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Buddhism and the New Age

by Vishvapani

Buddhism and the New Age

by Vishvapani
ON MAY 25TH 1880, Madame Helena Petrova Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel
Olcott, took the three refuges and the five precepts from a Buddhist priest in a temple in
Galle, a coastal town in Sri Lanka, before a large crowd of Sinhalese. 'When we had
finished the last of the Silas and offered flowers in the customary way', Olcott wrote in
his diary, 'there was a mighty shout to make one's nerves tingle'. (1)

He and Blavatsky were the founders of the Theosophical Society, one of the most
influential religious movements of the late 19th Century and in this ceremony Olcott
became the first American and Blavatsky the first European (2) formally to convert to
Buddhism. The twin legacies of Theosophy are the introduction of Buddhism to the West
and the amorphous set of beliefs and practices which have come to be known as 'the New
Age'.

Buddhism and the New Age have been associated ever since, converging spectacularly in
the counter-cultural movements of the 1960's. In a recent paper Denise Cush concludes
that 'there is a close, entangled and ambiguous relationship between British Buddhism
and the New Age' which 'can be traced back to a common ancestor in Theosophy'. (3)
This entanglement has led to popular identifications of Buddhism as a part of the same
movement as the New Age; the assumption on the part of many 'New Age' people that
Buddhism supports their views; and the subtle influence of New Age attitudes and
assumptions on Buddhists' understanding of their own tradition.

Nonetheless, Buddhism and the New Age are very different. They have emerged from
very different histories, travelling on different historical trajectories and based on
different philosophical assumptions. Cush identifies a changing relationship over the last
two decades between British Buddhist groups and New Age activities from 'closeness to
a conscious differentiation, followed by a diversification of approaches'. The initial
closeness derived from the influence of the counter-cultural trends of the 1960s is
thrusting both Buddhism and the New Age to prominence. The period of separation
occurred as Buddhists sought, in the 1970s and 1980s to establish their own identity. But
by the 1990s alienation from conventional religion, party politics and the conditions of
consumer-capitalist society have generated renewed interest in both movements throwing
them together once more. With the increased size and confidence of Buddhist movements
in the West, Buddhists are in a position to explore ways of working alongside others and
the last few years have seen a number of Buddhist initiatives in New Age venues. But
what are the issues involved in this renewed encounter?

1. THE NEW AGE
THE INDEFINABILITY OF THE NEW AGE is at the heart of its nature. Is it a coherent
entity, or simply a catch-all phrase describing essentially separate developments? There is
no definitive set of beliefs or practices which are held in common by everyone to whom
the term may be applied, but something is clearly happening. What are the distinguishing
characteristics of the phenomenon we call New Age? What are the underlying attitudes
and assumptions of which New Age practices are expressions?
Most commentators date the emergence of a distinctive New Age philosophy from the
work of the American Theosophist Alice Bailey (1880-1949) which blended occultism,
spiritualism and apocalyptic vision with the prevailing Zeitgeist. As Dell deChant
comments:

'The New Age is the product of mid-20th century America. It becomes noticeable in the
late sixties and ever more pronounced since then as its chief carrier, the 'baby-boom'
generation' continues to experiment with beliefs and ideologies which are, at best,
distinct from those of capitalism, mainline Christianity and participatory democracy. Its
most obvious origin is found in the work of Alice A Bailey'. (4)

Many New Age activities found in Britain have their origin in the USA and the UK has,
in any case been subject to similar trends. But rather than attempting to account for the
forms the New Age has taken or comparing New Age activities with Buddhist ones it is
more important to discern their respective philosophical bases and underlying attitudes. A
British New Age Creed is offered by William Bloom of St. James Piccadilly, which gives
a starting-point for deducing these.
1. "All life-all existence-is the manifestation of Spirit, of the Unknowable, of that
supreme consciousness known by many different names in different cultures.
2. The purpose and dynamic of all existence is to bring Love, Wisdom, Enlightenment
into full manifestation.
3. All religions are expressions of this same inner reality.
4. All life, as we perceive it with the five human senses, or with scientific instruments, is
only the outer veil of an inner, causal reality.
5. Similarly, human beings are two-fold creatures-with an outer temporary personality
and a multi-dimensional inner being (soul or higher self).
6. The outer personality is limited and tends towards materialism.
7. The inner personality is unlimited and tends towards love.
8. Our spiritual teachers are those souls who are liberated from the need to incarnate and
who express unconditional love, wisdom and Enlightenment. Some of these beings are
well-known and have inspired the world religions. Some are unknown and work
invisibly.
9. All life in all its different forms and states, is interconnected energy-and this includes
our deeds, feelings and thoughts. We therefore work with spirit and these energies in co-
creating our reality.
10. Although held in the dynamic of cosmic love, we are jointly responsible for the state
of ourselves, of our environment and of all life.
11. During this period of time the evolution of the planet and of humanity has reached a
point when we are undergoing a fundamental spiritual change in our individual and mass
consciousness. This is why we speak of a 'New Age' . (5)
The Religion of the Self
Bloom's creed is characterised by its emphasis on 'inner reality' as the source of meaning
and value. But in what sense, one might ask, is this reality 'inner'? It must be that it
pertains to experience and in this way it overlaps with the 'inner personality'. But
experience has been universalised and, with the substitution of a capital letter, love
becomes 'Love' and wisdom, 'Wisdom'. This implies a substratum of existence which is
'Unknowable' and indescribable, but at the same time is crucial to the philosophy which
follows (which is the cause of the vagueness and indeterminacy of so much New Age
discourse). These are mystical beliefs which are neither rationally elaborated nor
theologically defined, but which may-possibly-be experienced. 'Spiritual' qualities are
separated from the 'outer' world of actions and ethics except where that world is redefined
in spiritual terms: 'All life-all existence-is the manifestation of Spirit, of the Unknowable,
of that supreme consciousness'. In a similar way 'all religions are expressions of this same
inner reality'.
This, then, is the 'religion of the self'. At its heart is a Rousseau-esque sanctification of
'Inner being' which is outside history, innocent, pure, but nonetheless authoritative. And
there is plainly no question of examining the assumptions out of which 'inner being'
might be constructed. In practice, this results in a recurrent concern with personal
experience. In psychological terms, the New Age speaks the language of individualism
while in philosophical terms it speaks the language of immanence, at times implying a
monistic metaphysic. These characteristics underlie its remaining features.

Eclecticism
The variety and all-inclusiveness of New-Age activities is perhaps its most remarkable
feature. Organisationally there is deep mistrust of institutions and a preference for non-
hierarchical models of operation. This is informed by a bias against rational thought or
systems of belief and towards intuition and 'holistic paradigms'. But in practice the extent
of New Age eclecticism suggests that the particular activity a New Ager chooses to
participate in is secondary to the question of what they get from it, what it does for them,
how it makes them feel.

New Age as a Market Sector

Another factor influencing the eclecticism of the New Age is its role within consumer
society. Ethnic art and music, traditional medicines, handicrafts and clothes expand the
range of consumer options. Markets exist in ideas (which can be obtained via books,
magazines and seminars) and in experiences (which can be bought through workshops,
therapies and retreats). And market forces will define as 'New Age' whatever can be sold
as such (or alternatively, whatever cannot be sold as anything else).
For the consuming New Ager these phenomena offer the prospect of perpetual novelty on
one's own terms. If you don't like the goods, you find another supplier. Where there is an
acknowledgement that commoditisation means a qualitative erosion there is a
compensatory stress on compression and intensity:

Enlightenment in a ...

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