Buddhism in America is seeing new growth and interests in 2021. Here in the states everyone has had the time to be asking themselves: What do we do with our minds?
Though precise numbers on its popularity are hard to come by, Buddhism does seem to be emerging in the Western, type-A universe. Buddhist meditation centers have recently popped up in places such as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Lakewood, Ohio. There are now dozens of Buddhist podcasts, among many more apps and playlists geared specifically toward personal, non-Buddhist meditation. Four in 10 American adults now say they meditate at least weekly.
Academic research on mindfulness meditation has also exploded, making what in the West was once an esoteric practice for hippies more akin to a life hack for all.
Buddhism has been popular in various forms among certain celebrities and tech elites, but the religion’s primary draw for many Americans now appears to be mental health. The ancient religion, some find, helps them manage the slings and arrows and subtweets of modern life. Many people are stressed out by the constant drama of the current times, and work hours for those still employed have overwhelmed the day. There’s something newly appealing about a practice that instructs you to just sit, be aware, and realize nothing lasts forever. Perhaps the comfort comes simply from knowing that the problems that bedevil humans have been around since long before our technologies.
A few themes and ideas seem to unite the disparate experiences of people I have spoke with. The Buddha’s first “noble truth” is that “life is suffering,” and many of Buddhism’s newly minted Western practitioners have interpreted this to mean that accepting emotional pain might be preferable to trying to alleviate it. Buddhism admits that suffering is inevitable and we shouldn’t focus on avoiding suffering, but learn how to deal with it.
Two great places to begin are the Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra, texts from the early Middle Ages. The sutras are quite a departure from the normal content of psychotherapy, in which one might ponder what truly makes one happy. Buddhist thought suggests that one should not compulsively crave comfort and avoid discomfort. Instead we should avoid labeling certain experiences as negative by default. These can actually be viewed as “it’s just an experience I’m having that” which can actually be a portal to joy on the other side of that moment.
What’s different and perhaps reassuring about Buddhism is that it’s an existing religion practiced by half a billion people. Because relatively few Caucasian Americans grew up Buddhist, they generally don’t associate any familiar baggage with it like some do with, say, the Christianity or Judaism of their childhoods. While liberating, this also means that the practice of secular Buddhism often differs dramatically from the religion itself. Here in the west new practitioners are reading different books, listening to different podcasts, and following different teachers and traditions. Their interpretations of Buddhist teachings aren’t necessarily consistent with one another or with traditional texts.
Buddhism carries with it a set of values and morals that white Americans don’t always live by. Much like “cafeteria Catholics” ignore parts of the religion that don’t resonate with them, some Westerners focus on only certain elements of Buddhist philosophy and don’t endorse, say, Buddhism’s view of reincarnation or worship of the Buddha. Buffet Buddhism may not be traditional, but its flexibility does allow its adherents to more easily employ the philosophy for an antidepressant jolt. Some people practice Buddhism and meditation as an alternative to psychotherapy or psychiatric medication, given mental-health care’s cost and scarcity: Sixty percent of counties in the U.S. don’t have a single psychiatrist.
So our biggest hurdles in the new growing traditions of Western Buddhism stem from our mental states of being and perceiving the world around us. Many minds here in the west are almost judgmental and jealous in nature as recognized by The Dali Lama. He in a recent speech asked “When are we compelled to hurt people?” His answer: “When we’re in pain.” Our answer as a whole is for each of us to see the fear we all share, to have some compassion and grow together from there. This is not always easy in the states where we are often competitive for everything from jobs to toilet paper. We must grow to be bigger than these small ideas – In Sunday school, when you opened your eyes during prayer, other kids would tell on you, thereby implicating themselves as having opened their eyes, too. This is the energy we are up against – “They’ll burn themselves for the chance to harm someone else”.
Buddhism is taking hold here in the states so we each can benefit from taking a deep breath and trying to have compassion for all despite the headlines, the tribulations and the difficulties of an awakened life. Its the best resource we have and fortunately its available to all without conditions or costs.
Peace and Love, Jim