1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

The Truth About the Truth About Buddhism

By July 29, 2010

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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.

O'Neill concludes,

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.

July 29, 2010 at 3:58 pm
(1) Lee says:

I’m quite sure this man is right… on some level… i have found people practicing of all types and levels of committment … My question is: why does his opinion matter … why invest time this type of dialogue. Any level of involvement in real training (Christian; Buddhist etc) is good involvement. We probably all began very similar to his discription but as we’ve learned it’s changed … maybe what he said is only a reflection of his current mental state and in a few years he will see the world differently …

July 29, 2010 at 4:53 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

why invest time this type of dialogue.

Because his is an attitude I see reflected in many, many places, and it’s worrisome. I don’t think western Buddhism is taken seriously outside of western Buddhism. Certainly there’s a lot of frivolous Buddhism in the West, just as there is a lot of frivolous Buddhism in the East. But there’s a very common meme floating around that western Buddhism is just an affectation of aging hippies, and it would be nice to open some eyes.

July 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm
(3) HighlandRob says:

It seems to me that one could make similar arguments about the practitioners of other religions as well here in the USA. I can point to my own experiences of going to mass on Sundays only to have people rush out of church then cut each other off in the parking lots and hurl a few expletives out the car window for good measure. Is Catholicism practiced in the U.S. the same way it is in the Vatican or even how the church dictates is should be?? Absolutely not! It just reaffirms the fact that people attack that which they do not know and are afraid to truly learn about. Itís the easy way out.

July 29, 2010 at 5:39 pm
(4) Adria says:

Ignorance explains what you are reading there. People learn and as they learn they grow in their practice. In the east, people are raised in the practice of Buddhism. People are often acquiring it as adults here, because they found it on their own. It takes time to assimilate and learn everything you need to know to practice anything well. I agree with Lee that this man’s tune will change in a few years. He just need to learn more.

July 29, 2010 at 8:22 pm
(5) Andrew says:

Granted this was a blown opportunity to reach the readership of REASON but after reading both the superficial article and the posts that followed maybe it’s not such a bad thing. The ignorant and prejudiced remained unfettered by new ideas or concepts and those who were expecting more did their best to break those chains of prejudice and ignorance that just became a bit more cemented in place. A closed mind is hard to change unless moved by an extra ordinary experience. Perhaps the loud minorities are just as offensive to the quiet ones in the middle who will be swayed by their own curiosity to come to places like this seeking a better balanced explanation or a more intelligent approach…. I only recently did.

July 29, 2010 at 8:24 pm
(6) Chad says:

Barbara, every time I read one of your articles the thought of what a wonderful Buddhist news podcast it would make, have enjoyed Urban Dharma and Bad Buddhist both retired. Buddhist Geeks is usually good but tends to interview a lot of “sorry” long winded boring dudes with great things to share but have a hard time saying it. Please consider doing a occasional reading added to I-tunes and or other directories, I am sure it would add more eyes and ears. thank you

July 29, 2010 at 8:45 pm
(7) Josh Wilcox says:

As a member of a family who has for generations been blue collar, and in the process of losing my job because of medical reasons, I assure you we are not all bored and drinking lattes. I am in a coffee shop though.

July 29, 2010 at 8:48 pm
(8) Jeff says:

There is danger in
confusing a westerner
with a westsider

July 29, 2010 at 8:58 pm
(9) Jennifer Morrison says:

I have been there,done that-no stone left unturned-and IMHO Buddhism is the only philosophy that makes any sense-with no phoney boloney-Love it!!!!!!!!!!!-jl.

July 30, 2010 at 1:05 am
(10) Hugo says:

I agree with you. In Japan, Buddhism is reduced to a big, costly funeral business, which is too bad. The true essence of Japanese Buddhism, like martial arts, is stronger in the West than in Japan…so sad.

July 30, 2010 at 4:45 am
(11) Alsu says:

I think spiritual practice in any religion is about what you do, not about what others do. You can’t change people around you, you can only change yourself. So, if you want serious practice, then practice seriously. The path of any religion followed seriously is difficult struggle. All you can do is set an example. I understand why it may seem too hard for many people, immersed in demanding jobs and personal problems. My heart goes out to them. And if a tiny bit more compassion enters their being, maybe even while sipping latte, then the world is on a better way.

July 30, 2010 at 7:19 am
(12) Dennis says:

I agree with most of the posts in here. Buddhism is a state of mind, is what you make out of it….not something you do one hour every Sunday.If you want to be a good practitioner, wheter you are American or Oriental, it is your choice. I personally lived one year in South Korea and traveled extensevely through China and Japan, visited temples high on mountaintops, city dwellings and I can tell you, just like in America, there are “buddhists” who only come to the temple for funerals or when they need to ask the Buddha for something. They don’t even know what the Four Noble truths are and even told me plainly “you can not be buddhist because you are American”.
If we want to be good practitioners, we should not be atached to any labels, color or countries. The truth is always the same, we only need to be awake to see it and help others to see it too.
METTA Dennis

July 30, 2010 at 9:03 am
(13) Sue says:

I take umbrage with the statement that ‘westerners who “take up” Buddhism are privileged dilettantes who don’t practice seriously’. I can obviously only speak for myself and about what I have observed in other ‘western Buddhists’, that, if anything we adhere to Buddhist practices far more stringently than many in the East who ‘practice’ as many so called Christians do in the West.
What an offensive article to all those who take their faith/philosophy seriously!

July 30, 2010 at 9:41 am
(14) Ted says:

Speaking as one who grew up in the “South” and still lives there, I have traveled a long spiritual road from the confines of being a Southern Baptist, then Episcopalian and eventually to Theravadan Buddhism. Growing up barely above the poverty line, I am confused by the remarks apparently linking Western Buddist with elitism. One should be especially careful when painting people with such a broad bush. Reminds of the need for Right Speech.

July 30, 2010 at 10:10 am
(15) Pete in b-more says:

I’ve met some New Age dilletantes in my time, but numerous friends and I work hard for years to practice the Dharma in such a way as to really transform on the inside, not just to ‘wear’ the outer forms. The writer of the article insults our efforts while not even knowing what he’s talking about.

July 30, 2010 at 10:33 am
(16) Pete in b-more says:

I must admit I felt offended at first reading this post. Just aversion, so I got rid of the offended feeling. I just checked the link, and the article is simply laughable, and I chuckled when I read it. The kicker is that it is in a magazine called Reason. I really respect actual reasoning, so I guess the magazine is a sort of tabloid of world of thought. Inquiring minds want to know!

July 30, 2010 at 10:50 am
(17) Barbara O'Brien says:

The kicker is that it is in a magazine called Reason.

Reason is a libertarian magazine edited by people who think things like Social Security and consumer protection laws are forms of totalitarianism. As such, it’s something of a treasure of unconscious self-parody. But they usually stay out of spiritual issues.

July 30, 2010 at 11:59 am
(18) Mayuram V.Sankaran says:

In the western part of the world people are generally this world oriented, dedicated to their work, devoted to their family and look outward for the most part to experience the world rather than inwards for a spiritual experience. It is difficult for them to strive to emulate the people in the eastern part of the world who are generally poor, struggle to eke out a living and support their family and are for the most part weary of their worldly experience.

July 30, 2010 at 3:18 pm
(19) Arhat Ariya Shakya says:

Buddhism is Asian.

July 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm
(20) lee says:

what does that mean? Do I have to be an aisian or a human or a sentient being to practice Buddhism?

July 30, 2010 at 5:22 pm
(21) Adam says:

I think he was pretty accurate in the description he gave about how non-Buddhist westerners are spoon-fed a hippy-dippy love-peace-and-hairgrease version of Buddhism (espeically Tibetian Buddhism), when the reality is far from that. Obviously there are some big issues with the article, but he addresses some valid points I think.

July 30, 2010 at 11:22 pm
(22) Barbara O'Brien says:

I think he was pretty accurate in the description he gave about how non-Buddhist westerners are spoon-fed a hippy-dippy love-peace-and-hairgrease version of Buddhism (espeically Tibetian Buddhism), when the reality is far from that.

First, who is doing the spoon feeding? This is not coming primarily from traditional Buddhism, but (IMO) people not directly connected to Buddhism who are trying to cash in on its image. I blame the entertainment industry and the New Age/self-help/generic feel-good spirituality book and lecture circuit.

Second, his criticisms are aimed at western Buddhists, not the New Age rainbows and crystals crowd. And he’s just plain wrong about western Buddhists.

If he was writing about how Buddhism is perceived in western popular culture, then some of his criticisms are valid, but his bile was being poured on western Buddhists, and he seems to know absolutely nothing about western Buddhists. And, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve run into this slam a lot, especially from western conservatives.

July 30, 2010 at 11:27 pm
(23) Barbara O'Brien says:

It is difficult for them to strive to emulate the people in the eastern part of the world who are generally poor, struggle to eke out a living and support their family and are for the most part weary of their worldly experience.

I think that’s a gross oversimplification.

July 30, 2010 at 11:30 pm
(24) Barbara O'Brien says:

Buddhism is Asian.

“Asian” is a delusion.

July 31, 2010 at 9:34 am
(25) Arhat Ariya Shakya says:

Asia is a continent, not Barbara’s ‘delusion’.
Asians are human beings, not Barbara’s ‘delusion’.

Arhat Ariya Shakya

July 31, 2010 at 4:22 pm
(26) Barbara O'Brien says:

Non-Arhat Ariya Shakya: I’m sorry, you seem to have confused the Buddhism section of About.com with the social studies section. Yes, geographically speaking, Asia is a continent, and sociologically speaking, “Asian” is an ethnicity.

However, this is the Buddhism section. Here, “continent” is a delusion. Ethnicity is a temporary condition, or another kind of delusion. It is not who you are, or who anyone else is. And please don’t mock Buddhism by calling yourself an “arhat,” since in your case that’s another delusion. Thanks much.

July 31, 2010 at 10:10 am
(27) JonJ says:

The author of the Reason article was clearly suffering from massive culture shock. He obviously didn’t know Tibetan or Chinese and was using interpreters, and hadn’t bothered to familiarize himself with Tibetan culture before his (apparently) quick jaunt to the country.

He was shocked by the “garish” decorative scheme of the Tibetan temples, and by nearly everything else he encountered there, it seems. But he was right in his observation that American Vajrayana practitioners don’t imitate all of the cultural aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. But what of that? Why should they? Buddhism is not a mere set of cultural traits; it takes on the cultural preferences of every particular country it comes to, while the important aspects of it are not changed.

On the whole, a silly piece of writing, on the superficial level of the stereotypical American tourist who reacts to everything “foreign” as “barbaric.”

July 31, 2010 at 12:19 pm
(28) sharmila says:

Dear Arhat
I am Asian, and I am Buddhist – but to say that Buddhism is Asian is just plain wrong. Obviously the teachings arose there and travelled outward, but no one country can claim it for itself. The country with the best historical claim would be India, where Buddhism is not even the majority religion so trying to tie the truth down by geography really doesnt make sense.

Also, you are not an arahat so why the self-aggrandizing moniker?

August 1, 2010 at 9:00 am
(29) des says:

Hi Barbara,
thanks for the piece, I enjoyed it. My view is that if westerners only wish to take tiny aspects of Tibetan or Zen buddhism to study and practice then that seems very wise. Beginners like me can get lost very easily if they throw themselves into esoteric practices, advanced ascetic teachings or culturally specific rituals! Rather if you treat yourself with kindness and just dip your toe into teachings then after a few thousand times you will find yourself confidently wading into streams without too much worry or confusion.
I work in a field were I get to meet plenty of criminals and how i wish they were as open minded as the latte drinkers the writer seems to dismiss. There seems to be an internal rage being projected onto others which might be a better subject to investigate.
The central teaching of buddhism and all major religions is kindness but how quickly my ego loses sight of this to build castles in the air to defend or protect.
I’m going to read your other articles now as I find your style clear and easy to read.
btw I’m wondering, as i notice the last few trolling comments, if the article to which you are refering isn’t in a way, because of the unfocused anger and lazy thinking, simply a longer version of trolling and possibly a waste of your time?
thanks again,
A western loser!

August 2, 2010 at 3:53 am
(30) Dharmakara says:

O’Neill’s article is nothing new, really no different than DT zuzuki’s infamous statement that Westerners just don’t get it, when more often than not we “get” quite a bit more than some might prefer.

With that said, there are certainly more than a few misguided people who chop away at their own roots in a misguided belief that Asian culture and/or society is somehow superior to all others, the equivalent of getting rid of one’s own spare baggage only to collect a nice new set of Samsonite.

August 2, 2010 at 1:24 pm
(31) dougintexas says:

Let me say that, in my opinion, spiritual materialism — the ego-driven taking on of a faith/philosophy/practice out of the belief that it might somehow relieve one of the burdens of life and act as an outward (and ego-driven) sign of being on the path to enlightenment — is fairly common. I’m thinking of those who indeed do shave their heads, or wear Buddhist bracelets and red chords, or even go so far as to wear saffron robes are SOMETIMES motivated by ego. I’m NOT saying that ALL those who take on these characteristics fall in to the spiritual materialism category. Regardless, many of us have come to a honest, genuine practice, through those same gates. By whatever means one comes to the Dharma is valid and fortunate.

As I understand it, to become Buddhist is simply to genuinely take up refuge vows and establish a practice – neither of which are necessarily outwardly obvious. I suppose that’s it — in my understanding anyway.

To the degree that the author of that article points to spiritual materialism I’d have to say he’s right — but spiritual materialism not an exclusive feature of Buddhism nor limited to public displays of the same. It is a characteristic found in some people in all walks regardless of their articles of faith. How many people have convinced themselves that they have a “true” calling, to the priesthood/clergy or take up missionary work or become novice nuns, only to discover that the real work of the thing — ideally the putting aside of ego to act for the benefit of others — is more than they can bear?

BUT, to make a blanket statement, as this author has, dismissing western practitioners of Buddhism as nothing more hyper-liberal, trendy hippster/hippie asiaphiles (in the cultural sense) is too broad and misinformed.

Materialism (in all varieties), ego-clinging, self-centeredness, arrogance — no one is purely any of those things OR pure and honest in their spiritual aspirations. I’d suggest that we are all guilty of some degree of spiritual materialism. That seems to be a condition of our human experience.

In any case we are all, at some point, going to have to face the problems of old age, sickness and death. The author of that piece will also face these challenges and, one day, if he is so lucky as to die a natural death, he too may clearly see the materialism of his brand of “reason.”

In that I can at least extend to him humble compassion and wish, as non-materialistically as I can, that he too might be freed of suffering.

August 3, 2010 at 4:41 am
(32) Seandorch says:

I work with mainly western born Buddhist prisoners who are neither latte drinkers,ageing hippies, or new-agers. Their interest in Buddhism stems from a strong interest in refocusing the way they live in the world. However, if just a “little Buddhism” in someones life helps to promote kindness and happiness what’s the problem? Whenever I get defensive about Buddhism or my practice it’s just another example of the “selfing” process at work! Anyway, keep up the good work Barbara

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