an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

West Meets East? – Tibetan Buddhism in America

Part 1

Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, . . .

This rather widely-known quote from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, is also very wrongly known, and in a way that is symptomatic of this essay’s message. For the oft-cited lines above are commonly understood to conclude the opposite of what the actual fuller poem says, as can be seen by considering the fuller quote:

Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)

Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

“The Ballad of East and West” – Rudyard Kipling (1889)

BBC radio recently broadcast account of one of the recent popular trends amidst the great multivariety of American popular culture: Tibetan Buddhism – which is clearly a meeting of East and West. Buddhism was initially known, in any substantial way in the USA, beginning only in the mid-1800s (in Europe it had only become known of a couple of decades earlier), and that mostly via Christian missionary accounts, exotic travel reports, scholarly studies, or accounts in the journals read by intellectuals of the time. The modern settlers to the “New World” were, it is perhaps helpful to recall, Europeans, and not from Japan, India, Tibet, or other Asian countries; and they brought with them the Bible and the Western Classical and European Intellectual Traditions with their (various) Christian, Graeco-Roman and European beliefs – not Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, or other. Yet these “faiths”, these “religious systems” (as it is now common, though in fact rather inexact and inappropriate, to label them in parts of the English-speaking world), would also all eventually over time come from their Eastern origins into the cultural life of the West, the USA, to add what we now call a religious “pluralism” to the already present (mostly) Biblical, Judaeo-Christian divisions and diversity.

Pre-Historical Shamanism

The first “settlers” to the continent (later named after Amerigo Vespucci) – what are most often now called “native American Indians”, who had come across that landbridge (now straits) from Asia which later received the name of the Danish leader of the Russian expedition to Alaska, Vitus Bering – had brought with them the ancient, pre-historical relation to spirit and nature sometimes called “animism”, but which nineteenth-century Russia cultural anthropologists had named “shamanism”. (The name comes from the Siberian Tungus tribe’s name for that individual (shaman) in a tribe which had special communications with the upper and lower spirit worlds.) This term gradually spread around the world, and is now commonly and popularly used in both America and Europe by cultural anthropologists, “spiritual seekers” and “native Americans” themselves (for their own North American Indian “shamanic” practices!). There were, and are, many, many different “native” tribes in the American hemisphere, but they generally had practices and cosmologies now recognizable and generally labeled “shamanic”. The cultural life of some places in the USA today, like seminal California, cannot be understood without understanding “shamanism”, and its presence and influence as part of the intellectual life and culture there. Over the past three decades or more, various native or foreign tribal “shamanisms” have blown as popular trends across portions of the cultural landscape and “religious life” of North America – as some Americans attempted to understand their modern historical condition with prehistorical “beliefs”, stemming from a time even before there was an “East” or “West”.

Such tendencies often then spread – especially with America’s position after World War II – to other parts of the world, such as parts of Western Europe, eventually they also spread to Russia. It is common to find books, originally written and published in California or the USA, about various types of “shamanism”, “native American Indian” life, or “new age” ideas – for example in bookstores in Germany or Scandinavia. (Sometimes, as in Finland, with its comparatively small population, they were and are not even translated from American English!) Here we see the influence of America, the “New World” – originally a child of Europe – onto its “parent” Europe, the “Old World”.

Columbus and others (seeking, as it was popular a couple of decades ago to say in American schoolbooks: God, Gold and Glory) had gone West seeking the East; they unexpectedly found “America” standing in their way. Now the Far West, in California, sends out its own missionaries to Europe (Western, Central and now also Eastern), and most other parts of the world: Asia, Africa, India, etc., spreading ideas, attitudes and images of life California-style: Hollywood, Silicon Valley’s computers and “virtual reality” games, the hippie and drug movement, or the thousands and thousands of teachers and social bureaucrats who came and studied California (and the USA) since World War II . . . . Consider the fascination in Russia today of such places as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Nevada (near California), Disneyland, . . . as tourist destinations, the names for some Russians to wear on their clothes and hats in Russia, etc. Anyone who has lived in these places knows that this fascination is often fanciful and fallacious – more indicating the exotica of the distant, human foolishness, and tourist advertisement, that the real, worthy facts of life. In the 19th century, it was common for cultured Americans to travel to Europe (Paris, London, Rome) for the grand tour of the Old World. Now everybody in the world – East, West, North and South – seems to dream of someday visiting California. These are important – if seemingly commonplace – facts in the social, cultural and psychological history of mankind! (And, as someone who has lived and observed life in California, I know how illusory many such dreams of California are!)

Tibetan Buddhism in the USA

Tibetan Buddhism – in addition to following “shamanism(s)” – also follows various “schools” of Zen Buddhism (which came to the USA from Japan only in the 20th century) as well of course as other types of Buddhisms from India, and South-East Asia (e.g., Vietnam). Certainly the Communist takeover of Tibet in 1959, and the late 1980s enhanced repression of Buddhist monks there, in “the Forbidden Kingdom”, “the roof of the world” (as Tibet is popularly called in the West), has contributed to the interest in and presence of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in America – which must not be forgotten, in our time of mass, world-wide travel and tourism and communication, to be a deeply contrasting meeting of East and West. (During winter 1997–1998 there are three American films on Tibet in the American film market.) The political and social concern by many Americans for the social and political “rights” and cultural suppression of Tibet by Chinese (Eastern) Communism (Western) – aided of course by the increased world-prominence of the current Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso, born 1935, Nobel Peace Prize 1989) has certainly helped bring this type of Buddhism to the attention of more people in the North America and the West as a whole. (The Tibetans believe that the current Dalai Lama, is the 14th reincarnation of a 14th century leader who was himself believed to be an incarnation of the divine entity Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.)

Buddha statue in Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Seattle, Washington
Buddha statue in Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Seattle, Washington

The centuries-old exoticism of “the East” – which widely, at least as an attitude and “romantization” of, for example, India (with its gurus, temples, etc.) spread amidst the rebellious youth in the 1960s (and thereafter) in the USA – has also come to replace Christianity and Judaism in the beliefs and interests of portions of America’s seeking youth. West meets East? (They may know Christianity only superficially – either in experience, study or ideas – but many talk of it as a stodgy, oppressive, “imperialist” religion, and seek something new, fresh, different, liberal, and “politically-correct”, in other “religious systems” of the world.) Today in many parts of the USA – and this was not always so – it is rather socially easy to pursue different non-Western religions; the books, teachers and “classes” are available throughout much of America. As James Davison Hunter considers in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, the Biblical, Judaeo-Christian consensus (and world-view) in America – which had pervaded American society and culture since the first European settlers to North America – basically held up until the 1950s; when it lost this power of tradition, other faiths also came in – the great meeting of East and West continued.

The BBC reported that recent visits by several Hollywood “stars” – Richard Gere, Robert Di Nero, among others – to a Tibetan Buddhist Center in New York City, had greatly enhanced and spread the interest, in portions of American popular culture, in this “religion”. (Needless to say, most religions find profoundly different types of people – and their accomplishments – to be “stars”, than does the “stardom” of TV and film life in Hollywood! Indeed, the Dalai Lama himself is conceived to be a very different kind of “star”.) If there is no other sign of our confused, lost, superficial, mixed-up, “global” times today, in which very many people cannot easily distinguish “East” and “West”, the fact that (Far West) Hollywood movie “stars” help spread interest and respect in the USA for the Eastern “Tibetan Buddhism”, is one. Or shall we assume that these popular film and television “stars” (perhaps they are actually higher up on this ladder and are “superstars”!?), have made a deep and decades-long study of Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism – when they have likely never been to Tibet, certainly do not know or read its language, and may well have had their “deep interest” in it for a few years only – and have decided that Tibetan Buddhism is best?

There are many things about American society and culture which could be considered here. First, it must be understood that “Tibetan Buddhism” in America, East in the West – and here it is merely an example for understanding certain social dynamics of American culture – is very often an Americanized “Tibetan Buddhism”. The interviews done by the BBC reporter with American “practitioners” and “teachers” of this Buddhism, were typical examples of people who had no really serious or long-term background of study in Buddhism – Tibetan, Zen, Mahayana, Hinayana, or any other Buddhism – yet who were unhesitant to tell the BBC interviewer the essence of the Tibetan Buddhism they were hardly prepared to know. The American Tibetan Buddhist “teacher” interviewed, said that Buddhism is about how to be happy. This is a rather typical example of superficial “knowledge”; common rampant dilettantism (dabbling in a subject without serious study of it) which is omnipresent in US common culture (e.g., in religion, where all is considered private, personal and protected); and Americanization of the subject; which is moreover nonetheless perfectly unembarrassed to speak itself on the BBC radio for millions world-wide to hear.

Part 2

Mediocre Mountain Climbers

The word “mediocrity” comes via French from the Latin word mediocris, medius – middle + ocris – jagged mountain, and means ‘half way up the mountain’. Himalayan Tibet’s Buddhism – which, in actual historical fact, is inextricably intermixed with Tibet’s aboriginal, “shamanism” called “Bon” (the name “Tibet” is derived from Bon), and which has a cosmography deriving from the same ultimate Indo-Iranian roots as that of the Christian cosmography commonly known in the West in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite and Dante’s Divine Comedy – comes from very high up the ‘mountains of the East’. The typical Americans interviewed by the BBC who are “seeking happiness”, are necessarily unable, ‘half-way up the mountain’, to really find or understand the Eastern heights of Tibetan Buddhism, or the Western “heights” of Christianity for that matter. Theirs is a – in the second half of the 20th century – common “meeting” of East and West, in which neither are really understood . . . never the twain shall meet. The American Tibetan Buddhist “teacher” – and it is, unfortunately, safe to assume for the USA generally, with a profoundly limited historical knowledge or awareness – typically repeated, more or less unreflectively, Jefferson’s words from the “American Creed” about the pursuit of happiness. If Tibetan Buddhism did not believe that the classically-educated “Founding Father” and Enlightenment statesman Thomas Jefferson (who himself skepticsceptically rejected all in religions which was “superstitious”, unreasonable, and metaphysical – of which he was more widely and studiously knowledgeable than this American “Tibetan Buddhist Teacher”) had already been reincarnated (since his death on July 4, 1826), in order over time through repeated lives to purge himself of the illusory desires for happiness in this ephemeral world (permeated by suffering as it is understood in Buddhism to be); then Jefferson might be said, as a common American saying goes, “to roll over in his grave”, had he heard this semi-literate American Tibetan Buddhist “teacher” in the megapolis of New York City use his ideas in such a contradictory, indeed, non-sensical instance. One can be absolutely sure – and this can be assumed of a shocking numbers of any Americans that one will ever meet – that this “teacher” had little to no substantial knowledge of Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment/Deist views of man, world and happiness, at the basis of the “American Creed” (from the Declaration of Independence) which he nonetheless essentially cited as the goal of Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism – Tibetan especially, with its developed hierarchy of demons (which in popular versions need to be appeased) – is about the liberation of the illusory self (anatman) from the wheel of rebirth and suffering in the illusory world (samsara) with its ephemeral desires and happiness, in the pursuit of nirvana. [Nirvana comes into English in 1836 directly from Sanskrit, and means, a blowing out or becoming extinguished, extinction, disappearance; nis-, nir- out + va- to blow.] To hear this American “Tibetan Buddhist” teacher in New York City, on the BBC, speaking of it as a path to (the earthly, psychological) “happiness” (he seeks), is one of those characteristic, ridiculous absurdities sometimes to be noted among people (when they try to speak about high subjects) who do not realize they are only ‘half way up the mountain’. It cannot be said much more politely – and truthfully – at the same time!

“Paradise of the Masses” vs. Excellence

Whether America is the paradise of the masses, as Ortega y Gasset described it in his 1920’s Revolt of the Masses, what any traveler to the USA will unavoidably meet is a life, culture and society permeated and pervaded (on TV, radio, print, etc.) by the ideas, thoughts and presence of those ‘half way up the mountain’. It is impossible to understand common, daily American culture, and the intellectual life in the USA, without understanding its permeation with widespread mediocre ideas, understanding, conversations and minds – and what is more, that this condition is not even noticed or recognized by most. This was not always so in human history, e.g., in many societies there were well-defined intellectual elites and hierarchies, and any semi-literate today in America can write and publish a book on their own inexpensive, desktop computer – there are more than 40,000 new books in the USA published each year – whereas for much of human history books were rare and precious, and not every half-wit could either read or publish them. Or any semi-literate country-bumpkin in America can declare himself a reborn minister of “God’s Word”, the Bible, and open his own church, preaching his own view of Jesus, Salvation and God’s Judgment of the World. In a funny way this is somewhat like the “ocean of ignorance” in which Buddhism says humanity lies in its illusion of the self in its illusory quest for happiness in an inherently illusory world. Admittedly, not everyone can live at the top of the mountain, be that of the Acropolis, Golgotha, Dante’s “Paradiso”, or Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop speech” (the day before his assassination), but the absence or lack of a deep recognition and reverence – in favor of the mediocrity – of those in history who did (or do), is unfortunately characteristic of many aspects of American society and culture. Consider Goethe’s reflections to Eckermann related to this question on March 18, 1831:

We spoke of higher maxims, whether it was good or possible to communicate them to others. “The capacity of apprehending what is high,” said Goethe, “is very rare; and therefore in common life a man does well to keep such things to himself, and only to give out so much as is needful to have some advantage against others.”

We touched upon the point that many men, especially critics and poets, wholly ignore true greatness, while they assign extraordinary value to mediocrity.

“Man,” said Goethe, “recognizes and praises only what he himself is capable of doing; and as certain people have their proper existence in the mediocre, they get a trick of thoroughly depreciating in literature anything else that, while faulty, may have good points; so as to elevate the mediocre, which they praise, to greater eminence.”

And on March 22, 1831, Eckermann recorded the following events with Goethe:

Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831)
Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831)

After dinner, Goethe read to me passages from the letter of a young friend, at Rome. Some German artists appeared there with long hair, moustaches, shirt-collars turned over on old-fashioned German coats, tobacco pipes, and bull dogs. They do not seem to visit Rome for the sake of the great masters, or to learn anything. To them Raphael seems weak, and Titian merely a good colorist.

“[Barthold Georg] Niebuhr,” said Goethe, “was right when he saw a barbarous age coming. It is already here, we are in the midst of it; for wherein does barbarism consist, unless in not appreciating what is excellent.”

In fact, at the close of the twentieth century in the USA, it is almost impossible to state publicly that anyone is “better” and “greater” than anyone else – without entailing a storm of protest, and possibly violence! (Jefferson, with his belief in a “natural aristocracy”, would never have accepted such a view of all men are created equal!)

(Eastern) Tibetan Buddhism in (Western) America, is – and here it is not unusual – often a very Americanized version of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism, required in Tibet (historically not an overly democratic nation by the way), many years of novitiate monastic study and meditation; in America it is enough for a mere student to study a few books for a couple of years, in order for some of them to come to imagine that they are qualified to be its “teachers”. This intellectual dynamic is characteristic of American society in many ways (and has also occurred with “shamanism(s)”, the world’s religions, including Christianity, “new age” ideas, spiritualism, etc.) and this must be recognized and understood in order to begin to understand American culture. The “San Francisco Bay Area”, to which tourists flock from all over the world (and which name is heard in travel agency sound-ads in the Moscow metro), cannot possibly be understood in its intellectual, cultural life, and history, without a clear understanding of these social facts. The pervasive tendency in American society today, is to imagine that all religions and views of religion(s) – Tibetan, Christian, shaman, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. – are “created equal” (and are in any case constitutionally free), so that even mediocre people are sometimes completely, and “politely”, unchallenged in public, in their “teachings” of this or that. I have, as a cultural observer, witnessed many, many such public events in hyper-pluralistic California.

A few currently-popular Hollywood “movie stars” visit a Tibetan Buddhist Center in New York City, a recent inner-city black rap music group records a song with ancient Tibetan ritual chanting in the background, and a wave of interest in “Tibetan Buddhism” is unleashed amidst portions of the USA. Though one cannot perhaps so easily imagine a deeper contrast than the spiritual essences of the popular ideas of Hollywood, or the life of inner-city rappers – or the “American Dream” and the “American Creed” – and Tibetan Buddhism, superficial people will be able to make a popular, liberal mixture of these. Oh East is East and West is West – but is this a real meeting of East and West?

In California – where various such trends come and go every year or so, and have done so for several decades already – I have seen huge crowds at lectures by Buddhist teachers (Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan), with many people who otherwise paid little to no attention to any serious studies of religion, but all of whom treated the various visiting Buddhist teachers as if they were “gods”. What was interesting was that the people at these “spiritual gatherings” were also often Americans who would seldom if ever go to a Christian church service even on Easter or Christmas – even out of curiosity; yet who were “reverential” towards the visiting Buddhists, of which they knew next to nothing.

Part 3

The Dalai Lama in “Holy Cross” – God-King, or “Simple Monk”?

In order to understand – in order to be “strong”, as in Kipling’s poem – the social phenomena of several thousand Americans (mostly college-graduates, from their 20’s to 40’s), in “the world’s leading democracy”, who I saw in an auditorium in Santa Cruz, California, treating a visit of the Dalai Lama with what they could approximate of great “awe”, one must understand, first, general intellectual conditions in the USA (with awareness of its many sub-cultures) including extents and depths of knowledge of history, religion, philosophy, etc; second, understand how the “American Creed” is a sort of omnipresent, but unreflective, belief system and vocabulary in America; and, thirdly, how little of Christianity, the Enlightenment and Deism, and the Asian religions, most such people know. Then one could approach understanding such an event as the following.

The 14th Dalai Lama
The 14th Dalai Lama

Here is the picture . . . on the stage at the front of the town’s largest auditorium has been placed a raised, red and yellow cloth-covered seat, with cushions. There are bouquets of flowers, a microphone, and various Tibetan tankas (paintings) and objects here and there on the stage. The front rows of the best seats are taken by many red- and yellow-robed Tibetan devotees (a few of whom are actually from Tibet, or India). The remainder of the public hall – which is also used for basketball games, high school dances, rock concerts, fairs, and exhibitions – is full of people; there are no empty seats. Incense can be smelled from time to time; the lighting is somewhat dim. Some people have blankets; others wear their personal “energy crystals”, hanging from their necks, often over their “spiritual” clothes; most have great anticipation of seeing the Dalai Lama in Santa Cruz, Spanish for “Holy Cross”. (A meeting of East and West.)

Almost two hours late, he finally arrives, and the crowd buzzes – but quietly and reverentially – with excitement. Though he is experienced with Western life, he seems to be unable to use the microphone well, and so it is soon clear to everyone – dismaying and disappointing as it is – that it is very difficult to understand what he is saying (in English) at all, and to comprehend much more than a mumble of his wisdom (assuming that whatever he is saying, mostly to himself, is wise!). But as he is a visiting, living Eastern “God-King”, who just does not seem to be able to keep the Western, scientifically-made, electronic microphone in front of his mouth, who in the audience is courageous enough to yell out to him to “Speak up!”, or “Speak into the microphone!”? As the Dalai Lama told several jokes – which virtually no one in the audience could hear – he several times laughed at his jokes quite alone, as the admiring audience could not understand him! I was angry, ready to riot, that the organizers did nothing to correct this situation – though it gave me time to reflect on the fact that the 14th incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, did not quite seem to realize that he needed to use this electronic equipment with greater mindfulness, if the people there were going to hear what he was saying to them. After about forty minutes, one of his devotees finally attempted to place the microphone in such a way that the Dalai Lama could only with difficulty not speak into it – which he, with a periodic shifting of his sitting position, and robes, nevertheless succeeded from time to time in doing! Had he really traveled in the West so much I had to ask?

As a scholar of the history of religious thought and philosophy – primarily Western, but also Eastern – I had expected to hear some rather deep and interesting ideas and expressions from this Eastern “God-King”. But perhaps his Western interests, experiences and studies had somewhat diffused and flattened his Tibetan Buddhist wisdom . . . for he spoke little more than common humanitarian and “spiritual” platitudes (about being good, harmonious, gentle, compassionate, loving to all the world, etc.) to the audience. People had come expecting the 14th reincarnation of a Tibetan spiritual being to have something special and rather unusual to say to them in America; but as he himself in answer to a question from the audience stated – with no false humility to my ears – he was just a “simple monk”. Even my unscholarly friends, commented on how very little profound, surprising or memorable he had said. Still, whatever other people thought about this meeting of East and West in the person of the Dalai Lama, they let him part with due reverence – from the audience for a visiting “God-King”! (Even if he wasn’t so competent with the microphone!)

“In the Beginning was the un-Word?”

And then there were the Tibetan monks, who came to do their sacred temple and meditational chants, for the very first time ever, in history, in the West. The hall – the same one – was this time completely darkened when the monks walked in; only the raised platform in the very center of the auditorium was lit. On to it the monks proceeded – wearing their strangely shaped but characteristic hats. The hall again was full, for this ‘rare, first time, historical event’ in the West – the advertisements of these monks’ first tour in the USA showed copulating skeletons – a mysterious advertisement indeed. The tickets were about $20.00 each. Not a word was spoken in English; indeed it was not clear that even a single word was spoken during the whole two-hour ceremony–“performance”! It was all, presumably, in Tibetan, which 99.99% of the American audience (including myself!) did not understand at all; and that part which did not consist of chants seemed to have been deep, guttural, vocalizations – generally similar to the well-known mantra “Om” – but far more deep, strange and varied. What was supposed to happen in that hall (filled as it was with interested or curious Americans), with their American minds and characters, while listening to Tibetan monks of the Gelugpa Yellow Hat Sect chanting incomprehensible sacred sounds with no discernible meaning, is real to wonder! There were certainly, in this “new age community” of Santa Cruz, California (with its alternative “religious systems” galore) no individuals – Kipling’s “strong men” – present, who were deep and studied enough in Tibetan Buddhism, its language, system, rituals, chants, cosmology, etc., plus American and California culture and mentality, to have mediated, to have been a mediator for a real meeting of East and West in this rare, first historical occurrence. This “meeting” of East and West – though it in fact occurred – could also be said to have not taken place . . . for “strong” knowledge was not present.

The Dalai Lama had spoken his common homilies, with his Tibetan-Indian-British accent, so that via the lingua franca of English, as least some minimal degree of meeting of East and West had been possible in the town “Holy Cross”, Santa Cruz – one of the mission towns which the westward-journeying Spanish Christian Franciscan Friars had established in the late 1700s in order to convert the aboriginal “native Californians” (with their pre-historical “shamanism”) to Western Catholicism. The Tibetan ritual chanting however, this “performance/ceremony” of sub-vocal, sacred Tibetan chants, was certainly not a meeting of East and West – the two, the “twain” had indeed not really met! In fact, reviewing this historical encounter of East and West in California – few people seemed to really be much aware and cognizant (mostly from inadequate “strength”) of this uniqueness in world history of East and West – one could well wonder, listening to these deep, guttural, sub-vocal sounds, of the relationship of this Eastern Tibetan Buddhism, to the Christian idea of the Logos, the Word, in St. John’s In the Beginning was the Word.

At the evening of Tibetan Chants, there may not have been a single Kipling’s “strong man” present, from East or West, who had the requisite knowledge to comprehend this meeting. So that the experience was very pervaded by unenlightened emotions and notions, and little critical thought or consciousness of the reality of the mystical, sacred ceremony – so that the event was basically one of great reverential vagueness.

The fact that these young Americans were unaware or unashamed that they knew so little, and yet acted so reverently towards chants, words and rituals of which they knew next to nothing, did not seem to disturb them. But since American culture, character, history, tradition, life and mentality work against understanding Buddhism, they will understand it in their own way. I have heard Californians talk about Buddhism (Tibetan and other) as if it were merely another version of the popular Western liberal’s political/social pacifism which they have accepted from Ghandi, mixed together with the “socialism” they more or less clearly accepted from Marx (and still accept – even after the ‘fall of communism’ historically), the “ecology” they believe a path to an earthly paradise, and the happiness of the “Creed” they pursue though ignorant of Jefferson. Their inner lives are disturbed and distressed (origin of the word “stress”) in a troubling world; so Tibetan Buddhism is pacifist, and for harmony with life and nature (in spite of its characteristic demonology). Nature is being destroyed by modern industry, therefore “Buddhism” (Tibetan or otherwise) is ecological, and promotes harmony and love with “all sentient beings”. They find in distant beliefs answers to their nearest problems and worries.

As described in the chapter “Postscript” to the book The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912 (author Thomas Tweed; 1992), a sociological study of Americans interested in Buddhism (published in 1988) stated [that] the single most significant motive for joining Buddhist groups was the desire to find relief from physical and psychological suffering through practices such as chanting and meditation. Here we have (mostly youngish – 20’s to 40’s) Americans seeking an Eastern, Buddhist solution to the problems of their Western, American civilization, psyches and social conditions – in the world’s most prosperous nation, with its highest standard of living, with its originally, but now dissipated Classical, Biblical, Judaeo-Christian moral and intellectual foundations, and Deist/Enlightenment “American Creed” and US Constitution. Such Americans – who seldom realize they are ‘half-way up the mountain’ – are happy to alter Buddhism (Japanese, Tibetan, Indian, or other – or shamanisms) into their own versions.

The report by the BBC on the recent interest in America (among only a comparatively small part of the entire American populace), must be recognized as quite symptomatic of intellectual and cultural conditions there. Pop(ular) culture reflects the populace (as democracy does the demos, Greek for ‘the people’). That Hollywood “movie stars” this year lead thousands of Americans to an interest in Tibetan Buddhism, also says volumes about American culture and society. (But this is not to forget that such a person as Billy Graham, with his evangelical Christianity, begun when he was reborn at the ripe age of 17, is and was considered a great Christian teacher in the USA – which is another problem in what Ortega y Gasset criticized as a “paradise”.)

Part 4

Suffering and Two “Enlightenments”: Siddhartha Gautama Buddha vs. Thomas Jefferson

It is worth while reflecting on how American intellectual history would have been different had the religiously-sceptical, though believing Deist Thomas Jefferson written, rather than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, ‘the pursuit of . . . truth, or goodness . . . perfection, nobility, knowledge, fraternity, brotherhood, or other’, in the Declaration of Independence which, though described as an “American Creed”, is now rather something more like an almost unconscious belief system which permeates American culture, life and mind. Not only is it repeated and discussed daily, but children learn parts of it in schools as parts of the national ‘holy script’ of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Social studies show that the most significant motive for Americans to become interested and involved in Buddhism is “the desire to find relief from physical and psychological suffering”. And, indeed, not only is suffering – physical, psychological and existential-spiritual – a real human problem in the USA (where “the pursuit of happiness” is a part of the “Creed”), but so is the very idea and understanding of “suffering” a special American problem, for America is the world’s first modern, secular society, and suffering often requires a greater, deeper intellectual or “spiritual” solution. Christianity (with many divisions and denominations), Judaism (Orthodox, Reformed, Conservative, Hassidic, etc.), Islam (Sunni, Shiite, Sufi, etc.), Buddhism (many schools), Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto, etc., as well as atheism, agnosticism, hedonism, Stoicism, and nihilism, all have their own various ideas of suffering, and its meaning in life and world. So that all these different groups, and religious or philosophical views of man and world in the USA, each have their own understandings, interpretations and explanations of the place and meaning of suffering in life. But these same people in the USA, insofar as they are American citizens – and not a part of one so-called religious “faith community” or another – do not, broadly speaking, have a shared community idea of suffering (or God, Truth, or Cosmos for that matter). This is a part of the non-establishment of any religion, church, or belief system by the US government, basic to American history, and established in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

As American Reflections has often described, Americans, insofar as they have some common idea, some common national ideology (as Russian intellectuals were instructed by President Yeltsin in 1996 to determine and write), have the so-called “American Creed”, and of course the actual US Constitution. So that there is no “national religion”, no national “religious belief system”, no common cosmic idea of man, and thus no national “American” idea of suffering. These are religious matters; and in the USA, such questions relate to the various religions (their divisions, and the churches) and individual believer-citizens. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha – “the enlightened one” – whose teachings in East and West are, of course, at the base of all Buddhisms in the world (and the variety of Buddhisms in the world is not small, and adaptations and contrasting interpretations of his teachings have at times been, and still are, very deep and extensive in various cultures and times) – is famous for having recognized that life is suffering. The “American Creed” is an articulation of a profoundly different Western “Enlightenment” view of man: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness . . . Buddha rejected most of this.

The uniqueness of this “meeting”, this contrast, historically, of East and West, is documented by the nearly complete absence of any of the wealth of American Jefferson scholarship comparing his Enlightenment world-view to that of Buddha, “the Enlightened One”. Most Jefferson scholars, unsurprisingly, of course, examine his relationship to Western thought and history. Contrasting Jefferson’s thought and Weltanschauung to Tibetan Buddhism – or Buddhism of any sort – would still today seem eccentric and senseless to most “serious” Jefferson scholars. But here they are in fact anachronistic – behind the times; even inadvertently provincial. (Indeed, this essay is one of the very first times that such a contrast has been written!)

Buddhists (generally) seek nirvana (an escape from the ‘rounds of existence and rebirth’) whereas for Jefferson “happiness” – which that American Tibetan Buddhist “teacher” interviewed on the BBC said he was seeking – took place in this life, in this world; beliefs which scholars describe as “immanental”. (Whether Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s nirvana, is annihilation or extinction – as it has often been thought since it first appeared as a term in the West; Thomas Jefferson’s “happiness” is in the world which Buddha considered illusory, and so permeated by suffering, that escape from it was the only possible “happiness”.)

Jefferson, who saw many of his children die during birth or early youth (not unusual at that time), and who lost his dearly-beloved wife early in his life, was far from inexperienced in what at that time was commonly called “grief”. Indeed, suffering (“grief”) was a fact that troubled Jefferson in his world-view. In a revealing exchange of letters with John Adams touching directly on this problem, the Deist Jefferson wrote on April 8, 1816, from his mountaintop home he named Monticello [Spelling and punctuation from the period have been slightly modernized here]:

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)
You ask if I would agree to live my 70 or rather 73 years over again? To which I say Yea. I think with you that this is a good world on the whole, that it has been formed on a principle of benevolence, and more pleasure than pain dealt out to us. There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy and hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, and despairing of the future; always counting that the worse will happen, because it might . . . . There are, I acknowledge, even in the happiest life, some terrible convulsions, heavy set-offs against the opposite page of the account. I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended. All our other passions, with their proper bounds, have a useful object. And the perfection of moral character is not in Stoical apathy – so hypocritically vaunted, and so untruly too, because [it is] impossible – but in a just equilibrium of all the passions. I wish the pathologists then would tell us what is the use of grief in the economy, and of what good it is the cause.

One could clearly contrast Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s (ca. 563–483 B. C.) and Thomas Jefferson’s (1743–1826) experiences of, attitudes to, and interpretations of suffering, life and world. Indeed, today in the USA, in order to understand Buddhism, it is necessary to do so! Though both – in their very different contexts: Virginia vs. (north-eastern) India – lived moderately “princely lives”, Jefferson did not reject the world (even with its “grief”, pain and death), believing that it was “formed on a principle of benevolence”, whereas Siddhartha Gautama is known for his shock and rejection of sickness, old age, suffering and death in the world. And whereas Buddha suggested escape from the rounds of rebirth, Jefferson said he would live his “73 years” again – though perhaps not if it had been very much worse for him. But this is not merely a question of the contrasting personal psychologies of Gautama Buddha and Jefferson, but of the characteristic contrasts of East and West!

Characteristically, rather than turn to the Old or New Testaments’ Jehovah, or the Crucified Christ (or for that matter the Zoroastrian-derived “devil”) for the meaning of suffering – and certainly not to the Eastern concepts of anatman, samsara, maya, nirvana, etc., – Jefferson, like a good Deist, looks to the pathologists (the scientists of bodily diseases), to find its meaning in the order, the “economy” of nature, life and world. As Jefferson grew older, and noticed the signs of his own aging, he tended to more and more locate answers to such questions in the mysterious (but surely just) world of a wise and benevolent God (Deism) into which one entered after death.

And all of this is the rather interesting, though ignored or unknown background to the blithe statement by the American Tibetan Buddhist “teacher”. He might actually have really been a teacher, and been worth interviewing, had he had a “strong” knowledge of the contrasts of East and West in his inherently-contradictory thoughts broadcast world-wide on the BBC. His was not a clear, or “strong” meeting of East and West!

Part 5

Monticello Contra Hollywood

As to Thomas Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness, his ideas were much more noble that the popular, agnostic hedonism which Hollywood spreads world-wide today; or the sensual pleasures of some of America’s super-rich and famous, which are, most often, the popular ideas and images in the world today of America’s culture of “happiness” – the common “American Dream”.

In The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson, the author Charles Sanford wrote: Happiness, Jefferson believed, was to be found by each person working, studying, and developing his talents and abilities in order to fulfill his duty to society. He was constantly urging his young friends and relatives to be studious and make good use of their opportunities. He deplored the charming indolence of many of his aristocratic, horse-racing friends. This latter criticism would apply to many popular Hollywood ideas of “happiness” today in the USA. Happiness is the aim of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness, wrote Jefferson towards the end of his life in a private letter to his former secretary. Elsewhere he had stated that living in true relationship with one’s own “conscience”, and a dutiful relation to one’s fellow man and God, was the means to true “happiness”. Though perhaps more than 90% of the US population can recite by heart some parts of Jefferson’s “creed”, certainly not .1% of the same people have any idea or understanding of these facts of the author of their daily-recited national “Creed” – which is why the “Creed” can be described as unconscious and semi-reflective.

The American “teacher” of “Tibetan Buddhism”, who described it as “how to be happy”, looked neither to Deism, nor the Enlightenment psychology of man of Jefferson, nor did he look to the deeper Western, Christian ideas of suffering (nor to Judaism, Islam, agnosticism, materialism, etc.). In New York City, USA he had found his solution in Tibetan Buddhism.

In Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World, by John Bowker (published 1970), one finds in the chapter on Buddhism:

To outside observers Buddhism has frequently seemed a pessimistic religion. Despite the serene countenance with which the Buddha is almost invariably portrayed, Buddhism has seemed to be preoccupied with suffering and grief: Take the Book of Ecclesiastes, remove from it every reference to God, and you have a fair representation of the philosophy which forms the basis of Buddhism. “All is vanity.” But in fact to describe Buddhism as pessimistic is mistaken, although it is easy to see how that impression arises. Awareness of suffering, without any pretense or deception about it, lies at the root and foundation of Buddhism. The Buddha’s insight, in its most concentrated form, is found in the Four Noble Truths. In general terms they are usually expressed as: the existence of suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. There is no doubt at all that awareness of suffering is a deeply essential part of Buddhism . . . . Of all religions, Buddhism is the one which concentrates most immediately and directly on suffering.

And the American Tibetan Buddhist teacher in New York is trying to find “happiness” – a concept itself which is part of the growth and history of the modern secular world and its history from which he suffers (and of whose history he lives in ignorance and maya). He did not say Buddhism was a seeking of “nirvana” (a basically un-American idea indeed!), or Truth, God, etc.; but for “happiness”.

Though there are well-meaning, but in fact semi-educated, shallow attempts to show or argue the essential unity, or commonality, of all the world’s “religions” – even the Latin term “religion” does not really apply to all of them; among other deep contrasts, there is a profound one between East and West: the statues of the serene meditating Buddha pursuing nirvana, stands (actually “sits”) in contrast to Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross on Golgotha. This is today rather a well-known contrast of images – though even in Jefferson’s life it was impossible in the West to imagine it, because “Buddhism” was generally completely unknown in the West at that time. Buddha (who denied the existence of a permanent spiritual self in his anatman doctrine) generally refused to talk about the spiritual realities of God or the afterlife; and Christ’s last word were not recorded to have been: Nirvana, into your hands I comment my illusory spirit. They are not the same “religions”; and they are a fundamental and good example of how all such unitary views of religions are false and/or shallow.

While most American shall live their lives untroubled, if mostly unclear of the contrasts of East and West – and some shall speak as foolishly and self-contradictorily as that interviewed American Tibetan Buddhist teacher did on the BBC – there is one rather interesting, deep, and “strong” interpretation of the contrast of Buddhism and Christianity, East and West, which it seems to me worth citing. It was delivered in a lecture in 1909 in Berlin by the Austrian-born philosopher, Goethe scholar and seer Rudolf Steiner (who also helped establish the so-called “Waldorf School Movement”):

Rudolf Steiner (1905)
Rudolf Steiner (1905)

Liberation from the pain of existence stands in the forefront of Buddhism. It makes it possible to describe the religion of Buddha as a religion of redemption from suffering in the highest sense of the word and, since all existence is bound up with suffering, it is a redemption above all from continued rebirth. . . . Now it is not correct, and this can be perceived even by the simplest method of observation, to say that Christianity is a religion of redemption in the same sense as Buddhism. If we place Christianity in its correct relation to Buddhism, we can speak of it as a religion of rebirth. Christianity proceeds from the knowledge that everything that, taken together, rep-resents a man in a single life, is fruitful. These fruits have importance and value for his innermost being and are carried over by him into a new life, when they are brought to a higher state of perfection. Everything that we experience and absorb in a single life always appears again and grows ever more toward perfection until it is revealed at last in its true spiritual form. When the apparently worthless in our existence is taken hold of by the spiritual, it is resurrected in a degree more perfect than before . . .

The thought content of Christianity is a religion of rebirth, a religion of the resurrection of the best that we have experienced. It is a religion in which no single thing on earth is a nothingness. Rather, everything is a building stone for the great edifice being erected from the gathering of the spiritual from the world of the senses.

Buddhism is a religion of liberation from existence. Christianity is the opposite – a religion of rebirth on a more spiritual level. This is revealed in the least as well as in the greatest of the forms of its presentation, no less than in its fundamental principles. We can say that the actual reasons for this difference between the two religions arise from the antithetical character of Oriental and Western culture. . .

. . . It is possible to describe this difference quite simply. It lies in the fact that all true Oriental culture that has not been fertilized by the West is non-historical, whereas Western culture is historical. This is the ultimate root of the difference between the Christian and Buddhistic conceptions. The Christian conception recognizes that, not only are there repeated lives on earth, but history rules in them. That is to say that what to begin with can be experienced at a higher and more perfect stage can continue to perfect itself throughout the course of succeeding incarnations.

Where Buddhism sees the liberation from earthly existence in the ascent to nirvana, Christianity sees as the goal of its evolution that everything engendered and achieved in each earthly life ascends to ever higher degrees of perfection until, spiritualized and transfigured, it consummates its resurrection at the end of the world.

In contrast to this stimulating, “strong” comparison of East and West, Buddhism and Christianity, and their divergent views of earthly life and suffering, we in our time increasingly hear the “weak” (if socially necessary) “meeting” of East and West in the assertion that all religions, all “faith communities” (as liberals now sometimes call them), are “equal”. Such, and similar views – “half way up the mountain”, including Golgotha – are understandably popular in our time, when there is a developed tendency to “create ‘God’ in our own image”. That is to say that there is a sort of democratization, a popularization of God’s character and “theology” in our time – where each group’s, religion’s, sect’s, nation’s, culture’s, ideas and understandings of “God” takes on the character each of these groups have, or which they wish to promote or idealize. One can regularly hear people interviewed on the BBC describing their “God” (or “Goddess”, or interpretation of one religious tradition or other) as having all of the characteristics which today are socially- and morally proper, popular, intellectually modish, politically-correct, etc. I hold that this is not anything like a real religion; it is rather a sort of self-satisfaction or self-fascination – even self-deception. Recently an individual in England essentially stated on the BBC how he had disagreed and corrected the Biblical idea of God, and then how he worshiped and revered that “God” he had corrected the idea of! It would be more honest to say that we have no “God” at all – or no understanding of God, that we are stupid and lost, than to delude ourselves that we can worship a “God” whose character, whose (He? She? It?, etc.,) “theology”, we have corrected according to our passing, fickle, human ideas, ideals, and satisfactions of the social-moral categories of one decade or other.

The American Tibetan Buddhist “teacher” interviewed by the BBC was “happy” to find “Tibetan Buddhism” to be a path to “happiness” in life. America is impossibly awash in such “weak”, novice, theologically-democratic, egalitarian, “understandings” of East and West.


April 1998, unpublished