In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism (along with many other of the
world's religions and philosophies) came to the attention of Western
intellectuals. These included the pessimistic German philosopher Schopenhauer
and the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who translated a Buddhist
sutra from French into English. German writer Hermann Hesse also showed great
interest in the eastern religion, even writing a book entitled Siddhartha.
Spiritual enthusiasts enjoyed what they saw as the exotic and mystical tone of
the Asian traditions. At first Western Buddhology was hampered by poor
translations (often translations of translations), but soon Western scholars
began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. In 1880 J.R. de Silva
and Henry Steel Olcott designed the International Buddhist flag to celebrate the
revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Its stripes symbolize universal compassion,
the middle path, blessings, purity and liberation, wisdom, and the
conglomeration of these. The flag was accepted as the International Buddhist
Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress. A hallway in California's Hsi Lai Temple
1899 Gordon Douglas became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Buddhist
The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap
labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples
in their settlements along the rail lines. See the article on Buddhism in
America for further information.
The Buddhist Society, London was founded by Christmas Humphreys in 1924.
The cultural re-evaluations of the hippie generation in the late 1960s and early
1970s led to a re-discovery of Buddhism, which seemed to promise a natural path
to awareness and enlightenment. Many people, including celebrities, traveled to
Asia in pursuit of gurus and ancient wisdom. Buddhism had become the
fastest-growing religion in Australia and many other Western nations by the
1990s, in contrast to the steady decline of traditional western beliefs.
A distinctive feature of Buddhism has been the continuous evolution of the
practice as it was transmitted from one country to another. This dynamic aspect
is particularly evident today in the West. Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the
Shambhala meditation movement, claimed in his teachings that his intention was
to strip the ethnic baggage away form traditional methods of working with the
mind and to deliver the essence of those teachings to his western students.
Another example of a school evolving new idioms for the transmission of the
dharma is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, founded by Sangharakshita.
Lama Surya Das is a prominent Western-born teacher continuing to bring the
teachings of Buddhism to Westerners.
Is it then a Religion?
Neither is it a religion in the sense in which that word is commonly
understood, for it is not a system of faith and worship. Buddhism does
not demand blind faith from its adherents: here mere belief is dethroned
and replace by confidence, Saddha, as it know in Pali, based on
knowledge of truth. The confidence placed by a follower in the Buddha is
like that of a sick man towards the physician, or that of a student
towards his teacher. A Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha because he
who discovered the path of deliverance. A sick man should be used the
remedy which the physician prescribes in order to be cured, and the
pupil should study what his teacher says in order to become learned. In
just the same way, a Buddhist who possesses saddha should follow the
Buddha's instruction in order to gain deliverance.
The starting point of Buddhism is reasoning, or understanding, or in
other words samaditthi. To seekers after truth the Buddha says, "Do not
believe in anything on mere hearsay; do not believe in anything that is
traditional just because it is old and handed down through generations;
do not believe in rumors or anything because people talk about it; do
not believe simply because the written testimony f some ancient sage is
shown to thee:; never believe in anything because the custom of many
years leads thee to regard it is true; do not believe in anything on the
mere authority of the teacher or priests. According to thine own
experience, and after through investigation, whatever agrees with thy
reason and is conductive to thine own well-being and to that of all
other living beings, accept that truth and live accordingly'.
Buddhism in the modern world
The international Buddhist flag was designed in Sri Lanka in the
1880s with the assistance of Henry Steele Olcott and was later
adopted as a symbol by the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
Estimates of the number of Buddhists vary between 230 and 500
million, with 350 million as the most commonly cited figure.
In northern Asia, Mahāyāna remains the most common form of
Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, (parts of)
Indonesia and Singapore.
Theravāda predominates in most of Southeast Asia, including
Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Sri
Lanka. It has seats in Malaysia and Singapore. Vajrayāna is
predominant in Tibet, Mongolia, portions of Siberia and portions
of India, especially those areas bordering Tibet. Kalmykia,
while geographically located in Europe, is culturally closely
related to Mongolia and thus its Buddhism is more properly
grouped with Asian than with Western Buddhism.
While in the West Buddhism is often seen as exotic and
progressive, in the East Buddhism is regarded as familiar and
part of the establishment. Buddhist organizations in Asia
frequently are well-funded and enjoy support from the wealthy
and influential. In some cases, this has led critics to charge
that certain monks and organizations are too closely associated
with the powerful and are neglecting their duties to the poor.