Over the last half-century, Buddhist practices in the West have grown in popularity. Mindfulness has become associated with stress reduction, enhanced immunological protection, psychological well-being, and profound states of happiness. In many cases, mindfulness has been uncoupled from the Buddha’s teaching altogether and is a stand-alone cognitive therapy for the treatment of various mental difficulties, from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The term anatta, which means “no [permanently abiding] self or soul,” is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, but with our Western emphasis on psychological health it is perhaps inevitable that this essential aspect of the teaching is downplayed or even avoided. Emptiness, after all, stands in opposition to many of our most important values such as self-reliance, individual initiative, and the pursuit of pleasure. We want the contentment and happiness promised by the Buddha, but with “me” fully stabilized and intact.

This selective approach to Buddhism would seem to allow the best of both the Eastern and Western worlds. We can use the techniques and practices that serve our immediate purpose without asking the deeper spiritual questions concerning our very existence. Best of all, the methods work, and the benefits of greater mindfulness dramatically affect both our mental health and the ease of our life.

The story would end happily here, except that there is a rub when we pare back the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching. Externally we see the earth’s environment eroding before our eyes, the population soaring, and our natural resources diminishing. We see unparalleled greed and anger forming greater divisions within an evershrinking planet. At a time when the world pleads for kindness and compassion, we see cultures continuing their ancient bickering while forgetting their shared heritage.

Internally our problems continue as well. We hurt, and we do not understand why. Fear, desire, and grief fill our life. Our psychological sophistication should solve our problems, but therapies and self-improvement methods do not seem to diminish our isolation and separation. We would like to feel compassion for all beings, but our own problems are so demanding that we have little time to include others in our heart. We try to compensate for these shortcomings with more socially engaged activities, but we find that our motivation is often based in righteousness, which further divides the world.

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