A couple of days ago I read an article on some of the problems facing Buddhism in America and I thought it was relevant and indicative of what is happening in the larger world and, possibly, in ISKCON, too.
What is happening with American Buddhists is that they are dying out, naturally.
First generation Buddhists there evolved from the counter culture movement that sought alternative values and religious practices. They spend years and even decades in places like Nepal and Thailand studying under local gurus and masters.
Schools, centers and retreats they established back home were meant to channel that ancient wisdom to the modern society but things rarely flow one way. New converts brought new ideas and new approaches and they didn’t care much about Thai or Nepalese monasteries and so the old guard is worried – traditions are under threat from these young, dynamic, and successful preachers.
Though the first generation made Buddhism a household name and a popularly accepted religion they failed to keep the momentum going until the past decade or so and now the new generation takes all credit for the revival, and deservedly so.
So, on one hand we have people who spent almost their entire lives trying to go deeper into the tradition and valuing it above anything else, on the other hand we have lots of noobs who can’t understand what is so important about following some old teachers on the other side of the globe.
Old guys have time tested methods on their side, new guys tell them that old methods don’t work anymore, they tried some new ways and they worked better, or did they?
This is not restricted to Buddhism only, of course. Lately, for example, people have learned how to use touchscreens on their phones and tablets and now they don’t appreciate the good old mouse anymore. Apple is right on target with their new operating system integrating mutlitouch gestures from mobile devices into their notebook computer line.
They, the Apple, even went so far as to change how you scroll down the screen. With the mouse you pull the scroll bar down but on the phones you flick the page up – ever noticed that? Now Apple did the same thing to notebooks, too – if you want to see what’s down the page you pull the page up, not down as we’ve been doing for two decades now. Actually we’ve been reading things on paper like this since birth – as you read further you move the paper up, it’s the computer mouse that taught us to pull a scrollbar down instead.
It is mighty annoying at first, people report, but they get used to it. These new generation approach has its merits, after all.
So, I want to be fair to these young bloods even if what they do doesn’t sit with me very well at first.
To begin with – they are very very smart in certain ways but not so much in others. Thanks to standardized education they are being taught very effectively everywhere and now we have an enormous pool of people who take our standards for granted.
We’ve been working our socks off for decades to distill our best practices and our best knowledge and serve it in easily digestible portions. How long did it take us to accept that women, blacks and gays deserve an equal chance at everything and should be judged on the result, not on appearance? Hundreds of years. Kids learn this in kindergarten now.
They literally take from where we left off and carry on. They have a wider perspective, they are unconstrained by our old habits, prejudices and attachments. If something works they take it up easily, they don’t have the baggage of “in all my life I never thought…”
Thanks to the Internet they also have an easy access to enormous pool of alternative ideas and approaches we never knew existed. Young people mix and match all the time until they get it right, the share success and failures and they learn from them very fast, and there are simply more of them, I mean the headcount of educated folk now and fifty years ago.
So, if the goal is to learn something – you can’t beat the new generation.
Older folks might be proud of having read Bhagavat Gita a million times and being able to recite all the verses, younger folks don’t see the point – they’ve heard all about it already, if they don’t remember Sanskrit they can look it up on the Internet in seconds. That’s another trait of the new generation – outsourcing memory.
With the information and all kinds of data overflowing from every possible source there’s no question of trying to remember everything, or even everything important – it’s far more practical to remember where everything that’s important can be found. That’s just practical management of limited resources.
They won’t be reading Bhagavat Gita millions of times, they got the point already, they’d rather read other versions to see if any new angles can be explored and incorporated, thus enriching their understanding.
Is there any danger in these developments? For American Buddhists, for the society as a whole, for the devotees?
Take this observation – in “my” days we had only a limited collection of stories from Krishna Book to tell each other when it was time to talk “pastimes”. If someone learned a new story it quickly spread in the community, everyone was eager to relish it, new stuff was relatively rare. Now there are so many translations of so many books online new stories fail to excite anymore, not unless you twist them in a new and cool way. Mix and match, mix and match…
Devotees are relatively safe, though, we still stress following the tradition and gurus and we are careful to preserve our knowledge “as it is”, but Buddhists are truly screwed, imo.
They don’t have guru system at all in the West, they have no spiritual leaders, no Pope, nothing. Dalai Lama is not it. They also don’t have any traditions to preserve – unlike monasteries in Nepal or Thailand, Buddhists in the US have been exposed to all kinds of interpretations from day one. None of the centuries old traditions has any particular respect and prominence in the new land, they all have to start building reputation from the scratch, most of the time side by side with their traditional rival schools, too.
Old timers might start grave and serious talks how they learned something from their ten years in the mountains but younger ones can interrupt them with “yeah, I know, also look at this guy from Thailand who says that …” Annoying – yes, but I bet their “insights” are amazingly correct, too.
You can’t beat them at learning – remember?
They are missing the important point, though – you go to guru not to learn stuff but to learn humility and appreciation. Stuff can be found on the Internet but it won’t make you humble, it would rather make you more proud.
It’s like Oscar Wilde said over a hundred years ago – “know price of everything but value of nothing”. We go to guru to learn value, not price, not the superficial information.
ISKCON devotees are relatively safe and well protected, though. We know that we approach devotees in hope that their devotion rubs off on us, too. Those who seriously seek devotion do not put too much trust in acquiring books.
Superficial methods do not work for us at all, people realize rather soon that you can’t play a devotee, the trick is not in finding best kirtana tunes or best recipes or sitting postures or squirreling away hundreds of books and hours of mp3 lectures. When all these things fail we remember that we should go and humbly inquire about the Absolute Truth instead, and, thanks to Srila Prabhupada, in his ISKCON there will never be a shortage of opportunities to do just that.
Buddhists are screwed, in comparison. Their new leaders never put that in practice themselves and they don’t see the value of providing such services to others either.
Unless, of course, someone discovers that being humble is cool. Then they’ll have an avalanche of humility on their hands.
Actually, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if ISKCON had a flood of humility, too. I mean real flood leading to tasting real nectar. So far we only read about it being so widely available in Lord Chaitanya’s times. Now we are warned not to expect it in our personal lives anytime soon.
Resuming that flow wouldn’t be bad at all, but who is there to turn the tap?