‘Eastern Cults and Western Culture’ (1977)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

11 minutes

In 1977, the year he published Turning East: The Promise and Peril of the New Orientalism, Harvey Cox published a long article in Psychology Today: ‘Eastern Cults and Western Culture: Why Young Americans Are Buying Oriental Religions.

Having taught a course at Naropa Institute on the New Testament, in his book Turning East Cox voices some specific reservations about Chögyam Trungpa’s community in Boulder, Colorado:

“Despite the fact that Naropa produced a role change in my study of the Turn East, it did not in any way lessen my doubts and suspicions about the neo-Oriental wave. It confirmed all my worst fears about how even the most valuable teaching, including the art of meditation, can be misused, often unconsciously. New adepts strode about the streets of Boulder wearing imported ‘meditation pants’ and ostentatiously lugging their sitting cushions under their arms. Peddlers hawked vaguely Tibetan-looking bracelets and ornaments. The question of how long one had been ‘sitting’—and even how long one could sit at a stretch—sometimes became the arena for a sort of spiritual one-upmanship, reminding me of the way young civil rights workers used to compare the length of their jail terms in the sixties. Worst of all, I found people leaping into the labyrinth of Buddhist concepts and ill-digested Sanskrit or Tibetan terms in what often sounded like an unintended caricature of serious discipleship. Phrases like ‘bad karma’ and ‘more evolved person’ swirled like incense smoke screens over meals and conversations. I am sure it all made the Buddha chuckle.

My principal reservation about the Buddhist teaching I heard at Naropa, as opposed to the sitting practice itself, is that despite its explicit emphasis on not trying too hard, it seems to lay out a very long path. One hears a lot about ‘cessation,’ but there hovers in the background the specter of a stupendous mountain the seeker must eventually climb in order to become enlightened. The ‘path’ has many stages. And to an outsider it appears cluttered with snares and laden with possibilities for backsliding and frustration. More ‘advanced’ students hinted seductively about what lay ahead for beginners, especially in the sexual imagery of Tantra. Others talked evasively about the ‘hundred thousand prostrations’ one must do at a certain stage, and of complex forms of visual meditation and internal chanting and the rest. Novices listened, wide-eyed, while veteran meditators smiled at their enthusiasm and looked at each other knowingly.

When I noticed all this I shuddered. It called to mind the story of the pious young Martin Luther crawling up the stairs of St. Peter’s on his knees, or the practice of adding up ‘Hail Mary’s’ and ‘Our Father’s’ which eventually enraged so many Catholics. I detected in this excessive elaboration that Buddhism, like every other spiritual tradition, has an uncanny capacity to complicate the simple, to escalate an elemental insight into a colossal caricature of itself.

But the sitting meditation remains the core. No teaching should be discarded either because of the excesses of its students or the pretentiousness of its interpreters. Learning to meditate does not entail ingesting the entire corpus of Buddhist ideology, doctrine and world view—or any of it. In fact, I believe there is no reason why it cannot become an integral part of Christian discipleship. I returned from Naropa convinced that it would be a part of mine.

On the night before I left Boulder some students and faculty colleagues gave me a farewell party. During the festivities someone pressed into my hand a small book describing the life of the original Naropa, the eleventh-century sage after whom the institute had been named. On the plane the next day I pulled it out of my pocket and thumbed through the story. Naropa, it seems, was a famous Indian teacher who, by the time he had reached middle age, was the acknowledged authority in the Buddhist scriptures. In all the world he had no equal in his scholarly acumen, and students came in from far and wide to sit at his feet. One day, however, there appeared at his hut a blemished and crotchety old hag who began to berate and insult him. As he tried to study she continually taunted him and asked him about the meaning of passages in the sacred texts. Whenever he answered she merely cackled. Sometimes she would sneak up close and poke him with a stick. Finally, in a fury, Naropa shouted at her to go away and reminded her that in the entire world there was no one who was more versed in explaining the sense of the texts. The hag laughed uproariously. ‘Yes, you know the sense,’ she croaked, ‘you know the sense. But do you know the meaning?’ She disappeared. And Naropa left his desk, went to the forest and apprenticed himself to a teacher. Having spent his life mastering the texts, he now wanted to learn what they meant for Naropa.’ (pp. 61-62).

In the July 1977 issue of Psychology Today, Cox expresses more generic reservations about Americans ‘turning East’:  

The ironic aspect of the Turn East is that it is occurring just as many millions of Asians are involved in an epochal ‘Turn West’ toward Western Science and technology, Western political systems, and Western cultural forms.Just as this great awakening to history has begun to occur in the real Asia, millions of Americans have fallen in love with an Asia that is disappearing, or maybe never existed: the ‘mysterious Orient’ of the old Western myth. In fact, those who yearn for what they call an ‘Oriental’ approach today are really opting for an archaic rather than a historical way of life. They may be turning back instead of turning East.

Two kinds of replies from East turners disturb me because they reveal a quest that will lead not just to disillusionment but to frustration and bitterness. One can sympathize with those who hope to regain a lost innocence—a world free of complications, a world of black and white choices. But eventually they will find out that no such world will ever be found. For maturity means learning to live in a complex, shades-of‐gray world.

I feel similar qualms about those who long for an authority so unquestionable and total that they would not have to make hard decisions or chew through choices on their own.

At first, converts to these movements often do seem to find a kind of new innocence. They are ‘blissed out’ with their hassle-free life. The emphasis many of these groups place on the inner life, plus their relegation of secular society to an inferior form of reality, means that adhering to their teachings will remove the uncomfortable tensions of school, work, or home. Since money, power, and, in some cases, even the capacity to make choices are viewed as illusory or insignificant, the causes of most political tussles disappear. The problem is that the nasty issues of work, politics, and the rest do not really disappear, and even East turners must eventually grapple with them. But as devotees they must do so with a world view that gives them little help, because it refuses to recognize that the problems even exist.

I am also troubled by the pursuit of an absolute religious and moral authority that will relieve the discomfort of making decisions. People who hunger for this kind of authority over them suffer from the wounds dealt out by parents, schools, and jobs where they have never been encouraged to flex their decision-making capabilities. But in order to mature, the last thing they need is one more perfect master to solve their problems for them.

They need friends and families and larger settings in which their confidence in their own capacities will be strengthened.

What the East turners are doing is hardly a prescription fora general cure; rather, it is a symptom of a malaise with which we must all contend. Religious remedies to the ills of a culture take two basic forms: one tries to get at the underlying causes of the malady; the other provides a way for people to live in spite of the illness, usually by providing them with an alternative miniworld, sufficiently removed from the one outside so that its perils are kept away from the gate. The East turners have almost all chosen this second form. The only solution they offer to other people is to join them in their miniworld.

But if we all join them, it would soon be a maxiworld with all the problems back again. Part of the answer is that these movements cannot be the answer for everyone. Some East turners have found a haven from the impersonality and vacuousness of the larger society, and, some would say, of its churches. They have rightly located the most severe symptoms of our ailing era. But their solution, though it may work for them individually, at least for a while, is ultimately no solution for the rest of us. As for the movements themselves, I also worry about their future. For the business of America is business, and that includes the religion-business. The greatest irony of the Eastern religious movements is that in their effort to present an alternative to the Western way of life, most have succeeded in adding only one more line of spiritual products to the American religious marketplace. They have becomea part of the consumer culture they set out to call in question.

This consumerization of the new religious movements should not surprise us. After all, the genius of any consumer society is its capacity for changing anything, including its critics, into items for distribution and sale. Religious teachings and disciplines—Eastern or Western—can be transformed into commodities, assigned prices, packaged attractively, and made available to prospective buyers.

Conspicuous consumption is no longer a mark of distinction. What we have in its place is something I call the new gluttony, which transforms the entire range of human ideas and emotions into a well-stocked pantry. Today, only the old-fashioned glutton still stuffs his mouth with too many entrees. The new glutton craves experiences: in quantity and variety, more and better, increasingly exotic, and even spiritual. Today’s money does not lust after houses, cars, and clothes, but travel, drugs, unusual sights and sounds, exotic tastes, therapies, and new emotional states.

If disgrace haunts the affluent, it is not apt to be for failing to have something, but rather for failing to have tried something. The very thought that out there lurks an experience one has not had now sends the affluent into panic.

No doubt economists as well as theologians could advance explanations for why we are moving from a greed for things to a gluttony of experience. In a system based on encouraging greed, people eventually become sated. It is hard to sell still another television set to the family that already has one in every room. There is a limit somewhere to what most people can stack up.

With experiences, however, there seems to be no such limit, and the experience merchants do not need to plan obsolescence or invent style changes. Their product self-destructs immediately, except for one’s memory. Last year’s model is unusable not for any reason as trivial as changing hemlines but because it is gone.

Economists can explain the new gluttony in the classical terms of a movement from goods to services. It is the old story of expanding markets, finding new resources and developing novel products. But now the product is an experience that can be sold and delivered to a customer. The resources are virtually infinite for the imaginative entrepreneur, and the market is that growing group of people whose hunger for accumulating mere things has begun to decline.

I think there is an element of spiritual gluttony in the current fascination with Oriental spirituality. We should not blame this on the Oriental traditions themselves, most of which are highly sensitive to the pitfalls of spiritual pride. Nor can we blame the often anguished people who are driven by forces they can neither control nor understand toward searching out more and more exhilarating spiritual experiences.

If there is any fault to be allocated, it lies not with the victims but with the buyer-seller nexus within which the new religious wave is marketed. Despite what may be good intentions all around, the consumer mentality can rot the fragile fruits of Eastern spirituality as soon asthey are unpacked. The process is both ironic and pathetic. What begins in Benares as a protest against possessiveness ends up in Boston as still another possession.

No deity, however terrible, no devotion, however deep, no ritual, however splendid, is exempt from the voracious process of trivialization. The smiling Buddha himself and the worldly wise Krishna can be transformed by the new gluttony into collectors’ trinkets. It was bad enough for King Midas that everything he touched turned to gold. The acquisition-accumulation pattern of the new gluttony does even more. Reversing the alchemist’s course, it transforms rubies and emeralds into plastic, the sacred into the silly, the holy into the hokey.

The gods of the Orient mean one thing there, and something quite different here. This is not to be blamed either on the gods themselves, or on their original devotees, or on their new seekers. It happens because when the gods migrate,or are transported toa civilization where everything is to some extent a commodity, they become commodities too.

The culture barrier that a commodity culture erects against the possibility of genuine interreligious exchange is formidable. It raises the question of whether we in the West can ever hear the voice of the East, can ever learn about the Buddhist or Hindu paths without corrupting them in the process.

Although America today seems uncommonly receptive to spiritual ideas and practices from the East, the truth is that we are not really receptive to them at all. True, no stone walls have been erected to keep the pagans out. No orders of Knights Templar have ridden forth to hurl back the infidels. The gates are open, and the citizens seem ready to listen. No wonder many Eastern teachers view America asa fertile ground in which to sow their seeds.

But curiously it is precisely America’s receptivity, its eagerness to hear, explore, and experience, that creates the most difficult barrier to our actually learning from Eastern spirituality. The very insatiable hunger for novelty, for intimacy, even for a kind of spirituality that motivates so many Americans to turn toward the East also virtually guarantees that the turn will ultimately fail.

The final paradox is that Easterners have never claimed to be able to save the West. Frequently they deny having any interest in doing so, even if they could. They rarely send missionaries here, and they accept Western novices with reluctance. Although the Westernized versions of Eastern faiths often claim to bring salvation to the West, at this point they betray the spirit of their sources, and actually worsen the Western dilemma by advertising more than they can deliver.

The spiritual crisis of the West will not be resolved by spiritual importations or individual salvation. It is the crisis of a whole civilization, and one of its major symptoms is the belief that the answer must come from Elsewhere. The crisis can be met only when the West sets aside myths of the Orient, and returns to its own primal roots.

Eventually the spiritual disciplines of the Orient will make a profound contribution to our consciousness and our way of life. Some day, somewhere, we will hear the message the East has for us. But we can only begin to know the
real Orient when we are willing to let go of the mythical one. And we can only begin to hear the message of the Oriental religious traditions when we are willing to confront the inner dislocations in our own civilization that caused us to invent the myth of the East in the first place. And when we are willing to do that, we may realize, like the truth seeker in the Zen parable, that what we are seeking so frantically elsewhere may turn out to be the horse we have been riding all along.” (pp. 37-38).

Cox - Eastern Cults and Western Culture-Why Young Americans Are Buying Oriental Religions (Psychology Today 11 (2) July 1977 pp. 32-38) REDUX

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.