The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

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The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby LionelChen » Fri May 10, 2013 11:17 pm

Not sure if this is the correct forum - but since it's "free for all."

I ask the question with much trepidation, in so far as the fact that I've seen some rather...adharmic behavior when the matter is broached in real life.

Even my use of "Western" as an adjective is a little disconcerting as it has an implication. But if I were to say "new" or "modern" that also raises an implication as well.

This isn't so much a question when the Dharma was introduced to Europe and America, but rather how or when the orientation for what constitutes perhaps "Adapted" Buddhism emerged?

To avoid (cause I really do want to avoid) the polemical nature of the topic, I think it would be fair to say that there is a Classical version of Buddhism (whether that's the "correct" version or versions, I leave up to you the reader) which accepts what many Western interpretations of Buddhism reject in the name of well.. Science, Critical thinking, and what some conceive as a proper understanding of the words of the Buddha.

Usually this eliminates the metaphysics behind deities, the six realms, rebirth, karma, etc. It also seems to source itself either from the teachings of Soto Zen or Theravada (that is not to say that all Soto Zen or Theravadans reject the concepts I've just listed.

Again..wanting to avoid debate as to whether that's a right or wrong way to go about thinking about the Buddha's teachings - I would rather like to ask the question about When or How such an interpretation arose?

Was it even really a purely Cultural phenomena? (Located squarely in the West) Or were there already precedents within Buddhist traditions during the East's initial encounter with the forces of modernity?
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby kirtu » Fri May 10, 2013 11:59 pm

Probably since at least "The Buddhist Ray" was first published in 1887.

Were the white Pure Land people who left the US for Japan in the 1920's and then seem to have disappeared completely traditional or not? No one really knows. What about the Zen people in NYC in the 50's? Again, who knows for sure.

Perhaps there is some insight into this in "How the Swans Came to the Lake" by Rick Fields.

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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby jeeprs » Sat May 11, 2013 8:44 am

It's a really interesting topic and the subject of a unit I studied for Buddhist Studies last year. I have some online links, essays and books on the topic if you're interested in hearing about them. I also agree that How the Swans Came to the Lake is a good source.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Adamantine » Sat May 11, 2013 11:36 am

Alexandra David-Neel is probably an interesting case study, and it'd be good to look at both Buddhist influences upon Theosophy (certainly they were hybridizing a gamut of influence into their own soup) and then Theosophy's influence upon western culture and even major historical figures and thus events. There is the tendency to make Buddhism more palatable to modernity and science, as well as the tendency to mystify it more into another New Age trapping. The real point of interest historically, is the two-way influence: how modernity or western culture may transform the way Buddhist teachings are understood or interpreted, evolving into new traditions altogether: but also, equally and maybe more significantly: how has Buddhism specifically influenced and transformed major elements of western culture and history in the interim. Probably both directions of influence need to be understood together because there must be some deep mutually interdependent relationship when looking with a wide lens.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Kim O'Hara » Sat May 11, 2013 12:15 pm

LionelChen wrote:This isn't so much a question when the Dharma was introduced to Europe and America, but rather how or when the orientation for what constitutes perhaps "Adapted" Buddhism emerged?

I think you have to look at the first half of this to begin to understand the second half. I'm vague on the details but there were several separate channels by which Buddhism entered the west - Theravada from Sri Lanka to England (1880s'?); Zen from Japan to the US (1920s? earlier?) and a German school. Each came to a different culture and was affected by it. In England the teachings were kept (relatively) pure by one group but also taken up enthusiastically by the strangely new-agey mob which included the theosophists. In Germany you got Hesse and Siddhartha. And in the US? I don't know much about its early days.
All this was before 1950.
After 1950 the east-west interaction was much more widespread, and it coincided with Asian Buddhists of different schools having far more contact with each other than they had ever had before.
At the same time, religions everywhere had to deal with the success of science as a way of understanding the world, and either jettison or modify teachings that conflicted with science - or turn their back on science, like the Creationists. I tend to think that that is where the strongest impulse for a modernised, anti-religious Buddhism comes from ... but I could be wrong.

Results of a quick search:
http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_chron-txt.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Buddhism
http://www.buddhism.be/nl/het-boeddhisme-in-belgie/historiek/buddhism-in-the-west-brief-history

:reading:
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Michael_Dorfman » Sat May 11, 2013 12:24 pm

LionelChen wrote:
Again..wanting to avoid debate as to whether that's a right or wrong way to go about thinking about the Buddha's teachings - I would rather like to ask the question about When or How such an interpretation arose?

Was it even really a purely Cultural phenomena? (Located squarely in the West) Or were there already precedents within Buddhist traditions during the East's initial encounter with the forces of modernity?


David McMahan has an excellent book on precisely this subject, entitled The Making of Buddhist Modernism. I highly recommend it.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Will » Sat May 11, 2013 3:31 pm

Lionel,

Kindly outline for us what the key elements of 'Adapted' or 'Western' Buddhism are.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby LionelChen » Sat May 11, 2013 4:33 pm

Thank you all for your kind responses.

Jeeprs, please put up the links!

And Will, i think the manner in which David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism (thank you Amazon) that was suggested by Michael structures the subject in a way i'd like to approach it.

It isn't like there's one set of agreed upon elements, but rather ways of adapting the Dharma to the concerns of the person.

Blavatsky and Theosophy went in one direction. Batchelor went in another.

I'm just curious as to where these ideas grew out from? These interpretations of the Dharma didn't just drop out of the sky.

Some people or groups of people when encountering Buddhism decided to push an interpretation.

In the same manner I could say, tag Kukai for Shingon, Saicho for Tendai, Sachen for Sakya, or Nagarjuna for Madhyamaka, i merely wish to see the roots where these various understandings of the Buddha's teachings in a Western context emanated from.

As i said before, i'm not even sure of its completely Western - reform movements in Sri Lanka and Thailand upon encountering Modernity from my cursory understanding seem to have been mostly self-generated (with an exception given to one particularly important person). And then there's the whole DT Suzuki / Modern Soto Zen "current" you might say...

Putting the narrative together has been rather difficult for me. :D
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby jeeprs » Sat May 11, 2013 10:41 pm

The course outline is here. It is useful mainly because of the bibliographical references but many of the discussion questions were very interesing.

My essay on the topic is here.

If there are any points you would like to discuss please feel free to raise them.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Tom » Sat May 11, 2013 11:39 pm

Maybe not exactly on topic but you guys might enjoy...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0isDs6EAU0

I am not the biggest fan of Lopez (a lot of "cheap/easy" scholarship in my opinion) but I remember this was quite interesting...

also, the talk given the next day on Desideri is also worth a look. I think it is also on Youtube...
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby BuddhaSoup » Sun May 12, 2013 12:26 am

jeeprs wrote:The course outline is here. It is useful mainly because of the bibliographical references but many of the discussion questions were very interesing.

My essay on the topic is here.

If there are any points you would like to discuss please feel free to raise them.


Thanks, Jeeprs! Very interesting work...I've downloaded your essay as a pdf and will read again more carefully later tonight.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Zhen Li » Sun May 12, 2013 7:28 am

If one distinguishes "Western Buddhism" by the belief in and practice thereof then Ashoka's missions apparently went to Greece and Egypt and may have had some converts. Moreover, for hundreds of years in North West India, Buddhism thrived within Greek Kingdoms. In recent times, scholarship in Buddhism was much earlier than widespread practice, as others point out.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Indrajala » Sun May 12, 2013 7:54 am

Ben Yuan wrote:If one distinguishes "Western Buddhism" by the belief in and practice thereof then Ashoka's missions apparently went to Greece and Egypt and may have had some converts. Moreover, for hundreds of years in North West India, Buddhism thrived within Greek Kingdoms. In recent times, scholarship in Buddhism was much earlier than widespread practice, as others point out.


The India National Museum in Delhi has this nice specimen from Central Asia:

Image

I'm thinking of getting this painted on a thangkha actually.

It is clearly a fresco based on a Hellenic tradition.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby jeeprs » Sun May 12, 2013 10:48 am

Kushan era, Gandhara, I believe.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Indrajala » Sun May 12, 2013 1:25 pm

jeeprs wrote:Kushan era, Gandhara, I believe.


Here are the details from the museum:
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby tobes » Mon May 13, 2013 10:15 am

Michael_Dorfman wrote:
David McMahan has an excellent book on precisely this subject, entitled The Making of Buddhist Modernism. I highly recommend it.


I second that.

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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Aemilius » Mon May 13, 2013 10:22 am

I have always thought that buddhism really spread first to the western disrection, (before east, south or north). Primarily this means Persia, it is before the greeks got it. Japanese scholars had thought this back in the 1970's, or even before, but their work has been largely forgotten since then.
The story of Lucifer in the occidental tradition refers to the Enligtened One, the Bringer of Light (i.e. Lucifer). Theosophists in America and Europe knew this in 1800's, thus Madam Blavatsky named her theosophist Magazine Lucifer, Bringer of Light. I think that buddhism spread and developed fast and rapidly in the Occident before it was suppressed and destroyed. There are stories of incarnations that are feared by Kings in the bible, when all male children had to be killed because of this. The story of the Three Wise Men also reflects the tradition of searching for new reincarantions (i.e. nirmanakayas or tulkus). The system of incarnations and the search for them developed again much later (in Tibet, Mongolia, and neighbouring countries).
The buddhism of Persia also disappeared, very little remains of it, but what remains is interesting. There are persian tablets that refer to Buddha Gautama and his disciples. There used to be much more about it, now I found only this http://ranajitpal-jesus-from-asia-minor.blogspot.fi/2011/06/gotama-zoroaster-and-sariputta-in.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Iran

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Buddhism

After Buddhism was banned in the Occident, it was referred to by the symbol of fig tree or the fig leaf, (which means Ficus Religiosa, or the Bodhi Tree). This symbol of the Fig Tree and Fig leaf appears in the bible, it also appears in the pack of playing cards as the symbol Spades. (You can figure out what the other symbols stand for, like the Triratna/Three Jewels for Clubs.)
Last edited by Aemilius on Mon May 13, 2013 11:17 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby tobes » Mon May 13, 2013 10:26 am

LionelChen wrote:Thank you all for your kind responses.

Jeeprs, please put up the links!

And Will, i think the manner in which David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism (thank you Amazon) that was suggested by Michael structures the subject in a way i'd like to approach it.

It isn't like there's one set of agreed upon elements, but rather ways of adapting the Dharma to the concerns of the person.

Blavatsky and Theosophy went in one direction. Batchelor went in another.

I'm just curious as to where these ideas grew out from? These interpretations of the Dharma didn't just drop out of the sky.

Some people or groups of people when encountering Buddhism decided to push an interpretation.

In the same manner I could say, tag Kukai for Shingon, Saicho for Tendai, Sachen for Sakya, or Nagarjuna for Madhyamaka, i merely wish to see the roots where these various understandings of the Buddha's teachings in a Western context emanated from.

As i said before, i'm not even sure of its completely Western - reform movements in Sri Lanka and Thailand upon encountering Modernity from my cursory understanding seem to have been mostly self-generated (with an exception given to one particularly important person). And then there's the whole DT Suzuki / Modern Soto Zen "current" you might say...

Putting the narrative together has been rather difficult for me. :D


It's a hugely difficult question - I don't think there is an easy narrative to be found.

The challenging issue is that 'the west' is not static in this period (of course, it never is). So to understand what's going on, one really needs to understand the profound transformations unfolding in the west, particularly 19th/20th centuries. There is no easy interpretative standpoint to pin down here - the varied and multiplicitous strands of Buddhism encounter the varied and multiplicitious strands of the west. What you end up with is a right mess! Starting point for trying to understand must be: confusion!

McMahan does a good job, but the main strength of the work is that he is asking the right kind of questions. The answers will require a lot more time and effort by a lot more people.

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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Aemilius » Mon May 13, 2013 11:39 am

Kim O'Hara wrote:
LionelChen wrote:This isn't so much a question when the Dharma was introduced to Europe and America, but rather how or when the orientation for what constitutes perhaps "Adapted" Buddhism emerged?

I think you have to look at the first half of this to begin to understand the second half. I'm vague on the details but there were several separate channels by which Buddhism entered the west - Theravada from Sri Lanka to England (1880s'?); Zen from Japan to the US (1920s? earlier?) and a German school. Each came to a different culture and was affected by it. In England the teachings were kept (relatively) pure by one group but also taken up enthusiastically by the strangely new-agey mob which included the theosophists. In Germany you got Hesse and Siddhartha. And in the US? I don't know much about its early days.
All this was before 1950.
After 1950 the east-west interaction was much more widespread, and it coincided with Asian Buddhists of different schools having far more contact with each other than they had ever had before.
At the same time, religions everywhere had to deal with the success of science as a way of understanding the world, and either jettison or modify teachings that conflicted with science - or turn their back on science, like the Creationists. I tend to think that that is where the strongest impulse for a modernised, anti-religious Buddhism comes from ... but I could be wrong.

Results of a quick search:
http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_chron-txt.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Buddhism
http://www.buddhism.be/nl/het-boeddhisme-in-belgie/historiek/buddhism-in-the-west-brief-history

:reading:
Kim


First one of your links says that the first european translation of Dhammapada was into german in 1862, but in fact it was preceded by a translation into latin by Viggo Fausböll in 1855.

French philosopher Voltaire (1694 - 1778) had knowledge of the religion in SriLanka and the philosophies of China, they are mentioned briefly in his book Zadig. In one place in Zadig Voltaire mentions a country in China, which is probably Amdo, the spelling is near enough to it, and that there is a religion that worships a Bull Deity, which must be Vajrabhairava or Yamantaka!?
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Re: The Historical Origins of "Western" Buddhism?

Postby Aemilius » Wed May 15, 2013 1:22 pm

Vasubandhu mentions in his Abhidharmakosa in some topics the opinions of western monks and sometimes also foreign monks, the footnotes give sanskrit names for these. These names are rather obscure, but the general thought is that the foreign and western monks, that Vasubandhu has met and known, are from Persia or from other countries west of India or northwest of India. They may also be from Ionia, or Bactria, which are names for the lands in Greece in ancient sources. The dates for first western or foreign monks in buddhist India are thus much earlier than generally thought.
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