Why so many Americans think Buddhism is just a philosophy

In East Asia, Buddhists celebrate the death of the Buddha and his entry into final enlightenment in February. But at my local Zen temple in North Carolina, the enlightenment of the Buddha is commemorated during the December holiday season, with a short lecture for the kids, a candle light service, and a potluck dinner after the celebration.

Welcome to American Buddhism.

Early influences

Buddhism entered American cultural consciousness at the end of the 19th century. It was a time when romantic notions of exotic oriental mysticism fueled the imaginations of American philosophers-poets, art connoisseurs, and the first scholars of the world‘s religions.

Transcendent poets like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson read Hindu and Buddhist philosophy deeply, as did Henry Steel Olcott, who traveled to Sri Lanka in 1880, converted to Buddhism and founded the popular branch of philosophy. mystic called Theosophy.

A painting of a Buddhist monk in a Buddhist temple, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Lorianne DiSabato, CC BY-NC-ND

Meanwhile, connoisseurs of Buddhist art introduced America to the beauty of tradition. Art historian and philosophy professor Ernest Fenellosa, along with fellow Bostonian William Sturgis Bigelow, were among the first Americans to visit Japan, convert to Buddhism, and avidly collect Buddhist art. When they returned home, their collections formed the core of the first Arts of Asia collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

At the same time, early scholars of world religions such as Paul Carus made Buddhist teachings readily available to Americans. He published “The Gospel of Buddha,” a collection of bestselling Buddhist parables, a year after attending the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. It was the first time in modern history that representatives of the major religions of the world came together to learn about each other’s spiritual traditions.

The Buddhist delegation to Chicago included Japanese Zen master Shaku Sōen and Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer Anagārika Dharmapāla, who himself had studied Western science and philosophy to modernize his own tradition. These West-influenced Buddhists presented their tradition to their modern Western audiences as a “non-theistic” and “rational” tradition that had no competing gods, irrational beliefs, or supposedly meaningless rituals per se. .

Continuity and change

Pressmaster / Shutterstock.com

Traditional Buddhism actually has many deities, doctrines, and rituals, as well as sacred texts, ordained priests, ethics, sectarian developments, and other elements that one would generally associate with any organized religion. But in the 1893 World Parliament, the Buddhist masters favorably presented their meditative tradition to modern America only as a practical philosophy, not a religion. This perception of Buddhism persists in America to this day.

Buddhists did not deliberately distort their tradition or simply tell Americans what they wanted to hear. They were sincere in their attempt to make a 2,500-year-old tradition relevant to the late 19th century.

But in the end, they only transplanted a few branches from the much larger Buddhism tree to American soil. Only a few cuttings of Buddhist philosophy, art and meditation entered America, while many other traditional elements of the Buddhist religion remained in Asia.

Buddhism in America

Once it was planted here, Americans became particularly fascinated with the mystical appeal of Buddhist meditation.

DT Suzuki.
Portrait of DT Suzuki made by his secretary Mihoko Okamura via Wikimedia Commons.

Secular Zen teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, who was a student of Japanese Zen master Shaku Sōen and translator for the World Parliament, influenced many leading artists and intellectuals in the post-war period. Through its popular writings and the subsequent waves of Asian and American Buddhist teachers, Buddhism has impacted almost every aspect of American culture.

Environmental and social justice initiatives have embraced a movement known as “committed Buddhism” since Martin Luther King Jr. nominated its founder, Vietnamese monk and anti-war activist Thich Nhat Hanh, for the Nobel Prize for Peace. peace in 1967. His Buddhist Order of Interbeing continues to provide conscious, non-violent solutions to the world’s most pressing moral problems.

The American educational system was also enriched by its first Buddhist-affiliated university in Naropa, Colorado, which paved the way for other Buddhist institutions of higher learning such as Soka University and Western University. in California, as well as Maitripa College in Oregon.

The medical establishment has also incorporated mindfulness-based stress reduction into mainstream therapies, and many anger management programs in prison are based on Buddhist contemplative techniques such as insightful Vipassana meditation.

The same goes for the entertainment industry which has incorporated Buddhist themes into Hollywood blockbusters, such as “The Matrix”. Even professional athletics have used Zen training strategies and advanced the American understanding of Buddhism not as a “religion” but as a secular philosophy with wide applications.

The exotic allure

Jack Kerouac.

But American secular Buddhism also produced unintended consequences. Suzuki’s writings have greatly influenced Jack Kerouac, the popular Beat Generation author of “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums”. But Suzuki considered Kerouac a “monstrous impostor” because he sought only the freedom of Buddhist enlightenment without the discipline of practice.

Other Beat poets, hippies, and later New Age DIY autodidacts have also paradoxically mistaken Buddhism for a kind of self-indulgent narcissism, despite its teachings of selflessness and compassion. Still others have commercially exploited its exotic appeal to sell everything from “Zen tea” to “Lucky Buddha beer,” which is particularly ironic given Buddhism’s traditional ban on alcohol and other intoxicants. .

As a result, the popular construction of nonreligious Buddhism has contributed greatly to the contemporary “spiritual but nonreligious” phenomenon, as well as to the secularized and commodified mindfulness movement in America.

We may only have transplanted a fraction of the largest religious Buddhist bodhi tree in America, but our cut has adapted and taken root in our secular, scientific, and highly commercialized age. For better or for worse, it’s American-style Buddhism.

Editor’s note: We have changed the main image of the original article showing Lama Sogyal Rinpoche at Sakya Monastery in Seattle, Washington, following allegations of sexual assault against him.