Buddhism has been all rage lately: The Dalai Lama wrapped up his US tour earlier this year, which included a HuffPost Live talk on “mindfulness, spirituality, and HuffPost’s third metric that seeks to redefine success beyond ‘money and power’ (fantasy!). TIME magazine featured an elated meditator on a February cover, and “mindfulness” talks are popping up faster than Google employee buses in San Francisco.
These are all examples of what I like to call Buddhismwith an intentional lowercase b, because they represent Buddhism without the constraints of institution, commitment or, really, religion. And the biggest example of lowercase Buddhism comes from people’s reactions when I mention that I work for a Buddhist magazine: “Oh, really? I’m meditating!” Sigh.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against meditation and I am fully aware of the importance that Western Buddhism has focused on this practice alone. But what is worth noting is that the conversation ends there. When I ask these meditators which tradition they prefer or which teachers they follow, I only get blank stares. It’s not so much that these new practitioners know very little about Buddhism outside of their secular meditation bubble, but that they are completely content with their naivety.
What I see here is a growing attitude that Buddhism is simply an addition to your current religion or something that can be added to your personal patchwork of spiritual beliefs. Buddhism has become an add-on: an energy boost in your spiritual smoothie. Several factors contributed to this attitude.
FThe first is a change in religious education. In my experience, most of these buddhist meditators (see what I did there?) came to meditation late in the game. They were raised in homes that followed a different religion, usually something traditional that wouldn’t disrupt a dinner conversation with, say, Beavers. Some continue to follow this family religion into adulthood, although studies have shown that they no longer practice in the most conventional way. And somewhere along the line, these watered-down Christians picked up a meditation book, listened too dumbly to their yoga instructor, or spent a summer backpacking in Southeast Asia. . . and now they meditate.
This change in upbringing has led to an increasing number of footless no’s. A 2012 Pew Research study found that the religious group with the largest increase in the United States was, in fact, the one with no religion: “Unaffiliated”. But what’s important here, and what many researchers have pointed out before, is that the largest “Unaffiliated” subcategory was “Nothing in particular.” Not nothing. Not nothing. Just, uh, nothing special (with a Jersey accent). This means that those who fall into this category are still “religious”, “spiritual” or, worse, “spiritual but not religious” and therefore free to meddle with whatever religion is on their radar. Hello Buddhism.
Next is the prevalent assumption in the United States that Buddhism is a blissful, carefree, and compassionate body of beliefs and practices – note that I’ve avoided the word “religion” here. This can be attributed to many early voices of American Buddhism: Walpola Rahula What the Buddha Taught; At Jack Kerouac’s The tramps of Dharma; and Stephen Bachelor Buddhism without beliefs, to name a few. Thomas Tweed does a fine job of summarizing in his aptly titled work, “Why are Buddhists so nice?» And this « kindness » carries until our days, thanks to the always smiling Dalaï Lama, accessible books on Buddhism, like that of Lodro Rinzler. The Buddha walks into a bar who has the nerve to describe how to have one night Buddhist Twitter and Instagram accounts and happy catchphrases spouting feel-good and often inaccurate Buddhism quotes.
Then there is how enthusiastic the media is about Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is so friendly, smiling and adorable – just look at those old-fashioned glasses and “cultural dresses”! The Buddha can walk into a bar! wow! The media love Buddhism! And we love it too. Head over to Twitter if you don’t believe me. To research #Buddhism. Your search will show tweets like “I think I’m going to convert to Buddhism” or “Buddhism is pretty cool”. The messages are all positive and relaxed. For contrast, look for #religion. You will find messages dethroning organized religion, declaring the cessation of its authoritarian rules and regulations, and generally renouncing its presence. Hmm. Fortunately, Buddhism is not a religion!
OI take the ideology that Buddhism, or parts of Buddhism, is especially useful in our fast-paced, high-tech lifestyles. Many religious organizations try to promote this point of view, but Buddhism is one of the only successful religions, thanks in part to the media attitude mentioned above. And Generation Tech eats it. Take, for example, the endless “mindfulness” lectures that, among other things, bring loneliness to the country’s coders. But they don’t bring Buddhism, or even Buddhism, to the eyes and ears of Silicon Valley; simply, mindfulness. Sites like Buddhist Geekswhich brings Buddhism into the realm of technology, and meditation apps, which encourage the practice in urban places like subways, bring Buddhism into the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.
Finally, there is the assumption that a single practice can symbolize an entire religion. This is not unique to Buddhism and meditation: Christians pray; The Muslims bow down; and the Jews have matzah. And it’s quite common to be raised a Christian, to fall on the Jesus bandwagon, but to pray once in a while or to make your grandmother happy and go to mass with her. But you rarely “touch” Christianity if you were raised as a Jew. Or go to the temple once in a while if you were raised Wiccan. And yet, in the case of Buddhism, the members of each world religion choose the religion apart and apply its beliefs at will. This is the “two meditations with your other religion and call me in the morning” approach.
Of course, religions change with time and place. But Buddhism does not change here; it is reduced. Key tenets are missing – any sort of dogma, the ever-important teacher-student relationship, and a very rich and impressive history of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, tulkus and spiritual deities – but the most notable gaping hole is the lack of community.
An absence of community is not terribly surprising, given the rise of the individualized approach to religion and spirituality, but community, or sangha, is an essential part of Buddhism in Buddhist-majority countries, even in modernity. Among its other responsibilities, sanghas maintain tradition and oversee the transmission of dharma, i.e. ensure that no one reinterprets dharma in a way that ruins it for future generations.
But in addition to serving as dharma watchdogs, Buddhist communities are the support system, heart, and glue of Buddhism. They provide a service that no Buddhist textbook, mindfulness conference, or meditation app can provide: authority and support. A religion must have some rules if it is to last 2500 years, after all.
Joanna Piacenza is Web Manager at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. She received her master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She writes to joannapiacenza.com and tweet to @jpiacenza. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the publication with which she is associated.