Blame Richard Gere.
Or maybe the phenomenon of affluent Americans claiming to be Buddhists started before him, back in the 1970’s. Most of these wannabee Buddhists are suffering from a condition I like to call “Buddhist Personality Disorder.” Or BPD for short. They favor flowery clothing made of hemp, speak softly and slowly, and smile beatifically. They’ll be happy to tell you about their retreats, their meditation sessions, and their interest in compassion, but they’re actually filled with anger, insecurity, and a deep-seated lack of awareness about themselves and the world around them.
In short, they’re not Buddhists. Any more than the kids in Tokyo who dress-up like rappers qualify as desperate inner city youth.
Take it from a philosophy professor.
It’s important to understand why some people feel compelled to pose in this manner in these days of social change, which have given birth to Buddhist-leaning movements for the greater good like Occupy Wall Street. Their members can learn a lot from Buddhism if they understand what it’s really about.
Buddhism is about being good, not feeling good. It’s not about meditation, although some forms of Buddhism use meditation as a way of clearing the mind. It’s not about retreats, vegetarian diets, purging, juicing, saying “Om,” or any other New Age paraphernalia.
Buddhism demands that we strive to be good people, by following a difficult path — more on that later.
Surprisingly, Buddhism is not even necessarily about changing other people. In fact, in both Buddhism and Daoism, there are admonitions against getting entangled with people in an attempt to change them or correct them.
Doing good implies a certain amount of hubris — an assumption that the corrector is a paragon of goodness and uprightness, which is anathema to true Buddhism. The arrogant assumption that one has arrived at some kind of destination of personal perfection is itself a road to trouble, according to Buddhist teachings.
Although Buddhist philosophy is a highly complex system of belief, with many variants and forms, it can be boiled down to what are known as “The Four Noble Truths.” These are the realizations that the Buddha — Prince Siddhartha — came upon as part of his enlightenment.
1. Dukkha: The literal meaning of this word is that life is marked by suffering. It’s also filled with imperfection and impermanence.
2. Samudaya: The origins of dukkha — our suffering and dissatisfaction — are found in both our endless desires and our wish to do good.
3. Nirodha: This term refers to the cessation of dukkha and the idea we can indeed free ourselves of this pattern of suffering and dissatisfaction.
4. Magga: The path out of suffering.
Many Westerners who have considered themselves Buddhists for years don’t fully understand these truths — and that’s why they’re angry. These truths are about the way to become a good person, and that way is very difficult indeed.
Photo by Suriya Thonawanik
It’s more of a journey than a destination for a species filled with desire, frustration, and distractions. That’s why it’s far more appropriate in every way for the faithful to describe themselves as someone who is practicing Buddhism.
It is human to be angry, and Buddhist philosophy understands this. It’s about taking that anger and seeing where it comes from. That’s why Buddhist practice is the correct terminology.
That practice is difficult and unremitting. It occurs day in and day out as those on the Buddhist path deal with difficult people and difficult situations.
That's one of the reasons for the old Buddhist saying by the famous Zen master Linji: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
In simple terms, the adage simply means that the Buddhist process is never-ending. There is no final enlightenment — no romantic end point. It’s all about the journey. The practice of trying to be a good person and doing the right thing in the course of daily life.
There’s a place in the Buddhist scriptures where the Buddha acknowledges the depth of this challenge by advising followers that there will be times when they simply must acknowledge their limitations by disentangling themselves from difficult people. In sum: you can’t help everybody.
This is an important lesson for the Occupy movement, which is renown for its philosophical embrace of diverse ideas, people and pathways to positive change. It was captured perfectly in a recent article called “Occupy’s Asshole Problem: Flashbacks From An Old Hippie” by Sara Robinson.
You’ve got to be aware (a key Buddhist term) of the reality of life and aware of your own capacities. Buddhism is about pragmatism. It’s about this world — not some heaven and hell beyond it — and our ability to make it a better place through hard work. That takes awareness. Not blind obedience.
Almost three decades ago, I met a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka. I was there as part of a month-long university program to do development work. There were about 15 of us, and our daily regimen involved working in the fields, digging ditches, and so on. We were accompanied by both American and local development workers.
Our final companion was a single Sri Lankan monk who was constantly smiling. I found him annoying because his constant smile often seemed more like a leer to me.
Our American guides insisted that we engage in seated meditation every day with this monk. The other members of the group readily agreed in pursuit of enlightenment, while I refused, citing a knee injury. The real reason was simply my desire to escape the grinding boredom and posturing of mass meditation.
Buddhist monks in places like Sri Lanka have to beg for their food when they are on the road. So at meal time, we would line up and take turns kneeling before the monk to offer him a morsel or two.
We’d plop some rice and vegetables into his large metal bowl, while he sat on the floor before us with that frozen smile pasted on his face. When it was my turn, I refused to kneel because it runs counter to my own religious tenets and simply leaned over to pass him some bread.
The monk didn’t mind my behavior, but one of the leaders of our group gave me a severe dressing down the next day.
"You treated the monk like a dog,” he told me. “You’ve got to kneel down and serve him, looking him in the eye. You can’t just do what you want.”
Weeks later, as our group were preparing to depart the monk singled me out after lunch. I was a bit surprised because we hadn’t exchanged more than a few words the entire trip.
“You, he said. “You are the only one who really understands Buddhism.”
“Huh?” I said, baffled.
“When it was dinner time that one evening and you refused to kneel down,” he said. “Well, I could see you were doing what you thought was right, not what the group thought was right.”
“Did I do something wrong?” I asked, peering him in the eye.
“To the contrary,” the monk replied. “I know you are Jewish. I lived in England for many years, and I met Jewish people. I know you don’t kneel as part of your religious practice; you just bow your heads. So, there is no reason for you to kneel before me, of course.
“Again, you did what you thought was right — you had self-knowledge and self-awareness,” he said. “And that is a key step on the road to entering Buddhism.”
He smiled again, but this time it was a smile that I understood.
Remember: If you meet the Buddha on the Road, kill him. And if you don’t kneel, don’t kneel.
Benjamin B. Olshin, Ph.D. has worked as a designer, professor of philosophy, and business consultant. He has written and presented on a wide range of subjects, including ancient history, Eastern and Western philosophy, the sociology of technology, and design and culture, and has studied, carried out research, and worked in East Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, and the U.S. His most recent books are available on Amazon.com. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.