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Buddhism in the West

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Buddhism in the West

Buddhism in the West broadly encompasses the knowledge and practice of Buddhism outside of Asia.

Occasional intersections between Western civilization and the Buddhist world have been occurring for thousands of years. With the rise of European colonization of Buddhist countries in Asia during the 19th century detailed knowledge of Buddhism became available to large numbers of people in the West, as a result of accompanying scholarly endeavours.


  • Hellenistic world 1
    • Ancient history 1.1
    • Greco-Buddhism 1.2
    • Buddhism and the Roman world 1.3
  • 19th century 2
    • Philosophical interest 2.1
    • Popular interest 2.2
  • 20th century 3
    • Immigrant Buddhists and teachers 3.1
    • Pre-World War II popular interest 3.2
    • 1950s 3.3
    • Emerging mainstream western Buddhism 3.4
  • Western Buddhism today 4
    • Tibetan Buddhism 4.1
    • Buddhist modernism 4.2
    • Charismatic authority 4.3
  • Popular culture 5
  • Temples 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Sources 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Hellenistic world

One of the oldest images of the Buddha, from the Greco-Buddhist period in Central Asia, 1st-2nd century CE.

Ancient history

The Western and Buddhist worlds have occasionally intersected since the distant past. It was possible that the earliest encounter was in 334 BCE, early in the history of Buddhism, when Alexander the Great conquered most of Central Asia. The Seleucids and successive kingdoms established Hellenistic influence in the area, interacting with Buddhism introduced from India, producing Greco-Buddhism.

The Mauryan Emperor Aśoka (273–232 BCE) converted to Buddhism after his bloody conquest of the territory of Kalinga (modern Orissa) in eastern India during the Kalinga War. Regretting the horrors brought about by the conflict, the Emperor decided to renounce violence. He propagated the faith by building stupas and pillars urging, amongst other things, respect of all animal life and enjoining people to follow the Dharma.

Perhaps the finest example of these is the Great Stupa of Sanchi in India. This stupa was constructed in the 3rd century BCE and later enlarged. Its carved gates, called Toran, are considered among the finest examples of Buddhist art in India. He also built roads, hospitals, universities and irrigation systems around the country. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics or caste.

The Maurya Empire under Emperor Aśoka was the world's first major Buddhist state. It established free hospitals and free education and promoted human rights.

This period marks the first spread of Buddhism beyond India to other countries. According to the plates and pillars left by Aśoka (the edicts of Aśoka), emissaries were sent to various countries in order to spread Buddhism, as far south as Sri Lanka and as far west as the Greek kingdoms, in particular the neighboring Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and possibly even farther to the Mediterranean.[1]

In the Christian era, Buddhist ideas periodically filtered into Europe via the Middle East. Stories of the Christian saints Barlaam and Josaphat were "baptized" renditions of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, as translated from Indian sources into Persian to Arabic to Greek versions, the religious language being only cosmetically altered along the way. The first direct recorded encounter between European Christians and Buddhists was in 1253 when the king of France sent William of Rubruck as an ambassador to the court of the Mongol Empire. Later, in the 17th century, Mongols practicing Tibetan Buddhism established Kalmykia, the only Buddhist nation in Europe, at the eastern edge of the continent.


The Indo-Greek king Menander (155-130 BCE) is the first Western historical figure documented to have converted to Buddhism.

The Hellenistic influence in the area, furthered by Seleucids and the successive Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms, interacted with Buddhism, as exemplified by the emergence of Greco-Buddhist art.

Greco-Buddhism is the cultural merging between the cultures of Hellenism and Buddhism, which developed over a period of close to eight centuries in Central Asia between the 4th century BCE and the 5th century CE.

Buddhism and the Roman world

Several instances of interaction between Buddhism and the Roman Empire are documented by Classical and early Christian writers. Roman historical accounts describe an embassy sent by the Indian king Pandion (Pandya?), also named Porus, to Augustus around 13 CE. The embassy was travelling with a diplomatic letter in Greek, and one of its members—called Zarmanochegas—was an Indian religious man (sramana) who burned himself alive in Athens to demonstrate his faith. The event created a sensation and was described by Nicolaus of Damascus, who met the embassy at Antioch, and related by Strabo (XV,1,73) and Dio Cassius. A tomb was made for Zarmanochegas, still visible in the time of Plutarch, which bore the following inscription, "ΖΑΡΜΑΝΟΧΗΓΑΣ ΙΝΔΟΣ ΑΠΟ ΒΑΡΓΟΣΗΣ" ("Zarmanochegas from Barygaza in India").

These accounts at least indicate that Indian religious men (Sramanas, to which the Buddhists belonged, as opposed to Hindu Brahmanas) were visiting Mediterranean countries. However, the term sramana is a general term for Indian religious man in Jainism, Buddhism, and Ājīvika. It is not clear which religious tradition the man belonged to in this case.

King Bhatikabhaya (22 BC—AD 7) sent an envoy to Rome to meet Roman Emperor who brought back red coral which was used to make an elaborate netlike adornment for the Ruwanwelisaya, a large Buddhist Stupa in Sri Lanka, built by King Dutugemunu or Gamini Abhaya.[2]

19th century

During the 19th century, Buddhism (along with other non-European religions and philosophies) came to the attention of Western intellectuals through the work of Christian missionaries, scholars, and imperial civil servants who wrote about the countries in which they worked. In English, Sir Edwin Arnold's book-length poem The Light of Asia (1879), a life of the Buddha, became a best-seller and has remained continuously in print since it first appeared.

Philosophical interest

These included the German philosopher Schopenhauer, who first read about Buddhism and other Asian religions at an early stage before he devised his philosophical system.[3] The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau translated a Buddhist sutra from French into English.

There are frequent comparisons between Buddhism and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who praised Buddhism in his 1895 work The Anti-Christ, calling it "a hundred times more realistic than Christianity". Robert Morrison believes that there is "a deep resonance between them" as "both emphasise the centrality of humans in a godless cosmos and neither looks to any external being or power for their respective solutions to the problem of existence".[4]

Popular interest

In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism came to the attention of a wider Western public, such as through the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.

The late 19th century also saw the first western conversions to Buddhism, including leading Theosophists Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky in 1880 in Sri Lanka, "beachcombers" such as the Irish ex-hobo U Dhammaloka around 1884 and intellectuals such as Bhikkhu Asoka (H. Gordon Douglas), Ananda Metteyya and Nyanatiloka at the start of the 20th century.

20th century

A hallway in California's Hsi Lai Temple.

Immigrant Buddhists and teachers

Immigrant monks soon began teaching to western audiences, as well. The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples in their settlements along the rail lines. At about the same time, immigrants from Japan began to arrive as laborers on Hawaiian plantations and central-California farms. In 1899, they established the Buddhist Missions of North America, later renamed the Buddhist Churches of America.

In 1893 John Henry Barrows and Paul Carus.

In 1897,

  • Buddhism in the West by Jay Garfield
  • Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Is it working here?
  • Buddhism in Europe Annotated Bibliography by Martin Baumann (retrieved 08/13/2013)
  • [1] Pratityasamutpada in Eastern and Western Modes of Thought

External links

  • Clausen, Christopher, Victorian Buddhism and the Origins of Comparative Religion, Religion: Journal of Religion and Religions, V (Spring 1975), 1-15.
  • Fields, Rick (1992), How the Swans came to the Lake - A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Shambhala.
  • McMahan, David L. (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-518327-6

Further reading

  • App, Urs Nr. 200 (April 2010)Sino-Platonic PapersArthur Schopenhauer and China. (PDF, 8.7 Mb PDF, 164 p.; case study of an early Western discovery of Buddhism with transcriptions and translations of primary sources)
  • Baumann, Martin (2001). Global Buddhism: Developmental Periods, Regional Histories, and a New Analytical Perspective, Journal of Global Buddhism 2, 1-43
  • Fields first =Rick (1992), How the Swans came to the Lake - A Narrative History of Buddhism in America 
  • Loy, David R., "Review of Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities by R.G. Morrison", Asian Philosophy Vol. 8 No. 2 (July 1998), pp. 129–131.
  • McMahan, David (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford: Oxford University Press 
  • Mullen, E.L., "Orientalist commercializations: Tibetan Buddhism in American popular film", Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 2 No. 2 (October 1998).
  • Rich, Annet C., Christ or Buddha?, 1914.
  • Shakya, T., "Review of Prisoners of Shangri-la by Donald Lopez", Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 6 (1999), pp. 196–199.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2005), "American Occultism and Japanese Buddhism. Albert J. Edmunds, D. T. Suzuki, and Translocative History", Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32/2: 249–281 
  • Tworkov, Helen, Zen in America: Profiles of Five Teachers, San Francisco: North Point Press, (1989).


  1. ^ Mauryan Empire 321 - 185 BC
  2. ^ Weerakkody, DPM. "Sri Lanka and the Roman Empire". Peradeniya University. p. 23. Retrieved 26 November 2012. The commentator to the Mahavamsa says that Bhatika Abhaya, in the course of his lavish offerings to the Mahathupa, 'sent to the country of Romanukha across the sea and got down red coral and had a perfect net of coral made, suitable to be cast over, (the chetiya).' 
  3. ^ See Urs App, "Schopenhauers Begegnung mit dem Buddhismus." Schopenhauer-Jahrbuch 79 (1998):35-58. The same author provides an overview of Schopenhauer's discovery of Buddhism in Nr. 200 (April 2010)Sino-Platonic PapersArthur Schopenhauer and China. whose appendix contains transcriptions and English translations of Schopenhauer's early notes about Asian religions including Buddhism.
  4. ^ David R. Loy, "Review of Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities by R.G. Morrison".
  5. ^ Fields 1992, p. 124.
  6. ^ a b c McMahan 2008.
  7. ^ Tweed 2005.
  8. ^ a b c d Shakya, Tsering "Review of Prisoners of Shangri-la by Donald Lopez". online
  9. ^ ABC - Why so many South Australian's are choosing Buddhism
  10. ^ Why is Buddhism the fastest growing religion in Australia? by Darren Nelson
  11. ^ The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life - U.S. Religious Landscape Survey
  12. ^ Asian Tribune - Buddhism fastest growing religion in West
  13. ^ Diamond Way Buddhist Centers
  14. ^ Bell, Sandra (2002). "Scandals in Emerging Western Buddhism". In Charles S Prebish & Martin Baumann. Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. University of California Press. pp. 230–242.  
  15. ^ Sharf, Robert H. (1995-C), "Sanbokyodan. Zen and the Way of the New Religions", Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1995 22/3-4 
  16. ^ Lachs, Stuart (1999), Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an /Zen Buddhism in America 
  17. ^ Lachs, Stuart (Year unknown), Reply to Vladimir K. 
  18. ^ Lachs, Stuart (2002), Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi 
  19. ^ Lachs, Stuart (2006), The Zen Master in America: Dressing the Donkey with Bells and Scarves 
  20. ^ Lachs, Stuart (2011), When the Saints Go Marching In: Modern Day Zen Hagiography 
  21. ^ E.L. Mullen, "Orientalist commercializations: Tibetan Buddhism in American popular film"
  22. ^ Nan Tien Temple
  23. ^ The City of 10,000 Buddhas
  24. ^ History and Background


See also

The largest monastery in the USA is the City of 10,000 Buddhas near Ukiah, California.[23] This monastery was founded by Ven. Hsuan Hua who purchased the property. "Dharma Realm Buddhist Association purchased the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in 1974 and established its headquarters there. The City currently comprises approximately 700 acres of land."[24]

The largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere is the Nan Tien Temple (translated as "Southern Paradise Temple"), situated at Wollongong, Australia, while the largest Buddhist temple in the Western Hemisphere is the Hsi Lai Temple (translated as "Coming West Temple"), in California, USA. Both are operated by the Fo Guang Shan Order, founded in Taiwan, and around 2003 the Grand Master, Venerable Hsing Yun, asked for Nan Tien Temple and Buddhist practice there to be operated by native Australian citizens within about thirty years.[22]


Buddhist practitioners in the West are catered for by a minor industry providing such items as charm boxes, meditation cushions, and ritual implements. This is akin to the various industries providing ritual items and publishing scripture historically, however T. Shakya has criticized this industry as the publication of Buddhist books uproots small forests and consequently kills thousands of insects.[8]

Buddhist imagery is increasingly appropriated by modern pop culture and also for commercial use. For example, the Dalai Lama's image was used in a campaign celebrating leadership by Apple Computer. Similarly, Tibetan monasteries have been used as backdrops to perfume advertisements in magazines.[8] Hollywood movies such as Kundun, Little Buddha and Seven Years in Tibet have had considerable commercial success.[21]

Popular culture

Robert Sharf also mentions charisma from which institutional power is derived, and the need to balance charismatic authority with institutional authority.[15] Elaborate analyses of these scandals are made by Stuart Lachs, who mentions the uncritical acceptance of religious narratives, such as lineages and dharma transmission, which aid in giving uncritical charismatic powers to teachers and leaders.[16][17][18][19][20]

A number of groups and individuals have been implicated in scandals. Sandra Bell has analysed the scandals at Vajradhatu and the San Francisco Zen Center and concluded that these kinds of scandals are "... most likely to occur in organisations that are in transition between the pure forms of [14]

Charismatic authority

Other significant groups with a modernist approach are the Ole Nydahl, who has founded more than 600 buddhist centers across the world.[13]

Controversial lama Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambhala meditation movement, claimed in his teachings that his intention was to strip the ethnic baggage away from traditional methods of working with the mind and to deliver the essence of those teachings to his western students. Chögyam Trungpa also founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado in 1974. Trungpa's movement has also found particular success in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, Shambhala International being based out of Halifax. An associated monastery Gampo Abbey was also built near the community of Pleasant Bay.

A feature of Buddhism in the West today is the emergence of other groups which, even though they draw on traditional Buddhism, are in fact an attempt at creating a new style of Buddhist practice.

Buddhist modernism

Tibetan Buddhism in the West has remained largely traditional, keeping all the doctrine, ritual, faith, devotion, etc. An example of a large Buddhist group established in the West is the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) is a network of Buddhist centers focusing on the Geluk lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded in 1975 by Lamas Thubten Yeshe and Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, who began teaching Buddhism to Western students in Nepal, the FPMT has grown to encompass more than 142 teaching centers in 32 countries. Like many Tibetan Buddhist groups, the FPMT does not have "members" per se, or elections, but is managed by a self-perpetuating board of trustees chosen by its spiritual director (head lama), Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Tibetan Buddhism

There is a general distinction between Buddhism brought to the West by Asian immigrants, which may be Mahayana or a traditional East Asian mix, and Buddhism as practiced by converts, which is often Zen, Pure Land, Indian Vipassana or Tibetan Buddhism. Some Western Buddhists are actually non-denominational and accept teachings from a variety of different sects, which is far less frequent in Asia.

Today, Buddhism is practiced by increasing numbers of people in the Americas, Europe and Oceania. Buddhism has become the fastest growing philosophical religion in Australia[9][10] and some other Western nations.[11][12]

Western Buddhism today

In addition to this a number of Americans who had served in the Korean or Vietnam Wars stayed out in Asia for a period, seeking to understand both the horror they had witnessed and its context. A few of these were eventually ordained as monks in both the Mahayana and Theravadan tradition, and upon returning home became influential meditation teachers establishing such centres as the Insight Meditation Society in America, such as Bill Porter. Another contributing factor in the flowering of Buddhist thought in the West was the popularity of Zen amongst the counter-culture poets and activists of the 1960s, due to the writings of Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau.

Perhaps the most widely visible Buddhist teacher in the west is the much-travelled Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, who first visited the United States in 1979. As the exiled political leader of Tibet, he is now a popular cause célèbre in the west. His early life was depicted in glowing terms in Hollywood films such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. He has attracted celebrity religious followers such as Richard Gere and Adam Yauch.

In the 1970s, interest in Tibetan Buddhism grew dramatically. This was fuelled in part by the 'shangri-la' view of this country and also because Western media agencies are largely sympathetic with the 'Tibetan Cause'. All four of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools became well known. Tibetan lamas such as the Karmapa (Rangjung Rigpe Dorje), Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Geshe Wangyal, Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Dezhung Rinpoche, Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin, Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshe, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso all established teaching centers in the West from the 1970s.

In 1965, monks from Sri Lanka established the Washington Buddhist Vihara in Washington, D.C., the first Theravada monastic community in the United States. The Vihara was quite accessible to English-speakers, and Vipassana meditation was part of its activities. However, the direct influence of the Vipassana movement would not reach the U.S. until a group of Americans returned there in the early 1970s after studying with Vipassana masters in Asia.

In 1965, Philip Kapleau traveled to Rochester, New York with the permission of his teacher, Haku'un Yasutani to form the Rochester Zen Center. At this time, there were few if any American citizens that had trained in Japan with ordained Buddhist teachers. Kapleau had spent 13 years (1952–1965) and over 20 sesshin before being allowed to come back and open his own center. During his time in Japan after World War II, Kapleau wrote his seminal work The Three Pillars of Zen.

In 1959, a Japanese teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, arrived in San Francisco. At the time of Suzuki's arrival, Zen had become a hot topic amongst some groups in the United States, especially beatniks. Suzuki-roshi's classes were filled with those wanting to learn more about Buddhism, and the presence of a Zen master inspired the students.

After the Second World War, a mainstream western Buddhism emerged.

Emerging mainstream western Buddhism

American beat generation writer Jack Kerouac became a well-known literary Buddhist, for his roman à clef The Dharma Bums and other works. Also influential was Alan Watts, who wrote several books on Zen and Buddhism. The cultural re-evaluations of the hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to a re-discovery of Buddhism, which seemed to promise a more methodical path to happiness than Christianity and a way out of the perceived spiritual bankruptcy and complexity of Western life.[8]


Western spiritual seekers were attracted to what they saw as the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions, and created esoteric societies such as the Theosophical Society of H.P. Blavatsky. The Buddhist Society, London was founded by Theosophist Christmas Humphreys in 1924. At first Western Buddhology was hampered by poor translations (often translations of translations), but soon Western scholars such as Max Müller began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. During the 20th century the German writer Hermann Hesse showed great interest in Eastern religions, writing a book entitled Siddhartha.

The first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927 and the reprint of 1935 carried a commentary from none other than C.G. Jung. The book is said to have attracted many westerners to Tibetan Buddhism.[8]

Pre-World War II popular interest

[6].transcendentalism, a syncretistic form of Buddhism which blends Asian Buddhism with western buddhist modernism By his works Suzuki contributed to the emergence of [7][6]

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