American Buddhism: Spiritual Practice or Identity Theft?

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.

6 thoughts on “American Buddhism: Spiritual Practice or Identity Theft?

  1. Lindsey Gouley

    I can relate this to my core class, The Life in the Amazon. We looked at how Americans as well can tend to exploit things. We looked at how Westerners go to Amazonian tribes and exploit them. I feel as this can relate to your paper as well because some people exploit Buddhism, as you referred to as “identity theft.” Buddhism is a religion in many places such as China, and us americans tend to take religions or cultures and somewhat Americanize them.

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  2. John Nicastro

    Also in Life in the Amazon.. I see this in a sense that there is often a disconnect in how American culture will take adopt certain view points, ideas, or misconceptions and take them either lightheartedly or just completely wrong. One of our themes was the “Pristine Myth” and how there’s this general idea that the Amazon is this, well, pristine and untouched paradise of biodiversity, and that concept has dominated our society. This in turn has led to die-hard movements against deforestation or any sort of intrusion on the Amazon, when really this is not the case at all. The true goings on of the forest and everything are lost in translation when taken on in American society, and I feel there is a similar vibe going on here with traditional Buddhism being transformed into this American style Buddhism.

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  3. Adela Rios

    In relation to my work in Jordan’s Cultural Mosaic where I assessed the sounds of the country’s capital city (Amman), your own work on American Buddhism had some overlap in terms of what the connotations of an identity are. My work focused a whole lot on the social aspect of the Jordanian identity, which had me explain what I felt from assessing the busy sounds of Amman, making suggestions as to how an identity is formed. In your work, you show how various themes of Buddhist ideology can be warped to appeal to new audiences – in this case, the rise of American Buddhism and the appropriation of Buddhist culture to suit the needs of a society that is very different. While my work on Amman doesn’t exactly have a hint of blatant appropriation, it did lend me to believe if such a feeling could be exclusive to Jordan, and if it was possible that the sounds I heard could be heard from another city that has a predominantly Muslim society. It wouldn’t be “identity theft”, but would perhaps be something less malicious and more of a coincidence – a shared identity, of sorts. Unfortunately for American Buddhism and traditional Buddhism, there is a shared identity which is marred by the misuse of the culture and ideologies to create something digestible.

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  4. Adela Rios

    In relation to my work in Jordan’s Cultural Mosaic where I assessed the sounds of the country’s capital city (Amman), your own work on American Buddhism had some overlap in terms of what the connotations of an identity are. My work focused a whole lot on the social aspect of the Jordanian identity, which had me explain what I felt from assessing the busy sounds of Amman, making suggestions as to how an identity is formed. In your work, you show how various themes of Buddhist ideology can be warped to appeal to new audiences – in this case, the rise of American Buddhism and the appropriation of Buddhist culture to suit the needs of a society that is very different. While my work on Amman doesn’t exactly have a hint of blatant appropriation, it did lend me to believe if such a feeling could be exclusive to Jordan, and if it was possible that the sounds I heard could be heard from another city that has a predominantly Muslim society. It wouldn’t be “identity theft”, but would perhaps be something less malicious and more of a coincidence – a shared identity, of sorts. Unfortunately for American Buddhism and traditional Buddhism, there is a shared identity which is marred by the misuse of the culture and ideologies to create something digestible.

    Reply
  5. Owen Sanders

    My partner is Tibetan and her family practices Tibetan Buddhism – the topic of cultural appropriation comes up a lot in our conversations. This is all doubly insulting when you note that the citizens of Tibet have had to overcome systematic oppression to practice their religion and continue their cultural heritage. This May the 11th Panchen Lama will have been missing for 22 years. He was chosen at a young age to select the next Dalai Lama. The Chinese government purposefully kidnapped him in attempt to disrupt ritual practices that have been unbroken for centuries.

    Now on to my actual comment. I wrote a piece for Global Connections about the history of bone broth as a health food. For some reason, this simple dish has had a hand in a number of health crazes and fad diets. In contrast, the Buddha is often connected with health and whole foods because vague, esoteric feelings of “wellness, zen, balance, etc… ” This acts to belittle both religious practice, and the true value of food as an important component of a happy and healthy life.
    Additionally, appropriation plays a role in these food crazes. You can see this in the case of “ancient grains” like quinoa and amaranth – the use of first-nation imagery to sell products that contain them. It’s hard to pinpoint any cultural borrowing taking place during the 2013 broth boom, but I did find reference to the popularity of broth increasing in Byzantine because of influence by the Franks.

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  6. Ryan Novak

    Along with the discussion on the origins of Haitian Vodou, my Shaking the Spirit class also touched a decent amount on American voodoo and pop culture use of the practices. Due to the fact that Vodou is a religion that was created from the blending of traditional African practices with Christianity, the idea that any one of the religions is being appropriated or stolen does not really come up. Thoughts on Voodoo in the Southern United States are a bit different. Some traditional Vodou practitioners have come to see this offshoot of the faith as a bit of a corruption. Vodou is an extremely personal and personalizable practice that has a place in community as well as individual life. Voodoo in places like Louisiana has become much more of a tourist trap in the late 20th century. This commercialization of the spiritual practices seems to be extremely similar to what has happened to Buddhism once Americans got their hands on it. The real difference that I see is where “good” parts of Buddhism were widely latched onto and when voodoo was capitalized upon, it was the darker parts that seemed to be what grew in popularity. The question of whether or not Buddhism was cheapened by America is hard to see, but there is no question that American culture has taken Vodou and corrupted it.

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