The American Yen for Zen

How I fell in and out and back into love with Buddha.

People are usually surprised when I mention the hate mail I got last year from Tibetan Buddhist nuns. It doesn’t gel with their ideas about Buddhists, even more than it doesn’t gel with their ideas about nuns. The idea of nun seems to have mixed attributes, depending on who you are. But the idea of Buddhist seems pretty uniform in this country. Our love affair with Buddhism is still new, still exciting, and still heavy with romance.

We believe Buddhists are mellow and stress-free, for one thing. They have achieved an ability to not-think and live in the moment. Being Buddhist means enjoying a kind of spiritual purity, a selflessness and balance. It means compassion in great abundance too—not hating, not killing (even bugs). Buddhists are thoughtful in the extreme. They are in touch with deep enduring truths about life and don’t let trivial things get to them. They have a long view. Emotions are trivial to a Buddhist, something that comes and goes like the weather.

What we know about Buddhism, we’ve gotten piecemeal—and it’s interesting how we’ve put the pieces together. When we read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we learned that Buddhists were meticulous. Jack Kerouac taught us that Buddhists were free, uninhibited. (And there was something called Tantric sex that America needed to look into.) James Hilton made us long for a pure land like Shangri-La—where nobody gets old. One hundred years ago, Madame Blavatsky taught us that Buddhism was mutable and versatile. It could be mixed with other ideas to make new spiritual cocktails like Theosophy. (And later adopted by Werner Erhard and Marianne Williamson.) Actually, Buddhism has survived centuries because it’s fluid and open to interpretation. It flows into new countries and takes new forms, never looks the same from place to place. So how does it look in modern America?

These days, it mostly looks expensive. What Americans know about Buddhism in this country, we know from shopping. (It’s a little like surfing. We don’t want to try it, only listen to the music and buy the clothes.) We buy meditation tapes and cushions and feel more at peace with ourselves. (It’s like a quiet escalator ride to enlightenment.) We can adopt a spare Buddhist aesthetic too—”Zen Style”—which exudes honesty, simplicity, and a relaxed sense of not trying too hard, a soulful quality that is refreshingly un-’80s. For those who wish to show a more intense interest in the 2,500-year-old religion, there are also seated Buddha sculptures to contemplate, prayer flags to hang over our doorways, and those miniature Zen sand gardens to rake. And on, there’s an 11-book “Beginner’s Buddhism” reading list.

It seems poignantly American to believe that simply consuming certain Buddhist-themed products can make us better, cleaner, more evolved—virtual Buddhists. When we eat tofu, we feel virtuous. When we buy yoga pants, even if we aren’t doing yoga in them, we feel calmer. We drink “Nirvana” spring water and feel cleansed. We buy “Zen Lift” from Lancôme, a moisturizer for the face, and we don’t look so worried anymore.

The Dalai Lama never looks worried. He’s the mascot of Buddhism these days—and he has made the difficult and time-consuming practice of Tibetan Buddhism enormously popular in this country, almost as popular as Zen or the infinitely more accessible Vipassana. The Dalai Lama seems to embody the qualities of Buddhism magnificently: the good cheer, the selflessness, the long view. His message is so unassuming and easy to digest too. “My religion is kindness,” he likes to say. Who could argue with that? He makes Buddhism seem easy. He makes everything seem easy. And that ease, that sense of mildness and good humor—what Americans think of as the essential Buddhist personality—seems within our grasp too, particularly if we spend a little more money. So we gather to hear him speak. We buy a video. A few more books. (The Art of Happiness!) We like looking at his face. We like the way he makes us feel. But sometimes our affection for the Dalai Lama seems strangely close to the way my 3-year-old son feels about Barney.

And like all infatuations, there are downsides, usually in the form of unreasonable expectations. Which brings me to my hate mail.

The nuns were followers of a lama I’d written a book (The Buddha From Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction) about, the founder of one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in this country. I had become interested in the practice of Buddhism in America—and fascinated by the appeal of a religion that was, at best, a difficult fit with American culture. The nuns (and their lama) are Americans, baby boomers, and over the four years that I spent interviewing them about their lives, we became friends, too. I admired them, liked them. I was attracted to Buddhism too—and felt that these Americans were wonderful examples of a spiritual philosophy in practice.

I warned them sometimes, “You might not like how my book turns out.” And my nun friends seemed only amused by this notion and would insist otherwise. When I finished writing, I called to say that my book contained many positive stories—of many lives immeasurably improved by the practice of Buddhism—but also included other, less positive stories. There was a desperation for money at the temple, and curious power plays and group ostracism. I had heard disturbing accounts of members being strong-armed by nuns and monks to make donations to the temple. Current members who were in charge of the temple accounts had admitted that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been raised for specific temple projects but spent supporting the lama and her comfortable lifestyle instead. I had also become friendly with some former members, in particular a young nun and monk who had broken vows and been physically punished by the lama before the entire ordained monastery. A charge of battery was brought against the lama and later dropped.

The nuns wondered why negativity needed to find its way into my account of temple life—but again, they seemed pleasantly detached, so, well, Buddhist. But when the book was released and the hate mail began arriving at my house, I soon discovered that being a Buddhist means being a human being—as magnificent and mysterious and complicated as that is. Two nuns denounced the book as “smut.” Three nuns e-mailed me to say I had gone through the temple’s “dirty laundry.” There were a couple of unfortunate threats too. “I pray the book will fail—for your sake,” one nun wrote me. Another e-mailed this: “You have taken on Tara, Mother of all Buddhas, and you’ll be sorry.”

I suppose I was frightened, but mostly the letters made me depressed. Was this Buddhism in action? And what happened to my perfectly detached nun friends?

They had never been perfect, of course. Or inhumanly mellow and kind. The nuns were people, just people—just like you and me and the 14th Dalai Lama. They would have preferred some whitewashing of their life stories—and the story of their lama. That’s pretty human, I guess. And they would have preferred a little whitewashing of Buddhism too. For them—and indeed, for many of us—it’s the last refuge, the one remaining hope. After so much religious corruption, so many flawed hierarchies, and so many sobbing televangelists who seem always on the take, Americans want to believe that Buddhism is free of such problems—free of ego and hierarchies and money-grubbing.

We want Buddhism to be pure, unassailable. We almost need it that way. So we tell ourselves it’s a philosophy, a set of teachings, not really a religion. It’s simple. It’s calming. You buy a little Buddha for your mantelpiece and feel better. You drink some green tea and feel cleansed. We’re afraid to know much about it—about the demons, the 18 various kinds of hell, or the 108,000 prostrations you need to do just to get through the beginner’s phase. Reality might ruin the fun. And it might spoil the good shopping too.

Buddhism has brought meaning and happiness to the lives of millions of people for thousands of years, of course. And—even after my exposure to its lightest and darkest sides—Buddhism has brought a great deal of that to me too. But it’s a religion, probably no better or worse than the other great ones. And like other religions, Buddhism is a very nice thing, as an idea, as an exercise in extreme optimism, but in practice it can get a little ugly and strange and distorted—the way things do when people get together and contemplate what might happen to them after they die. People are people, and even with the best intentions, weird things happen. Didn’t Buddha say that?