In an epilogue to his 1998 book, Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das, a popular American Buddhist writer and lecturer, surveyed the current state of “Western Buddhism” and identified “ten emerging trends.” They make for curious reading. Western Buddhists are more “lay-oriented” than traditional Buddhists, although they allow “room for traditional monasticism.” Western Buddhists support “women as well as men in teaching and leadership roles” and believe the “ideal” of “gender equality” is “reachable.” Western Buddhism lacks “the complex, esoteric rites and arcane rituals” of traditional Buddhism, emphasizing “essence more than form.” More and more, Western Buddhists recognize “the benefits of nonsectarianism, ecumenicism, and cross-fertilization,” now that they find themselves in the “great melting pot” of “American karma.”
Most revealing, however, may be Surya Das’ observation that “the Dharma is very suited to a Western way of life.” Indeed. Buddhism is flourishing in America and in Western Europe. But the Buddhism that’s booming is what Boston University’s Stephen Prothero calls “Boomer Buddhism.” Promoted by Surya Das, Jack Kornfield, and famous Hollywood converts such as Richard Gere, the “new Buddhists” practice an egalitarian, feminist, tolerant, ecumenical Buddhism that doesn’t have to bother with religious tradition. Stephen Batchelor is perhaps the most radical of the new Buddhists: he advocates a hyper-Puritan “Buddhism Without Beliefs” that eliminates priests, rituals, icons, and various devotional practices. Others promote Buddhism as a mechanism for achieving typically American goals of success, money, and great sex. George Santayana, who had a bust of the Buddha on his mantle next to the bust of Kant, would not be surprised: “American life is a powerful solvent,” he wrote. “It seems to neutralize every intellectual element, however tough and alien it may be, and to fuse it in the native goodwill, complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism.”
Not surprisingly, traditional Buddhists are reacting with horror. Responding to Surya Das’ trend-watching, Ngakpa Traktung Yeshe Dorje and A’dzom Rinpoche charge that Surya Das’ true agenda is revealed in his 2000 follow-up book, Awakening to the Sacred, where he “encourages each spiritual seeker to make up his or her own religion from scratch.” They see American Buddhism as the agenda of “a small coterie of passé academics” who want to promote “egalitarianism and collectivism in a reworked, renamed ‘postmodern’ vehicle—Western Buddhism.”
They’re right, of course: Buddhism in the West is clearly being Americanized and commercialized. But the complicating wrinkle is that Buddhism has been remade by Yankee imperialists before. To this day, schoolchildren in Sri Lanka learn about the “doctrine” of Theravada Buddhism from a Buddhist Catechism first published in English and Sinhalese in 1881—a book described by its author as an “antidote to Christianity” and as a bulwark against Christian missionaries invading the East. Before they finish learning the Catechism, Sinhalese schoolchildren have been instructed in the evils of slavery and the virtues of “temperance,...gun control, chastity, and women’s rights.”
In its catechetical form, apologetic content, moralistic tone, and anti-ritual polemicism, the Buddhist Catechism suspiciously echoes nineteenth-century Protestant polemics against Roman Catholicism. And that the Catechism inculcates a sort of liberal Protestant Buddhism is no accident, for its author was an American-born convert, a lapsed Presbyterian reformer, journalist, and spiritualist named Henry Steel Olcott. Born in 1832 into a Presbyterian family in Orange, New Jersey, Olcott became a convinced “convert to spiritualism” at the age of twenty. But the real turning point in his life came in 1874, when he met the Russian émigré Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, while investigating reports of spiritualist phenomena at the Eddy Farmstead in Vermont for the New York Daily Graphic.
The two became “chums,” as Olcott described it, and the ex-Presbyterian quickly determined that the various spiritualisms roiling around in the West needed to be reformed. Indeed, Olcott saw Blavatsky’s Theosophy as a mechanism for reforming and rationalizing spiritualism, and the Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 with Olcott as president and Blavatsky as corresponding secretary.
By the late 1880s, Olcott had defined the mission of the Theosophical Society to include the importation of Buddhism and Hinduism into the United States. He saw himself as a matchmaker who could wed the “masculine” technological superiority of the West with the “feminine” spirituality of the East. Perhaps the continuous defining theme of Theosophy, however, was the unity of all religions, which issued in a demand for tolerance and respect for all religions. As Olcott expressed it in one letter, “We should respect every man’s faith.” He was attracted to Buddhism precisely for its supposed tolerance, which he believed stood in strong contrast to the strict and doctrinaire Calvinism of his own ancestors.
Olcott and Blavatsky decided to visit Asia in order to pursue perceived links between Theosophy and Asian religions. Once there, despite his earlier professions of ignorance, he rapidly turned reformer, describing his arrival in Asia as an inverted Puritan mission: “Just as I have left my home, and business, and friends, to come to India to worship the Parabrahm of primitive religions, so, in 1635, one of my ancestors left his home in England to seek in the wilderness of America that freedom to worship the Jewish Jehovah which he could not have at home.” They arrived in India in 1878, declaring themselves Hindus, and two years later visited Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), where they became the first Western converts to Buddhism.
Ceylon was to prove fertile ground for Olcott’s “errand into the wilderness,” and he used his work in Ceylon as a base for launching the larger project of unifying Buddhists throughout Asia. Before Olcott arrived in Ceylon, Christian missionaries had achieved considerable success in Christianizing the island, particularly in its educational system. Buddhist monks had already begun resisting the missionaries, yet Olcott’s influence was decisive. Believing the Ceylonese were appallingly ignorant of their true religious heritage—and that this ignorance made them vulnerable to Christian missionaries—he embarked on a program to consolidate Sri Lankan Buddhism, becoming one of the most important anti-mission missionaries in modern history. He provided instruction and inspiration for Dharmapala, the “Homeless Protector of the Dharma,” who traveled to Japan, India, Burma, Thailand, Europe, and the United States, becoming what one history calls “the founder of international Buddhism.”
Olcott also brought with him to Ceylon Yankee ingenuity and organizational skills. Taking a page from itinerant revivalists, he traveled the country on lecture tours, organizing schools and voluntary associations. He designed a Buddhist flag that eventually became the emblem of international Buddhism, talked the government into making Vesak a public holiday, and tried to get Buddhists to celebrate the day with songs modeled on Christmas carols. “It was clearly Olcott’s inspiration,” one history reports, “that led to the founding of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Buddhist Associations and the Buddhist Sunday schools, which came to be held in almost every village and were supplied with textbooks and an examination structure by the Young Men’s Buddhist Association.”
Not only organizationally, but also conceptually, Olcott’s work was less a revival than a reshaping of traditional Buddhism according to a liberal Protestant model. He attacked the Buddhist practice of veneration and made the distinctly Western claim that the essence of Buddhism did not lie in the rituals of the Buddhist monks but in the philosophy and texts of Buddhism, a kind of “sacred Scripture.” No one before had conceived of summarizing all of Buddhism in a single volume, much less in a set of propositions, but Olcott produced both the Buddhist Catechism and a compilation of “Fundamental Buddhistic Beliefs,” summarized in a fourteen-point Buddhist Platform by which he hoped to unify all Buddhist teaching. “His Buddha,” Prothero notes, “was a quintessential Christian gentleman: sweet and convincing, the very personification of ‘self-culture and universal love.’”
The ironies of this story run in many directions. Westerners who convert to Buddhism are frequently attracted to a form of Buddhism that is the creation of the modern world. Western converts are often attracted to precisely those features of Buddhism that owe most to liberal Protestantism: tolerance, elevation of reason, compatibility with science, hostility to elitism and hierarchy in religion, and so on.
For Christian churches, the ironies are more sobering. American Protestantism produced a leading opponent of Christian missions, who deployed the methods of evangelicalism and the concepts of liberal Protestantism in his battle against the spread of the gospel in Asia. The more-or-less unified Buddhism that Christianity today confronts in Asia is, in some measure, a product of Christianity itself. Eager missionaries enter Asia prepared to do battle with ancient Asian religions; they find themselves rehashing old fights with theological modernism. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
But there is a further irony for Buddhism as well. While some Buddhists scornfully battle their Boomer rivals, they might well forget the contribution that the West, and American Protestantism in particular, made to their own “traditional” religious outlook. Boomer Buddhism presents a distorted East to the West, but it is equally true that the East presents a distorted image to itself. East and West met long ago, and it is difficult to know where the one begins and the other ends.
Peter J. Leithart is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow.