The Buddhism Experiment

The Buddha is a powerful metaphor for the mindful life. When you take a historical, scientific approach, he turns out to be surprisingly three-dimensional, quirky and human—quite different from the mythical ‘Perfect One.’

Buddhism began a new experiment in the 1970s. After being prodded and explored by a few eccentric Victorians, there was now talk for the first time of ‘Western Buddhism.’ It wasn’t clear how it would turn out, but it felt immanent. What’s grown since then isn’t western so much as modern—not a product of any one culture. Religious Buddhism still exists in various ethnicities, but those who come to Buddhism for its original mindfulness teachings are usually looking for a rational, objective and secular approach.

Hundreds of Buddhist centers were established all over North America, Australasia and Europe in the last half century. Wanting to become a teacher, I joined an exclusive group in Switzerland under the monk Geshe Rabten, a debate advisor to the Dalai Lama. A dozen of us crammed into a tiny four-room house in the tiny four-house hamlet of Schwendi, and got to work on our Tibetan—the only language of instruction.

It was all very old-fashioned. We were given texts to memorize, then we learned to debate them. This was presented as the most authentic way to train, and that’s all that was expected of us. For Geshe Rabten it was a straightforward, tried and tested curriculum. However something else weighed on us: how to present this to a modern audience. We tried talking to Geshe about it, but he didn’t understand the biases of a modern, scientific education, or the challenge we faced.

What we realized, and what we knew our Tibetan teachers wouldn’t like, was that in addition to becoming teachers and translators, we were becoming interpreters of Buddhism. This entails separating culture from dharma. Buddhist authorities—including our Tibetan lamas—insist that ‘being a Buddhist’ requires all sorts of beliefs—including reincarnation and karmic law. These aren’t easy for modern minds—nor even necessary, say secular Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor.

Stephen was one of us in Schwendi. Alan Wallace was another. Both had intensely scholastic minds, but they couldn’t have been more different. While Alan’s Buddhism is entirely traditional, right down to the practice of guru-devotion, Stephen’s approach is evidence-based and skeptical. His book Buddhism without Beliefs is one of the most influential books about Buddhism of our times—clear, simple and existential. Alan also takes pains to integrate faith-based Buddhism with modern scientific values, though his books are more intellectual.

Year by year, the religious approach seems increasingly cumbersome to me—especially since mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and other clinical adaptations of Buddhism have done such a marvelous job of delivering the practical tool of mindfulness. Nevertheless, the Buddha is a powerful metaphor for the mindful life, and I continue to explore his life and times with great fascination. When you take a historical, scientific approach, the Buddha turns out to be surprisingly three-dimensional, quirky and human—quite different from the mythical ‘Perfect One.’”

I've spent my adult life studying, practicing and teaching Buddhism. The philosophy can get a little complicated at time, but the practice is straightforward. The difficulty all people face is how to integrate it into their daily lives. I’ve found that nothing stimulates regular practice mindfulness more than stories of other meditators, and the Buddhist literature is filled with archetypal stories that anyone today can relate to.

I teach a 30-minute mindfulness class three times a week—rain or shine—and will soon teach a course entitled:

Buddha: Man or Myth
decoding the origin of mindfulness