Friday, 6 February 2009

Morphology of Western Buddhism

Buddhism has changed every time it has entered a new culture. However, we can justifiably say that in its meeting with modern Western culture, Buddhism is at a unique crossroads in its history for several reasons:
  • For the first time in it's history, all the various strands of Buddhism are able to be examined and compared together.
  • Sophisticated scholarship and archaeology allow us to accurately identify what the original teaching's of Buddha probably were and trace their evolution.
  • Science and psychotherpeutic theory are much more advanced than they were in Buddha's time and can now be applied to his teachings.
For many years there has been a debate within Western Buddhism as to what extent the dharma should be kept traditional and to what extent it should be adapted to western culture. Is the dharma already perfect and in no need of change? To what extent are cultural trappings superficial and unnecessary? Are all religions essentially the same? Is Buddhism essentially a sort of therapy?

Answers range from the very traditional to the radically reformed. It's like watching Darwin's finch arriving on the Galápagos Islands and seeing it evolve into many specialised species. I suspect that the question is no longer 'what form will Buddhism take in the west?' , but 'how many forms will Buddhism take in the West?'.

Here are a few examples, skewed by my greater knowledge of Zen than other schools. Please share any more examples types you can think of and I'll add them here.

Keeping things as traditional as possible.

Association Zen Internationale:
Traditional dress and ceremony preserved, content sometimes liberalised into therapeutic or Judeo-Christian language.

San Franscisco Zen Centre:
As above, slightly more liberal.

Some modification of teachings and/or form.

Dogen Sangha International:
Ceremony and precepts largely dropped. Zazen-only focus. Some integrative theorising. Reform begun in Japan. Brad Warner combines some Buddhist thought with punk counter-culture.

Throssel Hole
Teachings and ceremony integrated with Judeo-Christian concepts and culture

Buddhist Syncretism
In spite of their various expressions, all forms of Buddhism are essentially the same and can be largely taught as a whole.

Friends of the Western Buddhist Order

Western Insight Meditation/Vipassana Movement:

Rooted in the Theravadin Thai Forest and Burmese traditions, liberal, primarily a lay-led movement (no ordination of monks). Leaders include Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzburg.

Integral Movement/Spiritual Syncretism
All or most religious, spiritual and psychological thought are all ways of talking about the same thing and can be integrated into one philosophy. This approach is often associated with New Age thinking.

Ken Wilbur

Eckart Tolle
Tolle is essentially informal accessible zen without formal meditation, using Judeo-Christian, New Age and Psychotherapeutic language

Therapeutic Adoption
Buddhist techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on depression, stress, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Using a religious format is not necessary.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy
Combined with cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness meditation (which is essentially the same as Zazen) is used to treat long-term depression and other issues. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is another variant. Religious/spiritual language is absent. Philosophical content, while close to Buddhism, is adapted and reformulated.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Whoops...sorry about the delete.

    I have one to add under the Buddhist Syncretism catagory.

    Western Insight Meditation/Vipassana Movement:
    Rooted in the Theravadin Thai Forest and Burmese traditions, liberal, primarily a lay-led movement (no ordination of monks). Leaders include Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzburg.

    This is the tradition I identify with the most. In fact, Gil Fronsdal is the closest thing I would consider to being my teacher (I don't have an in-person teacher due to my physical location, so most of my practice is sitting alone, reading books, on-line community, and podcasts).

    I may do up a post later on the Western IM/V Movement or do a review of Goldstein's "One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism" soon.

  3. Well, there are about 102 different toothpaste products on sale at the average large drugstore. It's a function of the age, perhaps, that Buddhism will splay across a wide spectrum of possibilities.

    Since Western Buddhism is, generally, non-dogmatic, there will be solotary persons having their own, individualized points of view, in constant flux.

    This is not a bad thing; we'll still be able to talk with each other. And this Jellyfish Buddhism will grow and prosper, adding ever more tenticles.

  4. Hello Justin,

    Thank you for this post (and the blog itself!).

    In reading this post, I am reminded of something else I read.

    “If Zen has a universal element that transcends historical and cultural bounds, it should be nurtured here in the West with its own distinctive marks and imprints.”

    Thus wrote Hee-Jin Kim, in his landmark book, Eihei Dogen Mystical Realist.

    The character of "Progressive Buddhism", based on my experience, is one of the “universal elements” of the classic masters as they are portrayed in the classic records of Zen. Although each of the great masters demonstrates individual, often highly distinctive styles, they nevertheless exhibit certain “universal elements.”

    Another element they share is an air of serenity and unshakable authority that is based on personal experience, rather than knowledge or learning. Perhaps the most important element they share is the message that informs and permeates all of their records; all beings are inherently endowed with the freedom and wisdom of the sages, they need only awaken to their true nature to realize the fact.

    Would it not be marvelous to practice/realize Progressive Buddhism as an exploration of how we can best carry the liberating message of the Buddhadharma to all beings in modern world —and beyond.
    Thus, the question seems to be how to carry the authentic teachings while remaining outside the defined orthodoxy of any particular sect, school, or lineage. The examples set by many of the classic masters may provide us with clues on how to “nurture” the “universal element” of the Buddhad-harma in a style with the “distinctive marks and imprints” of the modern world.

    Thanks again!

    Ted Biringer

  5. Hi Ted, thanks,

    I think the difficulty is always going to be getting people to agree where 'distinctive marks and imprints' ends and 'universal element' begins. And this conservative-liberal scale of interpretation is reflected in the wide range of forms that Western Buddhism takes with Conservative forms at one end, Buddhist syncretism and reformist in the middle and Integral and Therapeutic at the far end (and no longer technically Buddhism).

    So this opens up a good topic for discussion: what is essential to Buddhism and what is just cultural expression?