Why do you think the West is drawn to Eastern religions?
It is part of the crisis of faith of the 20th century, in which doubt is cast on ideas once considered to be absolute truth. The concept that Western culture is superior began to be undermined when people began to study Eastern approaches in depth, to question Western culture and to leave room for the possibility that other cultures, too, might be of value at the philosophical and conceptual levels.
But why Buddhism, specifically, which according to a survey conducted in England, has become extraordinarily popular there, especially among middle-class people aged 25 to 45?
Buddhism specifically is perceived as a religion that can offer a response to the crisis of faith, in part because it bypasses the problem of a deity. I think that what attracts Westerners to Buddhism is the way in which it analyzes and understands human consciousness and cuts a path through everything connected to belief. There are certain beliefs associated with Buddhism, such as karma and rebirth, that some people might find problematic, but you don’t have to subscribe to all the basic assumptions of Buddhism to do a meditation workshop or to study it more deeply.
I would say it’s a religion for people with commitment issues. Maybe that’s a problem.
Yes. The basic, ancient Buddhist idea is to strive to avoid doing harm, to do good and purify the consciousness. That is quite straightforward, and in this sense Buddhism is accessible. We all know that when we are angry or afraid or distressed, we don’t think as we should, everything becomes distorted and unstable. Our emotional state prevents us from seeing reality as it is. Buddhism takes this truth and suggests that we start to work with it – to try to placate the consciousness and examine the world differently.
But hasn’t Buddhism become one more superficial consumer product in the West?
There is a clear danger that Buddhism’s popularity will turn it into one more accessory which aims to help people cope with the difficulties of everyday life. On the Internet you find things like “mindfulness for businessmen,” the idea being that with the aid of meditation I can become a better businessperson, be more calm in my meetings and so forth. In fact, the foundation of Buddhist practice is ethical, expressed in five precepts: refrain from harming living creatures, refrain from false speech, refrain from sexual misconduct, refrain from taking what is not yours, and avoid consciousness-altering substances. Western interest in Buddhism, however, focuses largely on meditation, and neglects the ethical underpinnings.
Because Westerners see Buddhism as a tool to achieve goals.
It is here that we find the disconnect between meditation itself, say, and the general Buddhist framework of thought – and without that framework, Buddhism becomes a diminished, pale version of itself. Take, for example, the surging popularity of mindfulness meditation, which in England is used in cognitive behavioral therapy for people suffering from depression. It is in fact helpful, and that’s marvelous. I don’t want to be critical here. But I view this phenomenon with astonishment, because it is completely disconnected from the Buddhist framework. It is a reduction of Buddhism. Some of those who teach the method may have learned it in six or eight meetings, whereas in the traditional approach those who teach meditation are Buddhist monks.
Another example is the use of meditation for brain research.
Indeed, and it is not only the ethical framework of Buddhism that is lost here. Meditation practice is meant to lead one to begin naturally to reflect on and contemplate his behavior and his relations with others. Indeed, ethical behavior develops as a result of meditative practice. It is impossible to do that without thinking about the way in which your anger or your relationships operate in the world.
When you practice meditation within that framework, and within its traditional context, you are meant to address and cope with the big problems in life: your suffering and the suffering of others. Meditation is not only a tool for coping with stress, it is the path that has been followed, and is still being followed, by sages for thousands of years, and you have to be very respectful of that path.
According to a story in the early texts, Buddha, after he became enlightened and achieved the supreme level of existence in the world, realized that there was nothing and no one left for him to respect in the world. As he thought it was not good to live in a world in which he respected nothing, he asked himself what he could respect after all, and decided to respect the truth, the dharma. That story shows that we need a certain humility, an understanding that there is something bigger than oneself.
Is it even possible to be a Buddhist in Western culture, to be caught up in the rat race of a material, achievement-oriented culture and yet live a spiritual life?
There is one crucial Buddhist principle: that the path, or the way, is very gradual. One step at a time. That brings us back to the question of who is a Buddhist. I call myself a Buddhist. I practice and train, I believe that what I read in the ancient texts has great value. But if someone bumps into me accidentally in the street, I get upset and I will shout at him, “Watch where you’re going!” To decide that I do not intend to become angry or be impatient or stressed, because I am a Buddhist, just doesn’t work. I work on myself ... each person takes it as far as he is capable of. You practice as much as you can; it’s a process.
Where are you in this process?
There was a period in my life when I said to myself: I am very drawn to Buddhist practice, I believe in Buddhist thought, so maybe I should become a monk. I thought of doing that and almost did, but it didn’t happen. Maybe because of some weakness on my part. When I think about it today, I say, okay, I do what I can, at the level I can, and it doesn’t bother me.
What is truly important, as I see it, is to adopt the ethical system of Buddhism, to realize that the way you behave makes a difference. That there are good, beneficial ways to behave, and bad, unacceptable ways. If our motivation is based on hatred and anger, our behavior is not good and beneficial. If our motivations are based on generosity, without attachment to or thought of personal gain, that is good behavior. It’s an ethical system, and it’s there. If you meditate every day but those elements are not there, what you are doing makes no difference.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek maintains – though this really simplifies his argument – that Buddhism in the West is today a tool of the capitalist system.
Yes, and he connects it also to a Marxist argument, but again, the ethical aspect is crucial. Again, what truly makes you a genuine Buddhist is not only the way you behave, but also the deep awareness that you are invited to experience and strive to investigate. We all endure difficulties and we all try to cope with them, whether it’s stress at work or the discovery that we are ill. Buddhism, in the end, offers one way to understand and cope with these things.
There is a quote of Buddha that says, “I teach only two things: suffering and the elimination of suffering.” We can reduce the stress in our day-to-day life somewhat, and meditation can help us concentrate somewhat, but this everyday coping is not the essence. If you practice meditation, and it doesn’t change your behavior, your way of observing the world, the way you treat people, and if it doesn’t encourage a type of deep understanding of the nature of suffering – yours and others’ – you are missing the point. If you reduce mindfulness to something your doctor can prescribe, something to help you soothe your brain, because studies in neuroscience have shown that it’s effective, it loses its most ultimate meaning.
What is that ribbon on your wrist?
It’s a string that’s been there a long time. When Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka chant blessings, they sometimes pass around a string like this, and people hold it and listen to the chanting of the monks. It’s a type of blessing.
Sri Lanka is an example of a place where you can be both a Buddhist and an extreme nationalist.
And also an appalling chauvinist. I’ve thought about that quite a bit. You can, of course, explain it by examining Sri Lankan history in depth and looking at the forces that make it look the way it does today. But that exemplifies the danger we talked about earlier. You start with all kinds of noble principles, which exist within a set of values, ideas and customs that are called a religion, all of it very inspirational. But then people get attached to what looks important to them and let go of the deep meanings. Of course, certain politicians also make use of such attachments to manipulate people – a case in point being the Sri Lankan government. In the end, it shows that Buddhists don’t necessarily behave any better than others.
A gloomy conclusion.
One of the Buddhist ideas that really struck me the first time I encountered it states that the moment you become enlightened, you have to give up the feeling that this is the truth and all the rest is nonsense.
There is something of the paradoxical here, but it’s aimed at a very important aspect of what Buddhism tries to say about the way consciousness works. We are constantly looking for a type of dogmatic security – in ethics, in politics, etc. What’s right and what’s not right. It’s not that Buddhism doesn’t say what’s right and what’s not right, but the danger lies in the translation of those things into words and principles. When you take these big ideas and reduce them to rules of behavior, people start to get attached to words and rules.
In principle, people who have achieved enlightenment no longer need to follow the five precepts of the basic ethics, because their behavior is above that. They don’t need the precepts, because they are incapable of behaving out of greed, hatred or delusion. That of course doesn’t mean that if you are enlightened, you are allowed to kill people or to lie, but that the motivation to behave like that has disappeared. The state of consciousness that gives rise to that behavior does not exist.
What is the main cause of suffering in our world today, as you see it? If Buddhism is the cure, what is the illness?
Our life is filled with pressures, and the pressures of life in the bourgeois middle class drive us to look for answers. Sometimes we might think that our distresses are nothing compared to, say, the suffering of people in the third world – and suffering is truly a peculiar thing in the sense that we can diminish and mock the distresses of our bourgeois middle class. But there is a difference between collective suffering and individual suffering. We can tell ourselves that our problems are nothing compared to those of people who are hungry or who are being massacred in Syria – but there is real suffering everywhere. If you are diagnosed with a terminal illness, if something terrible happens to your child, that is as bad as it can be. Suffering can exist everywhere. No tragedy is truly distinct from another tragedy.
What did you take from Buddhism that genuinely changed your life?
The simplest things. If I had to sum up Buddhism in one sentence, it would be: “Let go.” Release everything. That sounds like something negative sometimes, but that’s because we are afraid that if we let go of everything we will have nothing left. What Buddhism is trying to say is that if you let go of everything, you will be able to find what is truly of value.
Have you ever succeeded in letting go of everything? Not to be held by anything: not ambitions, not career, not family?
I try. I admit that I too am afraid, like everyone.
Like everyone. The Dalai Lama, too, cried when his brother died.
It is certainly very difficult. But for me this is the most important message of Buddhism. Let go of everything. Letting go of something does not mean losing it. It’s only we who interpret it like that.