Why is Buddhism so popular in the West?
Sanne van Oosten
For the last fifty years or so, Buddhism has been gaining followers in many Western countries. This development has progressed so far, that one could even say Buddhism is becoming completely mainstream. So mainstream, that plenty of words derived from Buddhism are interspersed into our language. Zen, karma, nirvana, mindfulness even people who know next to nothing of Buddhism have an idea of the meanings of these words. Also, it has completely penetrated the market of self-help books. “If the Buddha dated”, “Buddha in the Boardroom”, “Buddha Mom” and many more of such titles. But why is Buddhism so popular in the West?
Like many other religions, Buddhism is used as a resolution to common problems experienced in modern-day life. People often turn to Buddhism when they are fed up with money, the rat race to success and corrupting political power. Traditionally, the West has put much hope in money and power. But once you have all these things this leaves you empty and thinking, why am I not happy even though I have everything I should want? Buddhism helps to let go of all things material and focus on that was is really important in life.
Another problem that comes with the material lives we have constructed in the West is stress. People experience stress at work and in their personal relationships. Through Buddhist meditation, people find the peace that they don’t know how to find anywhere else. The concept of vipassana, or popularly translated to the buzz-word mindfulness, has proven useful in such situations as people learn to look inwards and find self-transformation and thereby relieving themselves from stress.
On the other hand, people often turn to Buddhism when they are fed up with religion as they know it. When people question faith-based religion they will be more inclined to turn to Buddhism which does not ask you to believe in a mystical God-type, it just asks you to believe in what you see. That is what appeals to people who, though raised with faith in God, still see no benefit in this kind of religion.
In light of this, another important reason why many people turn to Buddhism is because it is very empirically based.Buddha’s main thesis is that we should accept only what we can experience directly or observe empirically with our five senses. This is also the basic principle of the scientific tradition on which so much that we know about our world is based. In a science-based world that has answered most formerly thought-provoking questions about how natural phenomena occur, people turn back to the basic unanswered questions: Who am I? Why am I here? And… what is life supposed to resemble anyway?
The explanations I have given above are by no means new. They show how Buddhism has adhered to the needs and demands of the modern-day Westerner, and many people before me have recognized these developments. But I think that there is another explanation to why Buddhism has gained so much popularity in the West that has been left unexplored.
It is the theory of cultural imperialism. In the past decades many cultures have been influenced by the United States. People from all over the world watch American movies, wear American clothes, go to American fast-food chains and are altogether influenced by American culture. But as the economic hegemony of the West in general and the United States in particular is slowly crumbling away, Asian and/or Chinese culture might be receiving more interest. As Buddhism is originally Asian, this might be the reason that Buddhism is becoming so mainstream. It seems ironic, but maybe a religion that is based in rejecting a material lifestyle, is gaining popularity based on the way the economy is shifting.