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Buddhism as a “Glocalized” Religion in the Modern World

Buddhism Wordle. From
Buddhism Wordle. From

“Glocalization” is a linguistic hybrid of globalization and localization. (Joachim Blatter & Munro 2013) Globalization has been widely used in a negative way to explain contemporary undesirable consequences of the efforts of cross-national political and economic establishments, ranging from international military and economic alliances such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the WTO (World Trade Organisation), to multinational corporations such as Huawei, McDonald’s, Nestle, Starbucks, and Toyota. On the other hand, localization has been enjoying public and media favor for its apparent respect for diversity, preservation of local heritage and tradition, and—sometimes—taking care of minority interests.

In the context of the development of Buddhism, “glocalization” can be considered a movement demonstrating skillful means in propagating the doctrines and attitudes to new regions, which is simultaneously answering specific historical and cultural needs. Here we will examine the glocalization of Buddhism in the modern world, with reference to a few concrete cases led by renowned Buddhist leaders—Master Hsing Yun, Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama—all shedding light on the success of Buddhism as well as its challenges as a world religion in contemporary times.


Understanding glocalization

The origin of the concept of glocalization is very recent. It first appeared in the 1980s in Japan as business jargon: “modeled on Japanese word dochakuka, which originally meant adapting farming technique to one’s own local condition.” (Khondker 2004, 4) Roland Robertson coined it in English in his book Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogenity-Hetergenity in 1995, with reference to The Oxford Dictionary of New Words, which had defined the term in 1991 as, “formed by telescoping global and local to make a blend.” (Robertson 1995, 4) Today, the Oxford Dictionary defines glocalization as: “The practice of conducting business according to both local and global considerations.”  

While the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has yet to include “glocalization,” probably due to its relative newness, the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as, “the idea that in globalization local conditions must be considered.”

Similar to the concept of globalization, it would be narrow and incomplete to consider glocalization from just political, economic, and trade perspectives. Both concepts cover many more areas, including culture, values, religion, technology, transportation, communication, and societal development. These areas—separately and in combination—drive the transformation of the human world in both macro (sociological) and micro (individual) scales. This is made possible by the power of two forces that work in parallel: globalization to connect and exchange common benefits and localization to respect and preserve differences. As such, glocalization—when wisely negotiating the conditions and merits of the two forces—can help the world develop new but accepted areas in which societies and individuals can flourish. The Buddhist attitude resonates with this process of following the middle path of preventing unwholesome consequences that come with either extreme or polarization.   

In line with the non-dualistic approach, Robertson adds another perspective for globalization and localization—the notion that there is always global in local, and local in global. (Robertson 1995, 8–13) This means that the process of glocalization captures elements of both sides and mutates them into a new and supposedly improved space.

The origin of this concept in Japan points to the combination of the intention to adapt Japanese products to a global market and the increasingly international forums for promoting modern religion. These resulted in an ecumenical movement that both celebrated differences and sought out commonalities. (Robertson 1995, 12–13) What has happened in the past few decades makes it clear that glocalization does not equate to Westernization. (Khondker 2004, 5) Products, services, cultures, and values that originated in the East can be globalized or play a key role on international platforms.

Glocalization may also be considered an update of the concept of globalization, which is too narrow to explain the latest dynamics between global homogeneity and local heterogeneity. “The notion of glocalization represents a challenge to simplistic conceptions of globalization processes as linear expansions of territorial scales.” (Joachim Blatter & Munro 2013, 1)

Globalization also carries negative connotations associated with the baggage of Western superiority and one-way political and economic expansions in recent times.* With the rapid growth of technology and communication systems in the last 40 years, the planet has become smaller in terms of mobility, information, and supply exchange. The linear influence from big to small is no longer immovable or irreversible. Global and local are two sides of the same coin, (Suchacek 2011, 323) interweaving into a more impactful glocalization process, which is creating even more opportunities for the human world at both societal and individual levels. “Glocalization is often interpreted as ‘think globally and act locally,’ which is perceived as possibly a proper strategy for the future sustainable development of the whole planet. The term expresses the human capability to overcome (at least mentally) the various territorial scales.” (Suchacek 2011, 322–23)

Communicating global truths in local contexts: skillful means

A central innovation of the Buddhist tradition is found in the doctrine of skillful means (upaya-kaushalya), which has been used since the Buddha’s time to help people in different geographies, cultures, races, and languages understand Buddhism. (Wong 2018, 10) In his Buddhist Ethics, Damien Keown cites the Buddha as an example: “When talking to Brahmins, the Buddha would often explain his teachings by reference to their rituals and traditions, leading his audience step by step to see the truth of a Buddhist tenet.” (Keown 2005, 18)

While preaching the Dharma in different communities, Shakyamuni Buddha strongly advocated respect to localities, insisting on the importance of transmitting the contents in languages and cultural ways the local people could understand. This was in contrast to the religious elites of the time, who limited their teaching to Sanskrit.** (Bodhidharma 1999, 7)

Globalization. From

Master Hsing Yun and the global Chinese Buddhist community

The glocalization of Buddhism in the contemporary world continues to use skillful means. Master Hsing Yun, from China, is one such example. Here, China refers to a bigger community of people of ethnic Chinese cultural origin rather than to any national sovereignty or polity. Master Hsing Yun was born in 1927 in China’s Jiangxu Province. He was ordained in 1941, became the 48th patriarch of the Linchi Chan school, and fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He smiles every time the Taiwanese say he comes from mainland China, and vice versa, when friends from the PRC say he comes from Taiwan. He replies, “We are global. We are all the same.” (Chandler 2002, 69)

This is a genuine and wise answer in modern language, which teaches the important Buddhist value of equanimity (upeksha), one of the Four Sublime States of Mind. (Thera 1993, 20-24) It also teaches that we all share Buddha-nature, (Chandler 2002, 69) with the same intrinsic potential to realize ultimate truth and to attain the path of enlightenment.

Master Hsing Yun with college students. From
Master Hsing Yun with college students. From

Master Hsing Yun is the religious head, founder, and spiritual advisor of the global Chinese Buddhist order of monastics Fo Guang Shan, as well as the lay Buddhist Light International Association (BLIA). He oversees temples and organizations in more than 173 countries on six continents, 3,500 monastics, (Chinese Buddhism Encyclopedia 2016, 3) and millions of lay followers. (Chandler 2002, 53) Having vowed to promote “Humanistic Buddhism”—which he finds relevant to the contemporary world through connecting Buddhism to daily human life—Master Hsing Yun embeds Buddhist ideas in every message he conveys and opens the doors to Buddhism to Chinese and non-Chinese around the world with well-thought strategies. These strategies are the skillful means of promotion, relationship-building, and education—all executed with both global and local considerations.


When he opened the first Fo Guan Shan monastery in Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City in 1967, Master Hsing Yun made it the biggest in Taiwan in order to accommodate many monastics as well as to arouse curiosity, stay in the news, attract non-Buddhists and tourists, and establish a landmark in the city. This became a strategy for every temple he built in subsequent years both inside and outside Taiwan. His goal was to provide reasons for the local people to come, see, and learn about the profound Buddhadharma. 

Fo Guan Shan monasteries are also places for religious celebrations and social events for local people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists, Chinese and non-Chinese. When people come in, Master Hsing Yun provides them with opportunities to experience Buddhism and “create links of affinity (jieyuan).” (Chandler 2002, 59) People are encouraged to plant seeds of the Dharma, even though they may not yet have the commitment to pursue the path to enlightenment. Traditionally, the idea of jieyuan is for new devotees who will go on to sponsor the construction of temples, pagodas, and printing Buddhist scripts and texts. In the case of Fo Guan Shan and BLIA, jieyuan refers to any act of generosity that will build a personal relationship with the Dharma and thus accumulate merit. It encourages the important Buddhist value of generosity and giving (dana), (Insight 2013b) the first in the 10 perfections (paramis) listed in Buddhist Pali Canon. (Bodhi 2013, 2)

Taking the concept to another level, Master Hsing Yun skillfully manages his relationships with influential national and local politicians as well as wealthy groups, to engage them in Humanistic Buddhism and to provide them with easy access to jieyuan. This is done by helping them pass on Buddhism in their respective constituencies with their financial support of Buddhist courses, which in return brings in tourist spending to local cities. (Chandler 2002, 63) This skillful means has proven mutually effective, and Master Hsing Yun has been successful in meeting many political leaders of different nations, including previous US presidents and Chinese president Xi Jinping. However, he has also experienced setbacks when members of the media confused his fundraising activities as alleged agents to rival political and business interests. In recent years, Master Hsing Yun has kept a lower public profile while maintaining high-level relationships in various countries.

From their beginning, Fo Guan Shan and BLIA have positioned themselves as advocates of authentic Chinese culture and Mahayana Buddhism. Such positioning and the ensuing activities can be seen as skillful means to attract and take care of the huge population of Chinese immigrants outside of mainland China and Taiwan, thus addressing a glocalized mission. The emphasis on cultural identity—instead of a purely religious identity—also protects their establishments in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, where Buddhism is a minority. This is probably one of the key reasons why “it is safe to say that over 99 percent of BLIA members are ethnically Chinese.” (Chandler 2002, 56) However, this does not stop Master Hsing Yun from continuing to reach out to non-Chinese communities. For example, he will offer to provide travel expenses and accommodation for monastic training in Taiwan to encourage the participation of non-Chinese students.  

Master Thich Nhat Hanh and engaged Buddhism

While Master Hsing Yun has created a glocalized Chinese Buddhist community, the eminent Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, born in 1926 (a year before Hsing Yun), set out on a tougher route in his motherland, leading to exile in France and elsewhere in the Western world. Nonetheless, he has been equally successful in updating Buddhism with his different glocalization approach.

In 1995, Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB, wrote the foreword for Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ, saying“He [Thich Nhat Hanh] has deep respect for concepts, but as a means, not an end.” (Nhat Hanh 2007, 14)

Brother David made it clear that Thich Nhat Hanh is an action monk. His skillful means are demonstrated through glocalizing—by modernizing—the expression of Buddhist concepts, which are thus transformed into action engaging in the contemporary world. In 1963, during the Vietnam War, when he saw the suffering of people in his mother country, Thich Nhat Hanh coined the important term “engaged Buddhism,” (Harvey 2000, 112) which is conceptually similar to the “humanistic Buddhism” advocated by Master Hsing Yun, and yet quite different in what it has delivered. He saw his country’s needs at that time and went on to, “urge Buddhist monks and nuns to defer solitary individualistic practice in favor of staging nonviolent confrontation with the governments and other agencies responsible for profound suffering.” (Esposito 2009, 394) In action, he “led antiwar protests, rebuilt villages, resettled refugees, lobbied internationally for peace talks, and published articles and books on the crisis facing his country and the Buddhist tradition.” (Gale 2005, 1–2)

Thich Nhat Hanh. From
Thich Nhat Hanh. From

Engaged Buddhism is an activist approach to contemporary controversial issues, whereas humanistic Buddhism is more of an educational, promotional, and devotional means for Buddhism on daily basis. Both are skillful means anchored to the Mahayana tradition of compassion, seeking to improve the world and help people liberate all beings from suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh coined another related modern term: “Interbeing.” (Rifkin 2004, 100) In 1964, he founded the Order of Interbeing, a community of activist-practitioners, and devised 14 supplimentary precepts in addition to the traditional five. (Keown 2005, 35–36) He calls for a Buddhist attitude of understanding the interconnectedness of all phenomena and updated the precepts list with intents and deeds harmful to humans and nature in the modern world.

Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes that all things human and natural are equally important, inseperable, and interdependent. Such realization engenders mindfulness of our everyday behavior—be it walking, eating, dish washing—and of every aspect of our environment, be it living or non-living. Such mindfulness can be acquired by skillful means–meditation practices—here and now. (Hanh 2016) Combining an understanding of interbeing with the Buddhist response with compassion which includes occasional “fierce compassion”—requiring plenty of courage to deal with acute circumstances (Kalmanson & Shields 2014, 29, 101)—Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings offer guidance for actions that improve the world.

<i>Walk With Me</i>. From
Walk With Me. From

Growing out of the Mahayana tradition of developing compassion and the modern Buddhist attitudes of social engagement and interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh has carried his ideals beyond his motherland to the global level through his exile to France and beyond. The California-based Buddhist Peace Fellowship, founded in 1977 by the Zen teacher Robert Aitken, and Massachusetts-headquartered Peacemaker Circle International, founded in 1996 by Bernie Glassman (Gale 2005, 2) are two instances of organizations following his example in the US. In the East, Thich Nhat Hanh’s peace activist approach has also inspired many great minds, such as Sulak Sivaraksa (b. 1933) from Thailand, who founded the International Nework of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in 1989, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama (b. 1935) from Tibet. Sivaraksa has founded many grassroots non-governmental organizations for peace, human rights, community development, and ecumenical dialogue, and the Dalai Lama has become a global symbol of Buddhist values. (Harvey 2000, 270)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Buddhist modernism

In The Making of Buddhist Modernism, David McMahan tells us that the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are “the two most famous living Buddhists.” (McMahan 2008, 42) Their contributions to the new era of Buddhism in the modern world are spectacular. 

The Dalai Lama follows the Tibetan Buddhist Gelupka lineage, founded by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419). (Sparham, 2011–17) Identified as a tulku, he was enthroned as the political and religious head of Tibet in 1940 when he was five years old. After the establishment of the PRC, he fled to India with his followers and in 1960 established his government-in-exile in Dharamsala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where he continues to reside. (Lopez 2018, 3) “As head of Tibet’s ‘government in exile’ in North India, he [the Dalai Lama] tirelessly works to win back Tibetans’ control of their land from the Chinese, though he steadfastly opposes the use of any violence in doing so, and urges the need for universal compassion and responsibility in an increasing inter-dependent world.” (Harvey 2000, 271)

One reason that the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 was his unusually compassionate response to the brutalization of Tibetans by the Chinese. He found common ground with the Chinese, established dialogue, and proposed plans to reconcile various needs in non-violent ways. He emphasized that the Chinese, like him, also wanted freedom from the suffering caused by the situation. (Dockett, Dudley-Grant, & Bankart 2003, 265)

The Dalai Lama does not bring the suffering experienced by him and his people to the global level. Instead, he proactively listens to different values and shares his candid Buddhist attitudes to answer tough societal and individual questions in today’s world. His Holiness recognizes that all people from all backgrounds, East or West, capitalist or socialist, “are always drawn toward money or material comfort.” His answer to this common pragmatic phenomenon is to skillfully use a “non-religious way of approaching a non-believer in order to give him peace of mind.” (Tricycle 2001) The Dalai Lama understands that people today may be skeptical about religion and he reinforces that the values of compassion, a sense of sharing, and caring are not just religious messages, but secular ethics that are relevant to everyone and can bring happiness to individuals, communities, and all sentient beings. (Tricycle 2001). “He encourages non-Buddhists to practice meditation, offering it as a Buddhist contribution to a turbulent world, one that cultivates peace of mind, compassion, and ethical responsibility in anyone, regardless of religious commitments.” (McMahan 2008, 187)

The Dalai Lamaarrives at a Long Life prayer ceremony in
India in March 2019. From

The Dalai Lama was 25 when he set up the Tibetan government-in-exile. Although he obtained the highest Tibetan scholastic achievement of a geshe degree before that, his life in exile has given him ample opportunites to travel and learn Western and Eastern ideas and philosophies. He has offered opinions on many contemporary issues in political, social, cultural, and religious arenas, sometimes making bold statements and offering perspectives that to many have been inspiring. He is widely considered to be a force of skillful means toward modernizing Buddhism, although the Buddhist doctrines of compassion and interdependency are always central to his teaching. 

When asked about the relationship between Buddhism and science, he stated: “If there are Buddhist doctrines that are found definitively to contradict established scientific conclusions, then these doctrines must be abandoned.” (McMahan 2008, 116) This open and confident attitude underscores the empirical side of Buddhism and strengthens its ability to connect to the contemporary fact-based mentality.

However, the Dalai Lama’s open attitude sometimes gives rise to misinterpretations of his closeness to his Tibetan traditions. The Shugden dispute, for example, lasted from the 1970s to 2015, and has caused some to oppose him for speaking out against propitiation to only Dorje Shugden, the wrathful deity protector. (McMahan 2008, 163) His Holiness’s intention was to insist on an inclusive Buddhist attitude by re-emphasizing the importance of all tantric deities and the ultimate nature of emptiness, but he was maliciously seen by some as disrespectful to the wrathful deity. The disputes did not die down until 2015, when Reuters reported that the Chinese Communist Party had backed up the opposition. (Reuters)

The approximately 100,000 Tibetans in exile with the Dalai Lama face the enormous task of reconstructing a material basis for their lives, while at the same time preserving and promulgating Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama’s administrative center in Dharamsala has encouraged modern forms of education as skillful means to cope with life outside of Tibet, with some worried that this has resulted in the neglect of traditional religious education. Many young Tibetans have been studying Buddhism from Western books rather than through the traditional lama or guru style of personal teaching. “Such forms of ‘modernization’ ultimately undermine Tibetan Buddhist beliefs and practices.” (Maraldo & Dumoulin 1976, 291)

On the other hand, in an attempt to glocalize Tibetan Buddhism, one of the skillful means has been to train Western lamas, offering Vajrayana doctrines and meditation practices to non-Tibetan students. “Many Western students simply need or want to hear the Dharma from the lips of their cultural cohorts.” (Heine & Prebish 2003, 222)

The two largest and fastest growing teaching organizations are the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), founded by Lama Thubten Yeshe, and the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Together they have 500–600 centers and branches around the world. (Heine & Prebish 2003, 222)

Seeing the differences in monastic operations, training, and practice models among various schools within the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions, the Dalai Lama has called for international conversations to start sharing views on Vinaya codes. The purpose has been to see if the various schools can come to terms with modernizing some rules and codes to respond to new developments in the world such as equality between male and female monastics.


As the largest Buddhist order in the world, emphasizing education and service, maintaining universities, Buddhist colleges, libraries, publishing houses, translation centers, art galleries, teahouses, and more, (Chinese Buddhism Encyclopedia 2016, 3) Fo Guan Shan and BLIA have made glocalization a priority. Master Hsing Yun, at age 91, has provided countless skillful ways for people to learn and experience the Dharma. In this way, he has succeeded in glocalizing Chinese Buddhism in the modern world. 

Today, Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers continue to use modern skillful means to propagate his tradition of engaged Buddhism and mindfulness meditation. Despite his age and delicate health, his more than 100 publications have been translated into multiple languages and the nine Plum Village monastic centers are providing retreat and meditation programs for people of all nationalites around the world. The documentary film Walk with Me, featuring mindfulness practices with Thich Nhat Hanh at his Plum Village community in France, was released globally in 2017.

The wisdom, charisma, and leadership of the Dalai Lama in glocalizing Tibetan Buddhism is unprecedented in terms of its skillful means, moving Buddhism steadily forward as a world religion with an open attitude toward the needs of various localities, diversified cultures, and religious traditions.   

Global process will always exist within particular localities. (Suchacek 2011, 6) And Buddhism is a “living tradition,” (Beer 2003, xiii) likewise always taking place in particular places, ever since the Buddha’s time. In the contemporary world, all religions face challenges in adapting to new circumstances, worldviews, values, and local needs. (Hawkin 2004, 100) With skillful means and leadership from the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Hsing Yun, the process of glocalizing Buddhism has manifested in multiple creative ways, all of which remain anchored in core doctrines of compassion and interdependency. These are universal values, relevant to both religious and secular spheres, global and local. The efforts of these leaders have been significant in answering today’s demand for spiritual support and social responsibility in the midst of prevailing global trends of materialism and political aggression.

* Examples such as over-Westernization during colonial times post-first world war, over-consumption of global brands and goods for the recovery of Eastern communities post-second world war, and excessive wastage of natural and labor resources in the poorer East after the economic crisis in the 1970s.

** A propensity for choosing vernaculars, spoken languages of localities, to express Buddhist religious teachings is nothing new, for it can be traced back to the Buddha himself. Various early Buddhist texts record a story in which disciples born to the educated elite, the priestly class, make a case to the Buddha that the exalted message is being mispronounced and bastardized by various disciples reciting the message in their own vernaculars. Their suggestion is to recast the teachings in a form of Sanskrit, the language of the learned and priestly class. The Buddha emphatically rejects this idea, stating that the teachings should be taught in the spoken language of the locality. He stresses that the fine niceties of cultured language are irrelevant; only accurate transmission of the content is important.” (Bodhidharma 1999, 7)

*** Chandler suggests that “the level of merit is not determined so much by the monetary value of the gift as by its appropriateness, i.e., its effectiveness in drawing the recipient to Buddhism,” (Chandler 2002, 60) and it has to be out of pure motivation, not selfish for one’s own reputation or benefit.


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