copyright Robert Ellis 2010

Buddhised Westernism

For many years I counted myself as a 'Western Buddhist', yet the 'Western' part of this was always more important to me than the 'Buddhist'. Since leaving formal Buddhism two years ago I have wondered what to call myself, and grown embarrassed when casual acquaintances assumed I was still a Buddhist. I am still greatly influenced by Buddhism, but an influence does not make an essential identity. My most central values are ones created by my Western background, that many of my fellow citizens take for granted: for example the importance of critical reason, of individual judgement, of equality of treatment for different human beings, of tolerance, and of responding to evidence and argument. These are not philosophical positions so much as starting points for the vast majority of educated Westerners, whether or not we call ourselves 'liberal', and whatever the limitations and qualifications we might want to place on them philosophically. Every Western Buddhist I have ever met is shaped far more by these values than they are by Buddhism as a tradition, and this was certainly overwhelmingly the case for me when I counted myself a Western Buddhist.

A recent book lays out the evidence for this centrality in Western Buddhism very well - David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2008). McMahan suggests three major influences on Western Buddhists - scientific rationalism, Christianity, and Romanticism. One of his most telling points is that the very individual study of Buddhist scriptures and the attempt to draw individual conclusions from them through reflection is an entirely Western thing to do, influenced by Protestant individual reading of the Bible, individual rational judgement developed through the Western academic tradition, and the Romantic idea of of individual inspiration. The scriptures themselves may (or may not) be adequate translations of traditional texts, but the whole way we use those texts is completely alien to the Buddhist tradition. The texts we select and use out of the vast Buddhist corpus are also chosen to support the ideas we already have about how Buddhism should be represented - a development of the Christian tradition of cherry-picking proof texts from the Bible and interpreting them in a way that suits our purposes.

So, my contention is that all Western Buddhists would be better described as Buddhised Westernists. Our conditioning is Western, and we adopt ideas and techniques from the Buddhist tradition to support our already-formed Western values. Once Westerners have identified themselves as 'Buddhists', they feel obliged to articulate their most central values in Buddhist terms, even though this requires an ongoing programme of apologetics for aspects of the Buddhist tradition that do not fit, and the ignoring of many tacit Western assumptions that have actually done far more to create their outlook. An acknowledgement that we are all Buddhised Westernists would be far more honest. However, far from acknowledging this and engaging with what writers like McMahan can tell them, I see Western Buddhists more often moving in the opposite direction of affirming their 'Buddhist' identity. One major recent example of this is the decision of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order to rename themselves the Triratna Buddhist Community: not only substituting Sanskrit for the much more widely understood English, but pinning their identity not just to Buddhist tradition but to three particular traditional concepts in Buddhism (the Three Jewels - Triratna).

However, in my own case I would be happy to be called a Buddhised Westernist. I want to fully acknowledge the fact that my values, are, in fact, overwhelmingly Western values. What's more, I still have some optimism about Western civilisation as a whole, unfashionable though this may be. Some Buddhist concepts and practices have been of great help to me in understanding and articulating these Western values - particularly the concepts surrounding the Middle Way and the practice of meditation. Yet even those concepts and practices I only use in a severely modified form which have now been subject to several generations of Western interpretation before I modified them further myself.

It might be argued, of course, that Buddhism has always been an extremely flexible religious movement that adapted itself to new circumstances - for example, changing hugely as it adapted to Chinese culture, long before it reached the West. However, the very assertion that 'Buddhism' maintained an essential identity through all these changes is one that is compatible neither with the weight of evidence of how much differing forms of Buddhism have been conditioned by their circumstances, nor by the Buddhist philosophical denial of notions of essential identity. That doesn't mean that universally-applicable ideas and practices (such as the Middle Way) can't be found in Buddhist tradition, but these ideas and practices, through their very universality, are neither necessary nor sufficient to Buddhism: many Buddhists do not understand them, and many non-Buddhists do. To identify the universal insights to be found in Buddhism with 'Buddhism' as a whole is a huge self-deception.

Essentialised Buddhism is self-deceiving, but Buddhising is not. We can count ourselves Buddhised, to a degree, and thus be both more honest and still positive about what Buddhism has to offer. At the same time, the central terms we use to describe ourselves should be ones that begin with a full acknowledgement of the conditions that created us.


Links to related discussion

The Trouble with Buddhism


Buddhism and Christianity