History of Western Buddhism

I liked this recent post detailing the evolution of Buddhism in the West. I thought it was fairly accurate, and mostly matching the research I did last year to come up with a synopsis of the history of western Buddhism for my paper.

One point of contention: though I know mindfulness originates from Buddhism, I have a bit of a tough time with the attachment to Buddhism as a necessary element of nondual spirituality as this article subtly implies.

There are a couple of schools of thought regarding how mindfulness ought to be practiced. One is that mindfulness is an aspect of Buddhism that has many benefits from practice for nearly everyone, and studies continue to show favorable impacts to brain and body, as well as psychology.

Another school of more traditional practitioners tends to advocate the need for the trappings of Buddhism as safeguard against the pitfalls folks can fall prey to after an awakening experience which might happen as a result of mindfulness practice, such as depression, meaninglessness, or spiritual bypassing. The thinking is that there’s good reason such practices were reserved for monks who only were allowed access to such teachings after much toil and labor intended to train one in correct behavior and break the habit of functioning from ego. The behavior training (and the monastery walls) would act as a safety net during  the shift from the unawakened state until full realization or ability to embody the realization is achieved.

Teachers like Adyashanti do a good job, I think, of trying to assist with this transition and many of his teachings and recordings address the fallout after spiritual realization or awakening. There are Jewish, Catholic, and other Christian teachers, philosophers, poets like Mary Oliver, and even Albert Einstein, who also speak from a nondual philosophical perspective, and what I love is how they all seem much more concerned about truth and compassion than belonging to a school of belief.

The nondual teacher who has had the greatest influence on me also cites teachers and ideas from multiple spiritual traditions in his talks. I personally tend to eschew organized religion, in general, for its rigid beliefs, in favor of what is universally applicable and accessible in spirituality. I once heard Karen Armstrong, the former nun, asked in an NPR interview what she thought the value of religion was. Her response was “practical compassion”, and she went on to say, if it doesn’t inspire practical compassion, what good is it?

The universal concepts in nondual spirituality that can be practically investigated through the use of mindfulness include:

  • Impermanence – everything changes and is in constant flow, and we suffer because we resist this fact, rather than because of the impermanence itself. Acknowledging impermanence as fact frees up much energy otherwise spent anticipation, anxiety, and depression responses (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009, p. 32-33).
  • No self – since everything changes, including the self, it is possible to investigate the nature of self, and discover that it is larger than the flow of thoughts and feelings,  and not the assumed permanent, solid entity that requires constant defending (p. 34-35).
  • Accepting what is – that suffering arises because we resist what is actually happening, and that suffering magnifies and prolongs pain, and that avoidance uses a great deal of energy. Acknowledgement of what is leads to more accurate responses to reality (p. 35-36).
  • Conscious responding versus automatic reactivity – the idea that reactive, habitual responses, such as the assumption that thinking can solve problems, which can lead to rumination. Bringing awareness to thoughts and feelings in the present moment can delay automatic responses and can lead to a better solution (p. 37-38).
  • Curiosity and investigation – the “close and careful exploration of the present moment” (p. 38) which is difficult to do when we are caught in reactivity. This involves taking a stance of openness and curiosity toward experience in order to have a direct knowing, rather than automatic labeling and judgment of it (p. 38-39). Developing this attitude leads to a more curious, less reactive response to life.
  • Paradox – involves acknowledging the duality of experience, the knowing and the not knowing, and giving oneself permission to rest in the experience of not knowing rather than engaging in a fruitless struggle to eliminate ambiguity and uncertainty (p. 39-40).
  • Interdependence – the idea that “all things are connected in a complex, multidimensional web” (p. 40), and the investigation of whether there really is a “mutually dependent web of cause and effect” (p. 41). This leads to a sense of connection and a feeling of responsibility toward others (p. 40-41).
  • Essential nature – the innate goodness of human nature, and the suffering caused by the delusion of unworthiness. Questioning unworthiness and deficiency, and examining the effects of judgment and shame in order to develop a clearer more compassionate view of self (p. 41-42).


Coleman, J. W. (2001). The new Buddhism: The Western transformation of an ancient tradition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Goldstein, J. (2002). One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Hanson, R. & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Seager, R. H. (1999). Buddhism in America. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Shapiro, S. L. & Carlson, L. E. (2009). The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.

Sharf, R. H. & Cooper, A. (2007). Losing our religion. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, 64, Summer.

Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.

About Cynthia M Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who offers somatic psychotherapy, spiritual coaching, and meditation and mindfulness instruction.
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5 Responses to History of Western Buddhism

  1. Pingback: Impact of Buddhism on Civilization | BODHIKARAM TEMPLE

  2. Kar says:

    If someone were to ask me if I am a Buddist, I’d have to say yes. And, with a side note, that once one trluey becomes a Buddist, they realize that they are trluey one with everything! To me all religions, all voices and all writings are teachings, expression of the human being working to evolve his/her potential. Buddism has a way of teaching that transcends and includes all other forms of religion. I was born Jewish. And, it wasn’t until after studying Buddism that I know have a heart to heart connection with Christ. One of my favorite quotes from Sogyal Rinpoche is: Be a Christian, practice Buddism! Buddism teaches a way of understanding mind and its potential separate from dogma or rituals. Its very easy step by step way. However, the rituals are nice to and help us to see the world from the inside-out, something the English language or any lanugauage has diffficulty doing.Thank you for the essential education link. I pray that all religions will find a path that can universally flow for all.

  3. Pingback: the 4 noble truths of Buddhism « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  4. Marcelo Jenkins says:

    i always believe that buddhism is sort of the religion of peace compared to other religions. buddhism speaks of peace all the time.*

    My favorite web page
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    • It certainly seems that way, but then, I discovered you can find fundamentalism everywhere, even in Buddhism! I think I prefer to rely on “non-duality” as the context for my current practice.

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