Cultural and institutional diversity within Buddhism

As noted earlier, there is great diversity within what is labelled ‘Buddhism’, especially as it spread to so many different countries and cultures. Cultural contexts led to the development of different ways of expressing Buddhism, and different customs. It is hard – almost impossible – to disentangle culture and religion, as it this depends on having a fixed idea of ‘religion’ or ‘real Buddhism’ that is open to debate. Nor do separate countries have completely separate cultures, as ‘cultural’ elements were often spread along with the ‘religious’ ones, as missionaries and businesspeople travelled to and fro – thus ‘Indian’ ideas and customs as well as Buddhist ideas spread further east, and other ideas and customs came back. Different approaches to Buddhism were debated, sometimes living happily side by side and sometimes one gaining dominance. Conversely, Buddhists in some more remote areas might have had access to particular texts and teachers and not know that others even existed, evolving their own versions over time.

Institutional diversity occurs even within one country. From earliest times, Buddhist have disagreed about matters of teaching or practice and formed new groups. Others have had new visions and insights, discovered new texts, come to new interpretations, or sought to cater for a different sector of society and intentionally or otherwise formed new organisations. There are now many different groups and subgroups, with new organisations forming all the time. Contemporary communications however are creating more possibilities for Buddhists from different groups to meet, dialogue and cooperate.

Today Buddhists exist all over the world. In the UK, there are Buddhists with ethnic origins in many different Buddhist-majority (or Buddhist significant minority) countries, and those who have personally or in recent generations converted from other backgrounds. The latter may follow a traditional form of Buddhism or belong to a group that particularly caters for Westerners (or something in between).

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