Head of a Buddha

“Western” Buddhism?

Buddhism is one of the great world religions. Yet just as there is no one form of Islam or Christianity, there is not one form of Buddhism. Like other religions, Buddhism has continued to evolve over the course of its history and a number of diverse forms have emerged. 

For centuries, people in India, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and Tibet – and in recent years people in other countries as well, such as Switzerland – have continued to interpret the Buddhist teachings anew and to take them in new directions.

Some scholars in the field of religious studies even say that a new school of Buddhism has evolved in Europe and North America, one with its own specific interpretative tradition. 

Since they first began exploring Buddhism in the 19th century, Western scholars have time and again questioned whether Buddhism is a religion at all, and whether it is not more of a philosophy.

Thai Buddhist temple, Gretzenbach, Switzerland

Buddhism in Switzerland

The vast majority of Buddhists in Switzerland today are people with roots in China, Taiwan, Japan, or Thailand.

All great Buddhist traditions are represented in Switzerland: Theravada from southeast Asia, Zen from Japan, and Vajrayana from Tibet.

Tibet Institute Rikon, Rikon, Switzerland

According to the Federal Statistical Office, around 37,000 Buddhists lived in Switzerland in 2017.

This number includes not just immigrants who brought their form of Buddhism to Switzerland with them, however. Swiss-born men and women have also turned to Buddhism and founded associations in which the Buddha’s teachings are partly reinterpreted and reassessed.

This process has been repeated across Europe as well as in North America and Australia over the past century.

Dharani Sutra of the Heart of the Perfection of Insight

The first Western Buddhists were generally interested in religious beliefs and philosophical concepts such as karma and rebirth; they were also intrigued by practices such as meditation, and asceticism.

The day-to-day practice of Buddhism across Asia, often characterized by ritual, was overlooked. The intellectual focus of interest in Buddhism led to its teachings being rephrased and adapted to the Western lifestyle.

Buddhist prayer flags on a house, Bern, Switzerland

“Western Buddhism” has the following characteristics.

It is primarily an urban phenomenon that tends to be practised by people with a high level of education – many of them university graduates. Their interest is highly personal and tailored to their individual needs; the question of membership in a religious community is secondary.

Lay Buddhists performing a ritual, Thian Hock Keng temple, Singapore

Some academics claim there are fundamental differences between Buddhism in Asia and in the West.

Buddhists in Asia, they say, are more interested in ritual and identify more strongly with a community.

Buddhists in the West tend to meditate and find themselves on a spiritual quest. Moreover, some Western followers of Buddhism look to the religion as a form of therapy.

Tibetan monk reciting a sacred text, Mustang, Nepal

Religion or Philosophy?

Despite Westerners’ deep interest in Buddhist ideas, some topics such as ritual practices are of secondary importance. Seen from this perspective, Buddhism can be described as a philosophy.

As it has spread around the world, Buddhism has always adapted to meet the needs of local practitioners.

Thus, for some people it is more of a philosophy or spiritual practice that can be combined with the views of other religions. For others, it is a religion in its own right.

A monk once asked Yunmen: What is the meaning of “truth in every speck of dust”?

Yunmen replied: It is found in every bowl of rice, in every pail of water.

Well done

“Western” Buddhism?

“Western” Buddhism?