Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Western Buddhist Movement - Part 1 – Rites of Passage

Thanks in large part to enormous advancements in communication technology and the incredible popularity of the internet and its ability to allow for rapid and open sharing of information and ideas, a fast growing and diverse community of Western/Progressive Buddhists has emerged. The sites, blogs, message boards, readers and contributors grow almost daily as more and more people are introduced to the true essence of Buddhism, free from the ancient dogma of many of the established sects already in existence. Of all our defining characteristics, it has been our individualism and open mindedness that has driven the new community of curious folks to delve beyond the traditions of other cultures into the bare bones teachings, to see something incredible and wonderful at the core of what the Buddha taught. It has been of great interest to me, this idea of a unified Western Buddhist tradition that brings the best of all traditions and teachings together both online and in real life.

Such are generalizations; however, I see the members of our vast and diverse online community share many similar traits and mannerisms that have shaped a lot of what has morphed into this idea of Western Buddhism. Most of us live in Western Europe, North America or Australia/New Zealand,(obviously with exceptions) which due to many recent events since the end of WW2, has drawn us closer by language, culture and customs. The internet has only served to bond this community of Westerners closer together. Borders and boundaries no longer impede the spread of ideas and information as once it had. Many of us in this community are highly skeptical of accepting a truth told to them without first testing and seeing for themselves. Our community of Western Buddhists tends to be full of people who are artistic, opinionated, individualistic, intelligent, open minded, thoughtful, political and most importantly driven to seek truth beyond the doubts and uncertainties of the unknown.

Back in March, Justin Whitaker wrote a very interesting and thought provoking post, entitled “What, if anything, is Buddhism?” In the post, he talks about the differences between the new convert Buddhists of the West and the immigrant Buddhists. Justin says about an article on the issue,
“This model divides Buddhists in the West into two groups: immigrant Buddhists and convert Buddhists. The immigrant Buddhists generally try to maintain the type of Buddhism they practiced before, preserving ritual, language, and other elements from their home country. Converts pick and choose aspects they find most helpful, often searching for the "true Buddhism" to be found when "cultural accretions" are stripped away. What you end up with is two quite remarkably different kinds of Buddhism. The immigrant laypeople rarely, if ever, meditate, they donate regularly to temples and monastic’s, believe in ghosts and take part in (to Western eyes) strange rituals. Western converts meditate a lot, spend more on books about Buddhism than at their local meditation center, and avoid anything looking "superstitious."

He goes on to say
,“On the one hand, this model looks good and may make good intuitive sense. But for those who have studied Buddhism in the West, and for many simply experiencing it, these categories fall apart pretty fast. We find plenty of converts chanting dutifully in languages they don't understand, immigrants meditating assiduously, and so on. Those who cling fast to the model say that this is simply the "Westernization" of immigrants and the "cultural appropriation" of some converts, thus showing the model's continued usefulness, albeit growingly muddled.”
This is rather interesting to me, and makes some valid points about the unease of which one in the West is able to fit into the traditions and customs of other cultures, for which we share little with. Our choices as Buddhists or those that are just curious are pretty limited outside the confines of the internet. Definitely, many great Western teachers of varying traditions exist, who do an excellent job transferring the concepts of Buddhism to those in the West while leaving behind some of the cultural trappings of the ancient religions. But many of them are limited, not only by the tradition they have taken on but by sheer lack of numbers and accessibility.

Without a doubt, an organization could not be more decentralized, more personalized than our web of links and blogs than this thing we call Western Buddhism. Hell, I doubt one could even define what we all talk about and do and are as any type of organization whatsoever. Perhaps, common ground is not possible, given the different viewpoints and ideas we all have. Maybe, our loosely connected maze like group is the strength and not something that could be improved upon. However, I for one, see threads of commonality, layers of mannerisms, individualism and a pursuit of truth that ties all of us closer together. I think many of us see something special in all of you, something that goes beyond just culture and ideas, something that binds us as fellow travelers on our separate journeys of discovery.

I think there is enough common ground, open mindedness and plenty of drive and yearning to form something great, something that goes beyond the bounds of what established religions could even consider possible by a band of loosely formed seekers of truth in spirituality. A group that rises from the people, almost seemly at chance, unhindered by either borders or dogma, trapped by neither blind faith nor conformity, whose aim is truth and who’s only unshakable faith lies within belief in their own ability to seek and find understanding.

Perhaps this is all no more than a silly pipe dream. But the question remains, is a unification of all the different splinters of our Western Buddhist community able to grow and morph into a new type of living and shared tradition?

(Part 2 will focus on what makes Western Buddhism different than established Buddhist traditions.)


  1. Joseph Goldstein also tackles the topic in his book, "One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism."

    One of the wonderful things I see about Western Buddhism is the appreciation western Buddhists have for each other regardless of the tradition they follow, at least among the convert Buddhists. The Christian community in the West has been striving for the same sense of oneness since the beginning of the Ecumenical movement, but just haven't been able to pull off.

    Though I haven't attended myself, a martial arts dojo in Oklahoma City has something called "Innerspace" where they have at least six different Buddhist traditions who meet on different days, and many of the attendees will participate in at least several of them. I think this is wonderful.

    However, I realize there are also a lot of criticisms against how Buddhism is shaping up in the West, some of which I had hoped to tackle in a future post. I think most of them are unwarranted and generally cynical.

    The one place I do think that Buddhism stands to lose in the West is if the fringe Buddhist groups who are nothing more than cult of personalities (and I don't mean groups venerating people like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Suzuki Roshi) will regulate Buddhism to nothing more than New Age mind control farms or high dollar "fix yourself" feel good programs.

    If only more eastern teachers would realize that a healthy skepticism and critical thinking skills are a strength, not a weakness, to Buddhist practice. But I'll talk more about that later.

  2. Had I not read this post, I (an outsider to Buddhism) would never have known there were any major differences.

    As our lives become more and more secularised, and the internet and audio books allow us the luxury of not having to go meet face to face for an hour or two once a week to understand teachings and such, it seems (as I understand it to be) that Western Buddhism has responded well to this societal shift. Quite a convenient evolution, in my opinion.

  3. Jamie - Thanks for your comments. I agree, the fringe cult like groups or those out to make a quick buck promising some mystical experince are a problem. I think this is true for a lot of different groups, and they taint the meaning of the teachings and it reflects badly on all the others.

    I'd like to see what you have to say about this. Thanks for the comments.

    Jody - I agree, in the West we have learned to adapt the practice to fit the new mediums given. Thanks!

  4. Great post, Kyle, and thanks for the kind words about mine. I was particularly drawn to your open question at the end:

    "...is a unification of all the different splinters of our Western Buddhist community able to grow and morph into a new type of living and shared tradition?"

    My sense is that the unity we have as Buddhists is based in our experience of the path - we've all seen in our own way that it works. So long as we do our practice and share in the joy of the growth of others (mudita), that community will grow and strengthen. If we focus too much on differing 'beliefs' and practices, claiming superiority or speaking beyond our experience, we'll shred ourselves up into little arguing factions. :) It sounds like an easy choice, but remember that we're all human (meaning that we're habituated to do silly things from time to time).