Buddhism in the West and Modern Buddhism


Although Marco Polo commented on the monks of the Chinese court, no really detailed information about Buddhism reached the West until the middle of the nineteenth century. Some of the English and French living in Asia collected Buddhist texts and sent them home where scholars undertook the quite laborious work of translating them into English, French and German.

By the end of the nineteenth century, there were several emerging Buddhist communities in Europe. According to " The Vision of the Buddha" by Tom Lowenstein ,

"One of the Sanskrit texts translated into English in the mid-19th Century was the Lalitavistara, a poetic account of the Buddha’s youth and Enlightenment. ..Sir Edwin Arnold, an English poet who had travelled in India, wrote a long verse narrative which was published in 1879 as The Light of Asia. Arnold’s poem created an immediate interest in Buddhism in Victorian England and North America."

In the late 19th Century, the transmission of Buddhism to America was further boosted by Chinese and Japanese immigrants who sought their fortune in California and Canada and brought their families and their philosophy with them.


Recent Times:

Buddhist societies were formed in many Western counties in the early twentieth century, but attracted only a handful of Western followers. After the Second World War, the occupation of Japan, and Vietnam War, Zen Buddhism began to increase in popularity in America. When the Tibetan monks left Tibet after the Chinese arrived, some came to America and established centres of learning there. Theravada centres were set up by Westerners returning after years of study in India.

Similarly, in Europe, an exponential increase in Buddhist followers was happening.

Many organisations came into being, often as a result Westerners living and studying in Asia.

Today, there are major centres in most large cities throughout Western countries, for the study of Zen, Tibetan, and, the more classical, Theravada Buddhism. Books are now available in English and European languages to explain Buddhist principles.

In Sydney, Australia, there are over 50 different Buddhism groups listed as active, and many communities have regular meetings for study, meditation, and devotion. In Wollongong, the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere was built in the suburb of Berkeley in Wollongong and opened in 1995. The Nan Tien Temple and pagoda are built in an ornate Chinese style with strong geometrical features. It is run by a group of Buddhist nuns and caters both for the tourists and for those who join the meditation weekends.

The photo below shows the front entrance of Nan Tien complex which also includes a conference room and an overnight lodge for those who wish participate in activities. (Click here to visit the Nan Tien Temple's web site.)

In many Western countries there are now communities who are well established, often with premises such as a simple hall or sometimes a temple. These offer courses and retreats for both the advanced and beginner to study and meditate and share a sense of community with others. Many of these centres now have Internet web sites which offer details for the computer-literate seeker.

Nan Tien temple at Wollongong (photo by Mary Hendriks)

There are also many groups developing who very loosely base their core philosophy on Buddhist teaching. One of these, is a group who are called Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, which started in China and has grown quickly, and is now spreading all over the world. This is not a development of Buddhism, and the founder, who now lives in North America, claims that this is a new philosophy, not a religion.


Western Buddhism:

A group which is more directly along traditional Buddhist principles, yet also adapted for the West is the Western Buddhist Order which was founded in London 1968 by Sangharakshita who is a well known author of many Buddhist books including " A Guide to the Buddhist Path" . This is an active Buddhist movement supported in most Western counties by The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order who run meditation classes and introductory courses, organise retreats, as well as supporting activities in the local communities. Sangharakshita saw that Buddhism, in its core teaching, could be relevant to the spiritual needs of people in the modern world.

Southern France is where you will find the Plum Village, the main centre of the engaged Buddhism which is taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese monk. The organisation also has centres in North America and Australia.

There is currently an emerging Western Buddhism which is simple, uncluttered, and goes to the core of the teaching of the Buddha. Many concepts and practices, difficult for Westerners are left out. Rituals such as the chanting, the music and dancing, which form part of the Oriental culture are often not found in this new Western Buddhism, which will become a new style in the Buddhist movement.

Stephen Batchelor At the forefront of this emerging form of Buddhism are those who were trained in traditional styles, but who now teach mainly in the West. These include Lama Surya Das, author of the best-selling book " Awakening the Buddha Within" , and Stephen Batchelor, who is the author of the book " Buddhism Without Beliefs" , which seeks a modern perspective on the core teaching of the Buddha.


Buddhism in the 21st Century

The core Buddhist philosophy is very relevant for today. The Buddha always encouraged open discussion which included differing viewpoints. He encouraged the individual at the same time as teaching compassion for all men, and was very democratic in his style.

Buddhism is also relevant for the scientific and technological era in which we now live. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying "if there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism". The emphasis on the clarity of thought, of seeing and understanding, and of being aware of constant change are all fundamentals of a scientific approach.

Also, Buddhism offers a path, which provides guidelines for everyday living and for a caring approach to the environment. It shows us the way to live in harmony with others and the world we live in.

"My call for a spiritual revolution is thus not a call for a religious revolution. Nor is it a reference to a way of life that is somehow other-worldly, still less to something magical or mysterious. Rather, it is a call for a radical re-orientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self towards concern for the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own."
- His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
from "The Pocket Dalai Lama" edited by Mary Craig.