A new World Religion

“Buddhism”—the “great world religion” we have today—was invented in the 1800s. The following ideas—which profoundly shape our practice—date to that century:

  • There is such a thing as “Buddhism”
  • It is a religion
  • It is one religion with several sects
  • It is a “world religion,” with an unchanging essence, suitable for all peoples in all times
  • It is a rational philosophy (and so maybe not a religion after all)
  • It is mainly an ethical philosophy
  • It is mainly about the relationship of the self with the Ultimate Truth, revealed by non-ordinary experience

This “Buddhism” was invented as a competitor to Christianity: just like Christianity, only better: more rational, more ethical, more tolerant, more spiritual.

We’ve been somewhat stuck with this “Buddhism.” It’s the root of what I call the Consensus, or “mainstream Western Buddhism.” But its late-1800s ideology is obsolete, and the imitation/competition thing it’s got going with Christianity is increasingly irrelevant.

I hope we can chuck it.

Understanding its brief history is the first step.

Christianity humbled by Reason

By the mid-1800s, God wasn’t quite dead yet, but his Alzheimer’s was well along. A lot of what He said had stopped making sense. Science showed that much of the Bible was factually wrong, and liberal humanism made many of Christianity’s ethical teachings seem barbaric. Liberal Westerners could only read the Bible selectively, and as allegory. “Reason” had taken over many of the functions of religion.

Why not go whole hog and abandon Christianity altogether? Some did, of course. But most feared that it would lead to nihilism and social breakdown. Without religion, there would be no ultimate meaning to life.

To preserve meaning, progressive Christians carved out three domains as the rightful property of religion, where science could not go:

  • ethics
  • the mysterious, innermost, deep self, which scientific psychology could not penetrate
  • the Infinite, the Absolute, the Ultimate Truth, which was ineffable and therefore not subject to reason

The essence of religion was, on the one hand, to act ethically; and on the other, to cultivate the mystical experience that brings your deep self into the right relationship with the Absolute.

Liberal Christianity was considered the best religion, for several “rational” reasons. Of these, the most important was that it was universal. “Reason” held that what was true, was true everywhere, always. The remarkable thing about the Law of Gravity is that it was the same for all men. Christianity, likewise, was the religion for all peoples everywhere: the only world religion. Judaism and Mohammedanism were merely national religions, of the Jews and Arabs. [In this case of Islam, this claim was absurd; but Islam was the enemy.] Both national religions also were subject to change and decay. The true essence of Christianity was exactly as Jesus had taught it, immutably.

Besides that, Christianity:

  • Was (mostly) rational (or rationalizable)
  • Had an ethical system based on universal principles of benefit and harm, not the insane, vicious taboos of ancient Middle-Eastern goat herders
  • Was socially concerned
  • Was the biggest religion in the world, which proved that it was the evolutionarily strongest, and therefore destined to eventually replace the others

Embarrassingly, however, Christianity had split into numerous sects, and there seemed to be no good way to choose between them. Progressively-minded people came to the opinion that all denominations should be regarded with tolerance, as partial truths, pointing toward the single ultimate truth by different paths.

Perhaps tolerance could be extended even beyond Christian sects. That opened the possibility that something better might be discovered—or constructed. Something with even more of the good qualities Christianity had, without the ugly bits that needed to be explained away.

The discovery of “Buddhism”

Two centuries ago, Europeans considered that there were three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. Also, there was paganism. Christianity was true and just; Judaism and Mohammedanism were false and wicked. Paganism, practiced by savages in vague far-off places, wasn’t really a religion at all. It was an incoherent mass of ignorant local superstitions, demon-worship, idolatry, and abominable rituals.

Growing world trade brought word that some “Oriental” peoples were less primitive than previously imagined. They showed signs of civilization, worthy of grudging respect.

There came a gradual recognition that the disparate “pagan” customs of various Oriental tribes had something in common. They told similar stories about various gods, named Sommona-Codom, Che-kia, Bootisat, and Bouddoon. Some Europeans guessed that these myths might all have a common origin.

Early translations of scriptures confirmed this. [All those god-names were, in fact, mispronounced names of Shakyamuni Buddha. “Sommona-Codom” is Shramana Gautama, “Che-kia” is Shakya, and “Bootisat” is Bodhisattva.] Not only were these all the same person, but he was supposedly a flesh-and-blood person, whose sayings the scriptures recorded. This was unexpected from paganism.

In fact, the analogy of Buddha to Christ and Mohammed as founders, and the scriptures to the Bible and Koran, was compelling. Apparently some Orientals were not simply pagans, after all. A new religion was announced: Buddh-ism, parallel to Christ-ianity and Mohammed-anism.

Creating the new World Religion

If Buddhism was a religion, then it must be a world religion—because it was the faith of many different nations. That was disconcerting: Christianity was no longer uniquely universal.

Still worse, it was soon discovered that there more Buddhists than Christians. That was dire. Christianity’s numerical superiority had been proof of its evolutionary strength, and therefore its ultimate rightness.

Of course, there were those who welcomed new competition for Christianity. Could Buddhism even be the superior world religion European liberals were looking for?

There was a problem. Buddhism, as actually found in Asia, was much more like the European idea of “paganism” than a “great world religion.” “An incoherent mass of ignorant local superstitions, demon-worship, idolatry, and abominable rituals” would not be an unfair description.

[I'm afraid I may be accused of political incorrectness here. I hasten to say that I myself practice (at minimum) demon worship and abominable rituals.]

However, there could be found—in odd corners of ancient Buddhist scriptures—the raw materials needed to construct a “world religion” to European specification. (This is probably not true for—say—Shinto or the Yoruba religion.) As one scholar declared in 1854, “Buddhism was not always that decrepit and worn-out superstition that it now appears.”

To get started, the ground had to be cleared, by declaring that what people had practiced in Asia for the past couple thousand years was not really Buddhism. The true Buddhism was the “original” Buddhism, as found in the scriptures. This was the essential, vital core of the religion, common to all sects across Asia—almost entirely buried beneath “local cultural accretions” and “unfortunate mixing with other religions.”

The actual beliefs and practices of Asians were irrelevant, because they did not conform to scripture. Buddhism in the 1800s was declared a “hopeless degeneration” or “unrecognizable corruption” of the true religion.

In fact, Asian Buddhists seemed appallingly ignorant of their own faith. Few even knew the languages of their scriptures. Writing in Sri Lanka in 1860, a British scholar observed that the doctrine of anatta (anatman) “is almost universally repudiated. Even the [Buddhist] priests, at one time, denied it; but when the passages teaching it were pointed out [by white people], they were obliged to acknowledge that it is a tenet of their religion.”

Evidently, it was Westerners who understood the scriptures properly, and Westerners who would define what true Buddhism was. And, they had an agenda. Buddhism was to be universal, rational, ethical, and socially conscious. It would be more scientific than religion; more humane than Christianity; more Protestant than Protestantism; more spiritual—in a good way—than Science.

Buddhist scripture is inconceivably vast. In it, you can find support for almost anything—even the Victorian conception of a superior version of Christianity.

The new world religion: an East-West collaboration

Buddhism was not, and never had been, anything like this fantasy. If the “Buddhism” project had continued exclusively in Europe, it would probably soon have failed, as hostile forces pointed out inconvenient facts.

“Buddhism,” as a “world religion,” was saved by Asian collaborators.

Fortunately, Asian leaders and Western liberals had a shared enemy: evangelical conservative Christianity. And Asian leaders had their own reasons for wanting to radically reform Buddhism.

The legal justification for colonialism, in the 1800s, did not apply to “real nation-states” which had “proper religions.” The framework for international law was the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended a horrific series of religious wars in Europe. The essence of the Treaty was that the ruler of each nation-state had the right to choose its religion, and other nation-states were not to interfere. Regions that were “not real nation-states” and had “no proper religion” were fair game for colonization.

So, reworking “Buddhism” into a “proper religion”—and reorganizing a kingdom into a nation-state—was a way to hold off the colonial powers. Thailand, in particular, was successful with this strategy; I’ll discuss the history in a later post.

Asian Buddhists, at state command, studied Western science, philosophy, and religion. They re-read Buddhist scripture, in dialogue with Western scholars, looking for passages compatible with Western ideas. Then they made large changes in Buddhist doctrine and practice.

Buddhism in Asia partly became the fantasy world-religion of Westerners. Over the past century and a half, it has been made more and more universal, rational/scientific, compatible with Western ethics, and socially conscious.

The best-studied collaboration was the total overhaul of Sri Lankan Theravada by Henry Steel Olcott (an American) and Anagarika Dharmapala (a Sinhalese) working closely together in the 1880s and ’90s. That is an extraordinary story. (Follow the links for some basics, or the references at the end of this post for details.)

Anagarika Dharmapala also founded the Maha Bodhi Society, in 1891. That was the first “Buddhist” organization in Asia since the destruction of Nalanda University 800 years ago. He brought together Buddhists from many different Asian countries on a shared project. Prior to this, there was almost no awareness of shared heritage or goals among the various Buddhisms.

This East-West collaboration is still going. Contemporary mainstream Western Buddhism is a co-creation of Asians (e.g. HH the Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hanh) and Westerners (e.g. Bernie Glassman and Stephen Batchelor). And, hot damn, it’s more universal, rational/scientific, compatible with Western ethics, and socially conscious than ever.

And, the motivations are partly the same as in the 1800s. The Dalai Lama wants to portray Tibet as a nation-state. If it was a nation-state, then China’s colonization of it would be clearly in violation of international law. Part of being a nation state is having a modern, world-class religion. Thich Naht Hanh created a modern Buddhism as part of an effort to stop the quasi-colonial U.S. war in Vietnam. Bernie Glassman teaches Buddhism as inseparable from social action. Stephen Batchelor writes that the original teachings of the Buddha, as revealed in the scriptures when properly interpreted, are rational, empirical, humanistic, and compatible with modern science.

So what?

My point is not that these changes are illegitimate, or that the new “Buddhism” is necessarily a bad thing.

Instead, I want to point out that “Buddhism” contains large amounts of Western ideology from 150 years ago. Most Western Buddhists wrongly assume that stuff is “timeless Eastern wisdom,” and the essential core of our religion. If instead it’s our own recent history fed back to us, it is open to question.

Here are some questions I will ask later in this blog series:

  • Is it useful to look at “Buddhism” as one thing? (I think not.)
  • Do all the various Buddhisms have anything in common? Is there any essential core? (I think not.)
  • “Buddhism” views meditation as a creating a mystical connection between the deep self and the Absolute. Is this a good way to understand meditation? (I think not.)
  • Are there other, more accurate ways of understanding meditation to be found in traditional Buddhisms? (I think so.)
  • How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually Victorian-era Western ethics? (I’m still researching this.)
  • How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually contemporary Western ethics? (Nearly all of it, I think.)
  • Does traditional Buddhism contain any ethical teachings that are both distinctive and valuable? (I haven’t found any yet.)
  • If not, why are we pretending that “Buddhism” is the framework for our ethics? (I have some guesses.)
  • “Buddhism” was invented partly as an antidote to Western secularism and materialism. Is that working? (I doubt it.)
  • Are there other resources, in traditional Buddhisms, that might be better antidotes? (I hope so.)
  • What other dubious Western assumptions have been incorporated into “Buddhism” without our realizing it? (I’m working on it.)

Further reading

This post, and this blog series, were inspired by David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

There is a large, rapidly-growing academic literature on the re-making of Buddhism as a “world religion” in the late 1800s. Below are some starting points.

There are three aspects to the creation of Buddhism as a world religion: the activities of Westerners, the activities of Asians, and their collaborations. I find the collaboration the most interesting, but it’s the least-studied so far.

The Olcott-Dharmapala collaboration is discussed by McMahan (pp. 91-101), although he treats the two separately. The classic study is in Gombrich and Obeyesekere’s Buddhism Transformed. Obeyesekere has a talk transcript here. Stephen Prothero’s The White Buddhist is a full book-length treatment; I haven’t read it, but there are excerpts here. There’s an enjoyable short account in Rick Fields’ How the Swans Came to the Lake. Fields’ book is a history of how Buddhism came to America; it’s fascinating and highly readable.

Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions is excellent for background history on the concept of “world religions” in the late 1800s. It has a full chapter on the invention of “Buddhism” by Europeans; a good overview, although somewhat lacking in specifics.

Philip C. Almond’s The British Discovery of Buddhism is a detailed study. The title is somewhat misleading, as he emphasizes (p. 12) that the British created, not discovered “Buddhism.” Although fascinating, the book is limited by completely ignoring the aspect of co-construction with living Asian Buddhists.

Charles Hallisey’s “Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravada Buddhism,” in Donald Lopez’ Curators of the Buddha is somewhat tiringly academic, but makes some good points about the East-West collaborative construction of modern Buddhism, starting from page 47.

I will discuss the remaking of Japanese Zen and Thai Theravada as “Buddhism, the world religion” in some detail later in this blog series.

The quote about Sri Lankan priests repudiating annata is from R. Spence Hardy’s A Manual of Budhism [sic], In its Modern Development, p. 397.

You can find much or all of the text of the books cited above on-line, via the Amazon “look inside” feature and/or Google Books.

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25 Responses to A new World Religion

  1. apokalypsis says:

    Fascinating post. Will look forward to more, particularly regarding Zen, meditation, and ethics….

  2. Sabio Lantz says:

    Man, do you have a IV line with good flowing caffeine? How are you cranking out all this great stuff? This is a fantastic article. I learned a lot. Considering I won’t be able to even touch all that you have read, I immensely appreciate the digest summary and focused conclusions.

    Wow, I had never heard of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. It really appears central to this story — an amazingly important detail.

    You said,

    Prior to this[1891], there was almost no awareness of shared heritage or goals among the various Buddhisms.

    Weren’t Tibetan scholars sent to India to study Buddhism in the 700s (or so). And didn’t the Korean Monks travel to China to learn of Chan as opposed to their own sects of Buddhism and thus started a new sect called Seon (Zen) in Korea in the 600s (or so). Didn’t Kukai go to China in 804 under government sponsorship to study Buddhism and ended up studying “esoteric Buddhism” and brought back the seeds of Shingon Buddhism.

    I know you know all this history in depth, but it made me think that Buddhists were obviously (like Christians) aware of their own various sects and flavors. Buddhism was a marketplace of ideas with all the properties of a marketplace. Thus I would suspect they thought deeply about “shared heritage and goals” even though they were not striving for consensus by any means. They were looking for niches — not consensus. Perhaps even consensus efforts today are simply niche efforts. It is all economics, eh?

    David, you said:

    Are there other resources, in traditional Buddhisms, that might be better antidotes [ to Western secularism and materialism]? (I hope so.)

    I assume you don’t care where the antidotes come from — from pre-Buddhist stuff, from Islamic traditions, Hindu yogis, modern neuroscience or from wherever. If it is antidotes you want, it shouldn’t matter where you get it, right? You have no particular agenda to show us that what Buddhism needs is from the “Buddhist tradition”, right? I think you have said elsewhere that modernism (and even Protestantism) offers useful corrections and improvement to counter many of the errors in thinking you feel are worth trying to remedy. Am I mistaken?

    I am very excited about your coming posts. There is so much to learn. Thanx!

  3. Hey, glad you liked this. It takes a certain kind of geekiness to wade through obscure history without there being an obvious what-does-it-mean-for-me payoff…

    I’m particularly glad you picked up on the Treaty of Westphalia. I didn’t think anyone would… Yes, I think it’s key to understanding Buddhism as we know it. I really wanted to write much more about that, but probably it would be a bridge too far for almost all readers. However, when I do Thailand, it’s going to be the invisible lurking explanatory elephant. (And government-modernized Thai Theravada is the primary source for Consensus Buddhism, via the Insight Meditation Society folks.)

    Yes, there was substantial sharing of ideas between Buddhisms centuries ago. I mentioned the destruction of Nalanda University (1197 C.E.) as the end point for awareness that the various Buddhisms had shared roots. (Nalanda, by the way, is one of the main settings for my Buddhist vampire novel; it’s mentioned in the opening episode. It was a fantastic institution; you can read about it here, and there’s some great pix of its ruins here.)

    “If it is antidotes you want, it shouldn’t matter where you get it, right?” “…you have said elsewhere that modernism (and even Protestantism) offers useful corrections and improvement…” — Right, on both counts.

    I happen to know way too much about Buddhism, and to have some experience with it, so naturally when I go looking for tools to address some problem, Buddhist ones will come to mind.

  4. Thank you David for a great post. Again. (I especially wait the Thai-section…)

    While I agree on your general thrust, I have to remark,that please do contextualize the “buddhist ad hoc rational advancement” beyond the immediate religious sphere. The “Origin of the Darwin” was accepted as a fact by the same social necessity as the “more humane than jesus”-brand of Buddhism. So to speak. There was a real need for kicking the X-tian geezers out, and Darwin and Buddha were just the tools. Do note, they were tools. Whatver trumps the Bible, is good, and so, the West believes in darwinism (although it has no empirical proof) and in Bubbism (as it is non-christian rational ethicalism). The transformation of Bubbism comes hand in hand with the attack on Biblism. (And the destruction of the basis of science, but hey, who cares…)

  5. David – I certainly agree it is not helpful to look at Buddhism as one thing. Time and again one of the most fantastic teachings I can hear is on the Vehicles where both the Dzogchen 3-yana and Nyingma-Nine-Yana teachings knock my socks off time and again. When you recognise there are at least 9 different ways of engaging with the path just as a Nyingmapa, it becomes obvious that there must be myriad forms of Buddhist practice past-present-and-future across various schools, traditions, cultural boundaries etc. However won’t you grant us all just a *little bit* in common with one another re: “Do all the various Buddhisms have anything in common? Is there any essential core? (I think not.)” – do you really mean not *anything*. Not even the Four Noble Truths?

  6. Hmm, nothing in common would be an overstatement—maybe I need to amend the text.

    “Buddhism” by the original 1800s definition is all the things that share the Gautama story. But, there are quite different versions of that story in different Buddhisms.

    Maybe all Buddhisms would agree that the Four Noble Truths are part of their thing. But think how differently those are taught in Dzogchen vs. Theravada. The understanding of dukkha, the explanation of the cause of suffering, and the recommended remedy seem almost unrelated—in fact radically contradictory.

    It seems to me that (e.g.) yogic Nyingma, Theravada, and Nichiren are at least as different as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All those share the Old Testament, but would vehemently deny that they are sects of the same religion. (I know very little about Nichiren, but I think some versions accept only the Lotus Sutra as scripture, which Theravada rejects. Maybe that’s wrong.)

    Here’s an insightful article about why the “essential shared core” idea is not only wrong but harmful:


  7. Lawrence says:

    Thanks David, I’ve really been enjoying reading through this blog series. This latest post holds particular interest for me having written a thesis a decade ago that studied some of the world religions. It has been fascinating to read deeper into some of the background history. Thanks for the pointers. The series has definitely helped to keep my mind open in regards to my own practise(which can only be a healthy thing)

    Keep us posted, I like where this is going.

    (I think you must be typing faster than I can read)

  8. Thank you David for the link! It was quite interesting.

    I have not had time to comment, bacause I am extremely busy at the moment. However, I find your series of articles very interesting. Keep it going! :)

  9. Ashvajit says:

    Hello David,

    Thanks once again for your fascinating and scholarly posting on Buddhism as ‘a new world religion’. However I’m going to be a bit of a gadfly (again). Scholarly though your article may be, it seems to me that you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. You appear to be deconstructing the core of Buddhism so completely that there is nothing left – a characteristically scholarly occupation!

    It may well be that much of what you say is true to the extent that the motivation behind many of the many re-formulations through the ages of what we are (still) pleased to call Buddhism was nationalistic or quasi nationalistic, as well as, no doubt, biased by sectarian, monastic and even laicist interests and prejudices etc. etc. And your remarks concerning Colonel Olcott are particularly apposite.

    What seems to be missing from your purview, however, is a vision of what the Buddha (in the Pali) refers to as arya-puggalas – ‘further men’ – spiritually developed individuals, people who have broken the fetters leading to continual re-becoming. Such individuals (qua spiritually developing individuals) escape from the purview of history altogether, since the notion of such a person or persons is beyond the ken of historians, and in any case, there is no scientifically-recognized means by which a Stream Entrant and so on could be distinguished and recognized. We find the notion of such a liberated individual – what we may refer to as the ‘true individual’ – alluded to by Carl Jaspers in his talk of the Axial Age. And of course in the Mahayana and in Tibetan Buddhism the language of spiritual attainment diversifies and multiplies even more.

    On a slightly different tack: the shamanic and tantric masters who exert such a powerful fascination on many people are what we may call carriers or bearers, to a greater or lesser extent, of an archetype – the archetype of, for instance the Divine Healer such as Hermes, or of the God of the underworld, Thoth, etc. etc. They are not the Archetype itself, and it is a great mistake to assume that. Taking the broadest possible look at human history, we find that it is the human historical Buddha himself who is the first great coming together of the human and the archetypal, (or the human and the divine, as some would have it), and who ‘seeds’ the collective subconscious (and the collective superconscious) of the human mind with those principles of positive emotion, spiritual growth, vision of the ultimate truth, spiritual death, spiritual rebirth, transcendental attainment and altruistic or soteriological activity that have had such a profound influence on humanity ever since. It is the Buddha, therefore, who is the Archetype, and subsequent practitioners of what (for want of a better word) we call ‘the spiritual’ who are bearers – to a greater or lesser extent – of that archetype.

    If you do not see this, or do not believe this, then it seems to me that we do not evaluate the historical and literary evidence, or aesthetic, symbolic and visionary phenomena in the same way, or else and perhaps also are speaking a different language – not merely a language which happens to lie on the other side of the Atlantic – but a language which harbors a different understanding of the universe and the humanity within it that I occupy. Since I believe, with William Blake, that if the doors of the senses are cleansed, everything is seen as it truly is – not only universal, but Infinite – that does not trouble me. I rather enjoyed watching Men in Black ;-)

  10. Hi, Ashvajit,

    I think we are “on the same side” here (unfortunate as I find taking sides to be in Buddhist discussion). What I am doing is not deconstructing Buddhism itself, but tracing the history of “Consensus Buddhism.” One conclusion I’m heading towards is the same as yours: the Consensus threw the bodhi baby out with the Asian cultural bathwater. It replaced the goal of enlightenment with the goal of psychotherapy: “to replace neurotic suffering with ordinary unhappiness.”

    One of the reasons I practice Nyingma Vajrayana, rather than one of the Other Leading Brands, is that it calls Buddhism’s bluff. For most Buddhisms, enlightenment is theoretically possible, but not something almost anyone actually aims at. Tibetan Buddhism considers that many people alive today are Buddhas, and that there are methods you can realistically use to become one too.

    As you say, there is no objective method for determining who is enlightened, so one can either take this on faith, or reject it as superstition, or keep an open mind. I would describe myself as “cautiously optimistic”—somewhere between “open mind” and “taking it on faith”. That’s not entirely arbitrary; it’s not like there’s no evidence at all. There is the evidence of observing people who some consider enlightened, and the evidence of one’s own practice experience.

    Best wishes,


  11. Samsara says:

    I think it’s a bit of a fantasy itself to say that Western history was fed back to us. Rather, I think various groups of Buddhists, or whatever you would like to call them (I personally think there was plenty to hold Buddhism together pre-Westerners, as discussed above), reexamined their philosophies in light of Western knowledge, but this doesn’t mean that anything Western actually entered the philosophy. Furthermore, many groups didn’t do this at all (e.g. Pure Land, which is still totally incompatible with Western rationality and morality and unsurprisingly pretty much not practiced at all by non-Asian Westerners; and I would argue any other sect that believes in literal reincarnation, and there are many, is not rational).

    Take Zen, for example. Reading Dogen today, any Dogen, clearly shows these supposedly Western values that purportedly entered Buddhism much later (rationality, morality, etc.). Zen (in Japan) was a homegrown reaction to the irrationality and immorality of Pure Land. I would agree that it was further modified after Western contact, but, in the case of Zen, in more in a restorative sense rather than a reformative one (i.e. Dogen’s Zen is probably more like modern Zen than 19th century Zen, which had been heavily reinfluenced by Pure Land, Shingon, etc.). It also seems quite clear that there is still no such thing as “Buddhist ethics”, not even in the U.S, because it is very school specific. For example, lots of Asian Americans practice Pure Land in the U.S., which is pretty amoral. It seems to me you are talking about “consensus Buddhism” and not Buddhism, thus making it all seem much more grandiose because in reality Americans are just feeding Western ideas to themselves, not Buddhism.

  12. Hi, thanks for the comment!

    It’s well-documented and uncontroversial that Western philosophy was merged into some Buddhisms. I waited to reply until I’d got up my first post about this. The influence of European philosophy on modern Zen via the Kyoto School is acknowledged by all historians, I think. You can follow up the references at the end for more details; also my next several posts will be on this topic.

    I agree that different Buddhisms have modernized to different extents; Pure Land, as you say, little if at all.

    But it is the Buddhisms that were Westernized in Asia that fed into “Consensus Western Buddhism.” This is important because “coming from Asia” is part of the Consensus’ marketing appeal. If it were understood to be mostly warmed-over nineteenth century German philosophy, it wouldn’t be so popular.

    The Japanese New Buddhists chose Zen to export to the West because it was the Buddhism that was easiest to reconcile with Western ideas. Like you say, Dogen especially resonates with modernism, much more than 1850 Zen did. I don’t know enough about him to have an opinion about how much of that is coincidence, and how much is due to his finding solutions to problems genuinely similar to ours.

    For me, that question isn’t critical, because my gripe with Consensus Zen is not that it is inauthentic, but that it’s wrong. So whether or not Dogen had the same ideas as the nineteenth century Germans, they’d still be wrong. My guess is that he didn’t. Everyone would agree that he’s very difficult to understand, and therefore easy to misinterpret if you go in with preconceived theories about what he might be saying.

    We agree about “Buddhist ethics”!

  13. “[I'm afraid I may be accused of political incorrectness here. I hasten to say that I myself practice (at minimum) demon worship and abominable rituals.]”

    I laughed out at this point. Great post, David!

  14. I’m glad you allow that ‘Buddhist scripture is inconceivably vast. In it, you can find support for almost anything—even the Victorian conception of a superior version of Christianity.’ I think this is one of those Vehicle things (only speaking in terms of Vajrayana) where the further you go the less structure. Sutric ethics for the layman would fit your Victorian model, squared. ‘The way of the lay bodhisattva is harder’, the Sutrist dourly intoned. By the time you get to Dzogchen, ethics is stripped down to a one-liner: ‘remain in the natural state and do as you please’ (Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche, ‘The Little Song of Do As You Please’). Ngak’chang Rinpoche avers that the only socio-political stance compatible with Dzogchen is anarchy, i.e. everybody totally responsible for their own actions. When you ask ‘How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually contemporary Western ethics? (Nearly all of it, I think.)’ you might go out on a limb and claim the anarchy line belongs to the 1960s, but as we all know that is now a ‘lost time’, scarcely contemporary any more.

  15. Greg says:

    I don’t disagree with your larger point, for the most part. However, I think it is important to add a caveat that at many times over the history of “Buddhism,” various figures of dramatically different lineages recognized one another as coreligionists in some sense. Even if they might have found their coreligionists heretical. Late Nalanda, for example. Various Asian travelers from 1000 – 1800. The internal situation among various Buddhist lineages in China, Korea, and Japan, for that matter. So the idea that there is in some sense a singular “Buddhism” is not entirely the invention of the 19th century. Buddhism has been heterodox for nearly all of recorded history, from the Sthaviravada-Mahasamghika split onwards at least. But that does not necessarily mean that, for instance, a Cambodian Theravadan monk and a Vietnamese Thien monk in, say, 1600, would not have seen themselves as “Buddhists” when confronted with a Muslim.

  16. Seth Segall says:


    That contemporary Buddhism is a reinvention/reinterpretation of Buddhism born out of a dialogue with Western Christianity, German idealism, scientific rationalism, and existentialism is hardly surprising. The Buddhism of each locality and era emerged anew from these types of dialogues in the past — whether through dialogue with Indian Tantra, Tibetan Bon, or Chinese Tao. Buddhism is always reinventing itself – and why not? – every religion must do to remain relevant to its place and time. Think, for a moment, of how the Judaism based on animal sacrifice in the Temple differs from the rabbinic Judaism of the Babylonian exile, and how that differs from all the contemporary hasidic, reform, orthodox, or reconstructionist movements in Judaism today. In Buddhism we say that all phenomena are dependent or causes and conditions. That applies to the Dharma as well.

  17. Theophilus says:

    David I found this article fascinating. As a history geek I found your connection of Thailand’s evolution into a modern state and the implications of Westphalia to be insightful. I’m not a Buddhist so I can’t really speak to the personal significance of the development of modern Buddhism to the daily practitioner. But as a devout Christian I have a couple of quick thoughts for you.

    I agree that the nineteenth century was both the last hurrah and death rattle of “Christendom.” But I would like to point our that the demise of official political Christianity, Christian identity by birth, and the validity by demographic attitude is greeted with joy by a great many of us Christians as a rebirth of genuine Christianity. I thin it would be in error to say that Christianity has met its end or even come into a time of diminished significance. Rather Christianity is returning to itself. Now more than ever it is a world religion, no longer an instrument of world ideological hegemony. The perfect example, and relevant to your article, is the fact that Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before. The great majority of this growth is in China, seconded by Africa. Christianity is no longer the property of white men. The pulse of world Christian theology is no longer in the western ivory tower (Thank God!).

    I think as you consider the future of world religions you will not discount the continuing viability of Christianity and its influence on the global community. I believe its influence will be greater than ever, though fundamentally different than it was during the colonial era that gave it its current unsavory reputation.


  18. Thanks, roni! I hadn’t seen that.

    I guess what I’m doing here is trying to make that academic work relevant to current Buddhist practitioners.

  19. roni says:

    And you are doing it great! It’s enjoyable & makes one even more curious.

  20. Robert says:

    I guess, David, my issue with all this is that is very focused on Tibet, the sub-continent, and South East Asia. China didn’t really start reforming Buddhism until 50 or 60 years ago, and it’s reaction to Communism was at least as important as Christianity or colonialism.

    By the same token Japan had a “reformation” during the kamakura period, that lead the aggressively literalist, sola scriptura Nicheren school, the iconoclastic Soto Zen school, monastic Pureland and, perhaps most radically and most successfully the lay only Shin Pureland schools to break away from Tendai. This not Christian influenced, and it was Shin Buddhisms innovation, not Liberal Western Christianity, that gave the Meiji government license and example do demonasticize all Japanese Buddhism. And if Zen had not demonasticized it seems likely concensus Buddhism would not be demonasticized.

    That, to me at least, undermines the idea Concensus Buddhism is the child of prostestant buddhism, or that Buddhism reformation, if we can call it that, happened in the sort of unified way you suggest, or that it was primarily a reaction to the west that caused it.

    Also this was typed on an iPhone so I apologize in advance. :)

  21. “■Does traditional Buddhism contain any ethical teachings that are both distinctive and valuable? (I haven’t found any yet.)”
    What about the Middle Way, David? Lots of good stuff here, but not a mention of the role of this distinctive but universalisable teaching.

  22. Hi, Robert,

    Nice to see you here. [Other readers: Robert Ellis and I have had lengthy and most interest public and private conversations about our work, elsewhere. I recommend his site; go have a look!]

    About the “middle way” in Buddhism. This phrase is understood quite different in different forms of Buddhism, and I’m not sure they have anything in common that is distinctive. Is there something the Buddhist “middle way”s share that the Greek Golden Mean, or Christian ideas of moderation, do not?

    And, you have observed elsewhere that your own interpretation of “middle way” is not Buddhist, although inspired by Buddhism. You’ve argued, cogently, that common Buddhist interpretations are mistaken in multiple ways.

    What sense of “middle way” do you think is both distinctive and valuable?


  23. Although I think the metaphysical interpretations in Buddhist tradition are mistaken, that doesn’t mean that the useful version of the Middle Way can’t be found amongst the resources offered by Buddhism. I’m not suggesting a Buddhist essentialism or claiming that this is what all current forms of Buddhism “really” mean, but nevertheless, I learnt about the Middle Way first from Buddhists and the Buddhist tradition. My prime sources are in the Pali Canon:
    1. The introduction of the Middle Way as a conception of the spiritual path alongside the Noble Eightfold Path, in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 56.2)
    2. The ‘Silence of the Buddha’ (avyakata), where the Buddha refuses to give answers to metaphysical questions, e.g. Culamalunkya Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 63)
    3. The parable of the raft from the Alagaddupama Sutta, supporting the provisionality of justifiable beliefs (Majjhima Nikaya 22.13-14)
    4. The affirmation of the incrementality of the dharma in the Simile of the Ocean (Udana 5.5)
    5.The Middle Way epistemology found in the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 65)
    There is only one Middle Way, not several, and the one Middle Way is identifiable, in my view, by being the best way to address conditions by avoiding metaphysical assumptions. Insofar as different versions of the Buddhist Middle Way do this, they are the genuine article, and insofar as they do not, they’re not.
    There is nothing like the above Buddhist sources in Aristotle’s Golden mean or in Christian ideas of moderation. Both of these rely on metaphysics: Aristotle on metaphysical biology, and Christianity on God. Nevertheless, people coming from these angles can engage with the Middle way to the extent that they can avoid the limitations of these metaphysical starting points. The Buddhist sources are distinctive because they offer us more than the others (including the idea, at least on some interpretations such as mine, of avoiding metaphysics altogether) and because many Buddhists at least recognise the Middle Way as important in theory: even if they have often scandalously neglected it too. It’s extremely valuable because, again in my view, it offers a way beyond absolutism and relativism, which again Aristotle does not.
    The established Buddhist writer who explores the Middle Way most in my experience is Sangharakshita in ‘A Survey of Buddhism’. See http://www.moralobjectivity.net/MWP1_Buddhism.html for some critical discussion of what he says.

  24. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda says:

    Christendom doesn’t possess the balls to stop the second Islamist invasion of Europe. But the Rakhine Buddhists are not only fighting it….. they’re winning.

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