When Buddhism arrived in China, it experienced something new. China already had an established, sophisticated culture. If Buddhism was to make any mark at all, it would have to pull its (highly realised) finger out.
What happened was that Buddhism changed China, and China changed Buddhism. The pre-existing Daoist, and to a lesser extent Confucion philosophies found their way into the way Buddhism expressed itself. The result was Ch’an Buddhism (what the Japanese call ‘Zen’).
This is not just an interesting historical story. It has huge implications for modern day Buddhism in the west. How will our own philosophical, scientific and religious traditions feed into a truly western Buddhism?
In any organisation or social movement there are innovators and there are traditionalists. The tension between them is how ideas evolve. We need people who understand and revere the traditions in order to have something to check new thinking against. Without traditions we end up with cults – Lord of the Flies and Charlie Manson.
But without innovators, we end up with a dead religion – people going through the motions, adhering to irrelevant practices, oppressing those who don’t fit in.
I guess what I’m advocating for here is a respect for the traditions of Buddhism. Study them, reflect on them and try to understand how they apply to your life in the contemporary west (or east). But don’t be hoodwinked into thinking that you need to do things the old way in order for it to be ‘real’ Buddhism.
For example, there is power in initiation. I’ve felt it first hand. But don’t think you can’t practice without initiations. There was a time when they were a new idea. And that time was way after the Buddha, and a whole bunch of other people, got enlightened.
And though ‘sangha’ is one of the three jewels, don’t think you have to sign up to a ‘sangha’ either. Firstly, the sangha of the three jewels is the enlightened sangha. The one you meet at the temple is an attempt. Secondly, things have changed. There was a time when, gasp!, blogs didn’t exist. You HAD to connect with a sangha if you wanted to know what all this Buddhist stuff was about. (Note: I’m not saying DON’T get involved – face to face, real friendships can be fantastically powerful. All I’m saying is don’t feel like you HAVE to.)
Buddhism has always changed as it’s found its way into new cultures. This is one reason why Tibetan Buddhism is so different from Sri Lankan Buddhism. It’s natural and obvious that science, psychology, psychotherapy and even Christianity should impact on Buddhism in the west. And don’t forget the importance of popular culture – psychedelia and punk have already had a significant impact on western Buddhism. It looks like Buddhism has also entered hip hop, looking at the people who follow me on Twitter, but I’m not so up on that.
This is what’s happening, and you must find your own way through. The traditionalist and the innovator both sit inside us. We’ll no doubt swing from one poll to the other and back again several times during our lifetime. That’s OK. Live YOUR Buddhist life.