Sunday, November 14, 2010

Interdependence and the Delusion of Radical Individualism

After spending the last four weeks in SE Asia, I found myself waiting for five hours in the Seoul-Incheon airport for my flight to Chicago. It's a super-modern and highly efficient airport that offers wonderful amenities for travelers like free wi-fi, free showers and quiet spaces where travelers can rest while in transit. While waiting I reflected on some of the stories I had heard on this trip and also on a trend of American culture over the last thirty years.

During this trip, and our previous one to Cambodia, I heard horrific and sad stories of the "Cultural Revolution" that swept China, Cambodia and to some extent Vietnam during the late 60's to 70's. Stories of the abuse so many experienced. Stories of people who were killed and of families broken apart. Stories of people who couldn't follow their dreams and make use of their educations and training because the government or party ordered them to do something else. Stories of what happens when a society gets unbalanced and emphasizes the "good of the group" (i.e. nation, party, etc.) to an extreme.

But I also found myself wondering, as I sat in Seoul-Incheon, why it is that the great cities of the US don't have an airport like Seoul's? Why is it that Europe and Japan have highly developed networks of superfast trains for transporting people, but the US doesn't? Why does the US have one of the most powerful economies in the world and yet our roads and bridges are crumbling? Why does the US have such a high standard of medical innovations and yet so many people who can't receive the most basic kinds of health care?

I know that there are many causes for each of these differences between the US and other countries, but I can't help but feel that underlying them is the shadow side of what makes the US such a great and vibrant culture. Probably more than any other culture in history we have been able to empower individuals to pursue their dreams. The result has been a high level of individual satisfaction and the innovation and the vibrancy of our culture. But when we only see the individual, when we fail to see the ways that we are interconnected and the ways that we are responsible for each other, we go to the opposite extreme of the Asian countries I mentioned earlier. We neglect the common good for what is only good for me, me, me. It seems to me that this has been a strong trend in the US since the 70's or 80's and the result has been a growing disparity between the richest and the poorest, a distrust of the mechanisms of government that support us and a failure to invest or re-invest in the infrastructure that made us strong.

Some may wonder what these comments have to do with the Dharma, with awakening. But awakening is about seeing things as they are. It is about seeing the views, beliefs and assumptions that are outside of awareness and yet influence our behavior. So it seems to me that it is important for us to notice when our emphasis on the social group or on individualism is out of balance otherwise we'll get caught sacrificing individual welfare or the common good for a perfectionistic ideal.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Many Buddhisms

I'm currently traveling in SE Asia with my wife. On this trip we've visited central Vietnam and Thailand. On previous trips we visited northern Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Laos. Each country has a strong Buddhist tradition. As we've traveled and met people, my wife has frequently announced that her husband is a Buddhist. (I'm more reticent about making that statement, but the reasons for that might be another blog entry.)

Usually the initial reaction to Gail's statement is surprise and some curiosity. In Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, the interest seemed to stop there. In Vietnam and in Hong Kong I found some assumptions being made about what it would mean if I were Buddhist. Sometimes there's an assumption that I'm vegetarian even though few of the lay people in these countries seem to be. Actually they often seem to eat a wider ranger of living creatures, and parts of living creatures, than I do. In Vietnam and Hong Kong there's also been an expectation that I will want to visit the temples, pray and perhaps offer incense.

The practices in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand have been closer to my own experience with Insight Meditation and Theravada Buddhism in the US. But in these countries monks and temples are the most obvious expression of Buddhism. Lay people seem to focus on ethical behavior, making merit through generosity and supporting the monks and temples, being protected from evil spirits and making their way in the world.

Although my understanding of the Buddhist practices and beliefs in these different cultures is pretty superficial, getting a little sense of how popular Buddhist practice has been influenced by the history and culture of each country has also given me a little perspective on "American Buddhism." Buddhism in Hong Kong and in Vietnam seems to have been strongly influenced by Confucian beliefs and practices that play such a strong part in Chinese culture, while in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, areas where Hindu civilizations once ruled, Buddhism seems to retain some of those Hindu influences and along with beliefs in spirits.

So what about American Buddhism? What will it be like? Some people like to spend a lot of time and energy thinking about this, apparently believing that we can consciously control the outcome. I tend to think that the outcome will be influenced by our conscious choices about how to practice — for instance maybe a "stripped down" Buddhism based on the suttas of Early Buddhism — but that our hidden, and not so hidden, cultural values — things like our scientific, materialist orientation, a pragmatic emphasis on what works, a non-hierarchical orientation and gender equality — will more profoundly shape American Buddhism than any conscious choices we might make.

Those influences are already occurring. Though they may not be obvious to us, perhaps they are to visitors from other Buddhist countries. It would be interesting to know.