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The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition

by James William Coleman, Oxford University Press, 2001, 262 pp, including Index, Appendices, Notes
reviewed by Vladimir K.


One only needs to go to a good bookshop to realize that Buddhism has “made it” in the West. While Westerners who practice this tradition are still not seen as being in the mainstream of religious practices, Buddhism is not perceived as something odd or exotic by many in the predominant Christian community. Priests such as Father LaSalle and A.M.A. Samy and Father Pat Hawk see no conflict between teaching Buddhism and Christianity side-by-side. Academics, from linguists to sociologists, have taken up Buddhist studies with gusto and a profusion of papers, monographs and research articles sweep through the halls and journals of academia. In little more than 100 years, Buddhism has set down roots in the Western countries, spread by Japanese and Korean Zen masters, Tibetan lamas, Thai forest monks, Vietnamese monks and Westerners such as theVipassana teacher Jack Kornfeld who traveled book coverEast and brought back the teachings of the Buddha and meditation practices.

James William Coleman, Professor of Sociology at the California Polytechnic State University and a fifteen-year practitioner of  Buddhism, has attempted to outline the movement of Buddhism from its roots in India to the West in his book "The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition". His thesis, that Buddhism has not only had an impact on the West, but that the West has, to some extent, transformed the practice of this 2500-year old tradition, can only be covered somewhat superficially in a book of just 230 pages of text. Although much too short for such an ambitious project, this is an entertaining account suitable for a general readership as an introduction to the topic.

Coleman begins by giving a very brief outline of the roots of Buddhist practices that began in India with Siddartha’s enlightenment. In about four pages he covers the teachings of Buddhism and goes on to outline the spread of Buddhism in Asia, the rise of the Mahayana and its spread to Tibet, China and Japan. All this takes less than fifty pages and by Chapter Three we’re into ‘The Growth of the New Buddhism’, an outline of some of the major figures of Buddhism’s movement to the West such as Alan Watts, Shunryu Suzuki, Trungpa Rinpoche and the Vipassana movement. The next chapter looks at practices and beliefs in Zen, Vajrayana, Vipassana, and nonsectarian groups such as Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). Although the groups may have different practices and rituals, the common ground between them all is, as Coleman points out, the practice of meditation and the goal of liberation and an end to suffering based on the Buddha’s teachings. In this chapter the author begins to explore some of the changes that have occurred in the practice of Buddhism, such as the role of authority and governance of groups and the changing status of teachers.

The next chapter, Sex, Power, and Conflict, looks at the crises that hit many Buddhist groups in the 1980’s which led to a redefining of roles within groups. Important institutions in Western Buddhism such as the San Francisco Zen Center, the Zen Centre of Los Angeles, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and Chogyam Trungpa’s Vajradhatu (later to become Shambhala International) were hit by scandals over sexual misconduct, alcohol abuse and mismanaged finances. It was also a time when the position of women, gays and lesbians in the sangha had to be reappraised and accommodated.

In the last two chapters Coleman looks at why Buddhism has taken hold in the West and what the future may bring to the movement. Globalization, the near universal literacy of the West and a post-modernist dissatisfaction with life are all contributors to Buddhism’s rapid acceptance in the West, according to Coleman. The breakdown of Christianity’s spiritual hegemony, the influx of migrant populations from Buddhist countries and the inherently intellectual nature of Buddhism have also played important roles. As Coleman points out, the need for spiritual fulfillment can be met by any number of religious practices, so why Buddhism? Coleman believes that Buddhism has a “unique resonance with the social psychological dynamics of life in a “postmodern” society”. (p 208) and the “maintenance of self-identity is a precarious enterprise” (p 211) in this society. Paradoxically, at its most profound level Buddhism is about deconstructing self-identity, not building it up. The teaching of non-clinging to self can have a wonderfully liberating effect, “a glimpse of true freedom and authenticity” (p 214) which can resolve many of the issues of postmodernity. Letting go of the self, rather than building up the ego, is at the core of the Buddha’s teaching and this resonates with many today who are struggling with the issue of self-identity.

Although it is unlikely that Buddhism will be seen as a mainstream religion in the West in the near future, it has already influenced some social movements, the sciences and psychotherapy. As Coleman points out, Buddhism is “an intellectually challenging religion that demands an extraordinarily high level of dedication and discipline” (p. 226) and unless it loses this aspect (as it has done in many Asian countries) it is unlikely to ever become a mass religion in the West.
One of the greatest changes in the Buddhist tradition is the secularization of the practice. Since the Buddha’s days, monks and monasteries have been central to the religion but this aspect plays a much lesser role in Western countries. While monastics from Asian countries have been vital in propagating Buddhism, very few Westerners have taken up the robe and the practice is carried on and supported by a lay sangha. Another crucial area of change has been the role of women in the practice. Female leaders in the history of Buddhism are very rare indeed but in the West women have significant power and in some sanghas make up the majority of practitioners. Women such as Joko Beck, Toni Packer, Joanna Macy and Jiyu Kennett are all significant teachers. (see, for example, Friedman)

Buddhism did not really take hold in the West until the latter part of the 20th Century and the heightened individualism and sexual freedom of the times severely challenged Buddhist traditions. Not only did female practitioners have to be accommodated in the male-dominated tradition, but gays and lesbians as well. Compared to traditional Asian sexual values, Western countries were sexually liberal and this has led to the downfall of more than one teacher, Asian and Western. The scandals that hit a number of Buddhist centers has also led to a reevaluation of the traditional hierarchical structure of Buddhist sanghas and the role and power of the teacher. (see for example, Lachs) The struggle to redefine and understand the various roles of power in sanghas is ongoing and has yet to be resolved in many groups. Coleman notes that “much of this story of sex and power in Western Buddhism can be read as part of the adaptation of Asian Buddhism to the West”, some of the problem being the relatively naivety of the students about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior among the teachers due to a “lack of the cultural background” necessary to interpret these behaviors. (p181-2)
Adapting a tradition that is not only ancient but developed in a collectivist culture, to the highly individualist cultures of democratic individualism such as is found in America, has proved to be far more difficult than imagined by the early leaders and monastics that brought Buddhism West. While the impact of Buddhism on the West is yet to be significant, the impact of a postmodern capitalist culture is becoming more apparent on Buddhism world-wide.

Given the limited length of "The New Buddhism" and its broad scope, Coleman has done a reasonable job in bringing some of these issues into focus although I think this work is of limited value in the study of Buddhism in the West. Given that the subtitle is “The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition”, the book is highly parochial, focusing as it does almost exclusively on the United States. In fairness, Coleman does briefly discuss Buddhism in the United Kingdom, especially the role (and scandals) of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and the growth of  Vipassana. However, these are just fleeting glimpses outside of the United States. The rest of “the West” (a vast overgeneralization of which I acknowledge my own guilt in this review) is ignored. No mention is made of mainland Europe, Australia, Canada, South Africa or Latin America or other countries where Buddhism is practiced outside of its homelands. A more nuanced approached to the term “the West” would have benefited this work.

This oversimplification of a complex issue is also apparent in Coleman’s reliance on a survey of just seven Buddhist centers in North America, backed up by “a long series of formally structured interviews with Buddhist teachers and students”. (p. 10) The four-page survey is given in an Appendix and Coleman states that 359 people filled out the survey (I presume this is the figure for the number of returns). (p. 11) While I am not a statistician or sociologist, this seems like a limited number given that Martin Baumann claims that the United States has between 2.5 to 4 million Buddhists. (see Baumann) The geographical spread is also very limited. Of the seven centers surveyed, four are based in California, one each in New York and Boston and one in Colorado. No information is given regarding the interviews. Results of such a limited survey should be approached with caution.

Finally, a minor criticism of Coleman’s account of the life of the Buddha. I see no benefit in perpetuating the legend that Siddhartha was some kind of “prince” who did not know sickness, old age and death until he ventured outside the walls of a palace as a young man to confront these realities of life. Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, was a raja, an elected position in the Sakiya republic and a subservient vassal of the King of Kosala, who had the power to remove the raja as he saw fit. Major decisions of the republic were debated openly by a council and all castes could observe and listen to the debates although only the warrior caste males could participate. (Schumann, 2004:17) As the son of the raja, Siddhartha undoubtedly lived in greater luxury than the general populace and was relatively well educated (although whether he was literate remains an open question). Schumann points out, realistically, that Siddhartha’s education would have included the arts of war and statecraft and that he was probably present at council meetings and court cases where his father presided. (p. 22) The legend that he was locked in a palace, unaware of the realities of life, is absurd and should be laid to rest.   

"The New Buddhism" is entertainingly written and a good introduction to the topic but too limited given the size of the topic. How Buddhism has changed due to its migration from its founding societies is a fascinating and important topic but an in-depth analysis is yet to come.


Baumann, Martin (2001), Global Buddhism: Developmental Periods, Regional Histories, and a New Analytical Perspective, Journal of Global Buddhism 2
Friedman, Lenore (1987) Meetings With Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America, Shambhala, Boston
Lachs, Stuart (1994) Coming Down from the Zen Clouds A Critique of the Current State of American Zen
___________ (1999) Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in America
___________ (2002) Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi

Schumann, H.W. (2004) The Historical Buddha: The Times, Life and Teachings of the Founder of Buddhism, translated by M.O’C. Walshe, first published as Der Historische Buddha, Eugen Diederichs Verlag GmbH & Co, 1982; Motilal Banarsidass, Delh
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