Americans may still debate the merits of Islam and argue over the building of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero, but the other branch of spirituality, Buddhism, is apparently more than welcome.
For a few days last week the Dalai Lama, who by far is the most famous Buddhist monk in the world, is celebrated at Emory University. People paid to come hear him. According to Atlantic Month, “seated above a bank of chrysanthemums, the Dalai Lama seemed one part royalty, one part rock star.”
In the last half of the 20th Century, America cunningly exported itself overseas, marketing its images, ideologies, products and religions with ingenuity and zeal, but what it has not been able to fully assess or prepare for are the effects in reverse. For if Americanization is a large part of globalization, the Easternization of the West, too, is the other side of the phenomenon.
I take it as some cosmic law of exchange that if Disneyland pops up in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Buddhist temples can sprout up in Los Angeles, home of the magic kingdom. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to many Californians that scholars have agreed that the most complex Buddhist city in the world is nowhere in Asia but Los Angeles itself, where there are more than 300 Buddhist temples and centers, representing nearly all of Buddhist practices around the world.
Over the past 25 years, Buddhism has become the third most popular religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to a 2008 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evidence of Buddhism spreading deep roots in America is abundant.
A few months ago CNN reported that, “programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country.” There are more than 75 organizations working with some 2,500 people, most of them prisoners, and they inspired a documentary called “The Dhamma Brothers.”
Last December, Thomas Dyer, a former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor, will head to Afghanistan as the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army.
Yet, despite Buddhism’s message of inner peace and compassion, it, in its own way, is a very radical spiritual practice for its refutation of the existence of a creator. In essence, the serious practitioner aims to extinguish the self by defeating his own ego and, thereby, seeing beyond the illusion spun by the ignorant mind.
The ultimate Buddhist experience entails neither god nor self, neither “out there” nor “in here,” for that membrane that separates the practitioner’s being and that of the world, upon awakening, has been lifted. All that remains is - ohm – absolute awe and bliss. Imagine, if you will, Moses not turning his face away from the burning bush that is god but approaching it then fully merging with that terrifying fire.
As ties deepened between the two continents, as immigration from Asia continues, and as the Dhamma [Buddha’s teachings] spreads beyond all borders, we are entering what many thinkers and philosophers call the second axial age, an age of pluralism where the various spiritual traditions co-exist.
In these global days, no single system can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change, all exist to a various degree of openness and exchange. And the old Silk Road along which so many religious ideas traveled has been replaced by a far more potent thoroughfare: unprecedented global migration, mass communications, and the information highway, which transcends geography.
I once kept on the wall in my study two very different pictures to remind me of the way East and West have changed. One is an issue from a Time magazine on Buddhism in America. In it, a group of American Buddhists sits serenely in lotus position on a wooden veranda in Malibu overlooking a calm Pacific Ocean. The other is of Vietnamese-American astronaut named Eugene Trinh’s space shuttle flight. The pictures tell me that East and West have not only met, but also commingled and fused. When a Vietnamese man who left his impoverished homeland can come very close to reaching the moon, while Americans are turning inward, trying to reach nirvana with each mindful breath, I think that East-West dialogue has come a long way.
Andrew Lam is author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres