Historical Perspectives

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.

In both the Japanese and Southeast Asian cases, meditation for lay Buddhists was encouraged for worldly reasons: to ease stress, promote psychological well-being, improve one's personal life, and so on. According to critics, these are the values that were extended to the West along with the new Buddhist meditation movements. The potential for psycho-spiritual peak experiences was also touted along with these new Buddhist practices. Robert Sharf, one of the most vocal critics of the "Protestantization" of Buddhism, does not deny that unusual experiences may occur for Western practitioners of meditation, but he does question those who equate these experiences to those described in the ancient texts.

Sharf also points out that the elaborate visualizations of deities, which some Westerners consider to be central to Tibetan and other Tantric Buddhist practices, are quite different from what some have been led to believe. Usually the practice consists of recitation of texts that describe these deities in great detail. The texts are recited very quickly, and often without comprehension or conscious thought. Sharf argues that there is no time or inclination to visualize within this context, and adds that his personal inquiries have confirmed his opinion.

Romanticized descriptions of Tibet have been another target of scholarly criticism. Portrayals of Tibet are often reminiscent of Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton that was turned into a 1937 film by Frank Capra. Lost Horizon depicts Shangri-la, a utopian land in the Himalayas (populated primarily by Caucasians, rather than Asians) run by "lamas," where the occupants never seem to age. While sensitive to the many cruelties associated with the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Donald Lopez and others have criticized a Western tendency to romanticize Tibetan culture and religion, pointing out that Tibet was never the utopian world that some have portrayed it to be. Even the former head of the Tibetan theocracy, the Dalai Lama, while objecting to the Chinese takeover, has also been clear in stating that there was a need for many reforms in Tibet.

All of these scholarly criticisms are vital to contemporary understandings of Buddhism, but critics must always be wary of seeming to continue Western attempts at intellectual dominance, as Western-influenced interpretations of Buddhism within Asia are, in turn, criticized by new generations of Western scholars. They must also be careful to avoid seeming to criticize all forms of Buddhism that have been exported to the West, potentially casting aspersions on the legitimate and sincere along with the spurious. It is also important to recognize that Buddhism has changed and adapted to different historical times and different cultural contexts many times in the past. Both the changes, and the criticism of the changes, are necessary and compelling aspects of the evolution of tradition — a process that is itself a worthy and often neglected object of study.

Study Questions:
1.     What is meant by the “Protestantization" of Buddhism?
2.     How has the hegemony of Western religious thought change Buddhism?
3.     What about Buddhism has become popular in the West? How does this differ from the emphases of Buddhist monks?

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