East West Culture Clash

In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you?  Homeless inside yourself. —The Dalai Lama[1]

Some Eastern Buddhists have sizeable reservations about their Western counterparts. This is surprising to many, in light of all the favorable press Buddhism has received. Haven’t countless people found calm in this hectic world through meditation? Buddhists desire world peace and compassion for all people, and they want to take an open stand for nonviolence. Buddhism is exotic and inviting. It shuns the violent, materialistic culture of the West. It offers the opportunity to tailor a unique path to becoming a better person, and, ultimately, to attaining enlightenment. Why would the Dalai Lama be hesitant about urging Westerners to become Buddhists?

Beginning Buddhism is easy. You choose the kind of meditation that feels good to you, and you select what you will meditate on. However, converting to Buddhism isn’t just about beginning. It’s about going deep into meditation and sustaining that depth . . . for a lifetime.

Many elements of Buddhism strongly attract people in the West. Elements of Buddhism very similar to Judeo-Christian teachings resonate with them. They think, Here is a wise, practical path to follow—without the constraint of submitting to an exacting God.

After delving more deeply, Westerners encounter some of Buddhism’s Eastern elements and usually balk, selectively. They pick and choose what they will practice and what they will ignore. Yet this cafeteria-style approach to spirituality may not work well. Many Western Buddha-seekers end up homeless—alienated from the Western traditions in which they were raised, and yet unwilling to adopt the Eastern ways of Buddhism sufficiently.

Patrick French, the author of Tibet, Tibet, noted: “I was . . . cautioned by the Dalai Lama’s own refusal to proselytize. After long observation, he had decided that conversion usually led to confusion, and that without the support of the prevailing culture, it was hard to maintain your spiritual practice.”[2]

The Dalai Lama did elaborate on his precautions. He said, “Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”[3]

Difficulties? What difficulties? Lorin Roche, Ph.D., a meditation instructor who has specialized over the past three-plus decades in counseling people who have engaged in prolonged, intensive meditation, has noted some of these. They include depression, a feeling of being lost, trouble adapting to life in the city, finding it hard to be intimate with another person, weird health problems and panic attacks.[4] Westerners have much higher expectations for happiness in this world, so there is a much greater sense of loss when someone commits to retreat from this world.

Dr. Roche teaches a form of meditation he believes avoids these problems. Just keep it simple, brief and consistent. Perhaps Buddhism is like a pain killer. Taking a few tablets can do a lot of good, but swallowing a handful of pills and you better get your stomach pumped.

Dr. Roche does not see any need to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism to meditate more effectively. Most other major religions have long traditions in meditative practices. There is much that Westerners can learn about meditation . . . in order to strengthen their own form of Western religion. So why not leave it at that?

You may doubt that the Dalai Lama said the things quoted above. After all, hasn’t he spent decades traveling the globe as the world’s most visible Buddhist? While this is certainly true, what is not often fully appreciated is that one of his chief objectives has been to serve as a rallying point for the cause of the liberation of Tibet.  Portraying Buddhism in the most positive light possible aids him in furthering the cause of the autonomy and welfare of the Tibetan people, for whom he has served as “the temporal and the spiritual leader” for more than half a century.[5]

We all have much to learn. Imagine Jesus giving a warning to American Christians similar to the Dalai Lama’s precautions. He might say, “I do not think it advisable to blend my teachings with Western culture.” And he would be dead on.



[1] Patrick French,Tibet,Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 27.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, www.thehumanist.org/humanist/MaryGarden.html, retrieved November 22, 2010.

[4] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” www.lorinroche.com/page8/page8.html, retrieved September 18, 2010.

[5] “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet,” www.dalailama.com/, retrieved April 11, 2011.