Buddhism in the West

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Buddhism in the West broadly encompasses the knowledge and practice of Buddhism outside of Asia. Occasional intersections between Western civilization and the Buddhist world have been occurring for thousands of years. With the rise of European colonization of Buddhist countries in Asia during the 19th century detailed knowledge of Buddhism became available to large numbers of people in the West, as a result of accompanying scholarly endeavours.

Hellenistic world[edit]

One of the oldest images of the Buddha, from the Greco-Buddhist period in Central Asia, 1st-2nd century CE.

Ancient history[edit]

The Western and Buddhist worlds have occasionally intersected since the distant past. It was possible that the earliest encounter was in 334 BCE, early in the history of Buddhism, when Alexander the Great conquered most of Central Asia. The Seleucids and successive kingdoms established Hellenistic influence in the area, interacting with Buddhism introduced from India, producing Greco-Buddhism.

The Mauryan Emperor Aśoka (273–232 BCE) converted to Buddhism after his bloody conquest of the territory of Kalinga (modern Orissa) in eastern India during the Kalinga War. Regretting the horrors brought about by the conflict, the Emperor decided to renounce violence. He propagated the faith by building stupas and pillars urging, amongst other things, respect of all animal life and enjoining people to follow the Dharma.

Perhaps the finest example of these is the Great Stupa of Sanchi in India. This stupa was constructed in the 3rd century BCE and later enlarged. Its carved gates, called Toran, are considered among the finest examples of Buddhist art in India. He also built roads, hospitals, universities and irrigation systems around the country. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics or caste.

File:Maurya Dynasty in 265 BCE.jpg
The Maurya Empire under Emperor Aśoka was the world's first major Buddhist state. It established free hospitals and free education and promoted human rights.

This period marks the first spread of Buddhism beyond India to other countries. According to the plates and pillars left by Aśoka (the edicts of Aśoka), emissaries were sent to various countries in order to spread Buddhism, as far south as Sri Lanka and as far west as the Greek kingdoms, in particular the neighboring Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and possibly even farther to the Mediterranean.[1]

In the Christian era, Buddhist ideas periodically filtered into Europe via the Middle East. Stories of the Christian saints Barlaam and Josaphat were "baptized" renditions of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, as translated from Indian sources into Persian to Arabic to Greek versions, the religious language being only cosmetically altered along the way. The first direct recorded encounter between European Christians and Buddhists was in 1253 when the king of France sent William of Rubruck as an ambassador to the court of the Mongol Empire. Later, in the 17th century, Mongols practicing Tibetan Buddhism established Kalmykia, the only Buddhist nation in Europe, at the eastern edge of the continent.


The Indo-Greek king Menander (155-130 BCE) is the first Western historical figure documented to have converted to Buddhism.

The Hellenistic influence in the area, furthered by Seleucids and the successive Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms, interacted with Buddhism, as exemplified by the emergence of Greco-Buddhist art, especially within the Gandhara civilization which covered a large part of modern-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Greek sculptors in the classical tradition came to teach their skills to Indian sculptors resulting in the distinctive style of Greco-Buddhist art or Gandhara art in both stone and stucco in hundreds of Buddhist monasteries which are still being discovered and excavated in this region.

Greco-Buddhism is the cultural merging between the cultures of Hellenism and Buddhism, which developed over a period of close to eight centuries in Central Asia between the 4th century BCE and the 5th century CE.

Buddhism and the Roman world[edit]

Several instances of interaction between Buddhism and the Roman Empire are documented by Classical and early Christian writers. Roman historical accounts describe an embassy sent by the Indian king Pandion (Pandya?), also named Porus, to Augustus around 13 CE. The embassy was travelling with a diplomatic letter in Greek, and one of its members—called Zarmanochegas—was an Indian religious man (sramana) who burned himself alive in Athens to demonstrate his faith. The event created a sensation and was described by Nicolaus of Damascus, who met the embassy at Antioch, and related by Strabo (XV,1,73) and Dio Cassius. A tomb was made for Zarmanochegas, still visible in the time of Plutarch, which bore the following inscription, "ΖΑΡΜΑΝΟΧΗΓΑΣ ΙΝΔΟΣ ΑΠΟ ΒΑΡΓΟΣΗΣ" ("Zarmanochegas from Barygaza in India").

These accounts at least indicate that Indian religious men (Sramanas, to which the Buddhists belonged, as opposed to Hindu Brahmanas) were visiting Mediterranean countries. However, the term sramana is a general term for Indian religious man in Jainism, Buddhism, and Ājīvika. It is not clear which religious tradition the man belonged to in this case.

19th century[edit]

During the 19th century, Buddhism (along with other non-European religions and philosophies) came to the attention of Western intellectuals through the work of Christian missionaries, scholars, and imperial civil servants who wrote about the countries in which they worked. In English, Sir Edwin Arnold's book-length poem The Light of Asia (1879), a life of the Buddha, became a best-seller and has remained continuously in print since it first appeared.

Philosophical interest[edit]

These included the German philosopher Schopenhauer, who first read about Buddhism and other Asian religions at an early stage before he devised his philosophical system.[2] The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau translated a Buddhist sutra from French into English.

There are frequent comparisons between Buddhism and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who praised Buddhism in his 1895 work The Anti-Christ, calling it "a hundred times more realistic than Christianity". Robert Morrison believes that there is "a deep resonance between them" as "both emphasise the centrality of humans in a godless cosmos and neither looks to any external being or power for their respective solutions to the problem of existence".[3]

Popular interest[edit]

In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism came to the attention of a wider Western public, such as through the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.

The late 19th century also saw the first western conversions to Buddhism, including leading Theosophists Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky in 1880 in Sri Lanka, "beachcombers" such as the Irish ex-hobo U Dhammaloka around 1884 and intellectuals such as Bhikkhu Asoka (H. Gordon Douglas), Ananda Metteyya and Nyanatiloka at the start of the 20th century.

20th century[edit]

Immigrant Buddhists and teachers[edit]

Immigrant monks soon began teaching to western audiences, as well. The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples in their settlements along the rail lines. At about the same time, immigrants from Japan began to arrive as laborers on Hawaiian plantations and central-California farms. In 1899, they established the Buddhist Missions of North America, later renamed the Buddhist Churches of America.

In 1893 Soyen Shaku was one of four priests and two laymen, representing Rinzai Zen, Jodo Shinshu, Nichiren, Tendai, and Shingon,[4] composing the Japanese delegation that participated in the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago organized by John Henry Barrows and Paul Carus.

In 1897, D.T. Suzuki came to the USA to work and study with Paul Carus, professor of philosophy. D.T. Suzuki was the single-most important person in popularizing Zen in the west.[5] His thoughts and works were influenced by western occultism, such as Theosophy and Swedenborgianism.[5][6] By his works Suzuki contributed to the emergence of Buddhist modernism, a syncretistic form of Buddhism which blends Asian Buddhism with western transcendentalism.[5]

Pre-World War II popular interest[edit]

The first Buddhist temple in Europe, named Das Buddhistische Haus, was founded by Paul Dahlke in 1924 in Berlin. Dahlke had studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka prior to World War I.[7]

The first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927 and the reprint of 1935 carried a commentary from none other than C.G. Jung. The book is said to have attracted many westerners to Tibetan Buddhism.[8]

Western spiritual seekers were attracted to what they saw as the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions, and created esoteric societies such as the Theosophical Society of H.P. Blavatsky. The Buddhist Society, London was founded by Theosophist Christmas Humphreys in 1924.[citation needed] At first Western Buddhology was hampered by poor translations (often translations of translations), but soon Western scholars such as Max Müller began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. During the 20th century the German writer Hermann Hesse showed great interest in Eastern religions, writing a book entitled Siddhartha.


American beat generation writer Jack Kerouac became a well-known literary Buddhist, for his roman à clef The Dharma Bums and other works. Also influential was Alan Watts, who wrote several books on Zen and Buddhism. The steady influx of refugees from Tibet in the 1960s and from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1970s led to renewed interest in Buddhism, and the countercultural movements of the 1960s proved fertile ground for its Westward diffusion. [9] Buddhism supposedly promised a more methodical path to happiness than Christianity and a way out of the perceived spiritual bankruptcy and complexity of Western life.[8]

Emerging mainstream western Buddhism[edit]

After the Second World War, a mainstream western Buddhism emerged.

In 1959, a Japanese teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, arrived in San Francisco. At the time of Suzuki's arrival, Zen had become a hot topic amongst some groups in the United States, especially beatniks. Suzuki-roshi's classes were filled with those wanting to learn more about Buddhism, and the presence of a Zen master inspired the students.

In 1965, Philip Kapleau traveled to Rochester, New York with the permission of his teacher, Haku'un Yasutani to form the Rochester Zen Center. At this time, there were few if any American citizens that had trained in Japan with ordained Buddhist teachers. Kapleau had spent 13 years (1952–1965) and over 20 sesshin before being allowed to come back and open his own center. During his time in Japan after World War II, Kapleau wrote his seminal work The Three Pillars of Zen.

In 1965, monks from Sri Lanka established the Washington Buddhist Vihara in Washington, D.C., the first Theravada monastic community in the United States. The Vihara was quite accessible to English-speakers, and Vipassana meditation was part of its activities. However, the direct influence of the Vipassana movement would not reach the U.S. until a group of Americans returned there in the early 1970s after studying with Vipassana masters in Asia.

In the 1970s, interest in Tibetan Buddhism grew dramatically. This was fuelled in part by the 'shangri-la' view of this country and also because Western media agencies are largely sympathetic with the 'Tibetan Cause'. All four of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools became well known. Tibetan lamas such as the Karmapa (Rangjung Rigpe Dorje), Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Geshe Wangyal, Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Dezhung Rinpoche, Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin, Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshe, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso all established teaching centers in the West from the 1970s.

Perhaps the most widely visible Buddhist teacher in the west is the much-travelled Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, who first visited the United States in 1979. As the exiled political leader of Tibet, he is now a popular cause célèbre in the west. His early life was depicted in glowing terms in Hollywood films such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. He has attracted celebrity religious followers such as Richard Gere and Adam Yauch.

In addition to this a number of Americans who had served in the Korean or Vietnam Wars stayed out in Asia for a period, seeking to understand both the horror they had witnessed and its context. A few of these were eventually ordained as monks in both the Mahayana and Theravadan tradition, and upon returning home became influential meditation teachers establishing such centres as the Insight Meditation Society in America, such as Bill Porter. Another contributing factor in the flowering of Buddhist thought in the West was the popularity of Zen amongst the counter-culture poets and activists of the 1960s, due to the writings of Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau.

Western Buddhism today[edit]

Today, Buddhism is practiced by increasing numbers of people in the Americas, Europe and Oceania. Buddhism has become the fastest growing philosophical religion in Australia[10][11] and some other Western nations.[12][13]

There is a general distinction between Buddhism brought to the West by Asian immigrants, which may be Mahayana, Theravada or a traditional East Asian mix, and Buddhism as practiced by converts, which is often Zen, Pure Land, Vipassana or Tibetan Buddhism. Some Western Buddhists are actually non-denominational and accept teachings from a variety of different sects, which is far less frequent in Asia.

Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

Tibetan Buddhism in the West has remained largely traditional, keeping all the doctrine, ritual, faith, devotion, etc. An example of a large Buddhist group established in the West is the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) is a network of Buddhist centers focusing on the Geluk lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded in 1975 by Lamas Thubten Yeshe and Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, who began teaching Buddhism to Western students in Nepal, the FPMT has grown to encompass more than 142 teaching centers in 32 countries. Like many Tibetan Buddhist groups, the FPMT does not have "members" per se, or elections, but is managed by a self-perpetuating board of trustees chosen by its spiritual director (head lama), Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Buddhist modernism[edit]

A feature of Buddhism in the West today is the emergence of other groups which, even though they draw on traditional Buddhism, are in fact an attempt at creating a new style of Buddhist practice.

Controversial lama Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambhala meditation movement, claimed in his teachings that his intention was to strip the ethnic baggage away from traditional methods of working with the mind and to deliver the essence of those teachings to his western students. Chögyam Trungpa also founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado in 1974. Trungpa's movement has also found particular success in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, Shambhala International being based out of Halifax. An associated monastery Gampo Abbey was also built near the community of Pleasant Bay.

Other significant groups with a modernist approach are the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order), which was founded by Sangharakshita in 1967, and the Diamond Way Organisation of Ole Nydahl, who has founded more than 600 buddhist centers across the world.[14]

Charismatic authority[edit]

A number of groups and individuals have been implicated in scandals. Sandra Bell has analysed the scandals at Vajradhatu and the San Francisco Zen Center and concluded that these kinds of scandals are "... most likely to occur in organisations that are in transition between the pure forms of charismatic authority that brought them into being and more rational, corporate forms of organization".[15]

Robert Sharf also mentions charisma from which institutional power is derived, and the need to balance charismatic authority with institutional authority.[16] Elaborate analyses of these scandals are made by Stuart Lachs, who mentions the uncritical acceptance of religious narratives, such as lineages and dharma transmission, which aid in giving uncritical charismatic powers to teachers and leaders.[17][18][19][20][21]

Popular culture[edit]

Buddhist imagery is increasingly appropriated by modern pop culture and also for commercial use. For example, the Dalai Lama's image was used in a campaign celebrating leadership by Apple Computer. Similarly, Tibetan monasteries have been used as backdrops to perfume advertisements in magazines.[8] Hollywood movies such as Kundun, Little Buddha and Seven Years in Tibet have had considerable commercial success.[22]

Buddhist practitioners in the West are catered for by a minor industry providing such items as charm boxes, meditation cushions, and ritual implements. This is akin to the various industries providing ritual items and publishing scripture historically, however T. Shakya has criticized this industry as the publication of Buddhist books uproots small forests and consequently kills thousands of insects.[23]


The largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere is the Nan Tien Temple (translated as "Southern Paradise Temple"), situated at Wollongong, Australia, while the largest Buddhist temple in the Western Hemisphere is the Hsi Lai Temple (translated as "Coming West Temple"), in Hacienda Heights, California, USA. Both are operated by the Fo Guang Shan Order, founded in Taiwan, and around 2003 the Grand Master, Venerable Hsing Yun, asked for Nan Tien Temple and Buddhist practice there to be operated by native Australian citizens within about thirty years.[24]

The largest monastery in the USA is the City of 10,000 Buddhas near Ukiah, California.[25] This monastery was founded by Ven. Hsuan Hua who purchased the property. "Dharma Realm Buddhist Association purchased the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in 1974 and established its headquarters there. The City currently comprises approximately 700 acres of land."[26]

See also[edit]


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  1. Mauryan Empire 321 - 185 BC [archive]
  2. See Urs App, "Schopenhauers Begegnung mit dem Buddhismus." Schopenhauer-Jahrbuch 79 (1998):35-58. The same author provides an overview of Schopenhauer's discovery of Buddhism in Arthur Schopenhauer and China. Sino-Platonic Papers Nr. 200 (April 2010) [archive] whose appendix contains transcriptions and English translations of Schopenhauer's early notes about Asian religions including Buddhism.
  3. David R. Loy, "Review of Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities by R.G. Morrison [archive]".
  4. Fields 1992, p. 124.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 McMahan 2008.
  6. Tweed 2005.
  7. "80th anniversary of Das Buddhistische Haus in Berlin – Frohnau, Germany" [archive]. Daily News (Sri Lanka). April 24, 2004. Retrieved November 20, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Shakya, Tsering "Review of Prisoners of Shangri-la by Donald Lopez". online [archive]
  9. Woodhead, Linda; Partridge, Christopher; Kawanami, Hiroko (2016). Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations 3rd Edition.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. ABC - Why so many South Australian's are choosing Buddhism [archive]
  11. Why is Buddhism the fastest growing religion in Australia? by Darren Nelson [archive]
  12. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life - U.S. Religious Landscape Survey [archive]
  13. Asian Tribune - Buddhism fastest growing religion in West [archive]
  14. Diamond Way Buddhist Centers [archive]
  15. Bell, Sandra (2002). "Scandals in Emerging Western Buddhism". In Charles S Prebish & Martin Baumann (ed.). Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia [archive] (PDF). University of California Press. pp. 230–242. ISBN 0-520-22625-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Sharf, Robert H. (1995-C), "Sanbokyodan. Zen and the Way of the New Religions" [archive] (PDF), Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1995 22/3-4 Check date values in: |year= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Lachs, Stuart (1999), Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an /Zen Buddhism in America [archive]<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Lachs, Stuart (n.d.), Reply to Vladimir K. [archive]<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Lachs, Stuart (2002), Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi [archive]<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Lachs, Stuart (2006), The Zen Master in America: Dressing the Donkey with Bells and Scarves [archive]<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Lachs, Stuart (2011), When the Saints Go Marching In: Modern Day Zen Hagiography [archive] (PDF)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. E.L. Mullen, "Orientalist commercializations: Tibetan Buddhism in American popular film [archive]"
  23. Shakya, 1999, p.196
  24. Nan Tien Temple [archive]
  25. The City of 10,000 Buddhas [archive]
  26. History and Background [archive]


Further reading[edit]

  • Prebish, Charles S ; Baumann, Martin, eds. (2002). Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia, Berkeley: University of California Press
  • Clausen, Christopher, Victorian Buddhism and the Origins of Comparative Religion, Religion: Journal of Religion and Religions, V (Spring 1975), 1-15.
  • Fields, Rick (1992), How the Swans came to the Lake - A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Shambhala.
  • Halkias, G. T. "The Self-immolation of Kalanos and other Luminous Encounters Among Greeks and Indian Buddhists in the Hellenistic World." JOCBS, 2015 (8), pp. 163–186.
  • Halkias, Georgios. “When the Greeks Converted the Buddha: Asymmetrical Transfers of Knowledge in Indo-Greek Cultures.” In Religions and Trade: Religious Formation, Transformation and Cross-Cultural Exchange between East and West, ed. Volker Rabens. Leiden: Brill, 2013: 65-115.
  • Numrich, Paul (2003). Two Buddhisms further considered [archive], Contemporary Buddhism 4 (1), 55-78

External links[edit]