There are a number of popular conceits about Buddhism in Brendan O'Neill's article "The Truth About Tibetan Buddhism" at Reason. For example, the article reflects the common notion that westerners who "take up" Buddhism are privileged dilettantes who don't practice seriously. Buddhism to westerners, O'Neill says, "is something you can ingest while sipping on a skinny-milk, no-cream, hazelnut latte." Western Buddhists are "hippyish, celebrity, and middle-class followers."
To prove this point, O'Neill sites an old episode of the television series Friends in which Jennifer Anniston's character read a collection of the Dalai Lama's teachings. And he tells us about a student at Boston University who was asked why she wore a Tibetan necklace:
"It keeps me healthy and happy," she said, reducing Tibetan Buddhism, as so many Dalai Lama-loving undergrads do, to the religious equivalent of knocking back a vitamin pill.
And that's it. Those are his examples of western Buddhists, from which he drew his conclusions.
What really happened: O'Neill visited Lhasa, apparently carrying with him his own set of frivolous notions about Tibetan Buddhism, and he was stunned by the intensity of devotion and practice he saw there. From this he concluded that few westerners ever "got" Buddhism, especially the Tibetan version. He continues,
The most striking thing is how different real Tibetan Buddhism is from the re-branded, part-time version imported over here by the Dalai Lama's army of celebrities. ...
... what is striking, and what caused me to be so startled by the weirdness, is the way in which this religion has come to be viewed in Western New Age circles as a peaceful, pure, happy-clappy cult of softly-smiling, Buddha-like beings. Again, it's no such thing. The modern view of Tibetan Buddhism as wondrous is at least as patronizingly reductive as the older view of Tibetan Buddhism as devil-worship.
First off, there's "Western New Age" circles -- more than one, I suspect -- and "Western Buddhist" circles, and they aren't the same circles. There's some overlap, of course. But I believe most western Buddhists see clearly that Buddhism and whatever it is that gets shoveled into the "New Age" bin are very different.
And as I said, O'Neill seems to have made no attempt to learn anything about western Buddhism before he wrote his article. Just as, I suspect, he made no attempt to learn anything about Tibetan Buddhism before he traveled to Lhasa.
Just to show now much O'Neill doesn't get, he says that while in Lhasa he lined up an interview with a real, live monk. And the first thing he asked the monk was how much he wanted His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet.
Now, if you have any idea whatsoever about what's been going on in Tibet in, oh, the past 50 years, you know that monk was not free to say he admires the Dalai Lama. Especially since the 2008 riots, most of the monks of Lhasa have been "re-educated." And I'm sure the fellow being interviewed was not about to set himself up for more "re-education," no matter what he thought.
So the monk told O'Neill that he was of the Nyingma school, while the Dalai Lama is head of the Gelug school (in fact, he is of the Gelug school, but the nominal head of Gelug school is the Ganden Tripa). Nice dodge, but since the 17th century the Dalai Lama has been the temporal leader of the Tibetan people. His authority over the four schools has its limits, but he remains the living embodiment of the Tibetan national character and the face of Tibetan Buddhism to the world.
Certainly many westerners harbor fuzzily romantic ideas about Buddhism that don't much reflect the real thing. I can't tell you how often I run into people who think Zen has no priests or rituals, for example. When I say, well, um, it does, actually, they say, since when? Oh, since about the 6th century. Awhile, anyway.
Currently there's a school of thought in the West that Buddhism is really just mindfulness, and all the rest of it is Asian cultural clutter. Yes, you can find plenty of Asian cultural clutter in Buddhism, but I don't think the Four Noble Truths and the remaining seven parts of the Eightfold Path qualify.
But among western Buddhists are many sincere practitioners dedicated to bringing the undiluted dharma to the West. I'd challenge O'Neill to attend a week-long sesshin at a western Zen monastery if he wants to see how frivolous western Buddhim is. I doubt he'd last.
Frank J. Korom describes it as "New Age orientalism," where Westerners in search of some cheap and easy purpose in their empty lives "appropriate Tibet and portions of its religious culture for their own purposes." They treat a very old, complex religion as a kind of buffet of ideas that they can pick morsels from, jettisoning the stranger, more demanding stuff--like the dancing demons and the prostration workout--but picking up the shiny things, like the sacred necklaces and bracelets and the BS about reincarnation.
It is all about them. They have bent and warped a religion to suit their own needs. As the Tibetan lama Dagyab Kyabgon Rinpoche puts it, "The concept of 'Tibet' becomes a symbol for all those qualities that Westerners feel lacking: joie de vivre, harmony, warmth and spirituality... Tibet thus becomes a utopia, and Tibetans become noble savages." Western losers have ransacked Tibetan Buddhism in search of the holy grail of self-meaning.
BTW, if anyone wants to read the paper linked in the quote above and explain it to me, please do so.
I've written elsewhere that at the root of the frantic need to write off western Buddhists as silly and pretentious is plain old racism. For a westerner -- especially a white westerner -- to convert to an Asian religion does not compute, because Asian religion is not taken as seriously as the Abrahamic religions. Therefore, westerners who convert must be unserious people. I could be wrong about that, but I don't think so.