East and West

East and West

As part of this year’s high school summer camp (生命美學研習營), I gave a talk entitled “A Westerner’s Perspective on Eastern Religious Traditions and Education” (歐美人士眼中的東方宗教傳統與教育). In order to give the audience some insight into my own personal background, I decided to dedicate the first segment of the talk to introducing the young Taiwanese high school students to some key facts about the religious landscape of modern Western countries.

Many Taiwanese people assume that the majority of Westerners are born and brought up in the Christian faith. While this is not an unreasonable assumption, nothing could be further from the truth. According to recent surveys, around 60 percent of people in my home country of France consider themselves non-religious. In most other Western European countries, the numbers are similarly high, with 54 and 40 percent of people in the UK and Germany respectively describing themselves as non-religious. The number of unbelievers grows even higher when one considers only the younger segments of the population. Across the Atlantic, Americans remain significantly more religious than their European counterparts. Yet, surveys have shown similar trends even there, with 25 percent of Americans born after 1980—a group often known as millennials—describing themselves as atheists, agnostics or simply non-religious.

But while church attendance in the West is down across the board, many people are still thirsting for spiritual teachings and practices that will help them navigate the challenges of modern life. Recently, several news outlets reported on a story that offers a stark illustration of this persistent need for some form of spiritual or inner life. It was reported that the third most popular course at Harvard University is a course called Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory, taught by Michael Puett, a professor of Chinese history. Far from giving students a dry academic account of Confucian thought, Michael Puett—described as “Harvard’s most popular professor”—takes the class as an opportunity to offer his students practical life advice, drawing from the wisdom of this ancient Chinese tradition. Michael Puett guarantees his students that “if they take these ideas seriously, by the end of the course, these ideas will have changed their lives.” Introduction to Buddhism courses are also very popular among American undergraduates, including students not graduating in religious studies.

Thus, while thousands of East Asian students flock to American and European universities every year, a growing number of young Westerners are looking East, searching for philosophies that will offer direction or a deeper sense of meaning to their lives. This younger generation belongs to a long tradition of Westerners finding spiritual sustenance in the religious traditions of the East, from the Beatles’ encounter with the Hindu teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the sixties, to the Dalai Lama’s current widespread popularity across the West.

Sadly, young Taiwanese people often have a very limited understanding of the Buddhist tradition and its practical value, often holding misconceptions born from a lack of religious education. I concluded my talk by encouraging these young high-schoolers to consider the possibility of studying this rich Buddhist tradition in college, both for their own edification, and with an eye on sharing these treasures of wisdom with the world.

Written By : Luke Gibson

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