Even though the development of Buddhism in the West followed different trajectories in different countries, there are certain common characteristics. One of them is the emphasis on an existential and meditative search for new ways of living.
Buddhism comes to the West
Buddhist source texts became known in Europe only in the 19th.century, but enthusiastic reports about Chinese civilization and religions by the Jesuit missionaries around Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) already inspired enlightenment thinkers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and others, who admired China’s culture of religious tolerance in the wake of the havoc created by the 30 years of war between Catholics and Protestants. Buddhism attracted such influential intellectuals as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wagner and Rhys Davids, as well as the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Thoreau, who saw in it a welcome alternative to the Christian religion and bourgeois society which they rejected. Herman Hesse`s Siddharta which was published in 1922 influenced at least two generations of readers, and is still on the list of required readings in some high schools in the US.
Even though the development of Buddhism in the West followed different trajectories in different countries, there are certain common characteristics. One of them is the emphasis on an existential and meditative search for new ways of living. Personal guidance of Asian teachers who came to the West supplanted the earlier purely intellectual and academic interest in Buddhism. Also, many young people went to South and South East Asia in the 1960’s in their search for an alternative way of life. Quite a few of them returned well-versed in the languages and scriptures as well as spiritual practices of Buddhism and started to found Buddhist Studies departments in American universities or meditation centers.
Even though some of the Western converts to Buddhism profess and practice monastic vows (often temporarily), the vast majority of Western Buddhists are lay people and practice a Westernized from of Buddhism. Differently from lay people in Asian countries, their practice does not center on accumulating spiritual merit by supporting the sangha or donating stupas. They also generally have little interest in the prescribed rituals and ceremonies for deceased family members. Their practice is more akin to that of the monks and nuns, which focuses on meditation and study of the scriptures. However, many Western Buddhists do not necessarily attend a center for meditation and dharma instruction on a regular basis. Many follow the increasing trend of “privatized religion,” which means they follow a spiritual practice independent of any formal allegiance to an institution and do a good portion of their practice at home.
The one major event that helped Buddhism gain a breakthrough in the United States was the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, a highly publicized Interfaith event attended by such personalities as the Japanese Zen-Master Shaku Soen (1859-1919) from Japan and Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) from Sri Lanka, who traveled across the US and founded the first Buddhist centers there. One of the greatest popularizers of Buddhism was Shaku Soen`s disciple Suzuki Daisetzu (1870-1966), who was the first to give Westerners a systematic account of the enlightenment experience (Satori) in Zen.
Of course, Asian Buddhists, mainly from Japan and China, had arrived in the US earlier in the 19th century. Most of them settled in California, which was then in the midst of the gold-rush fever. With more liberal immigration laws after World War II, more immigrants arrived, also from Southeast Asian countries and Korea, and brought with them their own Buddhist Temple and community building traditions. But to this day, these ethnic Buddhists on the one hand, and Western converts to Buddhism on the other, still mostly keep to themselves, without much in-depth interaction.
In contrast to Buddhism in Asia that has been largely socially conservative, the “Beat generation” of the sixties, influenced by Suzuki`s writings and those of Alan Watts (1915-1973), discovered Zen Buddhism as an alternative way of thinking. They made it into a life-style that supported their protest against the material culture, the puritanical work ethic and the conformity of the American middle class. Poets such as Alan Ginsberg 1926-1997), Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Gary Snyder, like many others, experimented with psychedelic drugs and studied with Buddhist teachers. Their writings express the aesthetic inspiration of every day life, as common in Zen. Arguably the most influential work on Zen Buddhist teachings and practice is The Three Pillars of Zen edited by Philipp Kapleau (1912-2004) which was published in 1965.
With the flight of the Dalai Lama from Chinese-occupied Tibet to exile in India in 1951, Tibetan teachers of different lineages relocated to the West. One of the most important but also most controversial teachers coming to the US in 1970 was Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987), who founded the Naropa Institute for the Study of Buddhism in 1974 and established a network of Tibetan centers of the Kagyu Tradition. The Theravada tradition is also represented in the US. The “Insight Meditation Center” in Barre, Massachussets was founded in 1976, and students of the resident teachers Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield have brought mindfulness meditation practices into hospitals and therapeutic programs.
In addition to the Japanese Pure Land (Shin) tradition, which was introduced by earlier immigrants, Japanese lay movements such as Soka Gakkai and Rissho Koseikai are also growing rapidly in the US. Membership in these organizations was originally limited to those of Japanese descent, but now they are reaching out to other groups as well and are more popular with African Americans than are other Buddhist denominations.
In Germany, the early stage of translating and discussing Buddhist scriptures, mainly of the Pali tradition, was followed by interest in the practice of meditation, and finally, as in the case of the US, a transformation of Buddhism into a European form. In the early stages, the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who saw a similarity between Buddhist teachings on detachment and his own atheistic-pessimist ideas, inspired intellectuals to translate Buddhist texts and even to join Buddhist monks’ orders in Asia. The German Pali-Society was founded in 1909, followed by the Buddhist Community for Germany (Buddhistische Gemeinde für Deutschland), which was co-established by the Physician Karl Seidenstücker (1876-1936) and the Jurist Georg Grimm (1868-1945). Grimm’s major work, The teaching of the Buddha, the Religion of Reason (Die Lehre des Buddho, die Religion der Vernunft) was printed in many editions in 1915. After World War II, numerous groups and centers for Buddhism sprang into existence. The major umbrella organization established in 1989 is called the German Buddhist Union (Deutsche Buddhistische Union).
The emphasis on meditation together with the study of texts was initiated by the writings and teachings of three native Germans who went to Asia and became monks there. Nyanatiloka and Nyanaponika introduced the Theravada tradition, prevalent in South and South-East Asian countries, in more depth. The break-through for Zen-Buddhism in Germany happened with the publication of Zen in the Art of Archery (Zen und die Kunst des Bogenschießens) in 1948. It is considered the most widely read book on Zen in the German language. Lama Anagarika Govinda’s (Ernst Lothar Hoffman, 1898-1985) famous book, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (Grundlagen Tibetischer Mystik), published in 1957, laid the foundation for the entry of Tibetan Buddhism into the West. The pioneer who introduced the practice of Zen to Christians in both monasteries and meditation centers, while always remaining a Christian himself, was the Jesuit priest Hugo Makibi Enomiya Lassalle (1898-1990). Zen was further spread by the work of Karlfried Graf Dürckheim (1866-1988) and his center in Todmoos/Rütte. Like Lassalle, Dürckheim was convinced that the development of a meditative form of consciousness was necessary for post-war Europeans to be able to reconnect to their spiritual roots.
As already mentioned above, many Tibetan teachers came to the West after 1959, and founded centers and monasteries there. The monastic “Tibet Institute” in Rikon (Switzerland) was the first, followed by many other centers in Germany and Switzerland. The Theravada tradition was continued by Ayya Khema (1923-1997) who founded the Buddha-Haus in Bavaria.
This short survey of Buddhism in the USA and Germany serves to show that Buddhism has a history that reaches back to the beginnings of the 19th century and even earlier; that it is well established and that it is very diverse.5 At the beginning of the 2nd millennium, the number of Buddhists in the US is an estimated 3 million, the same number as for all of Europe. In Germany it is about 250,000. In some sources, Buddhism is described as the fastest growing religion in the West. With this in mind, we are now ready to turn to the issues that come up when one religion is transferred from one cultural and religious context to another and assumes a popularity that outshines the lure of entrenched traditions. More particularly, we want to look at these issues while keeping in mind the question that was spelled out in the introduction: Is Buddhism a way of self realization or is it self-indulgence? And ultimately, given this question, what is the self we are speaking about?
Maria Reis Habito is a Zen teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas Texas. This article was published on their website as Buddhism in the West: Self Realization or Self Indulgence.
Image taken at Mountain Cloud Zen Center, by Cherie Manifest