History of Buddhist spirituality lends itself to two very different perspectives. On one hand, it is a history of transmission and continuation, featuring institution building and cultural naturalization. For the most part, this is the story of schools and sects, politics and economy, controlled discourse and imperial sponsorship. On the other hand, it’s also a history of inspiration and innovation, brimming with creativity, breakthroughs, and original thinking. This dimension is often more difficult to trace, being at odds with the institutional monopoly, while finding it’s historical expression in establishing new orthodoxies. One generation’s dissident becomes a later generation’s authority. Or else we may not know they existed. Not every orthodoxy started as heresy, some being reformations or adaptations, but every single innovative mode in theory and practice must find a way and form of securing its own lasting influence.
Western Buddhism reflects these two perspectives, so that every representative mode of Buddhist spirituality can be seen as a combination of both. Breaking away from existing forms, customs, and standards is not the sole meaning of innovation. Obviously, to innovate is to find a new way of serving the original purpose, so this kind of change usually goes beyond mere formalism and involves a deeper rethinking, at best resulting in unexpected and unintended emergent properties. With novelty comes a variety of challenges: new possibilities, new benefits, and new problems.
Genuine innovation is a burst of creativity, and according to Graham Wallas’ model creativity proceeds in five stages, namely preparation, incubation, intimation, illumination, and verification. While others have suggested Western Buddhism has reached adolescence, seen as a cultural trembling with a variety of undercurrents, this particular meeting of East and West exhibits definite features of the intimation stage. It is the stage in creative process at which person or community becomes sensitive to the creative brewing, and begins to acknowledge that solution is about to appear. Frustration turns into anticipation, and curiosity naturally wells forth.
At present, perhaps most Western Buddhist practitioners of every ilk and variety and degree of commitment are quite happy with receiving historical teachings, modernized to some degree, and sanitized from whatever is found unpalatable to the audience. But there’s also a vital current of progressive, curious, and engaging Western Buddhism, eager to move beyond mere domestication of venerated Asian forms. While Consensus Buddhism is crumbling, something else is taking shape, or at least trying to. The future is decidedly a shock for anyone unwilling or unable to accept an unprecedented fluidity of culture and identity.
Different generations will respond to this challenge in different ways, often appropriate to their age and core values, but there’s something to be said for divergent thinking and D.I.Y. approach. Instead of using traditional blueprints of path and awakening as paragons to emulate and replicate, we need to invite and allow the Dharma to find its appropriate expression through our commitment to curiosity. It’s one thing to ask probing questions, something else altogether to actually go where they take us. And it isn’t just about senior teachers and elders — we must listen to the untrained and uninstructed, and especially very young ones — the few, that is, that are interested in this kind of thing. While our Asian colleagues will work on updating and upgrading their millennial traditions to reflect the shifting rifts of global change in this 21st century, we in the West are well positioned and unhindered to explore and experiment in cultural, technological, and organizational dimensions. Bonne chance!