It has become fashionable in the West to regard Eastern spirituality as the true path. But by rejecting our own spiritual heritage, we work against our natural psychological and perhaps spiritual makeup.
ON MY LITTLE ALTAR at home sits a bronze Buddha brought back for me from Nepal by a close friend. The statue has been blessed by a Lama and sits on the top of a miniature Greek pillar (the sort that might hold a garden bird-bath). Underneath is a Tonka of a complex concentrically layered pattern depicting the world, designed by the Dali Lama with a lotus at the centre. Either side is a picture of Jesus from my grandmother and a postcard of a Native American which I bought in California, and behind a copy of an old Hawaiian menu cover, depicting the enthronement of a young Hawaiian King. There are also two tiles: one of Shiva and the other Ganesh. Each item on this shrine represents an aspect of my spiritual path.
I light a candle and sit, pray, think and meditate in front of this shrine everyday. It is my place of power. I do not meditate very deeply or for very long because I am not very proficient at long periods of sitting still: I'm a tall Westerner with long legs that don't fold up for long so easily. I love my little prayer sessions though, and I love the head space that I'm in when I finish and the way such practice gradually increases my awareness.
Although the Buddhist symbols take central place on my altar (I also have a singing bowl and some Tibetan chimes), I could never be a Buddhist. I am a Westerner, and Buddhism is tailored for the Eastern psyche. It is and always will be slightly foreign to my soul — at least in this lifetime. (This is not to say that I don't love Buddhism and appreciate some of its profundities.) On this altar, the most meaningful items are actually the picture of Jesus (even though I strongly dislike conventional Christianity and accept none of its dogmas), the postcard of the Native American and the Hawaiian illustration. I can relate to these, whereas the Buddhist props give me a cold and empty profundity.
Many of us brought up in Western culture look with envious eyes at our Eastern counterparts and the manner in which spirituality is so ubiquitously present in those cultures. Just the other day a friend of mine told me how much she missed India because, for her, it was spiritual home. We often marvel and try to emulate the peaceful temperament and lucid wisdom of the masters from the East, and every increasing numbers of us practice Eastern meditation and yoga. (This emulation even extends to the slight Indian rocking of the head at my local yoga centre and even, yes this is true, fake Indian accents!!)
But what is wrong with our own culture that so many of us feel the need to indulge in another in order to regain a sense of completeness? Is the East really the world's hotbed of spiritual wisdom? And why does our culture seem so feeble at fulfilling our spiritual needs?
The problem with many of the more "Western" religions is that, over the centuries, their living essence has evaporated to leave a dry skeleton of dogma and empty ritual. As a result, congregations have dwindled to an all-time low, and very few of us respect priests, rabbis and clergymen because they do not embody the wisdom that they so eagerly teach — unlike their Eastern counterparts. (In fact, the media is currently full of stories of shameful abuses by Western priests on children.) In this climate of spiritual atrophy, is it any wonder that we jump to the opportunity to adopt a new spirituality, one in which everything seems so much more wholesome, honest, novel and fresh?
So when the revolution in consciousness came in the 60s, of course the weary dogmatized Western religions could offer us no spiritual succour. These dated religions were symbols of the very restriction and establishment that the new movement wanted to overthrow. The hierarchies of control that had come to dominate them, so diabolically represented by the Vatican, had depersonalised and externalized our relationship with God, effectively cutting off divine access and personal Gnosis. So it had to be the East to which the young turned. In fact today, if you ask a young person for a symbol of spirituality, they are as likely to say a lotus flower and meditation, than a cross or a church.
The irony of this is that Eastern religions, from the perspective of the East, have themselves reached a point of stagnation due, once again, to the growth of a hierarchy of control. When Tibet was invaded by the Chinese, it was a feudal country with a wealthy priest class who lived off the hard work of the poor population. Most Buddhist practice revolved around mindless ritual and guru devotion. The same applies to Hinduism in India, which has been instrumental in maintaining the strict class system and preventing social reform. You could safely say that the average individual in these countries was and is no more conscious, no more enlightened, than the average Westerner, although they may spend more time in their lives pursuing the outer forms of spiritual practice.
When Eastern religions travelled to the West, however, there was an opportunity for religious reform — otherwise they just would not have had the appeal beyond that of cults. Contemporary exported Buddhism and Hinduism is very different from that originally practiced in their native cultures. Export religions (like export beer here in the UK) tend to be stronger, purer and higher quality. They have had to adapt themselves to appeal to the discerning and critical Western mind, and in so adapting they have made themselves much more appealing. Much of the dogma and empty ritual has been stripped in favour of emphasis on the core beliefs and practice. (Remember that in the West, Eastern religious practice is usually a conscious addendum to life — very few here are born in Eastern religions — and so export Eastern philosophy must pass the scrutiny of the critical and discerning Western mind.)
This is not to say that the Westerners do not accept some ridiculous dogmas and empty rituals; you just have to look at the popularity of some of the weird and wonderful cults that spring up, blossom for a while and then fade away when the leader dies and/or everybody comes to their senses. However, these sorts of religious cults have a relatively minor following and attention tends to be focused on the leader rather than the teaching. For a religion to take hold in a population it must be substantial, and cannot suffer the same paranoid secrecy and delusion that permeates cults.
In this light, it is not surprising that export Eastern religions have flourished here in the West. Being a Buddhist or a Hindu is fashionable for Westerners, especially the younger generations, and this only shows up even more, by comparison, the excessive and dated dogma suffered by traditional Western religions. The result is the common misperception of religious choice here in the West that it is confined to just two choices: accept your traditional Judeo-Christian (and Moslem) heritage or try an Eastern alternative — often regarded as the "intellectual" or wise choice. (Modern gospel-singing Christianity is only a new expression of an old ideology … usually even more fundamentalist.)
The problem with Eastern religions, though, is that they can be quite alien to our Western psyche. Human beings have a rich heritage of inner symbols and meanings, called by Jung the Collective Unconscious, and it is important that we work through the symbols of our culture (whether we like that culture or not) to find true spiritual enlightenment. We cannot just jettison our entire psycho-spiritual heritage in favour of an imported hybrid from the East. That choice is not ours to make as the flavour of our inner life is generally culturally dependent. Of course, once that flavour is fully tasted and integrated, we are free to move through to other belief systems and spiritual perspectives, but our own heritage cannot first be ignored and overridden. If it is, then we only have the illusion of wholeness, and that illusion not only takes its toll on our own development, but on that of the Western society in which we are an integral part.
The sixties was a time of reaction against an old world and ageing belief systems, but "reaction" is only the first faltering step in integration, transformation and finally transmutation of our core beliefs and paradigms. We have to work through our own heritage before we can engage in another, just as a person has to make peace with a bad relationship in order not to be reactively sucked into repetition of his or her unconscious patterns. It is important, therefore, for those who are Christians to explore the Christian Gnostic teachings, those that are Jews to involve themselves is Cabalistic teaching and those that are Muslims to integrate Sufi teachings. By doing this we have worked WITH our inner spiritual heritage rather than running from it into the arms of another. Once those are integrated, once we have transformed rather than rejected our spiritual heritage, then we are free to adopt any position that we feel is right for us and one that more fully expresses our inner divinity. (I am reminded the advice of an Eastern guru to Western seekers as told in one of Jack Kornfield's books: "Stay where you are.")
That is not to say that some people, born into Western religion or atheist families, actually have an Eastern spiritual heritage that comes naturally to them. Maybe they have spent many lifetimes in the East and just this single lifetime in the West, in which case their spiritual heritage is not Western at all. But for the majority of us, it is much better for us to work through the Gnostic aspect of our particular religion as it is a much more natural stepping-stone to true spirituality.
After all, the most important aspects of religious activity are in fact completely independent to our surface spiritual beliefs. The kindness and love that we give to each other are the same whether we are a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Moslem or a Buddhist. Even our inner experience of basic meditative awareness is independent of our religious heritage. Like many of us, I remember occasions as a small child lying in bed, totally engrossed and focused on the rhythm of my breath. Meditation is natural — it is practiced by every baby and small child. We only need to remember how to do it, and for that we don't need to become a Buddhist or a Hindu (although for a few that might be appropriate). And the few occasions when I was literally touched by the divine as a child (hearing "the" voice or seeing "spirits" with my physical eyes) the experience was very much Western and not Eastern, for that is my heritage in this lifetime.
Perhaps what is most important for Westerners is the need for a personal relationship with the divine. We want to interact with something that is greater than us, but not completely dissolved into it. We want a relationship rather than a quality of being. This is why "Westerners" pray and "Easterners" meditate. This reflects a fundamental difference in psychology and is the reason why many of us do not feel 100% comfortable adopting Eastern religions, but prefer to create our own spiritual medley, picking and choosing those aspects that appeal to us. Gnostic beliefs very nicely bridge that divide, as do Shamanistic practices.
In the end, we have to make a choice or choices that best allows us to express that inner divinity externally — the world really needs that right now. But we must be sensitive enough to our deepest feelings to make a good choice, rather than a knee-jerk response, encouraged by fashion and culture, either into Eastern religions or Western fundamentalism. We have a responsibility to make the best choice we can, to bring forth that which is within us as accurately as we can and through a belief system that will not interfere with that expression. Otherwise, we become blocked by the external form and end up as slaves in a world of shadows, vulnerable to control and abuse (and God knows there are a lot of people who want to control us).
"Stay where you are," that is the advice of an Eastern Master. We must transform within our culture, for only then we can use the full power stored in the Western psyche to create a new society that is in touch with itself. By doing this do we have the best chance, as a society and as individuals, to heal ourselves.