European Buddhism between Asian legacies and Western contexts

Faced with a loss of innocence in the West after the controversies regarding the abuses by some spiritual masters, Buddhism must also deal with key questions about finding a balance between preserving ancient teachings and finding its European way, writes the former head of the unit for interreligious dialogue of the Archdiocese of Vienna (Austria), Werner Höbsch, in a contribution written for an issue on Buddhism in the West in the series Weltanschauungen – Texte zur religiösen Vielfalt (No. 113). Several features of Western European Buddhism represent challenges for its future at the same time. People with a higher level of education have been overrepresented among European Buddhists, and it remains to be seen how far it will be able to reach other milieus. The role of well-educated lay people has been significant for European Buddhism, with the role of Buddhist monasteries and religious orders being less important than in Asian countries. This raises the question of the future development of monasteries and orders, but also of the interaction between those in the West and their Asian counterparts.

The intra-Buddhist relations in Europe are also changing, with growing interactions after a long period when Asian and European Buddhist groups led separate lives. The role of Buddhist umbrella organizations for fostering exchanges is likely to prove crucial. But there will remain questions about the ways of organizing Buddhism in Western environments since social forms of Asian Buddhism cannot be merely transplanted in the West and Western Buddhists are often reluctant to reproduce Asian hierarchical models. The place of women in Western Buddhist groups is highly significant, including in some leadership roles (e.g. teaching), in contrast with male-dominated Asian Buddhism. It will be interesting to observe how this will impact worldwide Buddhism. Many people in the West develop an interest in Buddhism through meditation and practices which they see as personal spiritual enrichment and as a way without church and dogma, even going as far in some cases as promoting “secular Buddhism.” However, Buddhism is not limited to the individual and also involves ethical awareness and actions, so it remains to be seen how social responsibility will be put into practice and propagated in the West, in the way the “engaged Buddhism” approaches it.

(Weltanschauungen – Texte zur religiösen Vielfalt,