How successful has Mahayana Buddhism (e.g. Soka Gakkai, FWBO, New Kadampa, Jamyang, Zen) been in adapting to local conditions of Britain and interpreting Buddhism in order to fulfil aspirations of religious communities?

Mahayana Buddhism has a complicated history in Britain.  Although the term ‘Mahayana’ has been recorded as having entered common usage in Britain in 1855, it has been argued that it was not until Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki wrote on Zen Buddhism in 1927 that Mahayana Buddhism began to gain influence.[1],[2]  This essay will firstly discuss what caused this to be so.  The essay will then argue about why the Zen school of Buddhism is especially important when looking into the history of Mahayana Buddhism in Britain.  This will follow the essay on to discussing the relationship between the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives branch of Soto Zen Buddhism and the political environment within which it was formed.  The concluding part of the essay will summarise how far the examples given of this Soto Zen form of Mahayana Buddhism show the movement as successful in its adaptation to local conditions in Britain.  Firstly, the concept of ‘Mahayana’ will be defined in relation to its usage within this essay.

The concept of Mahayana holds a number of different implications.  These vary from a doctrinal categorisation, to an umbrella term for a number of different schools of Buddhism.  Mahayana Buddhism can be separated from Hinayana Buddhism by its doctrinal differences regarding the path to liberation.  Whilst in Hinayana Buddhism, known by its modern representation in the form of the Theravada school of Buddhism, liberation is solely pursued through the monastic lifestyle, the Mahayana form of Buddhism professes a bodhissatva goal that is promoted as being accessible to all practitioners irrespective of their cultural or personal background.[3]  Suzuki further defined a geographical differentiation between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism, in that the doctrinal distribution of Mahayana Buddhism ‘covers not only the northern parts of India but east of them as well’.[4]  The implication of ‘Mahayana Buddhism’ is thus of a doctrine that is concerned with the bodhissatva path as opposed to that of the arahatship of Hinayana Buddhism, and is of a geographical distribution of Buddhism north and east of India.  The general influence of this form of Buddhism can be distinguished with an understanding of the significance of the fact that Mahayana Buddhism is a mere umbrella term for the large number of varyingly influence Buddhist schools that fit under its label.

The website ‘Buddhanet’ conveniently lists the schools of Buddhism working under the Mahayana label as the Tantra school of Tibet and Nepal, the Pure Land Sect of China, Korea and Japan, and the Ch’an and Zen Buddhism of China and Japan.[5]  Even if just one of these three sub-divisions of Mahayana Buddhism were to be used as a focus-point for the purpose of this essay, it would be very difficult to find any understanding of the adaptation of this single sub-division to local conditions in Britain.  For this reason, the history behind the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism into Britain has been explored.  This is in order not only to gain an understanding of how the early Mahayana Buddhist tradition in Britain adapted itself to its climate, but also to find a single school of Mahayana Buddhism which seemed significant enough to explore further throughout this essay.

The physical incorporation of Mahayana Buddhism into Britain can be defined as having been because of a number of different events in the early twentieth century.  One example of how Mahayana Buddhism was brought into Britain, Bluck argued, is from the influential impact of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism, published in 1927.[6]  However, it could likewise be argued that Suzuki’s book was released after a predisposing increase in enthusiasm towards the studying of Mahayana Buddhism.  For example, the London Conference on Living Religions in the Empire, spanning over two weeks between September and October 1924, included a day devoted to presentations of both Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism.[7]  This shows that there was an academic interest in Mahayana Buddhism prior to Suzuki’s writings, and thus implies that Suzuki’s writings may have been published as a result of this marked interest.  It is clear that the Mahayana Buddhism that Suzuki introduced to Britain in 1927 has had a profound impact on Britain.  It could likewise be argued, as has been so for Bluck, that Suzuki’s writings were the catalyst for the emergence of the whole Mahayana Buddhist tradition in Britain that followed.  However, in order to understand quite why Mahayana Buddhism was successful introduced into Britain, a more localised study will be highlighted.

For the purposes of this essay, the Zen tradition will be focussed on as an example of Mahayana Buddhism in Britain.  This is for a number of reasons.  Firstly, according to the official statistics, the Zen tradition has been undeniably the most visible form of East Asian Buddhism in Britain between 1960 and 2000.  This can be highlighted by expressing the figures that show that in 1981 73% of the East Asian Buddhist groups were Zen groups, whilst the statistic rose to 87% in 1991, before falling to 24% in 2001.[8]  This averages out to the Zen tradition having had an approximate 61% presence within East Asian Buddhism historically between 1981 and 2001, thus clearly implying that the Zen tradition has been the most consistently present East Asian Buddhist tradition in Britain for the duration of this period.

Secondly, the great emphasis that Christmas Humphreys, the founder of the Buddhist Society, gave to Zen from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s is illustrative of the prominence of Zen within British Mahayana Buddhism during this time.  This emphasis is illustrated in Humphreys’ book Zen Comes West, which was clearly aimed towards building a stronger following towards the Zen tradition.  As Humphreys evidently held a very influential role within British Buddhism, it can be deemed important that he gave such an emphasis to Zen Buddhism.  However, his writings on Zen Buddhism were far from breaking new ground at this time.

The tradition of Zen Buddhism within Britain should also be recognised as being long and established, in comparison with other forms of Mahayana Buddhism.  Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, as according to Humphreys being not only the person who brought Zen Buddhism ‘to the West’ but also ‘perhaps the greatest living in the field of religious experience’, appears to be the paramount fugure to the history of Zen Buddhism in Britain.[9]  The fact that he spent ‘the rest of his life’ after reaching enlightenment in 1896 devoted to ‘making known to the West the doctrines, the principles and the active way of Zen’ suggests that the history of a notable influence of Zen Buddhism in Britain could span back to as early as the turn of the twentieth century.  Suzuki’s influence on the the incorporation of Zen Buddhism into Britain can be further illustrated by comparing the dating of the first usages of ‘Zen Buddhism’ in different textual sources.  Whilst Suzuki’s first usage of the term ‘Zen sect’ is in his 1907 book Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, the first recorded usage of term in the popular Encyclopedia Britannica series is in the eleventh edition, which was the first edition that was released after Suzuki’s book.[10],[11]  The correlation between the Suzuki’s book and the Encyclopedia Britannica seems to be too strong for the matter to have been a mere coincidence, and so it must be argued that Suzuki did hold a profound influence on the introduction of Zen Buddhism in Britain.  Thus, it seems to be clear that the reason for why Zen Buddhism initially became known in Britain is because Suzuki’s writings permeated through the academic community.

For the reasons that have been outlined, it can be deemed valid to take the approach of focussing on the Zen tradition as an example in exploring how Mahayana Buddhism has been in adapting to local conditions of Britain.  However, as will now be outlined, the Zen tradition in Britain encompasses different schools of Zen Buddhism, which are notably not all inter-connected.  For this reason, the Sōtō Zen school of Buddhism will, in particular, be focussed on for the purposes of this essay.

As an example of Zen Buddhism, it is clear to understand how Sōtō Zen incorporated itself over its long history into being adapted into Britain.  The roots of this incorporation appear to have come out of when the abbot of Sōjiji visited the Buddhist Society in London in 1960, with the British Zen meditation student and future founder of Serene Reflection Meditation Peggy Kennett subsequently returning to Japan with the abbot.[12]  The importance of this moment is exemplified by the fact that the monastery from which the abbot came from had been the foundational base of Sōtō Zen since its incorporation into Japan by the Zen Master Keizan in the thirteenth century, and thus it could be argued that the later-named Jiyu Kennett passed on a Soto Zen that came from directly from the historical lineage.[13]  It could be because of this powerful form of leadership that the movement has evidently held prominence since its inception into Britain.

In looking at the statistics of the presence of different sub-divisions of Zen within Britain from 1980 to 2000, it is clear to see that the Soto school of Zen Buddhism has been the most consistently present.  The figures show that the percentage of Zen meditation groups that were of the Soto school grew from 41.7% in 1981 to 78% in 1991, before decreasing to 39.8% in 2000.[14]  Sōtō Zen has thus held, according these figures, an average of approximately 53% of the institutional presence within the Zen community in Britain.  It is also important to note that, despite the drop in presence in 2000, Soto Zen remained to be by far the most present with the school having 15.4% more groups than that of the second most present, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Thien Zen.[15]  These statistics give an important indication into the consistent presence that Soto Zen has held within Britain, and thus they suggest that this form of Mahayana Buddhism has achieved an element of success in adapting to the local conditions of Britain in order to present a form of Buddhism that has retained popularity around the region.  In order to elaborate on the scope of this, this essay will focus on the examples given by a single community on the adaptation to the local conditions of Britain.

It is evident from the statistics that the Serene Reflection Meditation movement, based at Throssel Hole priory in Northumberland, is the most influential form of Soto Zen in Britain, and so it has been used as the example of a particular religious community for the purpose of this essay.  According to figures gathered in 2000, Serene Reflection Meditation encompassed 71.8% of all Soto Zen groups in Britain, or 28 out of the 39 Soto Zen groups in Britain were Serene Reflection Meditation groups.[16]  Thus, due to the prominence that the Serene Reflection Meditation movement has held within the Soto Zen community in Britain, Throssel Hole priory will be used as the example of a Mahayana Buddhist community for this essay to explore in reference to how successful it has been to adapting to local conditions.

Throssel Hole was ‘the first Soto Zen Buddhist monastery in Britain’ when Jiyu Kennett inaugurated it in 1972 as separate from Shasta Abbey.[17]  Its location in rural Northumberland was chosen by Daiji Strathern, who subsequently became the first prior of the monastery upon its inauguration.[18]  Serene Reflection Meditation, however, appears to hold a looser definition.  For some, as is evident on the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives website, Serene Reflection Meditation (SRM) is the English translation for the ‘unbroken religious tradition’ of Soto Zen.[19]  This implies that SRM is merely a synonym for Soto Zen.  However, Bluck’s statistics on the prominence of the different sub-divisions of Zen Buddhism in Britain suggests otherwise.  His list of Soto Zen groups in Britain strikingly lists the International Zen Association, the Zen Practice Centre Trust, the Western Ch’an Fellowship, the Pure Land Buddhist Fellowship, the British Shingon Buddhist Association, as well as thirteen other Soto Zen groups and nine ‘unaffiliated Ch’an groups’ as having either a strong affiliation with, or are a part of, Soto Zen.[20]  This clearly implies that Serene Reflection Meditation should be much more narrowly categorised than to suggest that it is, in itself, representative of the entire Soto Zen tradition in Britain.  As has already been acknowledged, Serene Reflection Meditation was founded by Jiyu Kennett upon her return from Japan.[21]  It should therefore be recognised that the tradition that was founded by Jiyu Kennett was a unique form of Soto Zen, and was thus not necessarily the ‘unbroken religious tradition’ as the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives have claimed.  For this reason, this essay argues that the Serene Reflection Meditation tradition is an example of the outreach of Throssel Hole and, in particular, a form that has been influenced by Jiyu Kennett.  In studying another construction of Jiyu Kennett’s, the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, an illustration is given as to how far Throssel Hole holds significance within the global Soto Zen movement.

The role of Throssel Hole within Soto Zen in the West, when studying it in regards to its duty within the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives of which it aligns itself under, is strongly significant.  The OBC describes itself as ‘an international umbrella organisation for the monasteries, priories (local temples), and meditation groups led by priests of our lineage in Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States’, that was set up for this purpose in 1983 by Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett.[22]  It is significant, for the purpose of this essay, to understand that this role that the OBC holds clearly shows that Throssel Hole is a part of a larger international movement.  It is likewise significant to mention that Throssel Hole holds the position of ‘the European Office of the Order’ within the OBC and is thus one of the two organisational centres of the Order.[23]   This is clearly because of the role that Throssel Hole has as being the only monastery within the Order in Europe, and is only joined in the world by the equally influential Shasta Abbey in California.[24]  The fact that Throssel Hole is so unique in holding this position indicates that it has adapted to local conditions specially in order to gain such an influence.  It is therefore important to explore some of the issues which have helped to determine how Throssel Hole has gained the kind of influence that it has.

There are several events that can be distinguished as having helped to shape the development of Throssel Hole as a centre for the Soto Zen community in Britain.  One of these, of the issues surrounding the very formation of the monastery, will be used in order to give an individual indication into how the community has adapted to the local conditions that it has been subjected to, and to show the extent to which the progression of the influence of the monastery was as a result of deliberate actions.

The inauguration of Throssel Hole in 1972 was the culmination of over a decade of struggles by the Buddhist Society to bring Zen to Britain.  A main struggle that Jiyu Kennett’s resilience seemed to help the Zen movement to persevere through was Christmas Humphreys’ rejection of and thus possible sexual discrimination against the appointment of Jiyu Kennett as ‘the Buddhist Bishop of London’ by the aforementioned abbot of Zenji in 1964.[25]  This was followed by the Buddhist Society refusing to support the teaching methods and criticising the lack of interest in the scriptures of Soto Zen as unacceptable in Britain.[26]  Therefore, because of this refusal of the Buddhist Society to accept Jiyu Kennett as the Buddhist Bishop of London, a schism was inherently created within British Buddhism whereby any future introduction of Soto Zen Buddhism into Britain would have to happen independently of the Buddhist Society.  It is arguably because of this schism in British Buddhism that Jiyu Kennett influenced the unique take on Soto Zen Buddhism to be followed in the West at both Throssel Hole and Shasta Abbey of the movement being led completely by Western teachers[27].  Also, the schism can be looked at as having had an effect on the focus on gender equality that the OBC has been renowned for.  Whilst it is clear that Jiyu Kennett’s emphasis towards gender equality within the Order was in order to preserve the ‘purity’ of Soto Zen, it should be noted about the kind of effect that this would have upon the inception of Soto Zen within Britain.[28]  The inauguration of Throssel Hole, in 1972, was in between arguably two of the most important pieces of legislation in Britain concerning the sex discrimination in the workplace in British history.  The Equal Pay Act of 1970, followed by the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, show that the environment in Britain at the time was ripe for Jiyu Kennett’s gender-equal form of Buddhism.  This could imply that it was due to the timing of the movement’s introduction into Britain that it gained so much notable popularity.  Thus, the emergence of Throssel Hole and the OBC implicitly came not only out of the schism in British Buddhism that led to the sectarianism of which gave rise to the movement, but also it can be validly argued that it was spurred in part by the society changes regarding sexual discrimination of the time.

In conclusion, the success of Mahayana Buddhism in adapting to local conditions in Britain has been found, through this essay, to have been very high in the example given of the Throssel Hole monastery.  The fact that the community arose during a time of great societal change suggests that the Jiyu Kennett provided a form of Soto Zen that was well-adapted to the conditions of the time in Britain.  Also, with there being a strong indication suggesting that the movement arose out of the schism in British Buddhism in 1964, it can be suggested that it was in part due to Christmas Humphreys refusal of such a liberal form of Zen Buddhism to be taught in Britain that such an autonomous form subsequently arose.  With this in mind, it must be argued that the Soto Zen form of Mahayana Buddhism has been very successful in adapting the local conditions of Britain, as not only did the movement break new grounds in being such an autonomous movement that was free from the regulation of the Buddhist Society, but it has also has excelled in popularity in being a socially conscious form of Buddhism that was very relevant for its time when it was introduced in the 1970s.

Word count: 3129/3000

Bibliography

Books

Bluck, R., British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development. London: Routledge, 2006.

Encyclopedia Britannica, The: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, Japan. 1911, New York: The Encyclopedia Britannica Company, 11(25), pp. 156-275.

Humphreys, C., Zen Comes West: The Present and Future of Zen Buddhism in Britain. London: Allen & Unwin, 1960.

Kay, D.N., Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation.  London: Routledge, 2004.

Suzuki, D.T., Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. London: Luzac and Company, 1907.
Journals

Baumann, M., ‘Buddhism in the West: Phases, Orders and the Creation of an Integrative Buddhism’, Internationales Asienforum. 1996, 27(3-4), pp. 345-362.

Henry, P., ‘The Sociological Implications for Contemporary Buddhism in the United Kingdom: Socially Engaged Buddhism, a Case Study’, Journal of Buddhist Ethics. 2006, 13(1), pp. 1-42.

Koné, A., ‘Zen in Europe: A Survey of the Territory’, Journal of Global Buddhism. 2001, 2(1),       pp.139-161.

Silk, J.A., ‘What, If Anything, Is Mahayana Buddhism? Problems of Definitions and Classifications’, Numen. 2002, 49(4), pp. 355-405.

Suzuki, D.T., ‘The Development of Mahayana Buddhism’, The Monist. 1914, 24(4), pp. 565-581.

Thanissaro, P.N., ‘Teaching Buddhism in Britain’s Schools: Redefining the Insider Role’,   Contemporary Buddhism. 2010, 11(1), 69-84.

Newspaper Articles

‘Religions Of The Empire’, The Times. London: The Times, 18th August 1924, 43733, p. 6.

Theses

Bell, S., Buddhism in Britain: Development and Adaptation. Durham: University of Durham, 1991.

Websites

Buddhanet, ‘The Buddhist Schools’. 2008, [Online] Available from: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/schools2.htm [Accessed: 17.05.2012].

Order of Buddhist Contemplatives,

– ‘Affiliated Temples and Meditation Groups’. 2003, [Online] Available from: http://obcon.org/temps.html [Accessed: 12.05.2012].
– ‘Order of Buddhist Contemplatives’. 2003, [Online] Available from: http://obcon.org/ [Accessed: 10.05.2012].
– ‘Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition’. 2003, [Online] Available from: http://obcon.org/trad.html [Accessed: 10.05.2012].

Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Mahayana’. 2012, [Online] Available from: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/112398 [Accessed: 17.05.2012].


[1]    Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Mahayana’. 2012, [Online] Available from: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/112398 [Accessed: 17.05.2012].

[2]    Christmas Humphreys, Zen Comes West: The Present and Future of Zen Buddhism in Britain. London: Allen & Unwin, 1960, pp. 199-200.

[3]    Jonathan A. Silk, ‘What, If Anything, Is Mahayana Buddhism? Problems of Definitions and Classifications’, Numen. 2002, 49(4), pp. 355-405, p. 357.

[4]    Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, ‘The Development of Mahayana Buddhism’, The Monist. 1914, 24(4), pp. 565-581, p. 566.

[5]    ‘The Buddhist Schools’, Buddhanet. 2008, [Online] Available from: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/schools2.htm [Accessed: 17.05.2012].

[6]    Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 8.

[7]    ‘Religions Of The Empire’, The Times. London: The Times, 18th August 1924, 43733, p. 6.

[8]    Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 18.

[9]    Humphreys, Zen Comes West: The Present and Future of Zen Buddhism in Britain, pp. 199-200.

[10]  Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. London: Luzac and Company, 1907, p. 413.

[11]  ‘Japan’ In: The Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. 1911, New York: The Encyclopedia Britannica Company, 11(25), pp. 156-275, p. 182.

[12]  Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 65.

[13]  Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 65.

[14]  David N. Kay, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation. London: Routledge, 2004, p. 30.

[15]  Kay, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation, p. 30.

[16]  Kay, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation, p. 31.

[17]  Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 66.

[18]  Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 66.

[19]  ‘Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition’, Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. 2003, [Online] Available from: http://obcon.org/trad.html [Accessed: 10.05.2012].

[20]  Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 19.

[21]  Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 65.

[22]  ‘Order of Buddhist Contemplatives’, Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. 2003, [Online] Available from: http://obcon.org/ [Accessed: 10.05.2012].

[23]  ‘Affiliated Temples and Meditation Groups’, Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. 2003, [Online] Available from: http://obcon.org/temps.html [Accessed: 12.05.2012].

[24]  ‘Affiliated Temples and Meditation Groups’, Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. 2003, [Online] Available from: http://obcon.org/temps.html [Accessed: 12.05.2012].

[25]  Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 66.

[26]  Bluck, British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice and Development, p. 66.

[27]  Kay, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation, p. 133.

[28]  Kay, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation, p. 135.

 

Originally an essay submitted in May 2012 for the Studying Religions Year 2 Study of Religions module at Bath Spa University.

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