Its practitioners appear much more interested in stress reduction or enhancement of the quality of Samsara, causing their generated ego entities to feel better about themselves, than in enlightened transcendence of the whole system—not even in a future life, since scientific materialism rejects such superstitions as future lives. Enlightenment is ignored, debased into a mundane psychological state, or rejected as too inconvenient, with little or no support for those who don't reject it. Again, meditating to relieve stress or to feel better about oneself is certainly not necessarily bad or wrong, but if that is all it is for, then it hardly qualifies as "True Dharma." Westernization of Buddhism has truncated it, cutting off its head—disregarding what is, by far, Dharma's most essential purpose: Liberation from Samsara in this very life.
One saving grace of this whole situation is that if one skillfully practices meditation, one's wisdom will increase, one's understanding will develop, regardless of one's motives for practicing, and more mundane motives may be replaced by less mundane ones. Any positive effort will have positive results, and lead one in a positive direction. So even the most superficial or fragmented Dharma practice will bear dharmic results. However, insistence upon a purely samsaric, dead-end belief system may eventually prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to this saving grace. Pretty obviously, if one flatly rejects the possibility of full enlightenment, then one is considerably less likely to become fully enlightened, or to strive for it. If one positively disbelieves in the metaphysical function of karma, then one is less likely to be guided by Dharma than by the superficial, utilitarian ethics of a samsaric, spiritually destitute culture. And of course, scientific materialism—Scientism—is just such a dead-end belief system, which does not transcend itself, but causes one to be more enmeshed in it the more one develops in it (unless perhaps one can find a way out via a mystical approach to theoretical quantum physics).
Add to all this that many, or maybe even most, Americans who consider themselves to be Theravada Buddhists are too lukewarm even to keep a minimal five precepts—in worldly society, not drinking alcohol is too inconvenient, and speaking sincerely is even more so—and that the system of Dhamma has degenerated from being primarily a radical system of renunciation to little more than a few elementary meditation techniques, plus some jargon. (I may as well admit here that I also do not keep five precepts absolutely perfectly. I kill parasites sometimes.) This situation applies even to the leaders of American sanghas. A president of a vipassana society, one of the senior teachers of the group, once made it clear to me that he didn't know who Ānanda was, which is rather like the leader of a Christian society not knowing who St. Peter was. As Theravada Buddhism goes, this is within the territory of FUBAR. Then again, from a Western point of view it may not be FUBAR at all. It all depends on how you look at it, the same as with everything else.
Even so, getting back to the question of Are they really Buddhists?…and going with the italicized, "pretty much self-evident" assumptions above, then to the extent that, within a system, scientific materialism takes precedence over Buddhism as the interpretation of Reality, then its adherents would be more accurately called scientific materialists than Buddhists; and to the extent that Western liberal political correctness and worldly "right thinking" take precedence over Buddhist ethics, then its practitioners would be more accurately called secular humanists, or some such, than Buddhists. Again, there's nothing ultimately bad or wrong with neglecting more than 90% of the Pali texts (most Muslims do, for example); but for the sake of "integrity," whatever that means, such individuals or groups might consider calling themselves something like Vipassana Sangha, or else take Dhamma more seriously. But all this is just one person's opinion, and an opinion contrary to American culture. I may not be the best person to be writing this stuff anyway, considering that, although I'm committed to Dharma with an "r," I'm no orthodox Theravadin. All foreigners have Wrong View. Maybe everybody has Wrong View.
During my recent adventures in the West it occurred to me that the New Age community was somewhat less lukewarm and hardheadedly materialistic than the Vipassana community. (This observation does not involve the Goenka community, with whom I have had little interaction, but which, I've been told, lays much emphasis on keeping five precepts and on meditating at least two hours a day.) Once when I was in a shop in downtown Bellingham, a very New Age young woman approached me and immediately kicked off her sandals, and stood there talking to me barefoot—which I considered to be a beautiful gesture, even though other people might have considered it strange. Aside from one Thai lady, none of the Bellingham Theravada community were into that kind of stuff, regardless of the fact that, according to the Pali texts, that's how one goes about things. But even New Age can be pretty darned samsaric. It seems to me that in America, most of the inhabitants nowadays are too conformist, too lukewarm, too busy, too preoccupied, and maybe also too scared, to form a countercultural movement radical enough to allow "True Dharma" to flourish, barring some major social upheaval to trigger it. But there will always be some beings scattered among the populace with enough wisdom, or sensitivity, or "integrity," to avoid being completely sucked into samsaric systems. They may always be a small minority, but they will always be there. Maybe you are one of them.
I've said before that the West's greatest spiritual hope might be something like Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums; but it appears that contemporary American culture is too uninspired even to support Dharma Bums, or, what would almost be the same thing, to support a new hippie movement. It may be that American Dharma's greatest hope, if it isn't the Goenka system, the advent of a charismatic messiah, a major economic collapse, and/or something completely off my radar, is a kind of person I would call the Wisdom Geek—a person who, for whatever reason, isn't very socially engaged, doesn't conform much to worldly conventions, and has an avid interest in philosophy and mysticism, especially the Eastern kinds. If geeky people can be avidly, religiously enthusiastic about breeding rasboras, playing World of Warcraft, or collecting decorator plates, then they can certainly feel similarly about Dharma. And unlike breeding rasboras, Dharma becomes more and more profound the more one is immersed in it, until one finally finds oneself standing at the verge of a Divine Void. O Wisdom Geeks go forth, and take the plunge, with my blessings upon you. As far as the rest of you, the non-geeky majority, my blessings are certainly upon you too, even though I may be skeptical about how Buddhist you are.
I'm not even suggesting by all this that a spiritually inclined person should positively believe "True Dharma." Skepticism and open-mindedness are fine. I am suggesting that she or he should not believe something that renders it impossible, or even damned unlikely, to be realized.