Global Analysis

Western Buddhism

A new-ish frontier for Christian mission

Hugh Kemp 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.

Buddhism’s spread

The terms ‘Western Buddhism’ and ‘global Buddhism’ signify Buddhism’s spread from its Asian homeland:

  • Siddhartha Gautama, who became ‘the Buddha’, lived in what is now the border lands of India and Nepal, somewhere between the 6th and 5th century BC.
  • Under the initial patronage of Emperor Ashoka (r. 269-232 BC), Buddhism was able to move south to Ceylon, northwest into Afghanistan, then north to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan, and southeast into Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Arrival in the West

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.

Rapid growth

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:

  • This first wave was chiefly into the US and then more slowly into Western Europe and other Western nations.
  • Today, Buddhist entities in the West include teaching/retreat centres, publishing houses, study groups, meditation groups, hospices, bookshops, training centres, and the like.

These Buddhist entities find expression in numerous websites representing a plethora of Buddhist traditions and lineages. The World Buddhist Directory (, as one example, invites Buddhist entities to list themselves. For example, at the beginning of 2014, an ad-hoc selection revealed:

  • at least 1,100 Buddhist centres in the US and Canada, including over 430 in California;
  • 64 centres in London;
  • 149 in Switzerland; and
  • 125 in Victoria, Australia.

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’:

  • Immigrant Buddhism may be represented by a Chinese temple where recent Chinese immigrants congregate for festivals, weekly ritual, or cultural solace.
  • Convert Buddhism may be represented by the refurbished wooden bungalow, or the rented upstairs commercial suite where indigenous local converts meet for meditation and teachings. These converts are often white, middle class, and have disposable income—that is, they are of a particular demographic.

However, such simplistic classifications are problematic. Of these convert Buddhists, commentators suggest further categories:

  • old-line Buddhists: descendants of early immigrants;
  • cradle Buddhists: those raised in a Buddhist family;
  • occult Buddhists: influenced by Theosophy;
  • not-just-Buddhists: those with multiple identities;
  • lukewarm Buddhists: those who practise meditation occasionally;
  • dharma-hoppers: those who flit between traditions;
  • night-stand Buddhists: those who commit to no more than having a Buddhist book they are reading ‘on their night-stand’;
  • boomer Buddhists: reflecting a generational demographic; or simply
  • convert-Buddhists: those who intentionally choose Buddhism and belong to the ‘new Buddhism’.[1]

Eclecticism and ambivalence are common. If essentialist, attendance, or dogmatic criteria are excluded, then ‘close-enough-Buddhists’ could suffice as a descriptor for many.

Deeper commitment

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:

  • A simple formula is ritualised: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha’—that is the Buddha, the teachings, and the community.
  • This simple formula is undertaken in the West, but ‘conversion’ into Buddhism is not restricted to or by it.

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.

Western expressions

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):

  • Some of these traditions are intentional ‘plants’ from Asia (eg the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, FPMT).
  • Others are distinctly innovative (eg the Western Buddhist Order, recently renamed Triratna).
  • Others retain their Asian demographic, but are birthed out of renewal in their countries of origin (eg Buddha Light International has Taiwanese roots).
  • Some have been criticized for showing cult-like characteristics (eg Soka Gakkai).
  • Some have Westernized, then re-planted themselves back in Asia (eg the FPMT has a centre in Mongolia).
  • Some traditions have spread out widely: New Kadampa Tradition has 1,100 centres in 40 countries.

Contours and patterns

Various contours of Western Buddhism are now recognizable:

  • The speed of embrace is unprecedented. Where it took hundreds, perhaps a thousand, years for Buddhism to be established in Asia, Buddhism has bedded down in less than a decade in some Western countries.
  • In contrast to Asia, where distinct cultural Buddhist traditions have dominated one particular country (for example, Zen in Japan), the whole range of Buddhist traditions co-exist in many Western cities. This offers more choice for practitioners, and more overlap amongst the lineages themselves.

Further patterns are identifiable:

  • Leadership structures are changing: the ordained monk in Asia, trained in years of rigorous doctrine and practice, has been replaced by the scholar lay leader in the West.
  • Authority structures may differ: Buddhist communities in the West may be more democratic and egalitarian, with women finding a stronger voice. This may also be because the laity are often highly educated.
  • Promulgation patterns are also different: in the West the media and celebrities promote Buddhism as a psychological tool, or a means to world peace and compassion, or simply as a cool trend.
  • Material culture is similar, but Western Buddhism is readily commodified within a ‘do it yourself’ ethos. The very notion of a definable core of belief is anathema to some in the West.


Buddhism continues to morph into variable expressions:

  • Engaged Buddhism has gained momentum because of its strong ethical impulse, synchronous with the rise of the Green movement and of social and political consciousness among some Buddhists in the West.
  • Feminist Buddhism, Black Buddhism, and Gay Buddhism are now recognizable.
  • Specific national trends may emerge, such that one could talk about German Buddhism or Australian Buddhism.

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?

Mission implications

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.

Suggested responses

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 believing[2]: 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

Further reading

Almond, Philip C. The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Bluck, Robert. British Buddhism: Teachings, practice and development. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Clasquin, Michel, and Jacobus S Krueger, eds. Buddhism and Africa.Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1999.

Coleman, James W. The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Croucher, Paul. Buddhism in Australia, 1848-1988. Kensington NSW: New South Wales University Press, 1989.

Davie, G. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, 3rd ed.Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992.

Learman, Linda, ed. Buddhist Missionaries in the Era of Globalization, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

Lopez, Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Matthews, Bruce, ed. Buddhism in Canada.Oxford: Routledge, 2006.

Prebish, Charles, and Martin Baumann. Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

Prebish, Charles, and Kenneth K Tanaka, eds. The Faces of Buddhism in America, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.

Rocha, Cristina. Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006.

Tweed, Thomas. ‘Night-Stand Buddhists and Other Creatures: Sympathizers, Adherents, and the Study of Religion’ in American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship, edited by Duncan Ryuken Williams and Christopher S. United Kingdom: Curzon Press, 1999.