In my limited spare time, I often follow the amazing Youtube series: Extra History, which covers a lot of unspoken, or lesser-known aspects of world history in the form of short mini-series. One mini-series covers the history of Indonesia through the maritime empire of Majapahit. The last video covers the conversion of Indonesian culture from Hinduism/Buddhism to Islam:
One of the points raised was that Islam was a much more portable religion since it only required books (namely the holy Qur’an), and Arabic religious-cultural practices. In contrast, Buddhism has typically required elaborate monasteries and temples. This is not always the case however, as Buddhism arrived in China as a merchant’s religion as well, and gradually “percolated up” through Chinese society (quoting Charles B Jones in this excellent book, which I’ll cover in another post soon) but it suffered greatly when Buddhism was persecuted around 845, destroying many of the great monastic centers of learning that had sprung up over the centuries.
Setting aside the virtues of one religion versus another (which is definitely not my point here), it shows how religion is healthiest when it is portable, flexible, and adds value to the society at large, rather than stifling it. I would term this “heavy religion” versus “lightweight religion”.
One can easily look at any religion and finds examples where religious institutions meshed with politics, or became bloated with doctrine, dogma and philosophy after an initial period of innovation. One can easily find examples where religion catered to the well-educated elite, and became aloof to the problems of people on the ground.
This is the problem I think that faces Buddhism in the West.
Buddhism began as an ascetics religion, since this was very commonplace at the time in India (5th c. BCE), hence it prioritized the monastic community, and the monastic community has in turn provided an important element of stability and continuity across the ages. But also, that was a particular time, place and culture. Even when Buddhism circulated in Chinese culture, they ran into cultural clashes with the native Confucian literati that found the monk’s begging for alms, and living celibate in monasteries (instead of fulfilling filial duties to parents) grating and disgraceful. This forced Chinese Buddhist communities to adapt and disregard some practices from India while defending against Confucian criticism.
Similarly, the import of Asian Buddhism to the West has hit plenty of culture clashes, too many to list here. Some of this comes in the form of shady teachers, who abuse the teacher-disciple relationship, monastic communities that demand excessive alms and funding, or cults that can’t “make it” back home, but find fertile ground in the West preying upon naïve people. Finally, speaking from personal experience, many Buddhist converts in the West can behave elitist, even when well-intentioned, thus conflating bad stereotypes about “liberal, elitist culture”.
People have tried to solve this culture clash in a number of ways, either reinventing Buddhism to fit a “hip, new Western society” (groan…), or double-down on traditional Buddhist culture, either becoming insular or making well-meaning, but flawed attempts to translate traditional culture to a different culture. Or, they’re just shady guru cults.
None of these approaches are wrong, by the way (except the cults), but it underscores challenges for religions in crossing one culture to another.
But put yourself in the shoes of a working-class person in small town in rural America, with a demanding, minimum-wage job trying to support their kids. Expecting such a person to master the subtleties of Tibetan culture, or to learn Sanskrit mantras, or to find a reliable Zen meditation teacher is asking a lot. Some people make it work, most simply can’t.
It’s not their fault either; these Buddhist practices are all luxuries that the vast majority of society can’t realistically invest time in. Most people spend most of their time just making ends meet. It was true in medieval Asian society as much as it is today. While people in Silicon Valley can afford comfy desk jobs and trips to the next door coffee shop in between meetings, the people working in that coffee shop have to work annoying day jobs serving their coffee, and take a long commute home with 2-3 buses. And don’t forget the unseen people cleaning up the tech office overnight, scrubbing toilets, etc.
The point is is that all of these people are important to society, and if religious teachings aren’t relevant, useful, and meaningful to all of them, it will never spread beyond niche communities.
This is the problem that Buddhism faces, I think. I don’t have a good solution for this either. In Asia, similar problems have been dealt through lay-oriented Buddhist communities, both modern and medieval, gradually developed over decades or even generations, where monastic institutions are minimal or non-existent, and practices are straightforward and portable, yet steeped in deeper meaning in line with mainstream Mahayana Buddhism. Such communities have yet to fully take root in the West, and until they do, Buddhism will remain a tiny niche in the West and doomed to wither on the vine.