Essay: Buddhism: Changing and Adapting to Different Geographic

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Buddhism: Changing and Adapting to Different Geographic and Social Contexts

In contrast to some religions which are strongly associated with a particular place and people (such as Israel with Judaism or Rome with Roman Catholicism), Buddhism stresses a non-attachment to material things, including material places. It denies the concept of a 'self' which thus denies a stable sense of nationhood or other identifying markers that could cause separation and unnecessary divisions. In some interpretations, particularly in the West, Buddhism has been conceptualized in a non-theological sense, given that the ultimate goal of Enlightenment is relatively vague and not necessarily associated with an omnipotent deity. This paper will suggest that because of the innate principles of Buddhism, combined with salutary political and historical factors, the religion has proved to be uniquely adaptive to various geographic and social contexts, spanning from China to California.

At its core, Buddhism is fundamentally an action-oriented religion, focused upon changing the ethical behaviors of the individual. "Buddhist moral theorists are concerned with actions (karma), which are deemed to determine one's future experiences in this and future lives in the round of rebirths (samsara) (Encyclopedia of Religion, 1278). The ideal of Buddhism is to limit the number of rebirths and to free the individual from the endless cycle of suffering to which he or she is subjected. Given that all human beings suffer, regardless of class or character, the teachings of Buddhism are often quite resonant with many listeners.

Despite its emphasis on non-judgment, there has always been a strong strain of philosophical belief in Buddhism that Buddhists must actively teach the Eightfold Path (the principles of the Buddha) to liberate the world from suffering and thus must engage in some form of proselyting. In Mahayana Buddhism, the notion of the figure of the bodhisattva as an enlightened being who forgoes Enlightenment to remain in the world and teach others is vital. "Buddhism has always been from the very beginning a missionary religion, something that people aren't always explicitly aware of when they enter the Buddhist world, but it has always been an important part of the tradition" (Garfield 2013). Thus, from the beginning, Buddhism as a faith practice was intent upon spreading its concept of 'right actions' to the masses.

However, as well as action, there is a cultivation of 'right mind' that is necessary in Buddhism. Buddhism has "articulated an analysis of the constituents of the mind and their relationships that are crucial for the development of virtuous dispositions" and right thought and right actions are interrelated (Encyclopedia of Religion, 1278). For example, the physical act of seated medication can bring about the enactment of the virtues of compassion by changing the heart and mind of the adherent. A relatively vague definition of 'compassion' once again makes Buddhism very plastic and adaptable to different circumstances. Although Buddhism does have a monastic component and stresses the teacher-student relationship, the process of meditation and contemplation can be carried out individually, in contrast to other religions, where spiritual journeys must be mediated through a church hierarchy or a representative of a specific clergy. Even when sects began springing up along the path of Buddhist dissemination in China, Tibet, and elsewhere, they were able to do so in consort with the folk customs and practices of the populace.

Unlike other non-Western religions such as Shintoism and Hinduism, Buddhism was transmitted to the West with relative ease, both through the transmission of scholars and through immigration, once again because of its emphasis on personal physical and mental changes (although it denies the existence of a stable self), versus an emphasis on sacred places and clergy. In America, the first Western adherents "portrayed Buddhism as text-based, pragmatic, rational, universal, and socially active. Both European scholarship and the Western glorification of Buddhist ideas strengthened national and religious self-confidence in South Asia, further generating ideas of a missionary outreach" (Encyclopedia of Religion, 1187). Later Buddhism resonated with many concepts in the self-help movement, environmentalist movement, and other popular non-theological spirituality movements in the West, and its lack of apparent hierarchy and universal potential liberation.

Interestingly enough, Buddhism did not take hold with particular durability in the nation that gave it birth -- India. This may perhaps be due to the rigid caste system which made Buddhism's message of inclusivity less appealing. "Buddhism all but died out in India after the Moslem incursions of the 11th Century CE." (Spread of Buddhism, 2013, the Buddhist Society). Buddhism did arise in response to the increasingly rigid administration of the Brahman priests: "rise of Buddhism is closely connected to the prevalent practices in the Brahamanical religion (Early Hinduism). The Brahamanical religion had become increasingly intolerant (of the lower classes) and exclusive (open only to Brahmins and the aristocracy)" (Growth and the spread of Buddhism, 2002. The British Museum). Buddhism's pliability made it very attractive elsewhere but in India it could not survive religious and political stasis.

However, elsewhere the institution of the Buddhist monastery flourished because of popular and royal support. "The growth of Buddhism can be attributed to two main factors: the support of the general population [and] royal patronage" (Growth and the spread of Buddhism, 2002. The British Museum). Monastic orders supported monks with food and "often the monasteries were located on trade routes frequented by merchant caravans. They offered shelter to the merchants, who in return made generous donations" (Growth and the spread of Buddhism, 2002. The British Museum)

Buddhism also manifested a unique ability to blend with existing religious traditions, such as Shintoism in Japan. "It is believed that before Buddhism was introduced in Japan, however, Shinto was born from an existing primitive form of religion that worshipped nature. The ancient people of Japan honored sacred spirits that they recognized in nature, manifesting in mountains, rocks, rivers and trees. As communities grew, they began erecting shrines where they could worship these deities, and the shrines became centers of regional life and culture" (Tamashige 2013). Buddhism was imported from abroad, but quickly took firm hold in Japan with royal support. However, for most of Japanese history, people have embraced both religions with in their lives, partially because of the fusion of the two religious systems. "As Shinto-Buddhist syncretism progressed, many Shinto shrines and their deities were combined with Buddhist temples and figures" (Tamashige 2013). As Japan's incorporation of Buddhism was such a slow, gradual process, the fusion was often seamless and many Japanese people bury their dead using Buddhist rituals but honor the Shinto tradition with rituals pertaining to birth and natural events. "The syncretism, or weaving together of religions, would continue over centuries as Japan went about absorbing Pure Land, Zen and other Buddhist sects from China. Over time, cross-pollination between Buddhism and Shinto would deepen in a process known as "shin-butsu shugo" (Shinto-Buddhism coalescence), or less flatteringly as the "shin-butsu konko" (Shinto-Buddhism jumble)" (Prideaux 2007). Because of Buddhism's inclusivity as a philosophy, there was no sense of a compulsion to 'choose' one or the other, nor is there one today in Japan.

Buddhism's incorporation into China was not nearly as harmonious, but it too benefited from attention from the elites and its ability to be practiced side-by-side the major Chinese religious traditions. "China never became entirely Buddhist. Buddhism always lived alongside the Confucian and Daoist traditions and it proliferated in a number of different schools" (Garfield 2010). However, "Buddhism was first adopted by what we might call middle-class or a-league people in China who were attracted to the unusual language and were interested in the philology, in the texts, and gradually developed an interest in Buddhist practice" (Garfield 2010). Buddhism's philosophy of non-attachment and its pacifism was compatible with the Daoist tradition of bending to 'the way' rather than engaging in resistance, although the compatibility with Confucianism was less obvious, given the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Buddhism: Changing and Adapting to Different Geographic."  June 13, 2013.  Accessed May 25, 2019.