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The Appeal of Buddhism to the West

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ANALYSIS OF BUDDHISM’S APPEAL TO THE WEST

INTRODUCTION

“When you come back as a whale, you’ll be bloody glad you put Greenpeace in your will.”
— Greenpeace advertisement on billboard in Taylor Square, Sidney, Australia

As the above quotation from the advertisement indicates, there is no question that Buddhism has a certain appeal to the West. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. author of Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and The West provides a cultural history of the “strange encounter” between Buddhism (especially Tibetan Buddhism) and Western countries, most notably Britain, Australia and the United States. It is no longer questionable that Buddhism, and again, especially the Tibetan stream, has permeated popular culture: since China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1950, which will be discussed further, but most significantly since the 1990s. This is most likely accredited to the Dalai Lama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, which brought him and Buddhism much exposure. In fact, every stream of Buddhism announces growing public acceptance in the West since the Dalai Lama first visited two decades ago. The Complete Guide to Buddhist America, written in 1998 for which the Dalai Lama wrote the preface, reports that the number of worship centers in the United States more than doubled from 1987 to 1997 to over one thousand.
Several examples illustrate the recent exposure of Buddhism in Western popular and political culture. Firstly, one of the most popular films of the early 1980s, The Return of the Jedi of the Star Wars series featured the Ewoks who spoke high-speed Tibetan. More recently, in 1996, at the Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta, Georgia, the percussionist of the Grateful Dead play the song “Call to Nature” which famously began with the chanting of a Tibetan monk. Furthermore, in 1996 fifty thousand people gathered at Golden Gate Park for the “Free Tibet” benefit concert which featured many popular artists and bands including Smashing Pumpkins, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys and Yoko Ono. Before the performance, the bands were each blessed by Tibetan monks.
CELEBRITY INFLUENCE In the same way that celebrities’ clothing and hairstyles influence the choice of consumers, some people are attracted to certain religion for the sole reason that the religion is endorsed by a celebrity. Many people were drawn to Kabbalah after the pictures of Madonna, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were released that showed these celebrities sporting Kabbalah red string bracelets. Similarly, when information became available about celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta’s involvement in the Church of Scientology, many Americans also sought involvement. Likewise, after the release of Seven Years in Tibet which featured Brad Pitt, one of America’s favorite actors, many people became interested in Buddhist teachings. Additionally, actor Richard Gere who is a close personal friend of the Dalai Lama has also brought attention to Buddhism.
Aside from Seven Years In Tibet, the West’s fascination with Buddhism is translated into such movies as Little Buddha and Kundun. In fact, in the October 1999 issue, Time magazine featured the cover story entitled “America’s Fascination with Buddhism,” which addressed Western celebrities that have turned to Buddhism for guidance. Such celebrities addressed in the article include Oliver Stone, Steven Seagal, Tina Turner, Richard Gere, Adam Yauch and Phil Jackson among others.
THE EAST AS AN OBJECT OF DESIRE However, the East and Eastern religions, especially Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, have long been objects of Western fantasy—since the earliest Catholic missionaries and European explorers that travelled into that area. In fact, the spread of Buddhism to the West was predicted far before Brad Pitt starred in Seven Years In Tibet. While travelling in Tibet in the eighth century, an Indian sage by the name of Padmasambhava allegedly predicted, “When the iron eagle flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered over the earth and the Dhamma will go to the land of the red man.” By “red man” he refers to the people of the West, for Asians (who Caucasians believed to have yellow skin) believed Caucasians to have pink or red-colored skin.
Historical analysis of the perception of Tibet provides insight into how and why Buddhism appeals to the West. For many years, Tibet has been seen as a country sheltered from modernity, endowed with what the West has lost: peacefulness, serenity, harmony with nature. Lopez argues that during the nineteenth century wars between Russia and Britain, the two great European powers, Tibet was always regarded as a prize, yet it never came under European control and never made any attempts to modernize. For this reason, it was always portrayed as isolated, and therefore it was an object of imperial desire.
Furthermore, Tibet is surrounded by the highest mountains in world—the Himalayas—on its southern border, and such mountains signify pristine, purity and serenity: qualities the modern, industrialized, high-paced society of the West yearns for. Brad Pitt captures this perfectly when he addresses the extreme remoteness of Tibet hidden behind the Himalayas. He claims, “This is the highest country on earth, and the most isolated.” Lopez argues it is for this reason the West has historically seen the East as superior: “the continuing European romance in which the West sees some lack within itself and fantasizes that the answer, through a process of projection, is to be found somewhere in the East.”
However, the West’s perception of the East has changed several times in the last hundred years. In the late-1800s the view surfaced that the East is backwards and primitive, and unable to govern itself. This change in perception justified colonialism, the practice of stronger nations colonizing and somewhat suppressing weaker nations for raw materials, to use as markets for processed goods, etc. However, in WWI, the Chinese were seen as freedom fighters compared to Japanese who were allied with Nazi Germany. Yet after the 1949 communist victory in China, the Chinese were once again seen as backwards and immoral. This view was further enhanced by China’s invasion of Tibet, which exposed Tibet to Western media, portraying the People’s Liberation Army as godless communists overrunning a peaceful land of defenseless Buddhist monks. Lopez argues, “Tibet embodies the spiritual and the ancient, China the material and the modern. Tibetans are superhuman, Chinese are subhuman.” Western thought drew the distinction between Tibetan and Chinese culture and religion: the wisdom of the heart versus the knowledge of the brain, individual dignity versus the herd-instinct of the masses, conquest of the world versus conquest of the mind, etc.
Subsequently, the Tibetan diaspora begin in 1959. Lopez claims “the Chinese takeover exposed Tibet’s timeless culture to time, time that would cause the contents of the culture to wither and turn to dust.” Although Tibet’s timeless wisdom was perceived as lost—thousands of Tibetans were killed, temples and monasteries were destroyed, the benevolent political and religion leader, the Dalai Lama was exiled—Tibet and Buddhism in general gained international recognition and endorsement. Although the West viewed itself as superior to the East in a broad sense, most notably communist China, Tibet has retained its goodness and pureness.
DISILLUSIONMENT WITH THEISTIC RELIGIONS Perhaps one of the most significant reasons that Western people have turned to Buddhism, aside from that influence of celebrities dictating trends is that Christians and Westerners in general have become disillusioned with Christianity and other theistic or organized religions such as Judaism and Islam. Many Westerners seek “immediate enlightenment” and belief the path to true happiness and freedom from suffering is through Buddhism. Bhikkhu Bodhi of the Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey address the appeal of Buddhism to the West. He claims,
It is not difficult to understand why Buddhism should appeal to Americans at this particular junction of our history. Theistic religions have lost their hold on the minds of many educated Americans and this has opened up a deep spiritual vacuum that needs to be filled. For many, materialistic values are profoundly unsatisfying, and Buddhism offers a spiritual teaching that fits the bill. It is rational, experiential, practical, and personally verifiable. It brings concrete benefits that can be realized in one's own life; it propounds lofty ethics and an intellectually cogent philosophy. Also less auspiciously, it has an exotic air that attracts those fascinated by the mystical and esoteric.

Similarly, the article “Buddha Turns to Suburbia” addresses the appeal of Buddhism specifically to Britain. The unnamed author of the article attributes the recent appeal to the Brits’ disillusionment with organized religion—a phenomenon that has also occurred in the North America. The article states,
Its impact on British life has derived not from immigration but from its inherent appeal to urban, educated Westerners, disillusioned with
European values. It has won converts among those who have lost faith in both traditional British organized religion and the supposed modern certainties that science has offered. Buddhism, like some other Asian faiths, addresses a continuing Western thirst for spirituality and mysticism that an increasingly logical, rational society fails to satisfy.

SIMPLICITY AND PEACEFULNESS OF THE BUDDHIST LIFESTYLE
A recent New York Times article entitled “The Appeal of Buddhism Grows in U.S.” and cites the reason for this as the nature of the lifestyle that the Buddhist doctrine preaches. The author of the article, Gustav Niebuhr speaks of the Dalai Lama’s rise in popularity and the success he has found in preaching the Buddhist message to America. “His message is both simple and compelling,” Niebuhr claims, “one that offers hope on both individual and societal levels. And that may be what is proving so attractive about him to Americans.” Buddhism offers a completely different lifestyle to what many Westerns find themselves in—one that is complex and high-paced, disconnected from nature and oftentimes from what is most important in life. Life for the average Westerner is consumed with responsibilities and deadlines, depression and anxiety, worry and regret. Buddhism provides a way out of this lifestyle—a way to reconnect with nature, yourself, your loved ones, and your purposes and goals in life. Furthermore, the article states that “although he has visited the United States often since he first came here 20 years ago, he has probably never been so widely recognized or so admired here as now.” The West yearns for the peace and simplicity it has lost, which Buddhism promises to restore. James Shaheen, the magazine’s publisher, claimed in the article, “There are people who call who genuinely say, ‘I’m going to learn something that's going to help my life be more peaceful’.” In fact, the Dalai Lama himself offers some insight into why the West has turned its back on organized, theistic religion, and become interested in the 2,500-year-old teachings of a little foreign man by the name of Siddhartha Gautama. The Dalai Lama claims that “the interest toward inner values is increasing.” In other words, Westerners pursue material wealth, but have found that material wealth does not equal happiness. “People begin to realize that material facility alone is not the full answer for life,” he states. Buddhism, however, offers a practical prescription for living, a spirituality based on obtaining peace and purpose, rather than expectation of an afterlife. It teaches that life involves suffering, but one can find wisdom and peace by adopting a positive attitude and behavior. Similarly, one Western Buddhist and author of Sacred Tibet, Philip Rawson, argues Buddhism provides a more fulfilling lifestyle and approach to living for the West. He states, “Its real interest for us is that Tibetan culture offers powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives to Western egotistical lifestyles, our short attention span, our gradually more pointless pursuit of material satisfactions, and our despair when these, finally, inevitably disappoint us.”
THE DALAI LAMA HIMSELF IS APPEALING
Jeffrey Hopkins, professor of Tibetan and religious studies at the University of Virginia, claims that some of the success of Buddhism is attributed to the appealing nature of the Dalai Lama himself. “I think that he worked very hard to fashion a message not just for Buddhists, and not just for religious people, but for all people,” says Professor Hopkins, who served as the Dalai Lama’s translator until 1989. Furthermore, Reverend Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, also speaks to the appeal of the Dalai Lama. He claims there is “a certain resoluteness and clarity about who he is, and that has a certain appeal in a time when leadership is so questioned.” Many Westerns think of the Dalai Lama as a sort of Buddhist equivalent to the Roman Catholic Pope. Outside of the religious community, however, he is also greatly respected—he was honored for his commitment to nonviolence with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Among his accomplishments, the Dalai Lama has published several books including a recent bestseller entitled The Art of Happiness in which he offers his ideas about a universal ethic for living that depends on common sense rather than religious tradition—a theme that many Western consumers appeal to.
COMMITMENT TO REASON AND SCIENCE
Finally, the West finds Buddhism appealing for its rational and scientific approach. Buddhism enjoys a much more open attitude toward examining what is true, than, for example, Christianity as in the case of Galileo and the position of the earth and sun in the solar system. The Dalai Lama has even proposed that if scientists can prove that something Buddha or his followers taught is incorrect or just superstition, he would willingly drop the inconsistent belief from Buddhist teaching.
This approach is not only attractive to the West but also proves helpful in a multitude of disciplines. Bhikkhu Bodhi an ordained Buddhist monk from New York City addressed the United Nations on the relevance of Buddhism in the modern Western world. He claims its popularity is due to its ability to provide helpful insights and practices across a wide spectrum of disciplines—from philosophy and psychology to medical care and ecology—without requiring those who use its resources to fully adopt Buddhism as a religion. He states, “Despite the tremendous advances humankind has made in science and technology, advances that have dramatically improved living conditions in so many ways, we still find ourselves confronted with global problems that mock our most determined attempts to solve them within established frameworks.” Specifically, Buddhism gives a clear explanation of how life’s experiences come about and how to deal with them in the best manner possible. It does not require believers to accept anything with blind faith, but encourages believers to think for themselves and test their beliefs. This critical and analytical approach resembles the scientific method upon which Western science is based. Buddhism is open to scientific investigation and invites people to examine it in such a way.
Furthermore, Buddhism appeals to individualism and tolerance, both valued highly in Western liberal democracies. The Buddhist is encouraged to find his or her own path to nirvana, but must do so in an accepting and non-judgmental manner.
CONCLUSION
It is clear that the West has, in fact, become enchanted by Buddhism, specifically with Tibetan Buddhism. Several factors contribute to this appeal most notably Buddhism’s emphasis on compassion, and environmentalism and finding inner peace through meditation, which distinguishes it from the theistic religions that have previously captivated the West. Additionally, Buddhism boasts its commitment tolerance and a rational and scientific basis, two ideals that are consistent with Western thought. If Christianity is to regain its hold of the West, it is vital that the Chrurch address its failures in evangelizing, but also why Eastern religions like Buddhism are capturing the hearts and minds of Westerners across Europe and North America and succession filling the void Christianity has left.
In conclusion, it is important to now that although the Buddhist community rejoices at the rising numbers of believers, scholars point out that Western Buddhism differs from that of its origin. Author David Klinghoffer claims argues that “our homegrown ‘Tibetan Buddhists’ have yet to notice that the entity they have embraced has little to do with the religion practiced for centuries by Buddhists in Tibet.”

WORKS CITED

Abeysekera, Radhika. “The Appeal of Buddhism in the West.” Buddha Sasana http://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebdha276.htm (accessed June 12, 2012).

Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “Lecture on Vesak Day.” United Nations. May 15, 2000. Budda Net. http://www.buddhanet.net/budmsg.htm (accessed June 8, 2012).
“ ‘Climbing to the Top of the Mountain,’ Buddha Sasana interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi at the Bodhi Monastery in USA,” Insight Journal (Fall 2002) http://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebdha276.htm#_edn1 (accessed June 12, 2012).

Klinghoffer, David. “Little Buddhas.” National Review (June 1998): 44-45.

“Leading Article: Suburbia turns to Buddha,” The Independent. March 4, 1995. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-article--suburbia-turns-to-buddha- 1609892.html (accessed March 9, 2012).

Lopez, Jr., Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Mackenzie, Vicki. Why Buddhism? Westerns in Search of Wisdom. London: HarperCollins, 2003.

Pal, Pratapaditya. The Art of Tibet. New York: Asia Society, 1969.

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. Vicki Mackenzie, Why Buddhism? Westerns in Search of Wisdom (London: HarperCollins, 2003), xv.
[ 2 ]. Radhika Abeysekera, The Appeal of Buddhism in the West
Buddha Sasana http://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebdha276.htm (accessed June 12, 2012).
[ 3 ]. Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 6.
[ 4 ]. Ibid., 7.
[ 5 ]. Ibid.
[ 6 ]. “ ‘Climbing to the Top of the Mountain,’ Buddha Sasana interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi at the Bodhi Monastery in USA,” Insight Journal (Fall 2002) http://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebdha276.htm#_edn1 (accessed June 12, 2012).
[ 7 ]. “Leading Article: Suburbia turns to Buddha,” The Independent, March 4, 1995, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-article--suburbia-turns-to-buddha-1609892.html (accessed March 9, 2012).
[ 8 ]. Niebuhr, “For the Discontented, A Message of Hope; Appeal of Buddhism Grows in U.S. Where Dalai Lama Attracts Crowds,” The New York Times, (accessed June 15, 2012).
[ 9 ]. Ibid.
[ 10 ]. Ibid.
[ 11 ]. Ibid.
[ 12 ]. Pratapaditya Pal, The Art of Tibet (New York: Asia Society, 1969), 13.
[ 13 ]. Niebuhr, “For the Discontented, A Message of Hope; Appeal of Buddhism Grows in U.S. Where Dalai Lama Attracts Crowds,” The New York Times, (accessed June 15, 2012).
[ 14 ]. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Lecture on Vesak Day,” United Nations, May 15, 2000, Budda Net, http://www.buddhanet.net/budmsg.htm (accessed June 8, 2012).
[ 15 ]. David Klinghoffer, “Little Buddhas,” National Review (June 1998), 44.

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