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by Dr. John Dwyer


In a recent talk that was delivered to the Temple in Chicago, I pointed out that one of the real ironies of history was that so many people consider Buddhism an other worldly religion -- one that doesn?t may sufficient attention to the real world. This is not only a stereotype, but it?s a stereotype that is absolutely nonsensical when one considers the evolution of Buddhism since the 1940s, where it has become synonymous with the peace movement, environmentalism, working with Indian untouchables, caring for the aging, and stimulating the kind of anti-colonialism and nationalist fervour that has profound implications for the west. What North American, for example, would deny the profound social and psychological effect of the Indo-Chinese war. And in this war, Buddhism played a pivotal role, symbolized most powerfully perhaps by the image of the burning monk -- an image so powerful that it now graces the record cover of a popular alternative group called Rage Against the Machine. Alternative groups, as you may or may not know, like to place the most shocking and dramatic images on their product.

The burning monk had a name -- Thich Quang Duc. In 1963, he sat down in a street in Saigon in the meditative position. He poured gasoline all over his body and set himself alight. He maintained a calm and meditative posture as his body burned, and then he simply toppled over. His death was dramatic but not all that different in nature and spirit from the deaths of many other Buddhist leaders and saints. One remarkable difference, however, was that his death was shown on many different televisions all around the world.

Whether you agree with his actions or not, Thich Quang Duc?s immolation tells us at least three things that I want to talk about tonight. The first thing it tells us is a deeply Buddhist, but sometimes forgotten, truth -- that human beings are capable of incredible actions when they practice mindfulness


It was only by understanding the power of meditative awareness that Thich Quang Duc was able to have the courage to act with such purpose. The second thing that it tells us is that Buddhism can be an engaged religion. Thich Quang Duc made a statement about the oppression of the Vietnamese people that will outlast the ideological propaganda of the Americans or the Communists. The final thing that tells us is that Buddhism ultimately is not about nationalism or particularism, it is all about interbeing and interconnectedness. Thich Quang Duc?s death lamp was lit on television sets all around the world. Thus, a simple Buddhist monk turned the primary instrument of mindlessness and consumerism into a vehicle for interconnectivity.

Understanding the Stereotype

As thinking human beings, we are supposed to clear our minds of stereotypes. But for historians, stereotypes can be useful indicators. How was it that Buddhism?s image came to be seen as that of the removed meditator, seeking the harmony and peace of his or her own mind, without sufficient concern for the social and political welfare of others? The answer to this question can tell us a lot about the relationship between the Buddhist East and the Christian West.

As Western culture developed, within it grew a strong rationalist ethic. This ethic was important to emerging Protestantism because it organized the behaviour of its adherents and allowed them to use their own minds to break with Catholicism. In many ways Catholicism resembles conventional Buddhist religion because of the emphasis that it places on religious faith, tradition, hierarchy, and the passing down of the teachings. The Protestant?s faith was of a completely different order. Its purpose was to demonstrate salvation, not to organize behaviour. The behaviour of the good Protestant was ruled by orderliness, reason, logic and an individualistic attention to one?s behaviour and the actions of others.

Protestantism may have ushered in a new kind of rationalism and individualism, but rationalism and individualism only really flourished when Protestantism was left behind and a more secular culture emerged. That secular culture in the West ushered in capitalism, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution. It changed the face of the West and eventually the face of the East. In the face of the increasing superiority of the West, the East tried unsuccessfully to isolate itself. Traditional Buddhist communities were confronted with a new challenge from a Western culture that was still ostensibly Christian. Their reaction was to retreat in one two directions, either to monastic meditation -- the ascetics of the woods and mountains -- or into an emphasis on preserving formal rituals and ceremonies.

While the reaction was perhaps natural, it was misguided. For better or worse the new intellectual and social culture of the West was here to stay and its political and commercial aspirations were global. It would inevitably transform all culture. To retreat meant that one had no power to change or amend it. It also meant that Buddhist practitioners got stereotyped as being other worldly, superstitious, overly ritualized, and irrelevant.

Setting the Stage

I've argued in a number of places that, in order to be successful, religion must be integrated and relevant to its external society. That sometimes means that religion will lose some of its purity and will make mistakes. But, to a historian, the real sign that a religion is thriving is that it is viewed as part of the entire social fabric and is not simply an escape or an add on.

During the late nineteenth-century, Western culture began to go through a crisis. Sensitive people began to question the ability of reason and progress to make a better world. It is not surprising that it was at precisely this time that the spiritual alternative of the East began to be explored and Orientalism came into vogue. But during much of the period that we?ve traversed in the course, Buddhist teachings were ways of bandaiding the pain that all human beings experience but that the Western consciousness confronted most starkly. The wealth and consumerism of the West was no consolation for its loss of meaning and, in fact, merely increased the cravings that are at the root of human suffering. Buddhism seemed to offer a path out of suffering for many, and a superior reality for others.

It was still far from being a living and breathing religion in the West. It attracted adherents, of that there is no doubt, but one has only to read the literature to discover how unsettled the followers of Buddhism were, how they were so easily split apart by factions and arguments, how individualized Buddhism was by many of those westerners who practised it, and how others sought psychotherapists, gurus or substitute fathers who would obviate the need for any independent thinking whatsoever.

But while there was nothing that we could label authentic Western Buddhism during most this period, historians can see a framework being established that would be needed for a more robust form of Buddhism. The translation of Buddhists texts by scholars was clearly a key. The training of Europeans and North Americans in particular forms of Buddhism, and their attempts to pass on what they had learned, was another. Perhaps the most important aspect of all of this energy and cogitation was the gradual introduction of some admittedly basic Buddhist concepts into popular culture. Nirvana was the name of two popular pop groups, one in the sixties and another in the nineties. Mindfulness we see even in television shows like Kung Fu, superficial perhaps, but certainly not the worst television show in the world. Interconnectivity -- something that had been obscured by individualism and capitalism -- has found a profound resonance in environmental circles and it is not surprising that environmentalists are among those most attracted to Buddhism as a religion.

All of this set the stage for a more authentic Buddhism in the West. But it is naive to think that, just because you set the stage, it is inevitable that there will be a performance. It is still not clear that Buddhism will take its place as a genuine alternative to spiritual growth and social evolution in the West. But there is reason to believe that the chances are far greater than they once were. Not because the West is seeing the light, but because the East has once again become engaged in ways that make Buddhism relevant and vital.


For most Westerners who practice Buddhism today, mindful awareness is a critical concept. It is something that was clearly a major part of the Buddha?s teachings in the Pali Canon and was instrumental to his own reaching of awareness. So important is mindful awareness to us, that we prefer to refer to mindfulness as opposed to meditation. Mindfulness means being absolutely in touch with one?s being and environment without any distractions from thoughts, whether they be of the past, the present and the future. Mindfulness means that time itself is removed as a barrier and a moment of mindfulness is worth more than a thousand years of well meaning activity.

What mindfulness tells us is that there is no coherence or continuity, only change. There is no individual or self, only oneness. Emotions themselves are delusive transitional states. We can never escape our feelings or even the sufferings that they cause. But what we can successfully do is to stop them from running our lives.

Mindfulness is sometimes talked about in a vacuum, which has nothing to do with the stillness or the void that we tap into. The vacuum is one that posits mindful awareness as a separate state of being. Mindfulness, rather, is something that puts us in touch, that makes us available, that allows us to act. It is the most powerful social ethic imaginable, since it minimizes the cravings that distract us and the fears that incapacitate us. It is an immense source of energy.

The Buddha?s discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness was an important part of the Asian canon. But it got pushed into the background and into a few monasteries as Asians retreated from Western acculturation. It was only when the people who most deeply understood Buddhism themselves began to meet the challenge of the West that mindfulness was restored to its proper place and Buddhism revitalized. Buddhism moved out of the monasteries and onto the offensive.

In Burma in 1941, a Buddhist monk by the name of Mingun Sayadaw began to teach practical courses on mindfulness to ordinary people. Since then, 45,000 students trained in Mingun?s Rangoon Centre including many Europeans and Americans. These, in turn, have taught at least another 600,000. The impact of this and other Burmese monks has been immeasurable. Working in what is called the vipassana tradition, these monks eschew dogmatic orthodoxy in order to focus on practical experience. That adaptation alone made Buddhism much more approachable for Westerners who, if they can understand some of the dogma, have real problems with ritual and tradition. And because this Burmese tradition steered clear of any of the ideological isms that characterize politics and religion, their message was one that could be adapted to a diverse society like North America.

Although the Burmese message was non-sectarian, that did not stop followers from adapting it to their own convictions, specializations and ideological positions. Those who were trained in the vipassana tradition have gone on to establish Buddhist communities that are committed to political causes, environmentalism and feminism. Some psychoanalysts who have been attracted to Buddhism have gone so far towards practicality as to redefined the religion in psychological terms. To someone with deep religious convictions, this may appear to be a travesty of spirituality, but it is also a sign that a religion is relevant. And wherever a religion is relevant, there will be those who will explore its deepest reaches.


The focus on mindfulness allowed Buddhism to create a teaching instrument that transcended cultures. It also unearthed a concept that might make it easier for a highly individualistic society to reconnect with one another. Again, this was a spiritual direction that came from those most intimate with Buddhism and its teachings. While it certainly was not a North American innovation, it has potentially profound consequences for Europeans and Americans. It is the concept of empathy.

Going back to the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the vipassana teachers emphasized that fact that meditation did not detach us from our fellow human beings and make us feel superior. Quite the contrary, it effected a systematic cultivation of loving-kindness towards others. The vipassana teachers returned to the Mahayana Buddhist teachings on the Bodhisattva. This is a teaching that has been there from the early days of Buddhism, but Buddhism is a complex religion and one that can lead in many different directions. By asserting loving-kindness, the vipassana teachers were directing Buddhism in a potentially fruitful direction.

I talked about the Bodhisattva Ideal in my third talk, so I wont go into it in any detail here (although I?ll be happy to give you a copy of that talk if you missed it, or you want to go over it). What I will do instead is make some suggestions as to why this direction was so important for Europeans and North Americans.

As capitalism developed in the West, many thinkers and writers struggled to create a new moral and social code that would be consistent with individualism. They hit upon sentimentalism, a cultural force that is extremely powerful emotionally but more difficult to translate into practice. Essentially, sentimentalism says that individuals are naturally connected to one another by sympathy or the desire to feel others joy and pain. By cultivating our sympathy towards others, we can become better neighbours, friends, parents and lovers. Sentimental literature encourages us to have a little cry at the suffering of others, on the grounds that this will strengthen the social bond. A classic example is Dicken?s A Christmas Carol which remains a perennial favourite around Christmas time, the sentimental season.

But neither Christianity not sentimentalism have shown themselves to be very powerful at stopping the kind of greed, self-centredness and desire to win that now consume Western society. Many perceptive Westerners are aware that there is a real dissonance between our actions and our ideals that are not being bridged by culture. Enter Buddhist empathy or loving kindness. Loving kindness goes way beyond sympathy, which is a form of pity, right to the absolute and immediate identification with others that we sometimes call empathy. During meditation, we become aware that the self is simply a fiction and that we are totally interconnected with all other beings. In their deepest sense, all other human beings are Buddha?s.

This understanding, especially when suggested as part of our practice, makes meditation less of a self absorption than a connection with everything around us. It is an exhilarating connection, and one that makes us want to do everything we can to help those around us. It is an ethic that encourages us to make ourselves more available for other. And it is not a stretch or contrived because it comes out of a deeply rooted spiritual experience.

While intrinsically Buddhist in nature, loving kindness bears a sufficient resemblance to Christ?s Sermon on the Mount when he told us that the greatest commandment was to "love thy neighbour as thyself" or sentimentalism?s exhortations towards general humanity and specific acts of kindness. But, in a word where personal cravings often upset good intentions, Buddhism provides the discipline and the insight to make our good intentions stick. 


Westerners find it difficult not to seek to control all aspects of their environment. As Buddhism develops in the West, one of its greatest challenges will be to transform the clutching hand into open palms -- accepting what comes, whether it be good or bad.

In the meantime, however, it would be difficult to conceive of a religion making inroads into Western society if it did not at the very least offer a real possibility of creating a better world, if not in our own lifetimes, at least in the foreseeable future. All relevant religions do this, no matter how much their focus may be on a heavenly kingdom or the millennium.

Buddhism is no exception. It has had its share of millenarian and reformist phases. But if we want to single out the episodes that have demonstrated Buddhism?s commitment to social reform in the twentieth century, we need again to look -- not to North America or Europe -- but to Asia. We need to look specifically at Vietnam and Tibet. The story of Vietnam should be familiar to many of us. When I was young, I saw the Vietnamese war being fought on television. At that time, I was all for the Americans and for freedom as opposed to what I saw as Communist aggression.

Like so many others, I learned that the issues were not so simple and that the Vietnamese had suffered greatly and deserved to create their own society, free from warring ideologies. Into this debate stepped perhaps the most influential of modern Buddhist teachers Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat Hanh brought together many strands of Buddhism simultaneously. He promoted Buddhism as the national religion of Vietnam and as a cultural vehicle for unification. He showed that dogmas and isms need not be victorious by creating a Unified Buddhist Church for Vietnam, the first time "such a feat of reconciliation has ever been achieved." And he demanded that Buddhism modernized its outlook and connected with the social issues of the day.

What did Buddhist engagement mean to Thich Nhat Hanh. It meant rebuilding villages ravaged by the Vietnamese war; it meant helping Vietnamese boat people, even if it meant breaking the law; it meant criticizing unjust regimes, even when this was life threatening. It even meant the burning monk.

Many might consider suicide a quintessentially unreligious act. Thich Nhat Hanh praised those monks who immolated themselves in order to make the complacent and the selfish consider the injustices that were perpetrated on the Vietnamese people. The motive of the monks was to move the hearts of others and to make the most sincere statement possible. For Thich Nhat Hanh, every burning monk or nun was a lotus in a sea of fire. You can?t get any more engaged than that.

A remarkably similar message has been preached by the Dalai Lama, who seeks not only to make the sufferings of his Tibetan people known to the world but also to develop an ethic of interbeing or universal responsibility. For the Dalai Lama, it is not enough to criticize the Chinese communists for the damage that they have done to his country. He always seeks to uncover the underlying motivation that makes people cause damage to their planet. Self-centred attachments and hatreds result in deluded thoughts and actions that hurt others. These delusive attitudes can only be removed or remedied by spiritual practice and discipline. But that is still not enough.

The Dalai Lama tells his followers that, even as they begin practising meditation, they should be at least as concerned about the liberation of others than themselves. What distinguishes human beings from animals and makes them special is that they can wish to work for the benefit of others. He makes a direct connection between the Bodhisattva tradition and Gandhi?s work among the untouchables or Lincoln?s freeing of the slaves. He even goes so far as to suggest that any falling away from this compassion for others is the sign of a spiritual decline that cannot be compensated for by any spiritual realization. Bodhichitta, or the "compassionate wish to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of others," is the "essence of practice."

The Dalai Lama?s attack on purely intellectual Buddhism, and his ideal of the Bodhisattva, results in a plea for engagement in the things of this world and helps to explain his popularity in the West. Unlike many religious writers and thinkers, the Dalai Lama appears to be like one of us. His compassion and his humanity shine through all of his teachings and many parts of the message that he preaches have resonance for us.

While many Westerners have difficulty understanding or believing the doctrine of karma or rebirth; while few Westerners find the esoteric nature of Tibetan teachings or even the position of the Dalai Lama convincing; all can understand the teachings of interbeing and engagement. Twentieth century Western culture has enough touchstones to be receptive to the kind of practical teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

Even where Western culture prides itself most -- on its rationalism -- it is now susceptible to Buddhist influence. Not only are Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama able to write and speak in ways that are open and inviting to Westerners, but even where they criticize the Western tradition of individualism and intellectualism, they speak a language that is nearly a century old among Westerners themselves. Revitalized Buddhism finds many bridges to Western culture.


Nor should this be surprising. As I end this series of talks, it should be clear that Buddhism and the West are not two separate entities attempting to dominate or control one another. Instead, the two cultural developments have been influencing one another for over two thousand years. The influence of the West on the East has been at least as powerful of that of the East upon the West, although the latter has been our focus in this series of talks. The West not only gave the Buddha his face but helped to create a vibrant and engaged form of Buddhism that is changing Asia and now threatens to transform the West.

The amount of Buddhist activity in the West has accelerated exponentially in the last two decades and, at present, shows no signs of abating. We may appear to be on the cusp of an enormous religious revival in North America where Buddhism will play a major role.

But we should perhaps pause and measure of our excitement. Earlier Buddhist missionaries spoke of the lotus clinging to the rock in North America. Its hold is still more tenuous than its influence might appear. Even in the East, Buddhism was on the road to becoming moribund until it re-energized itself in ways that were relevant to the hopes and aspirations of the society in which Buddhism found itself.

Similarly in the West, we will only know that Buddhism has become a socially integrated religion when its name is invoked as something more than an oddity. Only when Buddhism outgrows its priestly leadings strings and becomes a more indigenous cultural force will we be able to say more positively that it is here to stay. Only when it more actively challenges the status quo of a consumerist, individualist and divisive society, will Buddhism rise above its present ambiguous cultural position. Only when Buddhism becomes more than yet another form of psychic masturbation or a substitute for psychiatry, will it begin to remake our culture. And only when it contributes to alternate frameworks for social interaction and political progress -- some of which we may not like -- will we know that it has become vital.

Last update: 01-02-2002

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