Everything is suffering: being born is suffering, getting old is suffering, sickness is suffering, being bound to what we do not like is suffering, being separated from what we love is suffering. To escape this curse, we have to learn to detach ourselves from the world, to kill desire in us, to escape the cycle of reincarnations or at least find a way of being born into a better fate. The reader will have recognized, crudely summarized in these lines, one of the foundations of Buddhism. It is astonishing that this doctrine, which makes the self a harmful illusion, has gained so much influence in the hedonistic and individualistic West.

What is peculiar about Buddhism in relation to our monotheistic religions is that it is not dogmatic and issues no commands, but rather indicates a way to escape from restless wandering and invites each person to find the path that leads to salvation. Above all, it recreates a link, which has long since disappeared in the West, between theory and practice: unlike the Western philosopher, who is pure spirit devoted to speculation, the Buddhist teacher, like the ancient teacher, is first of all a teacher of life. He proposes no ideas that he has not tried out, and his teaching takes its nourishment from the living source of experience. And there is more: by calling on us to extinguish the ardor of our thirst, to renounce desires, Buddhism joins and reawakens one of the central axioms of Christianity: the ephemeral, empty character of our life on Earth. Again like Christianity, Buddhism considers suffering a way of cleansing the individual of bad karma, that is, of atoning for the sins committed in an earlier life. Like Christianity, it draws its prestige from being situated outside life. In short, it seems to have succeeded where our churches have failed: as a counterweight restraining the appetite for wealth and excessive egoism. Its attraction seems to derive from its proximity and not from its distance, and from its very rich cultural tradition. It seems that truths we no longer tolerate when expressed by our own religions we can hear when they are expressed under an Asian mask.

However, it is not at all clear that this is so. Except for a very small number of scholars and literary people, what has triumphed in the West is not Buddhism but a pick-and-choose religion decked out with exoticism. It is not even a form of spirituality, it is a therapy, a shield against stress that promulgates an all-purpose credo acceptable to the masses. How can a doctrine of renunciation seduce a society so implicated in the world? By renouncing renunciation, by serving it up in a “lite” form digestible by our delicate stomachs, by our super-charged egos. Then we can dig around in it as if it were a box of chocolates, picking out the best pieces and rejecting the others. What matters is that the packaging remain Tibetan, Zen, or Tantric.

In this infatuation with Asia, something else may be involved: the invention of an unprecedented syncretism, a magical reconciliation of contraries, of serenity and uneasiness, of attachment and indifference, of personal development and the illusion of the self, by way of a minimal belief. What is this neo-Buddhism? The spiritual counterpart of a spiritless globalization, the religion of the end of religions? Maybe. From this mad embrace of East and West, which is contemporary with the era of facile doctrines, something will emerge that is unlike anything we know: certainly not authentic Buddhism, which is still too rigid, too disciplined, and will be disfigured, trampled upon, the victim of its own success. What will emerge is a gigantic misinterpretation, the eternal form of novelty in history.

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