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The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition, by James William Coleman. Book Review

Below is a transcript of a conversation between James William Coleman and different members of our forum about Coleman's recent book "The New Buddhism." In it, he argues that while Buddhism has experienced major changes in coming to the West, it has nevertheless retained it's essential identity - and, more importantly, that it is having an effect on religion in the West.

The posts which were part of the original discussion have been edited and brought together to preserve a conversational flow and make it easier to read.

I'm pleased to introduce James William Coleman, author of the recent book The New Buddhism. He has agreed to take time out of his schedule to talk to us about his book and his research into Buddhism in the United States. You can read my review of his book here - I highly recommend it.

Why don't you think that other religions from the Far East have had quite the impact on the West as Buddhism has had?

JWC: Buddhism has sometime been called the "export" version of Hinduism. While that is kind of an over simplification, it is true that Buddhism was better able to shed it Indian cultural baggage and present something that has cross cultural appeal. Hinduism is almost exclusively in India and closely related cutures, Taoism is mainly in China and its cultural sisters, but Buddhism had already adopted to a variety of cultures before moving to the West.

In your book, you described some of the influences which Western society has had on Buddhism in the West - for example, how women have greater involvement in the leadership of Buddhist communities here. But are have Western religions like Judaism or Christianity themselves had any identifiable influences on Buddhism?

JWC: Buddhism is quite different from the Western religions in that there is no creator God, and less of a feeling that they are the one true faith to which everyone must subscribe. But Buddhist teachers have freely borrowed from Christian and Islamic mystics who have followed a similar spiritual path. Buddhist have also copied many of the organizational structures used by the Western religions. But in many ways Western Buddhism has actually been more deeply influenced by Western psychology then Western religion, and some even claim that Budhism is more similar to psychotherapy then a religion in its focus on the causes of suffering and the way to end them.

When Buddhists from the East visit the West, do you get the impression that they resent some of the changes which have taken place? Do they instead appreciate the changes and hope to take them back home? Or is their reaction more neutral?

JWC: There seem to be two attitudes toward Western Buddhism among Asian Buddhists. One group sees all the differences in forms and procudues and feels that the Westerners simply aren't doing things right. But others have been very impressed with the vigor and dedication of Western Buddhists (who often have the enthusiasm typical of converts and missing among those simply born into a religion) and even see it as an inspiration for a Buddhist revial in their own countires.

Really? Now, this is surprising - I wouldn't expect Buddhists to argue that unless you follow the "right forms and procedures," then you just aren't "doing" Buddhism right. That sounds more like something I would hear regarding Catholic Mass.

Or perhaps I am simply "spoiled" by Western Buddhism, where the path is more individualistic. Is it really so much more structured and... "dogmatic" then we see here? And which, in your opinion, harkens back to a more original Buddhism - the structured and organized path with imposed rules, or the more organic and individualistic approach? Or is it possible that declaring the individualistic approach to be "better" or "more original" is itself an effort to impose structure, and something to be avoided? :-)

JWC: In general I think that Buddhism is much less dogmatic than the Western religions in the sense that there is far less emphasis on the need to accept some set of ideas and beliefs. The Buddha's last words were that we should be a lamp unto ourselves. He said on other occasions that his listeners should not just accept what he said, but should look within themselves and see if his words are really true. But on the other hand, people in all cultures become accustomed to doing things a certain way, and some people get very uncomfortable when they see someone else doing things differently. I think a global culture is slowly emerging which will only grow stronger over the generations. But unlike a lot of Westerners, I doubt that it will continue to be a one way street. The spread of Buddhism in the West along with such things as the economic success of Japan and the growing power of China may be part of a process of "Asianization" in the West.

Obviously this is a forum of atheists, and because the religions atheists mostly have to deal with are theistic, that means that atheists tend not to have a very good impression about religion in general - they see religions as being dogmatic and repressive. But Buddhism doesn't have to be like that - so in speaking to atheists here, what are the most important things you think they should know about Buddhism? Can you recommend any basic books about Buddhism which would interest skeptical atheists and help them get a broader perspective on what religion can be?

JWC: You ask my what I would like to tell skeptical atheists about Buddhism. I guess the first thing I would say is that skepticism or doubt is an essential asset to anyone who would follow the Buddhist path. Although there have been many times and places where Buddhism failed to live up to its own teachings, the best Buddhist teachers I studied here in the West push their students not only to question their own lives and beliefs (including Buddhist beliefs), but to question their very sense of self and their most basic perceptions of the world. Unlike the religions most of us are familiar with, Buddhism (especially in its Western version) is not centered around the need to accept some set of doctrines or beliefs, but around the need to pay attention to our own experience--being full present with what is actually going here and now without being distracted by the endless stories we weave about ourselves and our lives. Metaphysical beliefs--is there a God or not, are we reborn when we die, etc. etc.--are really beside the point. In fact, they are often just another distraction. The Buddhist path is about letting go of our fixed ideas and dogmas not building them up. But that is a tremendously difficult thing to do for we are not just talking about political or religious beliefs but things that are far more fundamental to our construction of the world--for example, the belief that we have some kind of separate self that is independent from the rest of the world.

You also asked about any books I would recommend to atheists/skeptics about Buddhism. Aside from my own book (sorry for the plug), I think that people in this discussion group might like Stephen Batchelor's book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, which is a good representative of the secular humanist camp among Western Buddhists.

It has been a real pleasure to participate in this forum. Thanks for giving be the opportunity to join you.

Bonnie writes:

I have a question for you, but I want to say in advance that I don't intend this as a criticism of Buddhism. I haven't finished reading your book yet, but as I was going through the section on Buddhism's Asian roots, a thought occurred to me. You describe how most monks live(d) off the generosity of the laypeople around them so that they themselves would have more free time to seek enlightenment. To support the monks in this way is considered an honor, as well as a way of accumulating good karma which would allow the donor to earn a chance at being a monk himself in a future life. I also saw how eventually the practice developed of paying monks to recite sutras for the laypeople such that the good karma would accrue to those commissioning the recital.

When I read that, I was sharply reminded of the tradition of selling indulgences in the Catholic Church. It also seemed to me that while supporting the monks as such isn't a bad thing, it's a situation that could easily be abused, much as the Christian churches in the Middle Ages often took advantage of their members for support, insisting on the tithes even when the peasants barely had enough to live on themselves. Given the comment that "poor monks often had to work for rich monks" (rich monks??), it seems like maybe over the centuries, the monasteries were not always as pure and non-materialstic as one might expect.

At any rate, my point is this: the behavior of the Christian churches I describe above was strongly criticized by people both inside and outside the Church - in fact, it was one of the major causes leading to the Reformation. Has there been any similar criticism of excesses in Buddhist history, either from within or from without? Your presentation of the Asian roots was fairly neutral and non-judgmental, as is appropriate; but I was curious if there was more strife and disagreement under the surface than most Westerners realize.

JWC: Thanks for your interest in my book. You asked about the attitudes of people in Buddhist countries toward the system for supporting monks through gifts from laypeople. There have certainly have been abuses and occasional scandals--usually becuase a monk was discovered to have violated his vows of celebacy. But the fact that the monks must rely on charity to survive has often been an influence in preventing abuses. If the monks fail to live up the high moral standards they have soarn to uphold, they run the risk to losing their public support. Also, you might be interested to know that begging by monks was not consisdered acceptable in China and monks and nuns were expected to work in the monestaries to support themselves. I don't know of any stong objects to the practice of hiring monks to recite sutras, but my speciality is Western not Asian Buddhism I am probably not the best one to ask.

Jane writes:

Christianity has throughout it's history often played a political role, it brokered peace between waring Christian nations and gave legitimacy (or with held it) to rulers. It played a strong role in Magna Carta, abolition of slavery plus a number of negative things such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. I have the impression that Buddhism has played a far more detached apolitical role. Would you agree with this?

JWC: You asked if Budhism was less political than Christianity, and I think the answer varies a lot with time and place. Tibet was, of course, a theocracy for many years, and the Buddhist monestaries in China and Japan sometimes held considerable secular power and on occasions even had their own armies. At other times, however, Buddhist organizations tended to stay out of politics or were intentionally excluded from power by the state. In the West, I would say that most Buddhist groups are primarily concerned with the the spiritual development of their members. But there is an undercurrent of political activism which is often called "engaged Buddhism." Given the political orientation of most Western Buddhists, these engaged Buddhists tend to be most concerned with such issues as evnironmental problems, world peace,and social inequality and injustice. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is the most promenent representative of this perspective in the West.

You have demonstrated that Buddhism is a highly sophisticated and adaptable religion/philosophy. I think you would agree that at, least to some extent, man shapes a religion and the religion shapes us.

In my opinion one of the possibly negative aspects of Christianity is that it sets impossible standards thus ensuring feelings of guilt. This has left it's mark on a number of aspects of Western Civilisation. Are there any aspects of Buddhism which could have a negative effect on any society which adopted it in a widespread way?

JWC: This is a hard question to answer, since its impact would obviously depend on the type of society and the type of Buddhism involved. Some have charged that Indian Buddhism's rejection of violence and warlike social policies left India more vulneralbe to the Islamic invaders who conquered it. On the other hand, others have critized the Japanese Zen establishment for supporting Japanese militarism during World War II. Still other social critics feel that the economies of societies with a very large population of monks are weakened by their absense from everyday life. But on the other hand, others have claimed that the Buddhist monestaries in East Asia were economic centers that were a key to economic development in that part of the world. Confused yet? As far the the impact of the spread of Buddhism in the West, I personally don't see any significant negative consequences, but I may be missing something.

Tony writes:

Why do you think that many of the more "mystical" schools of Buddhism have become so popular in the US, such as Tibetan and Pure Land Buddhism, while Theravada Buddhism seems much less common?

JWC: I agree that the more mysitcal forms of Buddhism are the most popular in the West. Perhaps that is because the West already has many religions focussing on devotion and faith. What appeals the Westerners but is far less developed in Western religious is what has sometimes been called its "spiritual technology"--that is its numerous meditation techniques and spiritual practices. But I would disagree with one point. The Theravadin tradition is quite influencial in the West, but it is usually known as Vipassana here.

True, I always forget about them :) But still, I live in San Francisco. We are the only city in the US where the largest ethnic group is Asian. So it is not hard to believe that we have one of the largest Buddhist populations in the US. In addition we tend to have a larger than average number of Buddhists of Western decent. Yet there is no Vipassana centers in the city (there is one group that meets once a week in the city that is associated with a center, but the center itself is outside of the city). There are, I think, Three Thai Theravada temples in the city and one in Berkeley.

Yet there are, understandably, dozens of Chinese temples and Japanese Zen temples. Not surprising since Chinese and Japanese make up the two largest groups of Asians in the city. But there are almost as many Tibetan Centers, despite the relatively small number of Tibetans in the city. Most of the people who attend these centers are Westerners.

I am wondering if this is unique to San Francisco, or if you find similar patters in other US and European Cities?

JWC: In general I would say yes, but it sounds like there is more Vapassana practice in the Bay Area than you realize. The Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County is one of the two largest Vapassana Centers in the West.

Also, what do you think of The Friends of The Western Buddhist Order? Do they go too far in changing the rules of ordained Sanga members in your opinion. Or do you think their approach is suitable for a Western Population? Do changes such as the ones made by FWBO and other Western Buddhist weaken Buddhism, or do you think it strengthens it by make it better adapted to the culture and people of the West?

JWC: That is a hard question for me to answer since that is pretty much a matter of personal opinion. But for what it's worth, I don't see even relatively large adaptation to Western culture as something harmful. In fact, in my view they are inevitable.

I tend to agree. But what do you think will be the effects of things such as a non-celibate order, and order members who have to keep full time jobs? Do you think that having a clearly defined order of ordained monks and nuns serves a purpose, or do you think it is inevitable that the monastic order will disappear? Is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order's blurring of the lines between order members and lay people a trend you think will become the norm in Western Buddhism?

JWC: Your question about the future of monastacism in the West is, as you may be aware, an issue of very hot debate among Western Buddhists. My own view is that celebate monastics have something very valuable to contribute and that this type of practice will indeed take root in the West. However, I suspect they will remain a relatively small group with less general influence than similiar groups have in Asia.

I am wondering what you think of Stephen Batchelor's book, Buddhism Without Beliefs? If I understand him right he basically says that we should forget about things such as reincarnation, Karma and other Buddhist beliefs that are based more on faith than experience, and focus on the Practice of Buddhism. Basically get rid of the theology because Buddhism is more about putting things into practice. He has been criticized as promoting "Bubble-gum Buddhism", and of being the Buddhist equivalent of a Cafeteria Christian, who picks and chooses what he wants from Buddhism.

Just for the record I agree with Batchelor's ideas. In fact, I think they are even more in keeping with the Buddha's teachings than those who accept the theology simply because they feel they need to in order to get results from Buddhism.

As an Atheist and something of a skeptic (not as much of a skeptic as many here, however) I find it hard to put faith in reincarnation and Karma. But I have found that this does not hinder my acceptance of the four Nobel truths (which for me are a matter of experience rather than faith) the Five precepts (which simply make good logical sense) and the eightfold path (which just seem to give observable results when practiced no matter what the reason). My lack of faith in the other various doctrines on Buddhism have not seemed to hinder that. In fact, an approach that does not require belief in such things would open Buddhism up to many people who could really benefit from it, and helping people was the Buddha's ultimate goal after all.

In fact I believe the Buddha said we should not accept things just because we are told they are true, but only when we have either seen that they are true, or can reason that they make sense to us.

So I am wondering what your take is to such an approach. You said that you think major changes are inevitable. Do you think that removing the theology will take away from the effectiveness of Buddhism, or increase it? And how would you respond to those who claim it is "Bubble-gum Buddhism"?

JWC: Is something essential is lost if one does not accept such ideas as rebirth and karma? Although personally I believe in both, the point of Buddhist practice is certainly not to develop faith in some set of doctrines or a particular ideology. The Buddha did indeed say to investigate these matters and find out for ourselves, not to simply rely on faith. Many Western Buddhist teachers who are very convinced that we do indeed undergo a process of death and rebirth say very little about it since such ideas can become a way to ease our fears or distract us from what is really going on in the present moment. The idea of Karma seems a bit different for me since I have seen so many examples in my own life that the actions I take based on greed, hate, or delusion cause me and others suffering, and that actions based on compassion and kindness have the opposite consequences.

Buddism seems to adapt to many cultures that it is introduced to, and absorbed local attitudes and practices in different places. For a very long time Buddhism was as strictly Asian philosophy, and although there developed clear variations in different Asian countries there seems to be certain commonalties between many of these cultures. In coming to the West is it possible for Buddhism to adapt to the Western attitudes of a non-Asian culture while still maintaing it's unique philosophy, or will Buddhism always remain at it's core an Asian phenomenon with an unalterable Asian outlook no matter how popular it becomes in the West?

JWC: Can Buddhism can really adapt to Western culture or if it will always remain something Asian (and I presume you mean foreign to us) at heart? The basic assumptions upon which Buddhism is built are certainly very different from those of Western culture. But it seems to me that the movement of Buddhism to the West is part of a slow process of cultural globalization. People in the East are already thinking more like Westerners and perhaps the cultural flow is starting to move in the other direction as well.

Learn more about Coleman's book!

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