Hardly anyone (academics included) hesitates speaking about Buddhism, as if it were a well-defined and unproblematic entity. Even though most academics are aware of the great variance and inner diversity, and occasionally may even find it difficult to agree upon universal characteristics, or on an underlying system, they nonetheless study Buddhism as a religion or a religious system.
More substance of Buddhism is perhaps to be found on its periphery than in its centre. Attention is due to the more significant ‘fringes’ that delineate Buddhist culture. That is also how Buddhism is best appreciated by a team of regional specialists. Therefore, approaching Buddhism from its ‘fringes’ may often be more revealing than approaching it from some presumed ‘orthodoxy’ or fictional ‘mainstream’.
The search for origins, then, mainly is a text-critical and text-historical quest, which stands in long tradition of secularization and deconstruction of religious dogma and religious narration of history. Yet, the majority of its regional and religious phenomena is of non-modern nature. Forms of ‘Western Buddhism’ are in fact more easily understandable as specific developments within the phenomenon of western new religions, which follow modern and post-modern religious sensitivities, than they could be appreciated as entities comparable to forms of ‘ethnic’ Buddhism in its historical and regional Asian varieties. Also it is the lack of familiarity with the notion of renunciation that may account for the majority of the extant confusion about what Buddhism traditionally stands for.
In its popular form, the variety of western Buddhism manifests as a modernist-looking and commercially exploitable Buddhism; characterized by an unprecedented attention for the psychological and social. This lead to developments such as ‘psycologising’ Buddhism. But, psychology, whether manifests in descriptive, analytical, or other academic modes, in any case lacks the (metaphysical) assumption of the possibility of liberation (first and third noble truths) – the overall goal of liberation – that deeply characterizes Buddhism. Or sociologically, rhetorical and ideological aspects of the Buddhist texts perhaps also or mainly are devices that function in specific cultural contexts.
In new and later environments, exposure to Buddhist rhetoric of (direct) experience such as in Zen schools seem to have reinforced the idea of anti-intellectualism; intellectual study and critical reflection not only are regarded as futile, but sometimes even considered to be counterproductive or harmful.
Reference: Henk Blezer, CNWS 2007.