Is Western Buddhism Neutered? Or Compassion w/o the Dogma.

I have always thought of Buddhism as being an inclusive rather than exclusive religion. The Buddha, when teaching in India, did not cast aspersions on the local religion but instead incorporated many of the beliefs into his presentation of the Dharma and his Path. At the same time allowing for a progressive movement away from some of the less desirable aspects of the religions of the time (caste system, sacrifices and asceticism).

As Buddhism moved out of India and into Asia, it adapted to and evolved with local traditions and indigenous beliefs. Thus we are introduced to the Mahayana sutras as well as the melding of Buddhism with Taoism and Confucism in China and with Shinto in Japan. It then melded with the Mystic/Spiritual Movement of Europe during the 1800s and early 1900s (most of us agree that this was unfortunate and has led to many ingrained misconceptions about Buddhism that still exist today). It melded with the beatniks and hippie/communal living movements of the 50’s and 60’s. It (ugh) melded with the New Age movements as well. We are still doing damage control on that one.

But I ramble. Someone commented that Buddhism is still working through its growth spurt in the West. I think they give it too much credit. We are still in our infancy. As a religion/non-religion and as a philosophy we are still shitting our diapers. We can barely make out a coherent sentence. We can’t even walk.

I’m not being pessimistic here, just realistic. We (the West) have not even begun to meld with Buddhism as a culture. And when it does begin to happen, it will be much more complex then it ever was in the past. What is being created is a division between the “western” converted Buddhists with those born into Buddhism (or reborn, as the case may be).

Problem is that, sometimes, neither of those two camps realizes that they are both equally powerful forces in the shaping of Buddhism in the West. The idea that the traditional Buddhists are holding back the evolution of Buddhism is ridiculous. Equally ridiculous is the idea that the non-traditional forms of Buddhism out there (and, holy shit, do they span the gamut) are destroying or irrevocably changing the face of Buddhism.

But while they may not be destroying Buddhism they are growing out of our culture’s need for a quick and easy fix and well as our need to consume. Big Mind by Genpo Roshi comes to *ahem* mind when one thinks of Western Zen (not Western Buddhism, mind you, and that is the problem). There seems to be a disconnect growing between what westerners want and what Buddhism actually is. From Genpo Roshi’s website…

Big Mind Big Heart is the name given, by American Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel, Roshi, to a special new way to discover, experience and appreciate your life. It’s also a good way of working out the kinks, the stuck places, and the unhealthy patterns that keep us down. Life is complex, and the inner self is an exquisite network of the psychological and the spiritual. Understanding it well naturally leads one to a better life.

The Big Mind Big Heart approach to life is a method of self-investigation and analysis that is straightforward and effective, and working with it will open your heart and mind to a new appreciation of the fullness and richness of life. It’s a new combination of tools, a blend of Western psychology and science, and the Eastern traditions passed on to us, and it’s been developed for the express purpose of helping us to better understand the mind and the nature of human life.

So sounds great and it only costs $150 for the 10 disc set and cool metal carrying case. Nice, I hope it delivers what it promises…but it isn’t Buddhism. Everything about Big Mind is end-results and eye-candy but very little about the process and the foundation. I am all about Western Zen finding itself and growing into something new but I hope it doesn’t forget its roots. It would be a shame if we were just creating another version of Blavatsky or Olcott except lose the mysticism and add a heaping dose of consumerism instead.
Some comments by Brad Warner also rang some bells for me…

Dennis Merzel, who calls himself Genpo Roshi, has developed a system he calls Big Mind™. And yes, the little ™ is part of the name. According to the Roshi, by usingthis technique, “you will have in one day — before lunch actually — the clarity and experience that a Zen master has. But Zen is seen as the school of sudden enlightenment. And we’re just making sure it remains sudden.” Ken Wilber, in his foreword to Genpo Roshi’s forthcoming book on Big Mind™ says, “In Zen, this realization of one’s True Nature, or Ultimate Reality, is called kensho or satori (“seeing into one’s True Nature,” or discovering Big Mind™ and Big Heart). It often takes five years or more of extremely difficult practice (I know, I’ve done it) in order for a profound satori to occur. With the Big Mind™ Process, a genuine kensho can occur in about an hour—seriously. Once you get it, you can do it virtually any time you wish, and almost instantaneously.”

Our culture still likes our stuff quick and easy. “Big Mind”seems to be marketed right to this ingrained American need of instant gratification. Why wait long years when you can get it now? Why suffer and work and sweat when it is as easy as a credit card charge and a seminar? Isn’t easier to just buy satori. Not that I particularly trust Brad Warner either. From what I see both are trying to sell books and cash in on a reputation. Either way, I know this is coming off harsh but the whole thing smells like a scam to me. Endorsement by Ken Wilber hardly helps either. The amount of flash on his website makes me want to vomit and reeks of snake-oil.
Buddhism is hard. Even “sudden enlightenment” take time and training and more than a wee bit of strain. Promising quick results is fine but it isn’t Buddhism and it sure as hell isn’t Zen.
But at the same time, if these approaches help people or attract them to some of the basic tenets of Buddhism without actually being “Buddhist”, who are we to judge it or them? It seems horribly hypocritical for people who are supposedly on a path of enlightenment and compassion to denigrate others because they prefer a different “brand” of Buddhism or an approach that removes the Buddha from the Buddhism.
Postscript: Any comments about Genpo Roshi’s program are more than welcome (positive or negative). I’m still working on making up my mind about the whole thing. So if you are familiar with Genpo roshi’s work and Big Mind please fill me in. Also give me a break, I’m typing thing while holding a baby in one hand and a beer in the other. dad of the Year.
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23 thoughts on “Is Western Buddhism Neutered? Or Compassion w/o the Dogma.

  1. "But at the same time, if these approaches help people or attract them to some of the basic tenets of Buddhism without actually being "Buddhist", who are we to judge it or them? It seems horribly hypocritical for people who are supposedly on a path of enlightenment and compassion to denigrate others because they prefer a different "brand" of Buddhism or an approach that removes the Buddha from the Buddhism."

    Perfectly said man, great post.

  2. At the same time, I find the commodification of Buddhism troubling. Believing you can purchase enlightenment is not only silly, but dangerous in my opinion. If people who take the Big Mind program, for example, leave it thinking they "understand everything" and then start teaching others their "wisdom," well, you get a lot of misguided people doing misguided things. This happens plenty in our world regardless, so it's not like taking shots at programs like Big Mind will cure such issues. In fact, I don't know enough about Big Mind to come to any decently thought out conclusions.

    But if we don't take a deep look at how consumerism and spiritual materialism are invading "Western" Buddhist practice, we're going to be in deep shit, with no paddle. That's my two cents.

  3. Thanks! Much appreciated but it was Justin's post at Progressive Buddhism that caused the change of heart. That was a great post and really put my silly rant into perspective.

    Cheers to Justin.

  4. "But at the same time, if these approaches help people or attract them to some of the basic tenets of Buddhism without actually being 'Buddhist', who are we to judge it or them?"

    This reminds me of Dogen's koan, the whole tension between always-already enlightenment and the need to practice. Hell, even Dogen was way critical, patently judgemental even, of Chinese syncretism. That's not a justification for wholesale crotchety puritanism, but it does indicate to me that criticizing claims to the Dharma isn't as simple as you do it or you don't. We sometimes show our compassion most in mindful critique of some situation or action (and if there can be mindful breathing, sitting, raking of leaves I see no reason why not here as well).

    It has always seemed to me that "local traditions," a loaded term I know, aren't incorporated into the Dharma so much as made use of as skillful means. This means they don't necessarily have enduring, or worse yet unquestionable, value, but that they can and have been used to spread the Dharma. The Buddha did not defend upaya on multi-culturalist grounds; he simply used the conditions of suffering as a useful means to its end it. Consider how he lies to save children from a burning building, I think in the Lotus Sutra, but this hardly universalizing lying as "okay." Or consider how Jesus, in a related concern, has a whole series of teachings that have to do with breaking the Jewish Law as a matter of fulfilling it.

    All in all, this is a fabulous post and gives me hope for the Dharma in the West.

  5. Every honest thing is simple.

    That doesn't mean it's easy.

    Bodhidharma sat facing a wall for nine years and was Enlightened. Simple, not easy.

    The more complex a thing becomes, the smaller its proportion of honesty becomes. Original teachings get buried under later BS.

    Along come guys with shovels saying, "We make this simple again." They shovel and uncover the original teachings – and accidentally shovel some of them away.

    But from the remaining original teachings, which are now easily seen, the shoveled-away parts are deduced and restored.

    And then more BS is piled on. And here we go again.

    Do you see the similarity to samsara?

  6. @ Nathan: I agree the aspect of consumerism in western buddhism is troubling but I have a hard time tearing it apart when some people gain something from it. I don't use it or need it but does that mean that it is useless? When it helps people I have no problem. When they insist on calling it Buddhism, then I tend to speak up a bit.

    Big Mind may be a gateway drug to actual Buddhism or the $150 may be enough to help hem out of a difficulty when they need it. Who is to say?

    But then again it may be the vodka talking…you never know. Thx. for your comments, Nathan. They are always welcome. I can easily say that I learn more from your blog than from hours of studying…but then again, vodka, ya know.

    Cheers!

  7. Jack,

    The thing with the "what if it helped one person" sort of argument is that, if you're going to use it, you have to admit it applies to criticism as well. What raises red-flags for me is when people try to say anything is "hands off" when it comes to the Dharma and its history.

  8. @ Joe Clement – I suppose that anyone can criticize it but what are we criticizing? I spend more than the $150 in books on Buddhism (whether they be the Dhammapada or Zen for Dummies". If a person wants to take this commercial "roshi" path then I can't say too much. They could easily bitch about me just reading and meditating at home rather than attaching myself to a teacher.

    In the end we all utilize tools to realize our true selves whether they come from traditional sources or not.

    I do take some exception when they call it Buddhism, thought, when in reality they are just formulating their own pop-psychology.

    Cheers and thanks for your comments!

    If this makes little sense, please excuse b/c I am in the middle of a Dharma talk with pagans and they tend to drink SO much. I barely keep up…

  9. I think this issue of consumerism and Buddhism becoming hybridized with New Age is an important issue. I appreciated your connections of Buddhism in the West today with its history in the 19th century but I really hope that most Western Buddhists are not in any way similar to Olcott and Blavatsky!
    There is an excellent book on the subject of consumerism and New Age regarding Eastern religions and has some good chapters specifically on Buddhism. These authors have a strong point of view that consumerism mixed with Eastern religions is always negative. The post and comments seem to suggest more of an open mind of 'skillful means'- that if someone comes to Buddhism through its commodification it isn't that bad because at least they came to the dhamma in some way. Well this book presents more of an extreme.
    Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Routledge, 2004.

  10. I think Brooke and Nathan make good points, wisdom and compassion should never be for sale. However, books and donations always cost money, it is the people with this information that need to take the initiative to share whenever possible.

    However, I do see that compassion, which is not the sole property of Buddhists, and the practices we have that may help people in anyway should be shared with anyone, even if they wish not to see the entire picture of Buddhism.

    I don't know about everyone else, but compassion is way more important to me than enlightenment at the moment. Who cares if it takes the form of a secular mindfulness or some insight meditation?

  11. Kyle,

    I certainly don't take issue with "secular mindfulness," but with the political overtones of boot-strap spirituality.

  12. The whole Big Mind phenomenon is interesting and still troubling to me–I also wrote about this a few months back. Thanks for your take on this subject.

  13. Well, this post has sure got people talking!

    Kyle writes: "I think Brooke and Nathan make good points, wisdom and compassion should never be for sale. However, books and donations always cost money, it is the people with this information that need to take the initiative to share whenever possible."

    Yes, there's always money around it seems. As a member of the board at my zen center, I've had plenty of discussions about money and dharma. One thing that is important is to not hold a view that money itself is always tainting, always an evil. It isn't. *I don't think anyone here has said it is either.) But I think at some point, we go from obtaining money for necessary functioning to having practices driven by money and consumerism. Where that tipping point is exactly, I don't know.

    Like I said before, I don't know enough about Big Mind to make clear comments about it's value or impact. But the signs of trouble are there for me. The Big Mind website is littered with things for sale: teachings, workshops, CDs, books, memberships, almost everything has a price tag. Where is there room for poor and low income people here?

    And here is part of Genpo's bio from the website:

    "Genpo Roshi is a Zen Master for our time and place. He’s been at this for 38 years after training under the famous Taizan Maezumi Roshi from 1971 until Maezumi Roshi’s death in 1995. He knows Zen and he knows the Western Mind. If you want to find out about enlightenment, start here. The search for inner peace, healing, enlightenment, and life wisdom through spiritual practice has now reached a new level. Big Mind, through it’s unique and highly effective combination of traditional Zen Buddhist meditation and study, along with modern western psychotherapy techniques, will empower your personal growth and development, give you a new appreciation of your relationships and enable you to lead a life of love and happiness."

    Notice how it sells not only Genpo as a teacher, but also the process. The use of words like "famous" before Maezumi's name – famous is a trigger word in our culture for important and worthy of attention. And the definitive language about Genpo – he "knows Zen" and "is a Zen master for our time and place" – again, the phrasing feels like a political ad or a CEO description. And finally Big Mind is a "spiritual practice (that) has … reached a new level." Now really, why would you need to say anything like that if you didn't have an intention of selling something?

    So, maybe people are benefiting from these programs in great ways. And maybe Genpo isn't hauling off tons of money in the process (it does say on the website that the money from Big Mind goes into a non-profit fund and that Genpo makes a "modest, fixed salary") but I don't know if I believe it. United Health Group, a large insurance "non-profit", just took in over $800 million in profits during the last quarter year – so non-profit status doesn't mean a lot these days. And I really think, with several hundred dollar retreats and 25 to 50 thousand dollar "practice circles" being held on a regular basis, plus book and CD sales, plus membership sales, plus – well, you get the point, Big Mind is making a lot of money.

    So, I think we in the very diverse, wide ranging Buddhist community need to sit down and really dig into what it means when dharma is attached to wealth making, even if it is said to be wealth making "in order to serve and benefit others." That's an easy place to get into trouble – not that it's impossible to use great wealth to make great benefit – but the odds are much greater that trouble will happen than great benefit.

  14. Great post! I was wondering if you could at some point expand on "It (ugh) melded with the New Age movements as well. We are still doing damage control on that one.", specifically the "ugh" and "damage control" parts.

  15. Nathan,

    Brilliant comment. This part stuck out for me though: "The Big Mind website is littered with things for sale: teachings, workshops, CDs, books, memberships, almost everything has a price tag. Where is there room for poor and low income people here?"

    Reminded me of Nina Paley, a film director, on why (in part) she decided to make available for free her incredible movie, "Sita Sings The Blues" (I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival last year). In the open letter to those who visit the film's website, she writes: "Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it?"

    Kyle,

    By political over-tones, I mean the willingness to subordinate the needs of society to the market, even if with a little more regulation here and a little more tolerance there, "capitalism with a human face." By boot-strap spirituality I mean the general attitude that no one is responsible for their (spiritual) welfare but themselves.

  16. Joe – I realize you have very strong political opinions and I admire that. But I can't say I try to intentionally mix spirituality with politics. "books and donations always cost money" is just a fact of life here in the US, and unless you see some giant shift in the political landscape in the near future, we have to deal with what we have. I am all for an open and free exchange of ideas and materials, I really am, and I'd love to hear some ideas on how to do that.

    If you like to have a political discussion, I'd be more than happy to. Feel free to make a post on your site or where ever and I'd be happy to talk about it.

  17. @ Nathan: I think you hit it on the head when you state…

    "One thing that is important is to not hold a view that money itself is always tainting, always an evil. It isn't. *I don't think anyone here has said it is either.) But I think at some point, we go from obtaining money for necessary functioning to having practices driven by money and consumerism. Where that tipping point is exactly, I don't know."

    Neither do I but I am always wary of people trying to sell me spirituality. But I try not to condemn.

    @ Nosen: I look foward to reading your opinions.

    @ Joe Clement: I agree that the Dharma is not nor should be "hands off". Who would set the standard anyway?

    @ Worldommander: That would be a huge post in and of itself. But, in brief, New Age thought tends to get clumped together (ie. Buddhism with crystals and faith healing). Thus people get an erroneous view of the practice of Buddhism. The "ugh" was more a sound of annoyance then anything else.

    As far as damage control I point you to afore mentioned "Secret". Teasing out the Dharma from all that nonsense is a full time job.

    Thanks for your comments!

  18. I'm really enjoying this discussion and wanted to throw in my two cents worth as Executive Director of the Big Mind organization.

    I appreciate the level headedness of the comments. You all make some very good points that always are on the agenda at our board meetings.

    First, we're not making near as much as most people think, less than a million a year the last few years since we decided to start selling CDs, DVDs, Books and the usual meditation supplies like cushions and incense and running more retreats and workshops.

    And, just to be clear, Genpo Roshi is truly on a modest fixed salary as set by our 11 member board.

    Where does the money go? We have three buildings to pay mortgages on and maintain, and anyone who owns buildings built in the early 1900's knows that the maintenance isn't cheap. Luckily, within our roughly 200 member local sangha here in Salt Lake, we have some carpenters and electricians who help out, but when it comes to a new roof or serious plumbing repairs, we have to hire professionals.

    We also spend a substantial amount of money on supporting the 12 or so monks who are here studying for the priesthood full time. (These folks are doing it in the traditional fashion as prescribed by the Soto Zen school, which we are a part of.) This includes lots of sitting meditation and memorizing of the chants and formal services we do each day. In addition since Maezumi Roshi (and Genpo Roshi) was ordained in the Rinzai school, we also do koan study. The Big Mind work developed by Genpo Roshi is also a part of this, so our monks and laypeople get all of it if they aspire to become teachers themselves.

    How do we help the poor? We offer scholarships to almost all of our workshops and retreats to sincere students who request help. We also offer free mediation classes at local hospitals, prisons and even high schools here. In addition we run a Soup Kitchen in the winter here for the homeless.

    Also, starting about 3 months ago, because of new advances in internet technology, we are now broadcasting free our regular Sunday morning and Thursday evening talks from our website.

    You can find this on our site http://www.bigmind.org and then click on Big Mind TV. There's also an "On Demand" section there that has a lot of interesting videos. By the way, this service costs us about $1,250 per month because of the amount of bandwidth used. And the cameras, computers, software and T-1 lines required are pricy too. So far though, over 8000 people representing 175 countries have taken advantage of this and we're very happy about that.

    The one comment I hear fairly regularly on blogs about us is "I don't know much about Big Mind but it sounds (fill in the blank)."

    I would love for you to explore this practice, and all the other things we do, and I invite you to join us. If you want to get a feel for our community, you can check us out on Facebook Big Mind Network. (Although I won't necessarily vouch for everyone on there…) 😉

    I think a big part of our job of spreading the dharma is to make it accessible in many different ways, and to build a community that supports us and each other. We think we're doing that in an honest and forthright way. When I see what we have done, I'm happy and I don't let people who are trashing our success bother me, while remaining open to your feedback.

    You can also phone me at 801-244-4940 or email to director@bigmind.org.

    peace,

    Bruce Hogen Lambson

  19. @ Bruce Hogen Lambson

    Thank you very much for your comments. Sometimes the concept of a million dollars seems so much more than it actually is when you factor in all those elements.

    I think the concern of many people is less the money that comes in (either to a foundation, facility or to Genpo himself) but also the "cookie-cutter" mentality that is often attributed to new Dharma outlets. Almost along the same lines as an online Ph.D programs where you pay the fee and get the degree.

    Frankly I don't have the time nor particularly the inclination to dive into every new aspect of Buddhism out there so I appreciate the time you took to clear up some questions.

    I may check out a free videocast but I am probably won't be dropping anything for the CDs. No worries, I can't even afford the cost for my home zendo's sesshin.

    @ Everyone Else:

    The fact that everyone tackled a subject that usually degrades to mouth-frothing and angry, silly words with tact and humility is, quite frankly, awesome.

    I bow to all of you. Except for you Kyle, silly communist. 😛

  20. Pingback: Genpo’s “Big Mind, Big Heart, Big Money” « Sweep the dust, Push the dirt

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