The Transmission of Buddhism in the West

Speech by 


The Enlightened One and Exalted One, Gotama Buddha expounded the Dhamma, which He Himself practiced and experienced, to make free all beings from sufferings. During the Buddha’s time the Indian society was full of superstitions, prejudices, discriminations, inequality, immorality, violence, oppression, intolerance, disrespect to women and so many other social evils. Buddha appeared at a proper time endowed with immeasurable qualities with which He attracted the general people to embrace the Buddhism and created a great prospect to the hopeless people. So Buddhism, as a humanist force, profoundly affected religious and moral ideas in its time and acted as a powerful catalytic factor in transforming existing social condition.

Although Buddhism spread out all over the Asia continent for over 2500 years, very few people in Europe and America would have known what the word “Buddhist” meant. Middle of the nineteenth century, a number of Buddhist texts were brought to Europe by the people where scholars undertook the quite laborious work of translating them into English, French and German. In the late 19th Century, the transmission of Buddhism to America was further boosted by Chinese and Japanese immigrants who sought their fortune in California and Canada and brought their families and their philosophy with them. Knowledge of Buddhism has come in the West through three main channels: Western scholars; the work of philosophers, writers and artists; and the arrival of Asian immigrants, who have brought various forms of Buddhism with them to Europe, North America and Australia.[1]

Historical Interaction between Buddhism and Western World

The Buddhist world came into contact with the Western World during the time of the great Alexander. When Alexander the great conquered most of Central Asia at the early period of Buddhism, he established Hellenistic influence in the area, interacting with Buddhism introduced from India, producing Greco-Buddhism. Then the Mauryan Emperor Asoka (273-232 BCE)[2] after converting to Buddhism greatly contributed for Buddhism and propagated the faith by building stupas and pillars and showing the respect to the animal life and enjoining the people to follow the Dharma. Buddhism spread out beyond India like Sri Lanka, Greek Kingdoms and possibly even farther to the Mediterranean, as the missionaries were sent to various countries to spread Buddhism. Later Buddhist ideas entered into the West via the Middle East. The first interaction between European Christians and Buddhists was in 1253 through the Mongol Empire.[3] In the 17th century, Mongols practicing Tibetan Buddhism established Kalmykia, the only Buddhist nation in Europe.

Greco Buddhism

The Hellenistic influence by Seleucids and the following Greco-Buddhism and Indo- Greek Kingdoms, interacted with Buddhism by the emergence of Greco-Buddhist art within Gandhari civilization. This Gandhari art was taught to Indian by Greek sculptors.[4] Therefore, Greco- Buddhist cultures are merged between the cultures of Hellenism and Buddhism, which developed in Central Asia between the 4th century BCE and 5th century CE.[5]

Buddhism and the Roman World

There are many evidences of interaction between Buddhism and the Roman Empire is documented by Classical and early Christian writers. Roman historical accounts describe an embassy sent by the Indian king Pandion around 13 CE. One of its member Zarmanochegas, who was an Indian Sramana, burnt himself alive to demonstrate his faith.[6] This event indicates Indian religious men to which the Buddhists belonged.

The Main Three Channels that introduced Buddhism to the West

Buddhism had been flourished in the West through many ways but the three channels are well-known; i.e. Western Scholars’ Contribution for transmitting Buddhism, the work of philosophers, writers and artists and the arrival of Asian immigrants.[7]

Western Scholars’ Contribution for transmitting Buddhism

The 19th century is known as an oriental period for the introduction of Buddhism to the West. As we know that the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) first read about Buddhism before starting his research. He was very much influenced by the and Buddhism. The North-American scholar Ralp Waldo Emerson (1830-1892), Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) and Walt Whitmen (1819-1892) both introduced Indian religions including Buddhism to America. The French scholar Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852) composed a book on Buddhism named “Introduction to the history of Buddhism” published in 1844. Edwin Arnold (1832-1904) wrote a book on Buddhism praising the Buddha. The name of that book is “The Light of Asia” which was published in 1879.The American-European scholar Henry Steel Olcott

(1832-1907) first converted to Buddhism and composed a book named “The Buddhist Catechism” in 1881. It is presented in the same format of question and answering; i.e. Q. What other good words have been used to express the essence of Buddhism? A. Self-culture and universal love.[8]

The work of Philosophers, writers and artists

This is the channel for introducing Buddhism to the Western world. Buddhism was transmitted to the West by philosophers, writers and artists establishing organizations, academic school of Buddhist studies, collecting and translating texts and scriptures, and explaining archaeology of Buddhism.

The early period of Buddhist research was divided into three categories. The Angelo- German school[9] is known as older academic school of Buddhist Studies. H. Oldenberg and T. W. Rhys Davids were known as the great masters of this school. The main characteristic of Angelo- German School is recording historical perspective of Buddha’s life. This school is based on Pali Canon which is held to have preserved the Buddha’s doctrine. The general public derives their ideas of what is the “original”, “pure” and “true” Buddhism. H. Oldenberg first translated “” into English entitling as “Ancient Buddhist Historical Record” in 1879 and wrote the Book named “The Buddha, His life, His teaching and His community” in 1881. H. Oldenberg and Rhys Davids edited the three-volume of vinaya texts between 1881 and 1885. In 1880, Rhys Davids translated the Jataka Nidanakatha and the following year published Buddhist Suttas in the secret books of the Buddhist series, edited by Max Muller. Rhys Davids established the Pali Texts Society in 1881.

The Leningrad School dominated after the Anglo-German School around 1916.[10] This school was headed by Fedor Stcherbatsky and based on Pali and Sanskrit major. Fedor Stcherbatsky, Otto Rosenberg and Eric Overmiller are well-known scholars for this school. Stcherbatsky is perhaps best known for three publications: his monumental two-volume Buddhist Logic, published in 1930-32, the central conception of Buddhism and the meaning of the word “Dharma” (1923), and the conception of Buddhist Nirva.a (1927). He also edited along with Eric Overmiller, the Tibetan text of Abhidharmakosa and its Bha.ya. Otto Rosenberg (1888-1919) published a study based on Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosa to emphasize the plurality of Dharmas. Eric Overmiller published a translation of Bu-ston’s History of Buddhism which was extremely useful in demonstrating to scholars how Buddhists viewed their own histories.

The third academic school of Buddhist Studies is known as “Franco-Belgian”[11] and also known as modern school. This school was shaped by De LA Vallee-Poussin, Jean Przyluski, Sylvain Levi, Paul Demieville and Etienne Lamotte. These scholars continue on the lines of the Russian school. The principles of Franco have now been universally adopted by all scholars working in this field whatever the country they may live in; e.g. Theravadins, Mahayanists and Tibetan etc.

Few Western scholars paid attention in archaeological discovery and explanation. The German archeologist, Dr. Anton Fuhrer was one of them. He was involved in Buddhist archaeological study and he had claimed to have discovered the Buddha’s birthplace at well as the city where the young Buddha lived as prince Siddhartha.[12]

The Arrival of Asian Immigrants

The reason of transmission of Buddhism to the Western world is the arrival of Asian immigrants and refugees. They went there to protect their cultures, traditions, ancient religious literatures and save their lives. From the middle of nineteenth century the Chinese immigrants started to settle in Hawaii and California. They brought a number of Mahāyāna Buddhist practices with them and built numerous temples. At the same period the Japanese immigrants who arrived at later, not only built temples but also invited over to America, the Japanese monks who belonged to the various Buddhist sects. The two prominent Buddhist spokesmen, Anagārika Dharmapala from Sri Lanka and Soyen Shaku, a Zen master from Japan, attended the world parliament of Religions in Chicago. Their inspiring speeches on Buddhism impressed their audience and helped to establish a foothold for the Theravāda and Zen Buddhist traditions in America.[13]

The first Tibetan Buddhist tradition had influenced in 1949 by Mongolian Lama Dillowa Gegen as first immigrant in America. The school in America was transmitted by Tibetan immigrants because of the historical tragedy of Tibet in 1950.[14] Chogyam Trungpa is one of the most important figures in the development of Tibetan Buddhism in U.S.A. He established a religious institution called Vajradhatu in Colorado in 1973. The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyastso is the most famous figure and charismatic Buddhist leader in U.S.A. for dedicational work, religious integrity and his spiritual power. He represented the Gelok School and made an important movement which attracted the people.[15] The wars in Indochina in the 1950s and 1960s led many Vietnamese people to move to and settle in Europe, Australia and America. Other Buddhists from countries such as Thailand have established businesses in the larger Western cities. They have all brought their Buddhist beliefs to their new homes, and helped to set up Buddhist centers.[16] Theravada Buddhist Schools first established permanent Buddhist community in 1880 by Sinhalese in Australia. They planted Bodhi tree there. The first Theravada monk Sasan Dhaja, E. H. Stevenson visited in Australia in 1910 from Burma. The Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese have brought Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The Popularity of Buddhism in the Western World

Buddhism has been growing so well in the West from early period. Mainly four key strategies[17] are claimed to extend the spread of Buddhism:1. Presentation—in ordinary language,2. User Friendly—inviting and accessible,3. Relevant—concern with daily problems, and4. Examples—monks leading by examples.


The Buddha said to teach the dharma in ordinary language because Western priests and scholars dismissed Buddhism as pessimistic; saying that it only focuses on suffering. To avoid misunderstanding one may rearrange the central Dharma teaching of Four Noble Truths. Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic but realistic.[18]

User Friendly

In the West, who want to learn about Buddhism but are too afraid to come into temple and monastery because they are not familiar with the traditional customs, or even they are scared of scowling monks! When Buddhist temples are more welcoming to their visitors, and more accommodating to their newcomers, when the monks are more approachable, then the temple is user friendly. It is worth noting that the Buddha had asked His disciples to preach His doctrine in the people’s own speech (sakāya niruttiyā).[19]


The Western consider Buddhism as rational or scientific thinking. Therefore, the Western became interested and attracted on Buddhism so much by the meditation, ethical and mystical practice and wanted to apply those things in their daily lives because it reduces stress, nervousness and helps to be a strong, peaceful, good and compassionate one etc. The Venerable Thich Minh Hieu, is explaining why so many Westerners have been converting to Buddhism.“In a society where many Westerners have to pursue a life of material achievement, they have often found misery,” he says. “In Buddhism they have found peace of mind. They appreciate the meditation, where you go deep inside yourself for peace.”[20]

The FWBO (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) began its existence in London by Sangharaksita, to the catacombs in which the early Christians took refuge from their persecutors and where they developed their doctrine. In these meditation classes two methods of meditation were taught, the ānāpānasati or ‘awareness of in-and-out breathing’ and mettābhāvanā or ‘development of loving-kindness’.[21]

The term “Ehipassiko” is used to describe the investigative nature of Buddhism. Discouraging blind faith alone, the Buddha encouraged his disciples to “come and see” his teachings for themselves, to witness the fruits of this practice through direct experience.[22] The term “Sabbe sattā sukhita hontu” is Pāli phrase meaning “May all beings be happy”. This phrase is closely related to the practice of loving-kindness and expresses the essence of loving-kindness. These kinds of sublime speeches attracted the Western to take refuge to Buddhism. Therefore, when we focus on what is relevant to the ordinary people, and then Buddhism becomes more important to them. They might begin with interest in solving their worldly problems.


The transmission and growth of Buddhism relies crucially on living examples of virtuous, compassionate, non-hatred, and benevolent, harmlessness, and selflessness, wise and peaceful monks.[23] The people are skeptical. They withhold their beliefs until they see some evidence what will help them.


Buddhism has no feature to confine it to any particular nation or any particular country. It is universal in its teaching. A real Buddhist is a citizen of the world. Therefore its rationality, practicability, efficacy, non-aggressiveness, harmlessness, tolerance, and universality have made the strong brotherhood of all living beings what made Buddhism easier to spread all over world. Nations have come and gone, Empires built on might and forces have flourished and perished but Dhamma Empire of the Buddha, founded on love and reason, still flourishes and will continue to flourish as long as its followers adhere its noble principles.



  • Bapat, P. V. 2500 Years of Buddhism. Delhi: Publication Division of Indian Govt., 1956.
  • Conze, Edward, Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies. London: Bruno Cassirer Ltd., 1967.
  • H. Seager, Richard. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Keown, Damien and S. Prebish, Charles. Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Mahathera, Narada. The Buddha and His Teachings. Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society. 1988.
  • Sangharakshita. Buddhism in the West: The Integration of Buddhism into Western Society. (Cambridge: Windhors Publications), 1992.
  • Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. Dehiwala: Buddhist Culture Centre. 1996.
  • Wangu, M Bazaz. World Religion Buddhism. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 2009.

Additional Bibliography



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