In the early 2000s, I taught Western philosophy to Tibetan monks at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India. These monks were excited to explore new insights into questions they were already pursuing in Buddhist philosophy, and new questions they had never considered. I was recently reminded of my students in Dharamsala when a Buddhist friend asked why studying Western philosophy might be of any benefit to a contemporary practitioner.
Buddhism offers a vast tradition of philosophical and moral reflection. But traditions endure only to the degree to which they address the experience and concerns of each new generation. Our contemporary concerns include justice and inequality, navigating difference in multicultural societies, climate change, and the pervasiveness of information technology. Discerning how to speak, act, and think skillfully in our contemporary context requires us to engage with these concerns. As Buddhists, we should not be afraid of drawing on Western thought when it can help with this engagement.
In contrast to premodern Buddhism, justice has been a primary concern of Western philosophy since Plato and Aristotle. Western political theory—teaching us about human dignity and human rights—informs contemporary engaged Buddhist responses to injustice. And Western environmental philosophy informs ecobuddhism, a modern Buddhist response to a problem classical Buddhist authors never faced. Western intellectual traditions provide resources that can help us be morally attentive as Buddhists living in a world with oppressive social structures and unraveling natural systems.
But as Buddhists, we should also be open to learning from Western philosophy in areas that Buddhist traditions address in great detail, such as mind, world, and meaning. Western philosophers explored these same questions; sometimes their ideas and arguments can clarify Buddhist analyses. Since insight is a necessary condition for awakening, and one important way to achieve this—as many traditional Buddhist scholars emphasized—is through rational argument and analytic meditation, we should be open to deeper understanding, whatever its source.
To appreciate the ways classical Buddhist texts can challenge our thinking, we should be aware of the interpretive frameworks through which we encounter them. For many of us, that means the cultural and philosophical orientations of Western modernity. Western thought can help us understand why we might find appealing a form of Buddhism that de-emphasizes tradition, mythology, and ritual and valorizes psychology, creativity, nature, social engagement, and the affirmation of this life and the present moment. Classical Buddhist texts speak to us from outside our own discourse and challenge us to think differently; if we don’t understand our interpretive frameworks, however, we may just see a projection of our own creation.
As Buddhism developed in India and spread to different cultural contexts, Buddhist philosophers drew on new conceptual resources to articulate the dharma. Buddhism transformed and was itself transformed by every culture it permeated, as anyone familiar with the Buddhist doctrines of dependent origination and impermanence would expect. My students in Dharamsala were following in a long tradition of Buddhist scholar–monks who studied teachings outside their lineage, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, critically evaluating and synthesizing ideas that seemed most effective for obtaining insight and transforming suffering. The Buddhism that was brought to the West by immigrants and missionaries was already hybrid, informed by a multiplicity of intellectual and cultural traditions.
The hybridity of Asian Buddhism and Western thought might unnerve practitioners who seek a pure, authentic teaching inherited from premodern masters, uncontaminated by the West. Admittedly, we should be wary of a Buddhism no longer rooted in tradition; faith in the Buddha, in the teachings of the Buddha, in the community of practitioners past and present, and in our own possibilities of transformation is an important element of the Buddhist path. But openness to the ways in which Western traditions can help us liberate the mind from confusion and respond more skillfully to sentient beings is fully in keeping with Buddhist tradition. Even as we remember that ultimately the dharma is beyond words and concepts, let us welcome the unfolding of the dharma in the West as it speaks to a new generation.