Since the nineteenth century growing numbers of people from non-Buddhist countries have looked to Buddhism as a source of wisdom and inspiration (not only in the West, but in India as well, for example). Early in the twentieth century a trickle of Westerners took up Dharma practice, sometimes travelling to Asia to study. In the 1960s the trickle became a flood. Many of those who went abroad have returned to the West where they have shared what they learned, and have been joined by Asian teachers.
In countries that have been shaped by modernity, Buddhism has encountered a deep need for spiritual guidance, and for a credible and effective spiritual path. Many Westerners see Buddhism as a source of insights that are uncannily relevant to modern culture, and as a repository of practices for surviving it. The Dalai Lama has become an popular icon; meditation is known as a resource for overcoming stress and cultivating an inner life of self-awareness; artists and thinkers in many fields have been influenced by Buddhist ideals. And there are now many practitioners of Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana, and others Buddhist traditions in Western countries. In North America up to 1,000,000 people have become Buddhist.
But even though Buddhism has become popular in the West, critical issues remain. When Buddhism first travelled to China it was several centuries before a recognizably indigenous Chinese Buddhism emerged. For Buddhism to be successfully translated from an Asian tradition to something that is a natural idiom for the spiritual lives of Westerners, important issues need to be addressed.
The first issue is that of distinguishing the universal principles of the Dharma from their expression in Asian cultural forms. Many Buddhists in the West have chosen to follow one or other of the traditions that have been transplanted from Asia. For such people the challenge is to discover which elements are relevant to them and which are expressions of an Asian culture. Tibetan dress or Japanese etiquette are not in themselves intrinsic to the path to Awakening – wearing a robe does not in itself make you any wiser. More difficult still, the teachings of particular traditions can express a cast of mind that is also culturally conditioned, and therefore may be alien to outsiders. For example, in many Asian cultures the doctrine of rebirth is accepted without question, but it will be seen very differently by sceptical, rationalist Westerners. More broadly, many traditions have had little awareness of the historical circumstances within which their scriptures, doctrines and practices developed, and their self-understandings are often at variance with what modern scholarship tells us.
This is not to suggest that Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana, and so on cannot be effective means of spiritual development for modern people. But, as many Western practitioners of Asian traditions have come to acknowledge, all forms of Buddhism face crucial issues of cultural translation from traditional societies to modernity, and from Asia to the West.
For those who do not follow a single tradition, an alternative approach is eclecticism. Faced by the bewildering variety of Buddhist texts, teachers, and meditation techniques now available in the West, one response is to pick and choose those bits that seem attractive, and perhaps – in the manner of the New Age – to add elements of other traditions. But the danger in this approach is that one’s engagement will remain sporadic and superficial, and avoid teachings that are challenging and difficult, and that require patient effort to change oneself.
In a similar vein we can try to adapt the Dharma to fit our values, but in doing so we risk distorting it through the lens of our own (often unconscious) views and assumptions. The Dharma has a coherent view of life, and teaches values that derive from that view. These have the potential to challenge or even transform Western values. So on the one hand Westerners cannot adopt an Asian world-view while maintaining their intellectual, cultural, and spiritual integrity. On the other hand, if they simply judge Buddhism by Western standards, taking only those elements that fit easily, its message will be lost.
But despite these difficulties there is something universal in the Buddha’s message that can cross the centuries, jump cultures, and speak directly to us. This is acknowledged by many of the Asian Buddhist traditions, especially when they consider what they have in common with other Buddhists, and it is the starting point for the triratna community. It neither wants to bring traditional Asian culture to the West, nor to make Buddhism fit Western predilections. Steering a middle path between identifying with one Asian tradition and eclectically drawing on all of them, the triratna community identifies the core that underlies all the Buddhist traditions and bases its own teachings on this. Then it makes cultural connections, and explores questions of lifestyle so that we can put these core Buddhist teachings into practice in our own lives.
The triratna community has not definitively solved the question of what Buddhism should look like in the modern world, and it is not alone in its efforts to do so. But the story of its development, the thinking on which it is based, the lives of its members, the practices it teaches, the effect it is having on the world, and the structures it has developed, are important contributions in bringing the Dharma alive today.