Thoughts on Western Buddhism
July 6th, 2009 · No Comments
My very personal quest is trying to develop a Buddhist sense about practice and monk hood. It goes past the learning of chants and practices of monks in far off lands. We can become bogged down with the minutia of life and fail at some of the basic understandings found in the Dhamma.
I have had the very fortunate privileges to travel to many temples here in the US and have attended/participated in many different cultural events. In the past 5 years I have been able to participate in Vesak and Katina celebrations in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Thai, Sri Lankan and Chinese in Theravada and Mahayana schools. While each of them has their differences, they in addition have some recognizable practices.
Is it necessary to for us to realize that cultural practices may or may not be uniquely Buddhist but rather unique to the lands of that particular tradition. This speaks to the universality of the Buddhist path.
Buddhism is able to adapt to the cultural influences of the locale it comes in contact with. Buddhism is not a cultural identity reserved for peoples of a certain caste, clan, place or location. Because of its universal nature Buddhism is for all cultures.
With so many Buddhist cultures already in existence in the US, we have many options to select on the basis of suitability. My own experience is that I am the only non-Asian monk in my Sangha. I am constantly reminded by many of the non-Asians and that they do not wish to be Vietnamese Buddhists. They wish to learn and practice ‘Western Style’ Buddhism. So for me the question is; ‘What is ‘Western Style’? My challenge is to develop a Buddhist practice that allows for the individual personalities found in the many regions of this country. Americans and Europeans have a strong identity to freedom and democracy. It has become a cultural thumbprint, but is it uniquely western? Because of the diversity of cultures found here in the US it is incumbent upon practitioners of Buddhism to seek out the ways in which we are similar. The philosophy of Buddhism seems to have few problems in western society. We therefore need to develop a practice that is familiar to mainstream western religious thought, with respect to the person and not particularly Judeo-Christian in religious thought. We can develop chanting services ‘in the style of’ familiar western religious practices.
No Sangha is the same as another, even those Sanghas of the same tradition and country. Similarities exist. With respect to all parties involved the task is to find a Buddhist path that is sensitive to the Western mindset while continually engaged in the practice of appreciating the cultural refinements that are centuries old and represent the continued evolvement of Buddhism of any particular land.
Buddhism has the freedom to evolve with respect to nationality, locale, people and culture.
The Buddhism found in Vietnam is not the same as Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, Burma or any other country. To be sure, there are many similarities. However the strength of Buddhism is its inner core of Dhamma. The addition of flexibility and self renewal is a wonderful trait. The recognizable differences found in the many lands where Buddhism exists and is allowed to flourish, is the innate beauty found within Buddhism.
To be sure, many of these ‘differences’ are evolutionary and cultural adaptations. Should we expect to be different? Are we surprised that Buddhism is culture friendly? Practices may differ, but the Buddha’s understanding of human nature is its universal appeal.
I find myself more and more celebrating the connections we share rather than the differences. Diversity and individuality are earmarks for westerners. Most of my time has been turned towards developing a ‘familiar’ or ‘comfortable’ chanting service. It is important to discover the authentic culture that Buddhism will inspire. Many people are of the mindset that Buddhism is atheistic in nature. I believe it is a valid criticism. However because we do not have the same allegiance and respect for dewas and gods does not mean Buddhism is atheistic.
What qualities are inherent of the phrase Western Buddhism? We as westerns espouse a tradition of liberty and democracy. We can combine the philosophical qualities of Buddhism and our democratic heritage; we then feel a closer identity with a religion that leads to the cessation of suffering. Authentic identity of the self is found when we are able to comprehend the recognizable signposts which lead to an engaged practice of self discovery.
Accepting the changes in Buddhism is an acknowledgement of all change. Accepting the many Buddhist cultures is an acceptance of our connections to each other. Adaptation can be a hallmark of growth and a vibrant new tradition evolving. I welcome it.
I Wish You Peace,
Bhante n. Kassapa Bhikkhu
Buu Mon Temple
Port Arthur, Texas, 77640
Portions of this Dhamma discussion was posted to Dharma Folk Website moderated by arunlikhati. I personally appreciate the courtesies that have been extended to ‘From West to East’ and myself. BK