How deeply does our Judaeo-Christian history affect how Buddhism takes root in the West? In a thought-provoking article on Buddhist Geeks, Dennis Hunter examines how Buddhism in the West has fused with the Judaeo-Christian roots of Western culture. Hunter argues against the popular notion that science and psychology are the dominant forces that have shaped Western culture’s religions and philosophies. Instead, Hunter says that we should focus more on Buddhism’s intersection with Christianity:
When Buddhism takes root in a new culture, as it has done many times before, it always fuses with elements of the native religious traditions in that culture. In India, Buddhism took on aspects of the Hindu cosmology and iconography in which it first arose. In China, it incorporated major elements of Taoism and Confucianism. In Tibet, it fused with the shamanistic Bon religion. In Japan, it mixed with Shinto. . . . If the Dharma always melds with elements of the dominant spiritual practices of a new culture, maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree by focusing so much on the intersection of Buddhism and science. Perhaps the spotlight really belongs on the intersection of Buddhism and Christianity.
According to Hunter, try as we might we cannot ignore our culture’s Judaeo-Christian heritage or pretend that it doesn’t profoundly influence the ways in which Buddhism takes root in the West. To further illustrate his point he references a story told by Tricycle contributing editor Clark Strand. Strand realized how deeply embedded his Christian beliefs when a plane he was on began plummeting towards the ground while the smell of smoke filled the cabin. Instead of reciting a Buddhist mantra, Strand found himself reciting the Jesus prayer, asking Christ for mercy before safely landing. Hunter recounts Strand’s story to suggest the depth at which Judaeo-Christian beliefs and practices are buried within us, whether we can admit to it or not. Strand himself believes that in order for Buddhism to flourish in the West, it has to build on the deeply embedded roots of our religious history:
Judaeo-Christian roots are indigenous to the soil of American culture in a way that the exotic flowers of Asian Buddhism simply are not. According to Strand, the best way to help Buddhism truly flourish here is to graft it to those roots, not to try to dig them up and replace them.
To read more about the relationship between Christianity, Buddhism, and the West, read “God Is In the Zendo,” Robert Hirschfield’s Tricycle profile of Catholic Priest and Zen teacher Father Robert Kennedy Roshi.