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Religion Library: Buddhism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Julia Hardy

The focus of contemporary scholarly criticism of Western studies of Buddhism is what has been called the "Protestantization" of Buddhism; that is, the neglect of ritual and devotional activities in favor of an emphasis on meditation and the notion of "experience," and a shift in focus from the domination of clerical authority to lay participation.

One will often hear someone say, "Buddhism is not a religion; it's a philosophy." This assumption is based on distorted interpretations and on Western adaptations of the tradition. For most in Asian Buddhist countries, Buddhism is very much a religion. Typically, a lay Buddhist will visit a temple for the following reasons: to pray to a deity, through the medium of a statue of that deity, and leave a small gift, usually incense, fruit, or flowers; for a festival, such as New Year, Buddha's Birthday, or festivals involving the dead; or to arrange or participate in funerary rites on behalf of the dead.

Meditation does not play a prominent role even in most monastic situations, and a peak experience is not usually the goal of Buddhist practice. Western textbooks present elaborate schemes of states of consciousness through which one may progress in practice, taken from the Buddhist textual tradition, but very few monks actually engage with this sort of process. Critics argue that accounts of meditative experiences from later Buddhist texts are taken to be first-person experiences when they are merely scholarly descriptions. Although the early Buddhist texts emphasize enlightenment as the goal of Buddhist practice, critics suggest that this is seldom the case for today's Buddhist monks, most of who think of nirvana as an impossible goal in this lifetime.

Several traditions that have become popular in the West have focused on the practice of meditation: Zen, Vipassana, and Tantra. In each case, the participants are often people who are not monks, whereas it is rare in Asia for lay Buddhists to meditate. In the case of Zen Buddhism, followers are sometimes invited to participate in meditation, but meditation — and particularly the peak experience deriving from meditation — is not central in the way that it has become in the West. Expectations for these experiences have been created, in part, by the influence of Western scholars like Schleiermacher, Jung, or William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience) on late 19th- and 20th-century Japanese scholars.

In Southeast Asia, the modern Vipassana movement was inspired in part by Westerners. Two such influential Westerners were Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, founders of the Theosophical Society, who sparked a Buddhist revival movement in Sri Lanka in the late 19th century. Another arm of the Theravada revival movement, the Pali Text Society, was founded in London in 1881. Their translations made the ancient texts from which today's Western textbooks have taken their descriptions of intensive meditation practices and states of consciousness available to the West — and to most people in Southeast Asia — for the first time. Native movements emerged that engaged the Buddhist laity in meditation for the first time. These, in turn, gave birth to Vipassana meditation centers in the West.