Buddhism in the West: Wikis


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Buddhism in the West broadly encompasses the knowledge and practice of Buddhism outside of Asia. Occasional intersections between Western civilization and the Buddhist world have been occurring for thousands of years, but it was not until the era of European colonization of Buddhist countries in Asia during the 19th century that detailed knowledge of Buddhism became available to large numbers of people in the west as a result of accompanying scholarly endeavours. In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism came to the attention of Western intellectuals. The first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927 the book is said to have attracted many westerners to Tibetan Buddhism.[1]

The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese and Japanese immigrants who established many temples mainly for their own purposes of worship. Immigrant monks soon began teaching to western audiences, as well. The broader New Age spirituality of the hippie movement proved very receptive to Buddhist themes. In 1959 Suzuki Roshi (a Japanese teacher) arrived in San Francisco. At the time of Suzuki's arrival, Zen had become a hot topic amongst some groups in the United States, especially beatniks. In 1965, monks from Sri Lanka established the Washington Buddhist Vihara in Washington, D.C., the first Theravada monastic community in the United States. Vietnamese Zen monk Nhat Hanh became well known in France and the United States. In the 1970s, interest in Tibetan Buddhism grew dramatically.

Today, Buddhism is practiced by large numbers of people in the Americas, Europe and Oceania. Buddhism has become the fastest-growing religion in Australia and some other Western nations. Many Hollywood movies with Buddhist themes, such as Kundun, Little Buddha and Seven Years in Tibet, have had considerable commercial success.[2]



The Indo-Greek king Menander (155-130 BCE) is the first Western historical figure documented to have converted to Buddhism.

Alexander the Great's conquest of much of Central Asia set the stage for contacts between the civilisations of Greece and India. Alexander himself met an Indian sage, who later burned himself. The Hellenistic influence in the area, furthered by Seleucids and the successive Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms, interacted with Buddhism, as exemplified by the emergence of Greco-Buddhist art.

Greco-Buddhism is the cultural merging between the cultures of Hellenism and Buddhism, which developed over a period of close to eight centuries in Central Asia in the area corresponding to modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, between the 4th century BCE and the 5th century CE. Greco-Buddhism influenced the artistic (and, possibly, conceptual) development of Buddhism, and in particular Mahayana Buddhism, before it was adopted by Central and Northeastern Asia from the 1st century CE, ultimately spreading to China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Mongolia.

Buddhism and the Roman world

Several instances of interaction between Buddhism and the Roman Empire are documented by Classical and early Christian writers. Roman historical accounts describe an embassy sent by the Indian king Pandion (Pandya?), also named Porus, to Augustus around 13 CE. The embassy was travelling with a diplomatic letter in Greek, and one of its members was an Indian religious man (sramana) who burned himself alive in Athens to demonstrate his faith. The event created a sensation and was described by Nicolaus of Damascus, who met the embassy at Antioch, and related by Strabo (XV,1,73 and Dio Cassius. A tomb was made for the sramana, still visible in the time of Plutarch, which bore the following inscription:


("The sramana master from Barygaza in India")

These accounts at least indicate that Indian religious men (Sramanas, to which the Buddhists belonged, as opposed to Hindu Brahmanas) were visiting Mediterranean countries. However, the term sramana is a general term for Indian religious man in Jainism, Buddhism, and Ājīvika. It is not clear which religious tradition the man belongs to in this case.

Buddhism and Western Intellectuals

In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism (along with many other religions and philosophies) came to the attention of Western intellectuals. These included the pessimistic German philosopher Schopenhauer, who encountered Buddhism, and Eastern thought in general, after having devised a philosophical system of considerable compatibility. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau translated a Buddhist sutra from French into English.

There are frequent comparisons between Buddhism and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who praised Buddhism in his 1895 work The Anti-Christ, calling it "a hundred times more realistic than Christianity". Theologist David Loy argues that there is "a deep resonance between them" as "both emphasise the centrality of humans in a godless cosmos and neither looks to any external being or power for their respective solutions to the problem of existence".[3]

The first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927 and the reprint of 1935 carried a commentary from none other than C.G. Jung. The book is said to have attracted many westerners to Tibetan Buddhism.[1]

Western spiritual seekers were attracted to what they saw as the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions, and created esoteric societies such as the Theosophical Society of H.P. Blavatsky. The Buddhist Society, London was founded by Theosophist Christmas Humphreys in 1924. At first Western Buddhology was hampered by poor translations (often translations of translations), but soon Western scholars such as Max Müller began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. During the 20th century the German writer Hermann Hesse showed great interest in Eastern religions, writing a book entitled Siddhartha.

American beat generation writer Jack Kerouac became a well-known literary Buddhist, for his roman-a-clef The Dharma Bums and other works. Also influential was Alan Watts, who wrote several books on Zen and Buddhism. The cultural re-evaluations of the hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to a re-discovery of Buddhism, which seemed to promise a more methodical path to happiness than Christianity and a way out of the perceived spiritual bankruptcy and complexity of Western life.[1]

Buddhists Arrive in the West

A hallway in California's Hsi Lai Temple.

The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples in their settlements along the rail lines. At about the same time, immigrants from Japan began to arrive as laborers on Hawaiian plantations and central-California farms. In 1899, they established the Buddhist Missions of North America, later renamed the Buddhist Churches of America.

In 1959 a Japanese teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, arrived in San Francisco. At the time of Suzuki's arrival, Zen had become a hot topic amongst some groups in the United States, especially beatniks. Suzuki-roshi's classes were filled with those wanting to learn more about Buddhism, and the presence of a Zen master inspired the students.

In 1965 Philip Kapleau traveled to Rochester, NY with the permission of his teacher, Haku'un Yasutani to form the Rochester Zen Center. At this time there were few if any American citizens that had trained in Japan with ordained Buddhist teachers. Kapleau had spent 13 years (1952-1965) and over 20 sesshin before being allowed to come back and open his own center. During his time in Japan after World War II, Kapleau wrote his seminal work; The Three Pillars of Zen

In 1965, monks from Sri Lanka established the Washington Buddhist Vihara in Washington, D.C., the first Theravada monastic community in the United States. The Vihara was quite accessible to English-speakers, and Vipassana meditation was part of its activities. However, the direct influence of the Vipassana movement would not reach the U.S. until a group of Americans returned there in the early 1970s after studying with Vipassana masters in Asia.

In the 1970s, interest in Tibetan Buddhism grew dramatically. This was fuelled in part by the 'shangri-la' view of this country and also because Western media agencies are largely sympathetic with the 'Tibetan Cause'. All four of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools became well known. Tibetan lamas such as the Karmapa (Rangjung Rigpe Dorje), Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Geshe Wangyal, Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Dezhung Rinpoche, Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin, Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshe and Thubten Zopa Rinpoche all established teaching centers in the West from the 1970s.

Perhaps the most widely visible Buddhist teacher in the west is the much-travelled Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, who first visited the United States in 1979. As the exiled political leader of Tibet, he is now a popular cause célèbre in the west. His early life was depicted in glowing terms in Hollywood films such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. He has attracted celebrity religious followers such as Richard Gere and Adam Yauch.

In addition to this a number of Americans who had served in the Korean or Vietnam Wars stayed out in Asia for a period, seeking to understand both the horror they had witnessed and its context. A few of these were eventually ordained as monks in both the Mahayana and Theravadan tradition, and upon returning home became influential meditation teachers establishing such centres as the Insight Meditation Society in America, such as Bill Porter. Another contributing factor in the flowering of Buddhist thought in the West was the popularity of Zen amongst the counter-culture poets and activists of the 60's, due to the writings of Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau.

Historically, Buddhism has absorbed elements of the culture of the countries in which it is practiced. This can be seen in the artistic style of Buddha statues; a Chinese statue looks different from a Thai, which differs from a Sri Lankan, and similarly across most Asian countries. Different local customs are included also, and may influence the form of rituals and ceremonies.

There is a general distinction between Buddhism brought to the West by Asian immigrants, which may be Mahayana or a traditional East Asian mix, and Buddhism as practiced by converts, which is often Zen, Pure Land, Indian Vipassana or Tibetan Buddhism. Some Western Buddhists are actually non-denominational and accept teachings from a variety of different sects, which is far less frequent in Asia.

The largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere is the Nan Tien Temple (translated as "Southern Paradise Temple"), situated at Wollongong, Australia, while the largest Buddhist temple in the Western Hemisphere is the Hsi Lai Temple (translated as "Coming West Temple"), in California, USA. Both are operated by the Fo Guang Shan Order, founded in Taiwan, and around 2003 the Grand Master, Venerable Hsing Yun, asked for Nan Tien Temple and Buddhist practice there to be operated by native Australians citizens within about thirty years.[4]

Western Buddhism Today

Today, Buddhism is practiced by increasing numbers of people in the Americas, Europe and Oceania. Buddhism has become the fastest growing religion in Australia[5][6] and some other Western nations.[7][8]

Tibetan Buddhism in the West has remained largely traditional, keeping all the doctrine, ritual, faith, devotion, etc. An example of a large Buddhist group established in the West is the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) is a network of Buddhist centers focusing on what it claims to be traditional Tibetan Buddhism. Founded in 1975 by Lamas Thubten Yeshe and Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, who began teaching Buddhism to Western students in Nepal, the FPMT has grown to encompass more than 142 teaching centers in 32 countries. Like many Tibetan Buddhist groups, the FPMT does not have "members" per se, or elections, but is managed by a self-perpetuating board of trustees chosen by its "spiritual director" (head lama).

A feature of Buddhism in the West today is the emergence of other groups which, even though they draw on traditional Buddhism, are in fact an attempt at creating a new style of Buddhist practice. Controversial lama Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambhala meditation movement, claimed in his teachings that his intention was to strip the ethnic baggage away from traditional methods of working with the mind and to deliver the essence of those teachings to his western students. Chögyam Trungpa also founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado in 1974. Trungpa's movement has also found particular success in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, Shambhala International being based out of Halifax. An associated monastery Gampo Abbey was also built near the community of Pleasant Bay.

Another example of schools evolving new idioms for the transmission of the dharma are the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), founded by Sangharakshita in 1967, and the Diamond Way Organisation founded by Ole Nydahl, who has founded more than 600 buddhist centers across the world[9].

Popular culture

Buddhist imagery is increasingly appropriated by modern pop culture and for commercial use. For example, the Dalai Lama's image was used in a campaign celebrating leadership by Apple Computer. Similarly, Tibetan monasteries have been used as backdrops to perfume advertisements in magazines.[1] Hollywood movies such as Kundun, Little Buddha and Seven Years in Tibet have had considerable commercial success.[2]

Buddhist practitioners in the West are catered for by a minor industry providing such items as charm boxes, meditation cushions, and ritual implements. This is akin to the various industries providing ritual items and publishing scripture historically, however T. Shakya has criticized this industry as the publication of Buddhist books uproots small forests and consequently kills thousands of insects.[1]

See also



External links



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