Is Vajrayana hacking the West?

Dalai Lama talking with Barak Obama

“Come back when you finish preliminaries”

In my last post, I categorised justifications for the idea that Westerners are ill-suited to practice Vajrayana. Those justifications — that our values are incompatible, we can’t commit, our lifestyles do not provide conducive circumstances or that our karmic connection is lacking — are anecdotally common. Sometimes they are not stated outright but hidden in conciliatory language. My versions of these justifications are stripped down: I wanted to expose them in their most simple form, to make them easier to spot in articles and conversations.

In this post I highlight some generalisations underlying such justifications, then I examine the notion that Western culture is to blame.

The idea that Westerners are ill-suited to Vajrayana assumes a comparison between ‘Westerners’ and ‘non-Westerners’.

Who are the ‘non-Westerners’ intended? It’s useful first to clarify the underlying comparison. It could pertain to racial or ethnic differences, culture, socio-economic class, or nationality.

Often it turns out the intended comparison is some vague distinction between Westerners and Tibetans or Asians, not non-Westerners per se.

Stereotypes are best met with precision. If you encounter a sweeping generalization about Western practitioners being an ill-fit for Vajrayana, first try to establish who would be a good fit? How are they different? Why are they more suited to Vajrayana practice?

Referring to the mythology of Orientalism might help that endeavour.

“East vs. West”

Orientalism essentialises non-Western, Eastern societies as unchanging and undeveloped against the superiority of post-Enlightenment, developed Western society. Occidentalism is Orientalism’s counterpart: a view from Eastern societies that stereotypes the West. The ‘profane West versus pure Eastern Tradition’ narrative derives from these cultural ideals.

These broad stereotypes were never helpful but they are increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant. More pertinent comparisons occluded by the East versus West mythology are:

There are now millions of middle-class people who have never been to ‘the West’ who live and think with a post-capitalist mindset. There are millions of Westerners who hold pre-systematised worldviews with communal priorities. There are many, many millions of us functioning at times with a mixture of both.

This reality makes meaningless the argument ‘Vajrayana is too hard for Westerners’.

Vajrayana shouldn’t work better for some cultures than others

Do our cultural norms make Vajrayana peculiarly inaccessible? They shouldn’t.

The argument that Western culture degenerates personal qualities so much as to make Vajrayana inaccessible goes something like this:

“Our consumer culture is fast and superficial. Spirituality is no longer an integral part of our social being; we’ve lost it and we have to go looking for it. Westerners can’t help being like they are: they’ve been immersed in values antithetical to spiritual practice since they were born. The norms of devotion and kindness so important to Vajrayana are far from Western materialist ideals.”

One of the principle functions of Vajrayana is to undermine habitual references. In practice, this means our cultural and social references become transparent to us. We begin to see how we use culturally produced, shared norms to prove the illusion of our own substantiality. Vajrayana hacks our culturally and personally configured code. If this isn’t working in contemporary societies, then Vajrayana is not functioning as it should.

“What do we want? Vajrayana! When do we want it? In due course!”

There are examples of successful Vajrayana programmes in the West – though fewer than other types of Buddhism. Why isn’t there at least one Vajrayana centre with a resident teacher in every city in the West?

Vajrayana differs from other Buddhisms in that experiential emptiness is not its goal. Zen and Theravada seek emptiness (or non-self). The goal of emptiness is independent of cultural forms. It does not look different when it crosses a cultural or social boundary. The detail of the method is the same, whatever the time and place. If our practice is to turn away from the cycle of self-perpetuating suffering, cut our ties to desire, see the truth of impermanence everywhere, the details of our cultural circumstances are irrelevant. These models scale easily across cultures. They operate at the general human level. The personality of the individual and their cultural patterns are unimportant for the practice.

Vajrayana, by contrast, starts from the emptiness of experience. This is the ground from which it engages with forms. It is closely involved with the stuff of cultural and personal difference. It doesn’t reject conditioning, it utilizes it. To do that well, Vajrayana must become intimate with cultural norms and forms.

It takes time to develop cultural software. Contemporary Western society is the most diverse ever. Our challenge today may be the need for more varied Vajrayana programmes, precisely because we live in a culture that values individualism, autonomy and diversity. If we understand culture as an aspect of our personalities, the raw material of our human behaviour transformed by Vajrayana practice, we should not blame Western cultural conditioning for Vajrayana not working.

If Vajrayana is less effective than it might be, maybe it’s not because Westerners can’t hack Vajrayana, but because Vajrayana isn’t hacking the West?

In this post, I explored only one of the justifications that Westerners are unsuited to Vajrayana. I will revisit this idea in subsequent posts.

Questions for readers:

Is it surprising that Vajrayana isn’t more readily available?

Are current Vajrayanas somehow at odds with Western students? Which should change?