An article in the New York Times by James Atlas called “Buddhists’ Delight” offers a revealing look at why the phenomenon of pop-level Buddhism is so popular in American culture.
I want to say a bit about this in terms of critique. But before I do, let me offer this caveat: I’m talking about the Buddhism that pop culture is so taken with, not the Buddhism of serious practitioners connected with a religion that is ancient in origin and sophisticated in its philosophy. The Buddhism I’m talking about is a bastardized Buddhism, just as there are bastardized versions of all the world’s major religions.
In that sense, I could write a post about shallow and self-serving versions of Christianity. I do so with respect to Buddhism because of its status as an exotic and “in vogue” form of spirituality in our present culture. And I also do so because I think a serious critique from the standpoint of Christian ecclesiology has the ability to reveal pop Buddhism for what it really is: a form of cultural coping developed by consumerist individuals who want a veneer of spirituality overlaid onto their lives in order to provide some type of metaphysical value, no matter how thin.
That said, there is also the distinct possibility that an ecclesiological critique will direct our view onto the shortcomings in much of our own Christian practice. But that might not be such a bad thing, if it is a motivation to awakening and repentance.
The gist of Atlas’ article in the Times is this: Life is tough, fast-paced, and overly technological. We get stressed out by trying to live in the world in which we find ourselves, and it wears us out. By going on periodic Buddhist retreats, we can commune with like-minded stressed-out people. And together we can spend time listening to lectures about mindfulness, and we can meditate to cleanse out the gunk that modern society piles up on us.
It’s a testimony to a particular kind of spirituality. What I find so remarkable about it is that it seems almost tailor-made for the highly individualized, American consumer lifestyle that is so prevalent in our contemporary culture. Here is a form of spiritual life that doesn’t call for transformation or for any real commitment to a community. It allows you to keep living however you are living, and with the occasional attendance at a weekend retreat (or the occasional purchase of the newest book on mindfulness) you can mitigate the materialist and fragmenting effects of life in the city. It is a spirituality of the inward life, where the goal is to set your soul aright so that you can keep on going but without the pain of over-attachment to things.
There are some superficial similarities between this kind of pop Buddhism and the Christian vision of life, and I suspect this is why it is so attractive to many people. It seeks to connect with something ancient (and therefore legitimate) but it has the double advantage of being Eastern (and therefore exotic) and oh-so-in-vogue in contemporary society. It also promises the benefits of spirituality but without the inconvenient requirements of real faith — like spiritual diet pills that give all the benefits with none of the discipline, commitment, and work that would otherwise be needed. People want to be saved, just like they always have. They just don’t want salvation to cramp their style.
In the end, though, pop Buddhism’s very conception of spirituality is its undoing. By catering to a consumer culture, it is guaranteed to become enslaved to the very customs and norms of the system it is supposedly helping its practitioners overcome. And so it can only deliver a watery thin salve on top of the wounds we all carry around with us. It cannot heal. Its telos is not towards a community of people (much less a communion with God) but rather the perfectly peaceful individual soul. And why not, if hell is indeed other people?
I think the attraction of this kind of pop religion is not so different than the attraction of a shopping mall, or a shiny new car, or a vacation to the beach. It provides an immediate, no-effort solution to life’s problems that don’t actually threaten the personal decisions one has already made for one’s own life.
In truth, none of this is the gospel. But I worry that what Atlas is talking about in a Buddhist frame may get pitched from Christian pulpits as well. If that is the case, then Lord, have mercy.