Buddhism Comes to the West, by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

An extract of a talk by Bhikkhu Bodhi from a seminar on “The Necessity for Promoting Buddhism in Europe,” held on the first death anniversary of Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thera – Colombo, Sri Lanka 2nd July 2000.

Click to download a full-length version of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s keynote address at this seminar.

The topic of this seminar is very timely, for in many Western countries today Buddhism is the fastest growing religion. In North America, Western Europe, and Australia-New Zealand, hundreds of Buddhist centres have sprung up almost overnight, offering teachings and meditation retreats even in remote regions. Today Buddhism is espoused not only by those in the alternative culture, as was the case in the 1960s, but by businessmen, physicists, computer programmers, housewives, real-estate agents, even by sports stars, movie actors, and rock musicians. Thousands of books on Buddhism are now available, dealing with the teachings at both scholarly and popular levels, while Buddhist magazines and journals expand their circulation each year.

What is characteristic of Western Buddhism in its present phase of development is the focus on Buddhist practice, especially the practice of meditation. In this phase it is not the academic study of Buddhist texts and doctrines that dominates, or the attempt to interpret the Dhamma through the prism of Western thought, but the appropriation of Buddhism as a practice that can bring deep transformations in one’s innermost being as well as in the conduct of everyday life. This does not necessarily mean that Buddhist practice is being taken up in accordance with canonical or traditional Asian models. Adaptations of the Dhamma to Western culture and ways of thinking are commonplace, but Buddhism is viewed principally as a path to awakening, a way that brings deep understanding of the mind and makes accessible new dimensions of being.

The Need for a Living Transmission

Today, as Western interest in Buddhism increases, it is left to those of us who continue Asoka Weeraratna’s legacy to find a systematic way to establish the Theravada Sasana in the West. Here I must stress an important point. It is not merely texts and ideas that Westerners are looking for, not merely the Buddhism of the books, but persons who display the truth of the teaching in their lives. Thus when we consider how to establish Buddhism in the West, we should not think merely of the pure canonical Dhamma, but of a living transmission.

This takes us to the heart of the issue. Theravada Buddhism, in its orthodox mould, has always looked upon the monastic order, the Sangha, as the bearer of the Buddhist heritage. Thus, if Theravada is to take hold in the West, it seems it should come about through a monastic transmission, guarded and upheld by lay support. Without this, we would probably wind up with a watered down version of the Dhamma.

The need for a monastic transmission, however, immediately runs up against a practical problem. In Sri Lanka today there is a severe shortage of monks who exemplify the personal qualities needed by a Buddhist “messenger of Dhamma” (dhammaduta). This shortage has negative repercussions for the whole project of propagating Theravada Buddhism abroad, making the Theravada something of a still backwater on the otherwise lively Western Buddhist frontier.

The Problem of Monastic Education

Although I do not have an easy solution to this problem, it would be wise to make a preliminary diagnosis of its origins. I would suggest that the fault lies partly with the system of monastic education that prevails here in Sri Lanka. This system is extremely inadequate and needs drastic revision with respect to the aim, depth, and breadth of monastic training. If a monk is to go abroad to spread the Dhamma, he must have not only a thorough knowledge of his own Theravada tradition, but some acquaintance with other subjects too. These include the history and schools of Buddhism, comparative religion, and English. He should also know, or be ready to learn, the language of the country in which he will work.

Beyond these specific areas of competency, he will need the intellectual openness and acuity to comprehend the dispositions, attitudes, and worldviews of people from a different culture and relate to them in meaningful ways. He must have some grounding in the practice of the Dhamma, too, for knowledge of books and doctrines, however wide, will be fruitless if not coupled with dedication to the practice. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find a monastic institute that can impart the necessary training, and the Buddhist prelates, due to their conservatism, are resistant to changes.

The Need for Revitalization

This problem may also be aggravated by the sharp distinction found in the Theravada monastic tradition between the so-called “village and town monks,” devoted to preaching and community service, and the forest monks, devoted to full-time meditation. Thus we face this dichotomy: educated town monks without deep personal insight into the Dhamma or experience in meditation, and meditation monks without much inclination to propagate the teaching.

Since it would be inappropriate to prevail upon monks devoted to full-time meditation to take up a more active vocation, the remedy needed to redress this imbalance seems to require a revitalization of meditation practice within the bhikkhu training institutes. But meditation practice does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs under the impetus given by a clear understanding of the foundations and objectives of the Buddhist spiritual life. Thus what we really need is a rejuvenation of the spiritual challenge at the heart of Buddhist monasticism.

Personally, I do not think it is prudent to try to create institutions expressly for the purpose of training monks as dhammadutas. Such institutions could well attract monks keen to go abroad for the wrong reasons — to gain prestige, to become popular, perhaps to find employment and disrobe. It is wiser, I feel, to strengthen programmes in the existing bhikkhu training centres. At the same time, we should keep an eye open for capable bhikkhus enrolled in these programmes who display the qualities needed to propagate the Dhamma in the West.

A Quiet Service

Despite the shortage of qualified dhammaduta monks, scattered across the West there are a few Theravada viharas and Buddhist centres whose incumbents, in their own quiet and non-assertive way, are working to spread the Dhamma. Prominent among them we find Sri Lankan monks, who often must take up this task with much hardship and self-sacrifice. Such monks generally do not have large organizations behind them, or financial backing from home, but through their dedication to the Dhamma and compassionate concern for others, they actively seek to help Westerners find their way to the Buddha’s path. Their selfless work deserves appreciation and support from all sincere Buddhists in this country.