The emergence of Western Buddhism has long been chronicled, and I have no doubt that should “Western Buddhism” ever coalesce into a coherent tradition, it will stand apart from all other Buddhist lineages by the phenomenal level at which its early members were so perpetually enthralled in talking and writing about what their new tradition would be. It’s not even clear to me who counts as a Western Buddhist and who doesn’t, but I understand that’s not the point. Western Buddhism will “just happen” by combining the best of East and West, and we’ll all be long gone by then. Western Buddhism is simply the next phase in Dharmic evolution.
Some may see nothing strange in this perspective. After all, it’s glaringly obvious that Buddhism in Asia is a corrupt, backward and irrelevant institution for the 21st century. Buddhism needs the Enlightened people of the West to help it adapt. This judgment may sound prejudiced, but how else could one react to murderous monks in Sri Lanka, tiger temples in Thailand, corruption in Korean and Taiwanese sanghas, or the imminent death of Japanese Buddhism? As one commentator put it:
It’s good to realize though that Buddhist institutions are not perfect and we import the good with the bad (the Tibetan mores are a cultural artifact, not based on dharma). It’s not always so obvious either, and many Buddhist institutions are in horrible shape in Asia. The dream situation would be to ‘re-perfect’ things here (out of our own needs) and export it back, ironed and pressed.
So the ideal solution it seems, is that Western Buddhism, albeit fledgling, will grow and provide the White Knight who will restore Buddhism to its proper glory, return the Dharma to Asia, and save Asian Buddhists from themselves. I can already hear the masses cheering.
If you didn’t get it by now, everything above was written with my tongue in cheek. In previous posts, I would have labelled this Western-Buddhist-hero line of thought as racist, but I realize that’s the wrong word. I’m talking about excessive hegemonic privilege.
This hegemonic privilege runs hand in hand with ignorance. Buddhism didn’t develop in a hermetically sealed capsule called Asia, where it rotted in isolation. There have been interactions with the West going back centuries, and even more interactions within different Asian communities. On top of that, Buddhism in Asia has been marked by generations upon generations of reform movements and innovations.
In the last two centuries, Thailand has seen at least three major reform movements that have completely changed the face of Thai Buddhism. (As if there is a single Thai Buddhism!) The Forest Tradition was one of the most recent of these movements and produced “Western” teachers like Ajahn Sumedho, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ajahn Brahmavamso and Jack Kornfield. And Thai people weren’t running around in the 12th century saying, “What will Thai Buddhism look like? I bet it’ll be great!”
Likewise, Chinese Buddhism has rapidly changed in the years after Western drug cartels stopped using the Middle Kingdom as its opium market. There have been numerous Chinese teachers who’ve pushed for a return to the original teachings, for better organized sanghas and for an emphasis on humanistic concerns. They even developed engaged Buddhism. The Taiwanese engaged Buddhist foundation Tzu Chi can alone claim more members than all non-Asian Buddhists combined!
Is this what we think of when we think of an Asian Buddhism that needs the West to fix it?
We are now in the internet age, and the boundaries that facilitated the growth of nationalist Buddhisms are being paved over by the information superhighway. Today’s development of Buddhism is being fed by innovations in Asia that are still being adopted by the West. There is much promise in organizations like the Vipassana Meditation network, which are modern, worldwide, self-sustaining and (by their claims) traditional. This network just coincidentally happens to be based in Asia and developed by Asians.
I can’t deny that there are problem Buddhists in Asia. They exist in every piece of territory where the Dharma’s touched ground. But to assume that the West will come to the rescue, or even that the West will make Buddhism better… well, those notions smack of excessive hegemonic privilege. Why would the West do any better? The quote (way) above reminded me of a passage by one of my favorite Asian American novelists, Michael Ondaatje:
‘American movies, English books–remember how they all end?’ Gamini asked that night. ‘The American or the Englishman gets on the plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.’
There is of course nothing wrong with being a Western Buddhist. There’s nothing less authentic or more innovative about it. But maybe the focus on “Western Buddhism” is a little too much focus on categories that don’t exist, and probably never will. At least, that’s the opinion of this Western Buddhist.