Legend has it that during his own lifetime, the Buddha prophesied the end of the path to enlightenment. The Candragarbha-sutra gives us his words: “In the final 200 years, even monks will not practice in accordance with the True Dharma. They will seek worldly profit and fame; their compassion will be meager, and they will not live according to the precepts…at that time, the True Dharma will disappear. And even the letters of the scriptures will become invisible.”
If your only exposure to Buddhism is how it’s practiced in America, you’d have good reason to think the prophecy has already been fulfilled. Each morning, millions of Americans meditate, and Buddhist scriptures are available in every bookstore. But monks are few, and it’s rare that they follow the full rigor of monastic discipline. Many meditators do not claim to follow the True Dharma, and it’s not uncommon that they haven’t heard of it at all. The mindfulness movement has become an incredible source of profit and fame.
Buddhism had to gradually adapt and be adapted to become a part of the modern Western religious landscape. It’s a process that began as soon as Europeans systematically studied it in the nineteenth century. Meditation practices were stripped of their traditional context and given new purpose while still retaining the allure of their oriental origins. Books portraying Buddhism as the religion of modernity excited people’s interest, and accessible retreat-based meditation programs were meant to keep it. This transformation, a collaboration between Western countercultural figures and Eastern religious reformers, tells a story of how a modern religion is shaped and the contours of its future.
Over the millennia, Buddhism had largely divided itself into three overarching sects: the Theravada concentrated in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, the Mahayana in East Asia, and the Vajrayana in Tibet and Mongolia. The practices are filled with rituals, folk customs, superstition, literal beliefs in rebirth, karma, and gods, divisions between priests and laity, chanted texts in dead languages, and except for certain monks, no meditation.
When modern Europeans first encountered Buddhism, it resembled nothing so much as popular myths about the “superstitious” dark ages. In the eighteenth century, French-Walloon engraver Bernard Picart referred to the Dalai Lama as the “Supreme Pontiff of all Tartarian idolaters” and Jean-Jacques Rousseau classified the religions of Japan and Tibet with Roman Catholicism as the “the religion of the priest…so clearly bad that it is a waste of time to prove it as such.” To these observers, Christendom had left behind folk piety and the rule of monks, but Buddhism was still trapped in this more primitive mode. The encounter and the biases behind it would shape not just the colonizers, but the colonized Buddhist world as well.
In much of the Buddhist world, the sudden changes brought by colonialism caused a sudden crisis for the clergy. In Burma and Sri Lanka, royal sponsorship of Theravada Buddhism was replaced with a supposedly neutral British colonial government and Christian missionaries. Removed from their traditional role, Buddhist institutions had to reground their religious authority. In both countries, a new generation of monks became the leaders of this renewal.
The Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw became something close to a celebrity through his writing and speaking. He sought to stall Buddhism’s decline by inspiring the lay people to moral practice and better knowledge of the dharma, even teaching them the recently revived technique of Vipassana breath meditation. In Sri Lanka, the monk Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera became a notable debater, eschewing Pali for Sinhalese. In an event that would become consequential for Buddhism as a whole, he faced a Protestant reverend and a local catechist in a public contest that became known as the Panadura debate. Its topics spanned from the nature of God to the immortality of the soul. Drawing on traditional Buddhist traditions of rhetoric and using plain language in his responses, Gunananda Thera won the day, to the acclaim of the largely Buddhist audience.
Japan, meanwhile, had remained independent but turned much more harshly against its Buddhist traditions. The new Imperial government of the Meiji restoration encouraged mob violence against monasteries and gradually forced monks to marry and eat meat. While many Japanese monks accepted their demoted role, certain Zen intellectuals like Soyen Shaku began to engage with Western ideas and attempted to make a modern Buddhism that would be compatible with the country’s project of renewal.
In Thailand, likewise never colonized, King Mongkut sought to modernize his country defensively. He took a reformist approach to Buddhism rather than an adversarial one, both reaffirming monastic orthodoxy and rejecting certain “superstitious” beliefs, such as the three-world cosmology and the beloved Jataka stories.
Confronted by imperialism and cultural modernity alike, Buddhism had begun to adapt itself. These projects were already changing the religious landscapes of their own countries. But soon, they received unexpected help from the Westerners themselves.
At the same time Buddhist traditions were evolving, traditional Christianity faced increasing competition for satisfying the spiritual desires of the changing West. The Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation had moved both branches of Western Christianity from medieval, localized saint cults and pilgrimages to a more centralized, systematic, and confessional religion. The 1700s, in turn, had seen the rise of liberal, freethinking societies—including classic secret societies like the Freemasons—informed by the Enlightenment.
But in the 1800s, a more eclectic and occult form of spirituality had begun to ascend across Europe and America. Interest in alternative spiritualities rose, with thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer and orientalist scholars like Eugène Burnouf popularizing Eastern religions. Initially, Europeans had been repulsed by Buddhism; now they were curious about its potential for spiritual renewal.
The moment lined up with a convergence between science and the new occultist philosophies. Various groups tried to apply the scientific worldview to the supernatural. One such group, the Spiritualists, applied empirical methods to interactions with ghosts and spirits, and devotees sought hidden powers that could connect them with the dead. Later in the century, the Theosophists led by Helena Blavatsky believed that Aryan masters hidden in Tibet held the ancient wisdom of humanity, and that this true religion was imperfectly realized in the religions of the East. Theosophists from Europe and America would later become instrumental in popularizing Buddhism and other Asian religious traditions among Western disciples and enthusiasts.
Blavatsky and another Theosophist, Henry Steel Olcott, heard about the famous debate victory of Gunananda Thera in Sri Lanka through written accounts, and became convinced that Buddhism had some of the answers they were looking for. Olcott traveled to Sri Lanka in 1880 and quickly joined the monks in the process of reformulating Buddhist doctrine to accord with the needs of modern man. The monks were more than happy to receive this help, and Olcott is today honored in Sri Lanka as one of the great heroes of Buddhism’s national revival.
Olcott, the son of a Protestant minister, reformulated Sri Lankan Buddhism to fit with the Theosophist project. Between the abstracted version of the religion he found in the ancient texts and the actual, living Buddhist culture of the laity, he favored the more philosophical version which he could tune to his own goals. His writing stripped out doctrines he found to be incompatible with Western science; he stated flatly that “the worship of gods, demons, trees, etc., was condemned by the Buddha. External worship is a fetter that one has to break if he is to advance higher.” This rejection stood in clear contrast to the reality of Buddhism as it was practiced in Sri Lanka, as well as most historical accounts of early Buddhism. Olcott began a long Western tradition of updating Buddhist doctrine to accord with current scientific consensus and of reinterpreting rebirth and karma to accord with the theosophical idea of spiritual evolution—itself inspired by Darwin’s theory.
Reflecting on Olcott’s influence, the Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere has called the resulting religious settlement “Protestant Buddhism.” From the perspective of both Western sympathizers and Asian modernizers, the reformed religion was closer to the true doctrines of its founder—Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha Shakyamuni, and to his words as recorded in the Pali Canon.
The gradual purging of superstitious elements and of distinctions between clergy and laypeople, as well as a turn toward personal practice, reflect a Buddhism changed to meet the expectations of Westerners. These reforms were not evenly distributed—monastic distinctions and discipline were actually reinforced in the Theravada world, and popular practices were rarely overturned for most laypeople in the Buddhist world itself—but the version of Buddhism presented to the West was one crafted for this very purpose.
In 1893, the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago gathered two Buddhists, the Sri Lankan monk Anagarika Dharmapala and the Japanese monk Soyen Shaku, along with several Theosophists and other religious representatives. This event represented the entry of Buddhism onto the stage of world religions. Both Shaku and Dharmapala were modernist missionary intellectuals who sought to present a scientific Buddhism to the West. Their allies at the gathering included Western writers like Olcott and Paul Carus, a scholar who was instrumental in bringing Buddhist ideas to the West in a systematic way.
Created explicitly for spiritual seekers, these modernized accounts of Buddhism tended to emphasize the antiquity and unity of Buddhist beliefs, and almost never discussed the recent transformations that had taken place or the many differences between different sects. This was a Buddhism that largely existed only in writing, totally distinct from the millions of lay practitioners in Asia. But as a living discourse, it was ready to bloom into a practiced religion.
The spiritual and occultist movements of the nineteenth century were the purview of socially influential but numerically small circles. This remained more or less the case in the early twentieth century as well. Then came the Baby Boomers.
In the 1950s, beginning with the Beat Generation, a new subculture began to imagine new life paths, values, and experiences against what they saw as the conformism of their parents’ generation. Foreignness, particularly Asian and “oriental” foreignness, became a distinct mark of authenticity.
It was not long before these spiritual seekers discovered books on Buddhism, and found in them a religion attuned to the needs of the time. Early Beats like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all had notable encounters with Buddhism through reading. Usually, it never went beyond that. But many wanted to go beyond words and into experiences and practices. Before long, they would discover meditation.
Like psychedelics, music, and sex, it was an intensely physical and mental experience for the individual. Although altered states were more difficult to achieve through meditation than through pharmaceutical means, it offered something more natural and grounded in the authority of sacred wisdom. For some, it even offered a purpose for life: the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
Most Buddhist sects traditionally identify enlightenment with freedom from rebirth with many profound signs and miracles, some with becoming a Boddhisattva and eventually a Buddha possessed of godlike powers. It is a process that takes countless lifetimes. But Buddhist modernizers had gradually begun describing it as something more akin to inner peace. This new enlightenment was presented as both the ultimate goal of practice and as what the original Buddhas had meant all along.
One popular 1934 book by the monk D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, states that ”satori [enlightenment] may be defined as intuitive looking-into, in contradistinction to intellectual and logical understanding…satori means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of a dualistic mind.”
Zen, especially Soto Zen, emphasizes meditation practice to an unusual degree among extant Buddhist sects. As an exclusively monastic practice, it was not obvious that it would be part of a lay Japanese Buddhist revival, and Rinzai Zen monks like Shaku and Suzuki even left meditation out of their accounts of the tradition. Others such as the Soto and Rinzai-trained Hakuun Yasutani saw a future for meditation. He changed the monastic curriculum to cater explicitly to lay people with jobs and family responsibility, and even formed his own lineage independent from the more traditional Soto and Rinzai practices. It failed to catch on with Japanese practitioners. But by geographic coincidence, he and other Buddhist priests among the Japanese diaspora in California were living among a ripe new audience.
In 1959, a 55-year-old Soto monk named Shunryu Suzuki arrived in San Francisco to take over the waning immigrant temple of Sokoji. San Francisco was buzzing with interest in Zen thanks to the activities of Buddhist popularizers like Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki. Many had read the latter’s Introduction, and were eager to get closer to the real thing. Westerners interested in Zen heard about the new “Zen master,” and went to Sokoji to investigate if they could learn from him. Suzuki, not used to such attention, invited them to sit in meditation with him during his morning sessions at 5:45 am sharp. These sessions quickly became popular; the meditators found something totally new and experiential they had not gotten from other Zen teachers. In 1962 Suzuki founded the San Francisco Zen Center. The center grew extremely quickly, establishing branch temples and becoming the largest Soto Zen organization in the West.
By coming to San Francisco, Suzuki had quickly gone from being a minor priest to his sect’s most popular figure outside of Japan. While relatively tolerant, he did find the fusion of hippie culture with Zen monasticism challenging—particularly, he had to draw a strong line between meditative experience and psychedelic trips. In 1969, Sokoji’s board of directors asked Suzuki to resign, as by this point he was focused entirely on his Western students. But the San Francisco Zen Center continued to expand, and Suzuki’s students have now spread throughout American Zen.
Various forms of this story repeated across America: Rinzai temples established by Joshu Sasaki in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and Eido Tai Shimano in New York expanded meditation outreach. Taizan Maezumi, Philip Kapleau, and Robert Aitken, all students of Yasutani, established their own Zen meditation centers during this time. The vast majority of notable Zen teachers in America come from these 1960s lineages.
While meditation had proven itself highly attractive, it had not yet reached the form of optimal growth. Teachers were still monks who shaved their heads, lived at temples, and performed rituals. It was expected that students who wanted to reach enlightenment would eventually become monks, and take part in some of these practices. The institutional structure, regular meetings, community, practice schedules, and retreats are very likely part of the reason that Zen had so much more staying power than other ‘60s movements, but the rituals still put many people off. Like the Puritans against Luther, there was room for further purification, and it came from an entirely different tradition of Buddhism.
Meditation Without Religion
In the Theravada World, the original Buddhist modernists had revived meditation in Burma and Thailand. Like the Zen monks, Theravadins began teaching the practice to the laity and had found growth uneven. However, they would go on to find that the adaptation of lay-Vipassana meditation, presented with the scientific secular frame of “original Buddhism,” would become immensely popular among foreign students.
In 1975, a group of Americans trained in the Thai and Burmese modernist tradition founded the Insight Meditation Society, presenting Burmese Vipassana with certain Thai elements as a united Theravada method that leads directly to enlightenment.
Like Zen, modern Vipassana focuses attention just on the breath and is therefore quite simple to teach. Both traditions also use a similar retreat format adapted for laypeople. Where Theravada modernization differs from that of Zen is in the re-entrenchment of monastic codes: monks are exclusively male and have numerous restrictions on their behavior in daily life.
When the Insight founders decided to teach meditation, they put on none of the trappings of temples or rituals, and did not expect anyone to become a monk. This would prove to be immensely appealing to those with a casual interest in such practices, but with no desire for the commitment of a shaved head. The core Theravada texts centered by reformers focus on the historical Buddha and the attainment of nirvana, which allowed Theravada teachers to present their meditation practice as an original, pure, non-monastic, secular Buddhism, and a direct path to enlightenment.
It set the stage for a new and very much irreligious phase in Western Buddhism: the mindfulness revolution.
By the 1980s, detraditionalized, non-sectarian meditation was available to anyone who wanted to seek “enlightenment,” a secular romantic take on the meaning of life. Zen, Vipassana, and even Tibetan Buddhism all existed as live options, but promised mostly the same benefits. Mass adoption would only come once meditation was advertised as a tool for mental and physical health. Jon Kabat-Zinn studied both Zen and Insight Meditation and founded a stress-reduction clinic where he began teaching what he called “mindfulness.”
Mindfulness used the same breath methods as Vipassana, but added a further element to the frame—it marketed itself as a peer-reviewed mental health practice. Other Western Buddhists largely accepted this new presentation of meditation, although they continued to insist that the fruits of practice were more than just health.
But this was the last piece of the puzzle. Meditation was now completely accessible to an unmodified Western secular worldview and could be both a means and an end to fulfillment. If you believe that meditation is ultimately about coming to understand your own mind, the nature of the universe, and becoming a fully realized human being, as the ancient sages did, then it is for you. If you believe that it is a method of decreasing stress to allow you to better your career and achieve self-actualization in a scientifically proven way, it is also for you. If you doubt either, the other is there, for both offer great benefit for minimal belief. And it requires no commitment other than that you just keep doing it.
Within a generation, the waning religiosity of America opened further space for mindfulness to become something everyone should do. Buddhism as secular mindfulness meditation is no longer a counter-cultural commitment, but one of many options for individuals to spend their time on alongside exercise, drugs, yoga, and diets. While Western Buddhist temples would rarely request fees for classes, it is now standard for smartphone apps and meditation centers to charge subscriptions.
American Buddhism is healthy, but has little growth. The three traditions exist in stable ecumenical friendliness and have settled on a consensus of Buddhist values largely identical to secular liberal moral principles and trends. As the history of Buddhist modernism has become better known, a new generation of intellectuals has taken on the task of sorting out what it really means for Buddhism to be secular or scientific, but there are no ready solutions. Some argue for a turn towards more traditional variations of Vajrayana, others argue that Buddhism should be further secularized. There has been increasing attention to forms of meditation beyond Zazen sitting meditation, and the risks of meditating too much.
In Japan, Buddhism is often described as “Funeral Buddhism.” The temples and monks perform funeral rituals and do little else, because all other major rituals of life are handled by Shinto. In the Theravada world, the old monastic institutions remain strong, consistently supporting conservative social values, and laypeople continue to give alms and pray for spiritual protection and favorable rebirth. The Buddhist world has gotten larger, but it is still divided. The monks who feared Buddhism’s decline would likely give a mixed verdict.
There is a continuing demand for individual pursuits of fulfillment justified by ancient wisdom. Buddhist meditation’s rise was not planned or intended, but was slowly paired down and transformed according to the desires of successive cultural avant-gardes, before finally breaking into mainstream culture.
Just as the Baby Boomers were positioned to discover meditation and make it the center of their religious lives, so too may subsequent generations discover new practices based on new needs. Recent changes in the values of Buddhism’s educated Western base on issues like gender and sexuality have been reflected in American Buddhist communities, despite not being shared in the traditional Buddhist world itself. We can expect that future changes—say, a departure from ideological universalism or a more strident critique of the “mindfulness” industry—will be similarly reflected. Whether American Buddhism will ever give rise to politically radicalized factions like those in Myanmar or regain an appreciation for Buddhist folk culture will depend on the attitudes of this base.
But the cost of the mindfulness revolution has been Buddhism’s lost monopoly on many of its core concepts. Very few of those using Buddhist practices will ever become Buddhists in a religious sense. California Buddhism is one of the most successful cultural syntheses of the last century; but as far as conversion goes, it seems that it is Buddhism that has embraced California rather than the other way around.