The middle way
Finding the path to Buddhism in the Western world
Noah Sutton, Creative Director | March 20, 2018
(Winnie Lin / McGill Tribune)

In my second year of university, I decided that it was time to get serious about school. I  had felt like I could always be working harder, and when I wasn’t working, I felt guilty for it. My life became consumed by school work. I would wake up early to study, go to class, and stay in the library until late into the night. I began to feel unhappy, anxious, and depressed. But I figured this was something I couldn’t control; it was just the cost of achieving my academic goals.

As my mental state continued to worsen, I decided I needed to change something. When the Winter semester rolled around, I chose to start meditating. At the time, I had never meditated before; I didn’t know anyone who had, and I knew very little about the practice.

I began meditating and, among other things, I slowly found a balance that worked for me. As my interest in mindfulness practice grew, so did my desire to learn more about the religion that underpinned it. I figured that if I enjoyed meditation this much, I should see what else Buddhism had to offer me.  

Chinese immigrants to the West during the 19th century who brought their religion with them were the first to introduce Buddhism to the occidental world. Yet, Buddhism only gained significant cultural sway in the West during the 1950s, when Beat Generation authors such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs developed an interest in Buddhist thought as an alternative to the consumerist ideology emerging in North America. 

Buddhism is a diverse religion that spans continents and centuries. As such, there is a significant amount of discord around certain key concepts: Different schools of Buddhism derive different lessons from their common foundational texts. The Dharma is an exception to such differences of opinion. It represents the cosmic law and order, encompassing all of the Buddha’s teachings and forming the foundation for all Buddhist thought by describing the nature of existence itself.

The essence of the Dharma lies in the Four Noble Truths, which acknowledge the existence and root of suffering, as well as a method for ending suffering: Dukkha, which commonly translates to the notion that suffering exists in English; Samudaya, suffering has an origin; Nirodha, suffering can be stopped; Magga, there is a path to the end of suffering.

The centrality of suffering to Buddhist thought may seem a little masochistic to those who do not practice the religion. But this misapprehension is due to the insufficiency of the English language to adequately translate the word and concept of Dukkha. Dukkha refers to the impermanence of life, which at a basic level leads to anguish. The most basic example of such anguish is death—individuals will inevitably experience the pain of losing a loved one, and eventually the anguish of dying themselves. This anguish, however, does not limit itself to the pain caused by loss, but also encompasses a deeper, existential pain at the idea of no longer existing or the inability to grasp a tangible reality.

The sequence of Noble Truths outlines that Dukkha has a cause and therefore an end. Magga offers respite by referring to the Eightfold path: A list of practices that allow a practitioner to end Dukkha.

Buddhism was built on the metaphysical understandings of 5th century BCE India. Samsara,  an important aspect of Hinduism, refers to the cyclical nature of life that leads us through an endless cycle of deaths and rebirths, facing the same facts of Dukkha endlessly. The Buddha’s contribution to this cycle is the idea that it can be broken.     

Until relatively recently, meditative practices were only considered useful to monastics, as a way to gain further insight into the conditions of Dharma. Yet, meditation is the component of Buddhism that has gained the most traction in the Western world. Meditation practices, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), that focus on the health benefits of the practice have become especially popular. 

Introduction to Buddhism through a meditation practice is not an uncommon path. Wendy Hugessen, a Buddhist monastic who resides at the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery in Wappinger Falls, New York under the name Ani Lhadrun, first discovered Buddhism through the practice of Transcendental Meditation in university.

“I started to meditate, then when I moved back to Montreal was looking for a room, and found a centre that was advertising rooms for a good price and you had to attend morning meditation, which was fine with me, Lhadrun wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.

As she maintained her meditation practice, Lhadrun began to expand her interest in Buddhist thought rather than just meditation.

“I started to read more about Buddhism, especially Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and found it explained a lot in ways that really resonated with me,” Lhadrun wrote.  

Buddhism’s emphasis on understanding through experience rather than faith has made it an attractive choice for Westerners who are generally skeptical of faith-based teachings.

“There was an emphasis on practice, on finding it out for yourself, which went well with my quite liberal upbringing,” Lhadrun wrote.

Robert Godin, a member of the Montreal Zen Center, agrees that Buddhism’s emphasis on experience has facilitated its introduction into Western cultures.

“[With Buddhism] there are no dogmas or beliefs,” Godin wrote in an email to the Tribune. “This practice is therefore available to anyone, without relying on any sectarian beliefs.”

While Lhadrun studies a traditional school of Buddhism from a Western perspective, other scholarly practitioners have sought to go further and develop a new school of Buddhism that is compatible with Western conceptions of rationality.

"The path of Westerners who ultimately choose to call themselves secular Buddhists follows similar trends. They are exposed to Buddhist thought later in life and are initially attracted to it. They continue to become immersed in the religion, but as their knowledge grows so does their skepticism for the metaphysical foundations of the religion."

Secular Buddhists believe that the Buddha’s teachings can be beneficial to individuals during their existence, rather than over the course of multiple lifetimes as a faith-based practice maintains. Rather than seeking to break the cycle of suffering across many lifetimes inherent to Samsara, secular Buddhists try to use the Buddha’s teachings as a framework for achieving greater satisfaction within this world and this existence.

The path of Westerners who ultimately choose to call themselves secular Buddhists follows similar trends. They are exposed to Buddhist thought later in life and are initially attracted to it. They continue to become immersed in the religion, but as their knowledge grows so does their skepticism for the metaphysical foundations of the religion.

Stephen Batchelor, a Buddhist scholar and author, has published numerous books detailing his experiences as a Westerner and a Buddhist. His latest book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, offers a potential reconciliation between Buddhist religion and the modern Western experience.

“[It’s] an attempt to synthesize an understanding of Buddhism that I have been working towards since my first publication,” Batchelor writes in the preface to After Buddhism. “What does it mean to practice the Dharma of the Buddha in the context of modernity?”

The idea that religions face a crisis when confronted with modernity is not unique to Buddhism. Islamic reformers such as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muhammad Abduh in the late 19th century argued that the Quran should be re-interpreted to be compatible with modern Western values. In After Buddhism, Batchelor wants to show that one can apply the same process to the Pāli Canon, the collective teachings of the Buddha that have survived millenia since they were first written down in 29 BCE.

While Buddhism may be able to support multiple interpretations, related only by their shared connection to the Dharma, critics remain skeptical of the secular label. Lara Braitstein, an associate professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at McGill University is suspicious of Westerners claiming the authority of the Dharma over the lived experiences of Buddhists.

In an email to the Tribune, Braitstein pointed to the work of British scholar T.W. Rhys Davids, who first encountered Buddhist texts in Sri Lanka in the late 19th century. Rhys Davids believed Buddhism was a hyper-rational philosophy that was misunderstood by the Buddhist practitioners he encountered.       

“Rhys-Davids just completely ignored the lived practice of Buddhists around him in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and instead gave himself the authority to determine what 'real' Buddhism is, based on some of the Pali texts he was reading,” Braitstein wrote. “The Western interpretation of Buddhism as rational and 'not a religion' I think can really date back to that moment.”    

Jeff Wilson wrote skeptically of  processes of de-religionization like the one Batchelor undertakes in his article “The Religion of Mindfulness,” combating the idea of mindfulness as an entirely secular endeavour.

“Defining beliefs about reincarnation as disposable religious elements, rather than as Dharma and simply the way things really are, is a form of boundary drawing and in-group making, the sort of thing that religious movements excel at,” Wilson wrote. “[...To] claim that something is the heart of the Dharma and that other things can be discarded is to make a religiously sectarian argument. Defining Dharma as universal, and above or beyond any particular religion is, of course, itself a religious statement about the nature of Dharma.”

Godin divides definitions of what is essential to Buddhism into “cultural traditions” and “fundamental teachings.” This vision places Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Western interpretations on equal footing, given that they all flow from the fundamental lessons of the Buddha.  

“The more specifically cultural aspects are often difficult to assimilate for persons born and educated in Western societies,” Godin wrote. “There are many examples of ‘Western’ adaptations of Buddhism where some of the rituals and practices are either simplified or modified, removing some of their more cultural expressions, leaving the essential principles and practices of Buddhism.”

"I was uncomfortable taking something I felt no legitimate claim to and re-appropriating it for my own uses. In other words, I felt that if I couldn’t accept Buddhism in its totality, I couldn’t accept it at all."

Lhadrun sees her challenges as a Buddhist with a Western background as requiring her to identify and work through the Western perspectives she brings to the religion.

“My approach [to Buddhism] is different, because the cultures are different,” Lhadrun wrote. “Westerners are I think more individualistic, which is good in that I look out for myself and don't accept blindly, but I can tend to think more selfishly because of that, which really shows up in community life.”

As I learned more about Buddhism—especially the experiences of Buddhists in traditionally-Buddhist countries—I began to increasingly feel like an outsider to those traditions. I was uncomfortable taking something I felt no legitimate claim to and re-appropriating it for my own uses. In other words, I felt that if I couldn’t accept Buddhism in its totality, I couldn’t accept it at all.

My reservation aligns itself with the tenet of Western rationality, which claims that all beliefs must be logically consistent. And this explains the emphasis placed by scholars, such as Batchelor, on developing a “secular Buddhism,” free of superstition, that we can support logically with our modern understandings and yet still remain true to the original teachings of the Buddha.

For many in the West, finding Buddhism is a personal process, and a constantly evolving one.

“I have been interested in different so-called ‘spiritual’ endeavours during most of my life,” Godin wrote. “I am 81 years old, but I have personally found the practice of Zen Buddhism to be the most satisfying for my personal needs. It is up to each person to define its own needs for [his or her self].”

The teachings of the Buddha were written down in the first century BCE, hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death in the fifth century BCE. His lessons are preserved and taught by teachers across the world, each bringing their own experiences and predispositions to the texts. What one such instructor may take away from the original teachings may be entirely different from another—and who can say whether either of them is wrong?

Though I continue to meditate, my interest in Buddhism began to wane because I couldn’t see myself choosing to “take refuge,” the formal ritual of becoming a Buddhist by taking refuge in the Buddha, Sangha, and Dharma. Nonetheless, I keep finding myself coming back to what I’ve learned, but these days, I try to worry less about labels, dogma and the “correct” practice.

“The best way to get through all this is just to keep practicing,” Lhadrun wrote. “I find the questions I had before mostly get answered by themselves as I go along.”