Buddhism before it was cool

At the risk of sounding like cranky old guy, I have to say it…I liked Buddhism before it was cool. Not in that “I liked this band years ago when they were playing in little clubs, not big arenas now where everybody goes to see them.” Or in that everything was better in the old days. And harder too. (“When I was first sitting zazen we sat for 30 hours at one time, not thirty minutes like kids do now.”) Though my friends will tell you I’ve certainly said the former, and my son will tell you he frequently hears the latter.

No, this isn’t a good old days story. Those good old days when you could hardly find any books on Buddhist practice, and few real teachers, and seldom someone you could talk with about Dharma. In those years it would occasionally cross my mind how wonderful it would be if Buddhism had more of a foothold in our culture, and you could see movies that took the Buddhist viewpoint, and more writers and poets deeply grounded in it who weren’t just using it for novelty’s sake. Or that it would be nice if you wore your hair shorn close, people wouldn’t assume that you were either fresh out of the service, prison, or chemotherapy. And you didn’t get those blank stares when you tried to explain why you were going on a meditation retreat. And didn’t have to explain for the thousandth time Buddha wasn’t that fat guy in Chinese restaurants.

But then Buddhism got cool. Celebrities eagerly talking about it, hanging out with the Dalai Lama, dropping references in interviews. Drinks, teas, soaps, music players were suddenly all zen. It seemed everything was zen, even song titles. And like the nerdy junior high schooler who found themselves part of the popular kids, it made most Buddhists lose their heads, to one degree or another. Like that same nerdy high schooler, we tried to analyze why we suddenly had that new found popularity, and what we could do to hang on to it.

I know that each culture has changed the teachings, so that Buddhism plus Taoism led to Chan and Zen Buddhism, or when mingled with Tibetan Bon teachings became the Vajrayana we all know. And I’m sure during those changes there was someone sitting around bemoaning the fact the teachings had been diluted, too. But it seems to me that it is accurate to say in these nearly forty years I have watched it, there have been great changes in the practice and teaching of Buddhism.

It will remain to be seen.  Perhaps in mixing with Western, and particularly American culture, Buddhism practice will adopt elements of feminism, democracy and populism; that it will become more egalitarian and barriers will break down. But sometimes it seems instead it has mixed with the worst of American culture, and that shadow has been cast on it: the fascination with celebrity, the quest for more and better methods, the impatience and desire for easy answers, the need for being comforted rather than challenged. Buddhism used to be a challenging and difficult path, “against the stream.” Now it is merely one of many in the American lineage of positive thinking and personal success. Where it used to deal with “the great matter”, questions of suffering, and life and death, it can now help you be healthy and skinny and rich and happy. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, I’m Buddhist enough, and doggone it people like me!”

There are more Buddhist books published every day. But how many add anything to our real understanding? There are Buddhist magazines that are nearly Dharma porn, with celebrity interviews, glossy pictures, fancy ads for the right mala or pants—a cross between a Buddhist “People” and a Buddhist “Playboy.” There was the recent film on the life of the Buddha on public television, which had much to offer, but did so with the bias of using celebrity authors and actors to teach us. We watch movies and tv and see other more attractive people living more interesting lives than we do. Now we can also see people more successful and yes, also more attractive, leading more enlightened lives than we do. It relieves us of the effort of having to take any steps ourselves. And sells us the idea that we can be happy and fulfilled through them at our leisure. It’s a long way from Buddha’s last words: “All conditioned things are impermanent. Work ceaselessly for your salvation.”

Maybe I am just a cranky old guy after all…but I still liked Buddhism before it was cool.


2 comments on “Buddhism before it was cool

  1. zara livshitz says:

    thank you for the interesting post. Yes. Indeed budhism ha nowadays taken the characteristiques of a trendy fashion., but as opposes to you I feel that it has become more approachable to us, ordinary people, who look for help wherever they can get it. Although it seems to be unbalanced trend at the moment I believe that eventually it will achieve its right balance between what it was and what it has become.

    From Tel Aviv, Israel


  2. zara–

    you are right of course. it is because the dharma is so precious we want to make sure everyone who might benefit from it has the opportunity. and why we also want to keep its essence vital.

    it’s good for me, too, to recall it was the popular tv show “kung fu” that as a teenager was my first taste of buddhism.

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