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When we ask, “What shape will Buddhism take in the West?” most of us are bringing a historical consciousness to the question; we recognize that Buddhism has reinvented itself everywhere that it has gone in order to most effectively suit the unique spiritual needs of the new host culture. From this perspective Buddhism is not a fixed, static thing but more of a living organism.
However, when we draw parallels between the way that Buddhism has historically established itself in new lands and its current transition to the West, we rarely account for the major differences in how information traveled in the past and how it travels now.
Dennis Hunter explores this topic in an insightful piece entitled “Buddha at the Intersection,” at the Interdependence Project Blog. Hunter writes:
In the past, it was more of a one-to-one cultural exchange: Indian Vajrayana Buddhism came to Tibet, Chinese Mahayana Buddhism came to Japan and Korea, and so on. In the West (a convenient label that actually covers a conglomeration of dozens of different languages and distinct national and regional cultures), we are not receiving just a single tradition of Buddhism into one country, in a one-to-one cultural exchange. We are receiving *all* of the traditions of Buddhism in the West, all at once, and they are all mixing with all of the various cultures and languages in Europe and the Americas and Australasia. Nothing even remotely similar to that has ever happened to Buddhism before.
In the past, people lived in agrarian societies, and information traveled at the speed of horses. In the West, most people live in densely populated cities, and information travels through the Internet, television, radio and other media at the speed of light. Buddhist teachers are using Facebook and Twitter and webcasting to reach thousands of students around the world, all at once. People often say it takes hundreds of years for Buddhism to be established in a new culture, but that old rule of thumb was based on the spread of information in feudal cultures that don't exist anymore. Given the speed at which everything happens today, it's not unreasonable to think that whatever is going to happen with Buddhism in the West will happen much more rapidly than it ever has before.
This is an interesting point that deserves some thought. When we employ a historical consciousness to think about Buddhism’s future (and those who read Rita Gross' piece in the most recent Tricycle know that it is beneficial to bring the insights of modern scholarship to ancient wisdom traditions), we might be missing part of the equation. In a recent Huffington Post piece, “The Future of Buddhism in the West,” David Nichtern wrote that it might be a long while before we can clearly see the fruits of Buddhism’s transition to the West.
It might be too early to talk about "American Buddhism." History tells us that it could take several hundred years to really have some perspective on this kind of evolution. But it is intriguing to look back over the last 50 years and also look at the current situation.
That’s the way I usually think about it too. However, what if, due to the speed at which information moves in modern times, we are actually are already seeing the shape that Buddhism will take in the West? With all of our modern values that emphasize inclusiveness and plurality, perhaps it would be naïve to assume that Buddhism will ever really take shape like it has in past cultures of different places. Not to mention, it's probably also naive to assume that Buddhism has ever really concretely taken shape at all. A future Western Buddhism probably won’t differ much from what we have today: an endless multiplicity of perspectives, with individuals trying to navigate their way through a shifting landscape of ideas.
Around the Buddho-blogosphere today, Dennis Hunter has one of the more compelling perspectives exploring the question, “What shape will Buddhism take in the West?” If you haven’t already, you should make sure to also check out his writings at Buddhist Geeks on the notion of Christian Buddhism.
See also, “The Koan of Christian Buddhism.”