Tracing the Journey of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha in the West

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Buddhism in the West

The world is full of very varied expressions that fill the planet on which we live with color and diversity. These cultural expressions are very varied, therefore there are many varied peoples with very different characteristics such as languages, religions or traditions, but thanks to globalization and technology we also live in a more interconnected world, so we can learn more about other beliefs despite being very distant and Buddhism is a religion that has won the admiration of many people in the West, a place in the world where it has more and more followers. Why is Buddhism so popular with Westerners?

First contacts

The first contacts between Buddhism and what we can define as "Westerners" occurred many centuries ago and in fact left a significant impact. This takes place with the Greek expansion led by Alexander the Great, who expands his empire eastward in India after conquests in 327-326 BC, so many Greeks settled in Bactria and India area giving rise to a cultural and religious syncretism known as Greco-Buddhism, which led to the beginning of the Hellenistic period, what we can consider the earliest interaction between Buddhism and Westerners with significant cultural, artistic, religious and architectural results.

Centuries later with the rise of Rome, the interaction with Buddhism was not very significant due to the great distance between both areas of influence. Later, with the appearance of Christianity, it was not very significant except for the visit of religious leaders to the East such as Scythianus, who visited India and reported on the doctrine of the 2 principles.

Colonial period: the first records

It took several centuries for Europeans to become more involved in the East thanks to navigation and colonial expansion. This is how, since the 16th century, the work of Christian missionaries who traveled to the East and were able to learn more about Buddhism, leaving a record of the characteristics and principles of the religion. However, this interest would only serve for the records of the time, since among religious and travelers they were not interested in religion and rejected it both because it was considered a "heathen" religion and because of its nature, since understanding Buddhism to the Western eyes is very difficult, it would take several centuries to be a more significant interest in practicing the religion.

The problem of Buddhism

One of the greatest confusions that Buddhism has caused in the West is its very nature, since it is not a religion similar to the others that abound in the West characterized by a creator God. Buddhism does not have a creator God, since Buddha is not a deity, there are no divine revelations or dogmas, and therefore it has been difficult to interpret this religion in an area of the world with other ideas. Due to these, many consider Buddhism a religion while others a lifestyle formed by principles and precepts to transcend in life.

Other ideas like reincarnation can also be confusing, especially when the idea of death and eternal life is common or rejection of the idea of the soul has been instilled (at least from the Western definition), so Buddhism can be confusing for many. However, this has not prevented this belief from having more and more new adherents in modern times.

Buddhism in the 19th century: intellectual interest.

It was not until this century that intellectuals began to show more interest in Buddhism, which had been a religion considered pessimistic, pagan, and nihilistic. In this era with greater religious freedom, Buddhism manages to capture a general interest mainly thanks to the book of the British author Sir Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia. This book published in 1879 recounted the life story of Buddha in poem form, so readers were curiously interested in the book that quickly became a BestSeller. Another important factor at the end of this century was the growth in spiritism especially after the emergence of religions such as Theosophy that adopted many Buddhist principles to integrate them into this religion, which led to Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott converting to Buddhism, thus being the first European Americans to do so. In the United States, Buddhism had arrived long before by the hand of Chinese immigrants, which is why the first Buddhist temple in the country was built in San Francisco in 1858.

Widespread interest and global expansion

It is from the twentieth century that the interest in academics and the curious went much further and began to expand throughout the West, gaining followers. The Buddhist texts were available to everyone, so it was no longer a belief for a few but anyone could be interested; this linked to the arrival of immigrants from the East to several Western countries contributed to a slow but continuous growth of the religion, thus being the way the first Buddhist temples in Europe were built in this century, such as the Datsan Gunzechoinei in Russia or the Das Buddhistische Haus in Germany.The growth of Buddhism was not limited only to North America or Europe, but to other places in the region such as Latin America, New Zealand and Australia, where both immigrants and converts who contributed to the growth of the religion, especially after the Second World War. The first Buddhist societies were created such as the Buddhist Society or the International Buddhist Association of America.

Why is Buddhism so popular in the West?

Buddhism has more than 500 million followers scattered throughout the world. The West is one of the regions of the world where there are more and more believers despite the majority of followers being located in Asia. In a time where irreligion is increasing, Westerners see Buddhism as a very interesting belief system and different from Christianity, mainly because it does not have a creator god and also because of other factors such as not having any conflict with science and its opposition to violence, which has made Buddhism considered a very peaceful religion. These characteristics mean that those Westerners who do not integrate into Christianity or Judaism find in Buddhism a less theistic and more philosophical alternative.

Buddhism: Art and Values

Buddhism helps the person learn to control the mind, because using meditation the person can control stress and anxiety, a tool to deal with problems and deal with pain. Another very important factor is its "exotic" character as it is a foreign religion that draws people's attention, for example Tibetan Buddhism is especially striking due to the work of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture.

A different interpretation

Because the East and the West are very different societies, Western Buddhism has its own characteristics, and some concepts are even opaque or separated. Despite the acceptance of Buddhism, it has been difficult for Westerners to accept some concepts or have even interpreted them differently, so in some cases concepts such as karma or reincarnation are rejected. There is a strong interest in some people in adapting Buddhism to Western philosophy or relating it to science, leading to a very different interpretation. This Buddhist modernism is present throughout the world, but in the West it stands out for its need to want to make it acceptable in many cases.

Buddhism in the West today

To this day Buddhism continues to gain more space in the West, being one of the fastest growing religions in the region. In the United States alone there are more than a million practicing Buddhists, while in Australia it is one of the fastest growing religions. In Canada it has more than 300,000 practitioners while in Europe there are 1 to 4 million believers. As a matter of fact, the Russian Republic of Kalmykia is the only European territory where the Buddhist religion is in the majority. Similarly, Latin America is a place with a growing presence of Buddhists, either by immigrants or conversions. In any case, thanks to the fact that we live in a more connected world we can learn more about other cultures and religions, for which undoubtedly in the future Buddhism will have more followers in the West.

The role of Tibetan Buddhism

The most widespread Buddhist school in the West is the Theravada, however to speak of Buddhism in the West is to speak of Tibetan Buddhism. Undoubtedly, the religion of Tibet has been one of the reasons that make the Buddhist religion interesting, since the culture, traditions and history of this enigmatic part of the world captivate people. In the same way, the work of the Dalai Lama in the world is striking, since Tenzin Gyatso has traveled the world promoting peace and the Tibetan cause, due to this Tibetan Buddhism has also spread as well as its wonderful cultural expressions, which is a decisive factor in Western interest in Buddhism. There is no doubt that Buddhism is already part of the Western World, because although it is still a small religion, it has more and more followers and interested in the teachings of Buddha. To this day, Buddhism continues to grow and captivate Westerners with its teachings and principles, so it will continue to grow rapidly over the years.

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