A Viable Western Buddhism: Four Recommendations

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Eastern Religions. Read other perspectives here.

Among my major concerns as a Buddhist critical and constructive thinker is what a viable future Western Buddhism would look like and what issues are the most important for that Buddhism. While I do not have the social science skills to predict how well Buddhism will fare in the future, especially in this era of diminished religious identification and membership, I do have some normative concerns about how Western Buddhism needs to develop to be viable and to be something to which knowledgeable people would willingly devote their lives and energy, as I have done for many years.

First, to succeed in the West or North America, Buddhists need to successfully negotiate the middle path between slavishly imitating Asian forms and domination by Asian teachers on the one hand or watering down the deeper claims and practices of traditional Buddhism too much to accommodate the tastes of some Westerners for a "softer, easier way" on the other hand. In the past, as Buddhism has spread around the globe, it has always changed to reflect the culture into which it was being adapted while also insisting on certain distinctively Buddhist practices — such as rigorous intellectual study and serious meditation practice. Especially important for the successful resolution of this puzzle is a transition from Asian leadership to Western leadership and significant entrustment of Western Buddhisms to Western teachers. Co-operation and collegiality between Asian and Western teachers could be helpful but without the significant presence of Western teachers, the future of Western Buddhism would be dim.

To date, Zen and Vipassana Buddhisms have negotiated this transition most successfully and many Western teachers are found in these forms of Buddhism. However, Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhisms are still largely dominated by Tibetan teachers, despite large numbers of serious Western students. Many Western students of Vajrayana Buddhism prefer Tibetan to Western teachers, a major problem for this movement. On the other hand, even some Western Buddhists in the mindfulness movement have begun to wonder if that movement has become too Westernized and left too much that is specifically Buddhist behind. Finding this particular middle path is subtle and difficult and there will be disagreements about where it lies.

Second, historically, Buddhism has been extremely male dominated, especially in its institutional life. Monks usually were much better supported economically and psychologically than were nuns. Most teachers have been men. Though it is often said that enlightened mind is beyond gender, neither male nor female, making gender ultimately irrelevant, nevertheless, institutional male dominance was so extreme that it is commonly said that deserving people are reborn as men and that female rebirth is unfortunate. To date Western Buddhisms have made significant progress toward being gender neutral and gender free in their practice and organization. Almost half the teachers in most Western Buddhisms are women. However, it is non-negotiable for many of us that Buddhism in the West must be gender neutral and gender free if we are to give our energy and our loyalty to Buddhism as a religion.

Third, Asian Buddhisms have been very distinctive and rather sectarian. Many forms of Buddhism have claimed their own superiority over other forms of Buddhism. This sectarian animosity has been especially strong between forms of Buddhism usually called "Mahayana" and "Theravada" Buddhisms. This sectarian animosity can be partially explained by geographical separation, different textual and liturgical languages, and differing cultural traditions among Asian Buddhisms.

Fortunately, all these forms of Buddhism are flourishing in the West and in North America, and sectarianism among them has diminished to a great extent. Nevertheless, many teachers who teach in North America, especially in the Tibetan tradition, continue to denigrate what they call "hinayana" Buddhism while elevating what they call "Mahayana" Buddhisms. Religious sectarianism has few, if any positive outcomes and is inappropriate in circumstances in which members of differing orientations can easily know about and understand each other's points of view. Just as Western Buddhisms could improve traditional Buddhism in areas such as gender neutrality and gender equality, so Western Buddhisms are poised to be much less sectarian than many Asian Buddhisms have been. Becoming less sectarian should be a priority for all forms of Western and North American Buddhism.

Finally, all Buddhisms will have to deal with issues brought up by modern outlooks and knowledge. Though many of these issues, such as the science and religion conflict, are not pressing for most Western Buddhists, other issues are troublesome to many. Most traditional religions rely on transcendent, supernatural sources for their authority and to back up their teachings, but many modern people and/or Westerners find it difficult to take such claims seriously. Such people are sometimes lectured, "These teachings and practices have always worked for people in the past, so they would work for you modern people if you would only rely on them fully," something I have often heard from Asian teachers. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to willfully suspend what one knows in favor of what another culture or era claims to know with certainty. Supernaturalism, miracle stories, and many other features of traditional Asian Buddhism, such as unquestioning, absolute belief in rebirth, will be questioned by many Western Buddhists. Rethinking these traditional beliefs could not harm the overall cogency of core Buddhist teachings and practices.