Monday, November 2, 2009

Western Media: Helping Buddhism adapt to Western Society.

Benjamin Muller

Since the middle of the 20th century, Buddhism has been growing rapidly worldwide, with some even arguing that it is the fastest growing religion in the West (Perera, 2008). Here in Australia, Buddhism was the fastest growing religion between the 1996 and 2001 Australian censuses; with an increase in the number of devotees by 79 percent (ABS, 2003). A current BuddhaNet directory search of Buddhist groups and centres in Australia returns 574 results (, 2009). This is a significant increase since June 2000, when the same search returned 315 results (Jones, 2000). This essay will investigate the reasons why Buddhism is becoming so popular in Western society. Buddhism is often described as an extremely adaptable religion (Gross, 1993). This adaptability has led to a distinction between ‘convert’ and ‘ethnic’ Buddhists (Spuler, 2003). This essay will focus on ‘convert’ Buddhists. A convert Buddhist is likely to be attracted to Buddhism by aspects such as meditation and other rituals. They may live in a secular society completely unlike a native Buddhist culture; however they will frequently or occasionally, devote their time to Buddhist practice. This adaptability opens up an opportunity in religious experimentation that is not as accessible within other mainstream religions. It will be argued that one of the reasons why Buddhism is so easily integrated is due to its adaptability to suit the practitioner; however, more importantly, the way it is presented to Western society. Before an individual can properly experience Buddhist practices, they must first become attracted to the idea. Not only are news reports concerning Buddhism in the West predominantly positive, but the presentation of Buddhism and Buddhist practices in the entertainment media is also appealing. This essay will examine a number of media items promoting and presenting Buddhism. It will be argued that the positive and appealing way Buddhism has been presented by the media, is an effective way of attracting new convert Buddhists, and a primary reason for its growing population in the West.

Before analysing the media’s role in presenting Buddhism, it is important to distinguish the specific characteristics of Buddhism that make it appealing to a convert. It has been mentioned that one reason is the adaptability of Buddhism in foreign cultures (Gross, 1993). Elaborating on this, it can be seen that Buddhism has been adapting naturally and simply for centuries. For example, when Buddhism started to become popular amongst the Japanese in the early 13th century, it underwent enormous transformations in regards to the way it was approached (Luca & Burrell, 1999). Potentially due to the Japanese background in Shintoism, Buddhism was not accepted until the focus turned to magical aspects such as chanting mantras, reciting sutras and idolising the Buddha like a Kami (deity). Luca and Burrell (1999) argue that this transformation was in fact a reversal rather than a step forward; however the eventual outcome was a success and Buddhism continues to demonstrate its overwhelming popularity in Japan to this day. Similarly, one can observe the transformations of Buddhism as it has integrated itself into the West. Western civilizations are approaching Buddhism in new ways. Buddhism has been approached scientifically with noteworthy results (Davidson, et al. 2003). American monk, Bhikkhu Bhodi (2003) argued that “theistic religions have lost their hold on many educated Americans”. The empirical approach to studying and practicing Buddhism is an attraction for individuals who question the rationality of faith. As well as this, a Buddhist practice such as meditation promotes relaxation, well-being and happiness, something that is very appealing to a busy individual (Wallace, 1999). Building on this argument, one can begin to understand the attraction of Buddhist practices in a busy, stressful and secular society. It can be said that Buddhism can be approached the same way as taking up a hobby. It is possible to experiment and experience Buddhism without becoming too involved; however there is also the opportunity to become seriously devoted. This evidence is an example of Buddhism’s evolution as well as a reason why it attracts such a great number of devotees.

The adaptability of Buddhism may be one reason for its success; however this is just a reason why it can be so easily integrated into foreign cultures. The main focus of this argument is not the flexible evolution of Buddhism, rather the methods in which it is being delivered and marketed to Western society. It can be seen that science has promoted the benefits of Buddhism; however the media has played a major role in painting an aesthetically pleasing depiction of Buddhism with films, documentaries, articles and stories. Not only do the media present an attractive image of the religion and its practices, but also the culture associated with it (Mercille, 2005). An example of this is the portrayal of Tibet and its culture in popular movies as well as in publications such as magazines and guidebooks (Mullen, 1998). John Urry (1990) argues that the attraction to Tibet is “constructed and sustained through a variety of non-tourist practices, such as film, TV, literature, magazines, records and videos” (p.3). Hollywood films such as Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun and Little Buddha are examples of Tibet presented as a perfect place, full of humble and wonderful Buddhist monks (Mullen, 1998). Mullen goes as far to describe the portrayal of Tibet in these films as an “idyllic, utopian culture” (p.1). Seven Years in Tibet contained no more than 20 minutes of footage shot in Tibet. The majority of the images were filmed in Nepal, Austria and Canada (Nesselson, 1999). Even the director, Jean Jacques Annaud, admitted that his film “didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the real Tibet (1999). This is neither a considerate nor a constructive portrayal of Tibet itself; however it is an excellent way to make the culture associated with Buddhism appealing to the audience. In reality, the picture painted by the entertainment media creates expectations of a country that quickly fade with experience. A survey conducted by Mercille (2005) investigated the expectations help by tourists of a number of factors concerning Tibet. As a comparison, the expectations relating to China were also investigated. In the films mentioned previously, the Chinese are presented as the villains whereas the Tibetans are kind and compassionate Buddhist monks. Furthermore, ‘Tibetologist’, Donald Lopez argues that in pro-Tibet films the Chinese are often presented as “the invader, godless and demonic, despotic and polluted” (p.17). With this in mind, it is interesting to see that Mercille’s study found that before arrival in the country, only one per cent of tourists had a positive perception of the Chinese, whereas 41 per cent perceived the people of Tibet in a positive way. When questioned on what they were most surprised about, many of the respondents answered that they were surprised at the amount of Chinese in Tibet as well as how modern and westernised the area was. These results demonstrate the direct impact that the media has on the way the audience perceives a foreign culture. Since Buddhism is such a fundamental aspect of Tibetan culture, a positive portrayal of Tibet will also contain a positive depiction of Buddhism.

The essay thus far has established that Buddhism is an extremely adaptable religion that integrates itself very effectively into Western society. Furthermore, the way Buddhism and its associated cultures are presented by the media to a Western audience makes the integration process even easier. It can be seen how the media plays a role in promoting Buddhism on a large scale; however the way it is promoted on a more local level is also important. There are over 500 Buddhist schools and centres in Australia and a brief overview of some of their websites and newsletters indicate that it is very easy to become involved (Jones, 2000). The layout of the Brisbane Chung Tian Temple newsletter is a good example (Chung Tian Temple, 2009). Putting oneself in the shoes of a fresh Buddhism enthusiast, the newsletter is welcoming, simple and not intimidating. On the cover page is a list of upcoming local events. The accompanying text makes it clear that anyone is welcome and there is even a guideline of how much one should donate when attending an event, as there is often no compulsory fee. Much of the newsletter is full of positive reviews of past events, as well as interviews with the participants giving their positive feedback. Nearly all the information centres around explaining how one can become involved. Furthermore, the few other sections in the newsletter were made up of simple and easy to read articles with very general and positive topics such as; “Handbook of Life”, “How Meditation Can Help You” and “How do I become a Buddhist?” (p.2-3). One can imagine how an individual with a vague new interest in Buddhism can become so easily involved. Additionally the Buddhist study and meditation classes are divided into ‘beginner’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ groups, effectively eliminating any uncertainties that a new participant may have in regards to their inexperience. It may be religious media and obviously biased; however with so many Buddhist centres and groups in Australia, it is worth mentioning as it still plays an important role in attracting interested individuals.

It is to be expected that in a Buddhist newsletter, the information will be positive and biased, aimed at promoting the religion and attracting new devotees. In secular media, Buddhism is also portrayed very positively (Moore, 2008). Doug Underwood (2002) argues that the reason Buddhists are portrayed in such a good light by the media is because “they seem open, tolerant, and passive and do not threaten the political or economic order” (p.268). A case study on the 2005 visit of the Dalai Lama in the U.S gives an indication of the positive ways in which the secular media portrays Buddhism (Moore, 2008). The study was conducted by Rick Moore with an aim to increase understanding of the way the media portrays Buddhism. The media analysed was The Idaho Statesman. This is a significant daily newspaper with a circulation of over 65,000 copies (Moore, 2008). During the week of the Dalai Lama’s visit there were a total of 15 published articles on Buddhism. Every article was delivered positively and the Dalai Lama was very highly regarded. Similarly to the local Brisbane Buddhist newsletter, there were a number of stories and interviews with local, ‘convert’ Buddhists sharing their positive experiences and encouraging others to take part. Furthermore, the newspaper published articles such as “What is Buddhism?” and “Buddhism in the West”. Once again it can be seen that the media is acting as a tool to become involved in the religion. Not only does it provide information on how to become involved, but it also provides the introductory reading and knowledge that one would desire before undertaking a new spiritual path. Additionally, the interviews with local members may provide a sense of comfort, like success stories, further helping to market a product.

The process of Buddhism’s integration into the West can be summarised in a few key points. The media has played an integral role in presenting Buddhism to the West in a positive way. It can be seen that in both large and small scale media, and secular and spiritual media, the portrayal of Buddhism is very similar. It is overwhelmingly positive. As well as this, Buddhism in the entertainment media is also portrayed positively. On closer inspection, films such as Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun and Little Buddhah, may not be accurate depictions of Buddhist culture, however they are certainly constructive in making the religion attractive. There is a lot of evidence indicating that Buddhism is an adaptable religion (Luca & Burrell, 1999; Gross, 1993; Spuler, 1993), and this can be seen throughout history as well as the methods in which the West is approaching the religion today (Davidson et al., 2003; Wallace 1999). It is difficult to distinguish whether it is the adaptability of Buddhism that is taking hold of the Western society and media, or if it is the media that is positively utilising the adaptability of Buddhism. Regardless, the statistics show that Buddhism is growing in the West and is expected to continue along this trend (Perera, 2008; ABS, 2003). Finally, the primary message of this argument is the notion that, not only is the media representing Buddhism and Buddhist culture positively, but it is also acting as an easily accessible starting point for interested individuals.


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