Ethnic Buddhism and Other Obstacles to the Dhamma in the West
by Dr V. A. Gunasekara

An Examination of the Institutional Forms of Buddhism in the West with Special Reference to Ethnic and Meditational Buddhism.


Some Preliminary Issues

  • What is Buddhism?
  • A Taxonomy of Religious Systems
  • Characteristics of a Universal Religion
  • Practical Considerations

The Universality of the Dhamma

  • The Qualities of the Dhamma
  • Buddhism as a Missionary Religion
  • The Dhamma and language
  • The Application of the sakaaya niruttiyaa Rule
  • The Dhamma and other Entho-Cultural aspects

Ethnic and non-Ethnic Buddhism in the West

  • Buddhism in the West
  • The London Vihara and the Lankarama Models
  • The Australian Experience

Institutional Forms of Western Buddhism

  • Institutional types
  • Meditation Centre Buddhism
  • Concluding Remarks

First Published: April 1994

1. Some Preliminary Issues
What is Buddhism?

This essay is concerned with some obstacles [NOTE 1] to the spread of the Dhamma in Western countries. This requires a consideration of some basic questions on the nature of Buddhism, and the institutional forms it has taken in the West. Buddhism is the name given to the teaching of Siddhatta Gotama, who is better known as the Buddha, and Buddhists are those who affirm the validity of his teaching. Buddhists themselves refer to the teaching by the Pali term Dhamma (or in some schools of Buddhism by its Sanskrit equivalent dharma). One of the root meanings of this word is “to uphold” (dhr in sanskrit), and in this sense is used to denote that which upholds the Universe. It has sometimes been translated as the Norm or the Law.

Whether the Dhamma constitutes a religion or not has been debated variously. It is certainly not a religion in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense because it is not based on the blind acceptance of the word of someone who claims to be a “prophet” or kinsman of a supreme God. On the other hand it cannot simply be equated with Science, Philosophy or Psychology as these secular disciplines are commonly understood. Two characteristics of the Dhamma separate it from these latter disciplines.

The Dhamma postulates a strict normative set of values including a moral code while secular, “non-religious”, sciences tend to be positivistic and adopt a neutral stance on moral and ethical questions.

The Dhamma postulates survival after death in some form or other. On this question there are some differences of opinion. But the popular interpretations of the Dhamma do make it clear that some kind of future life could be expected for persons who have not fully liberated themselves. The status of the fully liberated one after death has been more problematical.

Because of these characteristics Buddhism falls into a broader definition of religion than the one traditionally used in the West. Indeed such a change of definition is coming into general use. As such Buddhism can, and indeed must, be considered a religion and compared with the other religions in the world. Buddhists should compare the claims of Buddhism against these other religious systems. A taxonomy of religious systems is necessary to do this effectively.

Universal and Particular Religions

Religions could be classified into those that are “universal” and those that are “particularistic” in scope. The requirements of a universal religion are stated later, but the distinction depends crucially on the eligibility of persons for membership either as ordinary followers or as some kind of elite within the religion concerned. Examples of religions that are generally considered “universal” are (in order of their appearance) Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. On the other hand we may regard Judaism and Hinduism as examples of particularistic religions because their membership is limited to certain people on the basis of some criteria whether national or ethnic.

As with most generalisations there are exceptions to this simple division of religions. Religions that have generally been considered particularistic and exclusive have attempted in recent times to broaden their appeal and relax some of the strict criteria relating to those who are allowed within their fold. On the other hand basically universalistic religions have developed national and ethnic variations which have considerably narrowed the scope of the religion when such ethnic variation is used in a given manifestation of the religion.

Thus some people who are not ethnic Jews (e.g. Ethiopians and even a few American Blacks) have been admitted into Judaism, and recently people of ethnic European descent have embraced the Hare Krishna version of Hinduism. In both cases they have not been universally accepted by their co-religionists. Many ethnic Jews oppose the validity of the conversion of non-Jews into Judaism, and the claim of Western Hare Krishna priests have been challenged by orthodox Hindus as they are not of the Brahmin caste by birth. The existence of such exceptions do not deny the basically ethnic character of these religions.

Another characteristic of particularistic religions is that they are confined largely or exclusively to people of a given nationality or ethnicity even though the beliefs of these religions may not require it. It is in this sense that Shinto and Sikhism can be considered to be ethnic religions. This is also true of the religious views of many so-called primitive peoples, tribes, etc. because these beliefs are part of the culture of the people concerned. We shall use the terms “particularistic religion”, “ethnic religion” and “cultural religion” almost synonymously, and in every case in contradistinction to those religions that are considered universal religions.

When we are speaking of “ethnic Buddhism” we are referring to a manifestation of Buddhism which runs counter to its historic universalistic character. Cultural aspects may not be obvious in the national manifestations of Buddhism, but become quite distinct, and create problems, when they are transplanted into other cultures.

Characteristics of a Universal Religion

The characteristics which make a religion universal in scope are the following:

Universality of Principle. There must be nothing in the basic beliefs of the religion that confine it to a particular nation, race or ethnic group. Thus if there is a notion of a “chosen people” then this characteristic is violated.

Non-Exclusiveness of Membership. Any person could be an adherent of the religion concerned, and be entitled to the same privileges and obligations as every other person. This of course does not require every follower of the religion to be of the same level of achievement, but only that some external factor like race or caste prevents individuals from full participation in the religion.

Wide Geographical dispersion. The religion must have demonstrated an ability to find followers amongst a variety of nations or ethnic groups. Thus even if a religion satisfies the first two requirements but have not been able to spread beyond its region of origin it may not qualify to be a universal religion. Thus Jainism is not generally regarded as a universal although its principles are universal in scope and it is non-exclusive.

Non-Exclusiveness of Language. The practices of the religion which require verbal communication should be capable of being done in any language. The authoritative version of its basic texts may be maintained in the original language in which the original expositions were given, but translations of these should be valid, provided that they preserve the sense of the original texts.

Independence of Specific Cultural Practices. The practices of the religion should be free from the cultural practices of a particular group in such matters as food, dress, [NOTE 2] seating, etc.

Each one of these criteria raise problems but they have to be satisfied to a significant extent if the relgion is to be deemed a universal one.

On the basis of these characteristics Buddhism, as originally expounded by the Buddha, can be described as a universal religious system par excellence.

Practical Considerations

In practice however it has during the many centuries it has been practiced in different cultures have acquired some ethnic peculiarities. This is also true of some of the other religions that are generally considered universal in scope. Thus we can speak of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Dutch Reformed Church which seems to present certain cultural variants of Christianity. The Sh’ite school of Islam may also be considered an ethnic variant of Islam as it is confined almost exclusively to people of Iranian descent.

Ethnic variants of universal religions are thus common, but so long as the cultural and ethnic content of these religions relate to secondary matters, and the ethnic variant is used only in the particular country where the cultural tendencies emerged there may not be any serious damage done. We have then the case of a religion adapting itself to a particular national or cultural milieu without sacrificing any of its fundamental universalistic precepts. Particularly when a religion is practiced in a country for several centuries, and there has been little contact with other nationalities that may practice the same religion, such ethnic and national variants can emerge. This explains why ethnic variants have emerged in all the three main universal religions we have mentioned.

The problem with the ethnic variants of universal religions arise when the followers of these religions migrate to a different country and carry with them not only the universalistic aspects of their religions but also the cultural elements. The correct attitude should be to give precedence to the universal aspects and discard those cultural aspects that have little relevance. Often however it is the cultural aspects that are given an overriding importance with the result that the religion is given a false image in the country into which the migrants have taken their religion.

The rapid development of means of transportation, the emergence of a global economy, and the standardisation of many aspects of life, has created an unprecedented movement of peoples in the world in recent decades. This mass migration has brought peoples professing various religions to live in areas where those religions have not been known widely. Countries like Australia which have traditionally relied on heavy migration from other countries provide very good examples but it is also seen in older settled areas like Europe and even Asia.

Australia has adopted the Multiculturalism as an official policy. It is however sad to see that Buddhism is sometimes also considered as part of this multi-culturalism. Strictly speaking the Dhamma is above cultural peculiarities and cannot be considered part of the baggage of “Multiculturalism”.

2. The Universality of the Dhamma
The Qualities of the Dhamma

It is not difficult to show the universality of Buddhism in terms of the characteristics we have identified. Traditionally Buddhists are those who “go for refuge” to the three “Gems” of Buddhism, viz. the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Of these three it is only the second, refuge in the Dhamma, that is most relevant for the contemporary practice of Buddhism [NOTE 3].

We shall be concerned with the Dhamma as it is expounded in the Pali Canon which is generally considered to be the earliest of the Canons of Buddhism. The Buddha has always been regarded as a teacher for all humanity. Indeed the compass of his teaching may even exceed the human plane as one of the titles conferred to the Buddha is “teacher of humans and devas” (sattaa devamanussaana.m), and there are discourses that are said to have been given to non- human beings. Whatever the truth of this claim may be the bulk of the discourses of the Buddha given in the Pali Canon were delivered to humans, most of it to monks and some of it to laypersons.

In the Pali Canon there is an enumeration of the qualities of the Dhamma which establish clearly its universalist nature. The six qualities of the Dhamma that are mentioned in the traditional formulary are the following:

1. Clear Exposition (svakkhato). The clarity of the exposition means that it contains not esoteric element that might make it appropriate for a certain category of persons.

2. Self-realisation (sanditthiko). This reduces reliance on an established priesthood or authorised “teachers”. Individuals who are prepared to devote the necessary time can acquire the Dhamma by personal study, practice and experience.

3. Timelessness (akaaliko). This has two meanings: (a) the results of the dhamma could be seen almost immediately and (b) the dhamma is not circumscribed in time, and would not become irrelevant by the mere passage of time. It is the second of these interpretations that give it universal significance.

4. Empiricism (ehipassiko). The validity of the Dhamma could be seen by experimentation and observation through practice. It is not merely a theoretical assertion about life, but a verifiable statement.

5. Practicality (opanayiko). The Dhamma could be practiced (“entered upon”) by any interested person.

6. Apprehension by the wise (paccattam veditabbo vinnuhiti). Measure of wisdom is necessary for its clear apprehension.

The first five of these qualities contribute to the universality of the Dhamma. The sixth is not taken to mean that only “wise” people are capable of apprehending it, but that wise people will apprehend it more readily than others. The fact that the Dhamma has these qualities does not automatically make it universal. Other religious systems may also lay claim to some of these qualities, but not to the totality of these. What is true of the “particularistic” religions is that they are restricted in some sense to a particular grouping, usually on the basis on ethnicity. We must therefore investigate the principal aspects of ethnicity that may affect the practice of a religion and see whether they manifest themselves in the Dhamma.

Buddhism as a missionary religion

Another testimony to the universalist character of Buddhism was that Buddhism was the world’s first missionary religion. There was no evidence that any religion before it was interested in spreading it on a world-wide basis. Indeed the opposite was the case. Pre-Buddhist religions were more interested in excluding others from its fold rather than welcoming them. This is true of most tribal religions of primitive peoples who confined their religion to their own group. It was also true of other early religions, like the ancient Egyptian, Babylonian religions as well as the Brahmanical religion of India. The latter jealously guarded who were to be admitted, especially to the brahmin caste. The emerging religion of Judaism in the present middle-east was also keen in keeping it confined to the “chosen people”. There were several other religions all equally exclusive.

In contrast to this dominant view the Buddha sought to proclaim the dhamma universally once he had resolved the problem whether to proclaim it at all. There are several instances where this is clearly proclaimed, perhaps for the first time in religious history. The classic utterance on this subject is recorded both in the Vinaya and the Samyutta Nikaaya. Quite early in his dispensation, when the number of Bhikkhus was still a handful, he addressed them thus:

Go ye, O monks, wander around for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, good and happiness of humans and devas. Let not any two go in the same way. Proclaim, monks, the Dhamma which is beautiful in the beginning, good in the middle and good at the end. Be exemplars of the pure life perfected and purified in every respect. There are beings with little dust in their eyes who will surely perish without the Dhamma, but who can join those other Dhamma-farers. I myself, monks, will go to Uruvelaa to preach the Dhamma.(SN i, 104-5).

This quotation more than any other captures the universalist spirit of the Dhamma. The Buddha not only exhorts his disciples to spread the Dhamma but himself set an example, an example that was to last his whole his life. It is also in this spirit that the Dhammapada proclaims that the “Gift of the Dhamma is the best of all gifts” (v.354).

The Indian ruler who gave expression to the Buddha’s wish for the universal propagation of the Dhamma was the Indian emperor Asoka. His missions to many parts of the world was perhaps the first systematic attempt to spread a religion to the limits of the known world. Asoka was only partly successful, and many of his missions did not have a lasting effort. In the West it is only in Greece that Asoka’s efforts had some success even though it was extremely short-lived. [NOTE 4] But Buddhism was successful in penetrating the most parts of Asia, even though in the process it underwent some change. The decline of Buddhism has seen many of these “gains” lost, and now it is declining even further particularly through the spread of the three Western religions of Christianity, Islam and Communism.

Christianity and Islam are the other two missionary religions in the world. However there is a great difference in the missionary methods adopted by Buddhism on the one hand and the theistic religions on the other. Buddhism sought to “convert” by using argument and example, but the theistic religions not only used force and violence but resorted to every manner of propaganda, bribery, trickery and deceit. Far from abandoning these methods the theistic religions are refining these techniques that have brought them so much success in the past.

Modern Buddhists have been lethargic in carrying out the injunction of the Buddha with regard to the propagation of the Truth. The efforts of true Buddhist pioneers like the Anagarika Dharmapala has been forgotten. Indeed the retreat into ethnic Buddhism is precisely a statement that those who resort to it are no longer interested in Dhamma propagation. While there are now a large number of Sri Lankan monks in Western countries they are not engaged in dhamma-duta work, but in catering for the Sri Lankan communities abroad. In effect they are denying the universalist character of Buddhism are returning it to the particularistic mould of ethnic religion in contravention of the clear injunctions of the Buddha.

The Dhamma and Language

Perhaps the most important “ethnic” aspect that could influence the practice of a religion is language. The practice of a religion involves communication with other persons and the most powerful instrument of that communication is language.

Language impinges on religion in many ways. Firstly the doctrine of the religion has to be written down if it is to survive for posterity. Theravaada Buddhism uses the Pali language. There is a great deal of dispute on the origins of Pali. It belongs to the Indo-European family of languages but whether it was the language of the Buddha is uncertain. As a Saakyan the mother tongue would certainly not have been Pali. Most of the Buddha’s activity took place in Magadha where the dominant language Magadhan would have been used by the Buddha. Some scholars claim that Pali was the language spoken in the Ujjain region which the Buddha is not recorded as having visited. Others claim that it is an artificial language designed specifically to record the Dhamma and was never the spoken language of a group of people. Whatever the truth of the matter be it is clear that the Buddha’s original discourses (in whatever language they may have been given) have been rendered into Pali by the arhats of old, and today forms the definitive corps of the Buddha’s teaching according to the Theravadins. [NOTE 5]

From the Pali the Dhamma has been translated into other languages. Unfortunately many of these translators took some liberties in their translation. This is also true of the English translations of the Pali Text Society. For this reason it is absolutely necessary to go to the original Pali texts if the true meaning of the Dhamma is to be discovered.

Whatever the language of the scriptures be there is the question of the popular dissemination of the Dhamma which cannot be done in a classical language which people do not understand. On this question there is a definitive pronouncement on the part of the Buddha. This occurs in the Vinaya Piaka when the two bhikkhu brothers Yameluketula question the Buddha on the appropriateness of using local languages for the exposition of the dhamma. In response to this the Buddha laid down the rule: anujaanaami bhikkave sakaaya niruttiyaa buddhavacana.m pariyaapunitun ti. (Vin I, 139). This could be translated as: “I order that the word of the Buddha be mastered in [your] own language”. We shall refer to this as the “sakaaya niruttiyaa rule” or more simply as the “Language Rule” of Buddhism. The Buddha uses the imperative term anujaanaami (“I order”) only when he made definitive pronouncements, and therefore the sakaaya niruttiyaa rule can be taken as a definitive injunction of the Buddha binding on all those who go to refuge in the Buddha. Our problem is to see how the sakaaya niruttiyaa rule can be used in the modern context.

The Application of the Sakaaya Niruttiyaa Rule

By and large Buddhists have used the Buddha’s injunction embodied in the sakaaya niruttiyaa rule in the early centuries. In the course of its first millennium and half the Dhamma has been established in countries whose main languages have been Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, Cambodian Lao, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc. In all these cases there was no hesitation in using these local languages for the propagation of the Dhamma.

It will be noticed that all the countries in which Buddhism spread initially were Asian countries. This is no mere coincidence. It was only in these countries that there existed a religious tolerance and curiosity prevailed. In Europe such tolerance existed before Christianity became the dominant religion. After the conversion of Constantine and the Christian capture of state power in Europe all other religions were ruthlessly put down. Only Judaism was allowed to exist, and that too under severe oppression of the Jews. Torture and death was the standard treatment for other religions, and even in the case of Christianity for heretics. It was only in the 19th Century that a measure of religious tolerance was secured, and the Dhamma could reach Europe. But the old tradition of religious oppression kept out many people from even experimenting with these religions, quit apart from the distortions they were subjected to.

The Theravada Canon in the Pali language and in roman script has been published by the London based Pali Text Society, but its circulation has not been great. The only European language into which the Dhamma has been translated substantially is English, but like all translations there is also a degree of interpretation involved. [NOTE 6] Some suttas have been translated into German, but the other European languages (even French and Italian) contain only very small amount of Canonical text. For the most part non- English speaking Europeans have to rely on expository material which contain an even greater measure of interpretation than the translations. What we have said of Europe also applies to America, Australasia and Africa as well.

The Dhamma and other Ethno-cultural aspects

In areas other than language the ethno-cultural tendencies have not been very influential in Buddhism, unlike other religions like Hinduism. However a brief comment may be made on some of these aspects.

Seating Arrangements. In most Asian Buddhist countries it is customary for persons engaged in Buddhist activities (veneration of the Buddha, chanting, listening to dhamma talks, participation in dhamma discussions, meditation, etc) to sit on the floor (sometimes on a mat). Indeed in many Asian countries (e.g. Japan) this is a general method of seating with houses being devoid of chairs. But sitting on the floor (whether on a mat or cushion) is not a requirement of the Dhamma. The stock phrase used in the Canon to describe the position adopted by those who engaged in discourse with the Buddha is “ekamanta nisidi” (i.e. sat on one side). There is no implication that the person sat on the floor, or even at a lower level that the Buddha’s seat (which we are given to understand was a seat above the level of the floor). Now if people could discourse with the Buddha seated down on prepared seats perhaps on the same level as the Buddha, the insistence that assembly areas in Buddhist institutions like viharas in the West should be devoid of chairs is a remanant of a “cultural cringe” on the part of those who enforce these rules. Thus it is a manifestation of cultural or ethnic Buddhism, not the following a requirement of the Dhamma.

Attire. It is usual for Hare Krishna devotees in the West to don Indian attire (dhotis and saris). Buddhism has no specified dress code. The Vinaya prescribes only the required garments for monks, but this was determined by the climatic conditions in India. Even with regard to this Buddhist monks have been forced to make certain departures from the Vinaya dress rules in cold climates where the Indian form of monastic dress does not provide sufficient protection against the weather. Mahayana monks had already made such changes, and even Theravada monks are now doing so in cold countries. Lay persons have no dress specified for them, so any mode of attire that would be considered proper in a given society could be adopted by lay Buddhists. However in one respect is the Eastern custom insisted on. This is the practice of removing shoes on entering a Buddhist shrine. This practice too is a cultural one, and has no sanction in the Dhamma. In this respect curious compromises are seen. Thus some people wear socks, even though the logic for this seems to be obscure. The proper attitude to this is not to insist on such peculiarities relating to footwear where it is not a custom in the country in which the Buddhist institution is located. In Asia Asian customs may be adopted; and in the West western customs could be adopted. There is also a tendency to insist on a certain kind of dress during the “sil” observances on uposatha days determined by the lunar cycle. This white attire prescribed for this seems to be the perpetuation of a Sri-Lankan practice with only a very slender basis in the Canon.

3. Ethnic and non-Ethnic Buddhism in the West
Buddhism in the West

As we have seen Buddhism in the West is a relatively recent development made possible by the breakdown in the State protection accorded to Christianity in Europe. When Buddhism became first known in the West it evoked great interest, especially as it came at a time when Darwinism and other areas of scientific discovery had considerably eroded the basis of Christianity. However this initial spurt of enthusiasm has not been kept up, and since then the Dhamma has been in regression in most of the West, at least amongst the native populations.

Two dangers confront the spread of Buddhism in the West in the present period. One is the spread of ethnic Buddhism which in some instances has transformed the universal message of the Buddha into a parochial cult. The other is the attempt to transform Buddhism into a minor meditation therapy by certain “teachers” who have not understood the role that “meditation” plays in the Buddha’s scheme of liberation. In this work we shall be concerned primarily with the first of these developments, but some comments will be made on the latter as it is not unconnected with ethnic Buddhism as most of these “teachers” of Buddhism have learnt their “meditation” from Eastern gurus. [NOTE 7]

Buddhism in Western countries have taken up two main routes. One is the formation of Buddhist Societies mainly amongst lay-persons centered on the study of texts, and lectures by experts or exponents of Buddhism. The other route was to establish Viharas which have been the usual units around which Buddhists have congregated in Theravaada countries. In most Asian countries the institutional mode is almost exclusively the Vihara model, but in the West it was normal for secular Societies to be established. However both modes can and indeed should exist in the West, but the Viharas established in the West should be in the mainstream of Buddhism, not replicas of ethnic temples imported from the East. We shall consider both these modes of institutional Buddhism in the West, but with the greater emphasis on the Vihara mode.

The London Vihara and the Lankarama Models

Two models of Vihara Buddhism in the West have emerged which we may call the London Vihara and the Lankarama models. The London Vihara established in the 1920s provided a model of a Buddhist Vihara operating in a Western land. The Lankarama, which was established in Singapore in the 1940s by Sri Lankan Sinhalese migrants offers the alternative model of ethnic Buddhism transplanted from its original Sri Lankan context into a foreign land.

It was appropriate that the first Theravada Vihara to be established in the West should have been in London where the knowledge of Theravada Buddhism was the greatest. In the first decades of its existence this Vihara set a model that could have been adopted by other Buddhist groups in the West. It was centre for the study, practice and propagation of the Dhamma, primarily using the English language. Monks living in this Vihara distinguished themselves by their scholarly publications and by their contributions to the public discussion on religious issues. The vihara was concerned primarily with the propagation of the Dhamma as it has come down through the ages, and was not concerned with the propagation of the local ideosyncracies which characterised the Buddhist scene in Sri Lanka even though most of the people connected with the establishment of this Vihara came from Sri Lanka. [NOTE 8]

The Vihara was a centre for meditation, but there was no addiction to this activity as the principal way in which the Dhamma could be practiced in the West. In several other respects, like seating arrangements at the Vihara, the London Vihara sought to adhere the local customs rather than those prevailing in Sri Lanka.

These high ideals had not always been in evidence, and there have been periods of controversy, particularly after the predominant English patronage of the Vihara was replaced by the growing number of migrants from Sri Lanka. Despite these developments the Vihara provided a model on which other Viharas could be established. Unfortunately there were very few imitators. Some Viharas were established in some other European countries, and while they did adhere to some of the correct principles for the Buddhist Vihara in a Western country they were by no means exemplars in this area.

In Australia there has been no Vihara that could be considered to be in some respects the parallel of the London Vihara. To some extent the Brisbane Buddhist Vihara under the long-time incumbency of the late Ven Shanti Bhadra Maha Thera could be considered the nearest. But after the departure of Ven Shanti Bhadra the Vihara lost a lot of its ethnically oriented members who broke away to found an ethnic temple. There has been some regression from the high standards set by Ven Shanti Bhadra Maha Thera, and the pitfalls of ethnic Buddhism have not been entirely avoided.

The Lankaramaya Model stands very much in contrast to the London Vihara model. The first Lankarama was established in Singapore by Sri Lankans resident in that city-state. Since then several viharas based on the Singapore Lankarama Model have been established in many countries in the West, some even boasting the name Lankaramaya itself, others adopting different names but based on variations of the same model. We shall refer to these Viharas in the West as Lankaramaya viharas. There are other types of ethnic Buddhism based on the particular types of Asian Buddhism, both Mahayana and Theravada. These include temples based primarily on the Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tibetan and Japanese models. We cannot explore all these manifestations of ethnic Buddhism in the West but shall concentrate on the Lankarama model which is based primarily on Sinhalese Buddhism.

The dominant characteristics of the Lankarama model of the Theravada Vihara in the West are the following:

The membership of the Vihara is primarily Sinhalese. Even when this is not incorporated into the constitution of the Vihara, the actual practices undertaken preclude the active participation of others;

The principal medium of activity in the Vihara is the Sinhala language. It is in this language that most of the discourses are delivered, and the activities of the Vihara advertised.

The principal Buddhist activities of the Vihara are:

(a) dhamma-discourse in the Sinhalese style (bana),
(b) the provision of alms and robes to monks,
(c) chanting of “protection suttas” (pirit) tying of pirit-thread,
(d) the veneration of the buddha-rupa (buddha-puja), the bodhi-tree and relics (if these are imported from Sri Lanka), and
(e) teaching the Dhamma to Sinhala children (daham- paasaela).

The conduct of specifically cultural activities like the teaching of the Sinhala language, celebration of the Sinhala New Year, etc.

None of these activities of the Lankarama style of vihara belongs to the tradition of Buddhism as a universal religion. The bana-style of preaching generally excludes the old practice of Dhamma-discussion (dhamma-saakaccaa). There is little importance attached to the study of the Pali Canon, indeed the Canon is often unavailable in such monasteries, and even if available there is little opportunity for its intensive study.

In short Lankarama-style of viharas have little contact with the local population, and does not consider the propagation of the dhamma to the local habitants a primary objective. It is meant for Sri Lankan migrants to indulge in the traditional practices associated with Buddhism in their home country.

The Australian Experience

Australia had a racially biased migration policy between 1920 and 1968. This meant that few Sinhalese could settle here during this period, and as such no ethnic Buddhist institutions could have been established. There is some evidence of ethnically oriented Buddhist activity by migrants who came before the imposition of the racial immigration policy, but this activity soon ceased, and almost all the Buddhists who migrated at that time have been converted into Christianity. The first Buddhist presence in Australia was the Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, which also soon petered out after the imposition of the racial immigration policy.

However a few Buddhist visitors were allowed to come to the country on short visits often with several restrictions placed on their activity. These included Venerable Narada Maha Thera of Sri Lanka, one of the most enlightened Theravada monks of this century, and the American Theravada nun sister Dhammadina. As a result of their efforts small Buddhist groups were established in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. These Societies were established in the true spirit of international Buddhism and were completely free of ethnic traits. These institutions have suffered various vagaries, but they still exist. [NOTE 9]

In the 1980s the migration policy was further relaxed and large numbers of ethnic Buddhists from Sri Lanka and other Asian Buddhist countries were allowed in. They soon set about establishing ethnic temples in the traditional styles. Amongst the Theravadins the first to do so were the Thais, who established several Wats in the traditional style. These differed somewhat from the classic Lankarama style whose main characteristics we have identified earlier. The Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese temples (when they were finally established) followed the practice of the Thai wats.

The first ethnic Sri Lanka vihara appears to have been established in Melbourne as an alternative to the Buddhist Society of Victoria. Groups of ethnically orientated Sinhala Buddhists have also been in evidence in other places like Perth, Darwin, Adelaide and Canberra, and some of these places they have already established ethnic temples. But it was in Sydney that the first Sinhala temple with the name of Lankaramaya was established. For a long time the Sinhala Buddhists of Sydney had been patrons of Thai inspired Wats like Wat Buddhrangsee and Wat Buddha-Dhamma. But the establishment of the Lankayamaya in 1990 marks the decision to adopt a purely Sri Lankan style temple under Australian skies. In Brisbane a Sri Lankan Buddhist Monastery Association has been set up, which recently announced that it was going to construct the first Lankaramaya in Brisbane. Meanwhile another ethnic Sinhalese temple has been set by another group of Sinhalese in rooms rented from Zen centre operating in Brisbane.

Thus Sri Lankan ethnic temples are now firmly established in the major Australian cities. No doubt other states will soon follow suit to cater for the increasing demand for such temples by the increasing Sri Lankan migration. To man these temples a number of Sri Lankan monks have been brought to Australia by the various temples.

The Australian experience has been matched by the experience in other Western countries. In the U.K. also several Lankaramaya-type Sinhala temples have been set up although none has adopted that particular name. In the United States the dominant form of Buddhism is Mahayana Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism is confined to a few viharas.

We must now consider the consequences of this development for Buddhism in Australia and the West generally.

4. Institutional Forms of Buddhism in the West
Institutional Types

On the basis of the above discussion we can identify the following institutional forms of Theravada Buddhism that have emerged in the West:

A. The Secular Buddhist Society Model. This is concerned with the intense study of the Dhamma in its original formulation as given in the Pali Canon, the development of norms of living in substantial conformity of the requirements of the Dhamma, and the encouragement of the observance of the Dhamma generally.

B. The Original London Vihara Model. This model encompasses the objectives of the secular societies, but places greater emphasis on the necessity to accommodate ordained monks to expound the Dhamma. In its interpretation of the Canon it tends to place greater emphasis on Buddhaghosa’s exegesis whereas the secular societies tend to go the original Canon itself.

C. The Lankarama Model. This is the ethnic Buddhist Model par excellence. Its main objective appears to be to cater to the spiritual needs of expatriate groups using the particular national models of Buddhism as practiced in their home countries without any consideration of its relevance to the universality of the Buddha’s teaching or the external conditions in the host country.

D. The Meditation Centre Model. Here the Buddhist Institution is transformed into a centre for “meditation” under the guidance of a self-proclaimed “teacher”. The meditation practiced is a simplified form of the first foundation of satipatthana ignoring all the preconditions which the Buddha was careful to lay down for the correct practice of this technique of mindfulness.

These four models or modes should be considered as pure types; in practice particular institutions may combine some of these features to some degree, but in almost every instance one of these will be the dominant feature. This will determine to which category the particular institution will fall.

It will be seen that only the Modes A and Mode B correspond substantially to the Dhamma as expounded in the Pali Canon, while Mode C and Mode D constitute distinct departures from it. In a sense the Mode A was not known in the Buddha’s but is a Western institutional form which could be ideally adapted as a vehicle for the propagation of the Dhamma in the West. It is in this sense that it could be admitted into the permissible modes for Dhamma propagation in the West.

Roughly until the 1960s Buddhism in the West used the Modes A and B as the principal means of institutional expression of the Dhamma. Even though not widely used this gave the correct start to the Dhamma in Western societies. From the 1970s there was a migration of Buddhists from Asian countries (Sinhalese, Thais, etc.) to the West which has been unprecedented in history. This gave opportunity to a proliferation of institutions of Mode C. Mode D Buddhism was also spread by Western teachers who had learnt it either from certain teachers in the Asian Buddhist countries (Thailand, Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent Burma) or are the disciples of Western Buddhists who had undergone this kind of training.

We have shown that ethnic Buddhism tends to controvert the universalistic character of Buddhism. When ethnic Buddhism is introduced into a Western country it tends to shunt the particular manifestation of Buddhism into an ethnic ghetto. The danger here is that many people will perceive Buddhism as a ghetto religion. Indeed the mass media in Western countries have made it a fine art to present Buddhism as an ethnic religion and not a universal message of liberation. The activities of ethnic Buddhists in the West lend support to this propaganda of the mass media to the great detriment of the cause of Buddhism in the West.

A few words may be said on the subject of the Meditation Centre type of Buddhism. In recent decades the West has seen a vast proliferation of meditation systems of all types (e.g. transcendental, yogic, Zen, self-realisation, Hare Krishna, etc). This great upsurge in meditation is due to the fact that the increasing of pressure of life in the West has created many psychological neuroses, and conventional treatment through psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. has proven to be either too expensive or ineffective. The burgeoning meditation movement is particularly suited for the minor neuroses, not meriting conventional treatment. The proponents of the Meditation Centre mode of Buddhism have enthusiastically joined this band of meditation purveyors in the West. As with the other co-providers of meditation in the West they are no doubt doing much good, giving a measure of relief through calm and tranquillity to persons who require such therapy. But the danger lies in that they may be passing off their particular nostrums as the central discovery of the Buddha or as the means to Enlightenment and Liberation.

Central to this particular approach is a misunderstanding by many “teachers” [NOTE 10] of what meditation means in the Buddhist system. The Pali term they use to designate “meditation” is bhavana. Now while this term has crept into Buddhist terminology it was not a term used by the Buddha in anything like the meaning attached to it by the modern meditation exponents. The terms used in the Canon are samadhi, jhana and sati. Samadhi is the true concentration needed in Buddhism, and it is doubtful whether it could be “taught” by persons who had not reached not realised the fruit of arahantship. Indeed the Buddha instruction appears to be that samadhi could be achieved by individual effort alone, provided that the person has already achieved a measure of liberation from the asavas and satisfied some of the paramitas. Jhana is a purely yogic discipline, and while it is beneficial to those who can realise it, it is not a requirement of enlightenment. It will be recalled that the Buddha achieved the jhanas long before he was enlightened by learning how to do so from the yogic masters of the day. Some modern meditation exponents have been able to induce self-hypnosis in their followers, but this should not be confused with the attainment of any of the four jhanic states.

So sati seems to be only component that is within the reach of the typical meditation exponent. But what is usually done in the name of this worthy element of the Noble Eightfold Path is a gross simplification of the first foundation of mindfulness identified by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta. The way this Sutta is expounded by “teachers” in the West ignores two fundamental pre-requisites laid down clearly by the Buddha in the preamble to this Sutta. These are:

(1) That the practitioner should have engaged in a substantial measure of renunciation from worldly entanglements (“vineyya loke abjia domnassa”). This does not necessarily mean that the person should have “gone forth” from the household life, even though this is strongly suggested because the Buddha gives this Sutta only to monks who have left the household life and would have satisfied this precondition. Certainly the current practice of giving lay persons who are steeped in attachment to family, wealth, and power, the impression that short periods of anapana sati gives them access to the satipatthana is not correct. (2) There cannot be congregational performance of the satipatthana. The Buddha says that the practitioner must go to an empty room (suagara) or if outdoors to the root of a tree (rukkham-la). However in many Meditation Centres the sole objective seems to be regular periodic communal meditation. Whatever these “meditators” may be doing they are certainly not following the instructions of the Buddha.

While the danger of the Meditation Centre approach may not be as great as that of the ethnic Buddhism approach the damage it could do the Dhamma in the West should not be underrated. One of the most pervasive criticisms of Buddhism in the West is that its practitioners confine all their loving-kindness and compassion to the comfort of their meditation mats and ignore all the opportunity that the real world presents to the lay persons concerned with the welfare of their fellow human (and non-human) beings. The Meditation Centre school of Buddhism in the West reinforces this public perception of Buddhism and no amount of protestations to the contrary will overcome the powerful evidence emanating from the Meditation Centre. The pity of it is that what the patrons of the Meditation Centre is doing has nothing whatsoever to do with what the Buddha was teaching.

Nothing that is said above should be taken to mean that samaadhi and satipa.t.thaana in the way that it is expounded in the Pali Canon is an inconsequential part of Dhamma-practice. Indeed they are of central importance in the search for enlightenment. All that we are objecting to is the misrepresentation of these difficult disciplines by the simplistic exercises called “meditation” in the West.

Concluding Remarks

We have attempted to outline in this short tract two obstacles confronting the spread of the Dhamma in the West (ethnic Buddhism and Meditation Buddhism). There are of course other factors which serve as formidable obstacles. But these other factors are usually created by external forces whereas the obstacles we have discussed are internal obstacles created by persons claiming to be Buddhists.

The consideration of the external obstacles must await another publication. Even if Buddhists in the West were to give up ethnic Buddhism and revert to correct practices in the realization of Dhamma there will still be formidable difficulties confronting the propagation of the Dhamma in the West. But there is no reason to add to these difficulties by taking on board practices which are quite alien to the Buddha’s enlightening teaching.


[1] We are only concerned with the internal obstacles, i.e. those ceated by Buddhists themselves, as these are the ones that are most easily corrected. Buddhism, of course, faces considerable external problems in the face of well-entrenched religions in the West. These matters are not considered in this Essay. Return

[2] Religions usually prescribe the dress of clergy or monks. But even here universal religions allow for adaptations due to climatic or other factors.Return

[3] The Buddha was directly relevant when he was alive and today has only symbolic significance. The Sangha originally meant only those who had made some progress on the Buddhist path by eliminating at least the lesser of the “fetters” recognised in Buddhism. Today it has a somewhat different meaning as comprising either the monkhood or even the totality of all practitioners. Thus of the three gems of Buddhism only the Dhamma has an unambiguous meaning as it is preserved in the various Canons of Buddhism. Return

[4] Europe before the advent of Christianity was a relatively tolerant. But when Constantine was converted to Christianity the Church used the power of the state not only to exclude anyone else but even to subject suspected Christian heretics to death and torture. It was only in the 19th century that Europe (and its offshoots) allowed a more liberal attitude, but even now religious despotism is common in many Christian countries.Return

[5] A brief comparison with other religions may be in order. The new Testament of Christianity was written in Greek a language which is far removed from the languages Jesus may have spoken (Hebrew, Aramaic). The distance between Greek and the original language of Jesus is much greater than the distance between Pali and Magadhan. In Islam the language of the Koran is the Arabic spoken by Mohammad. Both Christianity and Islam for a long time forbade the translation of their scriptures from Greek and Latin in the case of Christianity and Arabic in the case of Islam into other languages. This has never been the case with Buddhism. Return

[6] Many of the translators of the Pali texts never formally adopted Buddhism, and were keen to use Christian terminology for Buddhist terms. The repeated translation of citta by “heart” and metta by “love” are conspicuous instances, but in several other respects a Christian gloss was not on Buddhist constructs.Return

[7] For a fuller discussion of this problem in Western Buddhism see the BSQ publication Western Buddhism and a Theravada Heterodoxy by V. A. Gunasekara. Issue No. 29 of the Journal Vimamsa is also devoted to the question of meditation in Buddhism.Return

[8] Sri Lanka has had a wholesome tradition of propagating the Dhamma in the Buddha’s true spirit. The spread of Theravaada Buddhism to South-East Asia was an outstanding achievement. This spirit was revived by the Anagarika Dharmapala in the closing decades of the last century. He first took the Dhamma back to its very cradle in India, and later turned his attention to its propagation in the West. The spirit of Anagarika Dharmapala was very much alive in those who were responsible for the establishment of the London Vihara.Return

[9] The Melbourne based group the Buddhist Society of Victoria has been the most successful mainly because of the role of its long-time President Ms E. Bell. Unfortunately there seems to be some evidence that this group is also coming under the attach of ethnic Buddhists. The NSW Society has abandoned Theravaada and gone over to Mahayana. The Brisbane group folded soon after, but has been revived and still operates though on a very small scale.Return

[10] The term “teacher” when used in a religious context means something different from what it means in the ordinary sense (like a kindergarten teacher or a university teacher). The Buddha claimed to be a teacher (satta), and Jesus is also referred to as a teacher in the New Testament. In the latter context a teacher is someone who has a special kind of knowledge. Most meditation teachers certainly do not fall into this category. Indeed it is doubtful whether anyone who is not an Ariyapuggala can be a teacher of the Dhamma. Return.