In an oft-cited statement, which might be apocryphal, the British historian Arnold Toynbee said, “The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century.” Given the monumental social, political, and scientific changes of the last century, that claim seems pretty unlikely. But Toynbee may have noticed something the rest of us need to see: that the interaction between Buddhism and the West is crucial today, because each emphasizes something the other is missing. Whether or not Toynbee actually made this observation, the significance of the encounter may be nearly as great as his statement suggests.

Takeshi Nishijima/Amanaimages/Corbi
Takeshi Nishijima/Amanaimages/Corbi

For many Western convert Buddhists, including much of Tricycle’s readership, the claim that Buddhism provides what the West lacks seems reasonable enough. They are, after all, converts. But I believe the opposite is also true: the West offers something just as important to Buddhism, something Buddhism needs if it is to fulfill its vision of human potential. In a way that neither seems to be aware of, Buddhism and the West need each other to complete themselves. To many partisans of either tradition, this idea may sound absurd or even insulting. Certainly it is challenging. Above all, however, it is hopeful.

In his 1969 book Earth House Hold, the Buddhist poet and essayist Gary Snyder wrote, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.” Over the years, this observation has been quoted many times by those making the case for a more socially engaged Buddhism. The challenge is to better understand the relationship between the two: the mercy of the East and the mercy of the West.

What mercy does Buddhism offer the West? For those who read this magazine, answers to that question may already be apparent, but let’s be precise. Buddhist teachings emphasize the basic connection between suffering (dukkha) and the absence of an abiding self (anatta). Why are we constantly dissatisfied? It’s because our sense of self, being a delusion, is incapable of finding lasting satisfaction. We are unable to find happiness in our lives because we are haunted by a sense that “something’s wrong,” something we do not understand, and ego-driven attempts to resolve this just make things worse. According to Buddhism, the self, by its very (illusory) nature, is dukkha.

In contemporary terms, the sense of self is a psychosocial construct: psychological because it is a result of mental conditioning, and social because it develops in relation to others. Since “my” sense of self is composed of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, letting go of those mental habits (through a practice such as meditation) is like peeling the layers of an onion. Through practice, one eventually realizes directly the emptiness—the lack of self—at one’s core. Awakening is recognizing that awareness is non dual: because “I” am not inside, the rest of the world is not “outside.”

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