A dozen or so Vipassana (Insight) practitioners have just ended a session of “sitting” (meditation) and discussion in one of the numerous Insight meditation centers in Los Angeles. In light of the recent death of Robin Williams, the group’s discussion turns to how Buddhist insight meditation can be a path of liberation for people struggling with depression and drug abuse. Specifically, by focusing and sustaining attention on the physical sensation of breathing in and breathing out, the practitioner learns to gradually cultivate ongoing mindful awareness and find calm and clarity in his or her life.
Some in the audience talk about challenges they face in their practice, how Vipassana meditation can sometimes conjure strong feelings of self-criticism and even self-hate. The teacher responds to these concerns by emphasizing the importance of cultivating metta, the Buddhist idea of loving-kindness, as a way of transforming feelings of anger and hatred into love and compassion. The practice begins with focusing on one’s self and then extending that loving-kindness toward those around you.
At the end of the class, as the group begins to break up, a large black bowl resembling the begging bowl of a Buddhist monk is passed through the crowd. Participants reach for their wallets, anonymously donating as much as $10 or $20 into the bowl. The teacher thanks the students for their contribution and reminds them that it is through this ancient Buddhist practice of dana, or giving, that the Center is able to support much of its operations, overhead expenses and teachers.
In many ways the above description of a typical Vipassana “sitting” confirms an assumption held by some practitioners and scholars of American Buddhism: that the foundational concepts of traditional Asian Theravada Buddhism like metta and dana have become repurposed and translated for new audiences in the West. Indeed, as an anthropologist with a background in studying popular Theravada Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka, I too am struck by how differently these concepts have been applied in Los Angeles.
For instance, while indigenous socially engaged Buddhist activists in Sri Lanka have often used “loving-kindness” meditation practices as a means of responding to the problems of others, in Los Angeles, I have found that the emphasis seems to often be on how loving-kindness practice can be deployed as a mode of self-help, self-transformation and dealing with individual psychosocial struggles. Indeed, there has been a recent proliferation of scholarly publications in reputable clinical psychology journals describing the advantages of metta for recovery and trauma treatment–a testament to the growing popularity of these practices even among the scientific community as a method of stress-reduction and therapy.
The practice of “dana” has similarly evolved different meaning and significance in the two contexts. In traditional Buddhist cultures, the practice of dana, or almsgiving rituals to ordained monks, is often deeply intertwined with notions of cultivating good karmic merit in order to secure a fortunate and happy rebirth. In contrast, in many of my research encounters in Los Angeles, dana seems to be most often conceived as a simple, pragmatic way of supporting one’s spiritual institution, community or teacher through voluntary donation. Hence, while its rootedness in Buddhist ethical ideas of “letting-go” are emphasized, quite often the practice itself is stripped of the soteriological significance found in Asian Buddhist cultures.
Yet, while they may seem quite different from the outside, merit-making dana and therapeutic metta meditation do share common attributes. Both are oriented toward cultivating happiness and emotional wellbeing in oneself. So as much as American Buddhist practitioners deemphasize concerns about the accumulation of karma or merit and notions of rebirth, which are at core of the dana impulse in more traditional contexts, their focus on metta still elicits affective experiences that are similar to those that Asian Buddhists are seeking through dana. In other words, these practices are meant to ease the mind, cultivate a compassionate heart and ultimately lead to inner freedom. Metta as therapy in the West and dana as merit in Asia are both about constituting a happier, more moral self.
With all of this in mind, I suggest that the innovation of American Buddhist practitioners, diverse as they are in their various manifestations, is in fact not just how they shed the cultural baggage of rituals and rules associated with traditional Buddhism and repackage it in American cultural forms and idioms. More than this, their real innovation is in how they retain and revive elements in popular traditional Buddhism that are foremost about personal, inward experiences. So while the cultural trappings of Western teachings and Eastern traditions have significant differences, the underlying commonality is how they are both fundamentally about similar—and similarly transformative—modes of experience.
Nalika Gajaweera is a senior research analyst with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.