Buddhism Comes West
A New Spin on the Wheel of Dharma

 
 
Polarities in Western Buddhism
It is common to think of Buddhism as an Asian religion. After all, its roots lie in India and, as we have seen in the last several chapters, its main branches have spread in other parts of Asia. But Buddhism is also a world religion, and its ability to adapt to a variety of different cultures is by no means limited to the Asian continent. Gradually over the last two centuries, and more and more rapidly over the last five decades, Buddhists and the practice of Buddhism have become part and parcel of the religious pluralism that now marks cultures in Western Europe and North America.
       In this new context, at least three polarities — some of them new, some of them not — may be discerned. ...
The first is a polarity between diversity and ecumenism. For perhaps the first time in history, adherents of Theravada, Zen, Pure Land, Nichirenism, Vajrayana, and other schools, representing multiple traditions from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet, coexist side by side in a single culture. ...
 


 
Second, there is a polarity between Buddhists who are immigrants from different Asian countries and “non-Asian” persons who are converts to one form of Buddhism or another. ...
 


 
Finally, there is also a polarity between what is known as “Engaged Buddhism” and what might be called the “Buddhism of Disengagement.” The latter inclines towards meditation or other forms of practice, “retreats,” and refuge from a turbulent world. The former emphasizes organizing in support of social justice, gender equity, environmental awareness, world peace, and other causes. [The Experience of Buddhism, 341-2]
 
 
 
  
In our examination of the evolution of Buddhism from its roots in India to the branches that have begun to flourish in the West we have tended to focus on what was distinctive and unique about each of its many transformations. But do the unique characteristics of each sub-tradition obscure the fundamental truth that the Buddha sought to express when he preached his first sermon in the Deer Park at Isipatana — or do they merely highlight different dimensions of a truth that cannot be fully expressed in words? In short, are we justified in using the term “Buddhism” to refer to all of the traditions that we’ve studied, or do their differences outweigh any unifying principles?
 
We might approach this question by considering some of the issues that have historically divided the Buddhist tradition:

Mahayana vs. Theravada

Bodhisattva vs. Arhat

Self-Power vs. Other-Power

Sudden vs. Gradual Enlightenment

Exoteric vs. Esoteric

Meditation vs. Scholarship

Engaged vs. Disengaged

Should we view the historical development of such radically distinct approaches to the Buddha’s teaching as a strength or a weakness of the tradition?

Buddhism & Modernity
Is the Buddhist principle of “no-self” (anatman) fundamentally inconsistent with one of the most basic ideals of modernity: self-gratification through consumerism ... and if so, which of the two should be abandoned?