To the limits of Western Buddhism (and beyond)

There’s some interesting discussion going on about Western Buddhism. Scott Mitchell blogs about the problems with a notion of Western Buddhism that’s a simple intersection of “Buddhism” and the “West.” His post was interesting enough for Tricycle to re-blog, followed up with the question of whether it’s even kosher to talk about the “West” at all. Brooke Schedneck writes about Western Buddhist teachers who define themselves in opposition to other Western Buddhists. Most recently, Kyle Lovett satirizes of 15 types of Western Buddhists, with “insular Asian Buddhists” segregated to a spot at the end.

This collection of posts all deal with the struggle of defining Western Buddhism as a singular concept. Scott’s venn diagram harks back to a constant refrain in Buddhist studies—that there is not just one Buddhism, but many “Buddhisms.” Much the same can be said about the “West”—i.e. which West are we talking about?

When used as a geographic demarcation, a term like “Western Buddhist” is simple and straightforward. Any Buddhist denizen or native of a Western locale is a “Western Buddhist”—at least in the case where “Western” refers to the Western world (rather than, say, a Buddhist of Western Australia), including locales on all inhabited continents. With his signature crass humor, Kyle writes in this direction. He points out that Western Buddhists include a vast medley of very different (and potentially) annoying types.

On the other hand, “Western” can have strong cultural—even racialized—undertones. “Western” becomes a proxy for us or them, drawing lines through nations, neighborhoods and even congregations. When defined in contrast to Asian, the designation cuts out the majority of those who have practiced Buddhism in Western nations—individuals like myself.

I doubt there will be any solid ground where we can refer to the “West” and not step on the cultural and historical sensitivities of this term. Nevertheless, people do identify as Western—myself included. Perhaps the paradox is that we cannot refer to Western Buddhism without at the same time compromising our Western ideals, such as democracy, egalitarianism and fairness.

Update: I have no idea why I wrote that last line earlier yesterday, or what I meant by it. The conclusion that I’d rather have added is that it’s important that we challenge our notions of “Western Buddhism.” This term is real and substantial insomuch as individuals use it with deliberate meaning; however, I am very wary of this term’s divisive potential, often wielded as such. The authors above make clear that “Western” is not a straightforward concept, of whom Kyle Lovett most unambiguously makes the point, even amid satire, that one need not draw coarse cultural or ethnic distinctions by the use of “Western.” (18/07/2010)

12 Replies to “To the limits of Western Buddhism (and beyond)”

  1. I think Western Buddhism is a useful concept, sometimes, just like abstractions like ‘American’ or ‘European’ or ‘Indian’ or ‘Middle Eastern’ or even ‘Asian’ can be. It’s just very important not to forget that it’s a generalization and an abstraction.

    Point being, ‘Western’ culture carries rather different baggage than the cultures where Buddhism comes from, or has deep roots. These extend to the ways we see the individual in relation to the community, to the forms of competition and collaboration, to the types of hierarchies we construct and the way we see each other in the context of those hierarchies, and so on and so forth.

    When Buddhism and this ‘Western’ culture meet, whether it’s by a bunch of white guys of Judeo-Christian culture getting together to stare at the wall, or a bunch of people from a Buddhist culture upping sticks and moving over, we run into a particular set of challenges. A lot of stuff requires translation, and not just in terms of words.

    So yeah, you’re absolutely right, there is no solid ground here. We are just drawing Venn diagrams with sharpies. Even so, that can be a useful exercise, I think.

  2. I think what we are really often talking about when we talk about “Western Buddhism” is Buddhism that been forced to reckon with Modernity — science, other forms of Buddhism, historical/philological/text critical analysis.

  3. Let’s try and define Eastern Buddhism first.


    Or is it just as useful as “Western” Buddhism?

    But what do we have for better terms? Western convert Buddhists? Western non-convert cultural buddhists? Western convert cultural buddhists? I think it’s just easier for people to say “Western Buddhism”, even when they might mean any of these, or none of these. It’s Buddhism’s Kleenex or Q-tip.

  4. why is it so freakin’ difficult to understand? it’s not the *term* “Western” that’s problematic. it’s how the term is used. as everyone’s pointed out, there is no *one* western Buddhist, there are dozens and dozens and dozens. so the term isn’t offensive or wrong — it’s imprecise. its referent is not one but countless things and is therefore meaningless.

    let’s use a better counter-example than the “Eastern” Buddhism one. how often do we refer to “Western” Christians? or “American” Christians? we don’t. we refer to Baptists. or Evangelicals or Anglicans or Catholics or Methodists or Lutherans or… you get the idea. you see where i’m going with this?

    anyone? anyone? bueller?

  5. @arun: Actually, we do refer to Western Christians—when we’re discussing Eastern Christians, which is done pretty often, really, when the topic of conversation is the Middle East. It’s used to refer collectively to groups like the Maronites, Melchites, Copts, Assyrians, Syriacs, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian churches east of Great Schism of 1054. The East Asian Christian congregations aren’t included under the definition, because they’re offshoots of Western Christianity. So sure, the referent is a fuzzy collective, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

    Similarly, I don’t think it’s meaningless to talk about Western Buddhism. We just have to agree what we’re talking about in the context in which we’re talking about it.

    Usually, when I talk about Western Buddhism, I mean the Buddhist sanghas operating outside the areas where Buddhism has deep roots, and consisting largely or mostly of converts or their children. I do not usually include sanghas consisting mostly of Buddhist immigrants under the definition for the same reason that the Catholic Church in the Philippines isn’t considered Eastern Christian, even if it’s geographically situated in the East.

    Second, we *do* too talk about American Christians, quite a lot, really—in Europe, that is. It’s very interesting to make a contrast between Christian piety in Europe and in America, and in that case it makes sense to lump them all together. In fact, we Europeans don’t usually even know what’s the difference between an Adventist and a Methodist, they’re all American Christians to us. Those distinctions only become useful once you zoom in: if you’re actually *in* America, either physically or conceptually, i.e., you’re not contrasting America with something else, but are looking at the internals of America, then the concept of “American Christianity” loses its meaning.

    Finally, an epistemological point: any term is intrinsically meaningless, whether its referent is a single thing, an aggregate, a collective, or an abstraction. We can, however, assign it a provisional meaning in some context, and then proceed to talk about whatever it is we want to talk about. These meanings tend to crystallize with usage.

    So, in some contexts, Western Buddhism is a meaningless concept. In others it can become meaningful. Nevertheless, I think it has seen enough usage to have acquired enough “stable” meaning to be used without too much explanation up-front—usually “Western Buddhism” just means Buddhism as it is practiced in European or American sanghas catering mostly to converts and their children.

    In any case, it’s just semantics. If it’s used to exclude people, then it becomes a problem—but the problem there is the desire to exclude, not the word or the definition.

    FWIW, we have the same split here in Finland. There’s a small community of Thai and Vietnamese here, who do their own thing; the Finns do their own. I think there’s a bigger language barrier here, though. Our immigrant communities tend to be more insular than yours, even, which is a problem.

  6. @Syl: There is a book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, that explains more eloquently than I can why your comment is phenomenally problematic.

    @Adam: Just to be clear, I’m not advocating abandoning the term “Western Buddhism.” When, however, one uses “Western Buddhist” to exclude people like me—people who only speak English and whose families have lived in the West since the end of the 19th century—there is an implication that we are somehow not Western enough. There are even racist implications. That may not be what one intended—for the record, I carry no doubt of your egalitarian ideals, in particular—but woe be the day when we be absolved of any fault for unintended consequences.

    @me: Worse than imprecise, the word is also ambiguous. In common parlance, “Western Buddhist” is often used in a way that is explicitly divisive—and many users get away with it because they take for granted their own privileged place in society. I haven’t had any issue with the geographically-minded use of “Western”—not that I’m unaware that this appellation has its own issues as well.

    @Petteri Sulonen: Wasn’t me who made that comment! FWIW, the situation in Finland is incomparable to what we have in the United States. For reference, there are far more people of Asian heritage in my little state of California than there are people in all of Finland. My family has been practicing Buddhism on American soil since the times when Finland was still part of the Russian Empire. On the other hand, the Vietnamese and Thai families that you mention in Finland have likely lived there since little earlier than the 1970s. Doesn’t need a genius to figure why their temples might prefer a different tongue.

    Nevertheless, I highly doubt that the issue of what “Western” means is settled. There is a little cottage industry based on this subject, after all. I imagine that the issues that you deal with from the sparsely population regions of Northern Europe are simply very different than those I engage in quite often in California, and are accordingly reflected in both how you understand and choose to deal with the term “Western Buddhism.”

    As for the issue of intentions, see my note to Adam above. There’s also a Christian axiom regarding good intentions and a path to somewhere… but I can’t remember it quite right.

    Were I to describe “Western Buddhism” in a way that excluded you—say, being the arrogant, privileged and ignorant American that I am, equating “Western Buddhism” with “American Buddhism”—wouldn’t you have something to object to? Would you not say something about it? Or should I just expect you to shut up and deal with it?

    1. I started with a lengthy reply, but when I really think about it, I suppose it’s a conversation I’m not terribly interested in participating in.

      I’m personally more interested in exploring Western Washington Buddhism than Western Buddhism.


  7. @Arun—of course the definition of ‘Western’ isn’t settled. It never is, and never will be. It’ll mean something a little bit different, and sometimes a lot different, in every conversation where we use it. However, I do think that it has acquired enough stability to have a ‘default’ definition that means we can usually use it without spelling out in detail what we mean. Naturally, if there’s any confusion about it, we can always adjust our definition for that context.

    And yeah, our Vietnamese/Thai community is much more recent than the ones you’re talking about, so it was probably a poor analogy. Nevertheless, there are precious few people not of Finnish descent in the sangha where I practice, for whatever reason.

    As to my reaction to your defining Western Buddhism to exclude, say, Buddhism practiced by converts in Finland, I probably wouldn’t be offended at all. In some cases, it makes sense to include us; in others, not—for example, if your discussion included the impact of the Beat movement, which we didn’t have. If I thought your intent was to ‘other’ me, I might object to that; not the term itself, though.

    That said, (1) I don’t have a particularly strong Buddhist identity (in fact, I find it a bit weird when people treat me as a Buddhist), and (2) I’m part of the hegemonic culture in my part of the world. That means that I’m lucky enough to not have to grapple with identity issues like I would expect you have do. (FYI, my wife is Lebanese with a Finnish mother, a Roman Catholic religious identity, and roots in Palestine; IOW, I have some idea of what identity issues mean in practice.)

    IOW, I’d be perfectly happy to use whatever definition of Western Buddhism you want to use, when discussing the subject with you. It’s just semantics, and I absolutely have no desire to exclude you from any group, on the contrary.

    However, depending on what we’re talking about, I might ask you to propose an alternative term for a concept like ‘Buddhism as practiced by converts in the USA and Europe in lineages brought there in the 1960’s’.

    Why? Because in some contexts, we need a concept like that. For example, when we’re discussing differences between that group and, say, ‘Buddhism as practiced in the USA and Europe by descendants of Buddhists with roots in Buddhist countries’ or ‘Buddhism as practiced in Asian countries in the lineages brought into the USA and Europe in the 1960’s.’ One of my Zen friends is currently in Hosshinji, and she tells me it’s plenty different from what we do, although we’re only three Dharma generations removed.

  8. As one goes slowly, one feels things more fully. One gets to know the mind and body differently. As you linger more, you feel more, know more, and you discern the ego reasons for why you think as you do. To be an observer is to notice soulful reasons for feelings. You make peace with a moment, the mind’s labels and judgment. One does not get to know things if one rejects them. To be still takes away the fear of ill will. It allows one to recall the meaning of life, of being, now.

  9. Curious:
    Did Siddhartha Gautama use the term “Buddhism”?
    This struggle for taxonomy can be very useful, indeed. Christians do the same, as do Muslims, Jews and Shintos.
    Part of the taxonomy struggle feeds tribalism and part feeds clarity on methodology. These are often hard to untangle.

  10. The demarcation of ‘West’ between ‘East/Asian’ does serve worthwhile research purposes, especially when seen in terms of a Western personhood (individual-oriented) vs an Eastern/Asian personhood (more collective-oriented). To argue against there not being differences stems from a type of ignorance and/or prjudice in that persons view persons who are different, as bing ‘just like themselves’. The hindrance to demarcate, I believe, stems from Western/progressive/egalitarian attempts at behaving and viewing things in terms of PC, whereas many Easterners/Asians, segregate between persons due to social and collective behavior.

    This demarcation can especially be felt by any non-Asian/Westerner who visits an Eastern/ethnic Asian Buddhist temple.

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