Hugh Kemp | 05 Sep 2014
Estimates of the number of Buddhists in the world vary from 330 million to 1 billion. Most enumerations agree that Buddhists make up around six percent of the world’s population. Although much smaller than Christianity, Buddhism has become a global religion.
The terms ‘Western Buddhism’ and ‘global Buddhism’ signify Buddhism’s spread from its Asian homeland:
Buddhism’s substantive arrival in the West commenced in the 1800s. As part of the European colonial enterprise, Buddhist texts were appropriated from Asia for translation and study. Consequently, initial Western understanding of Buddhism was tainted with Orientalism, and often packaged within Theosophy. Ceylonese Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) attended the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. In hindsight some regard Dharmapala as the founder of US Buddhism.
Further contact with Buddhists from Asia by way of immigration (for example, the Japanese to America from the 1850s) or gold rushes in the 19th century (California, Australia, New Zealand) meant that Asian Buddhists themselves became less and less viewed as ‘other’ by the dominant host culture.
It was in the 1960s, however, that Buddhism rapidly expanded into the West. This was due in part to the Dalai Lama’s exit from Tibet in 1959, and subsequent launch onto the world stage. Concurrently, many Tibetan lamas and refugees took up residence in Western countries and set up teaching centres. Westerners also found Zen Buddhism to have commonalities with the 1960s hippie movement and the ideals of the Beatniks:
These Buddhist entities find expression in numerous websites representing a plethora of Buddhist traditions and lineages. The World Buddhist Directory (www.buddhanet.info), as one example, invites Buddhist entities to list themselves. For example, at the beginning of 2014, an ad-hoc selection revealed:
All these figures were substantially higher than in 2005. Buddhism has also penetrated into South America (including 33 centres in Brazil) and Africa (including 46 in South Africa). In both the US and Australia, some claim Buddhism to be the fastest growing religion.
Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism now look different. There is talk of ‘immigrant Buddhism’ and ‘convert Buddhism’:
However, such simplistic classifications are problematic. Of these convert Buddhists, commentators suggest further categories:
Eclecticism and ambivalence are common. If essentialist, attendance, or dogmatic criteria are excluded, then ‘close-enough-Buddhists’ could suffice as a descriptor for many.
This ambiguity of self-definition is offset by a notion of deeper commitment in the ‘taking refuge’ ceremony. This deeper commitment may be into Buddhism per se, or to ordination as a monk or nun. Alternatively it may be made for a period of retreat and seclusion during a particular phase of one’s life:
More often than not, self-defined Buddhists in the West align themselves with more than one tradition (within Buddhism), and sometimes with more than one religion. Hence it is not unusual to find a Westerner participating at the local Tibetan Buddhist Centre one night, at Catholic Mass on another, in a long weekend retreat with Zen friends, and in Pagan rituals at the solstice—and then declaring ‘no religion’ on the census form.
In spite of this ambiguity of commitment and practice, distinct lineages and traditions are identifiable. Each of the three broad Buddhist traditions is represented in the West: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (that is, the Tibetan form):
Various contours of Western Buddhism are now recognizable:
Further patterns are identifiable:
Buddhism continues to morph into variable expressions:
Since Buddhism is now uncoupled from its home of Asia, it is now open to the local cultural forces that any religion must face when newly locating in a foreign context. Buddhism is becoming truly global in presence, but at the local level, if its history teaches anything, it will adapt and contextualize.
How much its universal commonalities will be compromised is yet to be determined. What, for example, will Buddhists in Morocco have in common with Gay Buddhists in America? And will either look anything like Buddhism from Asia?
Because of its growing profile, it is time for evangelical Christians to take note of Buddhism in the West, both in its immigrant context, but also its ‘convert’ expressions. It will continue to grow—Buddhism is a missionary religion. However, the numbers of those identifying solely as Buddhist convert-practitioners will probably plateau in Western countries at about two percent of the population—two decades of census figures in Australia, New Zealand, and Britain indicate this.
Many of these are converts out of original Christian contexts: many are disillusioned ex-Christians, who have either been abused in the church, or found little succor in the church, or claim Buddhism to be of greater intellectual stimulus or have greater ritual significance. Evangelicals can name Western Buddhism as a new frontier for mission, but it will have intellectual and pastoral challenges that will have to be thought through carefully.
This conceptualisation can best be informed by conversations, not primarily in the field of Buddhism or world religions, but with missional practitioners working among adherents of the New Age and New Religious Movements in the West. Western Buddhists are less concerned with doctrine and belief, and more interested in ‘practice’—what one does daily in religion.
Christians therefore need a ‘practice’ to talk about: disciplines of daily Scripture reading, meditation and prayer, participating in the Eucharist/Lord’s supper. The actual doing of these is open for rich conversation. While many evangelicals are wary of ritual, it is precisely ritual that often attracts Western Buddhists. Belonging in a community of ritual may well lead then to believing2: there is an implicit call here for Christians to be missional, in visible profile, hospitality, and conversation. In addition, participating for a season in a Western Buddhist community can lead to rich conversations about Jesus.
Western Buddhists often simply reject institutional church—many are ex-Christians, who have been damaged by the church. This rejection, along with their sociological and cultural characteristics is in common with practitioners of the New Age, New Religious Movements, and neo-Paganism: all tend to embrace eclectic beliefs, practice, and identity formation.
An authentic, curious, and loving interest in them as persons leads to robust, yet often warm conversation. Whether visiting a New Kadampa temple, having lunch with a Zen group, or engaging with people on the High Street of Glastonbury, England, people have noted that ‘you are the first real Christian we’ve ever met’.
Reflection on missional engagement with Western Buddhists continues within Issue Group 16 of the Pattaya 2004 Lausanne forum. This has found expression in Lausanne Occasional Paper 45 ‘Religious and Non-Religious Spirituality in the Western World (“New Age”)’, which is a good place to start one’s journey toward a missional engagement with Western Buddhists.3
1 Thomas Tweed, ‘Night-Stand Buddhists and Other Creatures: Sympathizers, Adherents, and the Study of Religion’ in American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship, ed. Duncan Ryuken Williams and Christopher S (United Kingdom: Curzon Press, 1999). And: James W Coleman, The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2001).
2 G Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
3 Editor’s Note: This document is available as a PDF download at https://lausanne.org/en/documents/lops/860-lop-45.html.
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Hugh Kemp is an adjunct lecturer in missiology at St John's College, Auckland, New Zealand. He has been involved in theological education in Mongolia, England, Philippines, and Sri Lanka.