This article is based on a talk given to the Western Buddhists Teachers Meeting, Mt. Madonna, California, 1995
One of Buddhism’s central assumptions is that everything changes. But in recent centuries the amount of change in our society has itself changed. In fact, it has exploded.
In 1995 the world’s oldest woman Jeanne Calment celebrated her 120th birthday. The amount of change that has occurred in her lifetime is almost inconceivable. She entered a world containing some two billion people and has lived to see that number more than double. She has seen the average life span in the West (though certainly not in third world countries) almost double as well. She has witnessed the invention of cars, airplanes, space travel, television, computers and the internet.
Jeanne Calment also has seen the invention of machine guns, poison gas, biological weapons, atomic bombs and guided missiles and their devastating use in world wars. Likewise she has witnessed the accumulating cancers of overpopulation, pollution, resource depletion and ecological imbalance. The contemporary human catastrophe has unfolded before her eyes.
Yet during this same lifetime she has witnessed the invention of antibiotics, the introduction of inoculations, the birth of the United Nations, Mother Teresa’s work, the establishment of human rights and environmental treaties—the whole contemporary human miracle. All this at an ever accelerating rate of change!
Central to Buddhism and the great wisdom traditions is the belief—and the direct experience of sages—that there is a realm beyond change, beyond birth, death and sorrow of any kind. Moreover, there is the belief that the recognition and realization of the changeless is crucial to human well-being; that the highest goal of existence may be to foster this recognition; and that Buddhism and the great wisdom traditions outline ways to do just this.
The unique task of our time—which no Buddhist practitioner, teacher, or thinker has ever had to face before—is how to interface this perennial wisdom with a postmodern world. This task actually involves several distinct challenges:
How do we communicate perennial wisdom to a postmodern world?
How do we skillfully use the knowledge and technology of the postmodern world to examine, update and refine our tradition?
How do we integrate perennial wisdom and postmodern knowledge to create new understandings and applications?
Communicating Perennial Wisdom to a Postmodern World
In 1993, along with many thousands of other people, I attended the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. It was wonderful to see dedicated practitioners from hundreds of traditions come together in harmony to share concern about such vital issues as interreligious discord and the fate of the earth.
But it was also painful to witness the ineffectiveness of many speakers for contemporary audiences. Many men—and the speakers were mainly men—gave talks that, though heartfelt and sincere, probably differed little from those their teachers’ teachers’ teachers delivered in villages two thousand years ago. The result was a failure in communication across both cultures and centuries.
Yet this failure was hardly surprising. For throughout the entirety of human history, teaching perennial wisdom meant “simply” realizing this wisdom for oneself and then sharing one’s understanding in the language, concepts, stories and metaphors learned from one’s teachers. Perhaps once a century a generation might transmit its wisdom to a new country using that country’s language, culture, beliefs and worldview. But never have we been challenged with transmitting the perennial wisdom, not only from one culture to another, but also from one age to another—from East to West and agrarian to postmodern. The question then becomes: how do we communicate the perennial wisdom of Buddhism in such a way that it makes compelling sense to a distracted, desacralized, scientific, technological and materialistic culture, a culture that has mastered so superbly the art of what Kierkegaard called “tranquilization by the trivial”?
One idea that I have found extremely helpful is Carl Jung’s concept of the “gnostic intermediary.” Gnostic intermediaries are people who imbibe a wisdom so deeply that they are able to communicate it directly from their own experience in the language and concepts of another culture.
Becoming an effective gnostic intermediary involves several challenges. The first is to develop wisdom. This, as anyone who has tried knows only too well, is no small task. Whereas knowledge is something we can have, wisdom is something we must be transformed by and become. We teach what we are. To cultivate wisdom requires that we undertake an effective discipline such as meditation, contemplation, yoga, devotion or service.
Gnostic intermediaries also need to become familiar with the culture or subculture in which they are teaching so as to be able to translate their understanding into language, metaphors and stories that are meaningful to this culture.
The essential demand made upon contemporary gnostic intermediaries is therefore for creative engagement with the world. We can no longer rely on traditional means, myths and metaphors—no matter how venerable or venerated they may be—but must creatively engage with the culture to devise new ones.
Of course, this is a delicate issue. How do we change the form and the medium without distorting the essence of the message? There will be some traditionalists who argue that nothing should be changed, that the old forms are sacred, have served us well, and should be preserved inviolate. But using the symbols and methods of our times may be crucial if the essential message is to be conveyed across the chasm of time and culture.
Of course, not every practitioner will want to teach in some formal way. Luckily, teaching takes many forms, both formal and informal, and to practice is to teach. It is true that Uncle Sam needs you. Become a G.I., a gnostic intermediary!
Assessing Buddhism in the Light of Postmodernity
If the first task of interfacing perennial wisdom and the postmodern world is learning to communicate Buddhism’s timeless wisdom to the contemporary world, the second is almost its mirror image: to use contemporary knowledge and technology to test and refine the Buddhist tradition. What we have inherited from our tradition is surely not pure wisdom but, rather, a mix of wisdom and outdated culture-bound perspectives, distortions, myths and worldviews. While our contemporary culture certainly has its own limitations and distortions, it offers many powerful new intellectual and experimental tools of inestimable value for refining Buddhist views and practices.
One valuable finding comes from developmental psychology. While there are numerous quibbles over details, there is also broad agreement that development proceeds through three major levels that can be described as prepersonal, personal and transpersonal, or prerational, rational and transrational. The general idea is that we come into the world unsocialized and are gradually acculturated through social interaction and formal education. We gradually adopt, identify with, and also become lost into our culture’s perspectives, values and worldview. Significant transpersonal growth is tragically uncommon in a society as secular as ours which pulls people toward the personal level but retards growth beyond it. Transpersonal maturation usually demands a sustained discipline and a supportive community or sangha.
What we have inherited from the Buddhist tradition is a scrambled potpourri of brilliant transrational wisdom on the one hand mixed with primitive, prerational, magic and mythic thinking on the other. The two have not been clearly differentiated. Consider, for example, the Burmese Buddhists who were assured by their monks that the recitation of mantras would protect them from British bullets during the war of independence and who, not surprisingly to our postmodern minds, were slaughtered en masse.
My own belief is that it will be essential to submit all Buddhist beliefs, practices and claims, no matter how venerable, to conceptual and experimental testing, whenever possible. My guess is that this will lead—not necessarily painlessly—to a number of dramatic changes for the better and that these changes will include “demythologizing,” social reorganization, and the creation of new areas of research, application and understanding.
By demythologizing I do not mean doing away with all myth but rather the recognition of myth and traditional knowledge for what they are. Myths are grand stories that portray, in an imaginative and symbolic manner, the basic mental structures, understanding and worldview created by a culture and that, in turn, create and maintain that culture. As such, myths seem to be essential to cultural coherence and well-being. Much of our contemporary confusion may reflect the fact that our culture is “between myths.” Ideally, myths complement and harmonize with other modes of knowing and explanation such as rational knowledge and transrational wisdom. Problems arise when symbolic myths are not recognized as such but are mistaken for empirical facts or linear logic.
The Buddhist tradition contains a morass of myths masquerading as facts. Take, for example, the traditional beliefs about the central goal of Buddhism, enlightenment. Like many other people who were fed a diet of myths about omniscient masters, I initially and naively assumed that the term enlightenment referred to one unique condition that conferred, if not human perfection, something mighty close to it.
Yet the reality seems very different. It is increasingly clear that the term enlightenment is used in different ways by different schools of Buddhism, that there are different kinds and degrees of enlightenment experiences, and that different practitioners are transformed in different ways by them.
What is now very clear is that “enlightenment,” whatever it is, does not confer true omniscience nor total freedom from culturally and historically determined perspectives and limitations. Let’s face it: if the texts are to be believed, then by contemporary standards the Buddha and numerous other masters were sexists.
But just as it is becoming increasingly clear that enlightenment has its limits, it is also becoming increasingly clear that deep spiritual experiences, whatever they are called, can confer remarkable benefits. Many (but not all) people who have these experiences seem to display remarkable wisdom, sensitivity, kindness, compassion and other capacities, some of which have been validated by research studies.
What this suggests is that we need to shift from dogmatic and mythic belief in the nature and consequences of spiritual practice to a more humble questioning and experimental attitude—what the Korean Zen master Soen Sa Nim calls “don’t know mind.” Such an attitude acknowledges both the wisdom and the limitations of our tradition and of all traditions. This shift helps extricate us from unrecognized assumptions and moves us to pose questions and experiments. For example, which aspects of personality and being are transformed by deep experiences and which are left untouched? If spiritual practice does not necessarily entail automatic mastery of other intellectual or social domains, nor freedom from all cultural limits and distortions, then what other disciplines and training do we need to engage in?
The social and institutional reorganization of Buddhism seems inevitable, and four major movements that can affect this—egalitarianism, democratization, feminization and “Buddhist multiculturalism”—are already evident. In some places, the traditional hierarchical structure is being replaced by a more egalitarian one; the guru system is being questioned or at least reconsidered; and women practitioners, long regarded as second-class citizens in many schools, are coming into their own as teachers and leaders.
At the same time, Buddhist lineages separated for centuries are meeting and mixing in the global village in ways never before possible. Adherents of one tradition who had never met members of another, and who could therefore pronounce in blissful ignorance, as I have heard them do, that “Hinayana is a stagnant backwater” or “Mahayana is a perversion” are now meeting face to face.
The results may prove both healthy and challenging. We can hope that long-cherished stereotypes of other traditions will wither in the healing light of direct experience. Individual practitioners will now be offered an extraordinary array of philosophies and practices. Both teachers and students may be faced with an overabundance of choices and will need great sensitivity and skill to choose appropriate practices. Some venerable Buddhist lineages and traditions may dissolve and die in the global spiritual melting pot as teachers and students experiment with novel syntheses and Buddhist multiculturalism becomes a fact of life. And beyond the meeting and marriage of Buddhist lineages will be the meeting of Buddhism with other religious traditions such as Christianity, a meeting that the historian Arnold Toynbee predicted would be one of the most significant world events of the 20th century and which is even now having an impact on both traditions.
Perhaps traditionalists will feel that some of these changes represent degenerations or perversions of original doctrine. For example, some may feel that if the Buddha said that nuns should be subservient to monks, then so be it forever. Of course, it is possible that some changes may indeed prove detrimental in ways we cannot yet foresee. Our best hope may be an open-minded, experimental, pragmatic attitude that helps us test for ourselves whether these and other shifts are truly conducive to the well-being of all. Certainly we have the Buddha’s permission, indeed encouragement to do this, as voiced in the exquisite Kalama Sutta:
Do not put faith in traditions, even though they have been accepted for long generations and in many countries. Do not believe a thing because many repeat it. Do not accept a thing on the authority of one or another of the sages of old, nor on the ground of statements as found in the books. Never believe anything because probability is in its favor. Do not believe in that which you yourselves have imagined, thinking that a god has inspired it. Believe nothing merely on the authority of the teachers or the priests. After examination, believe that which you have tested for yourself and found reasonable, which is in conformity with your well-being and that of others.
Integrating Buddhism and Postmodernity
Our challenge also is to forge creative integrations of perennial wisdom and postmodern knowledge—to evolve new research areas, fields of application, and responses to our social-global situation.
New research is already flourishing. The whole transpersonal movement is dedicated to the synthesis of perennial wisdom and contemporary disciplines such as psychology, philosophy and ecology. Meditation research has exploded since the 1960s. Several hundred studies have identified a wide and fascinating array of personality, perceptual and physiological effects. Some of these studies offer laboratory support for classic claims about the benefits of meditation.
New areas of application have also emerged. In the environmental arena, we see deep ecology and transpersonal ecology; in the clinical arena the systematic study of spiritual emergencies—psycho-spiritual crises which either initiate or result from spiritual development. If such spiritual emergencies are correctly diagnosed and treated rather than, for example, diagnosed as schizophrenia and suppressed with drugs, they can be difficult but powerful catalysts of transformation.
Clinical research also shows that meditation can benefit psychological and psychosomatic disorders. Problems such as anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and chronic pain seem to be helped, and more benefits are being discovered.
And what about the failures of meditation? Probably only a few percent of people who begin meditation practice keep it up for the long term. This is a tragic dropout rate. What would we think of a university which graduated only a few percent of students? We need to experiment to see what can be done to increase success. In Los Angeles, Shinzen Young has devised a buddy system in which meditators pair up for mutual support and also take turns meditating and describing their experience. He reports that dropout rates are reduced dramatically. Other innovative approaches are needed.
A final area crying out for novel Buddha-dharma application involves our many tragic social and global crises. Buddhism’s first response to suffering in all its forms has traditionally been to practice and teach the dharma. But now we are also seeing the development of large scale social action movements such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Sri Lankan Sarvodaya movement.
What is also novel is that all the current threats to human survival and ecological integrity are human-caused. What we call our global crises are actually global symptoms: symptoms of individual and collective greed, hate and delusion. The state of our world reflects the state of our minds, and what we see are our own dysfunctions writ large upon the planet.
If we are to ensure the preservation of our species and our planet, we must treat both the symptoms and their causes. It will be necessary not only to reduce nuclear stock piles and to feed the hungry but also to identify and transform the psychological and spiritual distortions within us and between us that led us to create these global crises in the first place. Buddhism has a unique capacity to contribute. But to make this contribution may require that we transform ourselves and Buddhism before we can hope to transform our world.
There is new, exciting and desperately needed work to be done. We are privileged to be able to do it.