[Buddha-l] leaving home - culturally speaking

curt curt at cola.iges.org
Tue Dec 11 16:13:46 MST 2007

T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" famously ends with "shantih shantih 
shantih". What's up with that? It turns out that Eliot is just one of 
many Western intellectuals over the years who have been heavily 
influenced by Eastern thought in their youth, only to retreat to the 
beliefs/ideologies of their "upbringing" with advancing age. In their 
own (very different) ways Paul Williams and Stephen Batchelor have 
become two of the more recent (and high profile) members of this club.

But the Western embrace of Hinduism and Buddhism continues to progress 
slowly - despite the backsliders - if one takes a long view. Charles 
Wilkins translation of the Bhagavad Gita into English was first 
published in 1785 - it was probably read by William Blake and other 
English "Romantics". Schopenhauer wrote in 1819 that his own philosophy 
coincided closely with Buddhism (as he understood it) - even though he 
insisted that he had *not* been directly influenced by Buddhism in the 
development of his philosophy (see his "The World as Will and 
Representation", vol 2, ch 17). In the same sentence he also asserts 
that Buddhism is the "religion that the majority of men on earth hold as 
their own" - which is not as crazy as it sounds if one conflates 
Hinduism with Buddhism and adds the populations of India, Japan, China 
and "Indo-China" together! In 1800 the population of the world was 
probably around 1 billion - while the population of China alone was 
probably close to 400 million.

By 1900 the West had it's first real live Buddhist monk in the person of 
Allan Bennett - although Henry Olcott had already become a lay Buddhist 
prior to that - and even though Helena Blavatsky (Olcott's partner in 
crime) did not formally "convert" she insisted that Buddhism "came 
closer to the truth than any other exoteric form of belief". And by 1912 
Alexandra David-Neel was learning Sanskrit and Tibetan and studying 
Tantric Buddhism in Sikkhim.

But it wasn't until much later in the 20th century that larger numbers 
of Westerners converted to Buddhism and/or Hinduism. By the end of the 
20th century the rate of conversion had obviously peaked and the Sanghas 
of Buddhist/Hindu converts were decidedly aging.

Looking at the short term trend could lead to panic, but in the long run 
things are looking pretty good. 100 years ago there were only the 
tiniest handful of Western Buddhists. 100 years before that Westerners 
were just starting to have a faint (and only a very faint) idea that 
such a thing as Buddhism even existed. And 100 years before that 
converting to Buddhism, had such a thought occurred to anyone, would 
have been a serious crime.

Interest in Buddhism and Hinduism increases among Westerners during 
times when there is a combination of idealism (optimism concerning the 
human spirit) and skepticism (concerning "our own culture") - such as 
during the Romantic period and the 60's. Right now we are in a time of 
skepticism concerning the human spirit and increasing cultural 
conservatism (up to and including xenophobia) in the West. The current 
Zeitgeist simply isn't conducive to the spread of the Dharma - at least 
not the kind of spread that was seen during the 50's - 80's. But this, 
too, will pass.

Curt Steinmetz

P.S. Here are some interesting links:

"Vedic Influences on 19th Century America":

"T.S. Eliot and Indic Traditions":

"The Bhagavad-Gita and the English Romantic Movement":

More information about the buddha-l mailing list