Eastern influences on contemporary Western culture and spirituality
From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee
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Many people in Western cultures have become aware of, and adopted elements of, traditional Eastern religions to a variety of degrees. Although usually ignorant of, or rejecting the full scope of the associated original foundational historical practice and philosophy, they are creating a new flavor of Western spirituality and a related social consciousness.
Both Eastern practitioners and Western philosophers have helped raise our general consciousness of Eastern spiritual traditions over the last century. Some of the more prominent are briefly described in the following:
William James, a leading psychologist and philosopher published The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. This helped introduce Eastern religious thought to the West.
Aldous Huxley’s 1945 The Perennial Philosophy identifies a recurring insight of divine reality that is common to most primitive peoples and all higher religions. This insight is related to “thou art that,” the Atman, the Brahman, and “the Absolute Principle.”
Huston Smith wrote The Religions of Man (revised as The World’s Religions), which is still a popular treatise on comparative religion. Smith has been intimately involved with Eastern religions and produced award-winning films and several public television series on the subject.
Alan Watts, a British philosopher, did research on comparative religion. He wrote many books and articles including The Way of Zen. Along with his long-running weekly broadcast in the San Francisco area, copies of his lectures were widely distributed and introduced many people to Eastern philosophy.
Shunryu Suzuki [Roshi] came to manage a temple in San Francisco in 1959, where Zen was already a leading-edge interest. Suzuki was astonished by the watered-down Buddhism practiced by Americanized Japanese immigrants. He began teaching classes on Buddhism to Westerners. His books such as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind became popular.
[Thich] Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, “has played an important role in the transmission of an Asian spiritual tradition to the modern, largely secular West” (TIMEasia). A BBC report described Nhat Hahn as “… a world renowned Zen master, writer, poet, scholar, and peacemaker. With the exception of the Dalai Lama, he is today’s best known Buddhist teacher. He is the author of more than one hundred books including bestsellers Peace Is Every Step and The Miracle of Mindfulness, … ” (BBC)
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, has lived in exile since 1959. The plight of Tibetan Buddhists under Chinese government, and the Dalai Lama’s unshakable peaceableness, have galvanized world attention to his person and his teachings. He has traveled widely, written extensively, taught, and participated in efforts to cultivate world peace.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, escaped Tibet in 1959. In 1967, after further education at Oxford, he established his first meditation center. After a disabling automobile accident, he became a lay teacher. He traveled almost constantly throughout North America and wrote prolifically during the 1970s. Attracting considerable attention, he established three additional meditation centers and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He also developed “Shambhala Training” to introduce meditation in secular terms. His work resulted in the establishment of meditation and art centers in over 100 cities throughout the world (Shambhala).
Popular cultural leaders have also been instrumental in introducing Westerners to Eastern thought. The Beatles, after meeting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, studied Transcendental Meditation in India. The songs they created there in 1968 are considered by some to be their most creative work. The Beatles certainly influenced many of their fans to explore Eastern thought. Oprah Winfrey introduced a number of Buddhist teachers, including Pema Chödrön and Sharon Salzberg, to the American public (Oprah, 2008).
Eastern themes and situations have been eagerly accepted in our entertainment media. Examples range from Kung Fu Panda and Mulan to “Wire Fu” action adventures to Amy Tan’s stories of growing up Chinese. We loved to see Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet, yearned for Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, wanted to walk to the sea with Gandhi, and wondered if “the Force” in Star Wars was anything like what a Japanese Samurai or Hindu Fakir does. Could we ever figure out how to do that ourselves? I have a deal with my youngest son that the first one to levitate has to buy supper.
Many popular books have addressed (or borrowed) Eastern spiritual themes. Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was a popular, if idiosyncratic, introduction to Eastern philosophy for a displaced generation. It is now considered a classic. Many authors, riding the wave of interest in Eastern philosophy, produced books with titles including: Zen and the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury, 1994),Zen in the Art of Archery (Eugen Herrigel and Daisetz T. Suzuki, 1999), Zen and the Art of Making a Living (Laurence G. Boldt, 1999), Zen and the Art of Poker (Larry Phillips, 1999), The Tao of Pooh (Benjamin Hoff, 1982), The Tao of Physics (Fritjof Capra, 2000), The Tao of Sobriety (David Gregson, 2002), The Tao of Network Security Monitoring (Richard Bejtlich, 2004), and even The Tao of Warren Buffet (Mary Buffett and David Clark, 2006).
The teachings and life of Jesus Christ have been compared, and correlated, to Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist scripture in books such as: Jesus and Lao Tzu: The Parallel Sayings(Martin Aronson ed., 2002), Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, Marcus Borg, ed., 2004), Christ the Eternal Tao, 4th edition (Hieromonk Damascene, 2004), The Yoga of Jesus: Understanding the Hidden Teachings of the Gospels (Paramahansa Yogananda, 2007), Jesus, Krishna, Buddha and Lao Tzu: The Parallel Sayings (Richard Hooper, 2007). Many people are open to the theory that Jesus was exposed to Eastern influences during the “quiet period” in the gospels before presenting himself to John the Baptist at the beginning of his explosive ministry.
The West has gradually opened up to a variety of translocated Eastern concepts and practices. For one, karma has become a household word in the West. It is generally associated with the ideas that “what goes around comes around” or “you reap what you sow.” Thus, its application is, typically, more secular and leaves behind any concept of karma associated with past lives or reincarnation.
Westerners have begun exploring Eastern systems of medicine including Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Practitioners generally receive a strong grounding in the underlying concepts. Medical doctors occasionally add techniques such as acupuncture to their practice. Meaningful accreditation is available to schools that teach most Eastern systems of medicine.
Patients, however, are often simply open to, or desperate for, a more-effective therapy than they may currently be receiving, without having any substantial appreciation for the concepts driving their diagnosis or treatment.
Deepak Chopra has become very influential while promoting his mission of “bridging the technological miracles of the West with the wisdom of the East” (Chopra). He began his career as a Western-trained endocrinologist but he felt moved to expand his practice to include Ayurvedic therapies and mind-body counseling at his own clinic. He has written prolifically, and lectured and consulted widely, teaching about balance in both health and spiritual matters.
Acupuncture is a technique of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that inserts and manipulates very fine needles along meridians of Chi (vital energy) to regulate its flow and distribution. Acupuncture, with other techniques of oriental medicine, are now taught in about fifty schools in the United States. Most specialize in oriental medicine except for three that prepare Naturopathic Doctors for general practice.
Related practices that profess to affect Chi in the body include acupressure, foot reflexology, Chi gong, and Tai Chi exercises. Chiropractors often include attention to Chi flow in their patient care. Chi concepts are widely accepted in the American public. After I had an emotional breakdown in a class this spring, a counselor in Student Support Services advised me on how to activate a series of acupressure points.
Many youngsters are introduced to Chi and other elements of oriental culture as part of martial arts training. Popular Asian martial arts, including Karate, Aikido, and Judo, spring from religious traditions. But, these are often studied in the United States for exercise, development of coordination, self-defense, competition, and combat — largely without deep philosophical training.
Similarly, precisely-prescribed and highly-differentiated forms of meditation were formerly part of the different mystical traditions of each Eastern religion, and even different branches of the same religion. In America, meditation is becoming popular but is poorly or indifferently differentiated. It is usually undertaken for pragmatic purposes like relaxation, stress relief, improved concentration, or as a homogenized element of new-age spirituality. Progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, and autogenic training may be considered Western adaptations of Eastern meditation.
Chinese herbal medicine has been introduced in accredited TCM schools and as full courses for Naturopathic Doctors. Units of elective classes in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are offered for conventional doctors, and in private herbal schools such as Michael and Lesley Tierra’s East West School of Planetary Medicine.
More-limited aspects of Chinese herbal medicine may be borrowed in “bite-size” pieces. As an example, Nature’s Sunshine Products, Inc. released a set of ten Chinese herbal formulas—two for each of the five elements in TCM. For instance, AL-C (Xuan Fei – Metal Reducing) was for lung stress such as Allergies while LH-C (Fu Lei – Metal Supporting) was for “Lung Health” issues such as chronic respiratory weakness. While these formulations gave token reference to the five elements, and used Chinese names and herbs, most herbalists applied them using Western sensibilities. A third-party reference work explained:
[These] Chinese herb combinations are based on the five element model and the principles of harmony and balance, Yin and Yang. The element model states that an individual’s constitution is typed – wood, water, metal, earth or fire – according to the five basic elements found in nature. Each has weaknesses and strengths, which must be kept in balance in order to maintain good health (Satterlee 2000).
Meditative states can be monitored or even facilitated with assistive technology. Products such as Proteus®, Holosync®, and Hemi-sync®, use audio tones to stimulate brainwaves at desired frequencies. For instance, simultaneous tones at 440 and 452 cps produce a difference beat at 12 cps that is within the normal range for brain waves; the brain will tend to synchronize with it. Goggles with simultaneously flashing lights may also be supplied to enhance the effect. The intended result is to produce enhanced alertness, relaxation, sleep, or meditation associated with the selected stimulation. One user commented that:
“Hemi-sync sounds facilitate the synchronization of the cerebral hemispheres. They contain frequencies corresponding to different states of consciousness. (This is the electronic era’s version of the shaman’s drum, the mantra, the singing of psalms, the Gregorian and Sufi chant.)” (Ferrari 78)
It may be tempting to characterize the changes occurring in Western spirituality as a “cafeteria culture” or the indiscriminate co-mingling of spiritual traditions. In fact, history shows that cultures typically undergo cross-pollination when they interact with others. As an example, the culture and modes of worship in India often include contributions from Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist traditions. Similarly, the culture and modes of worship in China often include contributions from Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions.
This is not to everyone’s liking. Just as the denominations of Protestant Christendom sometimes branch into bitterly antagonistic groups, Eastern lineages may see themselves as distinct and exclusive. The Tibetan lama, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche protests:
Vajrayana [Buddhism] is very different from the New Age approach. The difference is that the Vajrayana teachings are controlled by the lineage. I know we don’t like the word control, but the Vajrayana teachings are actually held by the authority of the lineage. …When we have this pure lineage, this genuine lineage, there is no space for our egocentric interpretation of dharma. We cannot interpret dharma like the New Age gurus. We cannot invent a new lineage because a lineage must be received. It must be received by transmission. It is not something we can just create here. That would beNew Age, probably from California (Ponlop).
American philosophy and culture is borrowing from more than only Eastern thought. Some of us have learned to cherish the words of the Muslim poet Rumi or have friends that like to discuss the mysteries of the Jewish Kabala. Our Christian Men’s groups rediscover their masculinity in group shamanic drumming. We hang Native American dream catchers from our mirrors and study rune lore. Some like Wiccan spells, Druid runes, fairies, and dragons in their fantasy fiction and adventure games. We listen to Celtic music and adore the African spiritual influences in our “uniquely American” jazz and gospel.
As with all newly-discovered ideas and practices, leading-edge thinkers explore and analyze them. Academics tear them to shreds and feed them to their students. Early-adopters begin to incorporate them into underground or alternate lifestyles. Perhaps, we experience the real thing as we interact with our expatriate neighbors and their communities. Initial curiosities become common knowledge; the exceptional becomes mundane; and the forbidden becomes tolerated. Eventually, the most useful or meaningful elements of formerly-distinctive ways become so intermingled that only the very thoughtful care about the past origins of what is now very commonplace.
Our modern world, with its increasing speed, range, and capacity for information transfer and social networking, makes it actually difficult to avoid being exposed to other religions and philosophies. America perceives itself as a nation of immigrants; prejudice is actively suppressed and diversity is promoted as a virtue. Americans like to think of themselves as independent and pragmatic thinkers; if something works, use it.
At the same time, we are becoming disenchanted with personal isolation from family and community, with over-active and over-stimulated lives that seem to lack meaning. The values of Eastern thought often seem to offer more-satisfying and more-meaningful life options. It should not be surprising that useful elements of Eastern society are snatched-up and integrated into our evolving societies.
Theodore Ludwig put it this way: “It is not that Chinese people are missionaries to other peoples of the world. Rather, many people throughout the world are discovering a vision of life and a practice of harmony that fascinate and compel them…”
BBC. Religion & Ethics – Buddhism – Thich Nhat Hanh
Chopra, Depak. About Us < http://www.chopra.com/aboutdeepak> July 7, 2009
Ferrari, Guido. A Journalist’s encounters with the Akashic experience. Quoted in The Akashic Experience: Science and the Cosmic Memory Field. Ervin Laszlo, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2009
Oprah, O, The Oprah Magazine, Oprah Talks to Pema Chödrön, 2008 July 7, 2009
Ponlop Rinpoche, Dzogchen Quoted in Policy for the West. Khandro Net, July 10, 2009
Satterlee, David. HerbalDave’s Notebook: Exploring Natural Health. CD-ROM. Health Education Library Publications. League City, Texas. 2000
Shambhala. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. 2007 July 7, 2009
TIMEasia, 60 Years of Asian Heroes – Thich Nhat Hanh. 2006. http://www.time.com/time/asia/2006/heroes/in_hanh.html July 7, 2009