Is a Sea Change Coming to Western Buddhism?

Zen teacher Barry Magid offered the following observation yesterday. It is a rich passage, a condensation of many trends growing and potentials available in Western Buddhism today:

There has been a sea change in Western Buddhism that we are only beginning to acknowledge and come to terms with, a sea change comparable to a Protestant Reformation within traditional Buddhism. As with the Reformation , Western Buddhism has increasingly made daily life the locus of spirituality and practice, has moved away from a priest-mediated relationship with the divine or the Absolute, and away from ascetic, renunciant monasticism as the epitome of the spiritual life. “Home -leaving, ” once the hallmark of spiritual commitment, is increasingly understood not literally but metaphorically, and what is left behind or renounced is the comfort of our received, conditioned ideas, not the comfort of our actual, typically middle class lives. When the Four Noble Truths assert that the root of suffering lies in desire or attachment, we find euphemistic substitutes like “clinging” to avoid confronting the literal meaning that made literal home-leaving a sine qua non of Buddhist practice. For my part, if attachment is indeed the root of suffering, I see my practice as learning to accept them as an inseparable package. I do not think suffering is escapable for anyone who forms dependent loving relationships with parents, partners, children or friends. Western lay Buddhists are often at pains to insist on the continuity of their metaphorical versions of non-attachment or home-leaving with their Asian monastic counterparts, but this attitude does not seem to be reciprocated by the monastics, who from what I gather, see non-celibate, married, or employed Western teachers as badly watered down if not perverted parodies of the real thing. The challenge for Westerners, it seems to me, is to assert the autonomy and validity of a new paradigm. Our path is not the end of suffering through enacting a form of life of no personal attachments, no possessions and no fixed abode. (What I call the practice of “If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”) It is a practice centered on the recognition of interdependence and impermanence, both of which manifest continually in everyday life. Practice engages all of our curative fantasies of escaping from the vulnerability of these realities. The cessation of trying to climb out of our mortality, up a ladder of transcendent “spirituality” may be the one true cessation of suffering available to us. (original here)

Much of this parallels and echoes developments in Western (or Modernist) Buddhism outlined in David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism. “Western” is a contested term, as its borders are so fuzzy (do we include Australia and New Zealand, what about Russia?) and many of the reforms and changes described have been driven by Asian teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama and non-monastics such as S.N. Goenka and D.T. Suzuki.

Whatever we call it, it is important not to mistakenly think that this is just an Anglo or White phenomenon.

Magid’s key points, suggesting a parallel between Catholicism and Protestantism (another name for Buddhist Modernism sometimes used is Protestant Buddhism, coined by the scholar Gananath Obeyesekere) are that:

  1. Western Buddhism has increasingly made daily life the locus of spirituality and practice,
  2. has moved away from a priest-mediated relationship with the divine or the Absolute,
  3. and away from ascetic, renunciant monasticism as the epitome of the spiritual life.

The Oxford University Press reference to Protestant Buddhism states, in part, that:

In essence, Protestant Buddhism is a form of Buddhist revival which denies that only through the Saṃgha can one seek or find salvation. Religion, as a consequence, is internalized. The layman is supposed to permeate his life with his religion and strive to make Buddhism permeate his whole society. Through printing laymen had, for the first time, access to Buddhist texts and could teach themselves meditation. Accordingly, it was felt they could and should try to reach nirvāṇa. As a consequence lay Buddhists became critical both of the traditional norms and of the monastic role.

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

And just as the Protestant Reformation was opposed by the Catholic hierarchy in Europe, we find a conservative pushback against parallel developments in Buddhism. As Magid writes:

Western lay Buddhists are often at pains to insist on the continuity of their metaphorical versions of non-attachment or home-leaving with their Asian monastic counterparts, but this attitude does not seem to be reciprocated by the monastics, who from what I gather, see non-celibate, married, or employed Western teachers as badly watered down if not perverted parodies of the real thing.

This is likely to be an ongoing tension in the development of Western or American Buddhism(s), a battle between structures that developed and solidified in Asia over centuries, and the many new approaches arising today. Similarly, the critiques of newly developing forms of Buddhism are targeted by ‘conservative’ Buddhists for emphasizing too much:

  • secularism (focus on daily life) and
  • individualism (away from priestly mediation).

Secular Buddhists I know are very much at work in the world, recognizing the interdependence and impermanence Magid notes. Likewise, the worries of individualism (as part and parcel of new Buddhist directions) might be overstated. Just as the Protestants of Luther’s time banded together to form churches and new communities, new forms of Buddhism won’t persist without new communal structures.

Just how this works out, we’ll have to see. My guess is that the economic and material forces that gave rise to the Protestant revolution in Europe will continue through global Buddhism, producing much the same ‘democratization’ of information and practices. With this will come less need for old institutions and practices (many of which were developed to fit a very different context), and thus the greater need for new institutions and practices (built for this very modern world).


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