The future is bright … but is it saffron? What is the Future of Buddhism in the West?

I recently enjoyed listening to a 30-minute discussion on Buddhism in the West on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Beyond Belief’. It was a good programme and as it happens two of the three contributors were friends of mine. Nagapriya is a fellow member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and these days Will Buckingham  is a writer and philosopher. I don’t know the third contributor, Ani Rinchen Khandro, a nun from Samye Ling. I thought Nagapriya in particular came across very well.

However, I want to comment on what struck me as the weakest part of the discussion. Asked what Buddhism in Britain would look like in thirty years they seemed to respond by describing what it is like now. That set me thinking about what it might actually be like. These thoughts mostly extrapolate from what’s happening now, but I think they go a bit further than the programme did.

The first area to consider is established Buddhism: the large and small Buddhist groups that have dominated British Buddhism in recent decades. It seems fashionable to dismiss these and say that real developments are occurring in non-affiliated Buddhists. In part this is because the largest organisations (Sokka Gakkai, the New Kadampa Tradition and the Triratna Buddhist Community) have sometimes been controversial; but in fact there are many other organisations some of which  are growing quickly. I think dismissing them is a mistake. The organisations face challenges as their founders or leaders retire or die, and some may struggle to find a younger generation of members. They also face the usual challenges faced by growing organisations of all sorts. But, whatever the rights and wrongs of the criticisms, they have momentum, vitality and many resources for practitioners. In particular, they offer community. People will need these just as much in thirty years as they do today. I don’t know what new movements will have emerged in thirty years time, but I do expect that organised Buddhism will still be here and be thriving.

A second reflection goes along with the first and qualifies it. My observation of members of my own Order is that among those who have been practising for several decades, quite a few are developing very considerable depth of practice.  They have very a effective meditation practice, including regular experience of states of dhyana and so on; they have a thorough understanding of the Buddhist teachings and consistently live according to them; and there is something else as well. They seem to have absorbed the Dharma so deeply that it has become a part of them and they never forget it, even when things get difficult. I’m not really given to being starry eyed about my Order or the people within it and I don’t like grand claim. But this is my observation. In many cases I know the faults and limitations of these individuals, but I also see their growing virtues.

It seems to me that if you stick at it sincerely and with a modest degree of intensity, and keep going for long enough, gradually you will start to realise and even embody the Buddhist teachings, at least to some extent. Put a little more strongly other words, I think I see quite a few people around, including good friends of mine, of whom it seems reasonable to say, they may well be ‘stream entrants’, or at least well on the way to being so. This is very good news. Traditionally A Buddhist spiritual community, or sangha, needs at its heart an arya-sangha: a ‘Noble Community’ of men and women with an unshakeable degree of realisation). I see no particular reason to think that this phenomenon is confined to my Order alone. Over the years I have met individuals from various traditions whose practice has clearly brought very substantial fruits. Not everyone, and not necessarily the people in leading positions. I just think that Dharma practice works (or can work).

In thirty years time, we will see many more fruits of this development. There will be many people with sufficient experience to speak with confidence and authority from their own understanding of Buddhism. This will strengthen the organisations, but it will also challenge them. When people feel they are ‘independent in the Dharma’, they often tend to go their own way (Reginald Ray’s departure from the Shambhala Community is a recent example of this sort of thing: there are many others). One aspect of this, which we already seen in the US, is that as people master the approach in which they were trained they will look to the resources of the Buddhist tradition as a whole. The meeting of theBuddhist traditions on this level will augment popular eclecticism and we shall see more of what Joseph Goldstein in his book, One Dharma (reviewed here) calls ‘the emerging western Buddhism’: a new, pragmatic non-denominational form of Buddhism.  We have aslready seen many developments in western Zen, Western Vajrayana and western Theravada and we shall doubtless see many more.

The third development which I think will be especially important in Buddhism’s future in countries like Britain is the astounding growth of interest in Buddhist practices such as meditation and mindfulness in secular contexts. This has taken off in the last few years and there has been nothing like it in the western engagement with Buddhism since the counter-culture of the 1960s. Thousands of people are learning mindfulness, and in Britain a good number are doing so on the NHS. They are often highly motivated and the courses are backed by a formidable and rapidly growing body of research. All this won’t go away. In fact, it may well be that meditation and mindfulness really do become part of the mainstream in western societies: taught in school and hospitals everywhere and pervading the culture.

Mindfulness and meditation are not Buddhism, but they adjoin it, and it will fascinating to see how the relationship between the two develops. On one hand, mindfulness training is likely to become increasingly medicalised, professionalised and secularised. On the other, it will be evident that mindfulness alone is just one aspect of what one needs to develop, and that the Buddhist path includes many more resources (the most important are probably compassion, ethics, sangha, a comprehensive view of the path, a social challenge, and the notion of Enlightenement). I suspect that at least some of the committed practice communities will be appreciated as reservoirs of deep experience, and that the realised individuals I mentioned earlier will be seen as a tremendous resource. It may even be that the relationship of these two communities will be analogous to what we find in Buddhist countries where there is both a popular or ethnic lay Buddhism and a committed core of monastic practitioners. Between the two will be secular Buddhists like Will Buckingham and Stephen Batchelor.

The impact of the mindfulness boom raises other intriguing possibilities. Will there be further booms as Buddhist ideas and practice make a significant contribution in other areas of cultural life? There are already significant crossovers in areas such as the arts, psychology, philosophy and environmentalism, but occasionally something just catches fire and expands exponentially. By their nature, these things are impossible to predict.

Those, at least, are a few of my thoughts about the future of Buddhism in the UK. What are yours?