The Face of Western Buddhism

Sociologist James Coleman looks at the emerging Buddhist population in America and who will shape the new public face of Buddhism.

By James Coleman

Like it or not, Western Buddhism is heading into the cultural mainstream, and it may well be a rough ride. Although the population of American Buddhists has been growing rapidly for decades, to this point Buddhism has remained something of a stealth religion, virtually invisible to most people outside our cosmopolitan coastal enclaves. It has, for example, become commonplace for politicians to include Islam in their rhetoric about American cultural diversity, while Buddhism is seldom given a mention, though by even the most conservative estimates there are almost twice as many Buddhists as Muslims in the United States.

This invisibility, however, is unlikely to continue, both because of Buddhism’s rapid growth in the West, and its status as one of the world’s major religions. While many Western Buddhists may welcome this change, it also raises a number of critical questions: What will the emerging public face of Western Buddhism look like? Does it matter? And if so, what should Buddhists do to help shape their public image?

Buddhism Comes to the West

Until the end of World War II, it seemed that globalization meant Westernization as a seemly irresistible tide of industrial development and consumerism spread Western culture around the world. But since then a countercurrent has been gaining strength. The economic transformation of Japan, and then China and the smaller Asian powers, began to pose the first serious challenge to Western economic domination, and Eastern religions and philosophies grew increasingly influential in the West.

The process of globalization encouraged the movement of people as well as ideas, bringing a host of immigrants from Buddhist countries to the West. At one time, these Buddhists, who tend to follow traditional Asian practices, were the largest group of American Buddhists. They are now, however, a distinct minority in the Buddhist community. According to the Pew Foundation’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, about 27 percent of American Buddhists were themselves raised as Buddhists. This means that roughly three-quarters of American Buddhists are converts to the new Buddhism that has grown up in the West.

North America’s initial encounter with Buddhism was with Japanese Zen. The countercultural rebels of the Beat Generation and their intellectual descendents developed a long-distance fascination with Zen philosophy and Zen stories, and a number of Japanese teachers who had come to the West to serve the needs of the Japanese American community found a receptive audience among the native-born population. It wasn’t long before Westernized Zen Centers were spreading throughout North America. Since Zen was the first Buddhism to put down roots in North America, it’s not surprising that it now has the largest number of adherents. According to the Pew survey, a little more than a third of the Americans who converted to Buddhism practice Zen.

The second major stream of Buddhism in America, which came to be known as Vipassana, sprang from the Theravadan tradition of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The founders of this movement were not Asians, but Western pilgrims who studied in Asian monasteries and later established their own centers in the West to share what they had learned. Because they were founded and led by Westerners from the start, Vipassana centers tend to be the most secular and the freest of the cultural overlays Buddhism gained from its various Asian hosts.

The third stream of Western Buddhism had its roots in the Tibetan Diaspora that followed the brutal Chinese Communist crackdown of the 1950s. Since then, a steady stream of talented and charismatic Tibetan teachers have come to the West, bringing what used to be Buddhism’s most secret and esoteric teachings to an eager audience. Finally, there are the growing number of nondenominational Buddhist groups that are not affiliated with any particular lineage but draw their inspiration from the tradition as a whole.

A Closer Look at American Buddhists

Although Buddhism in America has spread far beyond its countercultural origins, its membership is still drawn disproportionally from the ranks of the politically progressive. The Pew study found that Buddhists are more likely to identify themselves as liberals and more likely to support gay and abortion rights than the members of any other religious denomination it surveyed. Western Buddhists are also likely to have a higher income and better education than the average American. On the other hand, it will come as no surprise to most Western Buddhists that African Americans and Latinos are significantly underrepresented among their ranks.

When my book The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition first came out in 2001, journalists and scholars asked me one question over and over: “How many Buddhists are there in the West?” At that time, all I had to offer were a few educated guesses. But since then, several good national surveys have helped clear up the issue. The best of these was the 2007 Pew survey of more than 35,000 Americans, of whom 0.7 percent said they were Buddhists. If we multiply that by the adult population of the United States for that year, there were about 1.6 million American Buddhists at that time. If we multiply 0.7 percent by the total American population, thus including children as well as adults, the figure is a little more than two million.

There is good reason, however, to believe that these figures substantially underestimate the number of Americans actually involved in Buddhism. For one thing, since many Western Buddhists left their original religion because they felt its followers were too narrow-minded and exclusive, they are often reluctant to proclaim any particular religious identity, no matter how deeply involved they may be. More important, unlike most other religions, Buddhist doctrine itself offers explicit grounds for discouraging this kind of identification. If the self is the illusory ground of suffering, it makes little sense to encourage any type of social identification and the attachments that it inevitably brings.

If we use measures based on people’s actual involvement with Buddhism, and not just self-identification, the estimates are much higher. The 2009 Purdue Social Research Institute Survey found that 2.2 percent of Americans said that Buddhism had “a great deal of influence on their life,” and that same percentage said they met with a Buddhist monk or teacher at least a few times a year. As well, 2.7 percent said they practiced Buddhist meditation at least once a month, and 3.1 percent said they read Buddhist literature at least monthly. Multiplying these percentages by the adult population produces estimates of the number of American Buddhists of from five to seven million.

These figures may be something of an eye-opener to many people interested in American religion. Even using the most conservative estimate, the 0.7 percent found by the Pew survey, there are nearly twice as many Buddhist as Muslims (0.4 percent) in the United States. And if we use the lowest of the behavioral estimates from the Purdue survey (2.2 percent), the percentage of American Buddhists in the total population is significantly greater than the 1.7 percent who say their religion is Judaism, the equal percentage who say they are Mormon, or the 1.5 percent who give their religion as Anglican/Episcopal. (The percentage of people who consider themselves ethnically Jewish is, of course, considerably larger then those who give their religion as Judaism.) Since all of these are considered major American religions, it seems hard to deny the same label to Buddhism.

The Pew survey also gives us some fascinating information about the growth of Buddhism in America. In addition to asking people about their current religion, the survey also asked them about the religion of their parents’ families, which allows us to gauge how fast different religious groups are growing or shrinking. According to these figures, the fastest-growing group is “nondenominational Protestants,” a diverse category that includes the members of many of the new megachurches. But since most of the nondenominational Protestants are part of the larger Evangelical Christian tradition (which has actually seen a modest decline in its popularity in recent years), the growing number of Protestants who claim no denominational affiliation seems to reflect a change in preference in the style of worship among Evangelical Christians, rather than a major shift in religious orientation.

The only other group growing faster than Buddhists is those with no religion. So if we consider the nondenominational Christians as part of the larger evangelical tradition, as is usually done by sociologists of religion, the available survey data indicates that Buddhists are the fastest-growing religious group in America today, albeit one starting from a relatively small base. The fact that three out of four American Buddhists converted from another religion (or no religion) clearly testifies to its success in gaining new members.

There is, moreover, evidence that the influence of Buddhism in the West is growing rapidly beyond the circle of its direct participants. One of the best indicators of how strong Buddhist influence has become in the United States comes from the 2003 Religion and Diversity Survey. In this survey, 12.5 percent of Americans said Buddhist teachings had “an important influence on their thinking about religion or spirituality.”

Because of its appeal to intellectuals and progressives, Buddhism has long had an especially strong influence on those in the creative professions who help shape the direction of Western culture. And it is now exerting a growing influence in other areas that are usually considered beyond the religious sphere. One place where this is clearly the case is the field of psychotherapy. It is not just that Buddhism has a strong personal appeal to many practicing psychotherapists, but its analysis of the causes of human suffering and what to do about them is increasingly influential in therapeutic work. Buddhism’s meditation practices have become a popular tool to help patients cope with a variety of serious personal problems, and they form the foundation of popular mindfulness-based programs that help participants reduce stress and manage the pressures of contemporary life.

Buddhism in the Public Eye

What does the general public think about this rapidly growing religious movement? The short answer is not much at all. Although Westerners are becoming ever more accepting of religious diversity, when they think about religion it is still often in monotheistic Judeo-Christian terms that leave little room for alternative viewpoints. Religious freedom is, for example, often described as the right to attend any church you want and to worship God in whatever way you wish. Moreover, politically oriented concerns usually center on the impact of the Christian right on national politics or the role of Islam in international terrorism, and once again Buddhism is largely ignored.

What image the general public does have of Buddhism is surprisingly negative, given the fact that it has not been subject to the constant din of negative publicity that Islam has, and its most prominent spokesman, the Dalai Lama, seems to be almost universally respected and admired. Yet when the Faith Matters Survey, conducted by American political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, asked a broad sample of Americans how warmly or coolly they felt toward members of other religious groups, Buddhists were ranked second to last—above only Muslims and well below those with no religion at all. Another question in that survey found that one in five Americans would object to building a large Buddhist temple in their neighborhood, but not to a large Christian church. The survey showed that positive attitudes about Buddhism seem to increase as income increases and decline with involvement with more conservative religious movements. Putnam and Campbell speculate that the reasons for such a negative evaluation is that Buddhism is seen as standing outside the accepted mainstream of American religious life. To most Americans, Buddhism is still unfamiliar and somewhat strange.

The Coming Challenge

Western Buddhism has grown to a point that it is unlikely to be ignored much longer. The question is not so much if Buddhism will develop a new public face, but who will shape it. Some Buddhists feel we should simply focus on practicing the dharma wholeheartedly, and that it doesn’t really matter what the general public thinks. In this view, those who are ready for the dharma will find it.

While most Buddhists would agree that aggressive proselytizing is counterproductive, it seems that there is a middle way between that approach and complete passivity. People need to know about the dharma, its virtues and its challenges, before they can be expected to know if it is the right path for them. And if Buddhism’s public image is cast in negative stereotypes, people are likely to be far less open to even hearing about the dharma.

The Buddha himself was certainly very concerned with the way the public viewed his sangha. Many of the monastic rules and restrictions in the Vinaya were clearly intended to protect Buddhism’s public image, if for no other reason than that the monks depended on the public’s largess for their food and thus their survival.

None of this is to suggest that we launch some kind of massive public relations campaign, or that we should try to project an idealized picture of Western Buddhism that attempts to conceal its problems and deficiencies. What I am suggesting is that Buddhist leaders and everyday practitioners need to make more of an effort to participate in the religious, cultural, and social dialogues of our times, and bring the principles of dharma into full public view—not just to promote the future of Buddhism in the West, but because Western society desperately needs the kind of new direction that Buddhism can help provide.

Until now, Western Buddhism has been something of a marginalized subculture, but it need not stay that way. The growing acceptance of the value of pluralism, the ever-increasing number of Western Buddhists, and Buddhism’s status as one of the world’s largest and most ancient religious traditions are all helping to raise Buddhism’s profile in the West. This means that we must think seriously about what we have to offer to the people of the postmodern Western world, let them know what we stand for, and then do our best to live up to the ideals we proclaim. Of course, many will challenge our assertions and paint a far less flattering picture of what for them is a new and alien religious phenomenon. But if we respond to our critics with the openness and understanding our ideals proclaim, the facts will speak for themselves. And if we are indeed successful in shaping the emerging face of Western Buddhism, its future will, I think, be assured for generations to come.

James Coleman

James William Coleman is a professor of sociology at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and is the author of The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition.