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Theravāda Spirituality in the West

While the Western contact and study of the Theravāda tradition goes back to the earliest Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka in the sixteenth century and to European scholars in the early nineteenth century, the beginning of popular Western interest in and inspiration from Southeast Asian Buddhism began around 1870. Since that time there has been two peaks in this interest: the first, from 1870 to 1912 and the second, a century later from 1970 to the present. The former was characterized primarily by an intellectual orientation as Europeans and Americans found in the early Buddhist texts preserved by the contemporary Theravāda tradition an attractive alternative to Western religious beliefs. In contrast, the current upsurge in interest centers predominantly around religious praxis, with specific practices attaining great popularity sometimes completely divorced from the doctrinal and religious context of the Southeast Asian Theravāda tradition(s). At the same time however, an influx of immigrants from Theravāda countries, especially to the United States, has resulted in the presence of numerous Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan temples that replicate the cultural forms of Theravāda Buddhism of their respective home countries. Most of these ethnic temples created since 1970 have had little impact outside of their respective ethnic constituencies.

With the exception of the partially westernized Sri Lankan missionary Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864 – 1933; discussed below), Theravāda Buddhism has mostly been introduced to the West by westerners. As can be expected, the importation of Theravāda Buddhism to the West has involved a selection, translation and adaptation process as westerners defined the tradition for themselves. What has been most fascinating about this process is that the twentieth century Theravāda Buddhism that many westerners are encountering in Southeast Asia has been profoundly changed by the nineteenth century Asian contact with the West and with Western interpretations of Buddhism.

 

 

1873 – 1912

The first popular wave of Western interest in Buddhism occurred during the last quarter of the nineteenth century among educated middle and upper class Europeans and Americans. Offering for many an attractive alternative and contrast to Christianity, Buddhism played an important part of the public dialogue on religion that characterized much of the intellectual history of the times. Articles on Buddhism, both favorable and not, frequently appeared in popular English and American magazines at a rate that has not been matched since.  To a great extent, the publication of Sir Edwin Arnold’s (1832-1904) epic poem The Light of Asia in 1879 was the spark for this popular interest in Buddhism. As one of the best-selling books at the end of the nineteenth century, being printed in over a hundred editions in England and the United States and with numerous translations into other languages, The Light of Asia introduced a wide Western audience to a biography of the Buddha which matched well the humanistic and rational intellectual currents of the Victorian era. In addition, the presence of Buddhists at the 1893 World Parliment of Religions in Chicago also sparked popular interest in the United States.

The Western interest in Buddhism during the nineteenth century remained mostly intellectual, having little contact with the living spirituality of contemporary Asian Buddhists. In fact, the general consensus among the European scholars of Buddhism who did much to define the late nineteenth century Western view of Buddhism was that “pure” and “original” Buddhism was to be found in the earliest layers of the Pali Canon before the tradition was contaminated by the popular, supernatural and superstitious overlays of later centuries. Such influential books as T.W. Rhys Davids’ Buddhism (1878) and Hermann Oldenberg’s still read Buddha: Sien Leben, Seine Lehre, Seine Gemeinde (1881; subsequently published in English under the title The Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine, His Community) did much to introduce a Western audience to a rational and humanistic view of the Buddha and his teachings. The preference given to “original” Buddhism over the living spirituality of the East resulted in great scholarly efforts at collecting, editing, printing, translating and studying the Pali canon. In 1881 Rhys Davids founded in London the Pali Text Society which by 1930 had succeeded in publishing most of the Pali canon both in romanized Pali editions and in English translations. The intellectual interest in the origins of Buddhism and the availability of these texts in English and other European languages contributed to the popular interest and sustained preference in Europe for the sacred scriptures of the Theravāda tradition as opposed to the literature of other Buddhist traditions. However, at the same time the contemporary Theravāda tradition was considered by westerners to be the custodian of these texts but not the valid interpreters of them. Western scholarship on early Buddhism and the Pali Canon had a significant impact on modernist reform movements within the Theravāda tradition in Southeast Asia by encouraging efforts to “return to the origins” through revising the tradition according to the teachings found in the tipitaka or the three divisions of the Scriptural Canon.[i] In addition, the translation of the Pali canon into English had a major impact on educated Southeast Asian Buddhists by making the sacred texts available to a wider audience than ever before. It was only after the availability of English translations of the Pali scriptures that these texts were translated into modern Southeast Asian languages. The availability of these translations did much to break the religious monopoly of the monks and to stimulate the rapid growth of lay Buddhist movements in Sri Lanka and Burma.

Though the Western contact with Buddhism during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was primarily intellectual and textual, the seed for a slowly growing interest in and involvement with the living spiritual traditions of Theravāda Buddhism can be traced to the famous ‘Great Debate of Pānadura’ between the monk Mohottivatte Gunānanda (1826-1890) and Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka in 1873. After several decades during which Sri Lankan monks lost debates to better prepared missionaries, the well-educated Gunānanda was perceived as soundly defeating the Christians. In addition to contributing greatly to the resurgence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, accounts of the debates published in American newspapers caught the attention of Colonel Henry Steele Olcott (1832-1907) and Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), the soon-to-be founders of the Theosophical Society. After extensive correspondence with Gunānanda, Olcott and Blavatsky arrived in Sri Lanka on May 17, 1880, an occasion which is often considered the beginning of the modern Buddhist revival in that country. On May 25th, in front of a large audience of Sri Lankans they publicly participated in the Theravāda ceremony of taking the triple refuge and the five lay precepts. In this way, these two Western spiritualists were among the earliest, if not the first, westerners to formally declare themselves Buddhists through a traditional ceremony officiated by Buddhist monks.

 

While the Theosophical Society introduced many people in the West to its esoteric understanding of Buddhism, the Theosophists and in particular, Henry Olcott, had an important role in the modern “reformation” of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and to a lesser degree other Asian countries. As an enthusiastic champion of Buddhism, Olcott initiated an education movement that eventually created some four hundred Buddhist grade schools throughout Sri Lanka. Internationally he attempted to unite the various Buddhist traditions in a single association. While this ultimately failed he did design a flag that is still recognized and flown as the international flag of Buddhism. As the first westerner to publicly become a Buddhist in Asia he was a source of great encouragement for Asian Buddhist who were struggling under the challenges of Christianity and Western rationalism and science. For this reason he was enthusiastically received in Japan during his visit in 1888.

One of the people who was particularly inspired by Olcott and Blavatsky was a young Sri Lankan by the name of Don David Hewavitarne (1864-1933). While Hewavitarne always remained loyal to Theosophical ideas he was directed by Blavatsky to devote himself to his native Theravāda religion. Remaining a celibate layman and adapting the innovative religious title of Anagārika (homeless one) and the name Dharmapāla (guardian of the Dharma), he went on to become one of the most important reformers of modern Sri Lankan Buddhism.

Through his various trips to the United States and Europe Dharmapāla was, during his lifetime, the most influential Theravāda Buddhist missionary in the West. In 1893 he was one of the more charismatic speakers (second perhaps only to Swami Vivekananda) at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. There he met the publisher Paul Carus who invited Dharmapāla back to the United States in 1897 at which time he opened an American branch of the Maha Bodhi Society, his international organization working for the restoration of the site of Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodh Gayā. While individual Americans had previously declared themselves Buddhist this was the first Buddhist organization in the West.

In 1898 the Englishman Gordon Douglas was ordained in Sri Lanka, becoming the first westerner to join the traditional Buddhist monastic community. Little is known about Douglas and he is often overlooked in historical accounts of modern Western Buddhism – he seems to have stayed in Asia having little influence on the development of Buddhism in the West. Of more historical consequence was the work of Alan Bennet (1872-1923), the second Englishman to receive Theravāda ordination. Inspired by both The Light of Asia and Theosophy, Bennet spent three years studying Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Then in 1902 he was ordained in Burma under the name of Ananda Metteya. During the same year he formed the Buddhasasana Samagama (International Buddhist Society) for the purpose of propagating Buddhism in Europe. In 1908 he traveled to England together with three Burmese monks where he was received by the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Founded in 1907 the Buddhist Society was the first Buddhist association in England and was presided over by T.W. Rhys Davids. As was true of much of the Western interest in Buddhism at the time, the Buddhist Society was primarily focused on the Theravāda tradition and its perceived atheism and ethic of nonviolence and renunciation.  Partly due to ill health Ananda Metteya had little success as a missionary and within a year of his death in 1923 the Buddhist Society ceased to exist.

German interest in Theravāda Buddhism during the last decades of the nineteenth century has in part been attributed to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) high regard for Buddhism. In addition, the German translations of much of the Pali Canon by Karl Eugen Neumann (1865-1915) did much to fuel German interest and knowledge of Buddhism. Neumann, initially inspired by Schopenhauer, studied both Pali and Sanskrit in Germany and in 1894 visited Sri Lanka. In 1903 Karl Seidenstuecker founded the first Buddhist society in Germany and in 1906 Germany hosted the First Buddhist Congress in Europe.

In 1904 the German violinist Anton Geuth (1878 – 1957) was ordained in Sri Lanka as Nyanatiloka. He subsequently founded a monastery in Sri Lanka on Polgasduwa Island which has since housed many Western monks, several of whom were first rate scholars. These scholar-monks produced a number of influential translations and studies. The Visudhimagga (The Path of Purification) was translated into German by Nyanatiloka and into English by the British monk  Nanamoli (Osbert Moore, 1905-1960). The German monk Nyanaponika (Siegmund Feniger; 1901-?) wrote well read studies on the practice of mindfulness as taught in the Satipatthāna Sutta. In 1950 he published Satipatthāna, Der Heilsweg buddhistischer Geistesschulung and in 1954 (with an expanded version in 1962) he published his English book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation.

 

1920 – 1970

This was a slow period for the growth of Theravāda Buddhism in the West. Due to the extensive and popular writings on Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki, interest in Southeast Asian Buddhism was eclipsed by a fascination for the Mahāyāna tradition. This was especially true in the United States, in part because it did not have colonial ties with Southeast Asia. In England, which had such connections to Sri Lanka and Burma, interest and involvement with Theravāda spirituality grew slowly during this time even though there were visits by numerous Buddhist missionary monks, some of whom were gifted scholars. The first English vihāra or temple was established by Sri Lankan monks in 1938.

However even with their direct connections with Theravāda countries, English interest in Buddhism tended to be eclectic and ecumenical, preferring not to settle onto any particular sectarian affiliation. After the Buddhist Society of England and Ireland closed in 1924, it was “absorbed” into the Buddhist Lodge of the Theosophical Society which was then renamed the Buddhist Society in 1926. As the most important vehicle for Buddhism in England for the next forty years the Buddhist Society helped propagate interest in all forms of Asian Buddhism.[ii]

In contrast, the German interest in Buddhism during this time remained predominately Theravāda in orientation. The writings of Schopenhauer-inspired Paul Dahlke (1865 – 1928) and Georg Grimm (1868 – 1945) did much to support the German Buddhist movement. Differences of opinion between these two about the Buddhist teaching of no-self split the German Buddhist community. Grimm argued that the doctrine of anatta pertained only to the empirical world and that the Buddha believed in an eternal and transcendental soul. Having visited Sri Lanka in 1900 Dahlke was doctrinally closely aligned with the modernist Buddhist reform movement there. Basing himself on the Pali Canon he argued in favor of the orthodox Theravāda understanding of no-self as denying the existence of any eternal soul.

While most German Buddhists sided with Dahlke, the small Buddhist association started by Grimm in 1921 still survives. In 1926 Dahlke completed building of Das Buddhistische Haus (The Buddhist House) in Berlin. Today housing Sri Lankan monks, this is the oldest surviving Theravāda building in the West.

 

1970 – present

Two developments have marked the rapid Western growth of the Theravāda tradition in recent decades. The first has been a growing involvement in Theravāda meditation practices by westerners. And the second has been the arrival of many Southeast Asian immigrants in the United States and to a lesser degree England. There are now about seventy-five ethnic Theravāda temples in the West, most of which have at least one Southeast Asian monk in residence. Serving as ethnic, cultural and religious centers for their communities most of these temples make few efforts to reach out beyond their ethnic constituents and so have had little impact on Western developments of Theravāda Buddhism. As these temples serve to maintain for their members the religio-cultural practices and identities associated with their home countries there is often very little contact between Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan temples in the West.

The modern phase of Theravāda Buddhism among westerners is characterized by a growing involvement with the meditation practices found in this Southeast Asian tradition.  During the late Fifties and the Sixties there were few significant Theravāda  developments in the West itself. Aside from the establishment of the first American Buddhist vihara in 1966 by Sri Lankans in Washington D.C., the most visible developments of Buddhism in the west were the establishment of a number of Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist meditation centers, temples and monasteries. At the same time, however, many Europeans, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders were encountering the Theravāda tradition in Southeast Asia. While some of these were Americans in Thailand and Vietnam on Peace Corps or military assignments, others were young travelers in Asia searching for alternatives to Western cultural norms and world-views. Some of these young people, both as monastics and lay people, immersed themselves deeply enough in the Theravāda tradition to be able to return to the West as meditations teachers. While Tibetan and Zen Buddhism were predominately brought to the West by Asian and usually monastic teachers, the modern importation of Theravāda practice has mostly been accomplished by these westerners, who returned as lay teachers.  Thus the Theravāda movement in the West has remained almost entirely a lay movement and as such is changing dramatically from the monastic-centered forms of Theravāda Buddhism that predominate in Asia. Even Dhiravamsa and Achaan Sobin, two of the more successful Thai meditation teachers in the West, disrobed soon after coming to England and America.

Of the large repertoire of meditation practices found in Theravāda Buddhism the predominant practice introduced to the West is various styles of vipassanā, a practice based on the Satipatthāna Sutta (The Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness), and often known in English as Insight Meditation or more simply as Mindfulness. The preference given to this practice reflects the great popularity ithad in Southeast Asia after it was “re-discovered” at the end of the nineteenth century. In Sri Lanka the resurgence in meditation practice is attributed to Anagarika Dharmapala who in 1892 came across a one or two century old Sinhalese meditation manual (titled Manual of a Mystic in the 1906 English translation by F.L. Woodward). Since meditation practice seemed to have had died out, or at least become rare, in Sri Lanka, Dharmapala relied on this manual, on the Visuddhimagga, and on the Satipatthāna Sutta as guides for his own practice. Dharmapala’s advocacy of meditation practice and the availability of modern translations of these three texts did much to foster Sri Lankan interest in meditation. In Burma, where meditation practice had similarly almost died out, the modern meditation movement is traced back to U Nārada (also known as Mingun Jetawun Sayadaw; 1868-1954) and Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) who championed the practice of vipassanā based on the Satipatthāna Sutta. While previously, meditation was understood to be reserved for monastics, the increased validation and participation of the Buddhist laity in the Modernist Buddhist movements of these countries stimulated a growing lay involvement in meditation. The most significant figure for the modern vipassanā movement in Southeast Asia was the Burmese Monk Mahasi Sayadaw (also known as U Sobhana; 1904 – 1982) who in 1938 began teaching a streamlined and systematic style of vipassanā meditation that involves the careful labeling of one’s experience together with a high level of sustained concentration known as “momentary concentration” (khanika samādhi). A unique feature of the Mahāsi Sayadaw method is its dispensing of the traditional preliminary practices of concentration or tranquilization (samatha, involving fixed concentration or appanā samādhi). A practitioner begins straight out with vipassanā practice, it being understood that until a person attains the first stage of sainthood (stream entry; sotāpatti) dedicated mindfulness practice contains within it whatever level of concentration that is needed. However, after stream entry Mahāsi would then sometimes teach concentration practices based on mettā or loving-kindness in order to prepare the practitioner for further deepening of the meditation practice.

Becoming the religious head of a large lay-organized meditation center in Rangoon (known now as the Mahāsi Sāsana Yeiktha) Mahāsi Sayadaw oversaw from 1949 to his death in 1982 the explosive growth in popularity of his meditation technique throughout Southeast Asia and eventually to the West. (The book An Experiment in Mindfulness; an English Admiral’s Experiences in a Buddhist Monastery by E.H. Shattock published in 1958 presents an account of practice at this center.)  By 1985, the Mahāsi Sāsana Yeiktha had seen the establishment of over 300 branch meditations centers throughout Burma. Mahāsi-trained Burmese monks traveled to Sri Lanka in the Fifties and Thailand in the Sixties popularizing vipassanā practice in general and the “Mahāsi” technique in particular. There are now over 200 Mahāsi inspired meditation centers (Thai: samnak vipassanā) in Thailand, a few which have attracted many westerners.[iii]

By 1972, westerners who had studied at the Mahasi Center in Rangoon or who had trained in Bodh Gayā, India under Anagārika Munindra, an Indian student of Mahāsi Sayadaw, began teaching vipassanā in the West. The two teachers who have done the most to popularize this practice both in the United States and in Europe are Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. By 1976 they had established, together with Sharon Salzburg and Jacqueline Mandell, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a large meditation center in Barre, Massachusetts that attracts students from all over the Western world. IMS is particularly known for its annual “three month course” held every autumn for about ninty participants. This is an intensive retreat with twelve to fifteen hours of meditation each day. In 1987, Jack Kornfield, with three other Western teachers, co-founded Spirit Rock, a sister center to IMS in Marin County, California. By the mid-eighties these teachers were in their turn training further Western teachers, some of whom had never practiced in Asia. While the growth of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism in the United States slowed down in the Eighties and Nineties, Theravāda Buddhism, through the loose-knit Insight Meditation movement, has been phenomenally successful as seen both by its indirect impact on American culture and by the number of people who have are attracted to the practice.[iv]

It is conservatively estimated that about 100,000 westerners have been involved in vipassanā meditation retreats between 1964 and 1994, with about 20,000 people attending one-day to three month retreats in 1994.[v] However, in being introduced to and practicing mindfulness meditation, most of these westerners have only a minimal connection with the Theravāda tradition. In fact, most dedicated American vipassanā meditators identify themselves with the meditation practice and not the tradition out of which the practice came. In other words, they think of themselves as vipassanā students instead of students or followers of Theravāda Buddhism. The limited connection with the wider tradition of Theravāda Buddhism is in part the result of the single-minded focus on vipassanā meditation found in the Southeast Asian vipassanā resurgence. The attainment of personal insight and the transformative experiences of nibbāna (awakening) are give such priority that the doctrinal, ritual, faith, and monastic elements of Theravāda Buddhism are de-emphasized. While for Southeast Asian Buddhists the wider Theravāda context for vipassanā meditation is assumed and comes from growing up in a Theravāda country, many westerners practicing vipassanā meditation in Asia meditation centers were introduced to the practice as being relatively self-contained. In addition, teachers such as Goldstein and Kornfield have consciously attempted to present mindfulness practice in a relatively non-sectarian manner so to make the practice available to those who have no interest in Buddhism itself.

 

Aside from the Mahāsi-derived movement, the other vipassanā tradition which has taken root in the West stems from the unique meditation practice of the Burmese lay meditation teacher U Ba Khin (1899-1971). The U Ba Khin form of vipassanā meditation focuses primarily on cultivating deep concentration and enlightenment through careful and methodical mindfulness of body sensations. For this purpose U Ba Khin developed a practice know as “body sweeping” where attention is systematically directed throughout the body. As in the Mahasi tradition, the practice focus is on intensive retreats with a schedule of at least fourteen hours of meditation a day. Aiming for transformative meditation experience, the practice is taught independent of much of the cultural and ritual context of Theravāda Buddhism. The most successful international teacher of this practice is the Indian businessman Satya Narayan Goenka (b. 1924) who, like Munindra, returned from Burma to India in the late sixties to teach vipassanā. Goenka’s success in attracting Western students in India led him to open a number of active meditation centers in the United States and England. The first of these, the Vipassana Meditation Center, opened in 1982 in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Aside from Goenka there are a few Western disciples of U Ba Khin teaching in the West. In the United States there is Ruth Dennison, the maternal elder of the American vipassanā community who has integrated sensory awareness and movement exercises as part of her retreats.

 

The Monastic Sangha in the West

While the Mahāsi and U Ba Kin traditions in the West have had a decidedly lay orientation, there has been a growing but still very small interest in Theravāda monasticism, the traditional or orthodox center of Theravāda spirituality. The strongest and most viable monastic communities in the West are in England under the direction of Achaan Sumedho (Robert Jackman; b. 1934), an American disciple of the North East Thai forest monk Achaan Chah (1918-1992). Though westerners have been ordained throughout Southeast Asia, the biggest concentration of Western monks was found studying under Achaan Chah during the late sixties, seventies and eighties. As opposed to the intensive meditation retreat emphasis of the Burmese vipassanā movements, Achaan Chah stressed a more integrated practice where the daily life and discipline of the forest monk was the arena of spiritual practice. While formal meditation practice played a part of this life, mindfulness – especially of one’s thoughts and mental states – throughout one’s daily activities was Achaan Chah’s main practice. For this reason Achaan Chah taught his monks to strengthen their mindfulness and to purify their minds by adhering strictly to the Vinaya or monastic code for monks.

In 1977 Achaan Chah instructed Achaan Sumedho, his senior Western student, to move to England. Meeting with great success there, Achaan Sumedho attracted around him many other westerners who had either been ordained in Asia or whom he ordained in England. In 1979 he founded Chithurst monastery in West Sussex, and by 1990 Sumedho had also founded three other monastic centers including Amaravati just north of London. By 1990 Sumedho and the 60+ monks and 20+ nuns in these four centers were making plans to start additional monastic communities in Switzerland, Italy and the United States. Even though in recent years a number of senior monks have disrobed and left his centers, it seems that Sumedho’s community has succeeded in establishing the first viable monastic community in the West. As the presence of a monastic community is traditionally taken to be the criteria for the arrival of Theravāda Buddhism to a new country, this is a significant event.[vi]

Since the Theravāda tradition has not had a valid lineage of nuns (bhikkhunī) since the thirteenth or fourteenth century, strictly defined the only monastics in Achaan Sumedho’s community are the monks. However, in attempting to improve the religious opportunities and status of women, the “nuns” in Sumedho’s community live a more traditional monastic life than that of most lay-nuns found in Thailand. For example, whereas in Thailand the “nuns” wear white robes and do not go out on alms-rounds, in England the nuns wear robes of the same brown-to-saffron color as the monks and participate in alm-gathering. Achaan Sumedho has petitioned the monastic leaders of Thai Buddhism for permission to ordain women as real Buddhist nuns but so far permission has been denied.

Another westerner to attempt to reinstate the traditional nun’s order is Ayya Khema (Ilse Ledermann; b. 1923). Ordained as a nun by Narada Mahathera in Sri Lanka she founded a nunnery for Western and Sri Lankan women on Parappunduwa Nun’s Island in Sri Landka near Nyanatiloka’s Island Hermitage. While Ayya Khemma teaches frequently in the West she has not contributed to establishing female monastics in the West. Ayya Khemma is one of the few western teachers to emphasize the importance of concentration or samatha meditation. Instead of solely teaching vipassanā she follows the more traditional path of first developing a strong foundation in the concentrative absorptions (jhāna).[vii]

Of potential importance for the future of the Theravāda nun’s order was the 1988 ordination of 12 Theravāda nuns from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and the United States at Hsi-lai temple in Southern California by the Taiwanese monk Ven. Hsing Yun. Since the Chinese nuns’ ordination was transmitted to China from Sri Lanka in the fifth century, it has been argued that the Theravāda lineage of nuns could legitimately be re-introduced from Chinese Buddhism. So far the Theravāda orthodoxy in Southeast Asia has been unwilling to accept this argument and so the future status of women remains uncertain. Except for the nuns at Achaan Sumedho’s community in England there seems to be little impetus in the West for establishing a nuns’ order within Western Theravāda Buddhism. The growing Theravāda movement in the West remains predominantly a lay movement associated with vipassanā practice.

 

Recent Developments in the West

The growing lay interest in vipassanā meditation has resulted in perhaps the most significant developments within the Western Theravāda tradition. In the Seventies and early Eighties, the loose network of vipassanā or Insight Meditation practitioners consisted mostly of young adults attending intensive meditation retreats. Since the mid-eighties there has been a growing extension and application of the practice into lay life outside of retreats. As retreatants settled down to family lives and as an increasing number of older, working people with families became attracted to mindfulness practice there has been an increasing interest and attempt at integrating the vipassanā practice in daily life. As a result there are currently at least 300 weekly vipassanā meditation groups throughout the United States were people sit together in an effort to support each other’s ongoing meditation practice.[viii] While most of these groups are small, a few have up to a hundred or more weekly participants. A couple dozen of these weekly groups are led by teachers. The smaller, teacherless groups usually substitute a teacher’s presence by playing Dharma talks on tapes or by reading Dharma books.

While mindfulness practice (sati) is at the heart of this lay movement, loving-kindness (mettā), ethics (sīla) and generosity (dāna) are three other elements of Theravāda practice which are central to its overall spirituality. Taught as a complement to mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation is practiced both for it stabilizing effects on the mind and for infusing mindfulness practice with a spirit of friendliness. Much as compassion is the primary spiritual emotion of Mahāyāna Buddhism so loving-kindness is the fundamental spiritual emotion stressed by the Western vipassanā movement. The practice of loving-kindness in the West has often been combined with a forgiveness practice which seems to be absent in the formal metta practices found in Southeast Asia.[ix]

Until the mid 1980’s vipassanā was taught in the West with much less emphasis on ethics than it recieves in Southeast Asia. Since then, and particularly in the United States, there has been an increasing stress placed on ethics and on the traditional Buddhist precepts for the laity. This change was to a great extent a response to a significant number of ethical transgressions and improprieties by Asian and Western teachers of Tibetan, Zen and Theravada Buddhism. At the instigation of Jack Kornfield, by the 1990’s the collective of teachers affiliated with the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock had formulated a teacher’s code of ethics.[x] In September of 1993, Kornfield together with the San Francisco Zen Center hosted at Spirit Rock the first joint conference of American teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and vipassanā. Ethical issues were the dominanat subject of the meeting.

In general, the spiritual teachings given by most Western vipassanā teachers tend to be less dualistic than what is often found in the Southeast Asian Theravāda tradition. Rather than stressing world-renunciation, the Western lay movement stresses engagement with and freedom within the world. Rather than focusing on ultimate spiritual goals such as nirvana, ending the cycles of rebirth or attaining the various stages of sainthood (ariyasāvako), the Western lay teachers stress the immediate benefits of mindfulness and untroubled, equananimous presence in the midst of life’s vicissitudes. Rather than emphasize spiritual and psychological purification, the Western teachers focus on the purification of one’s relationship to one’s inner and outer world. This means that instead of aiming at the elimination of, say, anger, the practitioner is directed to see the anger clearly without either acting on it or suppressing it. While some Western vipassanā teachers are re-evaluating the ultimate goal posited by the modern Theravāda tradition, many simply put less stress on it than most teachers in Southeast Asia.

In addition the Western Theravāda movement is being profoundly changed by egalitarianism, democracy, feminism and contact with other Buddhist traditions. In striking comparison to the predominance of male teachers in Southeast Asia, almost half of all vipassanā teachers in the United States are women.[xi] It is not clear whether the orthodox Theravāda sangha or monastic community will recognize the evolving Western lay-centered movement as Theravāda Buddhism. However, the boundaries of what constitutes a definition of Theravāda Buddhism are far from clear even in South  East Asia. Whether it is defined scholastically on the basis of certain texts, monastically as a particular lifestyle and discipline, practically as particular practices and goals, or geographically, there is no final authority to set the limits of the Theravāda tradition. Thus, as the vipassanā and Theravāda practices and teachings find a place in the West it is not clear yet whether we are seeing the transplantation of the Asian Theravāda tradition or the evolution of new forms and traditions of (Western) Buddhism. Most likely we will have both as some teachers and communities retain their Theravāda affiliation and others renounce it.

 

The impact of Theravāda Spirituality in the West

 

The influence of Theravāda spirituality on Western culture has been the greatest in the United States where vipassanā practice has become increasingly popular and increasingly popularized. Since the early and mid eighties, the mindfulness practices of the various styles of vipassanā have been applied to many areas outside of its original Buddhist context. Perhaps the most successful of such applications was initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the pain and stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. A meditation student at IMS in Barre, Mass, Kabat-Zinn extracted the mindfulness practice so completely from its Buddhist context that the patients at his Stress Reduction Program do not know of its Buddhist roots. However, because of the dramatic success his program has had in alleviating pain and stress, the Kabat-Zinn program has spawned the rapid adaptation of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in many hospitals and medical clinics around the United States.[xii] In addition to training people to teach mindfulness in medical settings, Jon Kabat-Zinn has also trained social workers to bring awareness meditation and practices to prisons and to residents of inner cities.

Similarly vipassanā-derived mindfulness practices have been integrated into the work of some American psychotherapists especially among those affiliated with the Association of Transpersonal Psychology. In particular, the therapeutic effects of vipassanā has supported the trend away from psychoanalysis toward more present-awareness centered therapies. Psychotherapists are by far the most represented profession among students at American vipassanā retreats. And many of the American vipassanā teachers are also psychotherapists. The degree to which some Western vipassanā teachers have been excesively infuenced by Western psychological concepts is an issue that is sometimes debated in Western Theravāda circles.

Whereas Zen Buddhism, especially during the nineteen fifties and sixties, was influential within Western intellectual and artistic circles, the primary influence of the Theravāda tradition seems to be within medicine, therapy and social work. Awareness meditations and systematic training in mindfulness have thus found a place in American life outside of any formal Buddhist context.

Gil Fronsdal

 

Bibliography

Studies

 

Almond, Philip C., The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Batchelor, Stephan, The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 1994.

Fields, Rick, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Third Edition). Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

Tweed, Thomas, The American Encounter with Buddhism: 1844-1912. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.


[i] A study of the Sinhalese Buddhist reformation at the end of the Eighteenth century can found in the chapter titled “Protestant Buddhism” in Gombrich, Richard, Theravada Buddhism: a Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988) pp 172-197.

[ii] A history of the Buddhist Society and of Buddhism in England between 1908 and 1968 is found in: Humphrey, Christamas, Sixty Years of Buddhism in England (London: The Buddhist Society, 1968).

[iii] The Mahāsi method of vipassana meditation is described in: Mahāsi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditaiton: Basic and Progressive Stages (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist PUblication Society, 1971)

[iv] Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein have published a number of popular books which are representative of the their teaching of mindfulness practice. See, for example, Goldstein, Joseph, The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation (Boston: Shambhala, 1983). Also, Goldstein, Joseph and Kornfield, Jack, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation (Boston: Shambhala, 1987).

[v] These figueres are calculated based on the number of well advertized or listed retreats offered each year in the United States and Europe. Estimating that half of the retreatants have attended previous retreats, only half of the participants were counted in these calculations.

[vi] An example of Achaan Sumedho’s teachings are found in: Ajahn Sumedho, Cittaviveka: Teachings from the Silent Mind (Hemel Hempstead, England: Amaravati Publication, 1984).

[vii] For an example of Ayya Khema’s teachings see: Khemma, Ayya, When the Iron Eagle Flies: Buddhism for the West (London: Arkana, 1991).

[viii] This figure was conservatively obtained by doubling the number of sitting groups listed in the Inquiring Mind, the international journal of the Western vipassana community. Probably a majority of sitting groups in the United States are not listed in the Inquiring Mind. (Inquiring Mind, PO Box 9999, North Berkeley Station, Berkeley, Califonia 94709.)

[ix] A Western presentation of loving-kindness practice is found in Salzburg, Sharon, Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Boston: Shambhala, 1995).

[x] The vipassana teacher’s code of ethics is found in the appendix of: Kornfield, Jack, A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1993) pp 340-343.

[xi] An example of feminist influence on a western vipassana teacher is found in: Feldman, Christina, Women Awake (London: Arkana, 1989). An account of women in American Buddhism is found in: Boucher, Sandy, Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985).

[xii] An account of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work is found in: Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (New York: Delta [Bantom Doubleday Deli Publishing Group, Inc.], 1990).

 

 

Notes

[1] A study of the Sinhalese Buddhist reformation at the end of the Eighteenth century can found in the chapter titled “Protestant Buddhism” in Gombrich, Richard, Theravada Buddhism: a Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988) pp 172-197.

[1] A history of the Buddhist Society and of Buddhism in England between 1908 and 1968 is found in: Humphrey, Christamas, Sixty Years of Buddhism in England (London: The Buddhist Society, 1968).

[1] The Mahāsi method of vipassana meditation is described in: Mahāsi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditaiton: Basic and Progressive Stages (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist PUblication Society, 1971)

[1] Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein have published a number of popular books which are representative of the their teaching of mindfulness practice. See, for example, Goldstein, Joseph, The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation (Boston: Shambhala, 1983). Also, Goldstein, Joseph and Kornfield, Jack, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation (Boston: Shambhala, 1987).

[1] These figueres are calculated based on the number of well advertized or listed retreats offered each year in the United States and Europe. Estimating that half of the retreatants have attended previous retreats, only half of the participants were counted in these calculations.

[1] An example of Achaan Sumedho’s teachings are found in: Ajahn Sumedho, Cittaviveka: Teachings from the Silent Mind (Hemel Hempstead, England: Amaravati Publication, 1984).

[1] For an example of Ayya Khema’s teachings see: Khemma, Ayya, When the Iron Eagle Flies: Buddhism for the West (London: Arkana, 1991).

[1] This figure was conservatively obtained by doubling the number of sitting groups listed in the Inquiring Mind, the international journal of the Western vipassana community. Probably a majority of sitting groups in the United States are not listed in the Inquiring Mind. (Inquiring Mind, PO Box 9999, North Berkeley Station, Berkeley, Califonia 94709.)

[1] A Western presentation of loving-kindness practice is found in Salzburg, Sharon, Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Boston: Shambhala, 1995).

[1] The vipassana teacher’s code of ethics is found in the appendix of: Kornfield, Jack, A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1993) pp 340-343.

[1] An example of feminist influence on a western vipassana teacher is found in: Feldman, Christina, Women Awake (London: Arkana, 1989). An account of women in American Buddhism is found in: Boucher, Sandy, Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985).

[1] An account of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work is found in: Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (New York: Delta [Bantom Doubleday Deli Publishing Group, Inc.], 1990).