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Who is Western Buddhist? Who is Buddhist of Nordland? by Ieva Rute

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This is already the second time I come to the conference Buddhism & Nordland and I am glad to hear the question “Is it worth arranging a separate field that researches the history of Buddhism in Northern Europe, or would it be logical to organize projects that would involve the entire of Europe?“ has been raised. As my primary interest lays on the process of reception and transformation of Buddhism in the West, I would like to raise a question who is the Buddhist of Nordland? Or is there anyone who we could call the Buddhist of Nordland and how is he different from the Buddhist from other parts of Europe or Americas.

First, as the place we call Nordland is the place somewere in the West, we have to start from a broader subject or who is Westen buddhist? I have already mentioned in my previous paper, there is always a problem when we have to identify who can be called a Buddhist in our Western society. This question was raised in the study of Charles Prebish “American Buddhism” in 1979, but nor then, nor now we cannot find a firm answer, as involvement into the practices and practices themselves vary so deeply, that the only appropriate way would be to agree with a conclusion driven by Thomas Tweed that: “Buddhists are those who have taken refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha – however they understood the classic formulation” (2011: 22). Never the less I find it useful to refer to some major categories of Western Buddhists that have been discussed by various scholars since 1979, and how are they applicable to the Buddhism in the Nordland .

One of the key questions raised by the scholars of Western and especially American Buddhism is the problem of two Buddhisms. We can find a clear division drawn between Buddhisms practiced by the western converts and Asian immigrants. This issue has been addressed by number of scholars: Prebish (1998: 1) in the introduction of the collection of studies on American Buddhism clearly distinguishes Buddhism practiced by Asian American and Euro-American ethnic groups; Fields names offers terms of “white Buddhism” and “ethnic Buddhism”; Nattier depicts three groups of American Buddhists defined by the modes of transmission: “imported”, “exported” or brought as a ‘baggage” (1998: 189-190). By imported he means “demand-driven” transmission when Buddhism is “actively sought out by recipient” (1998: 189). By “Export Buddhists” he means those who came “not through active seeking on their part, but through “selling” by a Buddhist missionary.” He finds Soka Gakkai school most fitting to this model. By “Baggage Buddhism” he means “religion of those who came to North America as immigrants, and who brought their religion as a baggage. (Nattier 1998: 190). Even if we will accept this distinction as quite valid for Americas, can we find similarities here in Europe or more specifically here in Nordland? Do we have such significantly big Asian communities that could form groups practicing “baggage” Buddhism, are same active Buddhist missionaries as Soka Gakkai in USA? Bauman, who has done deeper research on Buddhism in Europe and especially in Germany, is not satisfied with the classification offered. He reconsiders the “immigrant” and “convert” labels, using the example of Theravada tradition, and offers to turn back to the history of Buddhism in South Asia how it was seen by some scholars, dividing it into three periods: “(1) canonical or early Buddhism, (2) traditional or historical Buddhism, and (3) reformist, protestant, or modern Buddhism.” (2002: 55). He states, that last two forms of Buddhism coexisted, and the tension between them was felt even before the diffusion of Buddhism to the West. He stresses that these “two strands have been and are internally multifold and diverse” and offers to call them “traditionalist” and “modernist” Buddhism (2002: 56). Bauman applies the suggested analytical perspective to other Buddhist traditions, and states: “that convert Buddhists primarily take up modernized interpretations of Buddhism.” (2002: 59). He criticizes “the immigrant and convert labels as being too transitory” and he does not support the threefold model of American Buddhism proposed by Jan Nattier. Instead he emphasizes the contrast between tradition and innovation (2002: 54), and suggests “that differentiation is not primarily a question of transmission (or how a particular strand arrived in the West), but of what religious concepts and practices are favored.”(Bauman 2002: 59). I find the differentiation of modernist and traditionalist trends very helpful in analyzing two different trends of Buddhism emerging in the West, and tracing the adaptations applied by different Buddhist teaches when teaching westerners, because “analysis which begins from this perspective could more viably explain the differences between the congregations and give reasons for their mutual distance and non-interaction.” (Bauman 2002: 60). As the manner in which teachings are passed to the western audience, the way Buddhist centers function and are organized, the audience they are addressing, and the purposes they are raising, could be very different, this can create tensions not only between the audiences, but also between the Masters themselves. I find this very suitable when dealing with Modernized Buddhist schools, as contraversal creation of Ole Nydahl, raises a lot of angry reactions among other Western Buddhist communities. Still we have to agree with Seager (1999: 114), who notices that “Tibetan Buddhism arrived largely untouched by the kind of wholesale modernization process” the same process that transformed Theravada and Japanese Buddhism named by Bauman as an example of modernized Buddhism already active in Asia. Bauman goes further claiming, that “Chōgyam Trungpa's Shambhala training, designed as a secular path for the cultivation of a contemplative life, might be described as a jump from traditionalist to post-modernist Buddhism”(2002: 60), later explaining, that “post-modernist Buddhist practitioners secularize and psychologize modernist Buddhism.”(2002: 60).

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The question of two Buddhisms is further analyzed by Numrich, who favors “ethnic” and “convert” naming, but recognizing the upcoming problems in distinguishing second and third generation of converts he rises the question what does constitute conversion (2003: 64) and moves on to the question of Buddhist identity. He finds major advantage of the typology of two Buddhism in differentiating the historical appropriation of Buddhist identity. He finds that “one wing taps into a generations-old Buddhism bound up with cultural identities, and the other wing is creating new religious identity without cultural precedents in its adherents’ own ethnic histories” (2003: 65).

The question of religious identity of Western Buddhist has also been analyzed by several scholars. Queen has suggested staying cautious not to see religious conversion as a “binary process in which the old identity is switched off as the new one is activated” (1999: xxiv). We have to keep in mind a wide variety of different levels of religious involvement, very often resulting in multilayered or ambivalent religious identities. This brings us to rejection of idea, still very popular among Western religious scholars, “that religious identity is singular and fixed, and the subjects of our studies fall into two categories: adherents and non-adherents” (Tweed 1999: 71-72). Tweed is insistently emphasizing, that religious identity is hybrid (1999: 84), and “as we study converts, we should attend carefully to the evidence in language, artifact, and gesture that their religious life reveals influence from multiple sources, including the tradition they rejected when they joined the Buddhist sangha” (1999: 73). Understanding and tracing the processes that formed this hybrid religious identity is very important, as this could help us to see that the process of reception of any religious tradition coming to the West, such as Buddhism is not uniform, and that it is greatly influenced by the cultural and even historical background of the converts.

If we will get back to Numrich differentiation of two Buddhisms based on cultural identities, we will find that “This difference in cultural ‘rootage’ helps to explain whereas convert Buddhism is typically individualistic” (2003: 65). He also finds it helpful to understand the process of modernization within Buddhist practices and communities. Numrich doesn’t reject completely Bauman’s traditionalist/modern dichotomy, he thinks it deserves more consideration, and goes on with the description of Modern Buddhism derived from Heinz Bechert: “[M]odern Buddhists rediscovered “original” Buddhism as a system of philosophical thought with the sole aim of showing a way to salvation from suffering and rebirth, Traditional cosmology, the belief in miracles, and other elements with were unacceptable to a modern thinker were now identified as inessential accretions or modifications of Buddhism accumulated during its long historical development.. [M]odernists describe Buddhism as “the religion of reason”…”(2003: 68). Modernization of Buddhism doesn’t only involve describing Buddhism as “religion of reason”, it also concerns the importance given to the meditation practice. Meditation often is derived from Buddhist context and introduced as practice for daily health care. This brings up yet another understanding of Buddhism derived from modernized contexts: “Buddhism, according to many modernist interpretations, imposes no answers but invites self-discovery, interior exploration, and inner freedom. And since individuals are free to collect and assimilate their own resources in their autonomous pursuit of truth—to construct what Durkheim called “a free private, optional religion, fashioned according to one’s own needs”—not only they themselves but the traditions from which they collect ideas and practices are “endlessly revisable”: one can take what is of use in a tradition (in this case, meditation) and disregard the rest (institutions, rituals, explicit ethical rules, etc.).“ (Mcmahan 2008:191). These findings we can compare with an interesting research found in the “International Journal for the Psychology of Religion”, which tries to find out what does it mean being Buddhist in Europe. Group of scientists made a research on two Buddhist communities in Belgium, and found out that Belgian Buddhists doesn’t feel need for closure, which in this context means “the need for an answer – any answer as opposed to confusion and ambiguity – as well as preference for order and predictability both in internal and external world.”(Saroglou&Dupuis 2006: 167), and have quite a high value of Self-Direction and Stimulation (2006: 175).

Let’s take a closer look to convert Buddhists as seen by American scholars: Nattier (1998: 189), Coleman (2001: 191-194), Queen (1999: xiv) all agree, that most members of those convert groups in the United States of America are: of middle class background or above; extremely well educated; their religious interests are focused on meditation. Most of them became interested in this tradition after reading some books on Buddhism. At least 25 percent of American Buddhologists are practicing Buddhists, Prebish calls them a Silent Sangha (1999: 208). Queen even names the “typical convert to Buddhism” who could be identified as: “46-year-old white female from a mainstream religious background, with a master degree and personal income of $50,000. She spends between thirty and sixty minutes a day in meditation or chanting and holds liberal views of life and politics. At the same time, she is turned of by a good deal that passes for modern culture and is inclined to try new beliefs and practices. She is likely to be single or divorced, living away from her parents and siblings and ‘at a turning point in life’” (1999: xiv-xv). All these scholars were talking about American Buddhists, but Bauman finds similarities in Europe “among the convert Buddhist strand, the vast majority are well educated, urban, and economically well-off” (Bauman 2002: 100).


Most evident tendency of the Western Buddhism, named by Tanaka is the shift away from hierarchical monastic Buddhism to lay community (1998: 289). In Tibetan tradition being layman usually was not treated as an obstacle to practice the higher teachings and we can find plenty of examples which inspire westerners to practice, and may be some day to reach such level of realization as famous yogi Milarepa or the late head of the Nyingmapa order Dudjom Rinpoche, but a clear distinction between monastic and lay communities was evident in Tibetan culture since introduction of Buddhist monasticism. Now within a variety of Western Buddhism we find not only lay community, but also lay Buddhist teachers – westerners, and even women, like Sylvia Wetzel, sometimes called Buddhist feminist. She is founding member of the Network of Western Buddhist Teachers (Dharamsala 1993) . In her contribution to the collection of works on Buddhism beyond Asia, she writes about Western Buddhist as full-time practitioners – westerners who teach Buddhism here in the West, she raises the question is the teaching what those westerners give still can be called Buddhism? Sylvia Wetzel speaks about three groups of people attending lectures on Buddhism and reading Buddhist books. She names them according to their aspiration: group with spiritualsoteriological motivation; existential – engaged with philosophical questions; and therapeutic – group who want practice help in their daily life (2002: 278). She states that westerners teaching Buddhism inevitably develop new styles of teaching (2002: 279), and names five social and cultural conditions why so many lay Buddhist teachers can be found in the West: (1) Affluence; (2) Secularization; (3) Criticism of Patriarchal structures; (4) Status of woman in society; (5) Individualized lifestyles (2002: 282). Her point of view shows us yet another side of Western Buddhism crated by Western lay teachers like her or already mentioned Ole Nydahl. These social and cultural conditions attract to the Buddhist teachings full variety of characters identified by Tweed as “adherents“, “Nightstand Buddhists“, “sympathizers”,“Dharma shoppers” and “Dharma hoppers” (1999: 83-84). All these people are the objects of study, and they are equally important, as they construct the receiving audience – the soil for Buddhist teachings in the West. On the demands of that audience Buddhist Masters give certain teachings, perform certain rituals, and chose the most appropriate way of teaching. If we could identify this audience and their demands, we could trace the level and nature of adaptations used by certain Buddhist masters to reach that audience, we would be able to see and understand the reasons of the transformations taking place in Buddhist tradition, when it is diffusing in the West.

And now let‘s come back to the question who is Buddhist of Nordland? Martin Bauman has published An Annotated Bibliography on Buddhism in Europe. There we can find division on Buddhism in Nordic countries, where we find 7 papers and 1 thesis, three of these deal with Diamond Way school created by Ole Nydahl. To be honest, I must mention, that articles on Buddhism in Estonia were under Russian Federation. But if we will take a closer look to Buddhism in Nordland, can we find a separate issue for our research? Are those Buddhist schools we find in Nordland not similar to the schools in Europe or in other areas we underestand as West? Do we really need to frame ourselves within the area of Nordland? What will we do with Buddhists who originated in Nordland, created centers and communities and left to Americas or Australia? Are they still the subject of Buddhism in Nordland? What about Diamond Way of Ole Nydahl, who has over over 586 centers in fifty-five countries worldwide (Burkhard 2009:25), can we use his example to specify the of Buddhism in Nordland, or is he just another example of transnational and transteritorial tendencies of Westernised Buddhism, which adherents, according to Tweed, have typically individualistic religious identity without cultural relicts of their own ethnic histories?


In this situation of “globalisation“ and “transnationalism“ we need new ways of approach to the transformations taking place on the scene. Tweed offers new theory: Translocative Study of Buddhism, where he understands religion as „confluence of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and surpahuman forces to make home and cross boundaries“ (Tweed 2011: 21). He offers five axioms for Translocatove study of Buddhism: (1) Follow the Flows; (2) Notice all the Figures Crossing; (3) Attend to All Senses and All Religion‘s Components; (4) Consider Varying Scales; (5) Notice How Flows Start, Stop, and Shift (2011:24-26). But the best suggestion I find in his paper is the one I would like to conclude with: „So recognizing the transfluence of fact and value and the mutual intercausuality of all things – including our own scholarship – perhaps we should just lay back, point our toes, look skyward, and let the swirl of the cultural currents we study toss us this way and that. Let the fullness of the Buddhist tradition, in all it‘s meanderings, wash over us, as we examine methodological assumptions and moral commintments, as we follow the flows that carry all of us along.“(2011: 28).



Author: Ieva Rute