Monthly Archives: October 2018

Protestant Buddhism

You may stumble into the term “Protestant Buddhism,” especially on the Web. If you don’t know what that means, don’t feel left out. There are lots of people using the term today who don’t know what it means, either.

In the context of a lot of current Buddhist criticism, “Protestant Buddhism” appears to refer to a tepid western approximation of Buddhism, practiced mostly by upper-income whites, and characterized by an emphasis on self-improvement and rigidly enforced niceness. But that’s not what the term originally meant.

Origin of the Term

The original Protestant Buddhism grew out of a protest, and not in the West, but in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, became a British territory in 1796. At first Britain declared it would respect the people’s dominant religion, Buddhism. But this declaration raised a furor among evangelical Christians in Britain, and the government quickly backtracked.

Instead, Britain’s official policy became one of conversion, and Christian missionaries were encouraged to open schools all over Ceylon to give the children a Christian education. For Sinhalese Buddhists, conversion to Christianity became a prerequisite for business success.

Late in the 19th century Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) became the leader of a Buddhist protest/revival movement. Dharmapala also was a modernist who promoted a vision of Buddhism as a religion compatible with science and western values, such as democracy. It is charged that Dharmapala’s understanding of Buddhism bore traces of his Protestant Christian education in the missionary schools.

The scholar Gananath Obeyesekere, currently an emeritus professor of anthropology at Princeton University, is credited with coining the phrase “Protestant Buddhism.” It describes this 19th century movement, both as a protest and ask an approach to Buddhism that was influenced by Protestant Christianity.

The Protestant Influences

As we look at these so-called Protestant influences, it’s important to remember that this applies mostly to the conservative Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and not to Buddhism as a whole.

For example, one of these influences was a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. In Sri Lanka and many other Theravada countries, traditionally only monastics practiced the full Eightfold Path, including meditation; studied the sutras; and might possibly realize enlightenment. Laypeople were mostly just told to keep the Precepts and to make merit by giving alms to monks, and perhaps in a future life they might be monastics themselves.

Mahayana Buddhism already had rejected the idea that only a select few could walk the path and realize enlightenment. For example, the Vimalakirti Sutra (ca. 1st century CE) centers on a layman whose enlightenment surpassed even the Buddha’s disciples. A central theme of the Lotus Sutra (ca. 2nd century CE) is that all beings will realize enlightenment.

That said — As explained by Obeyesekere and also by Richard Gombrich, currently president of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, the elements of Protestantism adopted by Dharmapala and his followers included the rejection of a clerical “link” between the individual and enlightenment and an emphasis on individual spiritual effort. If you are familiar with early Protestantism vis à vis Catholicism, you will see the resemblance.

However, this “reformation,” so to speak, was not with Asian Buddhism as a whole but with Buddhist institutions in some parts of Asia as they existed a century ago. And it was led primarily by Asians.

One Protestant “influence” explained by Obeyesekere and Gombrich is that “religion is privatized and internalized: the truly significant is not what takes place at a public celebration or in ritual, but what happens inside one’s own mind or soul.” Notice that this is the same criticism leveled by the historical Buddha against the Brahmins of his day — that direct insight was the key, not rituals.

Modern or Traditional; East Versus West

Today you can find the phrase “Buddhist Protestantism” being used to describe Buddhism in the West generally, particularly Buddhism practiced by converts. Often the term is juxtaposed with the “traditional” Buddhism of Asia. But the reality is not that simple.

First, Asian Buddhism is hardly monolithic. In many ways, including the roles and relationship of clergy and laypeople, there is considerable difference from one school and nation to another.

Second, Buddhism in the West is hardly monolithic. Don’t assume that the self-described Buddhists you met in a yoga class are representative of the whole.

Third, many cultural influences have impacted Buddhism as it has developed in the West. The first popular books about Buddhism written by westerners generally were more infused with European Romanticism or American Transcendentalism than with traditional Protestantism, for example. It’s also a mistake to make “Buddhist modernism” a synonym for western Buddhism. Many leading modernists have been Asians; some western practitioners are keen on being as “traditional” as possible.

A rich and complex cross-pollination has been going on for more than a century that has shaped Buddhism both East and West. Trying to shove all that into a concept of “Buddhist Protestantism” doesn’t do it justice. The term needs to be retired.

For a well-written and well-informed explanation of this cross-pollination, see The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan.

Anagarika Dharmapala: Buddhist Revivalist and Modernist

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was a Buddhist modernist who deeply influenced the early development of Buddhism in the West. He also played a leading role in the revival of Buddhism in his native Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and other parts of Asia.

Ceylon had been partly or entirely controlled by European nations since the early 16th century, and wherever European ships landed, Christian missionaries were not far behind. In 1796 control passed from the Dutch to the British, and Ceylon became a British colony. The British government encouraged the Christian missionaries to,open schools throughout the island to convert the people of Ceylon from Buddhism. By the mid-19th century, Buddhist institutions in Ceylon were fading, and the people were largely ignorant of the spiritual tradition of their ancestors.

It was into this anglicized, Christianized Ceylon that Dharmapala was born.

Dharmapala began life in 1864 as David Hewavitharane, a son of one of the wealthiest families in Colombo, and he was educated in the best British Christian academies in Ceylon. As a child he also came to enjoy spending time among Buddhist monks, even when he didn’t understand what they were talking about.

Among the Theosophists

David Hewavitharane was only 16 when the spiritualist Madame Blavatsky and her companion, Henry Steel Olcott, arrived in Ceylon. The pair publicly took the refuges at a large temple in Galle. After centuries of being told by whites that Christianity was the superior religion, the “white Buddhists” were embraced by the people of Ceylon.

Blavatsky and Olcott lit a fire in young Hewavitharane, and he soon fell into their orbit. The westerners had created a new religion by blending together elements of Asian traditions with big doses of western Transcendentalism and 19th century Orientalism, calling their beliefs”Theosophy.” Hewavitharane traveled with the pair, sometimes acting as translator. He worked with Olcott to establish Buddhist schools in Ceylon.

During this time he renounced his English name and began to call himself Anagarika (“homeless one”) Dharmapala (“protector of the dharma”). He didn’t take monks’ vows until very near the end of his life, but as a lay “home leaver” he vowed to keep the Eight Uposatha Precepts daily, and not just on special observance days. He ditched western clothing in favor of simple white or yellow robes that would not be mistaken for monks’ robes.

In time, however, Dharmapala broke off his association with the Theosophists. Olcott and Blavatsky held on to the Transcendentalist ideal of a universal religion, of which all established religious traditions are only fragments. Dharmapala came to see the dharma as the supreme truth, and he thought the westerners’ belief in a Universal Soul was more Hindu than Buddhist.

Spreading the Dharma

After his split with the Theosophists, Dharmapala became a leader in his own right. He worked to restore Buddhism to its central place in the culture of Ceylon. He also called for independence from Britain.

His influence spread beyond Ceylon when he co-founded the Mahabodhi Society in 1891. This organization restored Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha realized enlightenment, as a Buddhist pilgrimage site.

In 1993 Dharmapala traveled to Chicago to take part in the World Parliament of Religions. He and Rinzai Zen master Soyen Shaku both addressed the assembly. Although there had been Buddhist priests and teachers in the West for a few decades, this was arguably the first time non-ethnic Asian Americans heard about Buddhism from Buddhists on western soil.

The 29-year-old Dharmapala was a sensation. Press reports glowingly described his all-white robes, his black curly hair, and his gentle, refined face. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he spoke excellent English and had a good understanding of western culture, thanks to those British Christian academies.

Philosopher and author Paul Carus invited Dharmapala back to America a few more times to present talks on Buddhism, and so his influence in the West lasted long after the Parliament.

On one of his trips to America, Dhammapala stopped in London to visit author Edwin Arnold, whose Light of Asia was one of the first popular books about Buddhism published in English. The London trip inspired him to establish a small Theravada monastery in London; The London Buddhist Vihara opened in 1926.

Buddhist Modernism

In the West, Dharmapala “pitched” Buddhism to appeal to modernists who were seeking a spiritual tradition that was pro-science and anti-supernatural, a view of Buddhism that is still widely held in the West today.

His timing could not have been better. In the late 19th century Christianity was reeling from the challenge of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and psychology was just emerging as a new branch of science. Dharmapala wove science together with Buddhist teaching, arguing that the Buddha had taught things science was just beginning to discover.

In many ways Dharmapala’s presentation was a re-tooling of Buddhism, emphasizing some aspects of the teachings while de-emphasizing others. But it was brilliantly done, and it worked. Dharmapala’s influence on modern Buddhism can still be felt, in Asia as well as the West.

Dharmapala continued to lecture and write about Buddhism and to call for Ceylon’s independence from Britain. He was ordained a monk shortly before his death at the age of 68.