In the 1960’s Americans began to integrate elements of Buddhist ideology into their philosophical beliefs, but many traditional Asian Buddhists would argue that these interpretations are missing out the fundamental aspects of achieving enlightenment. While American interpretations of Buddhism stray away from the traditional teachings of Buddhism, in the process they have opened more doors to those seeking a form of higher being. These doors make take shape in the form of everything from specific meditative practices, to engaged community efforts, to interactions in online communities. The main argument against the American Buddhism is that it is only borrowing certain aspects to make a “new-age” religion, while simultaneously appropriating Buddhist culture. While American may find a sense of self-identity through a new age religion, traditional Buddhists of Asian roots may find this as a form of identity theft.
The ideology of “spiritual but not religious” may sound like a familiar phrase. It is so common that the phrase has been coined for those who self-identify with some idea of spirituality that doesn’t directly fit into a common place religion.
Many commentaries on American Buddhism often involve a critique of convert Buddhists, primarily Caucasian American’s seeking some form of self-identity. Religious Studies Professor Thomas Tweed broke down American covert Buddhism into two categories: Self-identifiers and the more comedic “Night-stand Buddhists”. The self-identifiers are more devout, practicing Buddhist teachings while potentially adding new interpretations.
Self-Identifiers are usually either those who convert to Buddhism to reconnect with their ethnic routes, and others who seriously devote time to understanding Buddhist philosophy. The so-called night-stand Buddhists on the other hand are named after the idea of recreationally reading Buddhist literature on their night-stand, and they are usually turned on to Buddhism with the idea of being “spiritual but not religious”. This allows them to publicly identify with a well-known religion while only requiring them to understand the very basic principles of Buddhist ideology. This is aided by the general obscurity of Buddhism in America, which allows Americans to easily create new interpretations with little backlash.
Some scholars question not only if Buddhism should have adaptations to fit a modern lifestyle, but rather if Buddhism even can adapt to modern America. Scholar John Kitterman provided a strong argument for this idea by questioning whether the United States dominant nature is compatible with Buddhist Ideology. Many would argue that America follows some form of global imperialism, which immediately causes contradictions with Buddhist ideology of abandoning wants and desires.
We see evidence of convert Buddhism in media from time to time. Silly or less serious depictions of Gautama Buddha can appear in TV or advertisements, whereas images of other religious figures like Muhammad are outright forbidden. For example, there is a brand of coconut water called “Thirsty Buddha” with a tagline that reads “It’s Buddhalicious”. Immediately this sounds like some sort of satire, but this is a serious form of advertising. People see the Buddha and immediately associate it with “Ah! I need more Zen in my life. I need more eastern culture in my life” which strays far from legitimacy. These appearances are neither seen as overly disrespectful or overly preachy, which indicates a very capitalistic approach for the American idea of Buddhism.
Similarly, Buddhism is commentated on an episode of the Simpsons. One of the themes the episode attempts to demonstrate an idea that Buddhism is the only popular religion that is not effected by capitalism. Although a decent satirical commentary on paper, the episode ironically puts Buddhism in a capitalistic light, including a very entry-level presentation of Buddhist teachings.
Ultimately there is no winning argument. Traditional Buddhists have entitlement to the traditions of their religion, so their feelings of identity-theft by American Buddhists is justified. On the other hand, these alternative takes of Buddhism brought forth some good practices such as Engaged Buddhism, which seeks to serve a healthy societal unity. Regardless of the interpretation of Buddhism there will always exist common goals such as compassion, interconnectivity, and unity, all to reach the final goal of enlightenment.
The final format of this project will be done in the form of a research paper, and will discuss various interpretations of Buddhism in China and America. The paper will compare traditional Buddhism to American Buddhism while providing arguments as to why American Buddhism is both identity theft and a valid way of spiritual connectivity. The paper will also explore different styles of American Buddhism, such as engaged Buddhism which is centered off a communal nirvana instead of an individual nirvana.