Arnold Toynbee stated that the coming of Buddhism to the West was most important historical event of the twentieth century. It is a surprising fact that until the late eighteenth century hardly anyone in Europe was aware of the existence of the Buddhist religion, even though its followers outnumbered those of Christianity by a factor of at least two to one.
Even today Buddhism is often largely missing from the school R.E. curriculum in this country, and contrary to Toynbee’s assertion, it is not generally perceived as a significant cultural force in this society. Nevertheless, Buddhism, in many different forms, has taken firm root here and is practised seriously by a large number of people (almost certainly many times more than the figure of 150,000 given in the 2001 census, if we are looking at people who practise meditation rather than those who give themselves the label ‘Buddhist’).
Buddhism is a problem for the virulent anti-religious movement championed by Richard Dawkins and friends, as it denies the existence of God and bases its doctrines on critical examination and rationality (although there is also a Buddhist critique of rationality itself, if that is taken in a narrow, ‘left-brain logic’ sense).
We in the West are facing a major cultural crisis because of our inability, so far, to come up with a spiritual perspective to complement the astonishing intellectual achievements of Western science: I agree with Toynbee that, on a dispassionate examination, Buddhism is the best single candidate for this crucial role.
However we have a long way to go. It took more than three hundred years for Buddhism to successfully transplant itself from India into the very different cultural soil of China; the obstacles to its full integration into modern Western culture are at leat as great and probably much greater. So the present attempts to ‘translate Buddhism into Western terms’ must be regarded as provisional at best – they are early efforts on a journey of cultural / spiritual exploration which will take centuries and involve millions.
In these pages I will try to develop a few small contributions to this immense and thrilling collective task; I invite you to join me.