Buddhism in the Western World
Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula
The history of Buddhism in the Western world goes back to a period
before the Christian era. First there were those
contacts and inter-cultural influences which gave Buddhism a hearing in the world
into which Christianity was born and developed. Secondly, there were
outstanding scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who presented
Buddhism to the Western world through editions and translations of Buddhist
scriptures and their research. Finally, certain misrepresentations of Buddhism which persist in the minds of Westerners need to be
removed and a brief positive account of what Buddhism has to offer to our
modern world presented.
The Buddha lived in India
in the sixth century B.C. The first historical and important confrontation
between the classical East and the classical West took place in the fourth
century B.C. when Alexander the Great invaded India.
He was no ordinary soldier. As a pupil of Aristotle,
he deeply appreciated cultural values, and in his expedition was
a large number of scholars and artists for cultural exchanges. It is reasonable
to suppose that the knowledge of Indian culture these Greek intellectuals and
artists took back to their country included some acquaintance with Buddhism. As
a result of this meeting of East and West, diplomatic relations were
established and maintained between several Greek rulers and India's Court of Pataliputra (modern Patna), the
capital of the Maurya Empire.
In the third century B.C., the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India, sometimes described as the Buddhist
Constantine, in three of his Edicts (Rock Edicts II, V and XIII), engraved on
rocks and still extant, declared that he had established a ministry of
religious affairs (called Dharma-mahamatra) to
spread the Dharma and to promote moral and religious life among the
people, and that he had sent successful 'Missions of Piety' to some Greek
territories in addition to various parts of his own empire. He mentions
by name five Greek kings to whom these missions were sent.
They have been identified as Antiochus
II of Syria
(261-246 B.C.), Ptolemy II
(285-247 B.C.), Antigonas Gonatas of Macedonia
(276-246 B.C.), Magas of Cyrene
(300-258 B.C.) and Alexander of Epirus (272-258 B.C.). There can be no
reasonable doubt that Asoka's envoys' or 'missionaries' (Duta)
spread a knowledge of Buddhism in these Greek
territories, where Judaism was already known.
A few years ago an Edict of Asoka in both
Greek and Aramaic languages was discovered in Afghanistan.
(It is interesting to note that Aramaic was the language of Christ.)
Very recently another Edict in Greek only, not as yet
published, was discovered in the same country. The contents of these Edicts are
more or less the same as those of Asoka's 'Edicts of Dharma' (Dharmalipi)
discovered in India.
It is now believed that almost all Asoka's Indian Edicts
were published simultaneously in Greek too for the benefit of Greek speaking
'The Questions of Milinda' (The Milinda-panha), the well-known Buddhist text in Pali language written about the first century after Christ
(A.C.), reports a discussion on some important Buddhist doctrinal problems
between a king named Milinda and the Buddhist
scholar-saint Nagasena. This king has been identified
as the Greek king Menandros, who ruled over the north?western part of India
in the first century B.C.
' The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka' (The Mahavamsa), written in the fifth century A.C., but
based on earlier material, says that in the first century B.C. a delegation of
Buddhist monks from the Greek city of Alexandria (Yona-nagara-Alasanda),
led by the Greek Elder Dhammarakkhita the Great,
attended the inauguration ceremony of the Great Stupa
(now called Ruvanvali-saya), at Anurdhapura
in Sri Lanka. Whether this refers to Alexandria
in Egypt or
some other Alexandria, it was a
Greek city where an important Buddhist community existed.
Clement of Alexandria, one
of the 'early Church fathers', in the closing decade of the second century A.C.,
says that among the 'barbarians' whose philosophy came to Greece
were 'those who obey the precepts of Buddha'.
Numerous scattered references like these indicate the existence of
Buddhism in the West in those early days. There should be no doubt as to the
Buddhist influence on the Greek world and on early Christianity. The Christian
monastery itself seems to have been influenced by the
Buddhist monachism. It is well-known
that Buddhists were the first in history to establish and organize cenobitic monasteries. Yet, curiously, no documents
pertaining to Buddhism in the West in those early days are to be found today. One wonders whether they were destroyed by
nature or perished at the hand of narrow?minded
fanaticism. The influence of Buddhism and Indian thought on Western culture
especially during those formative Christian centuries would provide serious
students with numerous subjects of research.
After a silence of many centuries, the West began to hear of Buddhism
again about the beginning of the sixteenth century. Christian missionaries who
went from Europe to the East sent back reports which understandably were biased and misleading,
full of prejudgements and misunderstandings. But the valuable contributions made by some Christian
missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ought not to be
The serious study of Buddhism began in the West in the early nineteenth
century. If what follows should seem to be no more than a bead?roll
of the names of those to whom the Western world today owes its knowledge of the
Buddha and his teaching, attention has to be drawn to those who founded the
study of Buddhism in faculties and universities all over the world.
A summary of the nineteenth century advance in Western studies of
Buddhism must begin with the German philosopher Schopenhauer
(1788-1860), who awakened an interest among Western philosophers and
intellectuals through his references to Buddhism which
he greatly admired. But the credit for initiating the systematic and scientific
study of Buddhism goes to the French Orientalist
Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852) with the publication in
1826 of his pioneer work Essai sur
le Pali, in collaboration with the German scholar
Lassen. (Among his other works should be mentioned L'Introduction d I'Histoire
du Bouddhisme indien (1844) and his translation of the well-known
Mahayana Buddhist Sanskrit sutra called Saddharma-pundarika
(1852).) Among Burnouf's eminent pupils was
the German Indologist Max
Miiller. One may consider Burnouf
as the father of Buddhist studies in the West.
The work initiated by Burnouf was continued in Paris
by researches and publications of original texts and translations. The greatest
worker in this field was Sylvain
Levi (1863-1935), who discovered and
published rare Mahayana Buddhist Sanskrit texts with his translations. His work
opened up new fields of research in Buddhist philosophy and history. The great
French tradition established by Burnouf and Levi is
being most successfully continued today by a brilliant pupilary
succession: Paul Demieville, Louis Renou, Jean Filliozat, Olivier
Lacombe, Armand Minard, Andre Bareau
among others, though some of them are not exclusively Buddhologists.
Among Sylvain Levi's
pupils was a Belgian, the famous Louis de La Vallee Poussin.
Of his numerous works, his epoch-making translation (1923-1931) of Vasubandhu's Abhidharma-kosa
should be singled out as it is almost an encyclopaedia,
not only of Sarvastivada, but
of Buddhist philosophy in general. La Vallee Poussin's tradition in Belgium,
generally considered as a part of the French School, is
excellently continued today by his worthy pupil and successor Etienne
voluminous contributions are universally esteemed and appreciated.
This interest in Buddhist studies, begun in Paris,
gradually spread all over Europe. In Denmark,
Victor Fausboll brought out in 1855 an
edition of the Dhammapada, the best known Buddhist text, accompanied by a translation and
notes in Latin. This was the first Pali text to be published in full in Europe in Roman
characters. Another remarkable Danish Pali scholar
was V. Trenckner, who started work on The
Critical Pali Dictionary , a tremendous undertaking, still
in the course of production. Its headquarters are in Copenhagen.
Helmer Smith, the renowned Swedish Pali scholar, was also connected
with this dictionary.
In Holland, H.
Kern edited and translated several Buddhist
Sanskrit texts, and his Manual of Indian Buddhism, published
in 1896, is still profitably consulted by students of Buddhism. The Dutch tradition is continued today by J. W. de Jong and others.
apart from Max Miffler's
great contributions, Hermann Oldenberg, working both in Germany and England,
edited the whole Vinaya-pitaka in five volumes
(1879-1883) in addition to the edition and translation of the Dipavamsa (1879). Neumann
translated several Pali Canonical works into German.
Geiger's edition and translation of the Mahavamsa
is well-known. So is the work of H.
von Glasenapp. The German tradition is continued today by Waldschmidt,
Bechert and several others. Nor should Paul Dahlke who did much to spread Buddhism in Germany
be forgotten. His house is today the Buddhist
Temple in Berlin.
Winternitz's work in Czechoslovakia
may be included in the German School.
for several decades, has been making a considerable contribution by publishing
Sanskrit and Tibetan texts and their translations, besides his own researches.
Vasilieff, Minayeff, Oldenburg
and Stcherbatsky did a great deal to promote the
scientific study of Buddhism. The Bibliotheca Buddhica
Series, founded by Oldenburg
in 1897, has published more than thirty volumes up to now. Stcherbatsky's
invaluable Buddhist Logic was published in the
same series. In 1960 a Russian translation of the Dhammapada was published.
In the United States,
the Harvard Oriental Series, designed to bring about 'mutual understanding and
good-will between East and West', has been publishing
a large number of volumes since the late nineteenth century. In this series, Warren's
Buddhism in Translation (1896), Burlingame's
Buddhist Legends (1921) and Chalmers' Buddha's Teachings should
be mentioned as works which have commendably
contributed towards popularising Buddhism in the
West. An edition of the Visuddhi-magga, the well?known Pali
Commentary of Buddhaghosa, was published in this
series in 1950. Apart from this, a valuable contribution to Sanskrit Buddhist
studies was made by the late Prof. Edgerton of Yale University through his Buddhist
Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary, Reader and Grammar, published in 1953.
But it is England
that has rendered the greatest service to Buddhism in the West. In 1864, two
events took place that were to have a far-reaching and
a lasting influence on Pali Buddhist studies in the
West. In that year, Robert Childers left Sri Lanka and his friend, T. W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922), went there; both were civil servants in
Sri Lanka; both studied Pali there; both were
impressed by the beauty and sublimity of the Buddha's teachings enshrined in
the Pali Canon. On his return to England,
Childers edited and published his famous Dictionary of the Pali Language (1872-1875), which is still well worth
After eight years in Sri Lanka,
returned to England
in 1872, and began to work with other Orientalists in
Europe. The greatest of his many and varied
contributions to Pali Buddhist studies was the
foundation of the Pali Text Society in 1881. The
purpose of this Society is 'to render accessible to students the rich stores of
the earliest Buddhist literature'. With the assistance and collaboration of his
wife, a woman of remarkable intelligence and of unbounded energy, whose
contribution was second only to that of her husband, Rhys
the activities of this Society, harnessing and co-ordinating
talents scattered in many countries both in the East and the
It is not possible in a few words to do justice to the enormous work
done by the Pali Text Society during close upon a
hundred years. This great work is most successfully continued
today by its energetic and devoted present President, Miss I. B. Horner. Thanks to the Society,
we have now in Roman characters all the Pali texts of the Buddhist Scripture, the Tipitaka, though some of the Abhidhamma
texts need editing more fully. In addition, it has also edited, in some sixty
volumes, the Pali Commentaries of the Tipitaka, besides a number of other post-canonical
works. There are the English translations, in some fifty-eight volumes, of
practically the whole Tipitaka. To these should be added the Pali-English
Dictionary, English-Pali Dictionary, The
Dictionary of Pali Proper Names and the Pali Tipitaka
It is interesting to observe here that while countries on the European
continent like France
specialized in Mahayana, England
specialized in Theravada.
One has only to look into the Bibliographie Bouddhique in thirty-one
volumes, published in Paris
under the able editorship of Mademoiselle
Marcelle Lalou, to realize the
tremendous amount of work produced in the field of Buddhist studies in the West
during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The interest of most of these scholars in Buddhism was academic. To them
it was a new field of research like ancient history or archaeology, and not a
living religion or a way of life. To Rhys
it was not simply academic, it was a living force as
well. He said: 'Buddhist or not Buddhist, I have examined every one of the
great religious systems of the world, and in none of them have I found anything
to surpass, in beauty and comprehensiveness, the Noble Eightfold Path of the
Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to that Path.'
And this Path could scarcely be so widely known in the West as it is
today but for the selfless labours of the scholars of
whom only a very few I have had time to mention here. Today, Buddhism is taking
a new turn, and there are thousands in the West who try to
follow the teaching of the Buddha as a way of life. Some discover that Buddhist philosophy combines
with Christian faith better than the classical philosophy of Plato
and Aristotle, and certainly better than the
pessimistic existential nihilism. Popular interest in Buddhism is growing more
and more. Hundreds of books on Buddhism for the general reader, written by both
the competent and the incompetent, have appeared; Buddhist societies, centres and groups, even Buddhist Viharas
or Temples, have
been founded in several countries in Europe and
in the United States.
These popular Buddhist activities in the West have considerably increased since
1956, when the Buddha-jayanti, the two
thousand five hundredth anniversary of Buddhism, was
celebrated on an international scale.
This period beginning from the early nineteenth century may be regarded as one of the most important eras, if not
the most important, in Buddhist history since Asoka's time. Never before in the history of Buddhism has
Buddhist literature been so widely disseminated throughout the world. This may be considered as a new Dharma-cakra-pravartana
(Setting in motion the Wheel of Truth), in two continents: old Europe
and the new world of America.
But even after nearly one-and-a-half century's study of Buddhism, there
still prevail in the West some fundamental misconceptions introduced by certain
early writers either through lack of understanding or prejudice. For instance,
there is the misconception that Buddhism is a pessimistic religion. Buddhism is
neither pessimistic nor optimistic. If anything, it is realistic, for it takes
a realistic view of life and of the world. It does not falsely lull us into
living in a fool's paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize
us with all kinds of imaginary fears and guilt-feelings. It tells us exactly
and objectively what we are and what the world around us is, and shows us the
way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness.
The Buddha taught four fundamental truths pertaining to
our life, our existence, which are known as Four Noble
Truths. The First is that our life is impermanent and is attended
with conflicts, sufferings, dissatisfactions both physical and psychological.
The Second Noble Truth teaches that the cause of all these sufferings,
conflicts and dissatisfactions, is our own selfish desire due to our false idea
of self. The Third declares that by getting rid of selfish desire, of the idea
of self, one can get rid of these conflicts and sufferings, can attain perfect
freedom, harmony and peace, and realize the Absolute Truth (Nirvana)
here and now, in this very life. Lastly, the Fourth Noble Truth teaches the
Way, the Path, to attain the state of peace through our own efforts, through
our moral, spiritual and intellectual discipline and perfection.
This is no pessimism. People in Buddhist countries are not pessimistic;
they are spontaneously cheerful. Buddhist art and architecture, Buddhist
temples, never give the impression of gloom or sorrow, but produce an
atmosphere of calm and serene joy. In fact, according to Buddhism, joy (piti) is one of the seven qualities necessary for
Enlightenment. In Buddhist painting and sculpture the Buddha
is always represented as serene, peaceful, calm and compassionate. Never a
trace of suffering, agony or pain is to be seen in his
countenance. The German philosopher Hermann
'The East has succeeded in what has never yet been reached
in the West: the visible representation of the divine as such. I know nothing more grand in this world than the figure of Buddha.'
This grandest creation of art, the figure of the Buddha,
surely could not have been produced by a pessimistic
Then there is another misconception, equally grave, that Buddhism is a
monastic religion, a religion for monks living in secluded monasteries, and not
one for laymen leading a family life. The Buddha's
teaching is not intended for monks alone, indeed it is
for laymen as well. Vacchagotta once asked the Buddha
straightforwardly whether there were laymen and women
leading the family life who followed his teaching successfully and attained to
high spiritual states. The Buddha categorically stated that
there were not one or two, not a hundred or two
hundred or five hundred, but many more. Surely it is
the same today. It is only a question of sincere effort.
It might then be asked: If a layman can follow
Buddhism while leading the life of an ordinary man, why was the Sangha (the Order of Monks) established by the Buddha.
The Order provides opportunity for those who are willing to devote their lives
not only for their own spiritual and intellectual development, but also for the
service of others. An ordinary layman with a family
cannot devote his whole life to the service of others as a monk can. It should be emphasized that true Buddhist renunciation is not
a cowardly escape from life, but the giving up of all selfish desires and
interests to face life boldly in a higher and nobler way in order to be able to
serve humankind. A Bodhisattva who renounces
everything, even his own Nirvana, in order to save all living beings, does not
escape from life; he takes all life on himself.
Others say that Buddhism is interested only in lofty ideas, high moral
and philosophical thought, and that it ignores and is oblivious of the social
and economic well-being of people. This, again, is a grievous misconception.
The Buddha was concerned with the happiness of men. According
to him, true happiness was not possible without leading a pure life based on
moral and spiritual principles. But he knew the
difficulties of leading such a life in unfavourable
material and social conditions. Certainly Buddhism
does not consider material welfare as an end in itself: it is only a means to
an end, a higher and nobler end. But it is a means
which is indispensable.
The Buddha did not take life out of the context of its
social and economic setting. He looked at it steadily and as a whole, in all
its social, economic and political aspects. His ethical, spiritual, and
philosophical teaching is fairly well known. But
little is known, particularly in the West, about his teaching on social,
economic and political matters. Yet there are numerous discourses dealing with
these questions. For instance, in one of the discourses he said that a layman
who leads an ordinary family life has four kinds of happiness: one, a
sufficient income, i.e. economic security (atthi-sukha);
two, the enjoyment of his wealth (bhoga-sukha),
three, freedom from debts (anana-sukha) and
four, the leading of a blameless, pure, moral and spiritual life (anavajja-sukha). It should be
noticed that the first three of these four are economic and material.
Elsewhere the Buddha said that one of the causes of immorality
and crimes is poverty (daliddiya), and that
instead of trying to suppress them by punishments, which is a futile and
unsuccessful method, rulers should find ways to raise the economic standard of
the people. This sounds very modern.
In fact, Buddhism, though it is twenty-five centuries old, is most
modern. It appeals to modern rational, scientific minds. Buddhism arose in India
as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious
rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste-system
and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her
complete spiritual freedom.
In Buddhism there are no dogmas or beliefs that
one has to accept on blind faith without question. It gives full responsibility
and dignity to man. It makes man his own master. According to Buddhism, no
higher being sits in judgment over his affairs and destiny. That is to say, our
life, our society, our world, is what you and I want to make out of it, and not
what some other unknown being wants. The Buddha said: 'One is one's own refuge, who else could be the
Based on this principle of individual responsibility, the freedom of
thought allowed by the Buddha is unheard of elsewhere in the
history of religions. He advised us (in the Kalama-sutta)
not to accept anything just because it was handed down by tradition, or because
it was ordained in religious texts, or because it is taught by our teacher or by
some other authority. Only when we know for ourselves that certain things are
good and wholesome, then we should accept them; when
we know for ourselves that certain things are bad and unwholesome, we should
give them up.
Not merely the freedom of thought, but also the tolerance taught by the Buddha
is astonishing to the student of history of religions. Once when Upali, an important follower of Jainism, begged the Buddha
to accept him as one of his lay disciples, the Buddha advised
him to respect and support his old religious teachers as he used to before.
In the third century B.C., the Buddhist Emperor Asoka (to whose Edicts
reference was made earlier), following this noble example of tolerance and
understanding, honoured and supported all other
religions in his vast empire. In one of his rock
Edicts the Emperor declared that: 'one should not honour
only one's own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honour others' religions for this or that reason. So doing
one helps one's own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of
others too ... Let all listen, and be willing to listen to the doctrines
professed by others.'
This spirit of freedom of thought, tolerance and sympathetic
understanding has been from the beginning one of the most cherished ideals of
Buddhist culture and civilization, and may be considered
as the most important lesson that the world today can learn from Buddhism. Though Buddhist countries might have gone to war for political
or other reasons, there is not a single example of persecution or the shedding
of blood in order to convert people to Buddhism, or to propagate it, during its
long history of two thousand five hundred years. It spread peacefully all over
the continent of Asia, having six hundred million
There is a complaint prevalent everywhere that modern man is secular
minded and is uninterested in religion. This is an incorrect appraisal. Man
today is no more secular minded or less interested in religion than at any
other time. There is a universal tendency for people to believe that the past
was the best, that the present is bad and the future will be worse. But humanity as a whole has gradually progressed, not only
materially and technically, but also morally and spiritually. Some ideas
preached by religions have been absorbed into our social system. For instance both Buddhism and Christianity were against
slavery, though it could not be abolished during the time of the Buddha
or of the Christ. But today, by and
large, it no longer exists, although there may still be some vestiges of it
which, too, will surely disappear in time to come.
If modern man does not believe in a personal god, if he does not accept
some dogmas of the established religions which are
incompatible with modern scientific liberal spirit, it does not follow
necessarily that the respect for, or belief in, moral and spiritual values,
which constitute the essence of religion, has waned. In fact, modern man yearns
for the living spirit of religion divested of its out-worn dogmas, beliefs and
There is a common belief that material and technical progress is unfavourable to religious and spiritual life. It is hard to
understand how an oil-lamp is more conducive to religious life than electric
light, or that an ox?cart
should produce more spirituality than an automobile. If religion cannot live in
a society of material and scientific progress, in a society of prosperity, if
it can thrive only in a society of poverty, misery and ignorance, then the
sooner such a religion disappears from the face of the earth the better for
humanity. Anachronistic and out-dated external forms and expressions of
religion must change with the change of the times, but the spiritual essence of
religion, vital piety and true knowledge, will survive and will continue to
Buddhism is neither a faith nor a belief; it is a way of life. Very briefly, this Way - which is called the Noble Eightfold Path
because it is composed of eight categories or divisions: namely, Right
Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood,
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration - aims at developing
three essential qualities necessary for man's true happiness, his peace and
harmony, and for the realization of the Ultimate Truth.
The first of these is pure moral and ethical conduct, without which no
spiritual progress is possible. The second is mental purification and
development through meditation, which is indispensable for insight, inner
peace, harmony and equilibrium. The third is the development of Wisdom, which
is not only the ability to see things objectively as they are, not only
perceiving the Truth, but also attaining complete freedom from selfish desire,
hatred and violence, and the unlimited capacity to love all living beings
without discrimination. The attainment of this perfect Wisdom-Love is the aim
of the Buddhist way of life.
It might be asked: What is Buddhism's answer to
social unrest, social conflicts? Its answer is very clear. As the first verse
of the Dhammapada teaches, all unrest, all
conflicts, all disturbances are first born in the mind. Conflict or war is
nothing but an external manifestation of greed, hatred, ill?will, violence, ignorance born in the minds of men.
Social conflict is nothing but an individual conflict on an enormous scale.
There is no society apart from individuals, and there is no social conflict
apart from individual conflict. If there is peace within individuals, then
society is peaceful. So, in order to have a peaceful
world, we have to produce peace within individuals, providing them with social,
economic, moral and spiritual security. This is Buddhism's answer. It is clear,
but enormously difficult to achieve. Yet unless it is achieved,
no amount of treaties and pacts on paper can produce real peace in the world.