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Buddhism: Western: Main

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

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Western Buddhism: Main

Skull logo: Source: Clipart-Library. | Author: Unknown. | License: Public domain.
Western Buddhism broadly encompasses the knowledge and practice of Buddhism outside of Asia in the Western world. Occasional intersections between Western civilization and the Buddhist world have been occurring for thousands of years. The first Westerners to become Buddhists were Greeks who settled in Bactria and India during the Hellenistic period. They became influential figures during the reigns of the Indo-Greek kings, whose patronage of Buddhism led to the emergence of Greco-Buddhism and Greco-Buddhist art. There was little contact between the Western and Buddhist cultures during most of the Middle Ages but the early modern rise of global trade and mercantilism, improved navigation technology, and the European colonization of Asian Buddhist countries led to increased knowledge of Buddhism among Westerners. This increased contact led to various responses from Buddhists and Westerners throughout the modern era. These include religious proselytism, religious polemics and debates (such as the Sri Lankan Panadura debate), Buddhist modernism, Western convert Buddhists and the rise of Buddhist studies in Western academia. During the 20th century there was a growth in Western Buddhism due to various factors such as immigration, globalization, the decline of Christianity, and increased interest among Westerners. The various schools of Buddhism are now established in all major Western countries making up a small minority in the United States (1% in 2017), Europe (0.2% in 2010), Australia (2.4% in 2016) and New Zealand (1.5% in 2013).*
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on Western Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.
*Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Manhattan from top of Rockefeller Center

ko imaṃ pathaviṃ vicessati yamalokaṃ ca imaṃ sadevakaṃ
ko dhammapadaṃ sudesitaṃ kusalo puppham iva pacessati
sekho pathaviṃ vicessati yamalokaṃ ca imaṃ sadevakaṃ
sekho dhammapadaṃ sudesitaṃ kusalo puppham iva pacessati

Who will master this earth, / this world of death and radiant beings?
Who will gather a well-taught verse on the way, / as a skilled gardener gathers a flower?
A seeker will master this earth, / this world of death and radiant beings.
A seeker will gather a well-taught verse on the way, / as a skilled gardener gathers a flower.
– The Dhammapada, verses 44-45

Pali text source: Digital Library & Museum of Buddhist Studies, Taiwan (v. 44 | v. 45) Pali text author: Unknown. Pali text license: Public domain. English translation source: The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way. A new translation of the teachings of the Buddha, with a guide to reading the text, edited & translated by Glenn Wallis. New York: The Modern Library, 2004, p. 12. English translation author: Glenn Wallis. English translation license: Fair use. Above: A view of the island of Manhattan in the early morning. Image source: Unsplash. Image author: Emiliano Bar. Image license: Unsplash license.


Western Buddhism: General Works

An edifying view of Buddhism from one of today's leading philosophers: a look at its history and foundational teachings, how it fits into modern society, and how it (and other world religions) will evolve. What might religion look like in the future? Our era of evolution in social consciousness and revolution in science, technology, and neuroscience has created difficulties for some practitioners of the world’s great spiritual traditions. How can one remain true to their central teachings while also integrating those teachings into a new framework that is inclusive of ongoing discoveries? Taking the example of Buddhism to explore this key question, Ken Wilber offers insights that are relevant to all of the great traditions. He shows that traditional Buddhist teachings themselves suggest an ongoing evolution leading toward a more unified, holistic, and interconnected spirituality. Touching on all of the key turning points in the history of Buddhism, Wilber describes the ways in which the tradition has been open to the continuing unfolding and expansion of its own teachings, and he suggests possible paths toward an ever more Integral approach. This work is a precursor to and condensed version of Wilber’s The Religion of Tomorrow.

Carolan New World Dharma cover artNew World Dharma: Interviews and Encounters with Buddhist Teachers, Writers, and Leaders by Trevor Carolan. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2016.

Based on Trevor Carolan’s interviews, profiles, and essays from the past twenty years, this book offers a fascinating and intimate look at many of the Buddhist (and Buddhist-inspired) spiritual and cultural leaders who have shaped our time. Drawn from the global mosaic of the arts and humanities, environmentalism, and governance, Carolan’s collaborators include Buddhist teachers, poets, writers, activists, and even a politician. Readers will encounter Red Pine, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gary Snyder, Robert Aitken-Roshi, Jerry Brown, the Dalai Lama, Allen Ginsberg, along with many others. They explore engaged practice, East-West ethics, the role of dharma-influenced literature, Beat literature, social and political activism, and more. A rich resource for anyone interested in Buddhism, this book reveals a Buddhist consciousness responding to the challenge of rethinking what citizenship, community, and the sacred might mean in a global age.

Wallis et al Cruel Theory cover artCruel Theory | Sublime Practice: Toward a Revaluation of Buddhism by Glenn Wallis. Eyecorner Press, 2013.

This book consists of three parts. Each part addresses both theoretical and practical dimensions of Buddhism. Authored individually, each part nonetheless interacts with the concerns of the others. Those concerns include the formation of an autonomous subject in the face of Buddhism's concealment of its ideological force; the possibility of a practice that thus serves as a theory or science of ideology; the reconstitution of practice as an organon of authoritative structures, including controlling social-conceptual representations; and the perception of Buddhism as the subject of a historical process. Perhaps the most salient theme running throughout the book concerns the crucial necessity of transfusing anemic contemporary Buddhist discourse with the lifeblood of rigorous, creative thought. Will Buddhism in the twenty-first century West help fashion a liberated subject? Or will it continue to be a deceptive mythos spawning subjects who are content to rest at ease in the thrall of predatory capitalism? The three parts of this work share a common concern: to push Buddhism to the brink.

Bhushan TransBuddhism cover artTransBuddhism: Transmission, Translation, Transformation, edited by Nalini Bhushan, Jay L. Garfield, and Abraham Zablocki. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.

The global spread of Buddhism is giving rise to new forms of religious complexity, both in the West and in Asia. This collection of essays examines the religious and cultural conversations that are occurring in this process from a diverse range of disciplinary, methodological, and literary perspectives, including philosophy, ethnography, history, and cultural studies. The chapters in the first section explore the transmission of Buddhism to the West, ranging from the writings of one of its earliest western interpreters, the Wesleyan missionary R. Spence Hardy, to the globalization of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation, to the development and practice of Buddhism within the American prison system. The concluding chapter of this section presents a case study of a Japanese Buddhist temple in Oregon that ultimately died out -- an example of a transmission that failed. The second section looks at the complex issues that arise in the translation of Buddhist terms, texts, and concepts from one language or cultural milieu to another. Two chapters examine the challenges confronted by those who translate Buddhist texts -- one exploring the contemporary translation of Tibetan Buddhism, the second analyzing an exchange of poetry in medieval Japan. The other two chapters describe the translation of Buddhist ideas into new cultural domains in America, specifically film and sports. The final section presents case studies in the transformation of Buddhism which is resulting from its new global interconnections. Topics include the role of women in transforming Buddhist patriarchy, Buddhist-Freudian dialogue in relationship to mourning, and the interplay between Buddhism and the environmental movement. The book also includes images created by the noted artist Meridel Rubenstein which frame the individual chapters within a nonverbal exploration of the themes discussed.

North America: General Works

This illuminating account of contemporary American Buddhism shows the remarkable ways the tradition has changed over the past generation. The past couple of decades have witnessed Buddhist communities both continuing the modernization of Buddhism and questioning some of its limitations. In this fascinating portrait of a rapidly changing religious landscape, Ann Gleig illuminates the aspirations and struggles of younger North American Buddhists during a period she identifies as a distinct stage in the assimilation of Buddhism to the West. She observes both the emergence of new innovative forms of deinstitutionalized Buddhism that blur the boundaries between the religious and secular, and a revalorization of traditional elements of Buddhism, such as ethics and community, that were discarded in the modernization process. Based on extensive ethnographic and textual research, the book ranges from mindfulness debates in the Vipassana network to the sex scandals in American Zen, while exploring issues around racial diversity and social justice, the impact of new technologies, and generational differences between baby boomer, Gen X, and millennial teachers.

Wilson Dixie Dharma cover artDixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South by Jeff Wilson. 2014.

Buddhism in the United States is often viewed in connection with practitioners in the Northeast and on the West Coast, but in fact, it has been spreading and evolving throughout the United States since the mid-nineteenth century. In this book, Jeff Wilson argues that region is crucial to understanding American Buddhism. Through the lens of a multidenominational Buddhist temple in Richmond, Virginia, Wilson explores how Buddhists are adapting to life in the conservative evangelical Christian culture of the South, and how traditional Southerners are adjusting to these newer members on the religious landscape. Introducing a host of overlooked characters, including Buddhist circuit riders, modernist Pure Land priests, and pluralistic Buddhists, Wilson shows how regional specificity manifests itself through such practices as meditation vigils to heal the wounds of the slave trade. He argues that southern Buddhists at once use bodily practices, iconography, and meditation tools to enact distinct sectarian identities even as they enjoy a creative hybridity.

Seager Buddhism in America revised cover artBuddhism in America, revised & expanded edition, by Richard H. Seager. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Over the past half century in America, Buddhism has grown from a transplanted philosophy to a full-fledged religious movement, rich in its own practices, leaders, adherents, and institutions. Long favored as an essential guide to this history, Buddhism in America covers the three major groups that shape the tradition—an emerging Asian immigrant population, native-born converts, and old-line Asian American Buddhists—and their distinct, yet spiritually connected efforts to remake Buddhism in a Western context. This edition updates existing text and adds three new essays on contemporary developments in American Buddhism, particularly the aging of the baby boom population and its effect on American Buddhism's modern character. New material includes revised information on the full range of communities profiled in the first edition; an added study of a second generation of young, Euro-American leaders and teachers; an accessible look at the increasing importance of meditation and neurobiological research; and a provocative consideration of the mindfulness movement in American culture. The volume maintains its detailed account of South and East Asian influences on American Buddhist practices, as well as instances of interreligious dialogue, socially activist Buddhism, and complex gender roles within the community. Introductory chapters describe Buddhism's arrival in America with the nineteenth-century transcendentalists and rapid spread with the Beat poets of the 1950s. The volume now concludes with a frank assessment of the challenges and prospects of American Buddhism in the twenty-first century.

Soucy Wild Geese cover artWild Geese: Buddhism in Canada, edited by John S. Harding, Victor Sōgen Hori and Alexander Soucy. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010.

The most comprehensive study of Buddhism in Canada to date, this book offers a history of the religion's evolution in Canada, surveys the diverse communities and beliefs of Canadian Buddhists, and presents biographies of Buddhist leaders. The essays cover a broad range of topics, including Chinese, Tibetan, Lao, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese Buddhisms, critical reflections on Buddhism in the West, census data on the growth of the religion, and analysis of the global context for the growth of Buddhism in Canada. Presenting a sweeping portrait of a crucial part of the multicultural mosaic, this work is essential reading for anyone interested in religious life in Canada.

North America: Cross-Cultural Encounters

Street art, Grace Abbott Homes, Chicago, Illinois

Above: Recombinant culture: street art at the Grace Abbott Homes in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

American Culture & Literature

In the 1960s, Americans combined psychedelics with Buddhist meditation to achieve direct experience through altered states of consciousness. As some practitioners became more committed to Buddhism, they abandoned the use of psychedelics in favor of stricter mental discipline, but others carried on with the experiment, advancing a fascinating alchemy called psychedelic Buddhism. Many think exploration with psychedelics in Buddhism faded with the revolutionary spirit of the sixties, but the underground practice has evolved into a brand of religiosity as eclectic and challenging as the era that created it. Altered States combines interviews with well-known figures in American Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality―including Lama Surya Das, Erik Davis, Allan Badiner, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei, Rick Strassman, and Charles Tart―and personal stories of everyday practitioners to define a distinctly American religious phenomenon. The nuanced perspective that emerges, grounded in a detailed history of psychedelic religious experience, adds critical depth to debates over the controlled use of psychedelics and drug-induced mysticism. The book also opens new paths of inquiry into such issues as re-enchantment, the limits of rationality, the biochemical and psychosocial basis of altered states of consciousness, and the nature of subjectivity.

Cage Silence cover artSilence: Lectures and Writings. 50th Anniversary Edition by John Cage. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

John Cage is the outstanding composer of avant-garde music today. The Saturday Review said of him: "Cage possesses one of the rarest qualities of the true creator – that of an original mind – and whether that originality pleases, irritates, amuses or outrages is irrelevant." "He refuses to sermonize or pontificate. What John Cage offers is more refreshing, more spirited, much more fun-a kind of carefree skinny-dipping in the infinite. It's what's happening now." –The American Record Guide. From the book: "There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. Sounds occur whether intended or not; the psychological turning in direction of those not intended seems at first to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity. But one must see that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together, that nothing was lost when everything was given away."

Sherrill Brooklyn cover artThe Buddha from Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction by Martha Sherrill. 2000.

Washington Post reporter Martha Sherrill takes us on one of the strangest and most entertaining spiritual journeys in the history of American religion in this tale of a big-haired, much-divorced Brooklyn-born Jewish-Italian woman who finds herself recognized as the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century Tibetan Buddhist lama. When Catharine Burroughs takes on the mantle of a living Buddha and becomes Jetsunma Ahkon Lhama, she commits herself to the creation of the largest Tibetan Buddhist center in America and inspires her disciples to all night prayer vigils and monastic vows. She also indulges her passion for shopping, develops a hair-care product as a way to raise funds, seduces male and female devotees, and divorces another husband. As Martha Sherrill delves into the passions and practice of Jetsunma and her followers, she explores the practices of Tibetan Buddhism and its uneasy fit in the West and reveals how difficult it is to be truly spiritual in America today.

Tweed Encounter cover artThe American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture & the Limits of Dissent by Thomas A. Tweed. 1992.

In this landmark work, Thomas Tweed examines nineteenth-century America's encounter with one of the world's major religions. Exploring the debates about Buddhism that followed upon its introduction in this country, Tweed shows what happened when the transplanted religious movement came into contact with America's established culture and fundamentally different Protestant tradition. The book, first published in 1992, traces the efforts of various American interpreters to make sense of Buddhism in Western terms. Tweed demonstrates that while many of those interested in Buddhism considered themselves dissenters from American culture, they did not abandon some of the basic values they shared with their fellow Victorians. In the end, the Victorian understanding of Buddhism, even for its most enthusiastic proponents, was significantly shaped by the prevailing culture. Although Buddhism attracted much attention, it ultimately failed to build enduring institutions or gain significant numbers of adherents in the nineteenth century. Not until the following century did a cultural environment more conducive to Buddhism's taking root in America develop. In a new preface, Tweed addresses Buddhism's growing influence in contemporary American culture.

Britain & Australia

Within Western Buddhism, practitioners are often assumed to be white and middle-class. Based in ground-breaking empirical research, this book explores the stories of Buddhists from minority communities, through a rich analysis of their lived experiences. Smith, Munt and Yip explore their various contestations of dominant white and heteronormative cultures in Western Buddhism. Using cosmopolitanism as the theoretical lens, the book argues convincingly that the Buddhist ethos of human interconnectivity needs to be further developed to truly embrace the 'Other' of different kinds (not least Western Buddhism's own internal 'Others'). Through Buddhists' own narratives, this work explores how cultural politics from the ground up can offer a more inclusive philosophy and lived experience of spirituality.

Eddy Becoming cover artBecoming Buddhist: Experiences of Socialization and Self-Transformation in Two Australian Buddhist Centres by Glenys Eddy. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.

What does it mean to be a Western Buddhist? For the predominantly Anglo-Australian affiliates of two Western Buddhist centres in Australia, the author proposes an answer to this question, and finds support for it from interviews and her own participant-observation experience. Practitioners' prior experiences of experimentation with spiritual groups and practices – and their experiences of participation, practice and self-transformation – are examined with respect to their roles in practitioners' appropriation of the Buddhist worldview, and their subsequent commitment to the path to enlightenment. Religious commitment is experienced as a decision-point, itself the effect of the individual's experimental immersion in the Centre's activities. During this time the claims of the Buddhist worldview are tested against personal experience and convictions. Using rich ethnographic data and Lofland and Skonovd's experimental conversion motif as a model for theorizing the stages of involvement leading to commitment, the author demonstrates that this study has a wider application to our understanding of the role of alternative religions in western contexts.

Franklin Lotus Lion cover artThe Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire by J. Jeffrey Franklin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Buddhism is indisputably gaining prominence in the West, as is evidenced by the growth of Buddhist practice within many traditions and keen interest in meditation and mindfulness. In this work, J. Jeffrey Franklin traces the historical and cultural origins of Western Buddhism, showing that the British Empire was a primary engine for curiosity about and then engagement with the Buddhisms that the British encountered in India and elsewhere in Asia. As a result, Victorian and Edwardian England witnessed the emergence of comparative religious scholarship with a focus on Buddhism, the appearance of Buddhist characters and concepts in literary works, the publication of hundreds of articles on Buddhism in popular and intellectual periodicals, and the dawning of syncretic religions that incorporated elements derived from Buddhism. In this fascinating book, Franklin analyzes responses to and constructions of Buddhism by popular novelists and poets, early scholars of religion, inventors of new religions, social theorists and philosophers, and a host of social and religious commentators. Examining the work of figures ranging from Rudyard Kipling and D. H. Lawrence to H. P. Blavatsky, Thomas Henry Huxley, and F. Max Müller, Franklin provides insight into cultural upheavals that continue to reverberate into our own time. Those include the violent intermixing of cultures brought about by imperialism and colonial occupation, the trauma and self-reflection that occur when a Christian culture comes face-to-face with another religion, and the debate between spiritualism and materialism. This work demonstrates that the nineteenth-century encounter with Buddhism subtly but profoundly changed Western civilization forever.

van der Veer Imperial cover artImperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain edited by Peter van der Veer. 2001.

Picking up on Edward Said's claim that the historical experience of empire is common to both the colonizer and the colonized, Peter van der Veer takes the case of religion to examine the mutual impact of Britain's colonization of India on Indian and British culture. He shows that national culture in both India and Britain developed in relation to their shared colonial experience and that notions of religion and secularity were crucial in imagining the modern nation in both countries. In the process, van der Veer chronicles how these notions developed in the second half of the nineteenth century in relation to gender, race, language, spirituality, and science. Avoiding the pitfalls of both world systems theory and national historiography, this book problematizes oppositions between modern and traditional, secular and religious, progressive and reactionary. It shows that what often are assumed to be opposites are, in fact, profoundly entangled. In doing so, it upsets the convenient fiction that India is the land of eternal religion, existing outside of history, while Britain is the epitome of modern secularity and an agent of history.

DJ live set, Waagenbau, Hamburg, Germany

Above: Six bases of contact, one beat: a DJ live set at the Waagenbau in Hamburg, Germany.
Image source: Flickr. Image author: björn hornemann. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.