Surprisingly, I had no idea who Rupert Sheldrake was until he appeared on a podcast that I follow. Sheldrake is a scientist but firmly rejects materialism1, and spiritual practice is one of his main research areas. Naturally, I went on to watch all of his lectures and interviews that YouTube had to offer.
Not surprisingly, Sheldrake has an affinity for all things Indian, which is where his own spiritual path took off. No tradition speaks to me as eloquently as early Buddhism does.
Then came the surprise, with me paraphrasing: “I’m English. It would be horribly inauthentic to become a Hindu. Becoming a Muslim in order to practice Sufism is also out of the question.”
The inauthenticity, even absurdity, of westerners practicing Buddhism as westerners has been gnawing at me for awhile. The core lay practice of making merit by offering food to monastics simply isn’t possible outside of a Buddhist society. Instead, westerners practice a sort of Protestant Buddhism: individualistic, heavily based in texts and very salvation based2.
Contrast this with traveling around Sri Lanka. Buddhism is a communal activity, people gather to sing at temples, go on pilgrimages and keeping the precepts is considered the pinnacle of lay practice. Some people, mostly monks, dig deeper into meditation, but they aren’t cut off from the more folksy forms of Buddhism. As someone who had been practicing Western Buddhism™ for years before visiting Sri Lanka, none of the circumambulations, temple signing or offering food to monks truly felt natural.
It’s easy to focus in on meditation and monastic practices, but I’d recommend that aspiring Western Buddhists take a step back. Trevor Ling’s The Buddha: Buddhist Civilization in India and Ceylon makes a strong case that the Buddha never intended to create a quiet philosophy of personal salvation; he was laying the groundwork for an entire Buddhist society. Another book I picked up in my travels around Asia is Richard Gombrich’s Precept and practice: traditional Buddhism in the rural highlands of Ceylon. Daily practice in a traditional Buddhist society has little in common with Western Buddhism.
None of this is to say that Buddhism has nothing to offer an individual practicing in the West. I’ve been meditating for years and drawn great benefit from the tradition. But this is an anemic shadow of what Buddhism is in Asia.
Closer to home
Sheldrake has two books3 about universal spiritual practices that anyone can benefit from. What’s unique is that these aren’t Indian practices told through a New Age filter with some mention of quantum physics to show how it’s all scientific. These are decidedly Western Christian.
A few that I found relevant:
- Gratitude. Why not say grace or at least have some form of thanksgiving before meals?
- Song. Ours might be the only culture in the world that doesn’t regularly engage in communal singing—steaming pop music isn’t the same thing. There’s a lovely and robust Anglican tradition of Evensong. Church choirs and congregational singing were the norm for centuries; we’ve lost them in a generation.
- Fasting. Christendom has a rich fasting tradition with Lent, Advent and Friday fasts.
- Rituals and Holy Days. Marking life events, the turning of seasons and real holidays—not the marketing and commercial bonanzas that replaced them, are central to the community.
There are also points with no connection to historical Christianity such as sports and psychedelics. Being in the heat of a game is one of the few places Westerners experience flow regularly. Psychedelics are usually the only experience a materialist has with reality beyond the ordinary.
My takeaway from this is that the traditional religions of the West have more to offer than it might seem, and are the logical entry point for most to spirituality. There might be a neighborhood church that offers the spiritual seeker what he’s looking for within in his own cultural tradition without the need to concoct some Western version of an Eastern tradition.
This should be the part where I write about finding a nice church and living happily ever after. Alas, the state of Christendom is rather sorry.
Churches with young people and families tend to be little more than meeting halls for right-wing politics with none of the richness that the two-thousand year old tradition has to offer. Other congregations are moribund without a single younger person in sight. The salt has lost its savor.
I’m fascinated by the writings of George Fox and the silent worship of the Friends. Yet the tradition looks to have descended into left-wing politics without the transformative spiritual experience that was central to Fox.
One of the best pieces of writing on this problem in general and Quakerism in particular is Reflection on Liberal Quakerism and the Need for Roots. To quote:
Surely if people come to Meeting and continue to ‘get something out of it’, what exactly is the problem?’ What’s wrong with Meeting as therapy, self-help, or whatever else people want it to be? The problem is that such models exchange the depth of Quaker discipline for something alien to its spiritual ethos. Consider the thorny issues of belonging and diversity. There is a counterfeit liberalism which says that the radical acceptance offered by the Quaker/Christian story can be reduced to bland tolerance, or managed pluralism, which co-exists, but never seems to love. While such a formula seems cursorily attractive (who wants their toes stepped on?), such a community is unlikely to have deep and long-lasting spiritual experiences. Much of our contemporary culture conditions us to want comfortable feel-good bubbles, not the messiness that long-term commitment entails. But, without journeying together in good times and bad, our Meeting may offer us many ‘spiritual highs’, but few sustained insights.
Post-war Western Christianity is undeniably on the decline. The choice to become increasingly reactionary, rigid and moralistic leaves the Church much like the Pharisees whom Christ rebuked. The other option of becoming as secular as the secularists makes the whole operation rather pointless.
There is a third way, of course: a liberal (small l) high church tradition that keeps the meaningful rituals and gives space for spiritual exploration. The Spectator, of all publications, described it well: imagine a high church parish filled with young families, a female priest and same-sex weddings.
The rarity of relevant Christianity in the West means that most people have simply left. Some rebuilt the tradition in their own ways: running and sports as asceticism, intermittent fasting instead of lent and New Age dabbling in place of much older spiritual traditions. The Stoic revival is part of this. But it seems like most simply left and turned to a vapid consumerism, political activism and social media to fill the void.
And then there were none
Ryan Burge is another voice weighing in on the cultural impact that the decline of Christian Churches is having on society with his research on the religious nones. You can get most of his main points from this excellent podcast interview.
Mainline protestantism has collapsed in the US—Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans and other historical Protestant traditions. They’re being replaced by either “nones” or mega-churches.
Even a secularist should be worried about this phenomenon—mainline churches were once the hubs of their communities, providing socialization, adult friendships, social support and filling the social work cracks that government programs don’t reach.
Mainline Protestantism also provides accountability in a way that the mega-churches don’t: ministers have some level of oversight, standardized training and centuries of tradition to draw on. Mega-churches have the charisma of a single pastor completely unmoored from the greater Christian tradition.
This is certainly the sign of something being off in society. Millennials were the first to grow up as nones, and all they talk about is loneliness, anxiety and depression. That’s not a good sign.
A great revival of one of the historical Christian traditions in the West is unlikely. However well intentioned Western Hindus, Buddhists or Taoists are, there’s still something deeply unauthentic about it—even if such a practice delivers deep personal benefit to some.
My hope is that at least some sort of secular spiritual movement can emerge. Stoicism is a prime candidate and has been part of the European intellectual tradition for longer than Christianity. Marcus Aurelius speaks to the average European in a way that Dōgen does not.
I can’t shake the feeling that we, as a society, are stuck in a liminal space between the death of the old tradition and without a new one having emerged yet.
I’ll keep up my own practice and keep looking around. I realize it’s a mere shadow of what it could be, but the one thing the Buddha promised for the future was the decline of his own teachings.
Not the consumerist kind, rather the philosophical supposition that observable matter is all that there is, consciousness is a material phenomenon, etc. ↩
In much the same way that Protestantism stripped historical Christian culture to the bare minimum in order to obtain salvation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you look at the excesses of clerical Buddhism in Asia or the Catholic Church at the time of the reformation, but it can also go too far. ↩