16 July 2010

What is "Western Buddhism"?

My comments here are intended to be a bit provocative, in the sense of seeking to provoke a closer look at a phenomenon many of us may take for granted.

There are two ways to answer the question, "What is 'Western Buddhism'?": one definition concerns the phenomenon of convert Buddhism in the global north (the "west," or Europe and North America), where non-Asians whose families and cultures did not traditionally practice Buddhism convert to one or another Buddhist tradition. Convert Buddhist sanghas in this sense are necessarily sectarian to some extent, because you have new people becoming integrated with extant Buddhist communities that are themselves dispersed among different sects as a historical fact. This does not preclude good relations among different streams and traditions, of course. And it does not mean there are no significant differences between the practices of Western converts and those of their Asian counterparts, because there often are. My point is that the essence of the traditional practice is passed on. Consider the examples of Chagdud Gonpa, Kwan Um Zen, and of course the Tendai Buddhist Institute: these are traditional schools who have accommodated themselves to North American logistics without compromising anything effective in the traditional pedagogy. The pedagogy works and we know this because these schools have achieved good results in students who have applied themselves to the practice. There are many other examples.

A second definition for "Western Buddhism" concerns the arising of a distinctly "western" form of Buddhism, a new tradition of practice by and for non-Asians ("novayana"). Here, the emphasis is on nonsectarianism, and sanghas are organized around the practice of meditation more specifically than the practice of traditional Buddhism as a complete methodology, as a whole. The leadership structure differs significantly as well: where traditional Buddhist schools are led by trained and ordained clergy or monastics, the "Vipassana Sangha" is often led by a layperson or is entirely absent of centralized or hierarchic leadership. This is, indeed, something new.

I am not convinced this trend is sustainable, however. By shedding any traditional affiliation or concern for doctrine or methodology and emphasizing in an egalitarian way the unity of all spiritual efforts, the sangha is left struggling to identify a clear sense of purpose or continuity. I have seen this happen to the extent that the mystical speculations of Carl Jung or Ken Wilber are treated as though they are as authoritative on the question of what Buddhism means as any traditional Buddhist text, and debates ensue over whether Paul Atrides or Yoda is a superior guide on the path. Similarly, in decoupling meditation from its role in a balanced Buddhist diet and making it the organizing principle of the sangha, an end in itself that needs no justification, meditation becomes available to any purpose at all: not a way to accomplish the bodhisattva's path but as a means to cope with your dysfunctional family and your crappy office job: lifestyle management rather than bodhisattva activity [more on this forthcoming]. To be clear, stress reduction in itself is fine, but it is not an end in itself for Mahayana practice.

My point is that in this form of "Western Buddhism," your method becomes whatever you want it to be, whatever you have at hand to fill in the gap, instead of a methodical engagement with your desires and the gaps of your learning. In the end, your teacher is a deluded person: you. And in a related irony, in the attempt to eschew the thicket of metaphysics by rejecting Buddhist methodological questions, the bus is driven much deeper into the weeds, into endless evaluations and comparisons of Meister Eckhardt and Joseph Campbell... perhaps these are interesting books, but they are more an avoidance strategy in this context than a shortcut around Nagarjuna or the sutras.

To sum all this up, the term "western Buddhism" is a contradictory one. It refers to at least two different kinds of practice, different kinds of motivation, different situation, arguably different cultures. A more systematic treatment of this question would be a useful project.


  1. I think what is happening in western Buddhism is easily compared to how the Chinese initially encountered Buddhism. Basically they had no vinaya, few if any institutions, a limited selection of translated texts (and probably no way of knowing if they were quality or not) and on top of that they interpreted everything through the lens of traditional Chinese thought (Daoist metaphysics, Confucian ideologies of the time, etc...). The results were interesting, but not necessarily useful for Buddhist practitioners.

    But then as time went on they put aside Laozi and had enough primary source material to read the Buddhist texts through a Buddhist lens.

    In the west it is the same way. So many texts don't exist in translation and we're always comparing Buddhist thought to Kant, Richard Dawkins and any number of other popular western thinkers.

  2. Hi Jeffrey,

    I think you're onto something interesting here. Here's why I say this:

    The most significant difference between situation you describe in China and the situation we find ourselves in now, however, is one of proliferation: because of contemporary mass culture and media, we're not only drawing Buddhism through the strainer of Kant et al (is Kant a popular writer?), but also through Oprah, billions of advertisements, and a tsunami of impulses all that stuff generates in people. Otherwise, I think your idea here is spot-on.

    The strains of Chinese Buddhism that persisted (in China or Japan) were ones that held together rigorously methodologically. TianTai's genius was in finding a framework in which to make sense of all the Buddhist materials that had come from India; TianTai persisted. Hua Yen also following after, and the Ch'an schools. The ones that could not identify a program for practice in a clear and rigorous way didn't survive.

    Consequently, I think your comment sheds some light on contemporary "western Buddhism" in the form of the meditation workshop: history shows that the sectarian sangha may be more sustainable in times when the Dharma is transmitting from culture to culture. This is just speculative, but it is worth investigating further.

    Thanks for the insightful comment!

  3. Dear Jikan la

    om svasti

    Your Aloha Amigo post is both refreshing and critically important. I have long held that many individuals perform greater 'due diligence' in buying a car or selecting a plumber than they do in deciding where to seek guidance on the most important issues of all: why do we suffer? what is the cause of suffering? is an end to suffering possible? and what is the path?

    At one time in my life i branded this unfortunate tendency toward eclecticism as 'the buffet approach', but am now convinced that the metaphor is grossly inaccurate.

    In a buffet, there is generally some ethnic, regional, or other consistent motif, and although individuals choose what to put on their plates, there is an over-arching theme to the experience. You can have an Indian Buffet, or a Chinese-Japanese-Korean one, or a Middle Eastern extravaganza.

    The approach to spiritual cultivation in America today is not like a buffet, but rather more like visiting the Food Court at the mall. You get to have your slice of pizza, a couple of tacos, a bowl of fried rice, a side of hummus, french fries, and a 64 ounce Dr Pepper.

    There are 'serious' practitioners who collect empowerments indiscriminately from every passing Tibetan lama, are pillars of their Episcopal or Unitarian church, attend vipassana retreats with regularity, and recite nembutsu daily. [This is NOT a composite!]

    At the other end of the seriousness spectrum we find a proliferation of chakra-crystal-ascended-master-channeled-spirit-kabalah-tarot-enneagram-shaman-coven-mistresses or masters with significant followings. Makes one long for the far simpler days of Aloha Amigo!

    Our Root Lineage Teacher, the Omniscient Dolpopa, frequently admonished us against sectarianism. However, He also warned us to avoid the futility of eclecticism, which at best leads to confusion, and at worst to nihilism.

    After doing our due diligence, we will perhaps still find that there are various boats that can safely take us across the river. That is wonderful. But we must choose one only. Jumping from boat to boat in mid-stream is a foolhardy and dangerous activity.

    May the Tendai Lineage prosper!
    May the authentic Lineages of all the Children of the Victor flourish!

    Jonang Tashi Nyima, a monk of Shakyamuni

  4. Thanks for the detailed comment, Tashi Nyima la. I agree with your post entirely. An instructive tangent in another direction:

    I've come to the conclusion, after listening to the Dharma in a variety of contexts and discussing this at length with my teacher, that Tendai Buddhism has much more in common with the Tibetan schools I have been exposed to (primarily Nyingma in my case) than most other East Asian schools, once one accounts for linguistic and cultural variables. In one conspicuous doctrinal debate, Tendai seems closer to a mainstream Nyingmapa view than the mainstream Gelugpa view. Put differently, the difference between the teachings of Dengyo Daishi and Padmasambhava are less than the spectrum of internal debates among Tibetan schools.

    This insight deepened my faith in the Mahayana generally, and the teachings of both Dharma streams specifically.

    I wholeheartedly agree that we need to take in the teachings and then commit to a school and a training. I'm also of the opinion that we need to listen to each other in all traditions in order to appreciate the breadth and depth of the Mahayana teaching.

    Again, thank you for taking the time to comment here in such a constructive way.