A religion professor seeks to expose Western audiences to Buddhist teachings with the aim of fostering unity and cooperation.
“Mindfulness” has become a pop-culture phenomenon in the West. Google, Target, General Mills, and other corporations have established programs supporting employee mindfulness practices. Celebrities including Hugh Jackman and Emma Watson have spoken publicly about their meditation routines. Headspace, a company that has developed a mindfulness meditation app, was valued at $250 million in early 2017.
While mindfulness is a feature of Buddhist thought, most Westerners have adopted it without any awareness of its spiritual roots. Many practice mindfulness with the aim of fostering individual happiness and success, for example — ambitions in tension with central tenets of Buddhist thought.
According to Jay Garfield, professor of Religious Studies at Smith College and former visiting professor at Harvard, many Westerners lack an understanding of the central claims of Buddhism. Indeed, courses on Buddhism are rare or non-existent even in many philosophy and religious studies programs at the university level. In 2012, The John Templeton Foundation awarded Garfield a $152,500 grant to write a book describing Buddhist belief and its relevance to contemporary thought concerning the Big Questions. The resulting work, Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy, aims to make Buddhist beliefs and values accessible to non-specialist Western audiences.
Bringing Buddhism to the West
Today, about 7 percent of the world’s population identify as Buddhist, according to the Pew Research Center, a population highly concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region. While this is small in comparison to other major world religions, Garfield argues that Buddhism still has much to contribute towards our understanding of the world and our place within it.
Buddhist teaching puts moral perception and experience at the heart of ethics. Primary emphasis is placed on four “divine attitudes” or brahmavihāras: non-egocentricity (upekṣa), sympathetic joy (mudīta), love (metta), and universal care (karuṇā). Buddhist texts and thinkers teach that to become effective moral agents, we must cease viewing ourselves as autonomous subjects, and everyone and everything else as objects that are external or wholly distinct from us.
“[With Buddhism] we are urged to see ourselves as inextricable members of a web of beings,” he says. “We are asked therefore to regard all suffering as demanding relief, all welfare and success to merit joy.”
Garfield sees an opportunity for Buddhism to augment Western philosophy, even serving as an antidote to an egocentrism often associated with the Enlightenment. Moreover, as our global community becomes increasingly interconnected, Buddhist thought might provide scaffolding for an inclusive philosophical framework.
Bringing Buddhism to Academia
While the book is directed toward the non-academic reader, Garfield hopes that it will also be of use in the academic community. Using the manuscript of his book, Garfield led a summer seminar at Smith College to teach university faculty and advanced graduate students about Buddhism. The book also inspired seminars at George Washington University, CUNY Graduate Center, the University of California, Berkeley, and the National University of Singapore. Since its publication, Yale University has invited Garfield to teach a series of graduate seminars based on the book.
Garfield reports that the book inspired the University of California at San Diego to create a non-western philosophy assistant professorship. His hope is that the book will inspire more universities to incorporate Buddhism and other non-western schools of thought into their study and teaching of philosophy, allowing for a more balanced dialogue within the discipline. Bringing Eastern and Western thought together in the university and the classroom setting, Garfield says, could contribute to a similar equilibrium in the public sphere.