How western Buddhism has changed in 50 years

How western Buddhism has changed in 50 years

A western Buddhist shares 10 insights into how the religion and its followers have moved on since its arrival in the west.

(Also see Buddhism in the West)

It’s 50 years since Buddhist teachers started arriving in the west in the early 60s and Buddhism crash-landed into the counterculture. So what have we learned about western Buddhism?

1. It’s not all about enlightenment. Many who found Buddhism in the 60s saw nirvana as the ultimate peak experience. A decade later these recovering hippies were painfully finding out that Buddhism is more concerned with reshaping character and behaviour than big, mystical experiences. Younger Buddhists are often more fired by social action than mysticism.

2. It doesn’t focus on monks. In most Asian countries Buddhist monks are the real practitioners, focusing on meditation and study while lay people support them. Distinctions between monks and lay people does not fit in with modern society and western monastic orders are relatively scarce. Non-monastic practitioners are often very serious and they power the various Buddhist movements.

3. Tibetan Buddhism has baggage. Tibetan lamas arriving in the 1970s seemed to fulfil our Shangri-La fantasies. But, along with inspiration and wisdom, they also brought sectarian disputes, shamanism, the “reincarnate lama” (tulku) system, tantric practices and deep conservatism. Westerners love Tibetans, but we notice the baggage.

4. The schools are mixing together. Most Asian Buddhist teachers assumed they would establish their existing schools in western countries. Hence we have western Zen, western Theravada etc. But the boundaries are breaking down as western Buddhists, motivated by common needs, explore the whole Buddhist tradition. The emerging western Buddhist world is essentially non-denominational.

5. People take what they need, not what they’re given. For all the talk of lineage, transmission and the purity of the teachings, western Buddhism is driven by students’ needs as much as teachers’ wishes.

6. Mindfulness is where Buddhism and the west meet. Buddhist mindfulness practices are being applied to everything from mental health treatments to eating out, and we’re now seeing a “mindfulness boom”. These approaches apply core Buddhist insights to modern living, making this the biggest development in western Buddhism since the 1960s. It will probably shape the next 50 years.

7. But it’s not the only meeting point. The mindfulness movement is hyped as the “new Buddhism for the west”. But, unless you’re following the noble onefold path, there’s more to Buddhism than mindfulness. Buddhist influence on western culture is strong in the arts, social action, environmentalism, psychotherapy and practitioners’ lives.

8. Westerners can meditate and maybe even get enlightened. Numerous Buddhists I know who have been practising for several decades have made the teachings their own. Westerners can definitely do Buddhism, and are its future.

9. But sex doesn’t go away. Scandals and anguished life stories show that, even for people who prize celibacy, sex doesn’t go away. Is this really a surprise?

10. And we still don’t know if western Buddhism is secular or religious.A growing movement (as Julian Baggini has discussed) wishes to strip Buddhism of “superstitious” elements such as karma and rebirth to distil a secular Buddhism that’s compatible with science. That raises a big question: does following science mean ditching enlightenment? Is Buddhism an alternative source of authority that challenges the west? Ask me again in 50 years.


17 March 2012 8:35AM

One or two points in my piece are rather compressed.

My view is that Buddhism started with the Buddha and his experience of bodhi (Awakening or Enlightenment). in fact, all Buddhist practice is intended to allow others to replicate this experience. Point 1 in my article refers to the way westerners initially latched on to the goal as a big experience and that views of it have changed as we have understood better the need for a long path of transformation. Actually (point 8), I think that some people are doing this already, or at least making such substantial progress that they are well on the way.

Meanwhile, the principal debate around western Buddhism at the moment is between the secular Buddhist movement and more traditional forms. Secular Buddhists want to apply a scientific/rationalist critique to Buddhism and believe that if you do so something remains – which they would say is not the case with other religions. The sticking point for this approach comes with bodhi & nirvana. They want to interpret this as a more helpful mental approach, but that isn’t how it has been understood traditionally. For me this marks the limits of the secularist approach.