THERAVADA SPIRITUALITY IN THE WEST
While the Western contact and study of the Theravāda tradition goes back to the earliest Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka in the sixteenth century and to European scholars in the early nineteenth century, the beginning of popular Western interest in and inspiration from Southeast Asian Buddhism began around 1870. Since that time there has been two peaks in this interest: the first, from 1870 to 1912 and the second, a century later from 1970 to the present. The former was characterized primarily by an intellectual orientation as Europeans and Americans found in the early Buddhist texts preserved by the contemporary Theravāda tradition an attractive alternative to Western religious beliefs. In contrast, the current upsurge in interest centers predominantly around religious praxis, with specific practices attaining great popularity sometimes completely divorced from the doctrinal and religious context of the Southeast Asian Theravāda tradition(s). At the same time however, an influx of immigrants from Theravāda countries, especially to the United States, has resulted in the presence of numerous Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan temples that replicate the cultural forms of Theravāda Buddhism of their respective home countries. Most of these ethnic temples created since 1970 have had little impact outside of their respective ethnic constituencies.
With the exception of the partially westernized Sri Lankan missionary Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864 – 1933; discussed below), Theravāda Buddhism has mostly been introduced to the West by westerners. As can be expected, the importation of Theravāda Buddhism to the West has involved a selection, translation and adaptation process as westerners defined the tradition for themselves. What has been most fascinating about this process is that the twentieth century Theravāda Buddhism that many westerners are encountering in Southeast Asia has been profoundly changed by the nineteenth century Asian contact with the West and with Western interpretations of Buddhism. MORE [Insight Meditation Center, Redwood City, California, USA]
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Gil Fronsdal is the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California; he has been teaching since 1990. He has practiced Zen and Vipassana in the U.S. and Asia since 1975. He was a Theravada monk in Burma in 1985, and in 1989 began training with Jack Kornfield to be a Vipassana teacher. Gil teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where he is part of its Teachers Council.
Gil was ordained as a Soto Zen priest at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1982, and in 1995 received Dharma Transmission from Mel Weitsman, the abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center. He is currently serving on the SF Zen Center Elders’ Council.
Gil has an undergraduate degree in agriculture from U.C. Davis where he was active in promoting the field of sustainable farming. In 1998 he received a PhD in Religious Studies from Stanford University studying the earliest developments of the bodhisattva ideal. He is the author of The Issue at Hand, essays on mindfulness practice, and the translator of The Dhammapada, published by Shambhala Publications.
You may listen to Gil’s talks on Audio Dharma.
The Buddha illustration is courtesy of The Buddha Gallery. If you click on the photograph, you will link to a detailed description.