A Buddha for the West?

What kinds of Buddha do Western Buddhists crave?

Every setting in which Buddhism takes root has a cultural context that influences what Buddhists are seeking and, perhaps more importantly, seeking to avoid. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, people of European and, to a lesser extent, African descent have taken an interest in Buddhism, some of them eventually identifying themselves as Buddhist. Just like the Chinese, Korean and Japanese people before them, these Western people have had to find a place for Buddhist beliefs and practices within the framework of what they learned from their parents, their teachers and their peers. Given that being a Buddhist involves, among other things, going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, Western Buddhists have had to work out just what sort of Buddha they felt drawn to consider as a refuge. Because Western society, like any other society of human beings, is complex and varied, there is of course no single answer to the question of what kind of Buddha Western Buddhists find inspirational. In this section, several tendencies will be outlined.

Americans first took notice of Buddhism in the 1840s, in the decades just before the Civil War. In 1992 Thomas Tweed observed that Americans who took a fancy to Buddhism fell into several different and often mutually exclusive categories. Each of these types of enthusiast focused on a different aspect of Buddhism.

  • Some people with strong interests in spiritualism and the occult saw Buddhism as an ancient religion that supported their beliefs and practices.
  • Others with leanings toward rationalism and humanism saw in Buddhism a philosophy that was free of the kinds of dogmas and superstitions they perceived in Christianity.
  • Still others were drawn to the aesthetic dimensions of Asian, and especially Japanese, Buddhism: the tea ceremony, the ink paintings with their spare and suggestive delineations of nature, the stylized calligraphy.
  • Still others—those who were drawn to the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and others with a Romantic spirit—were drawn to what they saw as a Buddhist appreciation of nature and the interconnectedness of all natural phenomena, and to what they saw as a Buddhist disdain for human-made institutions and creeds and ceremonial trappings, which the Romantics tended to see as forces that smothered the spark of true religion.

All of the different ways that people in the 19th century appropriated Buddhism can still be found today. Buddhism, like Christianity, appeals to a wide range of people with quite different temperaments and mentalities. Something worth considering is that the different ways of understanding Buddhism in the West, perhaps especially in North America, are parallel to the different ways of understanding Christianity, and that the issues that divide Buddhists into different camps are almost exactly the same as the issues that divide Christians into different camps. It could be that as Western people have adopted Buddhism as their own religion, they have created distinctively Western forms of Buddhism, each of which has a counterpart in Christianity or in a humanistic rejection of Christianity. While a detailed account of Western Christianity is outside the scope of this study, some parallels between forms of Buddhism and Christian evangelicalism and Buddhism and liberal Christian theology will be discussed, followed by a discussion of Buddhism and Theosophy.

Buddhist counterparts of evangelical Christianity

Work cited

  • Tweed, Thomas. The American Encounter With Buddhism, 1844‒1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

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