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Barbara O'Brien

Is Western Buddhism Shallow?

By October 15, 2009

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I have to admit this is funny, if painful. Christian Lander writes about Stuff White People Like, and in his new book he writes that among the things White People like are religions their parents don't belong to, or "any religion that doesn't involve Jesus." Lander mentions Buddhism as a popular choice.

For the most part, white people prefer religions that produce artefacts and furniture that fit into their home or wardrobe. They are also particularly drawn to religions that do not require a lot of commitment or donations.

When a white person tells you "I'm a Buddhist/Hindu/Kabbalahist", the best thing to do is ask how they arrived at their religious decision. The story will likely involve a trip to Thailand or a college class on religion.

I complained a couple of weeks ago that while Buddhism is popular in the West, it is not taken seriously as a religion. While Lander's description of western Buddhists is exaggerated, I think it reflects how most westerners view western Buddhists.

I spend considerable time checking out Buddhist web forums and websites, and there is a lot of superficiality. Sincere and dedicated practice abounds in the West also, but I don't think this is visible to the casual observer.

I'm not sure what's to be done about this, but there it is.

October 15, 2009 at 11:50 am
(1) Jaime McLeod says:

While I’ve certainly had episodes of getting annoyed by immature, spiritually materialistic presentations of Buddhism, I’m not sure there’s much that can, or should, be done about it. Like anything else in the world, Buddhism attracts dabblers, it attracts people who find so much meaning in the Dharma that they “leave home” and shave their heads, and it attracts a lot of people somewhere between those two extremes. While a lot of the shallow Western pseudo-Buddhism makes me cringe – particularly as most of it tends to come from very privileged, self-absorbed types of people – I think that any seeds of the Dharma that are planted deserve to be watered. They might just grow into something beautiful. I, myself, started as a dabbler, before settling down into more serious practice. Now, I regularly read Dogen and the sutras, anchor my life with daily zazen practice, and practice with a sangha and a group of teachers. Before that, I read popular Buddhist books, pined after expensive retreats, bought statues ad malas, struggled to sit quietly for even a few minutes each week, and imagined how much better my life would be “after I reach enlightenment.” Is one better than the other? Back when I was dabbling, I would have said that Buddhism was incredibly important to me. Indeed, it was. And I wouldn’t have the practice I have now if it weren’t for that period of “test-driving.” Probably for every person who winds up with a serious Buddhist practice following a period of dabbling, there are many more who lose interest and move on. For them, it’s just another phase, like becoming a raver or a goth. But, hopefully, something those people learned while playing Buddhist will stick with them, will shift the way they see the world or treat people. Maybe it will give them the strength to appreciate life in a time of need. Or maybe not … who can say?

October 15, 2009 at 1:38 pm
(2) David says:

Well said, Jaime. What’s dabbling anyway? I’m not sure. Anyone looking at me could justifiably say I’m a dabbler. I live far from a Buddhist sangha and only now and then drop in on the closest one, a Zen Center some of whose practices I do not particularly wish to follow. I read Buddhist books, but by no means in great number. Pretty much the only sutra I am familiar with is the Heart Sutra in various translations. I have my pillow and kneeling bench (my legs refuse to do any sort of lotus position) ordered from the Internet and my timing gong downloaded from a Buddhist website, and pretty much every day I sit zazen for twenty to thirty minutes–but that is the sum total of my formal practice. At present I have no particular intention to more formally join a sangha or even to go to a retreat. And yet–today I am off for a two hour drive each way to visit an old friend and help her lead a memorial service for her father because at the time he died she was too ill to observe mourning. She called me out of the blue after I lost track of her for years. She has local people helping and it is not as if I absolutely have to be there–indeed, I hesitated. But after my hesitation my first thought was, come on David, have a little boddhichitta. Aspire, even if only a tiny bit, to be a boddhisatva. Just go. And then I also realized that this person must from this point on be part of my life and my concerns, that Buddhist principles require it of me. This person has been lonely, ill and depressed for many weeks. If I turn my back again, then what is the point of the practices? So, as Jaime says, maybe dabbling is not such a bad start. Maybe it’s not even dabbling.

October 15, 2009 at 1:49 pm
(3) john says:

I don’t really care how people discovered Buddhism. That doesn’t tell me much about their sincerity now.

Is it any deeper to follow a religion because your parents followed it?

October 15, 2009 at 6:20 pm
(4) Bruce Williamson says:

I find that western Buddhism is what I’ve heard called “boutique” Buddhism. Do I really need a digital meditation timer that has a little LCD enso? Maybe the patented meditation timer that chimes when the incense stick has burned down will bring me enlightenment! I think I could use one of those special meditation chairs upholstered in imitation leather. I get catalogs from various companies/organizations trying to sell me something to help me become enlightened. But when you think about it all that crap does is just the opposite! It just makes you more materialistic in wanting a desiring stuff. I’m trying to get away from wanting stuff. We’re taught that this craving never brings satisfaction or happiness. I find way too much of this in Western Buddhism.

Conversely I look at Eastern Buddhism and see the status quo. I see something that is really no different than any western church. Yes I know I’ve taken the position that Budhism isn’t a religion. But having it as a religion just makes it worse in my view.

So yes I think that Western Buddhism is shallow. It has more of a fad aspect to it.


October 15, 2009 at 6:21 pm
(5) Joe Weitzell says:

Having read the article, I decided to compose an insightful, thoughtful and “dharma like” response.
Now having read Jaime, David and John I find there is no need, other than to offer a deep bow to all three responders and wish them well.

October 15, 2009 at 7:26 pm
(6) Naumadd says:

We can safely say that, save for the extremists, everyone is a spiritual dabbler of one sort or another. I’ve mentioned in other forums that, due to the uniqueness of individual experience, each of us is truly a religion of one. Sure, there are similarities in belief and practice from one individual to another, but there never is and never can be exact duplication. We take the things we experience, discover, learn, create and design our own individual belief system and “religion” by putting our specific beliefs into specific daily practice. Christian, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, etc. can all posture with elitist views if they wish, but their posturing has nothing at all to do with genuine spirituality and its interpretation in word and deed. As I understand the word “religion”, it ought to be about connection rather than division. Elitist views are divisive and therefore decidedly disconnective and non-religious in nature. Looking down one’s pretentious nose at the dabblings of others makes poor argument for the authenticity of your own.

October 15, 2009 at 8:40 pm
(7) just me says:

“I’m not sure what’s to be done about this, but there it is.”

For starters, stop assuming that “Western Buddhism” equals “white people.” If we assume that “Western Buddhism” includes non-white people, then maybe we can look to non-white Western Buddhists who take the religion very very seriously.

September 29, 2011 at 2:03 pm
(8) bd says:

The “white people” reference in this article drives me nuts!

October 15, 2009 at 8:41 pm
(9) arun.likhati says:

I believe that Lander is not describing Western Buddhists — the majority of whom come from an ethnic heritage that is closer to mine than to yours — he is talking about white Buddhists, who are a distinct minority in the Western Buddhist community.

October 15, 2009 at 9:34 pm
(10) arunlikhati says:

I must apologise for the harshness of my last comment. I don’t mean to say that I stand behind Lander’s sarcasm as a promotion of fact. I know many white Buddhists who are very dedicated practitioners, and who in no way fit Lander’s tongue-in-cheek characterization of spiritual superficiality. I am, however, sincerely disappointed in the way you drew a line between Lander’s description of white people interested in Buddhism with Western Buddhists. You are not the only person who does so, and it’s not just white people who do so either. You have in the past been at pains to express that you don’t assume that Western Buddhism equals white Buddhism; I hope that in the future, your words can more cleanly match your explicitly stated noble convictions, and not the biases that underlie posts such as this one.

October 15, 2009 at 10:05 pm
(11) Susantha says:

As long as one does not hurt another by thought, word or deed and one make at least one being happy each day; then what label one attache to this practice is immaterial.

October 15, 2009 at 10:12 pm
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

I am, however, sincerely disappointed in the way you drew a line between Landerís description of white people interested in Buddhism with Western Buddhists.

Seems to me a lot of lines are being drawn, and it’s not just me drawing them.

October 15, 2009 at 11:25 pm
(13) Ben Redditt says:

I think it’s premature to ask this question. When Buddhism first arrived in China, would the first Chinese converts have been considered shallow. Especially those that received their teachings third- and fourth-hand. Budhhism is a very minority religion in the U.S. There are few places to go for training and worship. No communities for mutual support. There are books, videos, seminars, etc., but that can’t replace continued contact with someone who really knows the teachings, traditions, etc. But then, which school of Buddhism does one follow?
I was raised Christian. When I was in my early 20′s, I started asking questions. Questions for which I could not find answers in Christianity. I started seeking. I found some of the answers in Zen Buddhism. I have since read other traditions, but I find great comfort in Chan and Zen Buddhism as well as Native American Teachings. I am not a constant practicioner. I stop for while, but I always come back. When I do, I find I have a better understanding.
One thing I discovered was that the core of the world’s major religions had more in common than differences. Many of the differences were cultural and linguistic. The differences were stressed by the religious hierarchy. When you study the mystics, you see the similarities. If one looks closely at the teachings of Jesus, they will see that he was a good Buddhist.
One would say that many, if not most Christians, are shallow. They do not practice the teachings they were given – be loving, compassionate, sharing, etc. When the Christian missionary tried to convert the Seneca Chief Red Jacket, the Chief said he would convert when he saw that his white neighbors followed the Christian teachings. You night say the missionary left in a huff.
Do I believe “Western Buddhism” is shallow? No. I believe Western Buddhism is still developing. It’s still influenced by Tibetan, Zen, and the other Buddhist Traditions. It hasn’t developed it’s own voice. It’s own identity. Give it time.

October 16, 2009 at 3:59 am
(14) Alsu Bekers says:

Having been raised by catholic parents, I found that in every religion there are serious practitioners, and some who are not. I think thats OK. I do not understand why I have to be concerned about criticism coming from people who show up for the christmas service once a year (there are many over here in Germany) and consider themselves serious practitioners.
Indeed, it took a trip to thailand for me to discover buddhism. If you ask me how I came to practice, I would say I found a book. It was the four noble truths, hidden in the cupboard of my hotel in Thailand. I read the first pages, it gripped me and has never left me ever since.
It took 15 years before I started to call myself a buddhist. For me, this religion is a constant struggle. Against my own mindlessness, egoism, against doubts, against fears, against the latent feeling of insecurity. But then again, every religion taken seriously is.
Some aspects and scriptures of buddhism feel very strange to me. After all, a piece of me will always be a catholic, and I am a westener, for whom Sanskrit or Japanese will always be exotic.
So yes, I try to take little steps, sitting for a few minutes, falling on and of the precepts, and I have a deep respect for all posters in this forum who seem to be so much further than I am. You may call me shallow. I’m working on it.
The bottom line of the practice for me is compassion. I try to live it in every aspect of my life. It is the main motto of my job, of my non-profit work and of my home life. It is hard to keep it that way, but it is so much worth the fight, as I notice the almost instant betterments it brings to all around me, including myself.
And thats something, isn’t it?
Please do forgive my language mistakes, I’m not an english native speaker.

October 16, 2009 at 6:33 am
(15) lawrence says:

the fact of the matter is that Buddhism is NOT a religion…

October 18, 2009 at 9:05 am
(16) Barbara O'Brien says:

the fact of the matter is that Buddhism is NOT a religion

Buddhism is a religion.

October 16, 2009 at 10:56 pm
(17) Rob Myers says:

I think it was Mike Dosho Port (whose “Wild Fox Zen” blog seems to be down at the moment) who recently recorded a podcast of various “stages” he’s witnessed numerous Buddhist students proceed through. None of the phases were described in negative terms. Dosho was careful not to suggest that these were levels of progress; in fact, he points out that people often jump from one to another, or cycle through them. It actually helped to see myself reflected in one or two particular “phases”.

There was one phase that was a lot like what is sometimes called “stinky zen” where the student chooses to wear dark earth-tones reminiscent of priest’s robes, buys Buddha statues and the electronic chiming meditation bells mentioned above. They speak carefully around others in the sangha, spouting weird “zennish aphorisms” (Robert Aitken Roshi’s term, I think).

One part of that phase (or one of the others, I don’t recall) was that the student tends to compare his or her own practice with that of others. Sometimes favorably, and the student will then get into other people’s faces and argue about this or that…

Hey, it’s a phase. Each of us has our own delusions to deal with, right?

Yeah, I came to Buddhism through a martial arts class, and then a college class. And for years (decades, actually…*sniff*) I’ve been childish, insufferable, or haughty about “being Buddhist,” and probably recently (maybe even right now – no, DEFINITELY right now!). But it’s my mess to clean up, I suppose.

October 18, 2009 at 9:17 am
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

Dosho’s book Keep Me in Your Heart While has a chapter on the phases. As I remember, he described them as more circular than linear. It’s a really good book, btw.

October 17, 2009 at 8:32 pm
(19) Ace says:

I must say, several of the above remarks seem self-centered. Try meditation.
Have a peaceful evening.

October 17, 2009 at 10:12 pm
(20) LANE says:

Didn’ the first Buddha start as a privliged dabb’lr?
I do not think, any of these comments are anything but revealing……of how far we are off of the path.

October 18, 2009 at 9:09 am
(21) Barbara O'Brien says:

“Didn’t the first Buddha start as a privliged dabbler?”

Not really. If the stories are true, when he chose to begin his spiritual quest he went all-out about it. No dabbling.

October 19, 2009 at 1:44 pm
(22) Jim says:

I came to Buddhism from my journey to find God. I was born a Christian and decided that if I was going to be a Christian I should know my religion and therefore find God in the process. I studied the Bible, commentaries on the Bible, translations of the Torah from the original Hebrew, historical accounts of where the stories in the Bible came from, comparisons from Judaism to Christianity, etc for over 20 years. For me, what I found was not God but the hand of man writing all these stories, for whatever reasons.

From there I started studying Eastern religions, first Taoism and then Buddhism. Buddhism , to me, was the only one that didn’t scream at me “Believe or Else”. The Buddha said to “see for yourself”. That and the fact that he said that we can overcoming suffering and obtain true happiness through personnel development (something that I think is sorely lacking in the Abrahamic religions, too many self satisfied people thinking that they are superior because they are a believer ) lead me to become a follower of the Buddha.

October 20, 2009 at 1:01 am
(23) Hein says:

Concerned about its dwindling numbers and also its “flock” doing other stuff, the Christian church or rather some of its preachers wish to paint a dark picture of other religious/philosophical/scientific (call it what you want) traditions like Buddhism. I agree with Ben Redditt sentiments and whilst at it was the first Christians not considered “shallow? Were they not Jews or Greeks leaving their traditional beliefs behind?

Christianity started off in the West like Buddhism, very slowly and also met resistance. Fortunate for them an emeperors mother Constantine’s) adopted the religion and it spread very quickly. In India Ashoka caused Buddhism to spread quickly. Who knows Buddhism might just get a patron in the West.

Buddhism and Christianity are like most swimming pools…its got a deep end and a shallow end.

October 20, 2009 at 11:10 pm
(24) JoeBuddha says:

Buddhism is shallow or deep, depending. I think my only problem is the idea that Buddhism is either Zen or Tibetan. Buddhism has more expressions than Christianity and is at least as colorful. As a Nichiren follower, I dispair at the shallowness of the understanding of Buddhism as a movement or a philosophy.

October 25, 2009 at 9:44 pm
(25) Valerie says:

This is not directed at Barbara in any way… But I have been looking around to different belief systems lately, hoping I’d find a place where I could find peace. Unfortunately, for me, I’m white (about as white as they get, with my red hair). It’s really discouraging to see people say things like … “well take the white people out and the rest of us are serious”. I guess that answers my question about Buddhism. I’ll move along now.

Aside from that, thank you Barbara for your blog. It was my fault for reading comments :)

October 26, 2009 at 11:36 am
(26) Barbara O'Brien says:

Valerie — unfortunately, if you are looking for a religion in which everyone in it already is wise and enlightened, you will be disappointed. Ain’t no such thing.

October 26, 2009 at 1:11 pm
(27) Valerie says:

You’re right, barbara. I’m sorry. I think I was just shocked. I expect more out of people than they give ;) I think that’s why I’ve been frustrated lately. I have yet to find a single religion where people are good to each other. My fault. :) Have a great week, Barbara :) And I’ll check back with your blog. Thanks!

November 1, 2010 at 10:32 pm
(28) White girl says:

So why would Buddhism not be considered a serious religion? Are you aware that it was around some FIVE HUNDRED YEARS before Christianity….?

November 2, 2010 at 7:04 am
(29) Barbara O'Brien says:

White girl: Yes, we are aware of Buddhist history. I think you may have missed the point of the post.

January 3, 2011 at 5:58 pm
(30) Lizzy says:

I think there aren’t a lot people who truly believe in their religion. Whether it is Christianity, Judiaism,Islam, or Buddhism there are a lot of people who don’t believe a lot of the things their religion tells them. I know people from all these religions that truly believe it and those who just are the religoion, I don’t believe that is just with Buddhism. Also religion is really personal if you truly believe your religion then you are that religion I don’t think it’s up to anyone else to say if your really that religion or just a ‘dabbler’.

July 14, 2011 at 9:52 pm
(31) John says:

Is eastern Christianity shallow?

September 29, 2011 at 2:02 pm
(32) brittany D says:

This is the most idiotic article i’ve read. I am currently changing religions, (I am 25 years old… not a teenager defying my parents) because I have more belief in this way of life. I can relate to this religion, regardless if it is take serious or not. I do not believe that we must follow the ten commandments but if we slip up, oh just ask for forgiveness.

Buddhism is about living a good life. Being kind to others, being honest, etc.

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