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What were the social and cultural conditions that informed and set the stage for the birth and spread of Buddhism?

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In the early twentieth century, greater ease of travel and interest in multiculturalism led to a focus on Asian religions among intellectuals and elites. Discontent with traditional Christianity, often fueled by Darwinism, rationalism, and the backlash against these more modern forces found in what seemed to many a mindless Christian fundamentalism led to a yearning and search for new ways of encountering the spiritual.

Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly, author of the classic work, A Testament of Devotion, typifies these yearnings. As outlined in his son's biography of him, Kelly was troubled by the “narrow exclusiveness” of much of Christianity and wished to know more of the “absorptive attitude of the Oriental faiths.” (55) He wrote of wanting to “sit at the feet of the professors of the Orient to learn their wisdom.” (60) As he expressed it:

In the West, philosophy was separated from religion. Our passionate concern, in philosophy, is not practical, but theoretical or speculative, not to help us live the good life, but to comprehend the universe … But the [Eastern] concern is to reflect in order to live the good life. Knowledge is not abstraction.” (75)

Kelly particularly hoped to study Buddhism in Asia, writing:

one can hardly comprehend fully the quest of the Buddhist sitting under the Bo Tree when one is sitting under a sugar maple in an Midwest cornfield. (81)

After World War II, the Beat poets and writers popularized Eastern religions, including Buddhism, for middle class audiences, and during the Viet Nam period, the anti-war witness of Vietnamese Buddhist priests aligned with anti-war protest thinking, fueling an upsurge of interest in the Buddhist faith.

In recent decades, the individualistic, non-creedal, and seemingly anti-institutional and non-theist leanings of Buddhism (at least in the version imported to the West) has had a strong appeal to the increasing numbers of people turning away from institutional Christianity to become "spiritual but not religious." Writers such as Buddhist Tich Nhat Hahn have done much to popularize the Buddhist faith, which to many seems a viable alternative to the nationalism and militarism that is sometimes associated with traditional Western religions.

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