Western Buddhism and the meaning of liberation

Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara. One must not discern the first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and trapped by greed, rush and hasten through this round of rebirth. . . . Thus have you long suffered suffering, suffered torment, suffered misfortune, and filled the cemeteries. Long enough to be dissatisfied with all forms of existence, long enough to turn away from them and free yourself from them.

—Samyutta Nikaya 15.3

My soul can only find a stairway to Heaven through the beauty of Earth.


These two affirmations, however contradictory they may be, both express a profound aspect of the spiritual life. Whether we recognize them or not, these inner tendencies shape, guide, and live through our spiritual pursuits. We feel their insistent pull, even as they thwart our attempts to pin them down or define them.

I have collected the statements in order to distinguish their meanings. The views they express cannot be separated, but they can be distinguished. On the one hand, we yearn to find richness, meaning, depth and beauty in the particulars of life. That is to say, we are looking for that resonance with the world that the religious historian Mircea Eliade called the “discovery of the sacred”. On the other hand, we are internally driven to free ourselves from these details and our entanglement with them. In other words, we seek transcendence which Buddhists call liberation. These two movements of the interior life – one towards a certain form of sanctification of the world, the other towards a salvation starting from this one – constitute a psychic polarity which appears in our experience felt sometimes as conflict, sometimes as congruence. , sometimes as complementarity. But treat them as we will, treat them we must. Their claims on us remain irresistible.

No single formulation of this polarity does it full justice, and that includes the one given above. It’s a subtle question, not of clearly delineated categories but of loosely held associations, more themes than subjects. But with each formulation, no matter how partial, some light is shed on the nature of this apparent dilemma. It has been spoken of anthropologically as the contrast between the cosmopolitan religious concern for universal principles and the localized concerns of specific groups, which focus on the particularities of place, custom, history, and the group’s relationship to the spiritual world. . Philosophically, the question could be framed by the twin principles of eros and logos: the first governed by the impulse to find in life the form of beauty; the second, to discern the purpose from the truth. Theologically, one could speak of the contrast between transcendence and immanence. But this kind of analytical approach to the question can quickly become too abstract. The living quality of polarity is elusive and easily lost.

Years ago I helped edit an issue of the vipassana community journal curious mind. At our first staff meeting, as we brainstormed ideas for the issue’s theme, the publication’s co-editor, Barbara Gates, commented that few meditators she knew practiced to achieve goal with which practitioners are traditionally presented, namely, liberation from suffering on the endless cycle of birth and death. For many, she suggested, meditation was something that enriches the experience: a source of clarity and release, allowing increased freedom while being engaged in daily life. We chewed on it over the next few days. His remark seemed to indicate something important for the transmission of Buddhism in the West. For many, inspiration, direction, and fruition of practice are experienced quite differently from how these things have always been expressed in mainstream monastic traditions. Moreover, it seemed true regardless of his level of commitment. The differences were as likely to be felt by an alumnus as by a beginning student. We quickly realized that we had found our theme, which we called “liberation and the sacred”.

Artwork by Rabkar Wangchuk / Courtesy of Shelley and the Donald Rubin Private Collection / Photograph by Bill Orcutt

The gap between the traditional purpose of Buddhist life and practice and the concerns experienced by many, if not most, meditation practitioners remains unresolved, as many have observed, and I think that is to a large extent a good thing. However, what are we to think of it? Is it an indicator of the need for cultural adaptation, or is it delusional madness? Are we witnessing a process of dharma translation to address a typically Western ethos or, alternatively, the watering down of the Buddha’s message? Is this a specifically Western phenomenon or is it more about how these traditions have been presented in the multiple modernities of the world, whether in Asia or in the cultural West? In short, what can the situation tell us about ourselves and the traditions in which we practice?

Such questions revolve around and point to what are fundamentally religious questions, and such questions, I would argue, are not meant to be resolved in any definitive sense. These are themes that need to be refined through reflection rather than problems that need to be closed. One is invited to approach them with an attitude of active receptivity, similar to the way one engages with a work of art. The meaning, for example, of a great novel cannot be clearly separated from the social context and individual experiences of its readers. It is generous in the way it provides what literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin considered a hallmark of fiction: “a zone of maximum contact with the present in all its openness.” The meaning of the novel cannot be definitively pinpointed because the world it opens up to us cannot be pinpointed. Similarly, the productive themes encountered in the spiritual life are dynamic and not static, having like them fundamental concerns rooted in life as it is lived. Individually and collectively, we come back to it again and again, each resolution eventually dissolving back into a question, and the process, when allowed to do its job, deepens at every turn.

Throughout its history, Buddhism has been a missionary religion transmitted largely through its texts and institutions. As with other world missionary religions, Buddhism relied on cosmopolitan claims of universalism, and these were essential to its migration through the cultures of Asia. But in his travels, the Buddhadharma coexisted and became rooted in the customs and spirituality of his host cultures. Buddhism mingled freely with established beliefs and assumptions, folk stories and symbols, and common practices and rituals of social life. It is, in many respects, all the richer for it.

In addition to incorporating aspects of its host culture, Buddhism, as it is lived, also allowed for what scholars call “multiple religious affiliations”. This is especially pronounced among the laity, who are less bound by institutional requirements. One form this might take is a kind of religious division of labor, as it has developed in Japan. There, for example, a household could celebrate a marriage in a Shinto ceremony while marking a death with a Buddhist. The animism of Shintoism lends itself to the celebration of earthly abundance; Buddhism, with its austere view of worldly suffering, is the religion of choice for these more, well, funereal occasions.

Although it may seem that the challenges of adapting Buddhism to a new cultural and historical context are unique to our time, the process is as old as Buddhism itself.

For new Western Buddhists, much of the tradition’s appeal stems from its universal message of liberation, which addresses our widespread sense of displacement by providing a spiritual home that is everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. Our modern Western sensibility cannot comprehend or fully comprehend many elements rooted in the particularities of Asian cultures. It is both reasonable and unavoidable. But in the process, we have, I think, uprooted the dharma from its relation to grounded sensibility. And because we feel this, we seek ways to apply the dharma in our relationships, our families, our workplaces, and the natural world. It is, I would say, a common thread that runs through the different “Buddhism and . . .” workshops, writings and activities often offered. “Buddhism and arts”, “Buddhism and relationships”, “Buddhism and ecology”, “Buddhism and psychotherapy”, etc. and to bring to Buddhism a kind of “maximum contact” with the pressing concerns of the everyday world.

Although it may seem that the challenges of adapting Buddhism to a new cultural and historical context are unique to our time, the process is as old as Buddhism itself. It is the job of Buddhism, as it is of any religion, to address the most basic concerns of its followers, and in doing so we who practice remain in the tension between fidelity and innovation. There is a lot of creativity to be tapped right here.

In seeking both freedom and resonance with the world, we find ourselves straddling an age-old dilemma. One could, of course, subject this assertion to a Buddhist analysis which would find it flawed. One could say, for example, that the dilemma posed here is a fallacy, because its categories are without ultimate foundation. Or one could argue that the sacred is best understood precisely as that which leads to freedom. Or you could say that apparent polarity can be unraveled to reveal a deeper unity. Sure. But, despite everything, the immediacy and fruitfulness of the question resist such a premature closure. It is a lesson from Buddhist history that great creativity can be unleashed when opposing perspectives are allowed to work on each other. Much of Buddhism’s vitality has come precisely from its engagement with its own contradictions. Abiding in that which is dynamic and unresolved can in itself be a generative spiritual process. For now, rather than dodging or transcending the dilemma, I see plenty of promise in taking the bull by the horns.

A earlier version of this essay appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of curious mind (Vol. 14, No. 1). Text © Andrew Cooper & curious mind1997–2020