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Buddhism as Complete Culture

engaged buddhism

by Shaun Bartone

What I found stifling about Western Buddhist practice is the obsessive focus on meditation as the paramount practice. What is completely lacking in modern Buddhist communities is a culture that is creative and productive, that grows and transforms, that generates new cultural forms, new ways of life. The singular focus on meditation becomes, as Vince Horn called it, ‘the meditation-industrial complex.” Meditation becomes the singular “product” that is then packaged, priced and sold through various consumer outlets: retreat centers, websites, smartphone apps and online courses. I find this to be not only boring but deadening, absolutely lacking any interest or vitality. Once you learn how to meditate, you’re just about done with Western Buddhism. The Secular Buddhists have proven this. Modern Buddhism has become the worst kind of monoculture.

This brings to mind a monoculture of another kind: the automobile. Modern cities and societies have been designed around one dominant form of transportation: the private car. Cities streets grew to enormous widths to serve an ever-growing flow of cars, often with only one occupant, the driver. These huge streets, or “traffic sewers” as traffic engineers call them, took space away from walkers and bicyclists, from beautiful parks and trees. Huge car parks were built ten or more stories high to corral all the cars, which sat in the garages for hours, empty. Parking spaces proliferated all over the city, taking space away from outdoor cafes and street vendors, space that would have been places for people to congregate and socialize. What was worse, the car-dominated city nearly killed public transportation, buses, subways and commuter rails. By displacing public transport, it made the use of public transportation a dreadful experience: slow, under-deployed and expensive. The loss of public transportation and the domination of the car caused such toxic air pollution in cities that it is dangerous to walk outside without a face mask. The car monoculture is one of the major contributors to our ever-increasing carbon emissions and global warming. The car monoculture drove the building of super highways that destroyed landscapes and habitats for all other species of animals. The domination of the car produced the suburbs, a vast expanse of mass-produced, lonely, ugly places devoid of meaningful social contact, a mind-numbing dreariness punctuated only by trips to the mall. The monoculture of the car destroyed the diversity of culture, reducing it all to the private experience of one person, sitting in a car, listening to the program of her choice on streaming media, completely sealed within a climate controlled environment, isolated and alone.

[Note: If this sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps it’s because meditation as a monoculture has a similar effect.]

To stop the proliferation of the car monoculture and bring life back to the city streets, people started a movement called Complete Streets. The idea is to design streets so as to restrict the space given to cars and expand the space given to all other forms of transportation and social contact. Cars are reduced to one lane in each direction. A second lane is dedicated to public transport—buses and trains— to improve its speed and efficiency and reduce costs. The rest of the road is designed to promote walking, cycling, street vendors and cafes, socializing, play and performance spaces, parks, trees and art. Parking is removed to provide more space for all other uses. Car parks become retail shops, office spaces and apartments where people shop, work and live.

I’d like to propose that we stop the propagation of meditation as a monoculture and start a creating a Buddhism that is a Complete Culture. Great religions produce great cultures. With its inherent affinity to science, humanism and the environment, Buddhism is a great religion that could produce a great culture, if we do the work of creating it. Great culture doesn’t just ‘happen’, we have to make it happen.

The connection of culture to dharma could be subsumed under Right Livelihood. I propose that instead of putting all our focus on promoting meditation as a way to relieve the stress and trauma of life under Neo-Liberal Capitalism, we could instead create a culture of awakening that causes less stress to begin with, that provides more joy and more meaningful human connection. Instead of numbing out with mass media consumption, we could work on creating a meaningful culture that would provide personal, social and spiritual fulfillment.

A complete culture would not be limited to producing religious art. It include all the visual arts, music, dance, theatre, film, literature, and performances of all kinds. A complete culture would make connections with science, philosophy, history, the humanities, journalism, the social sciences (beyond just psychology), architecture and design. A complete culture would include agriculture and ecology; it would foster an intimate connection with the environment.

A complete culture would be one that is produced by its members, not just consumed from an online dharma site. It would require active participation and production by the whole community, from all ages and ethnicities, from margin to centre. A complete culture would naturally generate a political culture that would support collective political action. I contend that one of the reasons that Buddhism in the West is not politically active is because it doesn’t have the kind of shared culture that supports political action. It’s a religion of strangers who otherwise have no real connection to each other, save for sitting in silence in a shrine room.

A complete culture would not only preserve its historical lineages and cultures of the past, but would push the frontiers of the avant garde, producing innovative and futuristic works. A complete culture is a living culture that constantly adapts and pushes its growing edge.

At Queer Dharma Circle (in Ware MA), we started with the approach that our primary Buddhist practice is cultural creation. We shape our unique and collective spirituality through the expressive arts, including visual arts, ritual, dance and music.

I hope that in the future Western Buddhism stops building four lane highways that are designed for only one vehicle of awakening, the meditation experience. Reduce those four lanes to two, and use the other two lanes, the sidewalks and car parks (retreat centers) for all the other vehicles of awakening: arts, sciences and humanities, the whole human experience.

Shaun Bartone is the editor of Engage! blog at He has 30 years experience in community organizing in the area of human rights, urban development, labor, economic, and environmental justice. Shaun has been practicing meditation and studying Buddhism for ten years, primarily in the Theravada tradition, integrating insights from dharma and meditation with his experience in social change. Shaun is the spiritual director of Queer Dharma Circle at Bird Hill Farm in Ware, MA, a multi-lineage dharma program for queer and trans people.

8 thoughts on “Buddhism as Complete Culture”

  1. “Great religions produce great cultures.” That’s where you probably lose many of those whom you are seeking to address in this post. Many people (including me) feel drawn to Buddhist psychology/theory and meditation precisely because it doesn’t propose untenable metaphysical constructs as many religions do (and get into big fights over them).

    I’m very grateful for religious Buddhism to have preserved and carried the teachings forward, but it’s time to leave that raft (such as devotion to the Buddha or specific teachers) behind imo. If people want to follow that path, that’s great, but don’t make Buddhism chiefly into a religion that will do great things. First and foremost its teachings offer each person a way for experientially exploring reality. That’s something that we have moved away from (both in the east and west), making it necessary that a critical mass of people see the positive effects of (re)connecting with what’s really there for themselves.

    I’m totally on board with the idea of effecting meaningful and rapid changes in infrastructure, but I’ve had enough discussions with others to know that many have become attached to an energy-consuming, distracted lifestyle because they are completely unaware of the unconscious forces driving that attachment. That’s why a current emphasis on meditation is extremely useful, if not essential. It helps people understand how their minds work often against their own interests in achieving happiness (and to resolve tribalism and inure oneself against distraction and misinformation). Assess teachings for their effectiveness/usefulness in this arena to ensure progress on that front–that’s a tall order of its own, but needs to be done.

    Failing to do that and instead proposing large-scale changes in lifestyle, you put the cart before the horse–people who are easily swayed by messaging through powerful interests who don’t want to see these changes won’t come on board with this.

  2. I very seldom write about the Buddhist movement in which I practice. I’m not an evangelist. But it seems to me that a few observations are in order given the tone and content of this article.

    As a member of a 50 year-old movement which has long emphasized the things that Shaun misses in his encounter with *American* Buddhism, I’m quite puzzled that we are left out of the picture. We are one of the three large groups in UK Buddhism (the other two are NKT and Soka Gakkai), with a huge following in India and a number of centres across Europe, the antipodes and the Americas (Canada, US, Mexico, and Venezuela). I can’t help but notice that once again an American has equated “Western” with *American*. There’s a sort of flat earth mentality in US Buddhists critiquing US Buddhism, as though there are no alternatives elsewhere on the (round) planet!

    Sangharakshita was long critical of the type of Buddhism which Shaun seems unhappy with, i.e. when there is an over-emphasis on one’s personal relationship with the guru and no emphasis what what he sometimes called “horizontal kalyana mitratā”. This is particularly devastating when the guru’s halo slips or they die because the community are not equipped to go on without them. We don’t have that particular problem.

    We often describe our Order as a network of friendships. Yes, we do have structures, but at its heart it’s all about personal relationships. We are all equals in terms of membership. Sangharakshita always saw men and women as equals and from the beginning we only have one ordination that everyone takes. But some of obvious more capable in different roles than others and we also honour that.

    Although the emphasis has changed to some extent as we suffer the same demographic changes that are affecting all Buddhist groups in WEIRD countries, we still value communal living and communal work. Our most intensive situations are those where we live and work together and this has been very productive. Having lived and worked in our communities and businesses I can honestly say that it was demanding in ways that I could not always cope with. But I saw many people thrive and prosper in that pressure cooker situation of full-time practice. Work is what we call a “crucial situation” – you find out what you are like under pressure, how deep your practice goes!

    We have many musicians and artists working in media as diverse as music, film, poetry, potery, painting, writing. We have arts programs and arts retreats. I was a calligrapher and painter before health problems forced me to narrow my activities. But my book Visible Mantra gives a flavour of that kind of thing I used to do – and of course there is what I do *now*. We also have many people who are active in green issues and engaged Buddhism, including at least two live-in situations which focus on green issues. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, I’m looking into training up with the Extinction Rebellion direct action movement, for example and attended the local School Strike march as a supporter.

    Sangharakshita was, of course, controversial at times. However, he recently died leaving the movement without the usual succession problems because he handed over all his responsibilities decades ago to an open group of senior students – membership changes often and has been growing. Seen in the round he made a huge contribution to Buddhism in the “West”. One of his many teachings was on the “five spiritual faculties”: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Meditation has to be balanced with activity; faith with wisdom. Mindfulness is as the pivot. We do pūja and ritual, study and discuss, celebrate festivals, go on retreats. My local centre has a serious choir, puts on concerts of various types, and has a permanent curated art exhibition space. Our centre is sometimes used as a venue by the local film festival as the building has a large legacy cyclorama screen (too expensive to remove!).

    I have my difficulties with the Triratna Order and I’m taking a bit of a sabbatical at the moment. We are a community of human beings with all the faults and follies of humans, but many of the virtues as well (and I have my own crosses to bear). That said, we appear to be just the kind of community that Shaun seems to wish for. I’m sure he would be welcome to visit any of our centres. I particularly recommend visiting our Indian wing which has its main centres in Maharashtra but has spread out quite a bit as well. Our Indian friends are simultaneously devotees of Dr Ambedkar and part of a broader Ambedkarite political and social movement. I often think that they are the best of us. If you want to see Buddhist social engagement then the new Buddhists of India are very inspiring. Note they are *not* traditionalist Buddhists as in Myanmar or Sri Lanka but practice Buddhism just as I do (in fact with a lot more vigour and integrity than me in most cases).

    I wish Shaun could meet my friend Buddhavajra. He grew up in poverty in a dingy, minor industrial town in Maharashtra, but got involved in Buddhism and that helped to transform his life. He got the opportunity to accompany a pilgrimage of Westerners (including me) to Northern India. In Bodhgaya what he noticed, beyond the glitzy and elaborate temples is that the town is mostly inhabited by very poor people from low castes who have little hope of a better life. The tourist Buddhists make a show of generosity, giving out loaves of white bread to the beggars, but never actually help lift them out of poverty by creating jobs or education opportunities. Buddhavajra resolved to go there (a 24 hr train ride) and reach out to those local people, to teach them about Ambedkar, the Buddha, and Sangharakshita. To help educate them and show them that caste is a human construct under which they are born but need not die. He first moved there alone and subsisted on handouts. Later things got better established and his wife was able to join him. Now they have two girls. Buddhavajra, like many of my Buddhist friends, has dedicated his life to helping other people. Especially in India, opening up the full range of Buddhist practices allows oppressed people to have a vision of a better life and to pursue opportunities that they might not otherwise have. I have heard so many wonderful stories of people like Buddhavajra giving up their tenuous personal security to live lives in service to the Dharma. Some of my mentors also gave up families and careers in order to serve the Dharma – they simply threw caution to the wind as young people in the late 1960s and 1970s and are now senior citizens.

    I’m slightly incredulous as to the apparent social poverty of Buddhism in America, assuming this is an accurate picture. We’ve been *doing* community for 50 years now. The phrase, “The New Society” went out of fashion, but that was what we had in mind and it is apparently what Shaun has in mind also. What he’s talking about is second nature to me.

    All the best

    1. Henrik Aleksander Norberg

      ” I can’t help but notice that once again an American has equated “Western” with *American*. There’s a sort of flat earth mentality in US Buddhists critiquing US Buddhism, as though there are no alternatives elsewhere on the (round) planet!”

      I even find the term “American” a bit problematic, when used to refer to white middle-class converts practising buddhism. It suggests that so-called “ethnic” Buddhists are not American, despite being in majority and here for centuries.

      Looking forward to Ann Geligs new book on this subject coming out next week!

      1. “I even find the term “American” a bit problematic, when used to refer to white middle-class converts practising buddhism. It suggests that so-called “ethnic” Buddhists are not American, despite being in majority and here for centuries.”

        I find the term “American Buddhism” problematic too, for the same reasons. In fact, several Asian-American Buddhists have said that they don’t practice the Buddhism of their Asian ancestors, they practice ‘Western’ Buddhism, and that’s what they called it. Asian Buddhists in Europe have said the same, which is why I call it ‘Western’ Buddhism and not ‘American.’ or ‘European’.

  3. For the record, I don’t practice Buddhism as a religion. I’m a Modernist/Humanist/Naturalist, following in the footsteps of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and his collectivized Buddhism, and others in the Modernist/Humanist/Naturalist vein. That’s about it for Buddhism. My other inspirations come from people like Fritjof Capra (The Systems View of Life) and Joanna Macy (Mutual Causality), J. Krishnamurti, (whom some regard as ‘crypto-buddhist”). I made a reference to Buddhist religion because for many people it is a religion, and generally speaking, throughout human history, religions and cultures are closely linked and co-evolve as social systems. Otherwise, I don’t disagree with any of the rest of your comment. You seem to be in the ‘meditation is what you need most’ camp, which is fine, good for you. I just got way bored with it after 3 or 4 years and I am seeking other ways to ‘awaken’ my consciousness/humanness.

  4. Hi Jayarava: Triratna is definitely the exception to Western Buddhism, which you call [arguably] ‘American Buddhism.’ Actually I’m a close friend of Triratna Gender Diverse Buddhists. I tried to join Triratna a couple of years ago, but found that I couldn’t because I’m transgender, and don’t fit into the strict ‘men/women’ split in the sangha. When Triratna finally allows transgender people to become Mitras without being forced to join a “men’s wing” or a “women’s wing”, I am seriously considering getting onboard. Triratna has been a strong supporter of the arts, social justice and environmental action. And the branch in India are die-hard Ambedkarists—I find that tremendously inspiring. But Triratna-the-institution has has had many problems, including sexual misconduct, and the strict ‘men/women’ split which leaves transgender people out in the cold. As for the ‘American Buddhism’ argument: if you look at western sanghas of all traditions throughout Europe, you find the most of them are focused around, first meditation, second, the study of Buddhist Scriptures. Very few are involved the arts or social action. But regardless, kudos to Triratna for its emphasis on creating culture.

  5. Henrik Aleksander Norberg

    What you are describing, is not so much a monoculture, but a new Buddhist culture in the making.

    Forged between Protestantism (rejection of religious trappings, the true Jesus/Buddha and what he really meant, hard work/ meditation), Capitalism (commodification by secularization, quasi-science and marketing), Marxism (we can’t just sit there with Dukkha, we must engage!) and Imperialism (lets leave behind the cultural stuff, and mine the stress relief and performance optimization out of it).

    And yes, it’s awkward. And sometimes downright embarrassing. But it’s also fascinating and exciting.

    Luckily, most cities are not designed in the modern area and are not built for cars. Like Buddhism, cities are resilient structures constantly shifting and adjusting to its people and culture.

    Like Jayarava mentions, the Buddist landscape is rich and diverse, but if you are standing in a parking lot outside a mall in a suburb of America, clenching your iPhone while cars zip by, it’s easy to forget the markets of Marrakech, the bikes in Copenhagen and the street food of Hoi An.

    It’s going to be interesting to see what the american main-stream-queer-friendly-non-buddhist-anglo-capitalistic-marxist version of Buddhism ends up like.

    Seeing meditators write critical theory inspired tweets and blogs about what the Buddha really meant while promoting their science based mindfulness coaching sessions, might seem strange at first glance. But its fun, people love it and it’s just the beginning.

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