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Culture & Transformation Of Ideas: Engaging Buddhism In The West

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

We should never underestimate the role any culture plays in the transformation of ideas, because the society we live in places heavy influences on how we interpret the world around us.  This is true today as it was for the Buddha in his day.   As you are aware, Siddhartha (the Buddha) was a practicing Hindu from a noble family clan.  He was well educated.  But he began to question the basic perceptions and realities universally held by the society he engaged during his life time.  As a result he came to an awakened understanding of the causal nature of the Universe.  He spent the remaindered of his life finding skillful language to describe this new worldview.  Upon his death, and after many decades, these teachings became the foundation of Buddhism.  But after his death, and without his guiding hand, other cultural influences began to creep into how Buddhist theory began to be interpreted.  As expected, many conflicting views began to find their way into how the dharma was taught and as expected found their way into some of the Buddhist cannon we have today.  This is why using caution is so important as we study ancient Buddhist writings and the suttas, as well as our legacy masters that themselves lived with the world views held during the middle ages.

Over the next few centuries Buddhism began to move East through Afghanistan, Tibet, China, Indochina, Korea, and Japan.  As this migration happened, Buddhism encountered different social norms and adopted some of these indigenous cultural and religious beliefs into how they began to practice Buddhism.   In Tibet it was B’on, in China it was Tao & Confucianism among others, and in Japan it was Shinto.  But as Buddhism moved East it found similar ethical, moral and legal standards, and similar notions of freedom that was still specifically Asian.  It was not until the early 40’s that Buddhism made it’s way to the West in earnest after World War II, although it found some roots in America before that in the 19th century, mostly from Chinese immigrants.  As Buddhism encountered Western philosophy and science it crashed headlong into the most challenging transformation of its history.  It encountered a different worldview philosophy that engendered a new way of considering individual freedom, as well as different foundations of law and social justice.  Not to mention the challenge of transforming these Eastern ideas into Western languages.

As Buddhism encounters our contemporary world, especially as it moves West, it discovers situations where imagination and creativity are central to our notion of personal and social freedom.  While Buddhist traditions have consistently affirmed freedom FROM craving, anguish, and unsatisfactoriness, being the path to awakening, they have been less consistent in affirming the freedom TO respond creatively to the suffering in the world as we see it today.  Thus the emerging focus on engaged Buddhism over the past two decades has heated up.  This is a reflection of the gradual influence that engaged Buddhism has received since Thich Nhat Hanh introduced the movement in the late 1960’s.

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