I am a Western Buddhist

Buddhist monks“Dude, I just heard we’re not Western Buddhists!”

I’m at it again. I am sure that Kyle Lovett was entirely without ill motive when he wrote that he is not ashamed to be a Western Buddhist. He should not in any way be ashamed to be a Western Buddhist. But he should be ashamed of writing this:

For most of us Westerners, Buddhist study is not something we were born into, pressed into by culture, family or tradition, but approached by our own curiosity and initiative, with a free will and as true beginners. We all place logic, reason and good judgment over believing what is told to us out of a book or a sermon; relying on understanding over dogma and experience over blind faith.

We have, by our very open mindedness and divergent backgrounds made accessible the whole enigma that traditional Buddhism used to be, into something that is shared in an accessible and candid community. It is very difficult to find this anywhere else in this world, as practice for many traditional Buddhists is much more culturally based, and not often shared between denominations.

Let me be clear that these are all good qualities, but are these qualities uniquely bound to the self-styled Western Buddhists? The subtle message is that they are. Here is how Lovett’s first sentence reads if you flip the negation:

For most of us non-Westerners, Buddhist study is something we were born into, pressed into by culture, family or tradition, but not approached by our own curiosity and initiative, with a free will and as true beginners.

That’s what I saw when I read Lovett’s post. His point, I imagine, is not to denigrate or malign others, but to celebrate the benefits of the label Western Buddhist. But the label is both powerful and corrupting.

Lovett embraces the empowering qualities of the term Western Buddhist, where the union of these two words frames an identity that binds the philosophical and democratic heritage of Western Europe with a religion that leads to the cessation of suffering. But Western philosophy and democratic traditions are not a birthright confined to self-styled Westerners (neither are the qualities of curiosity, initiative and free will). This is where the trouble starts.

There is nothing inherently insulting about the term Western Buddhist, but Lovett’s use of it disturbs me greatly. He uses it to divide the Buddhist world, where Western Buddhist is contrasted with traditional Buddhist. The logical inference that follows is that one cannot be both a traditional Buddhist and a Western Buddhist. Western Buddhism upholds certain ideals (see above) which traditional Buddhists don’t. And I hope Lovett doesn’t believe anything as insulting as this distinction.

By creating these false categories, the power of the label corrupts even the good intentions it might be used for. But all this talk is just about this one label. I get the feeling that when the self-styled Western Buddhists go on talking about themselves, as they do, they’re really talking about two separate issues, which they generally don’t distinguish.

First, there’s the rise of Global Buddhism, or maybe we should call them “Buddhists without Borders.” The global movement is an old one, but it’s picked up a lot of momentum in the past century. I certainly consider myself part of this group. We see our religion both as separate from our cultural background and also as a unifying transnational force. Yes, there is bickering about other people’s cultural blind spots, but I can assure you this sort of cultural back-and-forth isn’t just an “East vs West” phenomenon. (You should hear what Theravada monks say about each others’ cultures!)

Then there’s the issue of converts. In both the Americas and Europe, non-Asian Buddhists are predominantly converts. These Western convert Buddhists (not necessarily non-Asian) have decided to designate themselves “Western Buddhists” to distinguish themselves from all other Buddhists, namely the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in Asia and the hundreds of thousands of heritage Buddhists in the West. But the issues that set convert Buddhists apart from heritage Buddhists have less to do with “Western” ideals and more to do with neophytic attitudes.

Parading these dual attitudes under a regional banner such as “Western Buddhism” is unfair. It’s unfair for those of us raised in the West, who are both heritage Buddhists and self-styled traditional Buddhists. Are we not Western enough for you? We can also be Global Buddhists or converts, or even both.

The Western-traditional/Other distinction also stems from the ridiculous assumption that the handful of Western convert Buddhists can be fairly compared with the phenomenal diversity of heritage Buddhists. It’s like trying to measure the United States up against Asia. I’d guess that means that the self-styled Western Buddhists either think extremely highly of themselves, or perhaps they think extremely little of all the other Buddhists in the world.

That said, I’m 100% fine with the term Western Buddhist. It’s certainly a useful banner for converts to use so they don’t have to think of themselves as, well, converts (or children thereof). But when we use the term “Western” to exclude people based on considerations of ethnic or cultural heritage (i.e. “traditional Buddhists”), then are we really using this term to celebrate values such as tolerance, freedoms and human rights?

(A long rant late at night. Too tired to tag. I have a feeling I’m going to regret some of this in the morning.)

17 Replies to “I am a Western Buddhist”

  1. Without reading his article, but having read what you quoted above, I don’t think he should be ashamed at all. I’ve often thought the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that some communities have a better practice in some particular way; if you think about it, it would be strange if any community didn’t have something unique and special to celebrate. There are plenty of great things inherent about older buddhist communities — they’ve carried the tradition forward, have the principles deeply ingrained in their societies (even if a little corrupted sometimes), etc.

    But to act as if this isn’t true, to pretend that all communities are equally accomplished in every way, is to give into a lie for the sake of political correctness. It’s a generalisation, which is not the same as tarring everyone with the same brush. There are, and will always be exceptions, but the generalisation remains valid.

    Rather than negating the argument (which I find quite invalid), apply the argument in reverse, to our own society. I grew up with christianity, and had a strong dislike for its teachings, choosing atheism, and then discovering taoism, buddhism, and eventually many other faiths. Finally, I RE-discovered christianity through the ideas of those other faiths, rather than the misconceptions I’d been raised with. So that stuff about being born into a faith vs. finding and exploring it for ourselves has proved very true in my experience.

    More importantly, I’ve noticed the other half of this too… I’ve noticed SE Asian people, raised with Buddhism, who did not appreciate that faith, but when introduced to Christianity by western missionaries, found faith in its teachings of love and peace etc. These religions teach many of the same things when you explore them in a non-superficial way, so I think it’s clear that being raised with a religion, or taking your religion for granted from an early age, is detrimental, as a general rule.

    I don’t think there’s anything shameful about this observation. It’s clear that many in the west (and south, and elsewhere) are embracing buddhism, and likewise, that many in the east (and south, and elsewhere) are embracing christianity, and myriad other religions. People are not turning to the “one true religion”; they are exploring faith, through new eyes, afforded to them by unfamiliarity.

    Which is good.

    1. Hello All,

      I am not sure that I can offer any solution to what problems may be conceived with regards to Buddhism; East or West. I have noticed however in a few ways, that my own personal struggle with trying to develop a Buddhist sense about practice and monk hood parallels some of the points offered in previous conversations on this topic.

      We are not exactly grasping at straws but we are grasping. 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 told by many of the non-Asians and younger Asians that they do not with to learn Vietnamese Buddhism they wish to learn and practice a ‘Western Style’ Buddhism. What is ‘Western Style’?

      My challenge is to develop a western practice that allows for the individual personalities found in the many regions of this country. What I would like to offer is no Sangha is the same as another even in the same country and tradition.

      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, 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 exist and is allowed to flourish, is the innate beauty found in itself. 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. Needless to say it is not a popular sentiment held by the monks of my sangha, however neither has the idea been suppressed. So my work continues.

      Accepting the changes in Buddhism is an acknowledgement of all change. Accepting the many Buddhist culture is an acceptance of or connections to each other. Adaptation can be a hallmark of growth and a vibrant new tradition evolving.

      I welcome it.
      Many Blessings…

      Rev. K

      Bhante Kassapa, Bhikkhu

  2. I fail to see why you are so threatened by the idea that there is a cultural group trying to find their own identity. I practise Jodo Shin Shu, but I am not Japanese and I was not raised in the tradition. I in no way go my my temple and tell them they should stop practising the Japanese elements of the tradition, but those elents do separate me from the older folks in the hondo who brought their practise with them from Japan. Western Buddhism is like a Ven diagram – the intersection of a culture with a non-native religion. The diagram’s intersection does not negate either circle, it only highlights the new area found in both.

  3. Here is the fundamental problem. In one paragraph the author writes that Western Buddhism has been “stripped of unnecessary dogma and culture” but two paragraphs later he writes that Western Buddhism draws on the ideals of representative democracy. The ideals of representative democracy are, in the end, cultural values (and somewhat dogmatic one could argue). So, what he’s basically doing is saying “we’re going to strip Buddhism of some culture but infuse it with other culture.”

    This raises a very pertinent question: why is one set of cultural values and customs (Asian) “unnecessary” while another set of cultural values and customs (progressive liberal democracy) implicitly necessary?

  4. This “Western Buddhism” tempest in a teapot seems to be a weekly thing now between a variety of blogs. I wish people would just quit throwing fuel on the fire and agree to disagree and find something more useful to blog about (or at least more interesting). No new ground is being covered here.

    Scott, I would say that one set of values might be implicitly necessary because they are values of *this* culture that we live in, by and large. I’m perfectly happy to embrace democracy and say it is better (though far from ideal) than many other forms of government. There are other aspects of Western culture that I feel the same about, as an American.

    I feel quite safe in saying that I feel a large set of values in place in most cultures of the world are “unnecessary” and I don’t believe Buddhism is a package deal where I am required to embrace, say, Tibetan values relating to governance, simply to practice Buddhism.

    Maybe I’m feeling irritable because this merry-go-round keeps going around and no one is likely to convince anyone of anything. This has been going on in the Buddhist blogs for months and months now.

    I can list key players/bloggers and the clear biases that they have (such as what Buddhist organizations they are members of) and see what they will have to say about this issue without seeing the need for everyone to keep posting a back and forth on the matter. I feel the same way when people obsess about how many authors of what ethnicity are writing for what Buddhist publication. I’m just an overly privileged white guy who converted to Buddhism and is trying to get by. I figure if I don’t like what someone is doing or what a magazine is putting out, I won’t participate in what that person is doing or give my dollars to that magazine and just move on.

  5. Have to agree with Al on that one. Tempest in a teapot indeed. My wife’s Japanese and raised devout Buddhist, while I was the typical Western convert and intellectual. We see Buddhism differently, but we love each other and learn from one another. Just today, we watched a little documentary at home about Mt. Hiei, and we just enjoyed it together. We have pretty different backgrounds, but we enjoy each other’s company and it never digresses into an “Western Buddhist vs. Eastern Buddhist” discussion.

    At the end of the day, who gives a hoot, really? 🙂

  6. I certainly do not intend to separate into groups for the ideological splitting of hairs. What I do want, though, is for people to not be dogmatic, but to be thankful for the skillful means through which the Dharma is transmitted. If singing Gathas In a language that I don’t speak is the only allowable form of practice then the Dharma would never spread. Every culture takes in ideas and expresses them in their own unique voice. That is what I see happening with the talk lately of ‘Western Buddhism’. I don’t think that anyone should feel threatened since this is just an emerging facet of the same three jewels.

  7. Thank you arunlikhati for your candid and open comments about my post. It is in this spirit, right here in your post, this coming together in differing ideas and perspectives that I use this label.

    I think it is in the dualistic view that if I celebrate the heritage of certain people as a community, that I mean the opposite for another community. This is not logical. If I say all of the boys in the class are running, it does not mean that I meant to say all of the girls are not running. There is a phrase in Latin called post hoc ergo propter hoc, which means “after this, therefore because of this.”

    If you read on further, I say:

    We do not need to wear cultural or traditional robes, but we accept and can learn from those that do.
    We do not need to bow to statues or even each other, but we accept and can learn from those that do.
    We do not need to be Zen, Tibetan, Theravada or of any of the many other ancient Buddhist traditions, but we accept and can learn from those that are.
    We do not need to shave our heads and join some remote monastery, but we accept and can learn from those that do.
    We do not need to believe or not believe in God; or be Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic or any of the other countless traditional religions, but we accept those that are and can learn from them.

    I am merely pointing out our celebration of all heritages, this acceptance, tolerance and our understanding of our enormous differing traditions. This is the big point, we are drawn together because of our differences. Do we not have a linked web of Buddhists from enormous varying traditions already, who talk and interact with each other regardless of denomination? This is a Western trait; just walk on any street in a major city in Europe, the US or Canada and see how many different cultures are represented.

    For those new to Buddhism, labels still mean a lot. This is the audience that we should consider, and if it is in some pride they find in being a Westerner that they are drawn to the Dharma then where is the fault? We should remember our audience and share the way.

    Thank you again , it is always nice to read candid and honest criticisms of what I write. I celebrate this openness, I do not condemn it.

    Be Well,

  8. Thank you all for your comments, and I’m sorry I couldn’t respond sooner. It’s a long and poorly written post, so another thanks for reading it through. I don’t have a problem with self-styled Western Buddhists (after all, am I not one myself?). I have a problem with the term Western Buddhist being singled out for those of non-Asian descent (and those Asians aren’t too traditional to be Western).

    Both Lovett and Todd A. criticized my flip of negation because it was illogical, and that’s fair. I was trying to get as close as I could to presenting a contraposition. For a valid contraposition, you’d need to work with a conditional. We can do that to the first sentence:

    If most of us are Westerners, then Buddhist study is not something we were born into, pressed into by culture, family or tradition, but approached by our own curiosity and initiative, with a free will and as true beginners.

    For which the logically equivalent contraposition is derived by flipping the clauses and negation of the predicates, distributing negation for branching predicates:

    If Buddhist study is something we were born into, pressed into by culture, family or tradition, but not approached by our own curiosity and initiative, then most of us are non-Westerners.

    Yes, that’s still “dualistic” thanks to the magic of linguistic negation. But it’s logical. And I really appreciate Al’s comment:

    I figure if I don’t like what someone is doing … I won’t participate in what that person is doing … and just move on.

    Given that sentiment, his willingness to comment is exceptionally flattering.

    And for heavens’ sake, Hindi is a language. Hindu is the English term for a follower of Hinduism.

  9. arunlikhati – I don’t think you and I are so different. I’ve read your blog and have enjoyed it tremendously. My most humble apologies if you have taken what I said to mean non-Asians are excluded or somehow forgotten in the West. I never said the word Asian in my post.

    Maybe look at it this way, I am asking Westerners to accept and learn from those who follow the ancient traditions, but that they need to find their own path, because like it or not, many people here in the West, yes I said West, may feel less than comfortable practicing in the traditional ways. I learned in the traditional way, from my Asian Zen Master, but many perhaps wouldn’t. What I’m trying to expand upon is a message of inclusion, not exclusion, to open up the door of the dharma to those who may harbor preconceived ideas of what they will find.

    Yes, I certainly have an agenda, and that agenda is to make the beautiful and wonderful teachings of the Buddha, who without these ancient Asian cultures, would not have been passed down to where they are today, accessible to those who would perhaps pass over investigating for themselves what Buddhism is.

    Oh, and I’m sure you’ll find lots and lots of errors, like Hindi, in my writings, I am not perfect, nor do I pretend to be. I just try to approach each situation with an open heart and an open mind. arunlikhati, may you find peace and be well.

    ps. Its totally ok with me if you call me Kyle. I added the silly R so people would stop confusing me with that damn country singer Lyle Lovett. 🙂


  10. I agree with Kyle. Finding inclusion for me does not mean to exclude you on any way (figuratively speaking). I’ve often felt that I was intruding on others’ tradition and ideas, and this concept of ‘Western’ Buddhist makes it easier for me to be accept my own practice as something shared. I will always be indebted to those who came before me who have brought the Dharma through so many years and miles to me, including Arunlikhati and so many others posting resources on the net for reflection and discussion.

  11. Thank you for sharing, this is a good point. I think Western Buddhism coule simply be understood as Buddhism in the West, nothing more. Enjoy your practice !

  12. Kyle sounds very intolerant of sensible, tried/proven/structured Buddhism over thousands of years. This is the main problem with “Western Buddhism” these days. Just like every other fringe/hobby/social group out there, people full of egos hence always gotta do the elitist indie cred or street cred sorta posturing. Instead of practicing the Dharma to change one’s own deluded opinions and social habits, instead they pick and choose, and twist what the Buddha and old Patriarchs has taught.

    Buddhism isn’t the spiritual junk shop that alot of people assume it is.

    Seems like for alot of people in the West It’s not about compassion, open mindedness and wisdom at all. It just about find a new label for more post hippy, lefty liberal culture.

  13. Oh and, mixing the schools and practices are probably the worst thing you can do for your practice. You will just end up confused and committing alot of slandering from comparisons between the schools.

    When your trying to graduate from a structural engineering major, do you really want to do biomedical engineering on the side for shitz n giggles?!

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