The figure of the Buddha permeates modern western discourse on Buddhism. “The Buddha” is used to validate and justify the most diverse claims and forms of practice. To my ears, “the Buddha” represents a hackneyed bifurcation. Most contemporary lay teachers, such as Sharon Salzberg and Jon Kabot-Zinn, present a “soft” version of “the Buddha,” one that caters to the desiccated middle classes of the twenty-first century West. This version promises rescue in the form of diurnal restoration, like “real happiness” or ease in the midst of “stress.” Traditional teachers present a “hard” version, derived from Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment,” “satori,” or “nirvana.”
What use is “the Buddha” in the twenty-first century West?
He is perpetually hoisted up as the physician par excellence against the acidic tension intrinsic to living in an ever-accelerating technological society. His remedy? Gelassenheit in the…
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