“Evangelical” Buddhism

Buddhist counterparts of evangelical Christianity

During the past three hundred years there have been several waves of intense evangelical activity among Christians in North America. During the time of the American colonies, a British evangelist named George Whitefield swept the colonies in the late 1730s. His style of preaching was described as fiery and emotional. In his emotionally charged sermons, Whitefield warned of the dangers of hell and damnation waiting those who were vitiated by Original Sin, and he assured that those who accepted Jesus as their personal savior would receive eternal blessings. The relatively sober and subdued tone of Puritan churches was heavily criticized as a major obstacle that was preventing churchgoers from experiencing Christ as a living presence.

The stir caused by George Whitefield lasted for only a few years, but it established a pattern that has been repeated many times in the history of the United States—a pattern of widespread enthusiastic revivalism, intensely emotional religious conversion and a suspicion and even condemnation of any kind of intellectualism that might stand in the way of having a vivid experience of a deeply personal connection with Christ.

At the risk of oversimplification, we can point out several characteristics of the revivalist form of Christianity, some of which we may see as features of American Buddhism:

  • A tendency to reject formal creeds and dogmas in favor of direct personal religious experience, unmediated by clerics and institutions.
  • A tendency to see direct religious experience as both a necessary and a sufficient condition for moral perfection.
  • A kind of moral perfectionism taking the form of condemning a number of types of behavior as sinful, or at least unacceptable. (Revivalist Christians in the United States, for example, were leaders in the movements to abolish slavery, to establish universal suffrage and to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol.)
  • A tendency to see intellectualism and rationalism as an obstacle to direct religious experience and hence to morality.
  • A tendency to avoid sectarianism in favor of a loose-knit community of believers who had been saved.

A kind of anti-intellectualism is common among many Western Buddhists, who emphasize meditative practice over study. For them, the Buddha was above all a meditator and was an orator only to the extent necessary to attract people to contemplative practice and the experiences that are found within that context.

Also found among a number of Western Buddhists is a tendency to rather strongly stated disapproval of some kinds of behavior, such as meat eating, genetically modified organisms, and militarism. Accordingly, some of these Buddhists see the Buddha as a social activist who supported social equality and environmental responsibility.

Western Buddhists who are more attracted to a more intellectual approach to Buddhism may have more affinity with what might be called Enlightenment Buddhism.