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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 4. More Meditations

Chapter 15. Assimilating Buddhism

The migration of Buddhism to the West is bound to produce something new in many respects. Shunryu Suzuki[1] admitted as much when he said to his students: “Here in America we cannot define Zen Buddhists the same way we do in Japan…. You are on your way to discovering some appropriate way of life.”

This would not be a phenomenon particular to Buddhism, but concerns any religion or cultural product. We can observe for example the movement of Christianity into Africa, South America and Asia. In each case, there are noticeable differences from the European original. And indeed, even among Europeans (and North Americans), Christianity has a variety of expressions. The same applies to Buddhism in Asia, and can be expected to apply to Buddhism in North America and Europe.

How did Buddhism migrate westward? First, Europeans came in contact with Buddhism (and other Oriental religions) in Asia. Some there showed their curiosity and willingness to learn, and eventually brought back some oral teachings, practices and texts to Europe. They gave lectures, and wrote articles and books, passing on Buddhist ideas. Documents were translated, as conscientiously as possible, both by Westerners and Orientals. Eventually, some Orientals came to Europe and North America to teach in person.

Translation is impossible without some interpretation. Every teacher carries a large part of tradition, but also a small part of personal interpretation. Necessarily, when any religion or cultural product arrives at a new region or country, it has to mix somewhat with the local culture, resulting in a new variation on the theme[2]. However purist the recipients try to be, their vision cannot help but be colored to some extent by their cultural antecedents. This is true of peoples – and it is true of individuals.

Some individuals pick and choose what pleases them in the import, while others try to go all the way and become orthodox. But whatever external appearances suggest, what goes on inside each individual is a commonplace process of assimilation of new ideas. Each individual has to digest the new outlook in accord with his or her personal psychological and intellectual parameters. In some cases, some rejection sooner or later occurs; in some cases, the individual finds his or her needs largely satisfied.

My own writing on Buddhism can accordingly be regarded as an account of my personal reactions, as a Western and Jewish philosopher, and especially as a logician, to this incoming wave of ideas, at a particular place and time. I am not standing aloof on some pedestal. I make no claim to superiority or omniscience, but simply share my thoughts – frankly evaluating, criticizing, praising, rejecting, adapting, and conflating as seems appropriate. Not liking to be fooled or intimidated, I try not to take anything for granted; but I keep an open mind and a humble willingness to learn.

I have certainly over time learnt a lot, and often been pleasantly surprised and affected. I am always grateful for any knowledge, wisdom or virtue transmitted to me. Certainly, Buddhism – and the Orient in general – has a lot to teach us. I do not however believe it is omniscient and immune to feedback and correction. I do believe the philosophical and spiritual confluence of East and West can be of benefit to both sides; it is not a one-way street, either way. With maturity, we can jointly evolve some common understanding and direction.

[1] P. 133.

[2] An interesting example, because of its overt and extreme eclecticism, is the Cao Dai religion in Vietnam.

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