The Western Approach To Buddhism
Dhammankara, German Bhikkhu, (Hans. Bloeker, Ph. D.)
Vol. IX, No. 4, 1963
1. The teaching of the Buddha and its reception by different people
The Dhamma of Lord Buddha represented by the canonical scriptures or the Tipitaka is acknowledged and taken as the basis of the teaching by all schools of the Buddhist religion. In Theravada Buddhism some people value more the Vinaya-pitaka, others the Sutta-pitaka or the Abhidhamma-pitaka. Western Buddhists generally favour the Sutta-pitaka, because it is particularly suited to the modern Western mind.
Within the last 50 years the whole Sutta pitaka and many other Buddhist texts have been translated into the main languages of the Western world by first class Pali and Sanskrit scholars. Nowadays Westerners can study the Dhamma and the Pali and Sanskrit languages either in the West or in the East. Why nevertheless do so many Western Buddhists come to the Buddhist countries of the East to study Buddhism?
Notwithstanding many other influences, in its fundamentals our Western culture is Christian. For almost 2000 years the life of the European peoples has been infiltrated and penetrated by Christian thinking and feeling. All our way of life from our earliest childhood, our habits and customs, usually unconscious, were originally shaped by the teaching of Christ and the cults and rites, which have been developed through many centuries by the Christian churches. In comparison with this, Western Buddhism is vary young and less than 100 years old. It has not yet developed any tradition or cults and rites which are acceptable to the Western mind. Therefore we Westerners come to the East, not so much to study the Dhamma and to learn Pali and Sanskrit, but to breathe the air of a 2500 year-old Buddhist culture. We want to see how the Buddhist peoples of the East are living out Buddhism in the present time, what customs, habits and cults they have developed in accordance with their religion, their race and nature.* But above all, we want to do some meditation practice here, since it is not known in the West. The meditation of the contemplative Christian mystics (Meister Eckhart, Ruysbroek, St. John of the Cross, Paracelsus, Angelas Silesius and many others) from the 13th to the 17th century of the Christian era has died out in the West and since then the Christian churches have followed a more scholastic way of reasoning and of preaching the Gospel of Christ.**
We Western Buddhists want to learn and to experience a lot during our stay in the East. But it is quite sure to us and surely also to those Eastern Buddhists, who have lived for a longer time in the west, that not all which we see and experience here is transferable to the West. Although we can learn very much here, we do not want to accept uncritically the habits and customs, cults and rites of Eastern countries. We have come here to learn how we can develop our own Western Buddhist tradition in habits and customs, cults and rites, which we have not been able to do till now for want of experience and example. I think this will be agreed. For, what would be the attitude to an Eastern young man, who having become a Christian and gone to Europe to study there and to breathe the air of the Christian culture, would come back as a l00% or even 1l0% European in habits and customs? Would it not be said that he has lost his face and his real character? We also do not want to lose our identity and therefore we shall certainly accept all that is genuine Buddhism, but not what is only the Oriental interpretation and representation of the Dhamma. Perhaps there may be some people, who will claim: he who does not accept unrestrictedly the religious tradition of the East is not really a Buddhist. That may be so, but Lord Buddha was also not a "Buddhist", and, in this case, we should prefer more to be the followers of Lord Buddha than to be "Buddhists".
2. The critical and sober matter-of-fact mind of Westerners.
Most Western Buddhists are educated, and many of them academically trained people. They have overcome their feeling for their former traditional Christian faith and detached themselves from the cults and rites of their Christian background. They know, through bitter experience, that tradition is not only a quietening factor because of its continuity, but also a disquietening factor because of its tendency to petrification. Buddhism has not been given to Westerners from birth, but has been earned by conviction. Therefore, Westerners find it difficult to accept something simply because it is tradition or a custom. They have a critical and sober mind, which is in search of the truth in the spirit of Lord Buddha. And what does Lord Buddha say about the truth? in the Kalama-sutta according to the translation of the Ven. Soma Thera, he says:
"..Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration: The recluse is our teacher. Kalamas, when you yourselves know: These things are bad; these thing are blamable; these things, undertaken and observed, are censured by the wise; these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them. And Kalamas, when you yourselves know: these things are good; these things are not blamable; these things, undertaken and observed, are praised by the wise; these things lead to benefit and happiness, enter on and abide in them."***
One cannot emphasize too much or repeat too often this sutta, which has probably attracted more attention in the Western world than any other sutta, except the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta and the Satipatthana-sutta.
Westerners with higher education have been submitted to modern scientific ways of intellectual training encouraging critical, in dependent thinking, which means an education that develops an attitude of mind not relying only upon tradition, scriptures and teachers, but which enables one to think and to do research independently. Tradition and the scriptures give the mind only the basis for one's own thought, analysis and approval, while the teacher is more a helper and friend than a formal authority. This is actually the general attitude of Western pupils, students and scholars. Therefore they are more inclined to read the texts and scriptures and to think about them and to do research work than merely to learn them by heart and recite them. Therefore they are unable to accept uncritically all they have been taught, whether it be by a Western or an Eastern teacher.
This spirit of modern science, which has led nowadays to astonishing results and far-reaching consequences in the world, was not given to Westerners by "God", but men of science had to struggle for it through more than 5 centuries, and often paid with their own lives in this struggle against the powers of tradition and inertia. There are 3 historical milestones marking the progress and development to modern ways of thinking: The RENAISSANCE (of the spirit of Roman and Greek antiquity) in the 15th century, The REFORMATION (the rise of the Protestant, which means "protesting", spirit and church) in the 16th century and The FRENCH REVOLUTION towards the end of the 18th century, which strove to liberate the human reason and spirit from the last traditional fetters of church and state tutelage. This critical modern mind, which thinks and makes research conscientiously and objectively, can not only be accepted and imitated, it has to be earned by self- education and self-mastery of one's personality.
3. Sociological background and social position of Western Buddhists
Most Western Buddhists belong to the educated upper and middle classes. One rarely finds a workman or a craftsman in Buddhist circles in Europe. That means that Western Buddhists are to a great extent intellectual. They generally approach Buddhism by reason. Buddhism does not appeal to the general religious masses of the West, because it is too reasonable and dry to them. Furthermore there is no real mythology in Buddhism, and the Buddhist cults and ceremonies are too simple and not grand enough for Western masses, who have been spoiled by the very imposing ceremonies of the Christian churches with their abundance of religious music. Therefore Buddhist mission work in the Western hemisphere can, indeed, do well in small circles, but till now has not been able to catch the masses. Moreover, most of the attendants of Buddhist ceremonies, lectures and seminaries in the West are middle-aged and elderly people, particularly women. The young generation, extraverted and not too much interested in religious matters, is not very numerous in the Buddhist societies and, besides, is very critical.
If one has not too exaggerated expectations, Buddhism has still a great task to do in the West. Thousands of educated people, who can no more accept dogmas, which are contradictory to a scientific attitude are near to Buddhism and could be gathered in growing societies. In these circles also the mission work is not easy. There are many difficulties to be overcome. Although most of these people, who are interested in Buddhism, have lost their faith in God, some of them still like the God-idea, and almost all of them are very strongly attracted to the idea of a soul and are rather shocked by the conception of "Anatta". The profundity of "Nibbana"' which withdraws from any definition, is not easy to explain to Westerners, who often misinterpret it as the essence of nihilism.
In my previous articles**** in "The Light of the Dhamma" I gave you more subjectively, short stories of my personal way to Buddhism and of my aims and hopes for the European mission work. In this article, however. I try to present to you, as soberly and critically as possible, the real situation in the West and what is the present outlook for the Buddhist mission work there.
* See Hajime Nakamura, The Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples. compiled by Japanese National Commission For Unesco, published in 1963 by Printing Bureau, Japanese Government, Tokyo.
** See Helmuth von Glasenapp, Professor of Indology; Tuebingen (Germany), "Buddhism and Christianity" and "Buddhism and the Vital Problems of our Time, The Wheel Publication No 16, Kandy 1959.
*** Kalama-sutta, The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry, by Soma Thera; The Wheel Publication No. 8,1959, p. 2-4, Kandy, Ceylon.
**** The Light of the Dhamma, Vol. VIII No 4, October 1961 and Vol. IX No 1, April 1962