Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain by Kay

David N. Kay. Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Hardcover, xvi + 260 pages.

Like Michelle Spuler’sDevelopments in Australian Buddhism (reviewed by me separately), this volume is part of RoutledgeCurzon’sCritical Studies in Buddhism Series. Here the focus is on the reception of Buddhism in Great Britain, which, according to a 2001 census, is the home of c. 150,000 Buddhists. It is not known, however, how many of these are ethnic Buddhists and how many converts. In any case, percentagewise this is a lot less than the figures given for Buddhism in Australia. This is somewhat surprising considering the long-lived popularity of Sir Edwin Arnold’s biography of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, first published in 1879 and the fact of Buddhism’s slightly longer history in Britain over Australia.

The first Englishman to become an ordained Buddhist monk was Allan Bennett (alias Ananda Metteya) in 1898. Nine years later, the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded, which was superseded in 1924 by Christmas Humphreys’s very successful London Buddhist Society. In the late 1950s, Tibetan Buddhism arrived and from the 1970s on became slowly more prominent. The most numerous Buddhist organization, however, is that of Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, founded by Bhikshu Sangharakshita, whose name has become associated with a widely publicized sexual scandal.

This monograph is based on the author’s doctoral work on the forms of British Buddhism in the 1990s and focuses on the Tibetan and Japanese (Zen) versions of Buddhism, which are relatively small and until his investigations had been neglected areas of research. For the former, the very active New Kadampa Tradition (NKT )under the guidance of the controversial Lama Geshe Khelsang Gyatso is the most representative. In number of members and influence, it has replaced all other Tibetan Buddhist schools in that country. For the latter, the Soto Zen-based Order of Buddhist Contemplatives (OBC), which was founded by Rev. Jiyu-Kennett (died 1996), is the most prominent and successful organization.

Buddhism in Britain has recruited mostly from the educated section of society and has undeniably influenced British culture, though it is uncertain to what degree. In turn, British culture has impacted on Buddhism, and David Kay sides with the view expressed by other researchers that British Buddhism is a co-creative product. Its adherents not merely accepted Buddhism but in some ways created it in the context of their own cultural lives. He notes, however, that Tibetan Buddhism in Britain has largely resisted modernizing forces.

Kay’s treatment of the NKT is well informed, and he even goes at length into the serious controversy over the protector-deity Dorje Shugden, which caused a falling-out between the Dalai Lama and Geshe Khelsang Gyatso. The Geshe follows a strict Gelugpa orientation and has criticized the tendency among many Gelugpa lamas teaching Westerners to make compromises. He rejects, among other things, the Dalai Lama’s and other prominent Tibetan Buddhist leaders’ nonsectarian (rime) approach. Politics, sadly, has always played a major role within Tibetan Buddhism, and the author’s detailed discussion of the NKT vis-à-vis the Gelugpa establishment makes it all too clear that the political spirit is alive and kicking.

In the OBC, Kay’s second focal point, political issues revolved mainly around the legitimacy of the transmission to Western students in the eyes of some of the Eastern authorities of Soto Zen. This is a recurrent problem with the transplantation of Buddhism to the Western hemisphere. British-born Jiyu-Kennett had studied Zen in the East and found much support from traditional authorities until she started to pass the teachings on to her fellow-Westerners mainly in Britain and the United States. Understandably, she spent a considerable amount of time struggling with defining the nature of Dharma transmission.

The visionary Jiyu-Kennett believed that Westerners should value their own culture and not attempt to “ orientalize” their relationship to the Buddhist teachings. She did, however, criticize the Western tendency to over-intellectualize and fired some sharp arrows in the direction of other British Buddhist practitioners and organizations, which did not particularly endear her to some people. In adapting Eastern Zen for her Western students, she may have been unconsciously influenced by her own Western upbringing. Kay, however, rejects the speculation that Jiyu-Kennett’s form of Zen was some sort of crypto-Protestantism. In general, his discussion of her and the organization she created is sensitive and insightful.

Apart from the detailed portrayals of the history and teachings of the NKT and OBC organizations, this book also provides a critical review of sociological scholarship on Buddhism thus far. Kay’s is a fine academic study.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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