Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reflections on American "Protestant Theravada"

     In a previous post ("Dilemmas of Spirit," 24 May 2014) I discussed some dilemmas which are practically inevitable to spirituality and spiritual systems, and one of those that I discussed was this: We must choose between wise, spiritually advanced systems that are so advanced that very few people can successfully practice them, resulting in great benefit for only a very few; or on the other hand relatively elementary systems that are so easy to understand and follow that almost anyone can practice them, although with almost none of them coming anywhere near to liberation as a consequence. So either way, benefits are minimal—either big benefits for a tiny minority, or small benefits for the great majority. Furthermore, there is an additional sub-dilemma that, over time, the first type of system tends to degenerate into the second.
     Gotama Buddha, needless to say, was an extremely wise person; and it appears that he set up his system, known to the West as "Buddhism," in such a way as to transcend the aforementioned dilemma, and to avoid the sub-dilemma. What he did was to establish a system with two levels: Those who were willing and able to strive for full Enlightenment in this very life entered the Sangha and renounced home life, renounced worldliness, and became wandering, vagrant, radical ascetic meditators; while those who were not willing and able, yet who were willing to support those who were, and who had the humbler intention of just attaining a better situation in Samsara (like heaven or a good human rebirth), remained in lay life and practiced morality and generosity. Thus Dharma encompassed both horns of the dilemma, allowing its followers to follow a Path to total Liberation or a lesser, yet still wholesome and praiseworthy, Path to Heaven.
     This system, although set up carefully and wisely, has degenerated in Asia somewhat over the centuries, largely because the Sangha became more a kind of secular priesthood than a community of ardent spiritual seekers striving for Enlightenment. On the other hand, in the West, especially in America, this bilevel system has been largely rejected with indifference, or even with contempt. American Theravada seems to be aiming for a "middle way" between unworldly renunciation and just settling for a better rebirth—but it falls between two stools, or perhaps falls far to the left of the lay-life stool, considering that meditation is taken up at an elementary level, but the lay virtues of keeping precepts and practicing generosity, especially generosity to renunciants, are largely abandoned by the majority. The result is mediocrity, sometimes smug mediocrity, with, as before, transcendental or liberating benefit for almost nobody.
     This rejection of the distinction between Sangha and the lay community, for some even a scornful rejection of an ordained Sangha at all, has many contributing causes, not the least of which are humanism (which encourages the idea that we are all equal and equally worthy of respect), materialism (which contributes to lack of faith and general lukewarmness, as well as to the idea that everyone should do some worldly work for a living) and consumerism (which results in addiction to comfort and convenience, and resentment of serious practices like renunciation); but I do not intend to catalog the whole slew of contributing factors. Instead I'd like to emphasize one factor that to most American Buddhists is probably invisible: and that is our Germanic, Protestant Christian cultural conditioning. 
     Our cultural conditioning tends to be invisible to us. When I moved to rural Burma it struck me that Burmese villagers have no idea that their beliefs and behavior are so very obviously culturally conditioned. Then I went back to America, and it struck me that American Buddhist meditators have no idea that their beliefs and behavior are so obviously culturally conditioned. Probably all but a relatively few humans are aware of how culturally conditioned they are—mostly some educated, open-minded cosmopolitans who have been immersed in multiple, very different cultures. But even they tend to be oblivious to most of their human conditioning. It is extremely difficult to see ourselves objectively.
     Even so, English-speaking Americans, and many Europeans also, are practically soaking in Protestant Christian cultural conditioning, regardless of whether they profess Protestant Christianity. For example, the English language shapes how Americans think, and the language itself is shaped significantly by traditional Protestant attitudes and assumptions. It is probably easier to discuss Protestantism than, say, Buddhism in the English language. We tend to think like traditional Protestants regardless of whether we sit in yoga posture and practice mindfulness of breathing. 
     This conditioning is invisible partly because our thinking mind is shaped by it, and we were raised into it; and it is also invisible partly because its roots extend all the way back to ancient Germanic culture. American culture is based mainly on English culture, and English culture (as opposed to Celtic Brittonic) began with Germanic culture. Probably most people do not realize that the English language, linguistically speaking, is Germanic. Old English was a dialect of Old German.
     The warlike nature of German and Germanic peoples has made them prime villains in the history of Western civilization. (For example, they were of great help in collapsing the decayed Roman Empire and ushering in the Dark Ages, and in much later times were instrumental in bringing about the two World Wars.) So it is intriguing that now the German people appear to be one of the most peace-loving of nations. Tiu, the Germanic god of war, must be rolling in his grave. But the Germans, including the ancient, spear-wielding ones, certainly were not all bad. In addition to violence, emphasis on heavily armored cavalry with lances, and the origins of feudalism, they also added to European culture ideas of freedom, equality, and the dignity of the individual that had formerly existed in the republics of Greece and Rome, but which had gradually given way to more Eastern-style despotism. They did much to restore these ideals, although at first mainly among the fighters. 
     These egalitarian principles influenced the Germanic approach to religion—and it is no coincidence that the Germanic nations of Europe (including England and the Scandinavian countries) are where the Protestant sects of the Reformation arose and thrived, while the nations which still spoke languages derived from Latin remained primarily Roman Catholic. 
     Protestantism did not arise simply from Germanic ideals. There were other factors too, including a decline in the prestige of Catholicism due to corruption, schism, and the fact that the Church was not of much help during the plagues of the 14th century. Another factor was the rise of a capitalistic middle class—although this also was largely a Germanic development. Even the great bankers and merchants of medieval Italy were descended from Lombards and Goths, both Germanic tribes who invaded Italy after the collapse of Rome. Even the invention of gunpowder had an indirect effect. Everything is interconnected.
     Much like the newly developing urban business class in India supported Buddhism, so the new businessmen of Europe supported the new Protestant sects, which endorsed ideas and attitudes more compatible with city people engaged in making money. Also of course there were rulers ambitious to reinforce their power by weakening the influence of the Pope; but Protestantism began as a peculiarly middle-class and somewhat materialistic approach to Christianity. So it should be no surprise that in the course of history it became integrated with such other cultural events as the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Capitalism. 
     The new Christians, with pronounced Germanic tendencies, wanted less stratification of the classes of society, and in particular no spiritual elite who would act as middlemen between the common man and God. They wanted to reconcile spirituality with living a worldly life and making a buck, or a guilder, or whatever. Thus it is no coincidence that one of the first and most basic innovations of Protestantism was to abolish monasticism. Monks and nuns were sneered at as useless parasites on society, or as superstitious bunglers. John Milton, a good Puritan, relegated deceased monks and nuns to a limbo beyond the cometary halo of the solar system in his great religious poem Paradise Lost. At least he didn't consign them all to Pandemonium, in Hell. 
     In addition to little respect for monasticism or renunciation, other characteristics of Protestantism included less faith in saints and miracles, disapproval of elaborate rituals and spectacles, more pragmatic worldliness, and less emphasis on emotional faith. The new sects began as zealous reform movements and involved deep conviction, but gradually over time most of them (but not all) became more reason-oriented and thus, inevitably, more lukewarm.
     One unintended result of the relative loss of stratification within the system is that everyone tended more toward spiritual mediocrity—especially after the aforementioned first glow of zeal wore off. And possibly the logical conclusion of this development was the lack of emphasis on the highest goal. Whereas Catholic monastics in places like Spain were still striving to purify themselves through ascetic practices and meditation, the lukewarm-tending urbanized Protestants figured their membership in the organization and the following of its rules were good enough—plus of course declaring Christ as their savior. The highest goal of "You must make yourselves perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect" fell by the wayside, or got choked by worldly weeds; although there was in some groups still the possibility of "sanctification," or of being Born Again (like George W. Bush was, for instance). This all didn't happen immediately upon Martin Luther nailing his theses on the door of a church in Saxony, but it obviously was well established by the beginning of the twentieth century. Even before the twentieth century some writers had already commented upon the marked difference between Protestant church congregations and Catholic ones: the Protestant ones were much more likely to read their hymns as though reading from a laundry list, and the Catholics much more likely to be weeping tears of profound emotion. This difference in inspiration occasionally resulted in the controversial conversion of a high-profile Protestant, like John Henry Newman, to Catholicism. 
     The resemblance of American "Vipassana" lay Theravada and Protestantism near the bottom of its slide should be fairly obvious. In fact it seems clear that American Theravada more closely resembles American Protestantism than it does Asian Theravada. This is largely because both, American Theravada and Protestantism, conform to the same secular culture, but it's also true that the secular culture itself is conditioned by Protestantism. As pointed out above, American secular culture has roots extending back to ancient Germanic cultures, and Germanic culture and Protestant Christianity are inextricably mixed. It is difficult to say what is Protestant-influenced because it is Western, and what is Western because it is Protestant-influenced.
     American Theravada seems not to have enjoyed the honor of beginning with a zealous, non-down-slid phase. It has, practically right off the bat, resembled Protestantism in its much less pristine forms. There is little danger of decline, since it has begun with an already declined, lukewarm Protestant mindset. Some American Buddhist insight societies, only a few decades after the origination of the system in the West, are hardly any more spiritually inclined than a Presbyterian coffee-and-doughnut club with a weekly movie night. No renunciation. No saints or miracles. No highest goal, other than occasional lip service. Even coming together and hashing out lapses from virtue, or marital problems, or other painful issues among its members, as many Protestant congregations still do, is probably alien to the average American Vipassana community. The main purpose seems to be stress reduction and higher self esteem; and though there's nothing necessarily wrong with stress reduction, true Dharma extends infinitely beyond it.
     Add to all this the American emphasis on individualism, and its resultant "self view," egocentrism, and alienation; the effects of consumerism (its power over our minds strengthened by teams of psychologists working for advertising agencies, striving scientifically to persuade us that we need what we'd really be better off without); the true religion of the West now being scientific materialism, which degrades all spiritual systems to a watered down second-place subsystem at best; and we've got ourselves a spiritual situation that is pretty much comatose. 
     We really shouldn't blame human beings for being human. Is a tiger wrong for killing wild pigs? Is a dung beetle wrong for making its babies eat poop? Why blame Americans for thinking and acting like Americans? We all have our good points too, of course. As a Western humanist might point out as easily as an Eastern mystic, we're all miracles. There's no need for blame. But still…certain characteristics of American culture are resulting in Theravada being practically stillborn upon arrival. Asian Buddhism certainly has its fair share of corruption and laxness, but what is often called "Sangha" in America is generally lower in faith and morality, if not in meditation, than the Dharma of a Burmese lay villager. I've been told that Jack Kornfield sometimes says that when the laypeople of Spirit Rock assemble together, Spirit Rock is "the largest monastery in North America"—if so, the largest monastery in North America has almost totally rejected renunciation, austerity, and the true essence of monasticism, or Sangha.
     There are many exceptions to this rather bleak depiction of decadent-upon-arrival Western Theravada. The Western monasteries, though quite posh by traditional Asian standards, are inhabited by sincere practitioners; and their Western supporters are just as worthy of praise in their own way. Also, some non-monastic meditation groups are much more dedicated and serious than others, with some even requiring the keeping of five precepts in addition to regular meditation and study. Plus there are lone individuals to be found everywhere who decline to follow along with the majority (the majority of Vipassana meditators even, not just the majority of people at large), and whose integrity and innate sanity inspire them to try as energetically as they can, making the cultivation of enlightenment their highest priority in life. These people may be saving the world.
     But for Theravada in the West to thrive while still bearing some resemblance to what the Buddha actually, originally taught, and while still having the same highest goal, i.e. Nirvana in this very life, a radical paradigm shift will be required. Major, fundamental perceptions, culturally conditioned assumptions that we as modern Westerners were practically born with, will have to be outgrown, or at least changed somehow. Either "Protestant" Theravada will have to give way to a more viable form of Dharma, or else it will have to become more puritanical, closer to the early, more zealous and inspired forms of Protestantism, in which the followers of the system were not only willing to be inconvenienced, but even willing to die through refusal to compromise the exalted principles that they revered and followed. As it is now, the West's greatest hope for Dharma is for it to be adopted whole-heartedly (or at least three-fourths-heartedly) by some radical countercultural movement. And at present it looks like that would be most likely to happen in response to a massive, chaotic upheaval in Western society. Most folks need to be beaten over the head with something, preferably Truth, before they become willing to change their ways. Even so, let's get on with it. It's time to Wake Up.

Chlodowig becomes a Christian


  1. I'm not so convinced you can change the mindset of Protestant Buddhists, so to speak. Theravada in the west is increasingly secularized, whereas those with a more mystical inclination go towards Tibetan Buddhism which is complete with divination, oracles and visions. Likewise, Zen Buddhism in America and elsewhere (even Japan) is very secularized.

    I mean look at Ajahn Brahm's talks. He does mention devas and flying arhats as literally true, but his talks are appealing because they appeal to people's daily lives. In the west, generally speaking, there's more interest in "practical teachings".

    One thing to keep in mind, too, is how the Asian Theravada we're exposed to in the English speaking world is the stoic scholastic kind with an emphasis on the Pali canon and Vinaya, whereas in Asian countries you have bhikkhus selling amulets and doing all kinds of magic for people. The orthodox bhikkhus might condemn the magicians, but nevertheless they're still popular and abundant in number. Westerners of course are not exposed to these guys much.

    That all being said, I don't think having a sangha in the west will help matters much. They'll likely end up being just as secular minded and Protestant as their supporters.

    1. Well, their supporters are mostly Asian!

  2. Liked this essay. I'm interested in becoming a serious Buddhist practitioner. Can I email you with some questions?

    1. Sure, you're very welcome to email me. My email address is on the website I will say, though, that I am presently in Myanmar where Internet access is sporadic, crummy, and very slow, and so there may be long delays in our correspondence. I am willing though. And, gawd willing, I'll be in a country with faster Internet in several months.

  3. David (Why don't you use your bhikkhu name?),
    I enjoyed this post, particularly the detailed tracing of the Germanic roots of American culture. My assessment of the situation of Buddhism in America (and not just Theravada) is very close to what you describe. Let me share a link of a short ebook I've recently published, that I seem to have trouble getting people to read:
    I talk about the two levels you refer to as "adept Buddhism" and "folk Buddhism" and show how their relation is kept in place by apparent design by the monastic regulations along with Refuge. Mostly I provide a lot of historical case studies of the tension between these to levels and how it plays out for better or worse. I end up with a critical assessment of the situation in the West, with some optimism that a healthy Buddhism will ultimately prevail.
    I realize (from experience) that this might be a half-hour download in Myanmar and that the electricity will probably go out as it nears completion.

    1. I don't use my Pali name on this blog's comments section because the day after I came back to America and Internet access, in 2011, and started a Gmail account, Google asked for my name, so, not thinking that it made any difference, I used the name on my passport.

      I'll download the book soon.

  4. Dear Bhante, I have relied on Bhikku Bodhi's works mainly to explore Theravada Teachings. I think his writings is logically presented n referenced. The obstacle is more of letting go more and more personally than understanding. Are such materials effective in popularising the original teachings of the Buddha?

    1. I'm not sure I understand the question. Which materials are you referring to? The stuff Bhikkhu Bodhi writes, or stuff like the blog post? I suspect that living the lifestyle is instrumental in understanding the deeper teachings.

    2. I find Bhikkhu Bodhi materials helpful for me if I am seeking to read consistent, well analysed and well-structured materials on Theravada. For examples, his concised book of the "8fold paths and "the words of the buddha".