We the Buddhist

Posted on 13. Apr, 2012 by in Blog

As if yesterday, 20 years ago I enjoyed the work of Rick Fields and his narrative “How the Swans Came to the Lake”, copious writings of Sangharakshita, and later in 2002 the “Westward Dharma” edited by Prebish and Baumann. Reading on Buddhism in the West makes you think of Western Buddhism. 20 years later, and in many ways, too little has changed.

Although the beginning of Western encounter with Buddhism can be traced to early or mid-1800s – that is, skipping much earlier Hellenistic episode – it’s not until the 1960s and 1970s that an actual Western Buddhism appeared as a cultural phenomenon. Nearing 50 years of this small but extremely influential movement (although we have nothing like an inception date), it seems a new phase in its development is becoming not just possible, but also necessary. This new phase will most likely be somewhat chaotic and multifaceted, yet also more mature. Information technology, global connectivity, and culture based on ubiquity of information will have strong influence in this passage.

“Buddhism as a movement has yet to consciously embrace and reflect upon its encounter with modernity. Nowhere do we see this more than in the Dharma centers, where technology, for example, is slowly creeping in. Meanwhile, many of our communities still seem to be struggling with incremental change regarding the 60’s & 70’s issues of Dharma in the West – including sectarianism, hierarchy, gender equality, devotion, monasticism, rites and rituals, preservation and adaptation/innovation, commercialization – while the world we live in seems to be changing exponentially.” – Lama Surya Das

Without a systematic, comprehensive approach, what follows is just a sequence of remarks, written to ease my own thinking, in hope that whoever reads this may find it useful while possibly disagreeing in detail or gist. My assumption is that you, the reader, are a practicing Buddhist, at least sort of, most likely Western-born, with modern or secular education, and generally accepting that this 21st century is one of change and adaptation.

(1) The prevailing trend of mirroring national and sectarian identities adopted from Asian contexts cannot be sustained indefinitely, at least not by the “convert” Buddhist community. While discarding historical roots isn’t likely, branching away from specific cultural idiosyncracies will hopefully gain momentum as Western Buddhist practitioners of second and third generations, teachers and students alike, prevail.

(2) Parallel to further enculturation maturing beyond so much folklorism, we will also see more explicit attempt at cross-sectarian, trans-sectarian, and nonsectarian doctrine and practice, based probably on yana-specific principles. This has already been going on as cross-fertilization, but without obvious, significant conclusions in terms of actual organizations and projects devoted to this matter, while parochial attitudes abound resonating with romantic idealizations of this or that true lineage. Be that as it may, there are indications that openminded inquiry is once again gaining momentum among practitioners of Dharma, and that can only be good.

(3) The matrix of Western culture, within which one can practice many different – historically unconnected, and sometimes incompatible – styles of Buddhadharma, is yet to give us an embracing and generous Buddhist identity. There’s surely scope for both “ethnic” and “convert” Buddhists, and also for every ilk of supporter, believer, student, and practitioner, for both traditional and post-traditional forms that are feasible, whether secular, pragmatic, practical, reformist, engaged, hardcore, you name it.

(4) Keen collective self-awareness in Western Buddhism is far from developed, and I can think of three main bases for this hesitancy. First, there’s a generational reluctance exhibited by earlier Western Buddhists toward imposing a unified label on anything, or at least an insistence on holding it light, vague, and contingent. Second, there’s the ongoing semi-justified deference to Asian sources of legitimacy, with mixed results. And last but not least, the inner fragmentation into subcultures and groups and styles and customized hybrids etc. Just for example, a comprehensive and critical survey of the history of Buddhism in the West should very soon become requisite study in practicing circles, and that by itself would improve the present lack of self-awareness.

(5) English language Buddhist magazines advertise the eclectic triad of Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism, while emphasizing meditation as central practice but, when it comes to numbers, the majority of Buddhism in Western societies takes place in many ethnic communities. Thus, the designation “Western” retains the same ambiguity it acquired in notions such as “Western culture” or even “Western world” that serve so many different functions depending on who uses them for what purpose.

(6) As you’re reading this, ironically the fastest growing Buddhist group in the West could easily be the so-called “dark sangha,” namely those who practice by themselves. Just so, each of us separately may not be the future of genuine Western Buddhism, but a movement or current that would bring us closer together while reflecting the rich variety of emerging faces of Buddhism – a veritable rainbow body – that to me sounds like an encouraging promise. Where do you see us 20 years from now?


3 Responses to “We the Buddhist”

  1. Emma

    14. Apr, 2012

    Interesting reading.

    I don’t have much to offer in the way of a vision of what’s to come, but I do think one of the most defining aspects of Western Buddhism that will shape it’s evolution over the next 50 years is the fact that this kind of meta-analysis is happening at all. To truly contemplate one’s personal practice and desire for awakening within the larger context of history, culture and global politics–that feels new. Or at least, much more far-reaching than it has before.

    I agree that this analysis needs to include more self-reflection within Western Buddhism itself, all the way down to the small group level. There seems to be a kind of rigorous inquiry that take place on the cushion (e.g., “What do I know and not know about who I am?”) and even applied historically (“What do I believe and not believe of the Buddha’s teachings?”), but doesn’t get applied nearly as much at the active community level (“How is this sangha evolving and how is it stuck? How is my relationship to my community evolving and how is it stuck?”). Including study on the history of western Buddhism in practice circles is a killer idea.

    One thing I know is that communities tend to evolve not in anticipation of demand, but in response to it. What do we as practitioners want out of Western Buddhism that we are not finding? Whatever that is, we will have to help create it ourselves.

  2. Jikishin

    14. Apr, 2012


    Since Dharma takes the shape-of-the-vessel, the form(s) of culture it appears in, the saturations enjoyed by multigenerational ethnic Buddhisms are already giving way to new norms of instability, out of which opportunities for coherency in the social, cultural dimensions of practice will either be recognized and used, or… the ol’ prophecy of Decline gets to be self-fulfilling.

    I imagine sangha in a phase, such as in the body’s circulatory system, wherein diversity and differentiation rule, like blood reaching extremities and capillaries (reflecting on how ‘together’ it used to be?) not knowing what’s going to happen. Meanwhile the marrow makes blood as usual. So even if we see generations ‘lost’ in skin, ‘exiled’ in limb, I anticipate that the heart/home will also be found in the loose ties of global transience, and that ‘loose’ won’t mean shallow, but provide for depth in ways largely unknown now.

  3. Hokai

    14. Apr, 2012

    @Emma Thx for your feedback. The questions you share are important and deserve informed inquiry.

    @Jikishin Good points, and I would insist that the relationship isn’t just an adaptive taking of shape, but a dynamic mutual reconfiguring of vessel *and* of Dharma, as it happened every time Dharma entered a new civilization (e.g. Chinese). I would argue that organizational reform is key, along with new learning environments. The real challenge isn’t to update and catch up with social and cultural change, but to be at the cutting edge.

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