American Zenophilia

Our fascination with Buddha goes well beyond power drinks and movie stars.

HUMANITIES, March/April 2010, Volume 31, Number 2

Americans must like Buddhism. Corporate America thinks so, judging from a host of recent advertisements. While associating their products with organized religion is something most companies avoid, GNC has marketed a dietary supplement as “Fully Empowered Zen,” Red Bull humorously promises the “ways of meditation” if you consume its caffeine-filled drinks, and MasterCard has shown a woman meditating in one of its “Priceless” commercials.

Although the centuries-old religion isn't overwhelmingly practiced in the United States (studies suggest less than 1 percent of people self-identify as Buddhist), its ideas permeate American culture—from song lyrics by the Beastie Boys and spiritual themes in Star Wars, to the publicly professed faith of superstars such as Tiger Woods and Richard Gere. Buddhists have been elected to Congress, and according to recent polls, Buddhists are less discriminated against than are Christians.

“There’s a disproportionate amount of influence for the number of Buddhists in the country,” says Christopher Queen, lecturer on world religions at Harvard University. “Because of high-speed transportation and travel, we feel part of one global village. Buddhism is playing an important role in that global village.”

But what do Americans really know about Buddhism? There’s the Dalai Lama, who famously advocates for peace, ethics, and interfaith efforts. Tibet’s spiritual leader has continually called for the country’s autonomy and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He has met with numerous world leaders, and in 2007 received the Congressional Gold Medal.

But what about Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism?

“Most people don’t know the story of the Buddha. He’s more of an abstraction, while the Dalai Lama is a real figure in our world today,” says filmmaker David Grubin, who directed the upcoming NEH-supported documentary on Gautama’s life. “The Buddha is more of an archetypal figure, so I tried to bring him to life.”

Grubin’s The Buddha, scheduled to air on PBS in April, is set in India and explores the life and meaning of the Buddha. The film enlists elegant, sparse animation to tell the story of Gautama’s life. Grubin weaves Buddha’s story together with his teachings and examples of modern Buddhism through interviews with markedly passionate practitioners—including a psychiatrist, a poet, a monk—and religion scholars.

Gautama grew up in a royal family in India during the sixth century BCE. His father tried to shelter him from anything unpleasant, but at the age of twenty-nine he encountered human hunger, old age, illness, and death on four successive outings from the palace. The sight of human suffering affected him greatly and made him realize that he, too, would eventually age, suffer, and die. Plagued by the questions of why humans suffer and how to end suffering, he left his privileged life behind, abandoning his beloved wife and infant son, to seek an answer.

He visited gurus and became an ascetic, depriving himself of material goods, shelter, and nourishment, eating barely enough to survive. But none of this brought him the answers he sought. Having rejected a life of opulence, he now rejected a life of deprivation to seek a new way—what would become the Middle Way. Under a pipal tree, legend has it, he sat and meditated until he achieved enlightenment. That tree in Bodh Gaya, India, or what is supposedly that tree, has been a sacred place for Buddhist pilgrimage ever since.

There Buddha formulated the Four Noble Truths: suffering exists, suffering is caused by attachment, ending suffering is possible, and there is a way to end suffering through the Eightfold Path (right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration). In this way, humans can break the cycle of reincarnation, being reborn again and again under the law of karma. At thirty-five, Buddha devoted the rest of his life to spreading his teachings about the dharma, the fundamental laws of all things. “Buddha said my followers should not accept my teaching out of devotion but rather your own experiment,” the Dalai Lama says in the documentary. “So real Buddha’s sacred place must build within ourselves. We must build within our heart.”

To declare their Buddhist identity, adherents “take refuge” in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma (his teachings), and the sangha (the community). Buddhists also follow precepts: not killing, not stealing, avoiding sexual misconduct, not lying, and not using intoxicants like alcohol or drugs. “Everybody has a potential to work to change themselves, to find more serenity, to search for enlightenment, whatever you want to call it,” Grubin says. And though not everyone is going to find enlightenment, everyone can seek it.

In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Religious Landscape survey and the American Religious Identification Survey estimated Buddhists at 0.7 percent and 0.5 percent of the American population, respectively. ARIS estimated that the number of adherents rose by 170 percent between 1990 and 2000, reaching 1.2 million followers in 2008.

Scholars are unsure whether the reports are accurate, as Americans who might dabble in various forms of Buddhism may not identify themselves as Buddhist on a survey. That makes it difficult to quantify the number of Buddhists in the United States, says Robert Thurman, father of the actress Uma Thurman, a friend of the Dalai Lama’s, and a professor at Columbia University; though the Harvard Pluralism Project lists more than two thousand Buddhist centers in the United States, the majority of which can be found in New York, California, and Texas.

“Buddhism has sort of gone along with whatever the national religion was. It is not a creedal religion, especially in America,” Thurman says. “We have a phenomenon of millions of people who use mindfulness to improve their health, but it might have nothing to do with Buddhism.”

The Buddha did not consider himself a deity, so some consider Buddhism a philosophy that can be practiced without leaving another religion. American Buddhists are often people who switch their religious affiliation; 32 percent were raised Protestant, while 22 percent were raised Catholic, according to the Pew study. However, the Dalai Lama discourages conversion.

“He would say, ‘You can like what I say about compassion and being more content and being more generous, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist,” Thurman says. “You can do that as a Jew, Christian, whatever you are.”

“The question is, How is Buddhism going to adapt here in America?” Grubin asks. “We’re a very pragmatic culture, so it’s taken a therapeutic and a psychological form.”

Thomas Tweed, a religious studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that Buddhism has adapted to American culture by becoming more Protestant (borrowing words like “worship” and “churches”), democratic, pragmatic, and ecumenical. “Buddhism has blended in the culture and challenged the culture,” Tweed says. “Individualism and focus on experience are deeply American, so many people find resources in Buddhism.”

Buddhists in America are generally divided between ethnic Buddhists, often Asian-Americans who are descendants of immigrants, and convert Buddhists. Buddhism is often broken into four categories: Theravada, which emphasizes the difference between the monks’ authority and the lay people (practiced mostly in South and Southeast Asia), Mahayana, which concentrates less on monks (practiced in countries like China, Japan, and Korea), Tibetan Buddhism, a form of Mahayana led by the Dalai Lama, and Zen Buddhism, which is best known in America and teaches that everyone can be a Buddha through meditation and mindfulness.

One of the ways Americans have dabbled in Buddhism directly or indirectly is through medicine. Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of a stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is credited with mainstreaming mindfulness meditation as a way to help people deal with stress.

Americans have also been interested in “engaged Buddhism,” a term popularized in the 1960s by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh, for people who want to apply meditation and dharma teachings to social injustice.

“Engaged Buddhism is the cutting edge of Buddhism today,” Queen says. These Buddhists want more than to “just study ancient texts or philosophy.” As a result, many of today’s Buddhists promote peace, conduct prison and homeless outreach, and do environmental advocacy. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is one of the largest organizations to be involved in such work.

“Buddhism teaches the notion of the interconnectedness of all things; what we do is part of a web of relationships,” says Paul Numrich, professor of religion and interreligious relations at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. “The welfare of animals and plants are affected by our own actions.”

Americans are less prejudiced against Buddhists than other kinds of believers, a recent Gallup poll suggests. Forty-three percent of survey respondents acknowledged at least “a little” prejudice against Muslims, while 18 percent said they had some prejudice against Christians, compared with 14 percent against Buddhists. However, fewer Americans viewed Buddhism favorably when compared with Christianity and Judaism: 91 percent for Christianity, 71 percent for Judaism, 58 percent for Buddhism, and 42 percent for Islam.

“Many people have an image of a Buddhist as somebody in the lotus position,” Numrich says. “Americans are worried about global Islam in a way they’re not worried about global Buddhism.”

Buddhism’s roots began to form in the United States when Asian immigrants came to the country to mine gold in California in the mid nineteenth century. More Buddhists immigrated after the 1965 Immigration Act, when Americans were taking an interest in Eastern religions, says Buddhist scholar Charles Prebish, who teaches at Utah State University.

“Hippies began to realize that perhaps Buddhism was safer than drugs,” Prebish says. “There’s a myriad of ways that people have wandered into Buddhism without intending to do so.” Some might pick up a Zen book at a bookstore; others might attend a meditation session with a friend.

Hollywood has produced Buddhist movies like Little Buddha and Seven Years in Tibet, and other films with Buddhist themes like Star Wars and The Matrix. Celebrities practicing Buddhism include Richard Gere, Tina Turner, and Steven Seagal. The Beastie Boys offer many Buddhist lyrics in songs like “Bodhisattva Vow.” In 2007, two Buddhist representatives were elected to Congress: Democrats Mazie Hirono of Hawai’i and Hank Johnson of Georgia. There are four main publishing houses in America that produce Buddhist books: Wisdom Publications, Shambhala Publications, Snow Lion Publications, and Parallax Press.

But does Buddhism fit with all aspects of American life? “If you look at a lot of psychological therapies, they’re based on a notion of a healthy sense of ego,” Prebish says. “Buddhism says we should let go of ego altogether.”

And technology has produced a culture of multitasking, which can make it difficult to meditate.

“Meditation, sitting down in a quiet room, turning off your computer, getting away from television, creating quiet space in your life, is not simple,” Prebish says. “There are a lot of things going against people who might say, ‘Aha, this is for me.’”

Unlike Christianity, where important rites are performed in a church, the practice of Buddhist meditation can be removed from a strictly religious context, notes Scott A. Mitchell of the Institute of Buddhist Studies.

“For whatever reason, people feel like they can practice Buddhism without being in a community,” Mitchell says. “Buddhism’s teachings focus on the community aspect, an interrelationship, which challenges the American idea of the individual.” Buddhism is welcomed in America because it appears to provide benefits to individuals without negative consequences. “People generally believe Buddhism is a more pacifistic religion,” he says. “Buddhism provides a bridge for non-normal American religion but not so completely different that they’re shunned.”

However, it faces challenges in retention. Buddhism has the second lowest retention rate among all religions in America, according to the Pew Forum’s survey. Ninety percent of Hindus marry another Hindu, and about 80 percent of people who were raised Hindu remain so as adults. On the other hand, 45 percent of Buddhists are married to someone of the same faith, and just half of those who were raised Buddhist remain so as adults.

“I see on the horizon a pushback or backlash against that for folks who want to preserve a traditional understanding of Buddhism,” Mitchell says. “There’s definitely a question about how people are practicing Buddhism and whether it’s authentic or not.”