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Buddhism as an International Movement for Peace and Well-Being by Dr. Ian Cook

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I had intended this paper to present arguments that indicated a need for a global movement to respond to the war mentality and disease that currently dominate international social and political life. The globalization of capitalism is an important part of this story; as is the competition between [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]] and Islam to become dominant religious movements. With both enabled by new technologies promote transnational travel, migration and human interaction at an international level. The global familiarity with Buddhism was to be a fourth element of this story. All this was to combine into the claim that Buddhism represents a religious-spiritual movement capable of underpinning an international movement to promote peace and well-being.

As I worked on this paper, however, it became clearer to me that in the context in which this paper was to be presented, which will be immediately obvious to its listeners and easily discoverable by its readers, the points raised in the preceding paragraph can be taken as givens. Not that I dismiss the value of discussing the processes underpinning the globalization of capitalism, the dynamics of the competition between [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]], and the nature, and therefore effect, of new technologies that facilitate travel, migration and human interaction. Such a discussion, however, would delay engagement with the deeper and more important issues that face those who believe that Buddhism can underpin an international movement to promote peace and well-being.

Two important, and related, issues face those who seek to position Buddhism as a basis for an international movement to promote peace and well-being and are expressed in the literature on global Buddhism. The first concerns the tensions that may exist between Buddhism and a global religious-spiritual practice and Buddhism as a form of spirituality developed within and for each of the Asian countries and cultures in which it has emerged (I recognize that “Asia” is term that hides many differences and tensions, but will use it for the sake of brevity – a point to which we might return in discussion). The second issue relates to, what might be called, the individualization that Buddhism has undergone in its reception in the West. I acknowledge that both of these issues relate to Buddhism’s crossing from East to West. I accept, therefore, that I elide many issues that arise for those who practice Buddhism in the East, particularly its transformation in the face of the globalization of capitalism and its use by those in social elites to provide legitimacy for the social orders in which they dominate.

So this paper is in two parts. In the first, I discuss the literature concerning a tension between Buddhism as a local religion-spirituality and Buddhism as a global religion-spirituality. In the second, I discuss the literature concerning the individualization that has been asserted of Western Buddhism. The second is a sub-set of the first, in that Buddhism reception in the West is a form of the localization of Buddhism, but the issues raised in the second part go deeper than those raised in the first part of this paper. For here we encounter the possibility that Buddhism will not disrupt the processes of globalization that produce war and dis-ease.

Before I begin, I wish to acknowledge those who do not understand Buddhism as potentially underpinning an international movement to promote peace and well-being. As Victoria has noted, “there are still those Buddhist leaders, predominantly in Asia, who believe that Buddhists, especially clerics, should not take part in any form of social activism, most especially that which challenges either the political or social status quo. As one leading Japanese Zen master informed this writer some years ago, “Zen priests don’t get involved in politics!”” (2001: 72).

Part One: Local v. Global?

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The first question, or perhaps set of questions, concerns a tension between Buddhism as a local set of ideas and practices and Buddhism as a global or generalized set of ideas and practices. Many commentators on Buddhism and the history of Buddhism emphasize the ways that it was adopted and adapted in specific cultural circumstances. The various forms of Buddhism that proliferated through Asia were all local expressions of Buddhist principles and were connected to local social practices, particularly those organized around monasteries in which a strong relationship existed between the practitioners of Buddhism and the local communities they served. Global Buddhism has had to present a generalized (perhaps this might be better put as de-localized) form of Buddhism. The question that arises here concerns a potential tension between Buddhism as a local phenomenon and as a global movement.

Locality and Specificity

Every form of Buddhism can be understood as a local expression of principles that may be treated as common to all forms of Buddhism. While this idea of an essence of Buddhism may be contested, the local variations that result from specific adoptions and adaptations of Buddha’s principles and practices have already produced a myriad of Buddhist sects. As Bubna-Litic and Higgins argued, “all spiritual traditions are human artifacts, and the human founders — like all members of their species — are children of their time and culture” (2007: 168)

This may be especially true of Buddhism. Bivins notes a widely held view that Buddhism “adapts to other cultures with uncanny ease, mingling with indigenous practices and values so as better to establish itself in a new territory” (Bivins, 2007: 61). Amstutz suggest that “every kind of traditional Buddhism in Asia has had its own identity and practices, its own idiomatic or monolingual quality…” (2002: 8). This may have resulted from the fact that, as Chan points out, “Buddhism... was not a written faith until several hundred years after the death of its founder. The faith antedated the scripture in all key areas of conversion. ... Moreover, the body of scripture is now immense. Once it began, different sects just wrote their own. (2000: 570)

This idea may be troubling for some Buddhists. Makransky suggests that Asian Buddhist traditions have not valued religious change, or “the historical development of thought and practice in new cultures” because “it would mean that they had fallen away from the pure original—the original teaching of Shakyamuni.” (2008: 120). They would resist his conclusion that “Mahayana sutras express centuries of developments of diverse Asian cultures... they ...communicate ... multiple historical adaptations of Buddhism found transformative and liberating by Buddhist communities in varied cultures during the centuries after the Shakyamuni lived” (Makransky, 2008: 127). But, as Makransky then suggests, “if practice and understanding had not taken new forms in new historical periods and cultures, it would not have freshly inspired and informed those cultures” (2008: 120).

One of the influences on Buddhism’s mutations is a result of the interaction between Buddhist practitioners and socio-political order in which they practice their Buddhism. In particular, as Lubna-Litic and Higgins contend, “Buddhist monasticism in its homelands consorted with socio-political elites and adapted to their hegemonic values. Monastic establishments were socially and politically embedded; they performed social-integrative and regime-legitimizing functions” (2007: 160). “In Thailand,” Hattam suggests, “segments of the Sangha became dependent on state patronage. The growth of monastic wealth was accompanied by the integration of the Sangha into society; often the priestly class became another sector of the elite, with its own social power, cultural influence, and selfish interests” (2004: 16).


An important reason that Buddhism has taken a variety of forms is that its spread has been to already existing communities and cultures. Any religious or spiritual movement that spread across cultures undergoes this process of adaptation, but Buddhism has proven particularly adaptable. Buddhism “has often astonished us with its capacity for accommodating the different cultures that it encountered, becoming almost one with it as it took on the color and tenor of its adopted home. All this can be readily seen in Buddhism’s trajectory across East Asia where the Buddha’s teachings have developed into vastly disparate and localized sects.” (Low, 2010: 27) Thus, “the forms of Buddhism that travelled to and were cultivated in the West are adaptive interpretations of both cultural and religious forms steeped in the cultures of Asia” (Takagi, 2008: 6).

Rather than seeing adaptation as a departure from true Buddhism, Makransky presents it as a reflection of the brilliance and skill of the scholars who articulated Buddhism in particular cultural contexts.. Those who composed Mayahan sutras, he argued, spoke “the Dharma directly from the hearts of [[Wikipedia:[[Wikipedia:Central Asian|Central Asian]]s|[[Wikipedia:Central Asian|Central Asian]]s]], Chinese, Koreans, Tibetans, Japanese, Vietnamese to the hearts of their countrymen and women – in the culturally specific ways needed freshly to reveal the human capacity for self-transcending awareness, reverences and compassion in new places and times” (2008: 128). The very notion of “skilful means” indicates something important about Buddhism’s spread

Indeed, Buddhism continues to be re-presented to the communities of which it has long been an important part. As Berkwitz’s discussion of Sri Lanka’s Gangodawila Soma’s Buddhist nationalism demonstrates, some Buddhist spiritual leaders have specifically engaged with the effects of globalization in reshaping their Buddhism. “Soma’s message of reform crafted an ideal vision of Sinhala Buddhism and culture over against the external forces he identifies as threats to their continued existence in Sri Lanka” (Berkwitz, 2008: 79).

Locality and Connection

An important feature of the spread of Buddhism is their connection to local communities. Buddhists served their communities in a variety of ways. They were called upon, then, to assist in meeting people’s ““worldly” needs and desires…: such as desires for ritual protection from diseases, natural disasters, powerful spirits or enemies; for promoting the prosperity of communities; for providing ethical frameworks to establish social order and cohesion, for healing the sick, for easing the suffering of the dying and assisting them in the afterlife, and so forth” (Makransky, 2008: 138).

Global Buddhism


Any attempt to create a “global” Buddhism, then, requires a de-emphasizing of local nuance for general acceptability. In short, to become the basis for an international movement, or as Kitiarsa refers to them a “worldreligion, Buddhists have to “emphasize the transcendental and universalistic goals of their faiths. ...” (Kitiarsa, 2010: 112)[1] Bubna-Litic and Higgins suggest that, “in an implicit tribute to “global Buddhism” [Sydney Insight Meditators,] also consciously followed the precedent of the Santa Fe Vipassana Sangha in not tying itself to any particular teacher, group of teachers or approach to practice” (Higgins, 2007: 167).

Low suggests that Ikeda’s “strategy of decentering from the historical and cultural specificity of its religious tradition is an important move that would manifest itself most clearly in Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a term designated for its international branches” (Low, 2010: 36). While Metraux suggest that SGI’s spread to Australia “ lead to the "deterritorializing and relativizing" of the movement from an inherently Japanese faith practiced mainly by Japanese, to a much more universal movement whose followers abroad are rarely Japanese and who in many cases have no particular affinity for Japan or Japanese culture.” (Metraux, 2003: 111) He notes that “a number of Japanese NRMs [New Religious Movements] such as SGIA, Mahikari, Zen, and Tenrikyo are growing in Australia because they have successfully adapted rituals, languages, customs and leadership to non-Japanese contexts” (Metraux, 2003: 116).

Attempts to develop a global Buddhism often rely on a notion of “essence” to maintain some sense of continuity with the local forms from which they derived. Low notes that “Ikeda’s strategy relies on an artful stripping down of Nichiren’s teaching to its essence and revealing them to be no different from the more humanistic—and universal—ideals of culture, philosophy and peace” (Low, 2010: 29). While Ip suggest that “Sulak Sivaraksa's translation project” involves the selective expansion of “traits which he hopes others to accept as authentically Buddhist, and then uses these "true" Buddhist elements to construct Buddhist activism, encompassing both his critical theory on and prescription for the problems of capitalism” (Ip, 2007:20).

Ip, however, denies that Sivaraksa projects an essence for Buddhism, but delineates a small “b” Buddhism. Thus, rather than highlighting Buddhism’s uniqueness, “Sivaraksa chooses to imagine the blurred boundary between Buddhism with a small "b" and other pre-modern spiritual traditions. In addition to acknowledging non-Buddhist influence on his faith-based thought, he also translates his Buddhist path to resistance into one that can be trod by non-Buddhists” (Ip, 2007:34). This allows Sivaraksa to demonstrate that “ as a form of religion-based activism, Buddhism with a small "b" can be, and, in fact, has been practiced by those from other religious backgrounds” (Ip, 2007: 37).

To make Buddhism global may even require reconsidering the very nature, and therefore source, of spiritual authority. Once they moved away “from the traditional authority structures of the Theravada, the question arises as to what dharmic texts should be regarded as authoritative? The Bluegum Sangha’s response has been to distance itself from the commentarial tradition and initiate a sutta study program” (Bubna-Litic and Higgins, 2007: 167)

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Charles Prebish identified “two Buddhisms” in America. One of these Buddhisms “places primary emphasis on sound, basic doctrines … and on solid religious practice (which may reflect sectarian doctrinal peculiarities).” The other one places less emphasis on “the basic doctrine and painstaking practice, [its adherents]… usually base their attraction on the promise of something new, frequently centered in the personal charisma of a flamboyant leader.” (Prebish as quoted in Hickey, 2010: 6)

Local v. Global?

The question that the preceding account raises concerns a possible tension between the local nature of Buddhisms as a lived experience of practitioners who are part of, responsible to, and who generally understand themselves and are understood as participants in local cultures and communities and Buddhism as a global phenomenon. I do not seek to resolve this in the following sections, but merely to note the divergent views on this question that emerge from the literature on Buddhism.

Local v. Global

Those who suggest an unbridgeable gap between local Buddhisms and a global Buddhism include Gregory, who identifies “the tension between “Buddhism” as a construct that claims to be universal and the particular cultural histories within which it is embedded in different communities” (2001: 251). Takagi also notes that “Buddhism in Asia practiced by Asians has been adapted for Westerners. In some circumstances, adaptations are such that temples in Asia do not recognize the forms and practices in the West” (2008: 6)

Low suggests that, “for individual Buddhist sects that aspire to a global presence, the challenge is one of presenting a single, universal message to a pluralistic world with competing political and economic interests. More often than not, this requires a radical remapping of the religious landscape and a re-interpretation of its traditional past in order for it to make it a mass appeal beyond its borders. (Low, 2010: 27) When it comes to Soka Gakkai, Low suggest that its success “as a lay Buddhist movement with presence throughout the world has come at a cost.” Though he suggests that “its rupture with traditional temple Nichiren Buddhism is an inevitability given its ambitions to be a world religion” (2010: 41).

Given the nature of the literature surveyed for this article, the tension between the Buddhisms practiced in the East and West is the most commonly noted. Hickey even identifies “a long American history of white racism, and minority groups’ concomitant distrust, [that] have contributed to the development of racially segregated Buddhist communities in the United States” (2010: 4-5).Hickey cites Numrich’s research in which “parallel congregations” operated “side-by-side: one composed of immigrants and their descendants, who engaged in cultural and merit-making activities; and one composed of converts, who were mostly white, and who were interested primarily in meditation and Buddhist philosophy. These parallel congregations interacted relatively little, and “pursue substantively different perspectives and practices of Buddhism”” (Hickey, 2010: 2).

While Bubna-Litic and Higgins argue that Australia has seen greater fraternization between “Western and Asian Buddhists”, they suggest that an “enthusiasm for mutual contact for a time papered over the underlying conflict between the associational values that inhere in traditional religious institutions on the one hand, and Western voluntary associations on the other” (2007: 163). They note various instances of tension between those pursuing a monastic form of Buddhism and lay insight practitioners. These “brought home to many insight practitioners… both the incongruities in their communion with the Theravadin institutions that had trained so many of their teachers, and the inescapable organizational requirements of lay insight practice” and “the incongruity between de facto status as a voluntary association on the one hand, and an authoritarian power structure on the other” (2007: 165-6). In their view “the gulf between modern values and associational requirements on the one hand, and their monastic counterparts on the other, seems unbridgeable” (2007: 171).


Part of the explanation of these differences may lie in the different needs of migrants, for whom Buddhism represents a link back to their home cultures, and non-migrants. Tweed suggests that “religious rituals, stories, metaphors, institutions, and artifacts propelled them back and forth between the homeland and the new land” (Tweed, 2011: 20). Non-migrants, who returned after training in Eastern monasteries, on the other hand, returned home.

Many of the generation of teachers who brought serious dharma practise to the West from the 1970s (including Robert Aitken, Christina Feldman, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Christopher Titmuss) had received intensive monastic training in Asia. Despite the acknowledged legacy of monastic institutions in Asia, these teachers returned to the West and disrobed, and insight (or vipassana) teachers in particular taught dharma practice in ways that made no necessary references back to the monastic world at all. Instead, they established pioneering (and these days internationally pivotal) lay institutions for intensive meditation practice, above all Gaia House in the U.K., and the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock in the U.S.A. This development diffused throughout other Western countries, not least the English-speaking ones... (Bubna-Litic and Higgins, 2007: 159)”

Hannah’s account of tensions at international Buddhist conferences during debates about the ordination of women represent but one issue on which unbridgeable gaps opens. In her account, “many indigenous Tibetan Buddhist participants” who participated in a conference in 2007 “articulated anxiety about “modern” or “western” forces “threatening” traditional structures and values.” They were often criticized by “Western (and other) Buddhist practitioners” whose “syncretic adaptations and interpretations of Buddhism, and attempts to transform (monastic) religiocultural practices they deemed “incompatible with Buddhism”, “outdated” or “sexist”, were viewed with unease. Consequently, indigenous Tibetan Buddhist participants frequently articulated the need to “preserve” religious and cultural traditions. (Hannah, 2010: 343-4)

The use of the language of human rights, which can often underpin critiques of the effects of globalized capitalism, is an important and specific manifestation of this potentially unbridgeable gap. Schmidt-Leukel quotes verses in which “Rimacandra summarises the Buddhist belief that the idea of an ego or “I” is one of the main reasons for the human predicament. Some Buddhist authors have criticised the idea of human rights by the argument that it would promote this idea of an ego and the egotism so closely linked to it” (Schmidt-Leukel, 2006: 41).

Local and Global

The position that a tension exists between the local and global has been contested on a number of grounds. One problem with this distinction is that it creates or represents a false distinction. For example, Sulak Sivaraksa’s “work encapsulates both a critical and Buddhist sensibility and his work is characterized by a Buddhist dialectical approach which he applies to all manner of binaries including local/global, theory/practice and self/society” (Hattam, 2004: 13).

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Bubna-Litic and Higgins suggest that the effects of the globalization of capitalism mean that specific practices of Buddhism occur within a global context. They “present Australian developments in insight (vipassana) meditation practice as specific illustrations of global trends rather than as components of a national exceptionalism. More than ever today, little sense can be made of the Buddhism of one country without reference to this global context” (2007: 158). Low expresses a similar position when he “contends that far from becoming secular, Soka Gakkai has re-asserted its religious identity by re-defining what is “religion” and what is “sacred” and “secular” in the modern global age. Its radical distillation of Nichiren to its essence allows for it to take on the form and color of the different global communities that it enters” (2010: 29).

Low goes some way further, though, by positing a “contact zone where nativists meet - or rather fight - the titanic force of transnational capital, whose values, practices and institutions are sweeping across the globe.” By selecting from and revising Buddhism, he argues, Sivaraksa “attempts to crack open a space for Buddhist activism in the contact zone.” By doing so, Low continues, Sivaraksa “underscores the bond between the local and translocal.” The result is that he transforms “his originally culturebound "true" Buddhist principles into actions of defiance marked by transcultural practicability.” Crucially for this article, Low rejects the view that “by celebrating the unique, pure, and unitary nature of their heritages, nativist writers and translators are unable to see the historicized fluidity of their beloved traditions, and the hybridity of their cultures under colonial influences.” Thus, for Low, “Sivaraksa… is far from essentialist while defending staunchly his religious tradition. He recognizes the complexity and ambiguities rather than the purity and unity of premodern culture; he sees the historicity and malleability of tradition; and last but not least, he moves beyond an exclusivist fixation on the uniqueness of his own religion” (Low, 2010: 21-2).

Low hoped to show in his article that the split between Soka Gakkai’s original form in Japan as a temple practice and its emergence as a global lay movement was part of Buddhism’s development. He argues that its “strategies and growth as a global movement”, which required “hermeneutical revisioning and remapping, … is part of a historical process of re-interpretation within tradition.” Indeed, in his view, “the unmooring of the lay Buddhist group from the traditional temple Buddhism represented by Nichiren Shōshū… expedited the former towards its ambitions of global proselytization [and] forced a process of hermeneutical revisioning and a process of decentering that enabled the lay movement to proliferate beyond Japan” (Low, 2010: 28).

Ip, though, suggests that Soka Gakkai offers an approach that is more compatible with Western values than it is divergent from them. While Soka Gakkai criticizes ”capitalist-style competitiveness, it also appreciates the opportunities capitalism creates for people to gain the best from life. The Soka Gakkai teaching stresses that economic prosperity is one key factor defining happiness, the pursuit of which is the goal of human life. Indeed, recent research notes the similarity between Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Soka Gakkai in terms of attitude towards wealth” (Ip, 2007:46-7).

If nothing else, as Baumann points out, the West offers an environment in which the local and global meet. Thus, while “in Asia, traditionalist and modernist Buddhism are generally in a state of tension and institutionally do not go well together. However, in Western countries, at times these two main strands actually meet in the same pagoda or temple” (2001: 29). While, thus far, the two congregations rarely connect, they at least exist in the same space.

Bikkhu also notes an intergenerational difference between Asian parents and their children that suggests a meeting point for East and West. “The second generation's tendency to emphasize the meanings and reasons behind Buddhist practices prior to actually doing them often distinguishes them from the generation of their parents. The survey data indicate that 80% of the youth informants believe that they look for more meaning than do their parents” (2011: 56). While these two attitudes, as Bhikku suggests, may reflect the collectivist culture amongst the first generation and an individualist culture amongst the second generation, there remains a meeting of the two that might enable some mutual accommodation.

Finally, we might reject an opposition between the local and global on the basis that the messages of Buddhists, or at least engaged Buddhists, present themes that make sense at both the local and global levels. The challenge of countering the effects of the globalization of capitalism is both a local and global one. “Universal responsibility” is neither local nor global, but both.

Against the greed, envy and aggressive competitiveness encouraged by “a culture of excessive materialism” the Dalai Lama recommends the cultivation of contentment. He argues that we need to counter the “culture of perpetual economic growth” that fosters discontent, contributes to the growing economic inequality that is emerging everywhere, and also seems to be the source of damage to our natural environment. Universal responsibility also demands a commitment to honesty which helps reduce the level of misunderstanding, doubt, and fear throughout society. Honesty also involves not being blind to the various injustices that distort societies, and the commitment to speak out against these. A sense of universal responsibility means countering the urge to ignore the diseased and the marginalized, and to “ensure that the sick and afflicted person never feels helpless, rejected, or unprotected”" (Hattam, 2004:9).

The question of whether a tension exists between the local and global cannot be resolved here. It may well be that both tension and compatibility are present at every moment in which Buddhism is found. Some practitioners may choose to ignore one in favor of a focus on the other, but this is a reflection of practitioners’ predispositions and not something essential about Buddhism in the contemporary world. In engaging with the question of the relation between the local and global in the context of the globalization of capitalism, we may see both in a different light.

Individualization of Buddhism in its Transition to the West

A second issue that arises from the literature that deals with contemporary Buddhism and its capacity to underpin an international movement to promote peace and well-being derives from suggestions that Buddhism has undergone “individualization” in the process of its reception in the West. While this may express the possible tensions between the local and global, it represents a significant issue in its own right. Despite the economic power of Japan and China and India’s growing stature, thus far, the West has maintained its political, cultural and economical dominance.

Cultural dominance is perhaps the most important of these, as its cultural effect on the reception of Buddhism in the West may constitute an obstacle to Buddhism’s capacity to underpin an international movement promoting peace and well-being. In receiving Buddhism, then, many in the West may reinterpret it to match their pre-existing cultural dispositions. As Hannah points out, “many westerners who convert to Buddhism assume that (indigenous) Buddhist ethics are consistent with their own “progressive views” (informed by western moral discourse) ...” (2010: 342-3).

Before I begin this part, I must acknowledge problems with the very category of “the West”, Gregory rightly notes that we cannot even make sense of American Buddhism because this phenomenon “is far too large for any one person to grasp in its totality” (2001: 240). Further, we must note that individualization is not a phenomenon confined to the West. “In modern Western, as well as modern Eastern, iterations of Buddhism, forms of practice become means for bringing about personal, private religious experiences, and this development might perhaps appropriately be termed Protestant Buddhism” (Prohl, 2006: 5 emphasis added).

Individualistic Appropriations of Buddhism in the West

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The individualization of Buddhism may not be a particularly recent phenomenon and, according to Offermans began centuries ago. “The westernization of Buddhism is therefore by no means only a phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; instead it commenced in the sixteenth century with the first Jesuit missionary letters, which reported about the extraordinaryreligion of the Fo”“ (Offermanns, 2005: 17). More recent changes, however, seem deeper and more profound – but this may reflect the position from which they are viewed

It may even be that Buddhism’s popularity in the West is a result of it being understood through a Western imaginary. In his study of American Zen, Bivins suggests that “American preferences or commitments to possessive individualism, sexual freedom, or psychologies of personal growth are precisely what motivates many elites to seek out Buddhism in the first place, believing it to be a free-floating, nondisciplinary, and personalized tradition” (2007: 63). Gregory suggests that “Buddhism is often adopted because it seems to offer a more effective way of realizing values that are already held in the culture.” Many Americans take up Buddhist practices “as a means to fulfill some higher value that is seen not so much as being Buddhist but as being universal. … Buddhism is often justified in terms of values that are thought of as “American”—such as self-realization, freedom, transforming relationships, getting in touch with one’s experience, living more fully in the moment or the world, healing, and so forth.” One result is that Americans who adopt Buddhist practices are “reluctant to call themselves “Buddhist.” Their concern is not so much with being Buddhist per se as it is in using Buddhist practices and ideas as a means of realizing goals whose “truth” is not necessarily seen to reside in their being Buddhist” (Gregory, 2001: 250).

Practitioners of Zen Buddhists in America, Bivins suggests, “have participated in an idiosyncratic (re)construction of a centuries-old tradition in order to accommodate or satisfy a specific set of contemporary needs and desires. This engagement with Zen has emphasized intellectual abstraction and indeterminacy over practical ethics…” This, for him, illustrates “the evolution of “white Buddhism” or “Protestant Buddhism” in North America more generally.” The growth of Buddhism in the US in the 1950s occurred “amid a network of social meanings and expectations specific to young, alienated, elite Caucasians”. They then constructed “a new religious idiom from the tension between their own desires and the particulars—ethical and otherwise—of Zen as it was transmitted” (Bivins, 2007: 59). Bivins refers to this as an “interpretive double movement”, which is an “ongoing process whereby those in search of an alternative to their religious culture impose their own idiosyncratic values onto an alternate religious tradition, all the while remaining paradoxically within the interpretive confines of the culture from which they hope to escape” (Bivins, 2007: 60).

For Bivins, Alan Watts was an important figure in this interpretive double movement.

Watts’s Beat Zen was self-consciously revisionist and Americanized, a fluid mode of expression that was “too timeless and universal to be injured” by the “hassle” that marred square culture and Square Zen. Beat Zen was, he claimed, “amazingly pure and lively” and could be accessed by any number of paths: through monastic living, by hopping freight trains, or simply in “digging Charlie Parker.” (Bivins, 2007: 66).


Beat Zen reflected the freedom that was part of being American. This meant that Zen could “be accommodated within the frame of any individual lifestyle; Zen transgressed arbitrary constraints and boundaries, coming alive through the individual’s inclinations and self-expression.” But it was not just Watts, for D.T. Suzuki also created “the impression of Zen as a tradition effectively divorced from devotional or doctrinal content, as simply a path toward experiential insight and self-expression.” Indeed, “many laypeople who were serious about inquiring into Buddhism went from Watts’s work as a general inspiration to Suzuki’s work, which was understood to be more “authentic”” (Bivins, 2007: 67).

While the individualization of Buddhism may have begun centuries ago, the 1970s represent an important period in terms of this process.

In the crucial decade of the 1970s, the West was coming under the influence of second-wave feminism, the peace movement, various other democratic protest movements, and the broader counter-culture, all of which sought to cultivate the values in question. Buddhism as such enjoyed a “radical” reputation in the West, thanks to such influences as the Beat Poets and popular writings such as those of Alan Watts. Thus many Western Buddhists took for granted an elective affinity — the institutional hallmarks of traditional Buddhism notwithstanding — between the dharma on the one hand, and the egalitarian, universalist Zeitgeist of the 1970s on the other. In several Western countries Buddhist intentional communities sprang up and melded dharmic principles with counter-cultural ideals. (Bubna-Litic and Higgins, 2007: 160)

Tanaka notes that this appropriation of Buddhism reflected a “post-1960s … thrust toward greater personal fulfillment and quest for the ideal self...” The result was that American Buddhism became what Putnam called a “privatized” religion, which "involves less social capital than environments in which individuals are connected to other individuals in shared faith commitment.” In his view, “the recent growth of Buddhism in the United States is partly attributable to the climate of "privatized" religion. (Tanaka, 2007: 115).

Amstutz suggests that those who rejected “privatized” religion were already catered for within Judeo-Christian religious communities. Those who sought “non-Christian alternatives” favored “individualistic, non-communalistic forms of religious practice.” Crucially, for the current discussion, Amstutz argues that this reception of Buddhism means that, “in the absence of deeper cultural shifts … social or "engaged Buddhism" in the USA will remain quite limited in scope” (2002: 1). This is because non-Asian American Buddhists (NAABs) are “only marginally interested in socially-oriented or engaged religion” (Amstutz, 2002: 17). In short, these Buddhists seek

a new modality of escape from self and from the need for constant self-invention, a new way of dealing with anxiety and loneliness. Yet at root the problem of the self has not really been cut through, and as Tamney has suggested, NAAB Buddhism since 1975 has become largely secularized, psychologized and "medicalized" as a stress reliever along New Age lines. Perhaps the cryptocalvinist socioeconomic world leaves little room for much besides therapy (Amstutz, 2002: 19).


An important manifestation of the individualization of Buddhism was to understand and practice meditation as an individual health practice. Thus those involved in the San Francisco Zen Centre privileged “meditation above all other types of thought or activity, notably to the exclusion of ethical concerns” (Bivins, 2007: 61). Baumann suggests that some global Buddhists “have gone so far as to separate method or practice from its conceptual Buddhist context. Some, such as the Insight Meditation Society, Shambhala Training, or certain vipassanà teachers, emphasize a non-Buddhist and expressively non-religious understanding, highlighting individualized “healing,” therapeutic remedy, and psychological well-being” (2001: 32).

Along similar lines, “Zen scholar Victor Hori has noted that Americans tended to talk about the results of meditation in terms of getting in touch with themselves, getting strength to cope with the pressures of society, or assisting them with self-realization” (Amstutz, 2002: 18). Amstutz goes so far as to delineate “therapy Buddhism” as “the paradigmatic, primary engaged adaptation of Buddhist ideas [that] is already in place, and will continue to involve therapeutic meditation for hospital patients, stressed middle classes and small religious groups.” The most important consequence of the dominance of the appropriation of Buddhism as “therapy Buddhism” is that it supports “discourses of America as a therapy society (one that treats symptoms) rather than the more activist discourses of America as a social justice society (one that fixes fundamentals)” (Amstutz, 2002: 21).

I must note, before leaving this discussion of meditation, that this appropriation may well represent a misunderstanding of mediation. “Rather than thinking that meditation is an escape from society Thich Nhat Hanh argues that meditation is in fact a process that “equips oneself with the capacity to reintegrate into society”” (Hattam p. 5). For Hori, as Amstutz points out, Westerners’ understanding of meditation was limited by their self-conception “as ontologically autonomous and independent of social roles and relations, whereas Buddhism developed in societies where (as in communitarian forms of [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]] or Judaism) the person was conceived more as having been created from social relations.” A possible consequence of this, which is important for this discussion, is that the western appropriation of meditation practices is incompatible with this Asian conception of self. “From a normal Asian perspective Buddhism is not about realizing the self and freeing its purity but rather about de-realizing the self by breaking habits of self to become socially open, responsible and compassionate” (Amstutz, 2002: 18-9).

Another consequence of the Western individualistic appropriation of Buddhism was that it reflected a limited understanding of well-being. The focus is on “my” well-being and this is understood to be something for which I can take responsibility without concern for the social environment within which I find myself. An atomized sense of self results in an atomized sense of the nature of well-being. Gregory suggests that Americans who take up Buddhism do so in order to “break with the traditional values with which they have been raised, [which] sometimes precipitating a radical shift in their identity.” In doing so they “typically practice Buddhism as individuals, and their involvement is more apt to express a personal search for fulfillment” (Gregory, 2001: 244).

The Effects of Individualistic Appropriations


The individualization of Buddhism in the West is important for this discussion because it suggests a potential limitation with respect to Buddhism’s capacity to underpin international movements to promote peace and well-being (with the latter being understood to refer to collective well-being or personal well-being as part of collective well-being). In part, this is because it justifies disengagement from the collectivity and a focus on personal goals; and, in part, it is because individualized Buddhism provides a form of solace, and potentially mental health, within a divisive and unhealthy international economic, social and political environment.

As to the first point, Baumann distinguished between “traditionalist” and “modernist” Buddhism and contrasts “traditionalist Buddhists [who] strive to acquire “merit” and aim for good conditions in this and the next life” with “Western modernist Buddhists [who] have abandoned the idea of rebirth [and] do not share concepts such as accruing “merit,” but rather endeavor to reach “enlightenment” or “awakening” in this life.” For these Buddhists “concepts such as karma and reincarnation are held to be “beliefs” that need to be checked critically against a Buddhist, existential agnosticism” (Baumann, 2001: 27). Along similar lines, Takagi suggests that “Buddhism’s spread in the West is an indicator of a perceived need for securing a form of autonomy and will in the face of the overwhelming realities of globalization, war, and decline.” (Takagi, 2008: 6).

Metraux’s survey of members of Soka Gakkai International Australia (SGIA) suggested that for at least some of those who have been attracted to SGIA were drawn to it because it was compatible with conducting oneself within a western capitalist society. His

surveys and interviews indicated that at least some of these members were attracted to SGIA because of the movement's doctrine that members need to take responsibility for their own lives and circumstances. They felt that the movement gave them control over their own destinies so that they could create their own happiness in life. They felt motivated by SGI leaders and study materials that told them that they can readily advance in life through their own hard work, strong faith, and discipline. (2003: 129)

Metraux also notes that SGIA’s appeal for white-collar professionals was also found “in other areas where I have researched SGI chapters” (Metraux, 2003: 129).

Taking up SGI did not reflect any commitment to serving some larger cause or of even changing one’s life in a particularly significant way. Metraux quotes Hammond and Machacek’s observations that those who joined SGI-USA "had to give up very little of their former way of life. Conversion, apart from learning to chant, entailed only minor behavioral change; whatever tension converts experienced because of their decision to join Soka Gakkai was therefore minimized" (Metraux, 2003: 130-1).

The most important aspect of the individualization of Buddhism in the West, for me as a political theorist, is its ideological effect. Individualization is important in this context because provides no position from which the globalization of capitalism can be understood as requiring challenge, if not active resistance, as part of one’s spiritual practice. Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has argued “that Western Buddhism, …preaching inner distance and indifference towards the frantic pace of market competition, is arguably the most efficient way, for us, to fully participate in the capitalist dynamics, while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. This is why he describes Western Buddhism as “the paradigmatic ideology of late capitalism.” By presenting itself “as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics,” Zizek continues, Western Buddhism allows “us to uncouple and retain the inner peace and Gelassenheit” and “actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.” (2001: n.p.)

The result is that Western Buddhism for Zizek, teaches that “instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of the technological progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modern logic of domination” The consequence is that Western Buddhists are to “let themselves go” and “drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference towards the mad dance of the accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances which do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being”. The result, for Zizek, is that “the "Western Buddhist" meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way, for us, to fully participate in the capitalist dynamics, while retaining the appearance of mental sanity” (Zizek, 2001: n.p.).

This ideological effect of Western Buddhism is but one of the effects of the individualization of Buddhism in the West. It influences its adherent’s sense of what is possible and what is necessary. But individualization also diminishes ones sense of the importance of community for being and well-being. It prevents the use of practices like meditation as means of connection with a larger social whole and recognition of responsibility to that social whole. As Zizek points out, this Westernization has also occurred in Japan and we might conclude that it is spreading to other parts of Asia and changing the nature of Buddhist belief and practice in some Asian countries. So the problem may be understood in a Western context, but needs also to be understood in the context of the globalization of capitalism.


While I could offer little by way of an alternative understanding of the effects of the individualization of Buddhism in the West in the second part of this paper, this is because of its limited focus. I am open to suggestions that there are non-individualist appropriations of Buddhism in the West that present less of a challenge with respect to Buddhism underpinning an international movement for peace and well-being. My intention in this paper was to examine some of the points that commentators have raised that bear on Buddhism’s capacity to underpin such movements. No definitive position should be inferred from my comments, as I do not have such a position. If anything, my hope is that, by addressing the issues raised in this paper, these issues might be resolved in such a way that Buddhism can fulfill this role.


  1. This may well require engaging in conversations unfamiliar to Buddhists and to employ concepts that belong to global discourse and not Buddhist philosophy. Blumenthal encourages Buddhists to engage in an international discussions concerning justice, but argues that if we are going to engage in justice discourse at all, we ought to do it well. For when we use the term "justice," to some degree we already are attempting to fit into a philosophical category not entirely indigenous to Buddhism. Buddhists eager to take part in international dialog on social change, ought to begin a serious consideration of these sorts of philosophical topics, and we ought to equip ourselves to more fully engage in a global discourse on these philosophical and practical issues. (Blumenthal, 2009: 341).


  • Amstutz, G. 2002. "Limited Engagements: Revisiting the Non-encounter between American Buddhism and the Shin Tradition." Journal of Global Buddhism 3, pp. 1 - 35.
  • Baumann, M. 2001. "Global Buddhism: Developmental Periods, Regional Histories, and a New Analytical Perspective." Journal of Global Buddhism 2 pp. 1-43.
  • Chan, S. 2000 "Writing Sacral IR: An Excavation Involving Küng, Eliade, and Illiterate Buddhism." Millennium - Journal of International Studies 29, pp. 565-589.
  • Ip, H.-Y. 2007. "Sulak Sivaraksa and Buddhist Activism: Translating Nativist Resistance in the Age of Transnational Capital." Journal of Global Buddhism 8, pp. 20-64.
  • Low, S.-C. 2010. "The Re-invention of Nichiren in an Era of Globalization: Remapping the Sacred." Journal of Global Buddhism 11, pp. 27-43.
  • Mussell, S. 2011. "Adorno and the Dialectic of Bourgeois Coldness." Critical Theory and Social Justice Conference Loyola (John Felice Rome).
  • Schmidt-Leukel, P. 2006. "Buddhism and the Idea of Human Rights: Resonances and Dissonances." Buddhist-Christian Studies 26, pp. 33-49.
  • Zizek, S. 2001. "Self-Deceptions. On Being Tolerant — and Smug." Die Gazette (Israel).


Author: Dr. Ian Cook