The historical adaptation of Buddhism to cultural and societal changes

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Newson and Richerson posit that how the mind develops religious beliefs, values and behaviors/practices is best understood within social networks. By extension, this can be taken to mean that religion, even as it influences the mind, is subject to social context within which it thrives. Any social context is, in turn, characterized by individual and collective minds – that which constitutes culture. In other words, religion, even as it remains a key player of culture, is just as well inevitably bound to evolve and change over time as it continues to spread from one context to another (that is culture), and even as that context continues to evolve with changes in the world. This premise applies to Buddhism in its historical spread throughout the globe. As of 2010, there were at least 488 million Buddhists worldwide – about 7 percent of the world’s population. Nearly a decade later, this is number has expectedly grown. There are also three major branches of Buddhism today: Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana (also often known as Tibetan) Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism. These branches imply the evolution of Buddhism throughout its history. They all emerged, at different times, from the original Buddhism, which continued to adapt to various cultures that it came into contact with as it spread. Globalization has also played a significant role in this regard. This paper explores this theme: The adaptation of Buddhism to various cultures as it spread throughout its history and in what particular aspects the existing versions of Buddhism (from across Asia and the western world) remain similar and/or differ.

Buddhism across the World: The Numbers in Brief

Buddhism originally began in Asia and to date the vast majority of all Buddhists (about 99 percent) are still found in the Asia-Pacific region. But from thee, it spread out to other regions. However, the population in most other regions are low, mostly under 1 million. However, North America and Europe have seen a significant number of Buddhists, recording more than 1 million followers: North America has 3.9 million Buddhists by 2010, and Europe had 1.3 million. However, it is likely that these numbers across the other regions include many Asians who have since immigrated to these regions, although it may be important to note that a significant number of people who are not of Asian descent have also joined Buddhism, or at least practicing one element of it (such as Yoga).

Buddhism and Globalization

Today, it is common knowledge that people live in a world that is globally – and increasingly – interconnected. Globalization (as an aspect of societal change) has been characterized by “the movement of ideas, persons, artifacts, technologies, and commodities”. All of these in many ways have come to define how different people from different parts of the world interact.

However, according to Mitchell and Quli, for a long time there was little focus on Buddhism and globalization – that is, an examination of Buddhism within bounded ‘nation’ categories as well as broadly defined cultural contexts. Inevitably, though, scholars have since had to recognize that certain Buddhist ideas, persons and even entire populations have for a long time crossed freely and easily geopolitical borders. In this respect, globalization has influenced Buddhism in its original context. Dessi points out that new global conditions lead to higher chances for local traditions to be shaken, revitalized and many times reorganized anew, which then continues to produce a whole new range of responses. In other words, even within its traditionally original contexts, Buddhism has not been shielded from the realities of a changing world, and has in fact evolved in many ways in those contexts. But at the same time globalization has led to the spread of Buddhism new regions. Inevitably, Buddhism has had to adapt to the cultures it finds in the new places.

Globalization and Buddhism in Japan: The Case of Ecology

Historically, there have been different forms of traditional Buddhism in Japan, including Zen, Shin and Tendai. However, in recent years, in contemporary Japan, newer religious movements have emerged, including SokaGakkai and Rissho Kosei kai. Although these religious movements are novel in many ways, they still equally have a clear Buddhist background. In other words, they are one way or another, versions of Buddhism.

To understand how the global discourse has influenced Buddhism in Japan, the discussion must touch upon the traditional tenets of Buddhism, with the aim of citing the specific ways in which these tenets have evolved to accommodate newer elements from the global context.For one, many have always assumed – one of many stereotypes – that Japanese spirituality is inherently close to nature. Popular culture has continued to promote this notion, such as the nature-loving monks in the Karate Kid movies.

However, according to Dessi, it was not until the 1970s that ecology first became a popular topic in Japan. This is when the Japanese Buddhist world first became aware of ecology, and it was from the late 1980s that some Buddhist priests from various Buddhist denominations started to promote environmentalist activism at the local level. In 1990s, they started to expand the theme to institutional level. Some of the examples include the 1995 Green Plan, which was initiated by the Soto Zen Buddhism. Other denominations that took such initiatives included Tendai Buddhism and Shin Buddhism, and the younger denominations of Soka Gakkai and Rissho K ¯ oseikai. Increasingly, this became an important theme in Buddhist practice.

Each of these denominations seemed to want to outdo each other in their ecological goals.Tendai Buddhism began placing greater emphasis on environmental protection and ‘living in harmony’ with nature. Tendai Buddhists are, therefore, wary of wasting natural resources. The Hongaji branch of Shin Buddhism has also supported various environmentalist actions, including sustainable development. There are many more examples of Buddhist interest ecology which will not be mentioned here. However, notably, after the 2011 earthquake, which caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, several organizations of Buddhism issued statements opposing the civil nuclear power program. This goes to show the new interest of Buddhism in the new issues related to ecology, including sustainable use of natural resources, and renewable and safe energy.

It is worth noting that this new interest of Buddhism in ecology has generally coincided with a global interest in the same, especially in the non-religious sectors. Dessi refers to this as the ‘Greening of Buddhism’, and it is clear that Buddhist’s interests in the environment have grown at a time when environmental sustainability has also increasingly become one of the major global agendas. The impact of the global discourse on ecology on Buddhist environmentalism is evident in the language that Buddhist institutions use. For example, they refer to the ongoing global debate on ecology and also show aspirations similar to the ones shown by other secular agents worldwide.

Nonetheless, the emergence of Buddhist global consciousness may not necessarily mean that global ideas are superimposing on local religion. Rather, the appropriation of these ideas seems to depend on the extent to which they echo aspects of Japanese Buddhism.Indeed, ecological campaigns and programs by Japanese Buddhists have remained informed by basic Buddhist themes: interdependence, equal dignity of all life forms, control of desires, among others. Still, it must not be lost on us that even these Japanese Buddhists’ environmental aspirations find direct inspiration from the very tenets of global ecological discourse. This at least demonstrates the way that new themes in society – that is,societal changes – that have resulted from globalization have impacted Buddhism.Moreover, this is only one example among many more.

Globalization and the Spread of Buddhism to the US, and Its Relationship to the US Culture(s)

Another aspect of the effect of globalization on Buddhism has to do with religion’s spread from its traditionally known origins to new lands. In this case, the rise of Buddhism in the US and Europe is the direct result of transnational forces, particularly the movement of Japanese and Chinese immigrants into the country in the late 19th century, which led to the importation of Buddhist text and artifacts. However, other forces have also played a significant role in this regard. For example, the internet has significantly enabled the contemporary spread of Buddhist ideas throughout the world. Buddhism (in its various forms) has since taken root in the US, evidenced by the millions of Americans who are increasingly becoming Buddhists as well as the many citations of Buddhist values in social movements, among others.

However, the American Buddhism has ultimately become distinct and one of its kind. Essentially, the Buddhism in the US has had to adopt some of the key features of US culture, in the social and/or political sphere, particularly aspects of democracy and human rights. In fact, in the US these features are presents in religious practice, with religion increasingly playing the role of the defender of democracy as well as civil liberties.Traditionally, Buddhism – like other religions –has merely legitimized, protected and supported authority. But in the US, Buddhism has adapted to become more flexible and facilitate debate – nor just submission.  For example, Michel observes that one of the main features of Buddhism in the US is that practitioners are encouraged to question teachings they have problems with, and the services are shorter. These trends drift away from the traditional tenets of the various versions of Buddhism: austerity and silence in Zen Buddhism, an emphasis on ancient (traditional) texts in Theradva Buddhism, and long virtue-focused rituals in Pure Land Buddhism.

Some of the adaptation of Buddhist practices in the American culture can be said to be natural, butsome of it is conscious. For example,there have been efforts by some converts to Americanize the dharma. Particularly, they seek to have meditation divorced from other rituals that constitute important parts of Buddhist practice in Asia. There have also been efforts – especially by European Buddhists in the US – to recreate rituals to include aspects of other religions, including Christianity and Judaism, wicca (western witchcraft), the Native Americas’ shamanic practice, and ancient goddess spirituality, among others. In other cases, rituals are adapted to American settings. In this case, no demands are made, but worshipers simply acknowledge the context in which they find themselves.

It becomes nearly impossible to describe the aspects of Buddhism in America. This is because of the diversity in the country. The term ‘Americans’, for example, refers to a whole range of races and ethnicities. Members of these groups who have joined Buddhism bring with them aspects that are unique to their cultures. Therefore, on the basis of evidence, Buddhism in America remains subject to the diversity it is increasingly in contact with, and only time will tell the extent to which Buddhism in America will evolve.


The purpose of this essay was to trace the influences that globalization (as an agent of societal change) has had on Buddhism, both in its origins (that is, Asia) and also by way of encouraging its spread to other regions. In turn, the essay looks at how Buddhism (its values and practice) have adapted to the cultures in the new regions. Two cases have been cited in this paper: the case of Japan (that is, the growth of Buddhist interests in ecology) and the adaptation of Buddhism in the United States. These examples demonstrate the paradoxical position of religion; that even as it has influence on individuals and communities, it also remains subject to people/communities and contexts.

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  1. Dessì, Ugo. “‘Greening Dharma’: Contemporary Japanese Buddhism and Ecology.” Journal for the Study ofReligion, Nature and Culture 7 (2013): 334–55.
  2. Dessi, Ugo. Japanese Buddhism, “Relativization, and Glocalization.”Religions 8, no. 12 (2017): 1-14.
  3. Michel, Karen, “How American Buddhism Evolved into Something Distinct and Its Own.”PRI.April 26, 2016.
  4. Mitchell, Scott A., & Natalie, Quli (Eds.).Buddhism beyond borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States. New York: State University of New York Press, 2016.
  5. Newson, Lesley and Peter Richerman. “Religion: The Dynamics of Cultural Adaptation.”In Cognitive Approaches to the Evolution of Religion. Edited by Fraser Watts and Leon Turner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  6. Pew Research Center.The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Major Religious Groups as of 2010. Pew Templeton: Global Religious Futures Project, Dec. 2012.
  7. Ulanov, Mergen S., & Valery N. Badmaev. “Buddhist World in Global Context.”International Journal of Economics and Financial Issues 5(2015):15-17.
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