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The Integration of Buddhism into Western Society

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by Sangharakshita

Tape DE02: The Integration of Buddhism into Western Society

(with German translation - not transcribed)

Madam chairman, venerable teachers, members of the Buddhist sangha, with and without robes,
and friends!

The integration of Buddhism into western society is a very deep subject and it isn't really possible
for me to deal with it systematically in the course of the time at my disposal. I therefore propose
to deal with the subject unsystematically, not to say subjectively. I shall deal with it by telling
you something about my own interaction with western society after I have spent 20 years in the
east. I returned to England in 1964 and in 1967 I started a new Buddhist movement: The friends
of the western Buddhist order. Thus after 20 years in the east, 17 of them as a Buddhist monk, I
was interacting with western society. After 20 years that western society seemed very strange to
me. Not only had I been living the simple live of a Buddhist monk, I had been leading that life
within the context of a traditional culture. And western society was far from having a traditional
culture. Moreover, wartime austerities had been replaced by post-war prosperity. Manners and
morals had changed, not always for the better. People spoke differently, they dressed differently,
and they behaved differently. So this was the society with which I was now interacting. This was
the society with which, after my 20 years in the east, I was trying to integrate Buddhism, when I
started the friends of the western Buddhist order.

So what was the initial point of my interaction. My initial point of interaction was meditation. In
1967 I started conducting weekly meditation classes. I conducted them in a very tiny basement
room in central London. And subsequently I compared this room, in which the FWBO began its
existence, to the catacombs, that is to say the catacombs in which the early Christians took refuge
from persecution. We were something of an underground movement.

In these meditation classes I taught two methods of meditation. I taught the awareness of in and
out breathing, known in Pali as the anapanasati, and I taught the development of universal
friendliness, or metta bhavana, and these two methods are now taught throughout the FWBO. I
am not going to elaborate on the subject of meditation. Other speakers have touched upon it and
will be touching upon it, so I need not elaborate upon it. So I noticed that very soon the people
attending these meditation classes began to experience the benefits of these practises. Their
minds became calmer and clearer. They felt happier. And this of course was only to be expected.
There are many different definitions of meditation, but a simple definition is that meditation is,
or consists in, the raising of the level of consciousness by working directly on the mind itself.
Thus the integration of Buddhism into western society involves to begin with the raising of the
level of consciousness of a least some of the people who make up that society.

Now when I'd been conducting my meditation classes for a few months, the FWBO held the first
of its retreats. 15 or 20 of us spent a week together in the countryside. We spent part of our time
meditating, we spent part of it engaged in various devotional practices, and we spent some of it
engaged in discussion, discussion of the dharma. Some of the people on the retreat had come just
because they wanted to deepen their experience of meditation, and this they were able to do. But
this was not all. Those taking part in the retreat found that simply being away from the city, away
from their jobs, away form their families, and in the company of other Buddhists, and with
nothing to think about except the dharma, they found that this by itself was sufficient to raise
their level of consciousness. So here then was another point of interaction. The level of
consciousness of the people who make up western society could be raised not only by meditation,

Lecture DE02: The Integration of Buddhism into Western Society


Page 1

not only by working directly on the mind itself, it could also be raised by changing the
conditions under which those people lived. It could be raised by changing the environment. It
could be raised, at least to some extent, by changing society. The integration of Buddhism into
western society therefore involves changing western society. Inasmuch as our level of
consciousness is affected by external conditions it is not enough for us to work directly on the
mind itself through meditation, as though it was possible for us to isolate ourselves from society
or to ignore the conditions under which we and others lived. We must change western society,
and change it in such a way as to make it easier for us to live within that society, lives dedicated
to the dharma. To the extent that western society has not been change by Buddhism, to that
extent Buddhism has not been integrated into western society. In order to change western society
it will be necessary for us to create western Buddhism institutions, western Buddhist lifestyles. I
shall have something to say about some of these institutions in a minute.

At the time I was conducting meditation classes and retreats, during the first few years of the
FWBO’s existence, I was also delivering public lectures. In these lectures I sought to
communicate the fundamental ideas, or fundamental concepts, of Buddhism. I sought to
communicate them moreover in a way that that was both intelligible to a western audience and
faithful to Buddhist tradition. So here was yet another point of interaction with western society.
The integration of Buddhism into western society involves the introduction of Buddhist ideas into
western intellectual discourse. By Buddhist ideas I do not mean doctrinal refinements, or
philosophical subtleties. I mean ideas so fundamental that Buddhists themselves often take them
for granted, and fail to realise their full significance. Such, for example, is the idea, the concept,
that religion does not necessarily involve belief in the existence of god. It does not necessarily
involve belief in the existence of a creator and ruler of the universe. As well as the idea that it
possible for us to lead an ethical and spiritual live and to raise the level of ones consciousness
without invoking the aid of any outside supernatural power. If Buddhism is to be integrated into
western society, ideas, concepts of this fundamental kind will have to become familiar to all
educated Europeans and Americans.

But to return to western Buddhist institutions, to return to the institutions which we must create
if western society is to be changed and if Buddhism it to be integrated into that society. When the
FWBO had held a few retreats, some of the people who had taken part in them, who'd taken part
in them regularly, started to feel that they wanted to prolong that experience. They wanted to live
with other Buddhist, they wanted to have more time for the practise of the dharma. So in this
way there came into existence what came to be called residential spiritual communities. The
members of these communities meditated together every morning, they ate together, they studied
the dharma together, they encouraged one another in their Buddhist live, and when necessary they
confessed to each other. That was 20 or more years ago. Now the FWBO has scores of residential
spiritual communities, in a number of countries. Some of these communities are small, some are
large, up to 30 people. Some community members have outside jobs, that is to say secular jobs in
the outside world, while others work full-time within the FWBO. The most successful, and
perhaps the most typical kind of FWBO spiritual community, is what we call a single sex
community. A community consisting either of men only or women only. We have had some
mixed communities in the past, mixed sex communities, including those containing families, but
we found that they have not worked very well as communities and have not lasted very long.
However, some of women's communities contain both women and children, small children. And
this arrangement does seem to work quite well. Thus we change western society, thereby
integrating Buddhism into that society, by creating western Buddhist institutions, in this case the
institution of the residential spiritual community.

Lecture DE02: The Integration of Buddhism into Western Society


Page 2

Another western Buddhist institution is what we call the team-based right-livelihood business.
Here the point of interaction with western society is economic. Some of the people who were
living together in WBO residential spiritual communities, but who had outside jobs, started to
feel that they wanted to work together. In some ...

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