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