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The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition

by James William Coleman

Buy the book: James William Coleman. The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition

Release Date: January, 2001

Edition: Hardcover


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Buy the book: James William Coleman. The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition

On contemporary American Zen, Tibetan, & Vipassana Buddhism

This is an interesting and readable exploration of the "new Buddhism" in the West--that is, the meditation-oriented Buddhism (Zen, Tibetan, and Vipassana) practiced mainly by "converts," as opposed to the Buddhism practiced mainly by Asian immigrants and their offspring. Coleman, a sociologist and a practicing Buddhist, takes a look at the history, practices, teachings, demographics, problems, and trajectory of this new Buddhism. Although the book is ostensibly about "Western" Buddhism, it's actually mainly about American Buddhism, with occasional mentions of British Buddhism.

I think this book will especially be of interest to practitioners of the "new Buddhism" who want to learn more about our history and our fellow practitioners. It could also be used as a text in a college course on Buddhism or on American religion. (If you want to learn about all the major forms of Buddhism in the U.S., I would recommend Richard Hughes Seager's "Buddhism in America," which includes chapters on Jodo Shinshu and Soka Gakkai as well as Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada Buddhism.)

After an introductory chapter, Chs. 2 and 3 provide an excellent overview of the history of Buddhism in Asia and in the West, including the main schools, practices, and teachings. Coleman does an impressive job of covering the important points in a small space while also keeping it interesting. Ch. 4 discusses in detail the practices and beliefs of Zen, Tibetan, and Vipassana Buddhism and their similarities and differences. Ch. 5, "Sex, Power, and Conflict," explores issues of gender, sexual passion, and homosexuality in the history of Buddhism and in the new Buddhism and examines the scandals revolving around sex and power in Buddhist centers in the 1980s. Ch. 6 includes a look at the demographics of the new Buddhism. (I hadn't realized just how well educated and how liberal we are. Of Coleman's sample of 359 members of seven Buddhist centers, 83% were college graduates, and 51% had advanced degrees; 60% were Democrats, only 2.6% Republicans, and 9.9% Greens.) Ch. 6 also describes the typical path that Westerners follow into Buddhism and considers reasons for Buddhism's growing popularity. And Ch. 7 briefly considers the future of Buddhism in the West.

From Amazon.com

American Buddhism Today

Professor Coleman's book combines sociology, history, and philsophy in studying how and why the ancient and varied Eastern teachings of Buddhism have gained a foothold in the United States. This is no dry academic treatise. Professor Coleman has himself been a practicing Buddhist for fifteen years and brings to the book something of his own understanding of and commitment to Buddhist practice.

It is important to understand the scope of Professor Coleman's study and his manner of investigation. His study of Buddhism in America is limited to those groups in which Americans have attempted to establish their own Buddhist communities based upon their understanding of the three Buddhist traditions that have become most common in the United States: Zen, Tibetan, and Vipassana (Theravada). The focus of American Buddhism, unlike some of its Asian counterparts is on meditation rather than on devotional ritual. The study thus excludes ethinc Buddhism, which consists predominantly of recent immigrants from Asia (although many Westerners also attend these predominantly immigrant sanghas), and forms of Buddhism such as Pure Land and Soka Gakki which do not emphasize meditiation and which appeal to a somewhat different group of Western practitioners. After so defining the scope of his study, Professor Coleman explains that he has conducted his investigation by means of an extensive survey (reprinted in the book), by reading the available literature, and by interviews.

The book gives a brief history of Buddhism in the United States beginning in the late Nineteenth Century. Some of this ground was covered in Rick Fields's book "How the Swans Came to the Lake." This is followed by one of the clearest brief summaries I have read of the history of Asian Buddhism and of the multiplicity of schools and traditions that confront the American beginning a study of Buddhism.

The book then proceeds to discuss practice and beliefs at several prominent sanghas in the United States representing each of the Zen, Tibetan and Vipassana traditions. Coleman obviously understands his material from the inside, as well as from academic research, and he conveys it well.

There is a great deal in the book on the difficulties that Western Buddhism has encountered, many of which are of its own making in the establishment of a new religious approach in the United States. He describes the conflicts and scandals involving sex and power that plagued much of the American Buddhist community in the 1980s. He offers his views on the source of these embarrassments as well as opinions on how they may be avoided as Buddhism may continue to develop in our country.

Beyond the factual analysis, the best portions of the book are those in the beginning chapter and in the concluding chapters in which Coleman analyses the appeal of Buddhism to the educated, upper-middle class, politically left of center, and generally caucasian individuals that tend to be predominant in the Buddhist movements under consideration. He offers a multi-level analysis based upon the withering of old class distinctions resulting from democracy, the industrial revolution, and post-modernism. These developments have tended to result in a secularization of society and in an attempt by individuals to attempt to construct an identity, or sense of self for themselves. It is when a person comes to the view that in searching for selfhood, he or she is acting in a misdirected way that the person may be ready to learn from Buddhism which teaches, as Coleman rightly points out, the absence of a self and identifies the belief in a fixed self as the source of suffering and error.

Coleman recognizes the difficulties in the Buddhist transplant to the West, ranging from the problems with new ideas to more mundane matters such as finding the time to meditiate and go on retreat in the face of demanding work lives and family commitments. He does see Buddhism as having something to teach the West and cautiously predicts a continued growth of a distinctly American form of Buddhism.

This is a good, thoughtful discussion of Western Buddhism that can be read with benefit by those new to the subject and by those who have been involved with Buddhism for many years.

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