The evolution of Buddhism – It’s not what you think.

Inspired by a cross-post at Progressive Buddhism and The Reformed Buddhist as well as a post by DjBuddha on the terminology of Buddhism movements in the West.

When we see people cling to sutra’s or rituals or any one aspect of the religion, and are unwilling or unable to accept different ways of learning and teaching, I think we run the danger of making Buddhism a static practice, one that can’t or won’t progress to new and more innovative forms. While the ancient teachers have a great deal to teach us that should be carried forward, we mustn’t forget those who are new to Buddhism, whose knowledge and understanding of the road signs we are pointing to aren’t as robust as what a long time practitioner would have. It is important that Buddhism makes room for new ways of expressing the dharma and for inventive ways of exploring the true nature of self and suffering.

Well we all “cling” to our rituals and sutras as well as to aspects of our practice such as meditation or nembutsu. All is at the same level without one exceeding another. A good analogy is the misunderstanding of when people talk about evolution and expect it to infer a progression to a “better” or “perfect” state from a “bad” or primitive one. Instead, view it as random change determined by the culture-base that the Dharma enters into. When the Dharma is introduced to a secular nation it will express itself in a manner different, but not necessarily better than, when exposed to a culture (such as Japan) with a long-history of ancestor worship. Different, yes! But with no determination of one being better than the other.

Static is another loaded term. While static is inferred to be negative. In reality, no changes were made or at least only subtle changes were made, because of its innate adaptability. Static and traditional are not negative only descriptive. The same is true of the terms “modern” or “progressive”. These infer movement only and not whether or not one is Good and the other Bad. Only that one has moved and the other hasn’t.

It isn’t a straight path with polar opposites on each side in an obvious progression from a “bad” ancestrial stock to a “good” modern stock as the picture above demonstrates. And this is how many Buddhists in the West view each other or at least think that we view each other. A steady march from the static, archaic, ritualistic Buddhism of the past to a new stream-lined Buddhism of the future. This is not what is actually happening.

Instead it is a big bushy mess of movement with different schools and sects moving into new environments with new people (different races, socio-economic groups, backgrounds) forming new traditions and retaining older ones.

I can’t emphasize enough that when I say traditional and modern, I do not infer that one is better than the other or that one is superceding the other in any fashion. With the radiation of Buddhism into the West we can expect to find many new and emerging “species” of Buddhism. Some new and flashy ones may shine briefly and then die out (Ohhh. I could name a few but I won’t). Other more archaic forms (not a negative term only a descriptive one) will thrive, maybe more than they thrived in the past.

I still feel that I practice “Horsecrab” Buddhism. Old in form and definately Archiac in nature but if you live on the East Coast those son-a-bitches thrive. Compare that to some species that last only a few million years. But not everyone like horseshoe crabs some people like those fancy new fangled blue crabs. Whatever. To each their own.

Hope this wasn’t too clunky an analogy. Feel free to comment.


[Before anyone else writes something that I have to remove. Here is my point: Buddhism is NOT linear rather it moves in many directions; Traditional or static is NOT bad, just a description; progressive is NOT good, just a description of change; I DO NOT prefer horseshoe crabs to blue crabs because one is tastier than the other but rather I can respect that fact that sometimes you don’t need to change in order to adapt.]

11 thoughts on “The evolution of Buddhism – It’s not what you think.

  1. LOL Now how did I know you were going to have a response to me. 🙂

    One form is not better than the other, I think that is an important point that we both make. I am not bashing one versus the other, or comparing one being better than the other.

    Geez, only a few hours and already 2 posts about mine. :-O

  2. Really? What was the other post on you? I liked your post but the concept of "static" as bad and "movement" as good still irks me since it infers that change is always towards a better end.

    Like most of your posts. They get me thinking and that is a good thing.


  3. I'll just post here what I posted on my site.

    "(And just as a side note, I never once said the word 'traditional' in this post, and am not holding any two practices or styles in contrast to each other, nor am I saying that one way is better than the other. What I do see is new and innovative teachings and practices being dismissed and brushed off by many who claim them to be less than authentic. Not everyone can relate so easily to what is available today, or even feel comforatble practicing many of ways we do things now. Static does not equal bad, unless the static demonizes and looks down upon progression and innovation. It is these kinds of innovations that will draw many new people to Buddhism. This is a good thing and this is the point of the post.)"

    And hey, at least you have someone posting things that are getting people thinking and re-evaluating. 🙂

  4. Sorry, I should have mentioned that I was commenting on Scott's post too.

    He was commenting on "traditional" vs. "modern". Did you think he was yelling at you? I thought he was yelling at me.

  5. Oh, I thought it was this sentence he wrote:

    "The problem is when you make the claim that your Buddhism is more “authentic” than someone else’s Buddhism (because, ahem, that’s the very definition of fundamentalism)"

    Bah, probably yelling at both of us.

  6. Brother, my Buddhism is far from authentic. But my…

    milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,
    And their like
    It's better than yours,
    Damn right it's better than yours,
    I can teach you,
    But I have to charge

    I will follow ANY Roshi, Rishi or guru that opens a dokuson with those lines.

  7. Hello Jack,

    Very interesting post. It is interesting that Buddha often use the analogy of wheel in much of his teaching, the Wheel of Dharma, the Wheel of Samsara… In the West, due to our dualist philosophy, we tend to look at all things in pairs of opposites. Eastern Philosophy springs out of a more monistic approach, where good and bad are interdependent and therefore if one arises its polar opposite must arise at the same time. To make matters worse, Westerners make statements like, “That tree is made of wood,” whereas an Easterner wouldn’t understand such a statement because trees grow they are not made. This is our legacy of our Judeo-Christian heritage that has infused our language with all sorts of anomalous statements like this.

    I get what you are saying, and this is the fundamental problem for Westerners trying to embrace Buddhism, we are trying to do it by allowing our old paradigms and constructs to co-exist with this teaching. At the basis of Western Theology exists this dualistic world where there is Good fighting Evil, and Evil fighting Good. This is the way Westerners are brought up, educated and raised.

    People from the Eastern Cultures are brought up with a completely different set of constructs which allows them to view the cosmos on a cyclical view of co-dependent origination, where we are constantly in flux on the wheel of life. There is no static point to grab hold of and say, "Oh, yes this is it!"

    In the Avatamsaka Sutra Buddha says, "Past mind cannot achieve awakening, future mind cannot achieve awakening, also present mind cannot achieve awakening." This is at the heart of the problem with many modern philosophies who are trying to co-opt Buddhism and fit it into some Western Mold; much like the many Psychologists who read and study a little Buddhism and try interjecting western psychological constructs upon Buddhist Theology. For the most part this can't work. Freud invented this idea that we have of an Id, an Ego and a Superego; and too often Western Buddhists use this idea of the Ego and try to overlay it on Buddhist Teachings. We hear things like "the death of the Ego," referring to Buddhist Practices.

    In reality, there is no Ego; and perhaps more importantly there is no Enlightenment, and in fact all of our constructs are poor substitutions for reality. I agree with your post, yet we must meet Buddhism on its own ground, and not some Hodge podge Western Philosophy, Theology or New Age Thinking.

    So, I may appear to be rigid, and there is no other choice if we wish to move in any direction. Also, I do not wish to hold on to the cultural aspects of Indian, Chinese, Korean or Japanese societies; we must find the heart of Buddha's teaching and build a bridge to help ferry Westerners across to the land where ALL opinions, ALL constructs, ALL ideas and ALL theories fall away.

  8. Wonderful comment, Paul! Thank you for the time you obviously put into it.

    I agree that Westerners (hah! Like me.) have a hard time thinking in terms without a specific end goal. That our language can be clunky and our POV far too rigid. I think our old constructs do not die easily and nor should they. It seems natural for us to attempt a melding with those constructs that have (for better or worse) served us well.

    In time we shed them in order to grow, just like a snake. Or we don't and still function perfectly well with the Dharma that we have for the situation we are in.

    Where I diagree is the viewpoint of a "right" way versus a "wrong" way. So while the Western philosophy or hydrid practice may not be right for you, it is a large step indeed to say that it is not right for someone else. Or for that matter, to say that there is a correct way of doing it at all.

    That same is obviously true of the cultural aspects of Indian, Chinese, Korean or Japanese societies which have become and intregal part of different Buddhist sects. You, yourself, don't have any obligation to hold on to any of those aspects but it is, again, a large leap to say that those aspects are wrong and a lack of those aspects are right.

    I don't think you are being rigid if you only apply those concepts you described to your own practice. However, when you apply to others, then you are being rigid.

    "we must find the heart of Buddha's teaching and build a bridge to help ferry Westerners across to the land where ALL opinions, ALL constructs, ALL ideas and ALL theories fall away."

    Nice sentiment but I won't hold my breath. You seem to be thinking in the realm of endless kalpas to achieve THAT goal.

    And again it is really just another polarization. Culture bad. "Real" Dharma good. All the opinions, constructs and ideas are still there.


  9. Jack,

    You missed my point, to attain Buddha Mind we must relinquish all thoughts and ideas, there is no other way. So methods ultimately don't matter because we must abandon all of them. If you are thinking, your mind and my mind are different; if you are not thinking then your mind and my mind are the same.

    We can practice any way we like, and end up in the same place; so, if we want something we get something, if we don't want anything we get everything. Keep up the good work and I don't think we are saying anything different.

  10. Thanks for the clarification, Paul. I have the tendency to think (and write) aloud and go far off tangent.

    I think you are right when you say that we can practice anyway we like, we all end up in the same place. I wish more people took that view.

    But, out of curiosity, do you think that you could, in this lifetime, reliquish ALL thoughts and ideas? It seems very grandiose. I obviously don't know you or your practice so don't take this as a criticism. Personally, I like the ideal but I know that I am firmly attached to things in this life and don't ever imagine removing those strings.

    Can one actually function in "no-think", I wonder?


  11. Good points here. There's a certain strength in diversity. It's nice that there's certain baseline teachings like the Dharma Seals and such, to ensure a certain level of basic conformity, but beyond that, people have devised various ways of expressing the teachings and reaching out to others to teach them the dharma.

    A certain Jodo Shinshu priest by the name of Rev. Inagaki, said that religion has to till the earth from time to time or else the soil gets hard-packed and stale. 🙂

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