New Agey Western Buddhism

Will Buckingham mentions the investment of a meditation center in a dowser, bringing up the important question: what’s the relationship between a dowsing and a meditation center?

The answer, from the outside, is obvious: that Western Buddhists are part of a much larger world of curious beliefs, ranging from dowsing to homoeopathy to crystal healing to angel spirit guides, a well-meaning hodge-podge lacking in much rigour and in which it is possible to move seamlessly from talking about the neuroscientific evidence for the benefits of meditation to talking about ley lines, reiki and how to find your shamanic power animal. And in these kinds of situations, it is considered somewhat unseemly to raise questions about pesky things like evidence, or how all this is supposed to work or hang together. It is this hodge-podge that has, over the years, made me increasingly uneasy with the various forms of Buddhism in the West, and the broader cultural context in which Buddhist practice takes place.

Sometimes it seems that Buddhism in the West is a strange cocktail indeed: 1/3 Blavatskyian new age speculation; 1/3 distillation of Buddhist texts; 1/3 psychobabble; and a pinch of science for added flavour (optional). Shake vigorously, warm slightly over the fires of good intentions, and consume. There. Now don’t you feel better already?

The New Age aspect of Western Buddhism is probably (and regrettably) not isolated to the West. I could fill paragraphs of my often awkward encounters with New Age Buddhists of all stripes and colors. In fact, just yesterday I was taking with a friend about a certain group of Buddhists in China who would fall into this category. Though we may find such beliefs and practices unnerving, his conclusion was simply, “As long as they’re not hurting anyone…”

I suppose if I were in Buckingham’s situation, I would just feel a bit uneasy to know my donations were being put towards a dowsing contractor.

6 Replies to “New Agey Western Buddhism”

  1. “Sometimes it seems that Buddhism in the West is a strange cocktail indeed: 1/3 Blavatskyian new age speculation; 1/3 distillation of Buddhist texts; 1/3 psychobabble; and a pinch of science for added flavour (optional). Shake vigorously, warm slightly over the fires of good intentions, and consume.”

    I largely ignore the New Age movement. But any non-asian practitioner gets either wrapped up in it or “labeled” as such.

    If you mention to anyone that you are a Buddhist they will assume that somewhere on your body you will have an energy crystal or some such nonsense.

    One thing you did not address was the reason for all this ~ consuming. If it can be labeled, packaged and sold then willing consumers will gobble it all up.

    Nice post.


    1. Seconded.

      Though I don’t write off all New Age thought per se, it seems like cotton candy wisdom- how much can really come of it?

      I suppose it takes all kinds. For myself, I like reality as I’ve experienced it, which has little to do with energy lines of any kind and absolutely nothing to do with crystals. I’ve seen the relics of the Buddha and other Masters and was frankly moved by the experience, but I don’t think there’s anything ‘special’ about crystals, even those relics. They represent hopes and goals, to which we should only attach so long as they are useful to our practice.

      Though the tendency of mixing up a real, meaningful practice with the ‘wrappings’ of commercialism is a little irritating, IMHO this is because it creates barriers in the form of prejudgment when we communicate to others who don’t live and practice the way we do. That’s fine, though. More ‘grist for the mill’, like Ajahn Chah says.

  2. I think some clarification is in order here.

    @ John: Assumers of this crystal belief should be told that not ALL Buddhists have energy crystals in their body. Such a privilege is relegated to the the cremated remains of the awakened ones. Just ask the Managers and followers of the Maitreya Project Heart Shrine Relic Tour. I’m sure they’ll set your assumers straight.

    @arunlikhati: We don’t always get to flesh out our conversations during brief car rides =P

    “As long as they’re not hurting anyone” is an ideal, but an argument can be made that they are hurting themselves. Their sincerity and faith can be attached to a strategy regarding what can make them happy. The strategy, such as dowsing, can be confused, but is nevertheless driven by sincerity and faith and can lead down a fruitless path of wasted time and energy. This is the unnerving part. I doubt anyone wants to be in that situation or, worse yet, find themselves there. This is a possibility, not just for the New Agey Western Buddhists, but for all of us, including this writer and his fellow companions. Even the Buddha was stuck wandering around for a while.

  3. Sorry if inappropriate place! I have had my beliefs the way they are for a long time! I have never been able to deny that there is more to this world and the spirit world than what the church was allowing to taught!

    I started getting interested in the side of Buddhism mainly traditional (the kind where you heal yourself through meditation and…… well not using crystals! I hate to say that it was the cartoon Avatar that made me start looking into it! But what ever brings you you to seek wisdom right……

    Any ways to the point

    Ive read allot of texts and what have yous and i find my walk no matter how novice it is always leads me to keep some of my faith and beliefs in what I grew up believing as far as Jesus.

    I guess my point is I don’t see it as a mixed pot for me. I believe everything was placed here for our knowledge and ability to stay connected with God. IE: through you chakras and more. I feel it brings me to a better place in this life and in my spiritual self.

    but I would be considered that by most people wouldn’t I?

  4. And the difference between New Age beliefs and the belief in, say, reincarnation is what, exactly? That the Buddha espoused one of them?

    Comparing what the Buddha said in the earliest materials about reincarnation with what I read from various Buddhist teachers come out of their own country’s traditions, it seems like it often goes to the same place as New Age beliefs.

  5. I hate to burst a bubble here, but Buddhism in Asia was and is full of what many people rank as superstition – you know, like dowsing.

    A classic example: donating towards the building of a Buddhist temple and transferring the merits to their family (a common practice in the earliest known stupas). This practice clearly goes against the doctrine of karma (aka personal responsibility) but that didn’t stop anybody.

    Buddhism has, historically, always merged with local culture.

    In the case of many Western Buddhists – the ones who would like to keep out superstitions like dowsing – the merge is with a textual ‘protestant’ Buddhism. With meditation thrown in as a counter weight to our too cerebral lives.

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