Up to the Land of the Chopstick and Over to the Land of the Fork
Buddhism is the first World Religion. Spreading beyond its homeland in all directions, it demonstrated the relatively rare ability among religions to adapt to different cultural and environmental conditions. Perhaps the greatest cultural leap in the history of Buddhism was that which took it from India to China and beyond, up to the Land of the Chopstick, where the majority of its modern adherents live. Now it is in the process of spreading and adapting to the West, over to the Land of the Fork, making another great cultural leap to continue this ancient historical process. The centuries-old first great leap has a lot to tell us about the second great leap, from which Buddhism still recovering its balance.
What do we expect of Buddhism in the West? I think two things: Authenticity and Cultural Suitability. Under Authenticity we expect that Western Buddhism will retain the integrity of the Buddha’s teachings in no less than their intended depth and, that it will prove itself eminently beneficial to the spiritual well-being of the West. Under Cultural Suitability we acknowledge the cultural distance between the modern West and the Asian cultures, not only in terms of values and world views but in terms of our particularly thorny religious history, and at the same time appreciate that Buddhism and Western culture have both historically shown themselves to be very adaptable. The challenge is in ensuring that Authenticity and Cultural Suitability are not at odds. If this can be done then Buddhism will have landed upright in the Land of the Fork.
The following essays together present an historical perspective of Buddhism’s engagement with cultural diversity, by a non-historian. It is a gleaning and summarizing of my own reading of those more expert than me to paint a plausible picture of the evolution of Buddhism according to cultural context with a view for how this process will continue to play out in the West. I welcome corrections of any misunderstandings on my part and discussions of any points of controversy.