I came to Buddhism in this way: in 1985 I was staying at my sister’s house on Page Street, across from the San Francisco Zen Center. My sister and brother-in-law were members of the Zen community, and they often took me across the street to listen to dharma talks. They also had a shelf of books about Buddhism, which I read with great surprise, because a lot of it was familiar to me from Western philosophy, especially the existential tradition of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers. Like Buddhists, these philosophers tried to liberate transcendence from theology and dogma.

More importantly, Buddhism’s openness to the transcendental felt familiar because of my love of the arts. William James long ago captured my sense of art’s spiritual purpose in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902):

Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them.

Over time my interest in Buddhism became warmer and more personal. First, it helped to change me morally; I came to understand some of the ways in which I was the cause of suffering for myself and others. It also helped to calm what was at the time a very alienated inner life, an agitated loneliness. It began to “settle my dust,” in Lao Tzu’s phrase. In short, Buddhism changed me for the better. I’m still changing, and I hope still for the better.

During this same period of my life, I was maturing as a writer of fiction, first, and then, beginning with my 2004 book The Middle Mind, as a social critic. Oddly, writing social criticism did not feel distant from Buddhism. I was interested in knowing what part of our collective unhappiness was caused by what Buddhism calls samsara, the causes and conditions into which we are born and through which we have no choice but to create what the Buddha called an “acquired self.” I became a watchful critic of American causes and conditions. A vigilant habit of mind took root. I took to heart what the signs at train stations and airports instruct: “If you see something, say something.”

I am now seeing something in American Buddhism. Historically, when Buddhism arrived in a given country, it appeared as a counterculture of values and meanings different from the values of the established culture. And yet, in most places, Buddhists had little choice but to reach an accommodation with economic and military powers already in place. As David Loy expressed this quandary in a powerful essay published in Tricycle in 2009, “Buddhism has historically tended to passively accept, and sometimes actively support, social arrangements that now seem unjust.”

North American Buddhism has for the last few decades been making its own accommodations with power, especially in relation to corporate capitalism’s version of a mindfulness practice based on neuroscience. Buddhism has again been used to sacralize power, or, as the people in marketing might explain, it has been used to “enhance the corporate brand.” As Loy further argues, “[Buddhism] is currently being used by some to justify the authority of those with political and economic power and the subordination of those who have neither.”

I think Loy points to a worthy question, namely, how can we in the Buddhist community function, as a community, in a way that best expresses our deepest shared values? I don’t think corporate Buddhism is interested in this question.
Buddhism may be the fastest-growing religious community in the US, but a part of the reason for this is that a version of mindfulness has been separated out from the whole of Buddhist teaching and practice and offered broadly as a form of stress reduction, especially in the corporate workspace. Thus, Amazon’s WorkingWell program, with its AmaZen meditation booths (or “despair closets”), where warehouse workers can go to “focus on their mental well-being.” Or Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which offers “a way to help people cope and navigate complexity and change in the workplace” by offering not only stress reduction but also the dubious notion of “emotional intelligence,” what the Harvard Business School has called a “must-have skill” for managers. At best, corporate Buddhism offers only what Karl Jaspers called a pseudo-virtue: “A luxury of fortunate circumstances in which I can afford to be good.”

against the stream
The Flowering Apple Tree By Piet Mondrian | Artwork Courtesy Kunstmuseum Den Haag

But Buddhism has always offered itself as something going against “the stream of the world.” It has been about liberation from, not capitulation to, conventional reality. For us, that reality surely includes soulless jobs, a social system organized around money, and a vast shadow world dominated by corporate culture. Carl Jung described this culture as a “gloomy hole in the wall.” In contrast to this gloom, Buddhism encourages us to slow down and open up, open up to experiences outside of those offered by your boss or by neuroscience’s psychological materialism. It encourages us not only to reduce stress but also to recognize its causes. Thai Forest Master Ajahn Chah had a revealing simile for this situation.

It’s like falling from the top of a tree to come crashing down to the ground below. We have no idea how many branches we’ve passed on the way down.

Corporate mindfulness finds the sufferer and offers aid, but it has nothing to say about the cause of the suffering. If asked about the tree, it says only, “What tree?”

In emphatic contrast, Buddhism says, “Hey, noble one, you just fell from a tree, you hit every branch on the way down, and yet you’ll get up tomorrow morning and fall from the same damned tree unless you change, unless you wake up.”
Buddhism is not about neurological flesh machines that can be made to work more efficiently. For me, Buddhism’s unique quality is emotional—its happy gloom. No other religion is so certain that nothing can be fixed, certainly not the “world,” whatever that is. And no other religion is so insistent that the context for life is samsara, suffering and change.

But there are stranger things than this. Buddhism also suggests that suffering is our teacher. Without the dissatisfaction and ignorance that so easily make their way among us, there would be nothing to wake from, and thus no way to experience transcendence. But it’s hard to be grateful for such teachers when there are so many of them, beginning with the ancient triad of aging, sickness, and death. On top of that are piled familiar cruelties: dehumanizing work, poverty, racism, gender bigotry, colonialism, nationalism, militarism, authoritarianism of left and right, the slouching beast of environmental catastrophe, and, most recently, the fatalism of Vlad Putin’s nuclear extortion in Ukraine, because of which I cannot know in this moment if the sentence I’m writing will ever be read. And all of this is the eternal consequence of the three poisons—greed, anger, and delusion.

So, yes, that’s the gloom for sure, but what’s the happy part? The happy bit is that although there are three poisons, there are also three jewels: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dharma), and the community of students (sangha), for all of which we should be duly grateful. But there is a caveat to the happiness provided by the jewels, because these two groups of three are not opposed to each other, as if it were a case of sin versus virtue, or good versus bad. They cannot exist in opposition because they are sunyata: “empty of self-existence.” Instead, they are mutually dependent. Without the poisons, there would be no jewels, and no need for a Buddha, his wisdom, or his community. This mix of happiness and gloom—maybe we should call it “happygloom”—is why in the Buddhist cosmology depicted in the Wheel of Life the human realm is the optimal realm for reaching liberation. The heavens of the gods are just too happy; the hell realms, too gloomy.

The Christian contemplative Thomas Merton believed religion is “sorrow, pouring itself out in love and trust.” In stark contrast, contemporary secular Buddhists argue that Buddhism is not a religion at all. It is a “science of mind,” and neuroscience is its gospel. But had the Buddha been asked if his teachings were religious or secular, he would likely have smiled and said nothing. Like the origin of the universe, the question is undecidable. After all, what is a religion? For existential theologian Paul Tillich, our true religion is “our ultimate concerns,” whether a god, science, money… or the discovery of our true nature. The better question, then, might be, “What isn’t a religion?”

It is true, however, that Buddhism shares important qualities with other more self-certain religions, two qualities in particular: transformation and transcendence. In a conventional sense, Buddhism is a religion because it is about transformation—becoming who we really are, discovering our buddhanature. This process is Buddhism’s own “amazing grace”: “I once was lost, but now I’m found.”

In an even more profound sense, Buddhism is religious because it teaches us to open up to the transcendent. In substantial part, we in the West are open to the Buddha’s openness because of our experiences in the natural world and in philosophy, art, music, and poetry, all of which the Concord Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson thought of as “native gold.” Walt Whitman’s famous lilac tree, “blooming perennial,” is native gold—“every leaf a miracle.”

Because of these culturally embedded spiritual traditions, Buddhism feels to us like something valuable that had been lost but that now has been returned to us through “re-collection,” an inward gathering of what had fallen into forgetfulness. It is not a “truth” that has been returned; it is a trustful sense of presence. Through what the modernist composer Olivier Messiaen called “la présence divine,” we learn that we are metaphysical creatures after all. We live our ordinary lives in a supernatural manner, although we are rarely aware of the fact.

Without dissatisfaction and ignorance, there would be nothing to wake from, and thus no way to experience transcendence.

At times, our metaphysics are mistaken, as with our sense that each of us has a unique self or ego, a vainglorious thinking substance that looks upon the external world as something it might make use of. But then there are love and beauty, neither of which can be explained neuro-mechanically or in any other way, and yet, even though we can’t say precisely what they are, it is not possible to imagine a fully human life without them. They provide a foundational metaphysics, a metaphysics we can stand on. And the arts provide one way to know that.

Karl Jaspers wrote: “I really love transcendence only as my love transfigures the world.” An image of this transfiguration can be found in Piet Mondrian’s painting The Flowering Apple Tree. The whole of creation flows through the trunk of the tree as if its being were at the intersection of multiple currents purling in the tree’s heartwood and then flowing up through branch, blossom, and fruit. The lumber industry can tell us about the fact of a tree and its commercial value, but Mondrian knows the tree’s magic. Knowing this doesn’t require irrational belief, it only requires caring enough to hear what F. Scott Fitzgerald called art’s “high white notes,” when the work transcends the secular purposes of the marketplace and becomes an expression of spirit’s essential freedom.

Or consider the world-breaking and world-making implicit in Vincent van Gogh’s still life of boots. Van Gogh bought boots at flea markets and walked around in them until they were just filthy enough, just as filthy as the world. Still life was originally a decorative genre suitable for the homes of Netherlands Burghers, the lowest of the pictorial genres. Van Gogh holds the still life genre up by its ankles and shakes the coins and stolen silverware out of its pockets, and then transforms it.

The viewer should not look at the painting with a mind that wonders about the “subject,” these less-than-ordinary boots, and then asks, “Why has he painted dirty boots?” Neither is the painting about the conventional pleasures of trompe l’oeil: “They look so real that I could put them on!” No one would ever want to put on such boots. Nor should the painting be looked at as a sentimental object of sociological indignation in the name of the poor. Rightly viewed, the painting transcends boots, pleasure, and art itself.

The boots abide in the here and now. We should let go of the need for the boots to carry some particular meaning that can be praised or blamed. The painting acknowledges the suffering of the people who must wear such boots, but it also honors what Kant called “the sublime,” the “boundlessness” of the boots. The painting is not technically masterful in a conventional sense; in fact, Van Gogh’s thick impasto—like something painted with a butter knife—is indifferent to technical excellence. Instead, in Baudelaire’s phrase, it “lulls infinity in finitude.”

He suggests that there are other worlds we might inhabit, worlds where what seemed squalid is made pure.

Van Gogh’s sense of the beyond provides powerful spiritual meaning. It is, in its own way, akin to Buddhist transmission rituals—an intimate inward grasping of the world that comes alive when given outward form.

But Van Gogh’s painting also has a very practical meaning. The painting doesn’t leave us in a radiant beyond; it returns us with renewed interest to the world we live in. It presents us with an intimation of a world that is better than the one we endure. It is an epiphany, certainly, but also a vision of what we want in the here and now, the sacred restored to the lives we actually live. Van Gogh urges us to stop living for the false happiness provided by transient things, by boots so dirty they seem to be rotting before our eyes. He suggests that there are other worlds we might inhabit, worlds where what seemed squalid is made pure.

Like the Buddha, Van Gogh asks us to join him in renewing the world.

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