Re-Branding Buddhism and Buddhism for Beginners

I was going to continue the previous discussion on Asian vs. Non-Asian sanghas by pointing out the Chuck Norris could easily take down Bruce Lee in a fight but I realized that…

  1. This perpetuates the horrible stereotype that white folk love Chuck and Asian love Bruce. When we all know that EVERYONE loves Chuck.
  2. This has already been decided in “Game of Death” and Chuck lost.

So I am going to go with a discussion of the “Branding of Buddhism” that was brought up on Barbara’s Buddhism Blog as well as on Angry Asian Buddhist. So why not weigh in on it, right? I’ll list some of the talking points and my (humble) take on them.

But, following up on my post two weeks ago about how to bring the incredible benefits of regular meditation practice to a larger contemporary audience (i.e. beyond the velvet roped circle of artists and smart people that seem to mostly practice in the West) it’s time to talk about Brand Buddhism.

Ok, first off the “velvet rope” of Buddhism? Do we also reside in an ivory tower? Is there a moat? (I am fucking approachable and don’t forget it). Buddhism has been branded already by publishers and “quick fix” marketers and is accessible in many forms to anyone who wants to wander into a bookstore or library and get the flavor they like.

So as a culture and as a society we have already picked up this banner and ran with it. I don’t think there is any reason to skim anything off of it as a matter of principle. Personally the idea presented by Jerry of an “inner circle” of artist/smart people practicing Buddhism tells me that he has little experience in the actual practice of Buddhism. Sanghas are popping up in rural and urban areas as well as in jails, youth centers, adult learning centers and college campuses. They can consist of primarily Asian, primarily white or a diverse mix of cultures. Practitioners in my own sangha range in vocation from gardeners and roofers to judges, and politicians as well as retirees and lowly civil servants like myself. Indeed, we do have a bouncer at the door though to keep out the intellectuals (we don’t like their kind here).

When most folks see Buddha, they see a foreign and unfamiliar face that speaks of mysterious eastern religions – oooooo, Buddhists. Buddhism in America is at the long end of the initial boom sparked in the 60’s among intellectuals and artists who craved that elite connection with the east.

When “most folks” see the Buddha they see many things. I see a sublime figure who own striving led to a realization that was both simple and obtuse in understanding, both easy and hard in practice. Rather than rebrand to remove the “foreignness” of the Buddha, how about just some good old education on his life and practice (a great and accessible book is Buddha for Beginners by Asma)? Once you see the human side of someone it no longer seems so foreign. I would much prefer the education and presentation of Buddha to be realistic rather than completely throw away or turned into another White Christ (you know what I am talking about. Christ looks like he walked out of a J Crew advertisement in many modern representations).

Buddhism in America began way before the 60’s. If we ignore the earlier (and current) Asian practitioners we ignore a large and important part of Western Buddhism. Even the popularity of Buddhism among a non-Asian audience was spearheaded by Asian practitioners that came over to the States to primarily serve as the religious guides of Asian congregations (personally, though, I believe that anyone that took on such a task probably also had a desire to “spread the Dharma”, as it were, to the culture of the West). The Hippies and the Beatniks and the acedemes of the time that originally ran with those Buddhist concepts and practices by no means did the lion’s share of the work. They helped build some of the bridges but by no means build the foundation of Western Buddhism.

Buddhism can be presented as the ultimate lifestyle accessory.

It has been already (sometimes well and sometimes horribly). Look at any “Religion/Spiritual” section of the bookstore or the “Self-Help” section and you will see a plethora of books on Buddhism (or more specifically on Buddhist practice) that are obviously slated towards Western audiences that have no prior experience with Buddhism. Hell, I pick up t-shirts with Buddhist iconology from Old Navy.

To secularize Buddhism is fine. It has been done in the past and sometimes done very well. But to almost insist that the flourishing of Buddhism in the West can only be achieved by cutting off all of the Asian roots to the religion (or non-religion) is foolish. Buddhism is primarily an Asian religion with plenty o’history both ancient and contemporary. To ignore those teachings is to take a massive backstep in the history of Western Buddhism.

But this is just my opinion.

The introduction of Buddha for Beginners sums it up well:

…the fact that Buddhism seemed deeply misunderstood in the West. Unlike most other religious scriptures, which are comprised of parables, legends and allegories, Buddhist teachings also contain actual philosophical arguments that were advanced by the Buddha himself…so skewed is the Western view of Buddhism that it will come as a surprise to many people that the Buddha gave rational arguements and empirical evidence in his teachings…

…[many] had gathered [their] wisdom [of “Buddhist” teachings] from American television shows, commercials and movies, which offer a cadre of mystical monk characters – usually helping some confused Westerner pick the right soda or cell phone service or some such consumer quandary. Stereotypes die hard… and the tendium of consumer culture may always lead us to romanticize exotic monastic traditions. But it is my hope that this book will give searchers a little more grasp on the ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and logic of Buddhism.

Maybe Jerry should start with this book and stop watching commercials before assuming that Buddhism needs a rebranding. If we need to rebrand anything it is the way that Buddhism is portrayed in popular media.



5 thoughts on “Re-Branding Buddhism and Buddhism for Beginners

  1. Ever see that stupid Yoplait or Dannon yougurt commercial about the chocolate yogurt that was like "Zen wrapped in Karma dipped in Nirvana" or some lame ass shit like that? This is what happens when you strip away all the tradition, the religion, and present it as a "lifestyle accessory".

    This isn't changing the approach to Buddhism for newcomers, this is changing Buddhsim altogether. I've said it on a couple of posts about this; this is "Super Sizing" Buddhism.

    I'd like the Double Quarter Pounder, hold the samsara, with a side order of enlightenment, and a 64oz Mountain Dew please. Maybe we can drag Billy Mays out of the grave so he can do a friggin infomercial for Buddhism. I'm fine with Western Buddhism, but I'd rather not try a Junior Bacon Western Buddhist Burger with Cheese, ya know?

  2. Yeah it was "Zen wrapped in Chocolate and dipped in Karma" and I think Brad Warner used it for the title of his new book.

    And there is always the added mysticism and "Asian" element in those commercials. I always figured that mystic Asian monk figure was somewhat insulting to Asian buddhists but who knows? I'm not going to ask.

    Changing the "approach" to Buddhist practice is perfectly fine. Roshis, teachers and monks do it all the time. But saying that aspects are "useless" is simply ridiculous.

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. "Be like water making its way through cracks… Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend."
    ~Bruce Lee

  4. "When I was having dinner with Chuck [Norris] I did ask him: 'If you and Bruce would be in a real fight to death, who would win?', and he said without thinking: 'Bruce of course. Nobody can beat him.'"
    ~John Benn [in audio commentary on DVD of The Way of the Dragon (US title: Return of the Dragon)]

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