Buddhism began with Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in northern India in the sixth or fifth century b.c.e. Tradition says he became “the enlightened one” (the Buddha) after a period of deep meditation under a bodhi tree. The remainder of his long life was devoted to three intertwined teachings: an ethical teaching that one’s intentions in this life determined one’s future rebirth; a teaching that the nearly endless cycle of rebirth could be ended by enlightenment, by seeing reality as it really was; and a teaching that a state of mindfulness and deep meditation could produce such wisdom.
This wisdom, according to James William Coleman in The New Buddhism, is not discursive but experiential. The reality that all is flux, that even a human being is nothing more than constantly changing bundles of experience, means there is no core self to be protected. Clinging ceases and with it suffering (the effect of clinging), and what remains is nirvana, a state of unspeakable bliss no longer subject to the karmic laws of cause and effect.
Though in its long history Buddhism has been characterized as world-renouncing, and the development of Buddhist monasticism would seem to affirm such judgment, the reality is far more complex. Varieties of popular Buddhism have emphasized the prospect of a good rebirth by the doing of meritorious deeds or by the chanting of certain phrases. Even some elite Buddhist groups engaged with the world in study, ritual, and politics. “Western Buddhism,” Coleman writes, “has drawn its primary inspiration from a relatively narrow spectrum of Asian Buddhism: the meditation-oriented elite Buddhists who do not see monastic renunciation as an essential component of the path to enlightenment.”
As Buddhism left India, and all but perished in its homeland, it took root in various forms in Sri Lanka and Burma (where Theravada Buddhism or “the way of the elders” began to flourish), in Tibet (where several sects developed that emphasized esoteric and ritualistic Buddhism), and in China (which saw the rise of the schools of Hua-yen and T’ien T’ai, the development of the popular Pure Land form, and Ch’an Buddhism). In turn, China heavily influenced Buddhism in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan (where Ch’an became Zen). Japan itself produced an innovative form of Buddhism that arose from the teachings of the Japanese monk Nichiren, whose aggressive condemnation of all other forms of Buddhism and worship of a sacred text known as the Lotus Sutra made it unique.
Buddhism adapted to new cultural conditions as it spread throughout Asia and continued to do so in Great Britain and the United States. Coleman distinguishes between ethnic Buddhism in the West, part of the cultural tradition brought by Asian immigrants, and the “new Buddhism” which attracts Western adherents, most of whom are “wealthy, liberal, highly educated Anglos.” The author’s survey of 359 people at seven Buddhist centers, conducted from 1992 to 1996, while not scientific, is nevertheless instructive. The new Buddhism finds adherents among the well-educated middle and upper classes because, Coleman writes, it “is an intellectually challenging religion that demands an extraordinarily high level of dedication and discipline among its members, and, of course, lots of time to devote to spiritual pursuits. Unlike Asian Buddhism, it lacks the emotional appeal of the devotional faiths that history has shown to hold the greatest attraction for those in the less privileged classes.”
Though Buddhism was not unknown in the United States and Britain by the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the so-called Beat Generation of the 1950’s, including such notables as the poets Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and novelist Jack Kerouac, brought Japanese Zen to the attention of a larger reading audience. Essayist Alan Watts, allied with the Beats without identifying himself as one, promoted an intellectualized Buddhism in The Way of Zen (1957) and many other books. There was a new wave of interest in Zen in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, as those in the counterculture sought more stable alternatives to the experiences provided by psychedelic drugs.
Certain other Western students traveled to Asia to study, and brought back what they had learned. Among them were Philip Kapleau, founder of the Rochester, New York, Zen Center; Robert Aitken of Hawaii’s Diamond Sangha (sangha is the community of Buddhists); and Peggy (Jiyu) Kennett who founded the Shasta Abbey monastery in Northern California. Asian Zen teachers themselves, most notably Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam, have also had considerable influence in the West....
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