Buddhism in the West at a crossroads and facing competition?

Buddhism in the West continues to see the rise of new figures and movements, though not all are acknowledging their Buddhist roots, according to a roundtable discussion of scholars and practitioners in the Fall issue of French magazine Ultreïa!. Some of these assessments differed between France and America. Philipe Cornu, an academic and a teacher of Buddhism, notes how successful mindfulness has become in various circles while often rejecting its Buddhist roots. While some might see this popularity as a proof of Buddhism’s success in the West, Cornu is not so sure. Appropriating elements of Buddhism while ignoring that they are part of a wider spiritual path shows how many often do not take Buddhism as a whole but rather reduce it to small pieces, such as techniques for well-being and advice for daily life. The potential for narcissism in this approach is a far echo from the Buddhist message as a path to liberation from conditioned existence, associated with compassion and altruism, Cornu adds. The original medical applications of mindfulness in the late 1970s were a way of using Buddhist techniques to help patients, while more recent uses rather tend to stress efficiency in one’s professional life. Benefits are obvious, but a pinch of spirituality in daily life cannot be equated with a spiritual path. Such uses of Buddhism in the West make it difficult at this point to foresee what its future could be, Cornu concludes.

A teacher of Zen, Eric Rommeluère, is aware that Zen Buddhism has mutated through its history and has been influenced by different environments and historical events. The propagation of Zen Buddhism in the West is largely the consequence of a decision by monks to relieve themselves of their priestly duties in Japanese society and diaspora for the sake of teaching international audiences. Initially, Zen attracted people who had been influenced by the views of the counterculture. These days, Rommeluère adds, this association is no longer the case, to the extent that Zen Buddhism has sometimes become diluted into mainstream culture. As with other Buddhist schools, the success of mindfulness techniques presents a challenge. Fewer people are willing to commit themselves for retreats lasting for several months, and seminars of a short duration are preferred. In France, at least, Rommeluère is not so sure about the future of Buddhism—especially Zen— as the competition from mindfulness challenges it.

Fabrice Midal, the founder of the Ecole Occidentale de Méditation (Western School of Meditation), concurs only in part with the other contributors. While he sees ritualism (sometimes conjoined with nationalism) often overwhelming Asian Buddhism, and Buddhism in France remaining as an “exotic” import despite its many centers, Buddhism in the U.S. has become quite vibrant. According to him, this success is partly due to the ability of Buddhism in America to connect with local legacies such as Transcendentalism, thus managing to become part of American history. Due to an American approach toward religion that differs from French secularism, Buddhism has also become a legitimate subject at U.S. universities, and more American Buddhists have been able to engage in productive academic careers in Buddhist studies. Consistent with other features of American religious life, the community life of Buddhist groups is also stronger than in a country such as France. Various types of engaged Buddhism have also flourished in America (e.g. social action by Bernie Glassman’s Zen Peacemakers). Far from seeing new meditative approaches as a threat to Buddhism—though he does not deny they may degenerate into tools for stress management—Midal is nonetheless convinced that these new forms will finally prove to be the best way for preserving the Buddhist tradition.
(Ultreïa!, http://revue-ultreia.com)