Understanding the Asian roots of modern Buddhism

Op-Ed: Lethbridge University

Understanding the Asian roots of modern Buddhism


From its 2,500-year-old roots in eastern India, Buddhism has evolved into the fastest-growing philosophical religion in the West, one that has sparked diverse groups of practitioners — including many celebrities — spawned countless books, and is often glamourized in Hollywood films. Dr. John Harding wants to know why.

Dr. John Harding’s interest in Buddhism goes back to his time as an undergraduate student.

More specifically, the University of Lethbridge Religious Studies associate professor would like to better understand the forces that have shaped Buddhism since it crossed continents from Asia into Europe and North America 150 years ago. He hopes to debunk the common misconception of modern Buddhism, particularly as it is practised in Canada, as primarily influenced by the West, and demonstrate that Asian reform movements prominently contributed to Buddhism’s global transformation.

“The more we looked into the history…the more clear it becomes that a lot of the characteristics of modern Buddhism that are viewed as Westernized actually started in Asia,” says Harding, who also chairs the Religious Studies department and coordinates the Asian Studies minor program. “We need to look at all of the global linkages, and introduce a little more theoretical sophistication to how we explore Buddhism in the West.”

It’s an area Harding has been investigating since 2013 with colleagues at McGill and St. Mary’s universities as part of a five-year research project funded by a $258,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. He recently presented on the topic at a U of L PUBlic Professor Series lecture called Buddha’s World Tour: Global Buddhism in the Modern Era. As he explains, today’s version of Buddhism is viewed as being a reflection of Western social values: egalitarian, female friendly, based in meditation and socially engaged. At the same time, there is a perception of traditional Asian Buddhism as hierarchical, sexist, ritualistic and withdrawn from society.
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