Buddhas in the West: Even Bill Clinton Turns Toward Meditation

I take it as some cosmic law of exchange that if Disneyland pops up in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Buddhist temples can sprout up in Los Angeles. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to many Californians the most complex Buddhist city in the world is here.
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Buddhism made a blip in the news early this month when the Times of India, and other major media outlets, citing an unnamed source, reported that Bill Clinton has turned to Buddhism for mental and physical well-being. The former U.S. president went as far as hiring a Buddhist monk to teach him the arts of meditation.

While this may come as a surprise to some, to many others it's only a natural course of how things transpire in the globalized world. In the last half of the 20th century, America cunningly exported itself overseas, marketing its images, ideologies, products and religions with ingenuity and zeal, but what it has not been able to fully assess or prepare for are the effects in reverse. For if Americanization is a large part of globalization, the Easternization of the West, too, is the other side of the phenomenon.

I take it as some cosmic law of exchange that if Disneyland pops up in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Buddhist temples can sprout up in Los Angeles, home of the Magic Kingdom. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to many Californians that scholars have agreed that the most complex Buddhist city in the world is nowhere in Asia but Los Angeles itself, where there are more than 300 Buddhist temples and centers, representing nearly all of Buddhist practices around the world.

In October 2009, CNN reported that "programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country." There are more than 75 organizations working with some 2,500 people, most of them prisoners, and they inspired a documentary called "The Dhamma Brothers," where inmates reached inner peace and spiritual maturity through meditation and the practice of compassion.

This was the same year that Thomas Dyer, a former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor, became the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army and was sent to Afghanistan to administer to Buddhist American soldiers.

Over the past quarter-century, Buddhism has become the third largest religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to a 2008 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evidence of Buddhism spreading deep roots in America is abundant. The UT San Diego newspaper estimated that there are at least 1.2 million Americans who are Buddhist practitioners, the majority of whom live in California. Other scholars estimated that number to be as high as 6.7 million.

Even if small in population, Buddhist ideas are clearly a strong influence on the cultural spheres. When the Dalai Lama visited the U.S. three years ago, for example, he was a celebrity at every American institution. One scene in particular remains memorable: the most famous monk in the world sat on the dais, lecturing on wisdom in the modern world and exploring the concept of the soul, as hundreds of enthralled monks and laymen look on below. The scene harks back to the golden era of Tibet, with the halls festooned with hundreds of strings of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, except the event took place at American University.

Yet, despite Buddhism's message of inner peace and compassion, it, in its own way, is a very radical spiritual practice for its refutation of the existence of a creator. In essence, the serious practitioner aims to extinguish the self by defeating his own ego and, thereby, seeing beyond the illusion spun by the ignorant mind.

The ultimate Buddhist experience entails neither god nor self, neither "out there" nor "in here," for that membrane that separates the practitioner's being and that of the world, upon awakening, has been lifted. All that remains is ohm -- absolute awe and bliss. Imagine, if you will, Moses not turning his face away from the burning bush that is God but approaching it then fully merging with that terrifying fire. To reach spiritual maturity, the I (or ego) must -- at least in meditation -- be dissolved.

"Buddhism," writes Diana Eck, professor of comparative religions at Harvard University, "challenges many Americans at the very core of their thinking about religion -- at least, those of us for whom religion has something to do with one we call God."

As ties deepened between the two continents, as immigration from Asia continues unabated, and as the Dhamma (Buddha's teachings) spreads beyond all borders, we are entering what many thinkers and philosophers call the second axial age, an age of pluralism where the various spiritual traditions co-exist.

In these global days, no single system can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change, all exist to a various degree of openness and exchange. And the old Silk Road along which so many religious ideas traveled has been replaced by a far more potent thoroughfare: unprecedented global migration, mass communications and the information highway, which transcends geography.

I once kept on my study's wall two very different pictures to remind me of the way East and West have changed. One is an issue from a Time magazine on Buddhism in America. In it, a group of American Buddhists sits serenely in lotus position on a wooden veranda in Malibu overlooking a calm Pacific Ocean. The other is of Vietnamese-American astronaut Eugene Trinh's space shuttle flight. The pictures tell me that East and West have not only met, but also commingled and fused. When a Vietnamese man who left his impoverished homeland can come very close to reaching the moon, while Americans are becoming psychonauts -- navigators of the mind -- turning inward, trying to reach nirvana with each mindful breath, I think that the East-West dialogue has come a long, long way.

New America Media's editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of 'East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres' and 'Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.' His next book, 'Birds of Paradise Lost,' is due out in Spring 2013.

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