Buddhists as Liberals

This blog is on informal hiatus while summer research is being conducted.  A significant part of that is ethnographic fieldwork at a number of American Buddhist groups.  In sitting in on these meetings, it is hard not to notice the aspects of liberal religion that they embody.  While each of the five groups currently under study has a specific and different tradition that it explicitly connects itself to, all five are very open in their approach.  At every meeting people bring up other types of Buddhism, and even consistently bring up non-Buddhist religions and ideas, such as yoga, Vedanta, ancient Egyptian religion, Daoism, Christianity, Bahai, New Thought, Tarot, and so on.  Such “outside” influences are accepted by the other members of each group without objection, and often lead to thoughtful discussions.  Multiple interpretations of practices and texts are raised and no one tries to exert an orthodox position.  Part of this may be that none of the five groups has an in-house priest or monk as leader, but it is also a style that they seem to prefer.  For the most part, this diversity is seen as a strength by these Buddhists, as it allows a greater number of people to gather under one roof, and can enrich the sangha through multiple perspectives.

How do these five Buddhist groups, together representing the large majority of Buddhist traditions on Earth, function according to the definition of liberal religion given here previously?  They certainly acknowledge that religions change, and in fact each one has experimented regularly, slightly tweaking their ritual practice and discussing how Buddhism evolved historically.  None of them take a strictly literal approach to their core texts (many traditional Buddhists do take such an approach, though Buddhists have also consistently taken other approaches as well throughout history).  As already mentioned, they allow and even encourage multiple viewpoints in their groups and are open to finding wisdom outside of strictly Buddhist sources, which is essentially part of their overall perspective that each person must make their own decisions about religion and find the path that works best for them, a path that is not pre-programmed but arises in the dialectic between tradition and one’s unique situation and personality.

Other trends identified with liberal religion tend to hold up too.  These Buddhists, most of whom are converts, are generally politically liberal and environmentalist.  They value individualism and believe in human perfectionism, and think science and religion should work in harmony.  Most are fairly restrained in their emotional expressions, and while some of the most hardcore meditators are overtly anti-intellectual, in general the majority esteem reason as a tool in religious pursuits.

Buddhism as a total phenomenon cannot be categorized as liberal, but in America groups such as these certainly function in liberal religious ways.  They are part of the story of American liberal religion and have been for decades.  Scholars of liberal religious history would do well to pay them greater attention.

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1 Comment

Filed under Buddhism, Defining Liberal Religion

One response to “Buddhists as Liberals

  1. This syncretic ‘buddhism’ is typical of the west. A more ‘authoritarian’ stream is typical of the east. Buddhism does adapt to the circumstances of the society it finds itself in. Whereas is some traditional places the underpinnings of the philosophy are not different from the culture of the society, in the west we find ourselves looking for a more sound philosophical ground and so look everywhere, with liberty-of-self as the ground of understanding.

    I know that I find for myself, after years of undirected self-searching, other-sourced Buddhism, a need for a more ‘authouritive’ relationship.

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