I distrust the extremes. Scratch a conservative and you find someone who prefers the past over any future. Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat…
–Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune
After reading a post by the Angry Asian Buddhist, I found this article by Wired Magazine. It talks about the popularity of Buddhism in Silicon Valley, and some of the people who are involved in this movement.
While reading this article, I got really irritated. One the one hand, it’s great that people are using Buddhism to help manage stress, work with other people better, and be more mature. On the other hand, the movement feels very elitist to me. If you don’t have a nice job at Google or another tech company, you probably can’t access these kinds of teachings. What about the millions and millions of Americans who live in rural or poor-urban areas who cannot afford to meet teachers at Yoga centers, or afford to eat organic/vegan food, or pay membership at expensive Zen “centers”? There’s a big, big world outside of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
A while back while training in Phoenix, Arizona, I remember talking with one of the people who worked in a warehouse. She was a single mom, about the same age as me, and she worked two jobs to take care of her son. When I mentioned reading in my past-time, she joked that she had no time for past-times. But it’s not a joke. When I was a kid, my mother worked 2 jobs also so she could feed 3 kids. As a little kid, I remember being in the car with my mom and my younger sisters before sunrise, so she could deliver newspapers.
The idea of Buddhism as something “geeky” or something modern and scientific is kind of arrogant too. It implies that Buddhist geeks are somehow “smarter” than people around them, even smarter than other Buddhists. How can you say that, when there are so many good and genuine people out there who don’t have a college education? That’s why I referenced the quote above: people who believe they’re smarter and more progressive than others are usually just being aristocratic. Like the monk I mentioned in this post, there are a lot of good Buddhists out there in Asia and the West1 who don’t have flashy websites, conferences, podcasts or anything like that. What they do have is genuine heart.
But after reading this article, I remembered another point in history that looked like this: early Buddhism in China and later Japan.
When Buddhism first came to China, it was a foreign-imported religion. In the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) of China, Buddhist culture was very sophisticated. Many monks from India or Central Asia came, gave lectures, translated sutras, taught the latest practices and trained a lot of native Chinese monks. But this was mostly in the capitol of Chang-an (長安). People from elite families had many opportunities to learn from great Buddhist masters in India and such, but regular people at that time had little or not exposure. They followed more native Chinese religions (Confucianism, Taoism, etc).
Eventually, after the Tang Dynasty fell, many of these elite Buddhist societies disappeared too, but the Buddhist schools that had better support from regular people survived and became the Chinese Buddhism you see today.
The same story happens again later in Japan. In the Heian Period (平安時代), many wealthy families, especially the Fujiwara, could become Buddhist monks, or could afford to build and own Buddhist temples. When you read Lady Murasaki’s Diary, you get the impression that Heian Period Buddhism had many elaborate rituals and teachings, but only elite families in the capitol could afford to have these ceremonies, or participate. Many of these rituals were focused on material matters (safe birth, curing disease, power and wealth), in other words: happiness here and now.2
But when the Heian Period ended, many of these Buddhist groups declined too. The Hossō School (法相宗) used to be the most powerful school in Japan. They almost totally controlled the Buddhist institutions at the time, but now the school is very small. The Five Schools of Rinzai Zen (gozan, 五山) were very influential in the capitol in the Muromachi Period (室町時代), but now the temples are mostly tourism attractions now.
Instead, low-ranking monks, monks of common birth, eventually started newer schools in Japanese Buddhism and these schools are the ones that are most commonly seen in Japan today.
In the same way, when I see articles like this, I think that this kind of “aristocratic Buddhism” or elitist Buddhism in the West is a temporary thing. I believe such people are well-intentioned, but it’s flashy, it gets a lot of attention in the media and such, yet it’s not sustainable in the long-run. When tech companies fail, and the money dries up, where will these guys go? Who will buy their books or pay for their counseling services?
When my grand-kids or great-great-grand-kids are adults, I suspect that Buddhism will look different, more accessible, more diverse I hope.
1 Reverened “J.W.”, if you ever read this, I think you were a great minister.
2 Not unlike popular “self-help” books and teachers in the West, now.