Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Truth about Conflation of the "New Age" Woo and Buddhism

I was looking around for things in the Buddhist world upon which to write, and came upon this article (purportedly) on "The Truth about Tibetan Buddhism" as, a libertarian publication.

I know I’m not supposed to say this, but Tibetan Buddhism really freaked me out.
The most striking thing is how different real Tibetan Buddhism is from the re-branded, part-time version imported over here by the Dalai Lama’s army of celebrities.
Listening to Richard Gere, the first incarnation of the Hollywood Lama, you could be forgiven for thinking that Tibetan Buddhism involves sitting in the lotus position for 20 hours a day and thinking Bambi-style thoughts. Tibetan Buddhism has a “resonance and a sense of mystery,” says Gere, through which you can find “beingness” (whatever that means).
Watching Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel read a collection of the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Central Perk on Friends a few years ago, you might also think that Tibetan Buddhism is something you can ingest while sipping on a skinny-milk, no-cream, hazelnut latte.

 The author of the article, Brendan O'Neill, goes on to quote professors of religion to who note that Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular is traditionally misogynist, anti-gay,  etc.  O'Neill sums his point up:

Of course, this only means that Tibetan Buddhism is the same as loads of other religions. Yet it is striking how much the backward elements of Tibetan Buddhism are forgiven or glossed over by its hippyish, celebrity, and middle-class followers over here. So if you’re a Catholic in Hollywood it is immediately assumed you’re a grumpy old git with demented views, but if you’re a “Tibetan” Buddhist you are looked upon as a super-cool, enlightened creature of good manners and taste. (Admittedly, Mel Gibson doesn’t help in this regard.)...

Frank J. Korom describes it as “New Age orientalism,” where Westerners in search of some cheap and easy purpose in their empty lives “appropriate Tibet and portions of its religious culture for their own purposes.” They treat a very old, complex religion as a kind of buffet of ideas that they can pick morsels from, jettisoning the stranger, more demanding stuff—like the dancing demons and the prostration workout—but picking up the shiny things, like the sacred necklaces and bracelets and the BS about reincarnation.
It is all about them. They have bent and warped a religion to suit their own needs. As the Tibetan lama Dagyab Kyabgon Rinpoche puts it, “The concept of ‘Tibet’ becomes a symbol for all those qualities that Westerners feel lacking: joie de vivre, harmony, warmth and spirituality… Tibet thus becomes a utopia, and Tibetans become noble savages.” Western losers have ransacked Tibetan Buddhism in search of the holy grail of self-meaning.

 Barbara O'Brien remonstrates in response:

To prove this point, O'Neill sites an old episode of the television series Friends in which Jennifer Anniston's character read a collection of the Dalai Lama's teachings. And he tells us about a student at Boston University who was asked why she wore a Tibetan necklace:

"It keeps me healthy and happy," she said, reducing Tibetan Buddhism, as so many Dalai Lama-loving undergrads do, to the religious equivalent of knocking back a vitamin pill.

...What really happened: O'Neill visited Lhasa, apparently carrying with him his own set of frivolous notions about Tibetan Buddhism, and he was stunned by the intensity of devotion and practice he saw there. From this he concluded that few westerners ever "got" Buddhism, especially the Tibetan version.

...First off, there's "Western New Age" circles -- more than one, I suspect -- and "Western Buddhist" circles, and they aren't the same circles. There's some overlap, of course. But I believe most western Buddhists see clearly that Buddhism and whatever it is that gets shoveled into the "New Age" bin are very different.

I'll ignore the bits in her post about how the Dalai Lama is "the symbol of Tibet" and all that hoo-ha; my point centers on O'Neill's conflation of Buddhism with "New Age"  and Barbara's response.  

First off, she's right.  There, I said it, for those of you who think I spend all my time bashing "popular" Buddhist bloggers.  She's right in that most Western Buddhists do not, I think, conflate "New Age" with Buddhism.  But...

O'Neill's not entirely wrong for pointing out that such a conflation exists.  It does. And clearly, professors of religion in US universities are not going to be unexposed to youths who are unsure in their own minds what Buddhism is, and what Buddhism-with-a-smattering-of-New Age is.

And this conflation can be observed from within the Buddhist blogosphere itself.

Don't believe me? Here are some examples:
  • Elephant Journal. Now, it does claim to have a section on "Non-New Agey Spirituality,"  but it looks like a handle for "anything that's spiritual, not religious, without crystals."  Buddhism isn't about getting good at asanas, or being a vegetarian per se.
  • The Huffington Post.  If I were a name Buddhist writer, I'd rather try to get a gig at The Daily Beast, myself; Tina Brown is less flaky than Arianna Huffington. But when a Buddhist blogs at the Huffington Post, he should know he's putting himself in an equivalence class with spiritual hucksters such as  Deepak Chopra, Robert Lanza, Andrew Cohen, and John Morton, and others. (But they did publish an excerpt critical of the Landmark Forum, but that only underscores my point: Legit Buddhism is conflated, by context, with woo.)  And can you fault O'Neill when he surfs over to its page on Buddhism and sees this?

       Why, it's an article about the future of Buddhism in the West, with a picture of Richard Gere!
  • Ken Wilber. Enough said.
  • Genpo Roshi, Bill Harris, "The Secret." Ugh.
It is very true that there are very serious Buddhist practitioners in the United States who are not New Agey, and I truly respect Barbara for her practice (though I think she needs a bit more exposure politically).  But it does us no good to ignore or to make a big tent for all kinds of crazy stuff that can be marketed as Buddhist.

Moreover, there is a bit of Orientalism floating around in regards to attitudes about Buddhism, and it's fed by groups that claim to support Tibetan independence which gives a very selective ridiculously idealistic view of its history.  (The same can be said of the way India is viewed as well.  I remember a colleague once told another , who was of Indian descent, when asked what India was like.  The  Indian descendant said, "What do you think it's like?" The reply was, "It's dusty, dirty, and crowded with many poor people."  The answer was something to the effect of, "Yep, that's exactly what it's like."  Of course that was some 15 or 20 years ago and things have changed much in India.)

So I think we need to do a better job of explaining ourselves, but we do need to point out, when we see it, that something has nothing to do with Buddhism as Buddhists have explained it.  And if there's woo, it's not Buddhism.

And as one other commenter on Barbara's Buddhist blog indicated, libertarians have their own issues of ideology as well. And they have their own problems.


Chana said...

As Buddhism spreads in America, it will become Americanized. There will be, new age, commercial, groupy, trendy, convenient, partial, know it all, Journalistic, self-centered, scientific, individualistic, anarchic, religious, pious, and on and on.
I wonder what IS the core message of Buddhism. I guess we all have to work that out on our own. Personally I think it is about a transformation from being asleep to being awake 24/7. It is not something that you can turn off and on. No matter what anyone says about it, they have to discover the nature of their own mind and its' emptiness and freedom. That is the more radical approach, and the one that is least accepted in the trendy circles of Buddhist activists.


Mumon said...


I have an optimistic view for the future of Buddhism in the United States.

The condition of being awake and the condition of being there for yourselves and others, as you indicate, is far more profound than anything Arianna Huffington can get put out on the web.

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