The question of authenticity in ‘Western Buddhism’ or Western Buddhist practice is a common one. This issue has recently come up again on various blogs including this post on American Buddhist Perspective. And this post is in part my reaction to that post. However, I think that there is an important distinction to be made here. A ‘Western Buddhism’ implies an ideology that is best characterized by reference to both the West and to Buddhism. I take the qualifier ‘Western’ to imply an important distinction between this and  ‘Non-Western’ Buddhist ideologies. Whereas, Western Buddhist practice seems to only indicate the practices of Western Buddhists and says nothing directly about the ideological basis of this practice. This distinction is important because it determines whether the authenticity (if such a thing exists) we are questioning is of the Westerner’s practice of Buddhism or of the Western Buddhist system itself.The commodification of Buddhist iconography as well as the reduction and convenient packaging of quasi-dhamma into trite slogans and self-help quick fixes in the West certainly invites the question of authenticity. However this sort of appropriation of Buddhism does not find its justification in the ideology of a Western Buddhism, even if such a thing exists. It doesn’t even require the perpetrator to be Buddhist. Therefore, it is not directly relevant to the question of  ‘authenticity’ in Western Buddhism.

Perhaps more relevant questions can be asked of the relatively exorbitant prices charged to attend meditation sessions and talks by western “gurus” who prominently display their bona fides, ironically, as marketing tool alongside the ubiquitous  ‘paypal’ button offering you quick access not only to their talks but their books and associated merchandise; as well as of the ethical quagmire of framing such transactions as dana. Compound this with the number of less prominent individuals and groups charging money for sitting, talking and discussing Dharma. One can argue for the economic necessity of this approach in cultures devoid of secular or popular support for such spaces- however, when framed in a Western context – it will invite questions of intention and authenticity given the diametrically opposed values that are coming into harsh contact.

Inauthentic System or Inauthentic Practice?

So one must decide whether such actions are seen as ‘inauthentic’ perhaps even unskillful or unwholesome. If they are, then one should ask whether such inauthentic actions were caused by an ideology best classified as (1) ‘Western Buddhism’ or instead was (2) the action (practice) of a Westerner not propelled by ideology unique or necessary to a ‘Western Buddhism’ . It follows then that (1) requires the existence of a ‘Western Buddhism’ while (2) does not.

If (2) no ‘Western Buddhism’ is to be found then what must this say about the ‘authenticity’ of Western practice? Nothing. It may point to individuals who intentionally seek profit from their standing in the community or from appropriated labels – but this is not unique to Buddhism, the West or modern times nor would all Western Buddhists’ practice, qua Western Buddhists, necessarily have to exhibit this practice.

A more sophisticated attack on Western “authenticity” that seems to reduce to the same questions is represented in this quote by Slavoj Zizek:

The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist economy while retaining the appearance of sanity.

Again, if one finds truth in this position, we must ask whether such inauthenticity derives from ideology necessary to (1) a Western Buddhism or (2) Westerner’s practice of Buddhism.

In either case, the potential criticism is of value. However, it is less problematic if the culprit is (2). First, certainly there are Westerners that may consider themselves Buddhist who are guilty of the charade proposed by Zizek; perhaps on some level they are aware of this balancing act they are engaged in. However, being a ‘Western Buddhist’ does not require one to participate in this “meditative stance” and one could argue whether it is valid to call this person Buddhist (as it would depend on how unwholesome these acts are considered to be). Second, assuming a sincere practitioner,  Buddhist practice continually involves checking our behavior and our motivations and such checking by himself or herself or teacher, would lead to the proper corrections/antidotes. This is especially true if we rephrase Zizek’s accusation to simply mean that we are quite susceptible to remaining attached to the world in subtle ways, conditioned by the world we participate in, that may be outside of our awareness or contrary to our intention.

Is there a system that can be considered ‘Western Buddhism’?

This leaves the question of (1) whether there is a ‘Western Buddhism’ that fundamentally results in Zizek’s ‘Western Buddhist meditative stance’ (which could comfortably subsume the actions of the “western gurus” described above and more).

I think it is premature to answer this given the relative infancy of Buddhism in the West. That is, I do not think one could identify a ‘Western Buddhism’ that would satisfactorily categorize all Western practice. However, I do think there is reason for concern. Certainly I have come across material that, in my very limited understanding, seems to be contrary to dhamma. Much of this literature does seem to, intentionally or not, attempt to reconcile a naturalistic, capitalistic culture with Buddhism. This is problematic to the degree that it works against dhamma. This is found in various forms- the most extreme of which is a sanitization or at least a playing down of fundamental concepts or practice that may be deemed uncomfortable to the West, concepts like karma, rebirth and cyclic existence. Relatedly, other approaches begin with what is already considered “good” (read desirable) by Western culture and then reads Buddhism in light of this; essentially making it less Other-like while retaining the Exotism that was the basis of attraction to begin with. This could be a post in itself.

Essentially, this question requires us to ask what is dhamma? Or, what is fundamental to Buddhism and what is not? That is, how different can the symbols of convention be (linguistic and otherwise)- given differences in the time and space they are being used to express dhamma- and still be dhamma? This is a slippery slope to go down, and one which I will not attempt.

However, I imagine the same questions being asked as Buddhism left its cradle and came to touch other secular and religious cultures (sometimes more uncomfortably than others). There is a strong vein of syncretism in the history of Buddhism. On the other hand, such questions are not new, unique to Buddhism in the West, or religion in general for that matter. But ultimately I think this is where the question of ‘authenticity’ takes us- and so it is an important one.

Therefore, the question should be asked at some point by some people.

Pitfalls for Practice

However, a continual questioning presents pitfalls when asked by an individual in practice. On a very gross level if, while engaged in practice, we continually ask ourselves “Is this authentic practice? Am I meditating correctly?” etc.  We are no longer meditating or practicing but merely thinking about meditating and practicing. More subtle, even a sincere questioning and seeking of ”Authenticity’ is,  in the end, setting up such ‘Authenticity’ as an object we desire. And so we are caught chasing and grasping after a desire.

The Dharma is not an object. He who pursues objects is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in objects. The Dharma is without acceptance or rejection. He who holds on to things or lets go of things is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in holding and letting go. The Dharma is not a secure refuge. He who enjoys a secure refuge is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in a secure refuge. The Dharma is without sign. He whose consciousness pursues signs is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in signs. The Dharma is not a society. He who seeks to associate with the Dharma is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in association. The Dharma is not a sight, a sound, a category, or an idea. He who is involved in sights, sounds, categories, and ideas is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in sights, sounds, categories, and ideas.

– Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (trans. Robert Thurman)

Ultimately we are left with this –

Thereupon, reverend Sariputra, if you are interested in the Dharma, you should take no interest in anything.

And these chastisements urge me to end here.