Western Buddhism Is Not A Thing

Recently I picked up a book on the Thirty Verses on Yogacara (in Sanskrit, the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā). This is a famous Buddhist poem by Indian monk Vasubandhu that has been the subject of many commentaries of the centuries in China, and now in the West. While it contains only 30 verses total, it is an effort to summarize the deeper meanings of the Yogacara school of Buddhism (discussed here and here among other places).

While the book looks promising, I was immediately struck by the forward by Rev. Norman Fischer a venerable Zen monk of the San Francisco Zen Center:

I think of original Buddhism, in all its many manifestations in the many countries where it arose, as Buddhism’s great “first wave.” It rose up out of the deep waters of our first great cultures, when monarchs rules the world in feudalistic agrarian societies, and writing was new. Developing in midst of such social arrangements, Buddhist teaching could not help but be influenced by them.

….Historically, the second wave began in the mid-nineteenth century, with the West’s “discovery” of Buddhism….

….And now we have a “third wave” [of Buddhism]….In this third wave, Buddhism is fairly well-established as a spiritual practice everywhere in the contemporary world….

[Later] …. While first-wave Buddhism was clearly an Asian religion, third-wave Buddhism erases the boundary between religion and spirituality, faith and praxis.

Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara, A Practitioner’s Guide, By Ben Connelly, foreward

I was really quite shocked at the cultural arrogance of this foreward, lumping all of existing Buddhism in Asian society, its generations of monks, innovations, schools and so on under a single “feudalistic, agrarian” umbrella, as compared to “contemporary” (e.g. Western Buddhism).

And the comments are not limited to Rev. Fischer. The author also write a bit later:

In America today we are creating new and distinct forms of Buddhism informed by the many strains of Asian Buddhist and yogic thought that have come to our shores….

Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara, A Practitioner’s Guide, By Ben Connelly, pg 17

This claptrap about “American Buddhism” as a distinct, new innovation shows up on a lot of Buddhist publications targeted toward educated whites, especially in IT. I feels part of a trend described by Professors Reader and Tanabe as “protestant Buddhism”:

From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the Western study of Buddhism in India has had what Gregory Schopen calls a Protestant bias in having to find “true religion” located in scripture. So long as Buddhist studies scholars insist that “real Buddhism is textual Buddhism,” then what is written in the texts as ideals must be understood as having taken place in actual practice — and, conversely, any idea or practice that cannot be found in scripture must be rejected as a historical impossibility.

Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan, pages 3-4

and further:

Strictly speaking, then, our contention here is not that sutra Buddhism is a folk religion but that it takes its place along with folk religion within the common religion, which is entirely comfortable with and embraces both Buddhist scriptures and the popular practices of this-worldly benefits. The conflict, as noted earlier, is between these popular practices and sectarian orthodox doctrines based on notions of true and false religions….What is remarkable about sectarian interpretations is their adamant refusal to accept what the sutras say about practical benefits.

Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan, page 101

This trend toward creating a new, modern, rational Buddhism isn’t limited to just one book, but even so, the whole thing just feels like a solution no one really asked for, for a problem that doesn’t really exist.

Further, the process of Buddhism as a religion being adapted to new cultures is nothing new. When Buddhism was imported into China, it came in layers. Key sutras were translated multiple times, with translations gradually becoming more refined and readable and as new terminology flourished natively in Chinese. Further, adaptations were made over time to the monastic culture to better suit the culture, and to counter criticism from Confucian scholars (e.g. begging for alms fell out of trend, clothing styles changed, etc). Finally, Chinese Buddhism developed its own methods for categorizing and organizing Buddhist literature from India, spurring new modes of thought.

Keep in mind that all this happened over centuries. At no point (as far as I am aware) did Chinese Buddhists tout their practice of Buddhism as “new”, “modern” and so on. They paid deference to the countless generations of Indian Buddhists who made it all possible, while developing local innovations in a continuous tradition. When Buddhism spread from China to Korea, Japan and Vietnam, the same trend continued.

Thus, as Buddhism takes hold in the US, primarily around Asian-American communities, the same trend is happening. Asian-American Buddhists are transitioning across generations from purely immigrant communities to fully American ones, just like every other immigrant community. It just takes time. Further, from personal experience, many non-Asian Buddhists are also taking part in such communities, and helping to carry to torch as well. In short, existing Buddhist communities are flourishing amidst Western culture without having to reinvent anything.

Thus, “American Buddhism” or “new Buddhism” or anything in this vein is just a pointless label for something no one asked for. It might appeal to people who are adverse to organized religion, but as Reader and Tanabe demonstrate, you can’t have one (orthodoxy) without the other (popular religion). It’s just how people are, and its why the tradition has flourished as long as it has across as many countries as it has: countless people from countless backgrounds and from all walks of life find a way to put it into practice, however “imperfectly” it might look on paper. We’re just doing the same thing.

Namu Shakyamuni Buddha

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

2 thoughts on “Western Buddhism Is Not A Thing

  1. Is there an element of colonial style cultural appropriation in these books? With just a hint of spiritual superiority about them thrown in? I bet that hurling those questions at them would burst their bubble of pomposity.

    Liked by 1 person

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