The rise of Secular Buddhism in America

Is it the new mindset for the 21st century or cultural mishandling?

By John Linderman

Elm Staff Writer

Religion and spirituality have taken dives in American society in the past 15 years. While mental health disorders are on the rise, church attendance is decreasing. Where previously inaccessible, globalization has brought faiths from across the world into the libraries, books, and phones of westerners.

One of the most popular Eastern religions to rise in the West is Buddhism, although to just label it as that would be inaccurate. Why has secular Buddhism become so popular with Americans as opposed to declining monotheistic faiths, like Christianity? The answer may lie in mental health and cognitive freedom.

Since Buddhism’s inception in the fifth century BCE, it has both played an influential role in South Asian society and grown into different sects and beliefs. Sectors like Mahayana Buddhism, for example, base on the idea that the teachings of the Buddha can reach a greater audience through less rigorous devotional demands. This idea forms the base of secular Buddhism today.

However, Buddhism was first introduced to the West in proper through 18th century anthropologists, in most cases under the lens of imperialism. Philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, although admiring some tenets of Buddhism, ultimately adopted its ideas into their respective philosophies rather than lend credence to the Buddha.

Buddhism continues to have a complicated history in Western circles through the twentieth century; writers from the Beat Generation like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg praise it, but again, fail to respect the religion properly in their writings and associate its teaching with their egos.

In 2019, Buddhism has an even larger platform online and globally; with more representation from people with Buddhist heritage. While this ails some of the ignorance of the past two centuries, westerners should still be educated about colonialism’s sinuous history with Eastern religions.

Alan Watts, who has reached posthumous superstardom for his lectures uploaded on YouTube, has described Buddhism as a dialogue: one between yourself, your ego, conscience, or the moment. It demands a lot less, physically and spiritually, than more dogmatic religions. Buddhism, through personal practice of meditation, attempts to find inner peace rather than concordance with God.

For Western Americans who usually come from Abrahamic religions, secular Buddhism can ask for a lot less and give a lot more in terms of mental clarity and inner peace.

Secular Buddhism in particular does not ask for labels or devotion; you are free to pick up and drop whatever practices best suit you. Some Buddhist practices, like meditation, have been prescribed by psychiatrists and counselors for its long-term mental health benefits. Mindfulness, or loosely translated as “vipassana” in Pali, is another foundation that works in tandem with meditation. Popular American psychologists like Jon Kabat-Zinn have published books and research on the benefits on mindfulness, with the input of both Buddhist scholars and associated psychologists.

There are celebrities from the more traditional Buddhist sectors of South Asia, like Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, and founder of the Plum Village Tradition Thích Nhất Hạnh, who similarly have found success educating westerners about meditation and mindfulness. Sage Business Researcher found that four in 10 Americans meditate weekly. Even Keanu Reeves, the internet’s eternal boyfriend, has spoken about the personal benefits of secular Buddhism.

The benefits are great, but it’s important to learn some history about the Buddha before making outrageous claims about him, or yourself. Some people take faith in the constant chaos around them and grasp the best pieces. Some surrender to the Dharma and let the pieces fall by themselves.

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