When discussing “Western Buddhism,” a common frame of reference is North America, in particular the US, with Canada as an appendage of casual note. This is somewhat problematic in and of itself, although one could attribute this to the elusiveness of the term “Western” rather than a conscious US-centric bias. For example, our sister journal Buddhistdoor en Español (BDE) covers Buddhism in Spain, which is located in Western Europe, but it also focuses on Central and South America. Both regions have much closer relations with Spanish Buddhism than Anglophone Buddhism. Buddhism in Italy, Buddhism in France, and Buddhism in Germany all have different historical trajectories than Buddhism in Britain, despite common experiences—so which speaks for European Buddhism, let alone Western Buddhism?
Yet we can see an undeniably discouraging trend across the European continent. While there was unprecedented interest in and enthusiasm for Buddhism in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Rev. Ducor, leader of Switzerland’s only Shin Buddhist sangha in Geneva, that interest is on the wane. Mindfulness and meditation are ever-popular, but Rev. Ducor told BDG: “People want to control everything and choose everything themselves. We live in a time of hyper-individualism. The mindfulness industry, with its yoga, meditation, breathing, and so on, is worth billions of dollars, but it is all cut off from its roots in the metaphysical.”
Exact numbers are uncertain, and surveys are often incomplete and consist of very small samples, given the restrictive sizes of European Buddhist groups. However, Rev. Ducor’s warning echoes the views of many Western-born teachers who were ordained in traditional Asian lineages. While acculturation is good and necessary—as can be seen from everywhere the Dharma has successfully taken root—some teachers feel that the accommodation of secular values in Europe has led, almost unconsciously, to an implicit acceptance of the secular worldview. The teachings were already diluted by the fragmented way the Dharma, itself split into three main vehicles, diffused into a continent with disparate cultures and inclinations. With no cultural base like Asia to provide Buddhism with time to grow deep roots in European culture, the Dharma was like a plant that had little strength and was easily uprooted.
Contributing to this is the fact that Buddhist converts, mindfulness teachers, and even teachers who are familiar with Western culture have, in one way or another and often out of good intentions, been over-eager to de-emphasize the sacred character of the Buddha and the Dharma. To speak of Buddhism as a “religion” or a “religious faith” has been of reflexive discomfort. Apologetics in its traditional sense was reserved for the old Continental faith of Christianity.
Indeed, the aversion to “Buddhism as religion” has often seemed like an excessive fear of resembling Christianity too closely, of appearing like a competing tradition. Yet throughout its long history, Buddhism has never shied away from debate with—and peacefully integrating with or assimilating—local beliefs. Some of the most robust pushbacks against European imperialism and Christian missionizing in the early 20th century came from Buddhist nationalists and colonized, local elites who converted to Buddhism. Yet at present, with perhaps the exception of Vajrayana teachers who occupy a uniquely powerful place in the Western imaginary, there seems to be a lack of self-confidence on the part of Asian teachers bringing the Dharma to Europeans. This has led, at times, to an emphasis on the worldly benefits of Buddhist practice, such as meditation and mindfulness.
Two unintended results are that the ultimate attainment of the Buddha’s teaching, nirvana, recedes into the background, and that Buddhist practice itself becomes decontextualized, even disincentivized. If one removes what is distinctively Buddhist from Buddhist practice, then why would there be a need for Buddhism? In sum, the desacralized presentation of the Dharma has attracted initially many people who would never become Buddhists, and now have no need to support Buddhism since they can access denatured “Buddhist” practices elsewhere. Meanwhile, people of a spiritual inclination who might otherwise become Buddhists are put off by the desacralized presentation.
What are some possible pathways that can resemble a realistic, yet more hopeful future for the Dharma’s diffusion? Perhaps in this paradoxical trickle of European converts and simultaneous enthusiasm for disseminating Buddhism into Western countries, certain basic principles have been lost. We should return to the starting point, as things were when Buddhism first arrived in new lands centuries ago. Whether or not the early Buddhist leaders had the support of Asia’s royal courts, their sanghas were usually made up of small but sincere devotees with a strong connection to the tradition. This means an approach which does not use “acculturation” as an excuse for dismissing the accumulated wisdom of ethics, ritual, and transmission as “baggage” or “accretions,” but embracing them as part of what has preserved the Dharma for millennia.
How can we think of such small but focused sanghas? Without treading into the weeds of different sectarian orientations, we would suggest that what is fundamental to the success of any such project is that it be based on the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
While reverence for the sacred character of the Buddha(s) might seem a pedestrian cliché. European presentations of Buddhism have often cited the Buddha’s statement in the Dona Sutta that he is not a god, while neglecting his statement in that same text that he is not a human being. Successful sanghas were sustained for millennia by more than just humanist concerns. Their trust in and reverence for the Buddha is rooted in recognizing that through his enlightenment, the Buddha transcended this conditioned realm and attained union with the one thing unconditioned. This makes him more than a human being and indeed more than, not less than, a god. Indeed, in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, the Buddha is taught to be eternally existing, and his earthly existence merely a skilful means (upaya) for instructing sentient beings. If European sanghas are going to last, they must take as their starting point, as all Asian sanghas have before them, the reverence proper for a being who transcends this conditioned world of suffering.
If the Buddha is revered as not only an extraordinary teacher, but as a class of being that can be attained by ordinary people. What implications does this carry for how his teachings should be viewed? Buddhas discover an eternal teaching: the Dharma that is “the ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the Fully Awakened Ones of the past.” (Nagar Sutta) What they then reveal to sentient beings, the word of the buddhas (buddhavacana), should therefore be seen as sacred.
European sanghas already accept this as an intellectual foundation. Yet in practice, European Buddhism has, paralleling a treatment of the Buddha as “just a man,” treated the Buddhist texts as just a collection of manmade manuscripts—especially in the academic tradition of Buddhist studies. We do not suggest reversing course and heading toward the opposite extreme of blind belief. Buddhism is a religion that teaches confirming the truth of the Dharma through one’s own experience. But what should be insisted on is the traditional understanding of the nature of what it is we are seeking to confirm; in other words, an exposition of Truth from he who has awoken to Truth.
European Buddhism has been quick to dismiss traditional Buddhist ritualism and etiquette. Observing this ritual and etiquette toward Buddha images and scriptures not only builds a sense of reverence toward the sacred, but doing so as a group helps to build a sense of group solidarity and identity. Traditional practices such as chanting, bowing, and making offerings in unison are key to building sanghas that can stand the test of time and become attractive, spiritually supportive communities that will help to draw others to the Dharma.
Such an approach will require commitment from devotees, but only commitment can bring spiritual reward for the individual devotee as well as the survival and growth of Buddhism in Europe.