Wednesday, 27 May 2009

I am a Western Buddhist

James Ure, who is an excellent blogger and a great asset to the Buddhist blogging community, over at The Buddhist Blog, wrote a wonderful and thought provoking piece a couple of weeks ago entitled "Do we really need Western Buddhism?" James writes;

"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."

I was going to answer him on his blog, but I felt like this needed its own post. I like this comparison with "being a man without a country", and I see everyone of us in this great big web of people, sharing ideas as those who are now, shaping and defining our practice and our traits. I completely agree, I don't think labels are all that great, however, in this relative world some labels can help build a community and sense of belonging to all those afloat in a sea of uncertainty. I feel we already have defined and created a new tradition of Western Buddhism, however with all the different people and pages, I think its hard to put our finger on and define the wonderful community that these sites, blogger's, contributors and readers have helped forge. They are all pioneers, just like any of you reading this now are.

Another excellent writer on modern Buddhist thought, Lawrence Levy, wrote "We do not see ourselves as inventors of something new but as stewards carrying into our own culture and time an extraordinary methodology for inner development."
I think this idea of stewardship is an important one. Many great teachers in the last 40 years have brought the essence of Buddhist teachings, stripped of unneeded dogma and culture westward, and it is up to all of us to carry this spirit of innovation and enthusiasm forward, so the next generation has a solid foundation to help them find there own way.

Why do I say Western Buddhism exists already?

That which binds us together:

Most all of us are from countries that are representational Democracies, who's governments power ultimately derives, (to borrow the words from Abraham Lincoln) "of the people, by the people, for the people" and "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.". We all come from societies and cultures that place a high value on equality, justice, tolerance and the rule of law, even though we realize many times it is an imperfect system. Our cultures have a broad and well entrenched tradition of individual liberties and freedoms, such as speech, the press and freedom from and of religion. Most of us also come from countries already steeped rich in diversity, who draw strength, not weakness from these differences. Our perfection lies in our knowledge that we are imperfect beings and hence we can always learn from others.

For most of us Westerners, Buddhist study is not something we were born into, pressed into by culture, family or tradition, but approached by our own curiosity and initiative, with a free will and as true beginners. We all place logic, reason and good judgment over believing what is told to us out of a book or a sermon; relying on understanding over dogma and experience over blind faith. Look at our community now, I find it very difficult to find any individuals that won't discuss openly and freely their own particular practice with anyone from any other tradition. We have, by our very open mindedness and divergent backgrounds made accessible the whole enigma that traditional Buddhism used to be, into something that is shared in an accessible and candid community. It is very difficult to find this anywhere else in this world, as practice for many traditional Buddhists is much more culturally based, and not often shared between denominations.

We already have a bustling, open and prodigious community of Western Buddhists. Even though we may not know it, we already have a this and it is most definitely reflective of the diverse cultures we all hail from. Winston Churchill wrote "Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn." I could not agree more.


We do not need to wear cultural or traditional robes, but we accept and can learn from those that do.
We do not need to bow to statues or even each other, but we accept and can learn from those that do.
We do not need to be Zen, Tibetan, Theravada or of any of the many other ancient Buddhist traditions, but we accept and can learn from those that are.
We do not need to shave our heads and join some remote monastery, but we accept and can learn from those that do.
We do not need to believe or not believe in God; or be Chiristian, Muslim, Hindi, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic or any of the other countless traditional religions, but we accept those that are and can learn from them.
We reject the extremes of all human indignities and realize the best path lies usually somewhere in the middle.
We realize that conquering the problems and hardships of this life, and answering the profound questions of a spiritual life are not separate, but are intimately and irrevocably intertwined.

This is why I am not shamed to say I am a Western Buddhist.

We have found common ground from where we all can help each other up whatever our individual practices we may embark on. With the tens of thousands of pages of sutras, writings and teachings, we can boil off a lot of the extra words, and find universal principles to build upon.

Common Principles

Three Basic Principles
Anicca - We must experience and understand the impermanence of all things.
Dukkha - We must experience all the hardships, problems, suffering and unsatisfactoriness of this life and search for the cause of them.
Anatta - We must search for self, understand its beginnings and ends, experience its true form and nature.

Those that have come before us said it is possible, with our inherent human ability and effort, that with acute attention to this moment, awareness of how all things arise and fall and our interconnectedness with all that is, ever was and ever will be, that we can find some answers, some relief and some genuine understanding of the true nature of our existence. We should not take any one answer for truth, but test it and see for ourselves these things. Many traditional Buddhists may emphasis one type of practice over another or one aspect of teaching over another. I think we all here share in the idea, for each person has there own path, for which they must find for themselves. Taken as a whole, our community gives all three aspects of Buddhist practice the same weight, each having equal emphasis towards the goal. The Buddha called this the noble eightfold path.

Three Pillars of Practice
Understanding - The wisdom and science of Buddhist philosophy is what draws many of us here and I think it is so extremely important to gain a conceptual handle of what "is being pointed to" in able to move our practice forward.
Practice - We must all find our own way of meditation, weather it be ZaZen, a Tibetan mantra, a Theravada Vipassana process, a combination of all three or something completely new. Mindfulness of mind, perfection of concentration is something that is very person specific, and with right effort can be attuned to every individual as a mature and seasoned practice.
Compassion - When we can understand that we exist because of everything else, and are not separate from one another, we can find compassion for all beings, even in the face of ignorance and intolerance. We may find compassion because we see how they suffer or struggle. We can perhaps see how our words and our actions affect others and ourselves, and maybe we can find some sense of compassion and love to help not only them, but more importantly, yourself. A moral life should not be pursued because you think its the right thing to do, we should make some effort to see WHY it is the right thing to do.

The Canadian Poet, Irving Layton, once somewhat sarcastically wrote "A Canadian is someone who keeps asking the question, 'What is a Canadian?'" Maybe we can, in a much more deliberate and determined effort ask, "What is a Western Buddhist?" The answer is shaped by each and everyone of you, in every word you say and in every moment that passes.

Even if I am the only one, I am not bothered and I am not ashamed to say, I am a Western Buddhist.


  1. For someone like me, who doesn't know much about Buddhism, this was a really informative post. The similarities and differences of the "facets" are interesting. It's neat to see a different form of a "grounding" element develop in this community of like-minded individuals, rather than bricks and mortar.

  2. An excellent and thoughtful post, Kyle. We Western Buddhists have long been attached to the notions of cutting through labels. Yet for all of us who are well shy of awakening, labels shape our lives, whether we are aware of them or not.

  3. This was absolutley fantastic - almost a manifesto of the 'new', 'street' American Buddhism discussed so much lately. That Western Buddhists are diverse and have intentionally chosen this path over their existing cultures' traditions is what seems to make it difficult to quantify or describe, and yet it is our strength. Rather than the nihilistic strength of Straight Edge this Western Buddhist has discovered the stainable strength of compassion. I'm not sure I've seen such a consice statement of this before, let alone one so eloquent.

  4. Thanks for the nod and compliments. :)

  5. Thank you for all the wonderful comments!

  6. Nice to read from your blog. Wish to read more regards life og western buddhist. thank you.

  7. Thanks for the post. I am on who wishes to follow the Dharma but has no use for all the things that you mention, and who sees his Buddhism as accepting the three tenets you mention (I believe Steven Batchelor also pointed these out). These three are the essence of Buddhist thought, without all the mysticism and the trappings of "religion." Buddha, did he exist, never intended to start a "religion", only to show the path to enlightenment.

  8. Great article; I feel that Buddhist philosophy and teaching has spread quickly throughout the 'Western' nations, and is more amazing when acknowledged that it isn't usually considered 'Western' and is followed out of free will. It's reached 'Western' culture too, with an episode of 'The Simpsons' looking at it. Also, it's awesome that it is without a nation, since despite being British, I can discuss Buddhist teachings with Americans, Australians etc. and indeed, the slightly more traditional Buddhists of North-East India and Vietnam.

  9. Sri Lankan Buddhist17 May 2012 at 15:44

    Thanks for the post. By the way, it's better if you could have explained the meaning and the importance of the "Shraddha", the indisputable belief of the Lord Buddha and his enlightenment.Of course once a person who comes to Shraddha, he has a doubtless understanding about Lord Buddha, his teachings, Dhamma and about the Lord Buddha's disciples, Sangha.
    Actually it is vital to come to Shraddha. Because it is the root, or the beginning of following the noble eight items path (Aarya Ashtangika Marga) and reaching the ultimate eternity, nibbana.

    1. One must avoid the temptation to worship Buddha. Calling him Lord Buddha places him on a pedestal, which is counter to his teachings...if he existed.

    2. I see no reason to scwabble among ourselfs, im fairly new to buddhisam, starting back a month ago. Im a child a mear kid in your elderly gaze as i am only 15. But despite . My age i see the fact of any argument is irrational. Its good that you guys are discussing the truth but if he wishes to believe one monk over the rest, as siddartha would have wanted, then i say all the power and kindness follow you in your persuit of true happieness.

    3. Josh, you are wise beyond your age. Thank you for your words of trueness.

  10. Did you say "search for the self"? LULZ.

  11. The article really inspired me to continue learning the Buddhist's teachings, I have searched within myself for too many years for something to believe in and appreciate Buddism for teaching that you must have inner peace first.

  12. As one might view a shark, deadly and savage. But also blissfull and amazing, so is life, all forms. I do not contend that we should be expanding our beliefs onto others, infact we should be more focused within our selfs to even remotly think of the relavence of rightous zeloting. We are supose to be the elders, wisemen, peace makers. We must, if others want to hear, speak openly about philosiphy. But never bring others into deeper suffering, i dont believe in inter ife time karma, only if i look at from a reationalistic, non scientific standpoint. Once you add quantun mechanics into the pot we start to see how entangled particles interact. But beside the point, love not hate, show the philosphy and the needy will follow

  13. If you really desire to get such type of information, visit this blog quickly.four noble truths

  14. Buddha, if he was here today, which he is would not have acknowledged east from west, north from south. This is in your mind let it go

  15. We do have a home. come and visit Western Buddhism from the fourth Yana perspective: The Tiratnayana - the vehicle of the Three Jewels.

  16. It's amazing to see that Western people are taking quite a interest in Buddhism and I think its the result of the true meaning of Buddhism that really lies in the heart of Buddhism.
    I think nobody should be ashamed about their perspectives and their thoughts.