Search This Blog


Buddhism in the News


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Do We Really Need a Western Buddhism?

This post was inspired by a post by Arunlikhati over at Dharma Folk and by my comment to that post. Arunlikhati's post was regarding Western Buddhism and this idea by some in the west that western philosophy will somehow make Buddhism "better:" I personally don't think western Buddhists would make Buddhism better but simply different and more applicable to their/my culture. As the various Buddhist traditions around Asia aren't better than another (In my view, though some might think so) but reflect the needs and different aspects of their culture.

The term "Western Buddhist" is rather amorphous in my view. Since there is no native Buddhism in America a Western Buddhism would have to borrow much from an Asian Buddhist tradition but, which tradition? Or do we borrow a little bit from Theravada, Vajrayana, Mahayana and Zen (some place Zen into its own tradition of Buddhism)? Yet if we do that then doesn't it risk becoming the soup with too many ingredients, which cancel each other out leaving a odd and not so fulfilling taste?

And who makes those decisions? Will some council meet like the infamous Councils of Nicea in early Christianity, which some argue caused more harm than good. Or will there still be these different traditions but with the descriptor "Western" in front of it to delineate the tradition being influenced by "western" culture and philosophy. That is the option that I prefer and believe the most likely to emerge from the vague and foggy term, "Western Buddhism." For example, I now often say that I am a Western Zen Buddhist and if further pressed, " taught by Thich Nhat Hanh" to show that I am a westerner to describe my particular cultural tradition who practices Zen Buddhism.

I use to believe in a Western Buddhism but now I'm not so interested because of all the variables and questions that I mentioned.

I just think that the "western" part should apply only to the western culture and how it adds and influences whatever school of Asian Buddhism that a westerner follows. In this way we are honoring and maintaining as our foundation (the Asian traditions and heritage) but also paying respect and celebrating our western culture/philosophy as a wonderful addition to our particular traditions.

In the end It doesn't come down to any of this--these labels are mere fingers pointing to the glorious moon. It comes down to the present moment where labels mean nothing. However, it is an issue that needs to be discussed and fine tuned because right now "western Buddhists" are like a man without a country or a ship without a sail adrift in a sea of opposing currents and shifting winds.

PHOTO CREDIT: I couldn't find the photographer who took this but this is the site where I found it.

~Peace to all beings~

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Reymiland said...

Just as a daisy has a center and many petals, Buddhism has a center and many petals..each petal joined to the center and presenting a beautiful way.

One petal is not a flower, neither is the center without the petals, neither is a stem without a head. All parts perform a function to produce the whole.

Just as a flower can grow in fertile ground, so it may grow in a pile of refuse or through the crack in cement, so can the thought of Buddhism grow in many places.

They call him James Ure said...


Well said. There are 80,000 paths...

Tom said...

Western Buddhism, as I think of it, is infused with modernity. Modernity confers dignity and equality.

I'm keen on Western Buddhism. Premodern Buddhism has many nasty quirks that Western Buddhism fully does not: such as prejudices against women and gays.

I believe that Westen Buddhists do become enlightened, and others who follow the loosey-goosey Western Buddhist path make great strides in the right direction. What's to complain?

I admit that I wish it was less segregated with Asians over here; and Black people way over in another direction; and caucasians thinking they're the main line way over in some other sangha -- but that's the way it is, for now. What can you do? We need to work on that, somehow.

We CERTAINLY don't need a wrongheaded Nicean council! And I wish the Christians would reverse all the decisions that council imposed upon them! Goodbye Revelation; Hello the Gospel of Thomas, I say.

Barry said...

I wonder if there isn't a lot of attachment to the term "Buddhism" in all this discussion? From my research, the earliest use of the term "Buddhism" occurred around 1801 - it's essentially a Western invention used to describe an incredible diversity of spiritual practices that evolved in Asia from the teachings of the Buddha.

Underneath this discussion, I fear, is attachment to name and form. And, worse, attachment to "picking and choosing" - the whole world of opposites (mine/yours, us/them, etc.)

Of course, this comment can be construed as operating in that opposites world. So be it.

By the way, I very much support Arunlikhati's efforts to bring out the contributions and presence of so many Western practitioners with Asian roots. He continues to press on this important issue and he deserves our support.

L.B. said...

Fingers pointing at the moon has to be my favourite analogy.

They call him James Ure said...

I'm worried that I didn't convey my points to well with this post because I was trying to establish the thesis that no one strand of Buddhism is better than others.

I wanted to show how we can balance appreciation for our cultures while also appreciating and valuing the Asian Buddhist foundation to the Dharma.

I'm worried that some of you thought I was trying to say one is better than another, which I didn't want to convey. I was hoping to shed some light on the subject. I'm an academic by training and I know that I can get a little too scholarly sometimes but It helps me to write my thoughts out.

I realize that talking and writing is using labels and terms and definitions but we have to write about it somewhat in order to discuss it over the internet. It's hard to keep up a blog on Buddhism without writing these things out.

I don't see anything wrong it discussing the possible ways Buddhism will evolve in America as long as we all remember it's not essential to realizing enlightenment.

I know that in the end enlightenment will be realized despite writing or not but studying is an important aspect to the Dharma I think. It helps us better understand what we are doing or not doing.

Shinzen Nelson said...

Isn't it more important to be a Buddha, than a Buddhist?

Dreamwriter said...

I LOVE this blog and so looking forward to reading more and learning about Buddhism.

I linked you!

wsfaro said...

I agree with Barry - I think that trying to formulate or call Buddhism practiced in West as "Western" Buddhism seems like it is about attachment to the name "Western Buddhism." I do not think it really matters what you call it - reaching enlightenment/becoming a Buddha is the goal.

They call him James Ure said...


Yes, I would say that in the end it is more important to be a Buddha than a Buddhist. I was simply speculating on how Buddhism might evolve in America in the future. I wasn't trying to alienate others or cling to some kind of American exceptionalism. Ironically I was trying to do the exact OPPOSITE of that!! Apparently I screwed that up pretty good!!

To all:

I know that it's all just words but I enjoy writing and sharing ideas, opinions and thoughts about ALL aspects of Buddhism.

I realize that it's all just more thinking in the end but I personally am not yet in a place where I can abandon thinking completely.

Nor abandoning academic pursuits such as discussing the structure of Buddhism itself as it evolves and branches out now and in the future. It's just fascinating to me--it's like a hobby for me in a way. We all have hobbies don't we? I know I'm not the only one amongst us commentators here who does this--all of us who have blogs are victims of dualistic thought and writing to some degree.

I realize that it's all useless in the end but I don't think that we have to abandon every thought or speculation that comes into our minds.

We have to stay astride the middle-path and I honestly was trying to do just that--balance my western culture/philosophy with that of Buddhism itself, which tends to be more Asian--culture wise. And I love Asian culture. But there I go again using those pesky words!!! :)

I guess I have more to learn but I'm happy with where I am right now and I'm making my way down the path as best I can. I'm not settling for what is comfortable though--I am moving forward, ableit slow many times.

I'm not trying to offend anyone here but I feel like that is what some think. And if I offended you (any of you) then I apologize.


Hmm, I don't think I got my point across then because I too was saying that "Western Buddhism" is an amorphous term and one that I'm not comfortable with. I thought I made that clear in the post but I guess not given all the comments saying otherwise.

Yes, I realize it doesn't matter what we call it but right now while we're all unenlightened (at least I am) I think it's fine to celebrate traditions.

We don't abandon the traditions around Zen Buddhism or Theravadan Buddhism so I was just speculating as to what those schools (Zen, etc.) will bring to the Buddhist tradition in American in the future.

Obviously this post touched a nerve with people. I didn't mean it to nor did I think I was writing a post that would be controversial. I was just expressing an opinion as an unenlightened, still learning Buddhist. :)

Oh and I feel I should stress again that I'm not a teacher, nor a trained monastic or master. I'm just plodding along the path like the rest of you. Or at least trying to.

wsfaro said...

Hi James,
Sorry I didn't mean to be confrontational - I was just stating what I thought about the idea of "Western" Buddhism, and I definitely understood your point about the future of Buddhism in the US. And I think it's okay if this topic is considered controversial - that way we can have good discussions like these! :)

They call him James Ure said...


Oh cool. I'm glad that you got my point about Buddhism in America and it's future. No, I don't mind controversial posts either. I guess I was just surprised that this one was going to be one of those!! Maybe I was being a bit naive. Thanks for clearing up your comment. :)


Niles D. Willits-Spolin said...

A "western" Buddhism? I don't know. But I will say that the "buddhisms" that I am acquainted with as an American, which is to say, the ways in which I understand and see many people practice Buddhism in the US, is often confusing to these well-intentioned folks, and also not terribly helpful to people beyond memorizing slogans, relaxing a bit with the breath and gearing up for work on Monday.

American practices of Buddhism are too often a confounding of sutra, tantrika, a bit of this and that wisdom dispensed from visiting lamas, lacking teachers, too heavy on the advanced teachings and too light on basic practice, and too, too stuck in first gear for those who want and are ready to move into more sophisticated practice.

Not apparent, but real, I say, is that Asian culture is wrapped up and embedded along with many of the Dharma teachings that are imported to America. The Buddhist sound bytes, brief magazine articles, nuggets from His Holiness the Dalai Lama that come our way via the media, the tantric rituals, weekend empowerments that Americans engage in on retreats..., A lot of the teachings have implicit in them certain concepts about personhood, individual/group ego and identity, reverence for elders, public face versus private, etc., that are as much Asian as they are "Buddhist." Also, because there is little historic tradition of Buddhism in America, there is a daunting (ultimately often failing) attempt by many Americans to adopt some of these practices that have in them Asian cultural values. And many teachings we practice here in America are Tibetan. Among them are the steepest and most difficult for anyone around the globe to practice, such as the bodhisattva vow, the six-session guru deity recitations that carry a lifetime vow, etc, even for laypersons.

These are the practices of eastern Buddhists who have had the benefit of learning how to be with these practices, how to be mindful and be supported in that practice by their cultures---if not actually at least by intention and ideal. And they more often have teachers at hand. Not so in America. Here, to cultivate mindfulness, say, and work on an understanding and experiential realization of emptiness, in a culture that supports aggression and violence when needed, and where there are seldom any teachers who live here and are accessible to really develop a relationship with layperson/householder practitioners, it's a very difficult practice and a confusing one to self identify as "Buddhist" when you come from a Catholic or Jewish or other religious background as many Buddhists in America do. This is a much harder path than overcoming the mental afflictions that the ancients spoke of in their cultures in eras long gone.

Shantideva, are you listening? Nagarjuna, what do we do about North Korea, Iraq, the Taliban?
Your Holiness, Dalai Lama, you are quite helpful when you admonish us in America to wait about five years before taking vows and to consider sticking with the religious practices of families because, you say, all religions have the same good intention---to help others, to have a better world. Now THAT is what I call "Buddhism"!

Robbie C said...

IMHO.. don't all cultures believe they can better the elements of Buddhism by adding their own special/unique aspects? I believe the many paths are just the many beliefs that "this" view will make Buddhism speak to my culture in a "better" way.

Tom said...

nice topic for buddhist very usefull for me


Paul said...

Very true, I think Western Buddhism could be seen as like a resume. You have one large resume then you edit it slightly depending on the job you are going for. So like you say the aspects of Buddhism in a specific school of thought will highlight those parts that are more in tune with the lifestyle of the geographic area.

Brian said...

(1) No east without west
(2) I wonder if the Tibetans sighed when the first Buddhist arrived, "Well, there goes the neighborhood..."
(3) What changes in Western Buddhism (other than someone's silly need for the location qualifier) is that the truth of the Buddha is in a cloud, a person, a flower, an angry face, a street person lying on the sidewalk, a thousand places.

To express that truth, western terms are needed. The insistence upon "eastern" terminology and dogma and baggage isn't needed.

People communicate Buddhism. When all else fails, they may have to use words.

A said...

No, we don't need one... teachings of Buddhism, as magnificent as Buddha decor, are universal. Thus, it knows no arbitrary boundaries of west or east, north or south...

ShareThis Option