"What Makes You a (Western) Buddhist?"
If Buddhism is going to take root in the West - and in our own lives -- we must indigenize it. Buddhism cannot last here as a foreign religion for more than a generation or two. If it is to survive here and now, we must Westernize and modernize it. It is our job to help "morph" Buddhism into a Western religion, just as when it was brought into China, Japan, and Southeast Asia it adapted to those cultures.
Some of the necessary adjustments are obvious. The traditional Asian patriarchal structure of authority has got to go. And the exclusion of the laity (as well as nuns) from the highest teachings and practices of Buddha's dharma will also by necessity need to change as Buddhism comes into a culture where monasticism does not play the same role as it has in Asia. Buddhism will have to be less sexist and less hierarchical and exclusivist if it is going to take root and play a meaningful role in the modern West.
In addition to these institutional changes, the dharma must also be translated into our own language. We must put the Buddha's words into our own words; we must make the Buddha's teachings speak directly to us. Part of this translation project, in its largest sense, will involve utilizing modern delivery systems for propagating the dharma: Web sites, podcasts, twitters. . . whatever is at hand! Buddhism in the West, like pretty much everything else, will have to go digital.
But there is obviously a danger in going too far in the morphing process, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In the effort to make it acceptable to modern sensibilities, much of what is presented as Buddhism in the modern West has little resemblance to what the Buddha taught. If Buddhism is morphed to such an extent that the core is lost, it will no longer be Buddhism at all.
A well-known Western scholar and practitioner, for example, has claimed that one can maintain an agnostic stance towards some of the teachings of the Buddha - that there can be a Buddhism "without beliefs." Among the supposedly dispensable tenets is the difficult (for Westerners) doctrine of rebirth. While agnosticism about rebirth is technically not included, the denial of past and future lives is specifically listed as a classical example of "wrong view" in the scriptures. And the reason for this is fairly obvious: without factoring in past and future lives, the idea of a karmic law is undermined (for we don't always "reap what we sow" in this same lifetime), and when that happens the whole edifice of Buddha's dharma begins to crumble.
Many of the prominent figures in Western Buddhism interviewed in the popular iTunes podcast series entitled "Buddhist Geeks" seem also to be somewhat embarrassed about what the Buddha actually taught. Most people would agree that the "Four Noble Truths" encapsulate the core of Buddha's dharma: life is suffering, suffering is caused, there is an alternative to suffering, and there is a method for achieving that alternative. But the notion that one can completely overcome and transcend suffering - defined as "birth, old age, sickness, and death" - is sometimes nowadays replaced with the idea that Buddhism is simply a psychological tool to help us deal better with stress in this life. Overcome death? Come on! Let's be realistic here!
The Buddha's claim to perfect enlightenment (the permanent end of suffering and attainment of highest bliss, together with omniscience and the ability to emanate countless clones) has in some segments of Western Buddhism been dismissed as "obviously" impossible. Or even worse, the goal of Buddhism has seemingly been completely re-envisioned by at least one influential Western teacher who claims to be an "arhat." Traditionally, an arhat is someone who has entered nirvana, the state of the permanent cessation of all mental afflictions and the suffering that derives from them. In this new version of the goal, however, it seems that there can be a nirvana which does not entail the total end of suffering and all mental afflictions (let alone the omniscience and emanation capacity that accompanies the Mahayana idea of enlightenment). Furthermore, it seems that this goal can be achieved pretty much in one's spare time: "I've done this stuff while holding down jobs, having relationships, and pursuing graduate studies. I did it in a few weeks or months of retreat time here and there with a lot of daily practice. My total retreat time from beginning to arahatship was about 8 months with the longest sit being 27 days."
This is an "enlightenment" for modern times: relatively easily and quickly attained, and one with characteristics well within the realm of rational expectation. I once heard the Dalai Lama berate Westerners for thinking that somehow they could easily and without much effort achieve the same goal the historical Buddha reached only through complete renunciation and years of strict discipline and hard work. But perhaps His Holiness had not heard that the goal itself was being reinterpreted in such a way that we Westerners could actually achieve it without such sacrifices, toil, and investment of time.
There is thus a trend toward simplification, demythologizing, and "reasonableness" in some sectors of modern, Western Buddhism. "Let's be rational here," these folks seem to say. "Let's take what we can accept and just leave behind what appears to be too pre-modern, too unscientific, too difficult to accept." And let's still call what we're left with "Buddhism." While some contemporary Buddhists are regarded as radical for sporting full-body tattoos and multiple piercings while hanging out in punk bars, a more profound counter-cultural statement might be to just adhere to what the Buddha actually taught!
Given all this, it is noteworthy that one of the hippest, savviest, and modern of the Tibetan Buddhist lamas, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (director of The Cup and Travellers and Magicians), has recently published a book with the provocative title What Makes You Not a Buddhist. Without adherence to certain foundational and fundamental teachings of the Buddha, the author claims, it is meaningless to say you are nevertheless somehow a "Buddhist." In his book, Khyentse identifies the core of Buddha's dharma as the so-called "four seals": the impermance of all things, the fact of suffering, the doctrine of emptiness and no-self, and the possibility of nirvana or perfect peace.
While I would agree that all four of these propositions are equally important and definitive, it seems that much of the trouble some Western "Buddhists" have with real, hard-core Buddhism centers especially around the third. For without a true understanding of what emptiness and no-self really mean and entail, much of Buddhism might indeed seem outdated, superstitious, or just plain impossible.
Without a real sense of what is made possible by the fact that nothing has an inherent and therefore unchangeable essence, one might want to ignore the more radical claims of the Buddha - that death and all other forms of suffering are overcomeable and that the perfection of self and the world is possible. Buddhism then can be repositioned as a kind of "inner science" of meditation, or just another psychological or therapeutic technique for stess relief, rather than a full-blown religion with full-blown religious claims.
As Arya Nagarjuna writes, "For the one to whom emptiness is clear, everything is clear. And for the one for whom emptiness is not clear, nothing is clear." If one understands that everything, without exception, is empty, then everything (also without exception) is possible. But if one's understanding of emptiness is shallow or limited (thinking, for example, that some things definitely aren't empty, that mortality, or scientific laws, or human limitations have some kind of essential immutability), then one will soon hit a wall when it comes to the more revolutionary claims of a spiritual teacher like the Buddha.
Emptiness does indeed make everything possible. Which is why the Buddha was right 2500 years ago in India, and is still is right in the modern West: Suffering can be overcome. Full enlightenment is possible. The world can be transformed into a paradise.
There is nothing that is not perfectable, because there is nothing that is not not perfectable. That is the teaching of emptiness.
And that is, arguably, the core of Buddhism.
Buddhism can and should be morphed in all kinds of ways, re-presented in modern, Western language and cultural idioms. But any version of Buddhism that does not incorporate the core of emptiness also does not provide a real alternative to the suffering of samsara. Anything less than the full embrace of the radical claim that, because everything is empty, all unhappiness can be overcome and total perfection is possible - anything less than that will not do.
Anything less is not Buddhism.
With all good wishes,