Bringing the Sangha to the West

The Buddha lived in a time and a place characterized by a long-established and profound spiritual tradition, deep spiritual yearning, cultural diversity and eclecticism fostered by developing urbanism and mercantilism, and an established culture of wandering ascetics or samanas that were already organizing themselves into bands of spiritual seekers and identifiable philosophical movements. The Buddha himself began his spiritual career as a samana. Brahmanism had not yet established itself as the dominant religious culture in northeast India as it had elsewhere in India. In the Buddha’s home country of the Sakya clan, the caste system had still not taken root. The Sakyans practised a form of proto-democratic cooperative or constitutional aristocracy similar to the Greeks and the Vajjian sangha. There was a fair degree of tolerance for alternative lifestyles and points of view. Northeast India was a rich agricultural and trading area with extensive rainforest and a system of roads that, while dangerous, enabled people to travel and experience different peoples and regions. The samanas wandered across the countryside, often in groups, living on the fringes of society, teaching and gathering followers. In general, society tolerated them and they were able to sustain themselves by begging for food and sleeping in parks and forests or seeking seclusion in remote places. It was certainly not an easy life, but it offered its rewards and contributed in a meaningful way to the overall richness of society.

The Buddha appeared between roughly 480 and 400 BCE in this society. Because of the samana culture that preceded him, he was able to renounce the world at the age of 29. He spent his entire life as a wanderer and a teacher, sustained by the generosity of others. He became widely respected as a sincere, accomplished, and erudite teacher. He left behind him an extensive organization (the sangha). Thanks to the generosity of wealthy patrons, the sangha even acquired a fair amount of wealth, in the form of parks that were donated to the sangha for the habitation of the monks and nuns, especially during the rainy season. After his death, the sangha spread to other countries and cultures. Over time, the relatively innovative and decentralized sangha was consolidated in great monasteries and universities, such as Nalanda, often with the support and patronage of wealthy aristocrats and nascent governments that saw in Buddhism a stabilizing, civilizing, and unifying ideology, much like the Catholic Church after the fall of Rome. In this way Buddhism spread throughout all of Asia, penetrating as far west as present-day Afghanistan and even Iran, and as far east as Japan. However, with consolidation also came degeneration. Speculation and innovation hardened into fundamentalism, formalism, and religion.

Today, Buddhism is penetrating the West as well, but the West provides a very different social and cultural matrix to that in which the sangha originally flourished. Western spirituality is nearly non-existent since Christianity has been replaced by an ideology of secular materialism that regards spirituality with increasingly militant hostility. Spirituality has been replaced by the cult of industrialization, in which the acquisition of private or social wealth is regarded as the supreme good. In the absence of the vertical axis, the body has replaced the divinity as the supreme object of adoration. Pleasure, power, and privilege are now the driving forces of human life. Financial totalitarianism subordinates everything to economics. Money and its acquisition is now the central unifying force of modern life. Education is increasingly subordinated to employment. Academics have become a sterile, nitpicking academicism. The media speak of nothing but entertainment. This culture permeates the social consciousness. It is nearly impossible to avoid. The only goal of such a system is ever-increasing consumption, resulting in corruption, usury, egotism, competition, poverty, the wastage of natural resources, pollution, scarcity, obesity, mental illness, criminality, perversion, addiction, and war. In response to these threats the rulers of society, in a desperate effort to sustain themselves, are creating a society that is ever more collectivized and technologized. Our humanity itself may be subsumed by the fusion of biology and technology, a result that was prophesied long ago by Krishnamurti. Technocrats enthusiastically anticipate the day when the brain itself is replaced by a synthetic organ as the basis of artificial intelligence (AI) and computers and artificial technologies assimilate consciousness and the body. The prevailing view is that consciousness is an illusion, no more than an essentially mechanical by-product of biological processes that can be simulated or synthesized.

The Buddha insisted that the sangha be entirely dependent on the householders who support it. Monks and nuns were not permitted to work, engage in business or trade, or handle money. Separate from the world, they were nonetheless completely dependent on it. Thus, the sangha is entirely dependent on a faithful and generous laity. In the West, barely 1% of the population is Buddhist, so the sangha must find other means to survive. The model that is increasingly being taken up is that of the non-profit organization or charity (the “dharma centre”), at a time when social tolerance for such “aberrant” economic structures is in decline. This turns the dhamma into an economic commodity, forced to compete for dollars in the universal war of all against all. The commodification of dhamma and the need for donors leads to the reduction of dhamma instruction to the lowest common denominator. The demand for easy, popular teachings has led to personality cults, financed by credulous and naïve enthusiasts. The low level of spirituality and the general dysfunction of society have led to hyper-competitiveness amongst followers and gurus as well as numerous abuses. The centrality of the need for money, fund raising, and marketing has led to greed, arrogance, and corruption. The hypersexualization of society has led to other abuses. The lack of an innate spiritual culture in the West has led to extreme imitativeness, superficiality, and sectarianism. Academicism is so sterile that it is widely ignored, reinforcing popular credulity.

Perhaps the slow dissemination of the dharma in the West may lead to a strong and enthusiastic laity that can in turn support the monastics, but in the absence of such monastics, how can such a laity be cultivated? It is a catch-22. Moreover, this process will take a long time, but we do not have time. It is widely agreed that if the “world war” between Americanism (combining capitalism, corporatism, and consumerism), communism, Catholicism, Zionism, and Islamism – the five most pernicious cults in contemporary global society – continues much longer, in the context of the wholesale depletion of natural resources; pollution of air, water, and earth; and climate change, the planet will become uninhabitable within this century. It took Buddhism 2,500 years to develop to this point. The Dharma Transmission to the West has less than a hundred years.

What can we expect from the “long dark age of the West,” in the phrase of Evans-Wentz, characterized as it has been by the virtual extinction of ancient learning, the Inquisition, capitalism, industrialization, slavery, imperialism, genocide, and war? The law of karma tells us that every cause must have its effect. The violence and terror that the West has wreaked upon the world is returning to the West in the form of terrorism, as prophesied by the Kalachakra. Only the dharma has the power to save us by the power of truth, but how is the power of truth to be established?

Clearly, a social, political, and cultural revolution is needed, but how is such a revolution to be fomented, when all the institutions of social power, education, and the media have been coopted? Terrorism presents itself as the solution, but the karmic consequences of terrorism cannot possibly lead to the desired end.

Capitalism, however, has its Achilles heel. To function, markets require consumers. Every seller needs a buyer. The crowd, fascinated by the glamour of money, follow each other like lemmings to the cliff, even as the economic system hurtles towards its demise. Herein lies the solution. To establish the sangha of the West, we must create an alternative cooperative economic system based on dharma. It is a truism that every empire has failed from within. Thus, the emphasis of the New Buddhism should not be on the creation of artificial sanghas, but rather on the creation of a dynamic, vibrant, popular Western non-monastic tradition of enlightened householders, mahasiddhas, and bodhisattvas, less in the cities than in the remote rural places that are being abandoned today. By creating such creative, dynamic, and self-sufficient centres, utilizing the best from the dying society, the Dharma Transmission to the West has the potential to become a beacon of light to the world, and a place to which the outcaste, the oppressed, the stricken, and the despised can repair, for the salvation of the whole world, as it was in the beginning.

How to Locate a Buddhist Intentional Community

I recommend the Fellowship of Intentional Communities.