Don’t Rush the Western Buddhist

Barbara O’Brien elaborates on terms such as “modernization” or “westernization” and what these terms might mean in the context of Buddhist history.

There seems to be a rising tide of westerners interested in Buddhism who demand that it be “westernized” asap, stripped of ritual and anything “Asian.” The truth is, most of us have barely scratched the surface, and already we’re making judgments about which parts of Buddhism are “essential” and which aren’t.

The more time I spend with this remarkable tradition, the more grateful I am to the Asian teachers for their care and practice through the centuries. I feel no rush to “westernize” anything. First we should be sure we can maintain the teachings with the same care that brought them to us.

These words are indeed of some comfort to me, but they fail to deal with a central concern in a couple ofprevious posts. Aside from the many issues with what “Western” means, the discussion of “Western Buddhism” is still one that marginalizes Asian Buddhists of the West in the very community where we comprise the outright majority. Apparently we may be welcome into Western Buddhism, our contributions admired, our history acknowledged—but only so long as our say is not proportional to our greater numbers. This Western Buddhist rhetoric is so offensive precisely due to its implicit suggestion that Asian Westerners and our culture do not properly belong in the West.

I have a hunch that there will never be a distinct Western Buddhism, so the very discussion of it may be in vain. We live in a world that is ever more globalized, interconnected, transnational and multicultural in ways that defy historical precedent. Imagine what the Buddhist blogosphere will be like with millions of Chinese Buddhist bloggers! What this increasing entanglement also suggests, however, is that while there may not emerge a “Western” Buddhism, Buddhism in general will appropriate more “Western” features. And perhaps the West will also become more Buddhist.

One thought on “Don’t Rush the Western Buddhist

  1. Archivist’s Note: Comments have been preserved from the original website for archival purposes; however, comments are now closed.

    Jack DawSeptember 20, 2009 at 4:36 AM
    “that while there may not emerge a “Western” Buddhism, Buddhism in general will appropriate more “Western” features. And perhaps the West will also become more Buddhist”

    Wonderful! I assume that it will for better or for worse. Maybe it would be easier to say “Buddhism in the West”. I more and more understand your issue with marginilization of Asian practitioners from this conversation since for the most part this discussion revolves around what the non-Asian convert community does.

    Part of the problem spans from the fact that I don’t know what the Asian Buddhist community is up to (part of the marginalization, I suppose). Since the big three doesn’t cover as much as they should (I don’t read them anyway) I usually get my info (as lacking as it is) from church/temple/monastic publications from teachers that I am familiar with. But while this does aid in the process of information gathering and understanding it doesn’t do that much as far as the demarginalization of Asian practitioners. BuddhaNet is always a great option for me (sometimes I think on of the few ones) to understand aspects of Western Buddhism that I would not ordinarily be privy to due to my location. Their newstream always seems to cover the gamut of the Buddhist population in the West.


    Richard HarroldSeptember 20, 2009 at 6:14 AM
    May I suggest that Buddhism is no different from other religions in that it acts like a sponge, absorbing the cultural attributes of whatever society it may be plopped down in. Afterall, as Buddhism spread throughout Asia, it morphed in its specifics of practice as it adapted to other societies, giving us the various “vehicles” that exist today.

    Other religions are no different. Catholicism in practice will look slightly different in the central U.S. than it does in Central America, and it will look different again in Taiwan. Yet the core principles of Catholicism remain intact.

    So while the active Buddhist community in the West may still be overwhelmingly Asian in composition, it is nonetheless plopped down in the middle of a Western hegemony, and I would guess that over time, this sponge called Buddhism will absorb certain Western features that surround it.

    Case in point, how various Buddhist communities deal with homosexuality. How gays are viewed in the West is different than how they’re viewed in Asia, and these differences find expression in how Buddhism is practiced in each region. And I would guess that Asians born and raised in the U.S. would be more likely to have “Western” views about these things, which they, in turn, will bring into their personal practice.

    So many Simsapa leaves! Thank you Arun for a very thought provoking post!

    djbuddhaSeptember 20, 2009 at 11:19 AM
    When I read stuff like this I am often rather shocked. Not so much about the offensive stuff that you mention (certainly a valid concern) but by the fact that an apparently smart and well-read woman like Barbara seems completely ignorant of history. “Westerners” (Euro-American Buddhists and sympathizers) have been employing this rhetoric for over a century in the U.S. and longer in Europe. Put in the larger context of history, this sense of urgency she perceives dosen’t look so urgent.

    She really needs to read Thomas Tweed’s the Amaerican Encounter with Buddhism and David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

    atlasienSeptember 20, 2009 at 4:47 PM
    “I have a hunch that there will never be a distinct Western Buddhism, so the very discussion of it may be in vain.”

    Yep! “Western” is a totally outmoded adjective on many levels. I think within 100 years it will be replaced by terms such as “Pacific Rim” and “Anglo-American” and so on.

    Christopher MohrOctober 2, 2009 at 4:48 AM
    I would heartily agree. Especially with your point about welcoming Asian Buddhists in. The Western Buddhist communities tend to have a token Asian that makes their practice “authentic”. Like one comment I got over at One City – they had two whole Asian-sounding Monks and two Zen Roshis at the opening of their Insight Meditation center. Well, then, must be authentic if you have four Asians coming to bless the center, right?

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