Buddhism has been all the rage lately: The Dalai Lama wrapped up his American tour earlier this year, which included a HuffPost Live talk on “mindfulness, spirituality and HuffPost’s Third Metric which seeks to redefine success beyond money and power” (fancy!). TIME magazine featured a blissed-out meditator on a February cover and “mindfulness” conferences are popping up faster than Go0gle employee buses in San Francisco.
These are all examples of what I like to call buddhism, with an intentional lowercase b, as they represent Buddhism without the constraints of institution, commitment, or, really, religion. And the biggest example of lowercase buddhism comes in people’s reactions when I mention that I work for a Buddhist magazine: “Oh, really? I meditate!” Sigh.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against meditation and am fully aware of how heavily Western Buddhism has focused on this one practice. But what’s worth noting is that the conversation stops here. When I ask these meditators what tradition they prefer or what teachers they follow, I receive only blank stares. It’s not so much that these dewy new practitioners know very little about Buddhism outside their secular meditation bubble, as that they’re completely content with their naiveté.
What I see here is a growing attitude that Buddhism is simply a supplement to your current religion or something that can be tacked on to your personal patchwork quilt of spiritual beliefs. Buddhism has become an add-on: an energy boost in your spiritual smoothie. A number of factors have enabled this attitude.
First is a shift in religious upbringing. In my experience, most of these buddhist Meditators (see what I did there?) came to meditation late in the game. They were raised in homes that followed a different religion, usually something mainstream that wouldn’t disrupt a dinner conversation with, say, the Beavers. Some continue to follow that household religion into adulthood, though studies have shown that they no longer practice in the most conventional way. And somewhere along the line, these watered-down-Christians picked up a meditation book, listened too mindlessly to their yoga instructor, or spent a summer backpacking in Southeast Asia . . . and now they meditate.
This shift in upbringing has lead to an increasing number of footloose “nones.” A 2012 Pew Research study revealed that the religious group with the largest surge in the U.S. was, in fact, the one with no religion at all: “Unaffiliated.” But what’s important here, and what many scholars have pointed out before, is that the largest “Unaffiliated” subcategory was “Nothing in particular.” Not nothing. Not nada. Just, ah, nothing in particular (with a Jersey accent). This means those within the category are still “religious,” “spiritual” or, worse, “spiritual but not religious” and therefore free to dabble in whichever religion is on their radar. Hello, Buddhism.
Next is the widespread assumption in the U.S. that Buddhism is a happy, carefree, and compassionate set of beliefs and practices—note that I avoided the word “religion” there. This can be credited to many early voices in American Buddhism: Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught; Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums; and Stephen Bachelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs, to name a few. Thomas Tweed does a nice job summarizing in his aptly titled work, “Why are Buddhists so nice?” And this “niceness” carries into present day, thanks to the always-smiling Dalai Lama, approachable books on buddhism, like Lodro Rinzler’s The Buddha Walks into a Bar which has the nerve to describe how to have Buddhist one-night-stand, and slogan-happy Twitter and Instagram accounts that rattle off feel-good and often times inaccurate buddhism quotes.
Then there’s how cheery the media is about Buddhism. The Dalai Lama’s so friendly and smiley and adorable—just look at those unfashionable glasses and “cultural robes”! The Buddha can walk into a bar! Wow! The media loves Buddhism! And we love it, too. Just head over to Twitter if you don’t believe me. Search for #buddhism. Your search will pull up tweets like “I think I’ll convert to Buddhism” or “Buddhism is pretty cool.” The messages are all positive and casual. For a contrast, search for #religion. You’ll find messages that dethrone organized religion, declare cessation from its overbearing rules and regulations, and generally renounce its presence. Hmm. It’s a good thing Buddhism isn’t a religion!
Or take the ideology that Buddhism, or parts of Buddhism, is especially useful within our fast-paced and high-tech lifestyles. Many religious organizations attempt to promote this view, but Buddhism is one of the only religions that succeeds, due in part to the media attitude mentioned above. And Generation Tech is eating it up. Take, for example, the endless “mindfulness” conferences that are, among other things, bringing solitude to the country’s coders. But they’re not bringing Buddhism, or even buddhism, to the eyes and ears of Silicon Valley; simply, mindfulness. Sites like Buddhist Geeks, which takes buddhism into the tech realm, and meditation apps, which encourage practice in urban places like subways, bring Buddhism into the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.
Last is the assumption that a single practice can symbolize an entire religion. This isn’t unique to Buddhism and meditation: Christians pray; Muslims bow; and Jews have matza. And it’s quite common to be raised Christian, fall off the Jesus bandwagon, but still pray occasionally or make your Grandma happy and go to Mass with her. But rarely do you “dabble” in Christianity if you were raised a Jew. Or go to temple occasionally if you were raised Wiccan. And yet, with the case of Buddhism, members of each global faith are picking the religion apart and applying its beliefs at will. It’s the “two meditations with your other religion and call me in the morning” approach.
Of course, religions change with time and place. But Buddhism is not changing here; it is being reduced. Key tenets are missing—any sort of dogma, the ever-important teacher-student relationship, and a very rich and awesome history of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, tulkus, and spiritual deities—but the most noticeable gaping hole is the lack of community.
A communal absence is not very surprising, given the rise of individualized approach to religion and spirituality, but community, or sangha, is an essential part of Buddhism in Buddhist majority countries, even in modernity. Among its other responsibilities, sanghas maintain tradition and oversee dharma transmission, i.e., make sure no one is reinterpreting the dharma in a way that ruins it for future generations.
But besides serving as dharma watchdogs, Buddhist communities are the support system, the heart, and the glue of Buddhism. They provide a service that no Buddhist how-to book, mindfulness conference, or meditation app can provide: authority and support. A religion has to have a couple rules if it’s going to last 2500 years, after all.
Joanna Piacenza is the Web Manager at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. She received her M.A. in Religious Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She writes at joannapiacenza.com and tweets at @jpiacenza. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the publication with which she is associated.