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Buddhism in the News


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Buddhism is Watering the Western Cultures like Rain Waters a Field of Flowers.

The Buddha compares his teaching to the rainfall that descends without discrimination on the earth. That this rain causes some seeds to grow into flowers and some into great trees implies no differentiation in the rain but rather is due to the capacities of the seeds that it nurtures. Thus, the teaching of the Buddha is of a single flavor but benefits beings in a variety of ways according to their capacity.

- Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism in Practice

There are many that criticize and condemn the new tradition of Buddhism that I align myself with which is most commonly known as Western Buddhism. I'm more on the Zen end of that spectrum. I know that this is a hot button issue for some so I am going to chose my words carefully and I want to emphasize that I don't profess to be a teacher. In my eyes, Western Buddhism is no different than when Chinese Buddhism, or Korean, or Tibetan Buddhism was the newest tradition in the vast Buddhist community. Buddhism always blends and adapts to different cultures when introduced to that new society but I don't believe that makes it any less useful. Tibetans for example have incorporated many aspects of their traditional Bon beliefs when Buddhism arrived from India. Yet not many would say that the proud Tibetan Buddhist tradition isn't an "authentic" (whatever that term means) form of Buddhism.

In Japan, Buddhism merged into the native beliefs related to Shinto and yet not many would say that Japanese Buddhism isn't "real" or an invalid extension of Buddhism.

The native Chinese Taoist beliefs (and overall Chinese culture) have greatly influenced Chinese Buddhism which became integral aspects to the formation of Ch'an/Zen that is so prevalent today.

Part of the uneasiness with Western Buddhism is that it is still taking shape and it's hard to tell how the exact form will be but one thing is for sure, it's here to stay. I realize the western culture that it is mixing with is different than the traditional Asian Buddhist culture but that doesn't make it any less beneficial, nor does it make it inferior. Whether we like it or not, culture influences the tradition that Buddhism develops into when introduced to a different culture than a "mother culture."

Western Buddhism seems to be developing as an umbrella structure from which slightly more western styles of each tradition are appearing. That's the beauty of Buddhism, it is pliable to everyone and each culture depending on where they are in their karmic journey. It is my belief that we should focus more on the things that we have in common then on the things that we see slightly different because of our culture.

All of this isn't to say that Western Buddhists are "better" but my goal by posting this was to show it isn't inferior either. I think the main thing that unites all these forms of Buddhism is taking refuge in the three jewels, the four noble truths and practicing the eight fold path. Again, I realize that this is a controversial subject for many Buddhists of more established, traditional schools but just remember that Mahayana Buddhism for example was seen as quite radical to the older traditions at the time.

I hope that in time, Western Buddhism will become as accepted as Mahayana has.

~Peace to all beings~

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Greenwoman said...

It is always so life affirming when folks reach across social lines toward others who may be feeling uncomfortable with change.

Thank you James. Nice post and beautiful viewpoints too.

Ginger said...

i completely agree with you and was very happy to read this post. it's very well written as well.

one reason i love western buddhism is that it's okay to practice at your own pace...your practice is in your mindfulness and not in your rituals.

thank you for this james.

david said...

Very nice post James.

The Tibetans have a long tradition of seers who predicted the movement and emergence of Buddhism in the West.

In the 70's many Lama's coming to the West could not understand our wanting to wear Tibetan robes and use Tibetan iconography. They urged us to create our own imagery and keep our own clothes. They thought the Western Buddha should be shown sitting in a chair.

As the Dalai Lama always says, "Please, we don't want any more Buddhists"... meaning, practice the Dharma within your own context. Putting on a different set of clothes is not unto itself any kind of real progress.

Gary said...

I'd like to add my voice to those above applauding this post, James; it is a thoughtful and well-considered response to the relationship between Western Buddhism & more traditional forms of the Buddhadharma.

You so right that there are already many varied forms of 'Buddhism' in Asia, from Pure Land to Tendai, from Theravada to Nichiren, from Vajrayana to Zen. Buddhism has always adapted itself to the host culture in which it has been introduced.

Even Theravadans - and I am one - must admit that Theravada Buddhism is not the original Buddhism that the Lord Buddha taught over 2, 500 years ago. It's not even an exact living version of the Buddhadhamma that's found in its scripture, the Tipitaka. In Thailand, where I live, Buddhism is essentially Theravadan in nature, but has may elements derived from Thai folk religion, Mahayana Buddhism, and even Hindu Brahmanism. It has adapted itself to the Thai psyche.

The important issue, I would suggest, is that whatever additions and variations different types of Buddhism add to basic Buddhadharma, they should retain the basics. And what are they? Well, in the Dhammacakka' Sutta, widely accepted as the first discourse of the Buddha, he taught the Four Noble Truths including the Noble Eightfold Path. Surely these are the heart of any lifestyle or discipline that we care to call 'Buddhist'.

Also central to the Dharma are the Three Characteristics (Tilakkhana) of existence, that everything is anicca (impermanent), dukkha (unsatisfactory), and anatta (not-self). Along with the Triple Gem - the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha - here are the basic elements of Buddhism that any Buddhist would surely admit to.

Again, great post, James; I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Gary at Forest Wisdom.

annrrinehard said...

Hi James,

One of the basic teachings of Buddhism is that everything changes. Another is that we can change only ourselves. So as the world evolves, our Buddhist practice must evolve with it. Thank you for sharing your beautiful practice.

They call him James Ure said...


You're welcome and thank-you. I agree, I love to see people come together and not only enjoy each other's differences but see how they weave a brighter, stronger quilt of spirituality.


Thank-you. I really enjoy writing about this emerging form of Buddhism. It is an exciting time in the world-wide sangha.

Yes I've found that taking one's time is important. Because otherwise we begin to resent the practice and that leads to stopping altogether. Slow and steady wins the race as the metaphor goes.


I'm not surprised. The Dalai Lama seems perfectly adapted to western culture and has a way of bridging the cultures to unite Buddhists from all countries and areas.

His wisdom is so deep and profound and works on so many levels. I really appreciate how his main goal is to get people to living peacefully side by side. Whatever their religion or form of Buddhism.


Thank-you and thank-you for reminding me about the Three Characteristics of Existence. Those are indeed important parts of the basic foundation that is important in connecting all forms of Buddhism.


Great comment. I think that often we as Buddhists see our tradition of Buddhism as pure and unchangeable and that is less skillful thinking. It only serves to isolate and cause tensions between people.

Sure there are basics that help form a foundation of what Buddhism aims to do. However, not every house will be decorated the same way once the shape and style begins to form on top of the foundation.

elenaberenice said...

It sounds really interesting :)

Laura said...

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Thanks -- Laura

James said...

I find this an endlessly fascinating subject. Thank you for the lovely summation...

Paul said...

I join the discussion rather late, but agree with all I've read here. Certainly a form of Buddhism will emerge or evolve in the Western part of the world. Like Gary, I have a Theravada perspective. And I believe there should be by all means adherence to the basics.

What does concern me is an effort in some quarters (and I've seen it) to create something called Western Buddhism or any other name that includes a mishmash of multiple spiritual traditions and fads with a generous helping of Western psychology thrown in as an essential ingredient..

I don't refer to cultural influences as seen, as Gary describes, in Thai Buddhism or in Tibetan Buddhism, or Zen. I do refer to the intentional assimilation of this or that "tradition" because a certain teacher thinks it's cool or otherwise appropriate. There would come a point, I imagine, where such a teaching is no longer Buddhadharma, even if it is called Buddhism.

Thanks, James, for stirring my thoughts with this post. It's truly a topic of interest and worthy of consideration.

They call him James Ure said...


I share your concerns. I wrote a post just above this one about how I feel about those issues you raised. I think that a so-called Western Buddhism will be just one influence on each school that is developing within America. I think and I hope the fundamentals will not change.

I believe that each school will retain it's traditional structure while blending with the western culture to some extent.

Pyrogen said...

I have noticed some of the profound difference between Asian vs western Buddhism - but what I am seeing as possibly the most important difference, is that when we Westerners become Buddhists, we are coming from a high percentage of broken families, from a culture that does not place parents and grandparents as very important, and does not regard wisdom of elders as very important in general. We were left to raise ourselves and figure it all out on our own, and we come from a very individualistic society. Westerners who desire a more "Asian" life do not become Buddhists - they become Mormons, or Orthodox Jews.

If Buddhism had caught fire in the west prior to the 1960s, it would be a whole different story.

Anonymous said...

Americanization of Buddhism is killing it in the USA, that's why I only study with Aisan Masters. I don't trust the American teachers as their egos are too big. Sorry.

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