Saturday, February 09, 2008

How appropriate is Buddhism in the West

The Buddhist monastic and lay community life is based on the directions contained in the vinaya. The vinaya contains the framework for the “Sangha” or monastic community. The vinaya contains the rules for the monastics, their interrelationships and for their relationships with their lay supporters.(jtb) Since the monastic community is necessary for the existence of Buddhism in the society, the monastery must be run in such a way as to serve the spiritual requirements of the society. Thus, the monks must follow the vinaya for the mutual benefit of the monastery and the society in which it resides. The vinaya ensures that while the monks renounce living in society, they are nonetheless dependent on that society in a reciprocal arrangement that Rupert Gethin calls “genius.” (Gethin, pg93) Buddha created the vinaya in the context of his society that was used to supporting aesthetics and monks who were on spiritual quests. Buddha adapted this existing relationship to make it more than just one of householders supporting and monks being supported. Instead, he created a system that represented a much closer relationship. “Buddhism is sometimes presented in the West as if the religion of the laity on one hand and of the clergy on the other are discontinuous, completely separate. That is wrong.” (Heine, pg48)

The Buddha was not inflexible in the rules he provided in the vinaya, and even during his life, amended the rules. Buddha distinguished between the truths that could not change and the concessions to living in society that monks had to make. “It is only the convention established and accepted for the smooth and orderly conduct of a particular community. As such, it is bound to be changed and modified in different places at different times according to need. Thus, the Buddha himself amended and modified some of the vinaya rules several times.” (Rahula, pg48)
Since the Buddha had set the precedent during his own life that the rules of the vinaya were not among the inviolate truths he established, monks who spread into communities outside India began to vary from traditionally accepted vinaya. The first monasteries outside India were located in Sri Lanka, a culture somewhat similar to the one at the roots of Buddhism. Changes in the vinaya for Sri Lankan monasteries were relatively minor. However, as Buddhism spread further afield from India, more dramatic changes were needed in the vinaya. Since the West possesses a culture very different from that in Asia, drastic changes would be needed for Buddhism to thrive in the West.

The lack of a monastic infrastructure in the West has stunted the growth of Buddhism in the West. One commentator has likened the attempt to spread Buddhism in the West as sowing seeds on rocks. Western culture is fundamentally different from that in Indian and Asia. He went on to note the primary difference in the cultures: “Here in the West we live in a profoundly non-monastic and non-contemplative society. And so to adopt these profound and esoteric contemplative practices and the monastic way of life without sufficient context is highly problematic.” (Hodel, pg 2) To respond to those changes, many Buddhist teachers have attempted to accelerate the training to connect with the shortened attention spans of their Western student, in order to get the seeds of the truth to germinate, even if there is little long-term hope that the lessons will persist in the students. Acceleration has proven largely ineffective. The commentator observed that Buddhism in the West is analogous to pouring water into sand, an effort that produces no effect. He concluded by saying that “recent trends in Tibetan Buddhism in the West suggest that it’s rapidly degenerating. One such trend is the commercialization of Buddhism, and another is the loss of much of its extraordinary intellectual and contemplative.” (Hodel, pg 9)

Even though the Buddhist vinaya is flexible, and worked well to facilitate the spread of Buddhism into regions in Asia that bore some similarities to India, it has not proved flexible enough to gain acceptance in the West. Westerners are too individualistic and too impatient to subordinate themselves to the culture and take the time necessary to achieve nirvana. Interestingly, the affluence of the Western culture appears capable of corrupting of Buddhist teachers, who come to teach, but find themselves drawn to the material goods that students can offer in exchange for teaching. Given the vast differences in Western culture and the requirements of the Buddhist life, it would appear that Buddhism is not appropriate in the Western context

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1998.

Heine, Steven, Charles S. Prebish, Buddhism in the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University
Press) 2003.

Hodel, Bryan. “Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Is it working here? An Interview with Alan
Wallace” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 2001

Jtb. “Vinaya Pitaka: The Basket of the Discipline” Access to Insight Website at accessed 31 January 2008.

Rahula, Walpola. “The Problem of the Sangha in the West” quoted in Heine, Buddhism in the
Modern World