Gods Recruiting: Buddhism and Westerners

“Buddhism” was the term used by the British to denote the myriad religions of Asia that featured worship of the Buddha. These religions include those practiced by the Japanese and Tibetans, as well as the Thai and other peoples. Originating in India, Buddhism is actually a missionary religion. In the 6th century, monks from Korea went to Japan to spread Buddhism. After World War II, priests of various Buddhist lineages emigrated to the West and set up temples for Europeans and other Westerners.

During the various exchanges, Buddhism both transformed and was transformed by each culture. Because of the evolving nature of each culture, there is no one “pure or authentic” Buddhism. Instead, there are many lineages and sects instead.

In the exchanges with the West, Western philosophy permeated Buddhism. Western scholarship methods are now taught in Buddhist centers. Students read commentaries of the Holy Scriptures in English. Meanwhile from living in India, the 14th Dalai Lama has adopted the ahimsa of non-violence taught by Gandhi into Tibetan Buddhism. In contrast, the 13th Dalai Lama told Gandhi that he had no idea of what ahimsa meant.

The Gods in Buddhism are a cultural part of the religion. The Goddess Tara, a popular Goddess in Buddhism has many forms, but most Pagans worship Green and White Taras. (Security and Compassion, respectively.) Tara, Herself, was formed by the tears of Avalokiteshvara, the original bodhisattva. She is considered by some to be a Mother Goddess.

Another Goddess that Pagans revere is Kuan Yin (Wade Giles spelling), whos often regarded as the Mercy Goddess. She is another form of Avalokiteshvara. Kuan Yin is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of All Buddhas,” and is similar to the Christian Mother Mary. (Tara is from the Indian tradition of Buddhism, while Kuan Yin is from the Chinese.)

In venerating these Gods and others of Buddhism, Pagans should be aware of several things. First, the Buddhism that permeates popular American culture is an invention of Henry Steel Olcott. (Note 1) He reimagined the religion as rational, free of dogma, and with no rituals. His reinvention has Buddhist tenets based on Western science.

Secondly, the Shangri-La myth (Note 2) of popular culture presents Tibet as the place of all wisdom, with the lamas as the “old wise ones.” By romanticizing Tibetan Buddhism, this myth gives Westerners the notion that this is the purest form of any religion. The Shangri-La myth spoke to the Western psychological needs of being unrooted in a modern world.

One Pagan that I knew regarded the Green and White Taras as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deities.” (Note 3). He viewed these Goddesses to be non-judgmental and compassionate. He often spoke of Them as helping him to heal and to be a happy human being. As he told me about Them, I thought of the Taras as therapeutic constructs for him.

I think that Pagans who worship Buddhist Gods should know their cultural origins. Not only that, but what sect of Buddhism are They a part of. Context will aid in knowing who these Gods are. This helps in keeping these Gods from becoming psychological devices to meet the particular needs of the worshipers. Once Pagans understand the cultural roots of these Gods, they can be better able to adore Them.


Note 1: Olcott (1832-1907) is regarded to be the first American convert to Buddhism. He is a co-founder of Theosophy with Helen Blavatsky. He is also credited with the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Note 2: James Hilton (U.K., 1900-1954) presented a Tibetan utopia called Shangri-La in his novel “Lost Horizon,” written in 1933. This book became one of the most popular novels of the 20th Century.

Note 3: Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton coined this term in 2005 to describe the beliefs of American teenagers. They define Moralistic Therapeutic Deism defined as:

A God exists who created, ordered the world, and watches over human life on earth.  The God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in The Bible and by most world religions. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. The God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when this God is needed to resolve a problem. Good people go to Heaven when they die.

For Further Reading:

Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Cultural Issues: Info-Buddhism.com

Study Buddhism from Dr. Alexander Berzin: StudyBuddhism.com

Previous Post in this series: Gods Recruiting: Hindu Gods

3 thoughts on “Gods Recruiting: Buddhism and Westerners

  1. This is an excellent post, Virginia. I do Buddhist Metta (Loving Kindness) meditation. My teachers belong to the Therevadan tradition. Buddhism is a very complex, and beautiful religion. I find it helps me be more compassionate to myself and others. And it helps me to stop judging people (including myself) so harshly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I lived in Japan, I had a Buddhist priest as a good friend. His father had taken over a temple that was to be abandoned and continued the line. The family maintains the temple. Even in Japan, there are several forms of Buddhism. When I returned to the U.S., I would often tell people that there are more kinds than Tibetan.


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