Only in the last 50 years has Buddhism arrived in the West. It did not do so as another set of beliefs. Though millions of Buddhists in Asia worship Buddha images and pray in temples for a better life or better rebirth, something the Buddha himself would have utterly dismissed, this is not the Buddhism that arrived in the West. Thankfully, real practice was brought by teachers to a Western world that was tired with its old religions, tired of meaninglessness and materialism, and hungry for contact with the transcendental. It was a Buddhism stripped naked of all its colourful cultural worshipping, stripped back to its essence: genuine spiritual practice and inner search. Millions of westerners now take Vipassana or other meditation courses, millions are sitting in groups, retreats or reading the thousands of books now published, all on the path to liberation: the dharma. And it has had an echo back to the East. Because of the interest of Westerners in what the Buddha really taught, the monasteries in the East are now flourishing, meditation centers are opening up and there is a shift away from ritual and the chanting of texts, to a more meaningful engagement with the teachings.
The same is true for the dharma in Israel. Less than 20 years ago it was entirely unknown in this country. Buddhism was a strange religion belonging to somewhere far away. I started bringing dharma teachers to Israel in 1989, and holding silent retreats in my house and other places where participants could practice meditation according to the guidance set out by the Buddha so long ago and still used as the basis for practice today. From these beginnings was initiated Amutat Tovana (Insight Society), which today runs many courses and has thousands of participants. At the same time another group also began bringing Vipassana to Israel, in this case taught by one teacher, S.N. Goenka. They too are very popular, with similar numbers sitting 10 day retreats. The fact that this has happened so quickly and intensively in Israel is surprising, and speaks of the genuine need, mostly but not entirely of secular people, to find a spiritual practice which is theirs and fits a non-religious culture. There may be, proportional to the population, more people involved in Buddhist meditation here in Israel than in other Western countries. In addition, in Israel, similar to other countries, there is a growth of interest in the way dharma can impact on our daily life, how it can help psychologists to renew their methods and approaches, how it gives ways to aid the sick and the dying, how it can help reduce stress and pressure, and how it can create and support different social values from those of greed and competition. For example Amutat Tovana has now made a commitment for all of its courses to be entirely on a donation basis, so that the teachings are never sold, only given freely, with the participants invited to support the teachings by giving what they can. It is a different economy, an economy of the heart, an alternative to the usual social norms.
One reason for the interest in dharma is that it is a living tradition that has been accumulating knowledge uninterruptedly for 2500 years. The knowledge that has been gathered is knowledge of inner space, of consciousness, of meditation, of the sublime and the subtle inner and outer world, a natural place to go for teachings of liberation. So what are these practices that have taken their place in Western society? There are 80,000 forms of meditation in the tradition. At their core are two, Samatha, which means calm, steady, concentration, and Vipassana, insight, clear seeing of the nature of reality. The concentration training of Samatha is necessary to reduce the scattered, distracted and engaged mind that is always busy and running after the senses. Vipassana is a process of unpeeling layers and layers of our conditioning, to access in the stillness, underlying truth and so free us to live in sacredness. The two are taught together in courses. But more than that, the path, the ‘Eightfold Path’, includes all aspects of life, from the way we speak and think to the essential moral values, all woven into a meditative, wise and heartful life. These insights are not just for the meditation cushion. They impact on everything. In Israel, for example, we have seen the application of Buddhist spirituality to peacemaking in the heart-touching activities of Amutat Shvil Zahav (The Middleway Charity). Learning from the ancient Buddhist practice of peace walks through the land during times of conflict, Jews and Arabs walk peacefully and quietly throughout Israel, from Arab villages to the shopping centers of Tel Aviv, in silent awareness, bringing a visible message of peace through every quiet step. It is an impressive sight, and brings a message that peace in society depends partly on inner peace, that conflict can end if we attend to the hate, fear and violence within us, and radiate friendliness and love to all beings.
We are just at the beginning; Buddhism has only just arrived. It could have a dramatic impact on a Western culture which has lost its way. Arnold Toynbee, one of the leading recent historians, once said that the greatest development of the 20th. century was not the atom bomb, the computer or the motor car. It was that Buddhism finally arrived in the West. May this authentic teaching bring joy, peace and transcendent insight to us all.