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Converts vs. Background Buddhism


One thing that I find both off putting and frustrating about what I see as Buddhism in America is that is seems almost elitist. People go on and on about the importance of retreat. While I have no doubt about the importance of a retreat to truly give the mind some space to develop, it cannot be feasible for all people. Even in the places where Buddhism is the norm, not everyone is a monk. My question is this: How do the lay people in places where people are primarily Buddhist practice Buddhism in their lives in a practical way? What do you think Buddhism can be in a western society for everyday people? This is something that has been bothering me for some time. I appreciate anything you have to say about the matter.


Specifically addressing retreats: Keep in mind that many of the people advocating retreats are the people taking money to lead retreats. Buddhism has become like everything else in the West, highly commercialized. Even the monks and teachers need to make money, and hosting a retreat is where many of the ‚Äúbig names‚Äù make their living. There’s nothing inherently wrong about that, but always look into a teacher’s motives when they recommend something. That being said, ‚Äúreal‚Äù Eastern monks do in fact go on retreats themselves occasionally. Master Sheng Yen, in ‚ÄúFootprints in the Snow‚Äù went on a ‚Äúsolitary retreat‚Äù for nine months once. One long retreat during his lifetime, not for a week every six months.

As far as the rest of your question is concerned, I think the primary difference is that in the West, we see Buddhism as a religion. It’s something that you choose to DO, and it’s an important, life-changing choice. In the East, however, they don’t really think about it, it’s just THERE. While I was in Japan, once in a while someone would ask about my religion, and when I answered that I was a Buddhist, and the answer was invariably, “What is that?” When I explained about following the teachings of Buddha, the answer was just about always an unexcited, “Oh that. Yes, me too.” It’s just part of their lives, something ingrained in them, it’s not a choice, it’s not an activity; they don’t DO Buddhism, they just live it. I’ve got a story about a dog that I think I’ll tell tomorrow that shows just how ingrained these ideas are.

I think it’s a lot like Christians in this country that don’t read the Bible much and don’t go to church. Christianity is there, they believe in it and they know all about it, it’s part of their identity, yet it’s not actively important to their day to day lives. It’s not hypocrisy, it’s more part of their background.

I don’t think Buddhism is going to have that kind of ‚Äúbackground power‚Äù in the West, at least not for several more generations. In the meantime, Buddhism will gain new converts who are excited about this ‚Äúexotic new thing,‚Äù and they will eagerly go off to retreats, buy Buddhist books, rent Buddhist videos, and so forth. It is new, and it all has to be learned, unlike those in the East who just sort of became Buddhists naturally, never having read a book on Buddhism in their lives. Hopefully, those excited new Western converts will stick around and learn to live by the precepts, follow the Path, and reduce suffering where they see it instead of just going off to a retreat every six months.

If this sounds negative, I don’t mean it that way. It’s just a case of new converts discovering a new way of looking at the universe as opposed to lifelong Buddhists who say, ‚ÄúOh that. Yes, me too.‚Äù

1 comment to Converts vs. Background Buddhism

  • Babu

    When one observes life (problems, suffering etc.) and try to think logically for a reason, one can go upto a point only. i.e. scientific logicgal reasoning can upto a point only with some more to go.

    When one tries to go beyond that point i.e. to the end of that reasoning then one needs to make an assumption. That assumption is birth-death cycle, salvation being coming out of the cycle. Once this vedic assumption is accepted, then again logical reasoning continues in the form of philosophy. All the indian school of philosophies Buddist/Jain & Vendantic follow this and has spread to the the east (china/japan).

    Christian/Islam/Jewish, i guess donot have this basis, that is why it is difficult to accept the rebirth concept in the dog story above. Just to know, if anybody could comment on what is the basis of these middle-eastern traditions?