Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Challenge of Bringing Theravada to the West

by Bhikkhu Bodhi

(an extract from keynote address at a seminar on “The Necessity for Promoting Buddhism in Europe,” held on the first death anniversary of Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thera. Colombo, 2 July 2000)

... When I ponder this issue, the question that immediately lodges itself in my mind is this: 

“What exactly is the type of 
Theravada Buddhism 
that we wish to spread?” 

For one thing, it is not merely texts and ideas that Westerners are looking for, not merely the Buddhism of the books. Books are certainly needed to introduce people to the Dhamma, to give them material for study and reflection. The point I wish to make is not that literature on Buddhism is dispensable, but that it is insufficient. For the Dhamma to take deep root in people’s hearts, it must come to them, not between the covers of a book, but in living, breathing persons who display the truth of the teaching in their lives.

Thus when I raise the question, 

“What type of Buddhism 
do we wish to spread?” 

I am not thinking of the pure canonical Dhamma, which exists as such only in the books. In actuality, Buddhism has always been expressed in concrete practices, embedded in social structures, and embodied by real human beings. Thus we have to consider this aspect of Theravada Buddhism and not merely the doctrinal formulas of the Pali Canon. So when we ponder how to bring Buddhism to the West, we have to decide which of the many faces of Theravada we want to bring. To some extent, this is premature, since if Buddhism does eventually take root in the West, it will assume forms particular to Western social and cultural conditions. But to begin we need something to serve as a seed or nucleus.

The ideal form of Theravada to present would be one that fuses all healthy aspects of the tradition into an organic whole. The transmission would have to focus on the practice of meditation, yet it should include a strong emphasis on Buddhist ethics (including Buddhist perspectives on contemporary ethical issues), textual and doctrinal study, devotional practices, and a fair share of ritual, too; but ritual would have to be integrated into the spiritual path, not pursued in compliance with mere cultural norms. 

The meditation practice should be 
the heart of the transmission. 

Once students experience the beneficial effects of meditation on their lives, in time they will develop keener interest in the study of texts, in devotional practices, in the precepts, and in ritual. Ritual will then serve to cement these varied aspects of Dhamma into a coherent whole, animated from within by the meditative experience.