It does not feel so long ago when Western Buddhism seemed to be at the forefront of everything fresh and groundbreaking in religious news. Mingyur Rinpoche and many other prominent masters were permitting neuroscientists to measure their brainwave patterns—to this day, Matthieu Ricard is known as the happiest man in the world based off of studies done on his mental activity—and His Holiness the Dalai Lama was breaking new ground in hosting dialogues between himself and scientists. The Mind & Life Institute that he founded remains a testament to this fruitful legacy, and compatibility with science remains one of Buddhism’s core attractions in the West.
Despite the fact that it was Buddhist nationalists—anti-colonial intellectuals in South and Southeast Asia in the early 20th century—that first promulgated compatibility between science and Buddhism (partly due to a perceived common interest in attacking Christianity) – Buddhism and science has for decades been seen as a core rubric of what constituted “Western” Dharma. This was particularly important from the 1990s–2000s, and remains so now, because of cultural cross-pollination, that is, Asian regions re-absorbing what was imported to the West, digested by Western culture, and re-exported out into the world.
Western Buddhism could be fairly characterized as a globalized form of Buddhism, with socio-economic and cultural implications. This was a unique, transnational form attempting to reconcile several tensions: it looked “outward,” engaging in social and environmental causes, while also being intensely focused on one’s personal experience. It sought blessings and empowerments while almost obsessively measuring its worldview and metaphysics to the standards of science. And at least in America, it strove to be apolitical until the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, which cleft open a deep division between libertarian, right-wing Buddhists, and left-wing Buddhists that advocate something like a Dharmic liberation theology.
Western Buddhism has never been monolithic. It has been critiqued for its glibness regarding its Asian origins, traditional practices, and moral obligations from within its own ranks, including among those born in the West—Bhikkhu Bodhi being a prime example of one Western teacher pointing out said problems. At the other end of the spectrum, there were authors like Stephen Batchelor who began pushing the limits of what could even be defined as Buddhism, arguing that it needed to be ripped from its historical context and philosophical matrix. Somewhere in the middle were groups from Europe and the US alike, such as Plum Village, which packaged Buddhism as a lifestyle but retained elements of the requirements of traditional Buddhism—Thich Nhat Hanh used the Five Mindfulness Trainings to replace the five lay precepts, for example.
Furthermore, in the US, including in the state of Hawaii, many Asian communities began to wonder exactly “who” this Western Buddhism was for anyway, because the narrative being told, including the one just outlined above, involved mostly white faces, with very few Asians and other ethnic minorities. Scott Mitchell’s The Making of American Buddhism is a long overdue masterclass in presenting a corrected narrative where Asian Buddhists were always present in the steering of Western Buddhism, regardless of which direction it went.
Buddhism in the West today finds itself beset by philosophical challenges. It faces a “shadow” side that manifests as spiritual materialism, as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has warned repeatedly, as well as high-profile cases of alleged sexual abuse and ethical misconduct by teachers that were once upheld as transmitters of the Dharma from East to West. The problem is also, more broadly, generational—that is, incoming generations are exhibiting a decline in religious belief as a whole. We are more individualistic than ever, yet also more atomized than ever, the Internet and social media being possibly a major and complex social factor for this alienation. There is also disillusionment with the idea that Buddhism “is a way of life, not a religion.” This statement was itself a product of its time, and it sounds somewhat dated in light of the stream of critical articles, books, and other media about the fallacies of the McMindfulness industry and how Buddhism has been conceding more and more epistemic ground to science.
Among Western Buddhism’s philosophical challenges is a vibrant but potentially much more toxic movement nicknamed “Dark Zen,” one that libertarian owners of tech companies feel quite comfortable with and that hard right nationalists and even racists and misogynists feel attracted to. This echoes the jingoistic, authoritarian strains of Buddhism found in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere in Asia. These movements all share a desire to strip Buddhism of its cultural accretions, including the secularism, which would make them diametrically opposed to the secularist “Batchelorite” school.
Yet there are nuances in calls for returning to traditionalism. As early as 1984—well before Buddhism consolidated itself in Western popular consciousness as a hip, cool-with-science spiritual lifestyle—Lance Cousins laid out what Heinz Berchert and other Buddhist Studies scholars were noticing in Sri Lanka: a new form of neo-traditionalism that, while seeking a return to tradition, possesses striking progressive ideas. Berchert’s observations about neo-traditionalism reveal a harmony of radicalism and reformism.
1. The Buddhist contribution to the worldwide so-called ‘green’ movement; [my emphasis]
2. A reaction against Buddhist nationalism; [my emphasis]
3. Reassertion of the teachings and values of traditional Buddhism;
4. Radical return to the roots of Buddhism (e.g. Santi Asoke);
5. Renewal of the ideals of the ‘forest-dwelling’ monks;
6. Revival of samatha meditation;
7. Revival of ritualism; [my emphasis]
8. Syncretism with various other Buddhist traditions; [my emphasis]
9. A tendency towards ‘remythologization’; [my emphasis]
10. Reassertion of women’s rights. [my emphasis]
(Cousins 2002, 188–89)
Taken at face value, neo-traditionalism is far from a clear-cut return to the “old ways”—it is pro-environment, pro-women, and anti-nationalism. It is therefore incompatible with the hard right, “Dark Zen” expression of libertarianism and misogyny in the US. It advocates a degree of syncretism that, in light of increasing doubt about how clear-cut sectarianism was between the Three Vehicles historically, is starting to make sense to more Buddhists. And finally, its conservative instincts tend toward preserving ritual and re-telling the myth of Buddhist truths in the highest sense: timeless truths transmitted to inspire.
As a 2022 Pew survey noted, different national expressions of neo-traditionalism hold together beliefs that might not be immediately seen as congruous. For example, upward of nine-in-ten Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Thailand say being Buddhist is important to “being truly part of their nation.” Most surveyed Buddhists in these three countries support basing laws on Dharma. Cambodian Buddhists (96 per cent), Sri Lankans (80 per cent), and Thais (56 per cent) support basing national laws on Buddhist teachings and practices. (Pew Research Center) Yet Malaysia and Sri Lanka, as diverse countries, also had a majority of surveyed Buddhists (62 per cent) saying that diversity made their country better. The same statistic applied for Sri Lankan Buddhists. (Pew Research Center)
The American experience shares the task of navigating various tensions that result in a harmonious and intellectual congruent blend of principles that are more honest and respectful of Buddhism’s shaping spiritual identity. One of the ways Western Buddhism might do this is “going local”—becoming part of the civic membrane of the societies it finds itself in, and exploring what radicalism and reformism, working together as complements rather than opposites, might mean. One recent example in Australia has been how Ven. Mettaji of the Australian Sangha Association (ASA) has helped to bring the voice of Australian Buddhists to a looming big issue in the country, the referendum on changing the constitution for an Indigenous voice in Canberra’s parliament. Regardless of which tradition one follows, a healthy civic interest seems to be one defining quality that could help Buddhists move closer to Berchert’s list: staying true to Buddhism’s roots, but not by simply turning back time or regressing.
Many Buddhist teachers in Asia and beyond admire the reforming tendencies of Western Buddhism. A 2015 Pew survey predicted a decline of the world Buddhist population from seven per cent in 2010 to five per cent by 2050. (Pew Research) While this is largely due to an aging population and low fertility-rate across the Buddhist world in individual countries like Japan, the demographic situation is concerning to the point that more extreme scenarios illustrate a potential total collapse in Buddhist numbers. As Anam Thubten Rinpoche noted, barring unexpected U-turns, the Buddhist population will decline faster than those of other traditions, thus weakening the power of temples to attract adherents, and leaving us with no real solutions to the aging question.*
To stave off these facts of life, a bold and clear articulation of Buddhism’s timeless truths, complemented by a progressive engagement in civic life, seems to be essential for not only revitalizing Western Buddhism, but also for the sasana’s fate globally.
*The Future of Buddhism (BDG)
Lance Cousins. 2002. “Aspects of Esoteric Southern Buddhism.” In Peter Connolly and Sue Hamilton (eds.). Indian Insights: Buddhism, Brahmanism and Bhakti: Papers from the Annual Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions. Luzac Oriental.
The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 (Pew Research Center)
Buddhism, Islam and Religious Pluralism in South and Southeast Asia (Pew Research Center)
Related news from BDG
Pew Survey Shows Widespread Acceptance of Cultural Diversity in South and Southeast Asia
Australian Buddhists, Multi-Faith Coalition Urge “Yes” to Referendum on Constitutional Body for Indigenous Peoples
Related features from BDG