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.

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10 responses to “Why is Buddhism so popular in the West?”

  1. Milindu Panduka says :

    I’m a chirstian but now I’m a budhism

  2. Sanne says :


  3. MediaTantrik says :

    Yes, indeed. I could not help but contrast Buddhism, a version of higher Hindu philosophy, to me) with the Judaic faith systems (conventional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) .

    1. Buddhism is non-theistic, whereas the judaic faiths are monotheistic.

    2. Buddhism proposes peace and compassion to all living things, whereas the Judaic faiths have had a history of violence to humans and animals (animal sacrifices in Islam and Judaism, ancient genocidal wars, the Crusades, Islamic and Christian colonialism).

    3. Buddhism believes in the cycle of birth and reincarnation. The earth is purgatory, in a sense. The Judaic faiths believe that this is the one life we have, and after that, heaven, hell, or perhaps even purgatory.

    4. Buddhism believes in the Middle Way, and not being too attached to seeking perfection, either. The Judaic faiths believe in perfection. In the case of Christianity, we are made perfect through the sacrifice of Christ.

    5. in Buddhism, we are taught the dissolution of the self as we ‘merge with the universe’ to put it simply. In the Judaic faiths, our ‘egos’ continue to afterlife. In Buddhism, our material selves are dissolved. in the Judaic systems, our material selves are restored after death.

    6. Buddhism, as Hinduism, is democratic. Noone escapes the universal principles of karma and dharma. One can be an atheist, a Jew, or believe in messianic aliens. One remains a Buddhist. In Hinduism we call it Santanaya, the Eternal Law.

    I think the West grew weary of the institutionalisation of Christianity, the hypocrisy and brutality that has emerged from its own revisiting of history, the loss of the real message of Christ (love) to that of the politicisation of faith, socio-cultural hegemony, abuse of power and the subjugating message of fear and judgement.

    In spite of Christ’s message to not be attached to this world and focus on compassion and love, Christianity has been appropriated by Constantinople and the Church as a means of social and political control. We seek a return to the spirit, and a spiritual catharsis from the dogma and institutions the West has established.
    I personally am both, in a sense, Christian and Buddhist.

    • Sanne says :

      Well said! I’m sure there are many Christian Buddhists (ChristBu or Buddhian) in the West, just as Jewish Buddhists (JewBu or Buddhish?). I have yet to come across some Muslim Buddhists, but I’m sure they’re out there too!

      • MediaTantrik says :

        Well, to a Buddhist/Hindu all Moslems are Buddhists/Hindus. Santanaya. As far as mystical ecumenical Moslems are concerned, they might identify with particular ecumenical sects of Sufism. Moslems and Hindus both regard Shirdi Sai Baba as a saint, and is venerated at his shrine by both. Some regard him as an incarnation of Krishna, while others regard him as a Sufi who has achieved enlightenment. (He is not to be confused with Satya Sai Baba who died recently, leaving behind a controversial legacy amidst allegations of a few types.) The Sikh Guru Nanik also attempted to repair this chasm between Hindus and Muslims in his day. It is said that the Golden Temple in Amritsar has four different entrances, North South East and West, signifying its openness to people from all walks of life and faiths.

    • Dr. Sukhbir Mahajan says :

      You have made many good points. However, there is no god or soul in Buddhism. To say it a version of higher Hindu philosophy is Not true. There is no cast system in Buddhism. And ther are priests to direct your life etc.

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