Searching for Authenticity

Buddhism within the United States occupies a precarious position in our society because of its troubling past surrounding authenticity. Buddhism came to the United States during the 1960s and the 1970s. During this time it became better known through the hippie culture. “No matter how naive these young people were in their desire for a world of “peace and love”, their open mindedness- and even their confusion-created a fertile ground for the arrival of Buddhism” (Midal, 4). Hippie culture ran counter to dominant beliefs during this time such as Christianity. The hippies were focused on openness and the pursuit of something new, exotic, and more in alignment with their values around peace and love, and not the vengeful and jealous god of the bible. They provided a good opening for the introduction of Buddhism into our culture. This led to more mainstream western knowledge about Buddhism, but it also was somewhat negative in its impacts.

Buddhism in the west, or what we think of it, sometimes lacks authenticity. Because of the naivete of the hippies that Midal touches upon, many false monks and teachers spread a mixed up version of teachings. “The situation in the 1970s was like a huge supermarket where you could go in and pick whatever captured your fancy: watered down versions of authentic traditions, drugs, fake gurus and other assorted charlatans, a taste of Zen or Hinduism, even Tibetan Buddhism freshly delivered. Many of the masters of this time, particularly those from India followed this trend” (Midal, 23). When Trungpa Rinpoche first came to the United States he encountered this environment. Buddhism was not being taught correctly, instead people were picking and choosing according to what they found interesting or useful. Buddhist teachings were also being mixed with other eastern religions like Hinduism. The confusion surrounding these mix ups is still present today. This can be seen in the sort of misconceptions many people have about Buddhism. For example, within our Buddhist thought class many people confused Hindu beliefs about karma with Buddhist beliefs. If people do not properly understand the teachings, they cannot perceive the ultimate truth, nor can they escape Samsara. Trungpa realized the dire state the hippies and other western followers were in and sought to clear up these misconceptions and in-authenticity. He succeeded in persuading some to Buddhist thought by making it relatable for western followers. Despite Trungpa’s efforts, he was unable to rid westerners of charlatans and false teachers. He encountered many who had teachers that were not legitimate. Because of this, thoughts and beliefs surrounding Buddhism are still subject to misconceptions, and Buddhism is not taken as seriously as more established religions within our culture, such as Christianity.

The stigma associated with hippies, and the inauthentic nature of early Buddhist teachers within the U.S. during the hippie movement has led to the precarious positioning of Buddhism within our society. It has also led to misconceptions surrounding the religion. If Buddhism had been introduced more widely and not just to hippies, and had been authentically taught, its positioning would be one of stability.

Works Cited

Midal, Fabrice. “Chapter One.” Chögyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision. Boston: Shambhala, 2004. N. pag. Print.


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4 Responses to Searching for Authenticity

  1. Pikachu says:

    As Buddhist practices become increasingly visible in today’s western culture and society, the post encourages the reader to reflect whether or not that the cultural appropriation of Buddhist ideology has been masked as western “appreciation” of Buddhist teachings. Having seen numerous “mindfulness” and yoga classes over the years, I feel that Buddhist ideologies have been removed from their original religious context and branded to satisfy the interest of western society – whether that be commercial, political, or personal.

  2. scm13 says:

    Was mixing up Hinduism and Buddhism actually a consequence of Hippies Nnaiveté?
    You say “When Trungpa Rinpoche first came to the United States people were picking and choosing according to what they found interesting or useful” were they doing this before he came? or was he just trying to avoid this from happening.

  3. Wesley Crusher says:

    I actually ended up watching the documentary about a false guru Connie mentioned in class, Kumare, and it brought up a lot of these same questions and answers. Specifically I think it is important to think about Trungpa’s choice to abandon his monk’s robes and other trappings of the monastic life in the context of white western racism. These things held no personal meaning for US followers, and he found that those racist assumptions kept him from connecting with people, who saw him as a trope and not a person.
    I do think it’s important to consider what /would/ be more appropriative–having practices changed slightly to make sense in your own context, or trying to participate in a context that does not have the same meaning for you? People trying to engage in “authentic” Buddhism may just be falling into the same racist trap as Trungpa’s early followers.

  4. Marie says:

    I’ve been thinking about these ideas a lot lately since we’ve been talking about them in class so much–and I still can’t decide my stance on the issue. There is no doubt that there is some degree of disrespect happening here, and it something that America does a lot. We love to pick and choose what we’ll absorb into our culture without taking the time to understand the larger historical context/implications that come with doing so. That being said, what would happen if America went deeper, adopting/absorbing the history of Buddhism in a “realer” way? Which is more appropriative? I think that no matter how America “borrows” Buddhism, whether it’s at a surface level or goes deeper, there will be some amount of co-opting happening. And in that case, it might just be a matter of deciding which is less harmful and accepting it for what it is/appreciating the good that has come from Buddhist ideas in America.

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