The surge of sales of Buddhist books and journals, soaring attendance rates in meditation classes, and the establishment of a Center for Consciousness Studies at MIT (with Santa Barbara’s Alan Wallace, Ph.D. as faculty member) makes me wonder why it is that Buddhist philosophy and practice has been able to sneak through the cracks of modern culture to become the new hip, and almost fashionable, socially accepted refuge for people who are liberal, ethical, and humanistic.
Buddhist philosophy might appeal to those longing not only for an inner sense of balance but also for social well-being, including greater dignity for all humans.
Even 30 years ago this was all different. When I returned from a stay in a Sri Lankan monastery in 1981 to medical school in the West, my colleagues and teachers reacted with disinterest, ridicule, or alarm when they heard about my new interest. When I did an internship in clinical psychology in a well-respected medical institution in 1987, my interest in Buddhist philosophy and practice was seen at best as compromising my professional credibility. Now, confessing affinity to Buddhist thinking means being in a counter-culture that is acceptable.
How and why did that happen?
A contributing factor might have been so many peoples’ disappointment with religious institutions in the West. People are leaving churches and temples, yet they are still having the same spiritual hunger. During my 12 years as consultant and victim advocate for the Franciscan friars, I conducted spiritual healing retreats. The spiritual wounds and painfully unmet spiritual hunger was staggering. Yet the vicar provincial relayed to me : “We are not paying you to make people Buddhist.” My intention had been, through simple meditation practice, to allow the wounded to experience the sacred on safe and neutral grounds.
Another contributing factor might be disappointment in the socialist/ Marxist experiment. Over a century ago it had started with wanting to create more equality for all people, yet tragically had ended up leading to the development of political dictatorships. Coming to equality and social justice via governmental change has been sadly unsatisfactory.
Many people have the rising impression that external change alone leads to limited success. Progress resting on governmental, economic changes may need to be complemented by internal changes.
One example illustrating this hypothesis comes from health care, where the difference between curing and healing is discussed. Curing focuses on fixing a problem, restoring the status quo, and making things better through external remedies.
Healing involves a paradigm shift. When a person gets healed, she might be still in the same situation, but she may see her life differently. “In situations when you cannot fix the external circumstances, healing is still possible as way of experiencing live differently” says MK Kearney, a hospice doctor. He continues, “A person can die healed, even when not being cured.” A healed person, no matter what her circumstances may be, feels an increased sense of balance, peace, and interconnectedness.
Buddhist teacher and psychologist Jack Kornfield recently acknowledged, in the Los Angeles Times: “More and more we are teaching meditation not as a religious activity but as a support for living a wise and healthy and compassionate inner life.” He added, “A number of people I teach don’t consider themselves Buddhists, which is absolutely fine with me.” Many modern Buddhist teachers have been working during the past 30 years to make Buddhist ideas and practice more palpable and relevant in American Society. The LA Times stated, “ These days there are hundreds of Buddhist centers across the country, and meditation programs in schools, prisons, hospitals and even corporate board-rooms”.
Buddhism not only introduces in a new way an ethical way of living and compassion for all beings, it also works with the particularity of our restless, multi-tasking modern minds. Kornfield elucidated: “Our minds are quite scattered with planning and remembering and tracking and we don’t live in the present,” he said, and, “We can be so lost in our minds that we don’t see the sunset over the Pacific, we don’t see the eyes of our children when we come home, we don’t see the garden.”
In 2006, Kornfield spent three months in the Gaza strip, mediating between Jews and Palestinians, teaching a Buddhist perspective to heal wounds and create more peace, tolerance and forgiveness between hostile parties.
Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and practice might, to borrow from the book titles of Buddhist teacher and psychologist Jon Kabbat-Zinn, a graceful way to “come to our senses” in the midst of our “full catastrophe living.”—Radhule Weininger, M.D., Ph.D., Santa Barbara