Transcendent Buddha, mundane Buddha and Western Buddhism

Brooke Schedneck over at Wandering Dhamma previously posting a very insightful and even-handed account of some contemporary issues in Western Buddhism. I specifically enjoyed this post since the trends illustrated were done so without a specific reference towards an “us vs. them” attitude that tends to arise with some of these issues.

I included a quick list below but I would recommend reading Brooke’s full post for the summaries of each of these topics as well as the comments that followed. It definitely serves to remove some the illusion of Western Buddhism as being static and presents the view that it is indeed a growing, evolving entity that is stretching its arms into new realms.

  1. New Age vs. Hard Core Dhamma
  2. Mindfulness Meditation and the Secularization of Meditation
  3. Is Buddhism a religion? (Buddhism and religious identity)
  4. The dialogue of Buddhism and science/psychology
  5. Buddhism and youth
  6. Buddhism and pop-culture
  7. Buddhism and happiness
  8. Modern-day commentaries of traditional Buddhist teachings
  9. Prison Dharma
  10. Racially Diverse Buddhism

A large and looming figure over most of these current trends is actually the Buddha himself – or at least our perception of the Buddha and his life. Most modern or “Western” Buddhists tend to view the Buddha as a mundane, human figure with fantastic insights while others consider the Buddha himself to be transcendent and purposeful in his enlightenment even before his birth (in past lives and reincarnations) and actually dwelling in heaven before rebirth on earth for his final run.

Both of these views are seemingly present in the suttas (I say seemingly to mean according to my reading and understanding of the Pali Canon) as well as the image of the Buddha as transcendent in places and obviously human in others. So which is it? Transcendent. Mundane. Both. Neither. Bhikkhu Bodhi states that…

The Nikayas offer two perspectives on the Buddha as a person and to do justice to the texts it is important to hold these two perspectives in balance, without letting one cancel out the other. A correct view of the Buddha can only arise from the merging of these two perspectives, just as a correct view of an object can arise only when the perspectives presented by our two eyes are merged in the brain into a single image.

So utilizing solely the view as Buddha as mundane would be a poor demonstration of the Buddha as an overall well-rounded figure. As well as viewing the Buddha as wholly transcendent and supra-mundane would be equally deprecating to the figure of the Buddha. Both views are needed to see the figure of the Buddha completely.

The same is true of Western Buddhism and the issues listed by Brooke. It is time to view these issues, and any new ones to arise in the future, evenly and balanced rather than in opposition and in contrast to each other. Rather than saying that Western Buddhism should be secular or traditional or whether or not modern commentaries are derogatory to the Dharma or not, we should be viewing these new trends as a part of an emerging culture in the West and examine why they are occurring and how it is making Western Buddhism more robust and full in the long run.

Just as with the Buddha, viewing the Dharma through tunnel-vision negatively affects our overall understanding of it.