The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition
by James William Coleman
Oxford University Press: New York, 2000
256 pp.; $25.00 (cloth)

The “New Buddhism” in the title of James Coleman’s The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition refers to forms of Buddhism that have been pursued by Western converts since the 1960s. These include Zen, Vajrayana, Vipassana, and various “nonaffiliated” groups such as the Community of Mindful Living, and Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. Coleman distinguishes this “new Buddhism” from the “ethnic” Buddhism practiced by Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, on the one hand, and from Soka Gakkai, on the other. Although Coleman emphasizes the need for taking “an objective outside view of the new Buddhism,” his book often reads more like a manifesto for the new Buddhism than a study of it.

Coleman is a professor of sociology at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and has been a practicing Buddhist for fifteen years. His book grew out of research focused on seven groups representing different aspects of the new Buddhism: the Berkeley and Rochester Zen Centers; Karma Dzong in Boulder and Dzogchen Foundation in Boston; two Bay Area Vipassana groups affiliated with Spirit Rock (one led by Gil Fronsdal and the other by James Baraz); and one “nonaffiliated” group, the White Heron Sangha in San Luis Obispo (affiliated with the Community of Mindful Living in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh). He administered a questionnaire to members of these groups, conducted in-depth interviews, and engaged in the activities of at least some of them as a participant-observer.

Coleman’s study is the first “broadly based attempt to measure the demographics of the new Buddhism,” and as such it makes an important contribution to the growing literature on American Buddhism. Of the 359 people who answered his survey, 58 percent were women, underlining the important presence of women among the new Buddhists. Respondents were “overwhelming white” and tended to be middle and upper-middle class, well educated, and liberal. Jews were disproportionately represented (16.5 percent), and most respondents were baby boomers; 62.5 percent acknowledged having used psychedelics.

The book, however, goes beyond this research base and tries to describe the new Buddhism as a whole by examining its history, practices, and problems. It thus offers chapters on the history of Buddhism in Asia and the West, the practices and beliefs of the new Buddhists, and the problems experienced by various new Buddhist groups in regard to sex and power. Without succumbing to scandal-mongering, Coleman discusses some of the incidents of abuse of sex, alcohol, and power that so rocked the new Buddhist groups in the 1980s. He discusses both the traumatic effect that they had and the organizational changes that resulted from them. Coleman’s training as a social scientist enables him to frame his reflections in the broader context of the strains involved in the process of adapting Buddhism to an American cultural setting. And his viewpoint as a Buddhist practitioner allows him to treat the psychological, moral, and spiritual impact of these events with sensitivity.

Coleman is on less sure footing when he attempts to locate the new Buddhism in its historical context. The problems resulting from this shortcoming are not merely a matter of occasional lapses in historical judgment or getting a fact wrong, because his misunderstanding of the Asian tradition colors his conclusions about the character of the new Buddhism. These shortcomings, however, are instructive for what they reveal about the ideology of the new Buddhism.

In a representative passage, Coleman asserts: “Buddhism as refracted through the prism of late Western modernity certainly bears a family resemblance to all its Asian ancestors, yet the most striking likeness [of the new Buddhism] is to the original �Buddhism’ Siddhartha Gautama first taught in India over two millennia ago.” As a historical claim, this statement is preposterous. Aside from the difficulty, if not sheer impossibility, of determining the “original” Buddhism taught by Siddhartha Gautama, this statement flies in the face of everything that is now known about early Buddhism, which began as a renunciatory, celibate movement. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine an ethos that could be more different from that of the new Buddhism Coleman seeks to describe.

This statement also recalls the opening declaration of the book: “This [new] Buddhism is fundamentally different from anything that has gone before, yet, in the best tradition of Buddhist logic, it remains at its core completely unchanged from the moment of Siddhartha Gautama’s great realization under the bodhi tree.” Both statements belong to the order of faith claims. Even though they have no validity as historical descriptions, they are interesting for what they reveal about the beliefs held by at least some of Coleman’s “new Buddhists.” We might well ask how such statements, looked at in this way, could be seen as a strategy of legitimation by which new Buddhists justify innovation in a way that renders the inconvenience of “Asian Buddhism” irrelevant. But is the attempt to recover the “original” inspiration of the religious “founder” really so new or unique in the history of Buddhism? How have other Buddhists used the strategy of “returning to the source” to deal with the problem of accommodating an inherited tradition to a new historical and cultural situation? What is the mythical structure behind such pseudo-historical claims? What is their function in the creation of tradition? And how are they wielded to call into question other forms of Buddhism? Such reflection might help better locate the “new Buddhism” within the long history of Buddhism.

One of the main problems with the book, then, is that it uncritically takes historical claims by new Buddhists for historically valid descriptions about Buddhism. It thus often mistakes a subjective inside view of the new Buddhism for the “objective outside view” that the author called for in his introduction. ▼