The Sociological Implications for Contemporary Buddhism in the United Kingdom: Socially Engaged Buddhism, a Case Study

Article excerpt


Buddhist Studies has, for well over a century, been seen by many in the academy as the domain of philologists and others whose skills are essentially in the translation and interpretation of texts derived from ancient languages like classical Chinese, Pali, Sanskrit, and its hybrid variations, together with the commentarial tradition that developed alongside it. Only in the last thirty-five years has there been an increasing number of theses, journal articles, and other academic texts that have seriously addressed the developments of a Western Buddhism as opposed to Buddhism in the West. As Prebish (2002:66) attests, based on his own 1975 experience of teaching Buddhism in the United States, "Even a casual perusal of the most popular books used as texts in introductory courses on Buddhism at that time reveals that Western Buddhism was not included in the discipline called Buddhist Studies."

Fundamentally, this paper addresses Buddhist identity in contemporary settings, and asks what it means to be Buddhist in the West today. This is the overarching theme of my doctoral research into socially engaged Buddhism in the United Kingdom, which addresses the question of how socially engaged Buddhism challenges the notion of what it means to be Buddhist in the twenty-first century. The scope of this paper is to portray part of that work, and, in so doing, it suggests methodological approaches for students of Western Buddhism, using my research into the identity of socially engaged Buddhists in the United Kingdom as a case study.

It is, however, divided into three themes. First, it presents socially engaged Buddhism and the difficulties that it presents to Western Buddhist Studies in the areas of identity, authenticity, and validity. Second, it delineates an assessment of the sub-discipline that has become the study of Western Buddhism in the United States, and its significance for the United Kingdom. In that context it addresses, briefly, the question of a globalized Western Buddhism, and, having made a case for it, explores a number of recent findings in U.S. scholarship, drawing on parallels with my own research. Finally, it examines how Western Buddhism is interpreted using sociological methods of investigation and suggests an ethnographic style of investigation appropriate for researchers in the field. As part of the case study evidence, I draw on the preliminary findings of a survey of socially engaged Buddhists conducted in the United Kingdom.

Sociology, when applied to studies of Buddhist groups and organizations (lay or monastic, ethnic or convert, or in combination), seeks to answer questions relative to both the place of Western Buddhism in contemporary society and what it means to be Buddhist in that environment. Of concern to scholars in the United States, and me, in my research, are questions about the nature of Western Buddhist identity. Queen (1999:xiv), indicates, in his description of Western Buddhism, that it can be seen as "religious identities in transition." The question of identity is key in assessing what Hinnells (1997b:64) infers when he claims, "A religion is what it has become." It is at this theme of identity in transition that (in part) my research is aimed. The debate addresses a number of phenomena that supports the notion of changing Buddhist identities in the West, which takes account of the sociocultural transmission of Buddhism into Western cultures. The apolitical, otherworldly stereotypes presented by Weber (1958) and others are not a feature of an engaged Buddhist worldview, which embraces social and political cultures, and acts out a Buddhist lifestyle challenging the moral and ethical infrastructure of society from a number of standpoints. Not least from the perspectives of human rights, ecology, and social degradation, as well as moral and ethical positions taken in relation to war and peace, including arms trading and the proliferation of the seeming "armed enforcement of democracy" in the world, as highlighted by the unprecedented Buddhist support for the "stop the war" campaign in the United Kingdom over the Iraq war. …


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