In a new book and a widely-circulated article published this week by the news website Salon, American author Curtis White takes critical aim at a trend in Western Buddhism that he calls the “cult of expertise.” In particular, he argues that Buddhism has fused with Western science to create its own clerisy and devout following. Making matters worse, the two have merged in White’s vision with the rise of the charismatic entrepreneur and market-driven enterprise, in what Danish scholar Jørn Borup calls “prosperity Buddhism”—selling Buddhism as a path to happiness to those who can afford the often-high price of admission. (Salon)
In particular, White targets the latest book by psychologist Rick Hanson, Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness (Harmony 2020), which blends science and Dharma in the title and comes packed with recommendations from a who’s who of well-known Dharma teachers. White notes: “The people on this list are all credentialed. Nearly all of them are doctors of one kind or another, mostly PhDs and a few MDs, lots of psychologists and neuroscientists.” (Salon)
White ends his article on an apparently cynical note, alleging that these MDs and PhDs represent not Buddhism, but “The Way of the Expert,” which White suggests “is not serious” but “is content with its position in and among the residents of capitalism’s ‘protected class,’ buffered for now from the consequences of climate disaster and the sixth great extinction.” (Salon)
Such allegations are serious and point to one of the ways in which Buddhism is growing and developing in the modern and postmodern world. David McMahon documented what he called the “discourse of scientific Buddhism” in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press 2008, 89–116). Certainly, as Buddhism has entered the Western world, some of it has trended toward scientists and other cultural elites. But why is this?
On the one hand, Asian missionaries such as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) and D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) were typically elites in their own home cultures. They were well-read in both the philosophies of their own countries and cultures, and in the leading ideas of the West. They sought to present Buddhism in ways that would be easily understood and accepted by other elites. Among the elites of the time were philosophers, poets, romantics, and scientists—then known as natural philosophers.
On the other hand, many of those who took up Buddhism in the West were doing so as they turned away from Christianity—a religion that was finding itself at odds with many developments in scientific thought and understanding. They thought, perhaps, that Buddhism could provide a religion that accepts science—or, better, one that already holds many of modern science’s central tenets, whatever they may be.
In the 1950s and 1960s, new waves of converts sought out Buddhism and other non-Western wisdom traditions. Many of these new Buddhists were also members of what would become known as the “counterculture.” These Buddhists saw another side of Buddhism, one that reflected many of their own values of compassion, world peace, non-dualism, and an emphasis on direct personal experience.
It is from this milieu that Curtis White’s work, including his book Transcendent: Art and Dharma in a Time of Collapse (Melville House 2023), arises. His writing flows from Japanese cinema to Shunryu Suzuki to 15th century Italian art to Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida. His work represents 21st century Buddhist-inspired cultural criticism, par excellence.
In the book, White tells us what he is after, as opposed to the technocratic and commodified Buddhism that he sees spreading throughout the West:
I am also interested in a much more concrete form of transcendence, social transcendence, rising above “dark karma,” what Buddhism calls “the causes and conditions” of the world that we are born into. In karma (for us, the late capitalist social order), we are alienated from nature and from our own human nature by what is customary. The Buddha taught this and so did Marx, Nietzsche, and even the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne who wrote, “Custom is the most powerful master of all things.”
. . .
The point for Buddhism is to stop perpetuating karma/culture, our social fate, and to go beyond it, into an alternative social reality, the Sangha community.(13–14)
White’s depiction of scientists seeking to sell a sort of “happiness Buddhism” and uphold the status quo, as opposed to his own romantic vision of Buddhism as pointing beyond the world of culture and society, restates debates and developments within Buddhism that can be traced back over millennia.
For what has been a small minority of Buddhists, the surest, fastest path to awakening has often been a central concern. These were the dropouts—or counterculture—from the Buddha’s own society. They were unsatisfied with the passed-on wisdom of the elders, whose meditative experiences may have helped forge the early beginnings of the Mahayana movement. They were the debaters in Lhasa’s Samye Monastery, those deeply knowledgeable of their doctrines and practices.
However, the vast majority of Buddhists throughout time have not spawned new schools nor debated before rulers. Most would not have even read a book, let alone written one or more. For these Buddhists, the counterculture might be a bit of a stretch. Although, if Buddhist monks could promise medicine, help expel ghosts, or provide the likelihood of a more favorable rebirth, they might join. Many Buddhist laypeople throughout history likely also supported local Hindus, Daoists, or Shinto monastics or priests. There was not so much a drive to transcend their culture as a hope to make the best of what they could within it.
Likewise today, most Buddhists fall into this category. For many practitioners, Pure Land Buddhism is ideal as one can acknowledge one’s faults in this life and wholeheartedly seek rebirth in a Pure Land that holds the promise of real Dharmic progress. For others, jaded with the transcendent claims of so many teachers-turned-charlatans, a degree of skepticism is hard to avoid. Stephen Batchelor’s atheistic or agnostic Buddhism has caught on with many such Buddhists. Other practitioners, who may or may not call themselves “Buddhist,” readily consume books such as Hansen’s on Neurodharma, while attending their liberal Christian church or exploring other non-Western religious traditions.
For most Buddhists throughout time, this is how religion has worked, pulling together pieces from available traditions within one’s own culture. This has led to much confusion for some historians and anthropologists who, for instance, visit Thailand, which is marked as a Theravada Buddhist country, only to find statues of Brahma, Vishnu, and Ganesh alongside Buddha images, even within Buddhist temples.
For some, the idea of mixing Hindu gods and Buddhist practices is sacrilege. Anagarika Dharmapala famously broke with his theosophist colleagues, proclaiming that their philosophy merely blended all religions into one, whereas for the Buddhist, the Dharma rises up, distinct from the rest. However, for many others—including Buddhist Christians, Buddhist Jews, and Buddhist atheists—some amount of blending and borrowing is inevitable and beneficial.
Indeed, this blending and borrowing has been a marked feature of Buddhism over its 2,500 years. We see this in the distinct Buddhisms of Tibet and Thailand, Sri Lanka and South Korea, Tokyo and New York. The experts in each locale and era are different. The experiences of the many non-expert Buddhists have been even more different.
In his book, White quotes Shunryu Suzuki offering this insight:
Here in America we cannot define Zen Buddhists the same way we do in Japan. . . . I think you are special people and want some special practice that is not exactly priests’ practice and not exactly laymen’s practice. You are on your way to discovering some appropriate way of life.
This is not to deny or downplay the insights of White’s work. Indeed, he is continuing on the tradition of great debates within the history of Buddhism. If we are to lose track of the culture-transcending element in Buddhism, the religion might lose the spark that has carried it for two-and-a-half millennia. However, we would also not be so fast to dismiss the science-inspired Buddhists and Buddhism-inspired scientists of the modern world. If they are unable to provide what they promise, instead simply taking their students’ money and leaving them no better off, then karma will catch up with them. On the other hand, if their more modest promises, perhaps best embodied in the Dan Harris book—turned podcast, turned meditation app—10 Percent Happier, are delivered to many who take up their guidance, then this, too, might count as something appropriate.
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