For many centuries, much of the Western world fell under what used to be known as Christendom. Attending church was part of the way of life for almost everyone. The Bible was the most sacred scripture, giving unquestionable moral guidelines. People took every word written in it literally. Now and then, mystics such as the German theologian Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328) came along and gave a more non-dual interpretation of the divine, although they often ended up being at odds with the religious establishment. Other than that, ordinary folks, from serfs all the way up to kings and queens followed this Abrahamic faith governed by powerful institutions.
A big crack appeared in the Western consciousness during the Age of Enlightenment. Reason began to compete with faith in winning the hearts of the masses. That competition has never stopped since. At that time, the movement of reason was not initiated by prophets who claimed to be appointed by God to deliver His message to humanity, but by freethinkers who were admired by the people despite lacking the clergy’s aura of holiness. Once the industrial revolution hit the Western world, more people than ever had the opportunity to access education, which empowered people to think independently.
In the 1960s, the counterculture movement was born in United States and spread throughout the Western world. Young Westerners began to travel overseas in greater numbers, seeking freedom from the yoke of the conventions of their own cultures and to search for new paths to enlightenment. These people were often labeled “hippies.” Some of these hippies came back and began to share what they had learned during their travels. Many forms of New Age spirituality began to sprout wildly, led by people who claimed access to special wisdom, or who had concocted mixtures of Eastern and Western spirituality and psychology. It was an interesting time as well as a pivotal moment for Western societies, as they entered a new era where it was no longer solely “Christendom.”
Around the same time, a throng of Asian Buddhist teachers traveled to the West and founded sanghas, magnetizing devotees who were determined to practice the Dharma at any cost. There was always the question of whether or not most of them understood what that Dharma is. Speaking personally, Westerners practicing Buddhism generally strike me as sincere and wise. It might have to do with the fact that they undertake the Buddhist path out of choice rather than growing up in it as an ancestral spiritual tradition. Many of them are also educated and have enough good fortune to do most things as they wish. Nowadays, most big cities in the West have at least a few Dharma centers from one or more of usually three traditions: Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, and Theravada. It was special time, which some have even compared with the eighth century, when Indian masters brought Buddhism to Tibet, a time that was celebrated as a golden age in the history of Tibet.
Western culture is now undergoing another huge change that has its own ethos, as secularism and individualism become more and more the fulcrum of society. Not as many people are rushing to the sacred traditions as used tobe the case, whereas Buddhism is doing quite well in the East—at least there is less of a financial and human shortage for the sanghas. This makes sense since Asia is Buddhism’s old home and people are much more traditional. As far as I am able to see, the sanghas in the West are slowly shrinking due to various factors. No one knows what the future holds for Western Buddhism. It might have a comeback, but in what form? There are many lingering questions that cannot be easily answered by some hypothesis. One conclusion is that for the last 60 or 70 years, Buddhism has been influencing the consciousness of the Western world and that this impact will be felt for a very long time.
Human beings by their very nature have a spiritual side, which is a kind of divine impulse, a part of us that wants to find transcendence, universal love, and radical letting go. Until now, the sacred traditions have been fulfilling this need. If sacred traditions in the West are no longer going to be out there except for some small communities preserving them, what is going to quench this inner thirst for the higher meaning of existence? There is no way that a popularized form of Hatha yoga, for example, which seems to be almost the only traditional practice that is still growing in popularity among all generations, can fill such a void.
On the other hand, there are some inspiring developments taking place among many millennials. As a generalization, whether with or without the spiritual badge, many of them tend to care more about the well-being of humanity and animals, and the important issues of social justice and the ecology. They have fewer hang-ups, such xenophobia, prejudice, and tribalism, in comparison with previous generations. This inner development is an important step toward transcendence or is even a form of transcendence itself. Future generations might find spiritual fulfillment from a medium that is quite different from what we have seen in the past.