Eastern Enlightenment Versus Western Enlightenment

In general, what Americans try to do when they attempt to pursue "spiritual enlightenment" bears little to no resemblance to what my actual Indian Hindu and Buddhist friends are doing. I can generally map the linguistic terms from one group to the other, but there is a phoniness and a narcissistic aspect to the way Westerners do it.

Ironically, a large part of Buddhism is about denying "the self." However, denying "the self" means something very specific to a South Asian person who was born and raised in a community that stresses the importance of family and legacy. It's a process of reaffirming an ethical commitment to being a good person. Being a good person means caring about your elders, providing for your extended family and community, sacrificing your own needs to the needs of the people around you, so that you can all build a better life together.

By contrast, a Westerner’s pursuit of “spiritual enlightenment” tends to be mostly based on conflating the two distinct definitions of the word “materialism.” Eastern philosophies emphasize the impermanence of material existence; in other words, life is short, so focus on feeding your spiritual needs ahead of your physical needs. But when Westerners talk of the evils of “materialism,” they are most definitely not thinking about their own mortality. Instead, they’re talking about the shallow pursuit of commercial goods. Big difference.

Westerners are born and raised in the most individualistic society the world has ever seen. That’s not a bad thing, but it changes the understanding of what it means to deny “the self.” A spiritual Westerner who “denies the self” doesn’t turn outward to his community and attempt to make it a better place. Instead, he attempts to negate his own needs and desires. He tries to pursue more happiness with fewer material possessions. “I don’t need to buy stuff to be happy, I just need to focus on spiritual enlightenment.” And “focusing on spiritual enlightenment” is, to a Westerner, a goal unto itself. It apparently involves more meditation, more time spent reading books about meditation, more time spent learning about “chakras.” More experimental use of psychedelic drugs. This couldn’t be further from the Easterner’s practice of Eastern religion.

In fact, this is an enormous difference in perspectives. To the Easterner, “spiritual fulfilment” isn’t some mumbo-jumbo that you get in a cedar-plank room with scented candles and new age music. It’s something that you gain from turning your personal misery into someone else’s happiness. Are you feeling sad? Then, get over it and help your brother study for his upcoming math exam. Some girl broke your heart? That sucks – but here, take the garbage out and then go spend the afternoon helping your grandmother shop for a new saree. The point of selflessness in this environment is to heal your misery by focusing on what is “truly important.” And in Eastern society, what is “truly important” is very specific. Be a good spouse; do charity work; engage with your community; spend time with your family; raise some kids; and so on.

When you think about it, this isn’t all that different from the perspective you’d get in a Westerner’s church or synagogue. Traditional Western religions all take a similar view of selflessness. They advise you to get out of your own head when you’re feeling anguished and to “do the work of the Lord,” which generally means community service, kind gestures, charitable giving, etc. It should come as no surprise, then, that most socially liberal Easterners view Buddhist and Hindu practices not as a path to new age enlightenment, but rather as extremely conservative belief systems. At the end of the day, Eastern religion delivers the same advice to Easterners that Western religion delivers to Westerners.

It’s striking to me that hardcore conservatives in South Asian societies are using exactly the same language as hardcore liberals in North American societies, and yet these groups mean entirely different things when they use this terminology. Globalization and the internet have given people a common set of words that everyone uses to describe their experiences, but it hasn’t yet guaranteed that various societies mean the same thing when they say the same words. It appears that our languages have converged, but our meta-language hasn’t done so quite yet.

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