Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism
Mawkish1983
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Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by Mawkish1983 » Sat Apr 18, 2015 5:47 pm

Sorry if this has been discussed before. I do not want this thread turning into a battle between sides.

I have noticed that there is more awareness of Tibetan-style Buddhism* than Theravada in the UK. Tibetan-style meditation centres are more common, and when I've spoken with practitioners, they tend to have very little awareness of Theravada at all; sometimes going as far as saying that Mahayana and Hinayana [sic] are the same.

Does anyone have any hypothesis why this is the case?

*(I'm carefully not using the word 'Vajrayana' here because I do not know enough about it to state whether that is what I'm seeing in the UK)

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by Coyote » Sat Apr 18, 2015 5:50 pm

Perhaps it is something to do with the popularity and presence of the Dalai Lama?
"If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving & sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of miserliness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared."
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by paul » Sat Apr 18, 2015 6:05 pm

The reason is because Tibetan has a large devotional component, with colours, mandalas and the bodhisattva ideal, which emphasises compassion and which appeals to a broader mass of people.
Theravada is essentially mental in character and is characterised by a psychological understanding of human nature and emphasises a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness through insight, with individual responsibility; it is 'plain'.

The devotional path (Hindu: bhakti yoga) appeals to the mass of people; even in Theravada ethnic practice is mainly devotional.
The path of insight (jhana yoga) has less adherents.
Last edited by paul on Sat Apr 18, 2015 7:53 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by DNS » Sat Apr 18, 2015 6:15 pm

Here are some of my hypotheses:

1. Tibetan Buddhism has nice flashy, beautiful colors, their altars, their robes, their temples, better ambiance.
2. The popularity of the Dalai Lama and other high-profile Rinpoches.
3. The allure of Tibet, an exotic culture, a shangri-la ambiance place that is appealing to Westerners who were not raised in a very religious environment.
4. The greater use of community found at their temples and centers (family programs, community programs).

One or more of the above or most likely all of the above. None of the above meant to be anything derogatory, in fact I admire their use of community.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by acinteyyo » Sat Apr 18, 2015 6:27 pm

I also think it may have much to do with the popularity of the Dalai Lama.
When I started the first time to look for buddhist literature years ago the only books I've found in book stores were books on Tibetan Buddhism and books by the Dalai Lama. It was my first book on the 4NT by the Dalai Lama which brought me to buddhism.

best wishes, acinteyyo
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by dhammarelax » Sat Apr 18, 2015 6:30 pm

Mawkish1983 wrote:Sorry if this has been discussed before. I do not want this thread turning into a battle between sides.

I have noticed that there is more awareness of Tibetan-style Buddhism* than Theravada in the UK. Tibetan-style meditation centres are more common, and when I've spoken with practitioners, they tend to have very little awareness of Theravada at all; sometimes going as far as saying that Mahayana and Hinayana [sic] are the same.

Does anyone have any hypothesis why this is the case?

*(I'm carefully not using the word 'Vajrayana' here because I do not know enough about it to state whether that is what I'm seeing in the UK)
From Ven. Dhammikas Broken Buddha (http://www.buddhistische-gesellschaft-b ... dhanew.pdf" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;):

“If further evidence is needed for the richness of the Tibetan contemplative tradition and the poverty
of its Theravadin equivalent, one only need look at the literature produced by each. Sri Lanka has
been a Buddhist country for about two thousand two hundred years and yet did not produce any
meditation manuals or practical works on meditation until the 20th century.”

“Despite popular perception to the contrary meditation is very rare in Theravada. Spiro says, ‘
(V)ery few village monks ever meditate, and only a hand full even claim that they do. Typically, the
y plead lack of time. The situation differs little in the larger urbane monasteries. In Mandalay, accordi
ng to an official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, no more than 15 per cent of monks spend an
y time at all in meditation.”

“I agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi when he says, ‘The main reasons (Zen and Tibetan Buddhism) have gained in popularity over the Theravada is, I believe, because within their fold the lineage of meditation has
been kept more alive than in mainstream Theravada...rarely do (Theravadin monks in the West)
exhibit the same degree of spiritual vitality as the Mahayana and Vajrayana masters.”

“Anthropologist Martin Southwold found that amongst the Sri Lankan lay people he interviewed
meditation was a euphemism for sleeping and that many ‘village Buddhists, especially men, and
including some of the clergy, regard the practice with derision.’

“ Most Theravadins will side with Buddhaghosa’s interpretation even where it contradicts the Buddha
’s words. The situation is in some ways similar to pre-Reformation Christianity where church tradit
ion was considered more authoritative than scripture.”

“In Europe the church had various bodies to scrutinize new interpretations of doctrine to make sure
they accorded with orthodoxy. Nothing like this was needed in Theravada, there was nothing new.
Monks frequently quarreled over the interpretation of Vinaya rules but rarely over points of
Dhamma. They also produced extraordinarily little literature of enduring value. The Milindapanha
, the Visuddhimagga and the Abhidhammatthasangha are amongst the few Theravadin works still
widely read or studied today, the rest of the literature being either so excruciatingly dull,
superfluous or pedantic that it adds little or nothing to an understanding of the Dhamma. It is a very
meager harvest after two thousand years of scholarship.”

“Many Christians will have a Bible and the more devote will read it regularly. All Jewish boys will
be tutored in the Torah in preparation for their Bah Mitzvah. Muslims will read the Koran and even
be able to recite parts by heart. The vast majority of Theravadin lay people and a good number of
monks too, have never read the Tipitaka. When Mahayana Buddhism came to China and Tibet the
monks diligently translated all the sutras into the common tongue, a task that continued for several
centuries and one which stands as perhaps the greatest translation undertaking in history. Nothing
comparable to this ever happened in Theravadin countries.”

“Even Buddhaghosa did not really believe that Theravada practice could lead to Nirvana. His Visuddhimagga is supposed to be a detailed, step by step guide to enlightenment. And yet in the postscript he says he hopes that the merit he has earned by writing the Visuddhimagga will allow him to be reborn in heaven, abide there until Metteyya appears, hear his teaching and then attain enlightenment. Thus we have the extraordinary and I believe unprecedented situation where the majority of people adhering to a religion, including many of its clergy, freely admit that their religion cannot lead to its intended goal. Is it surprising that so many monks seem to be lacking in conviction?”

Hope it helps.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by Mawkish1983 » Sat Apr 18, 2015 7:04 pm

My goodness, reading these suggestions makes me wonder why any of us practice Theravada at all!

The thing that I'm still unsure of though: sure Tibetan-style Buddhism is flashier and more appealing, but given the choice we (meaning participants to this forum who do practice Theravada) have still chosen Theravada. Is it that other practitioners haven't been given the choice, or that they were and just chose differently?

Let me elaborate: in my experience, in every gathering of Theravadins, be it in fleshspace or cyberspace, there is always, at some point, Mahayanist input. We have seen various interpretations of the Buddha's teachings and chosen the one that we believe suits us. Some of us at DW have chosen a Theravada path, others a Mahayana path, some a mixture, some purely secular psychology, and so on. But we've seen the different interpretations and made a choice. In general, are individuals whose first exposure to Buddhism was via a Tibetan-style meditation group exposed to the same breadth of interpretations as those who discovered Buddhism via the Theravada?

It seems odd to me that Tibetan-style Buddhism is the default.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by Bakmoon » Sat Apr 18, 2015 7:40 pm

A lot of this kind of thing isn't necessarily general across the western world. For example in the U.S. there's a much larger presence of Chinese Chan and different types of Japanese Zen than there is in the U.K. and as a result Buddhists tend to be more eclectic in the U.S. with a lot of them considering themselves just to be general Buddhists who draw from whatever tradition they like.
The non-doing of any evil,
The performance of what's skillful,
The cleansing of one's own mind:
This is the Buddhas' teaching.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by Zom » Sat Apr 18, 2015 7:41 pm

The answer is very simple and the key term is "eternalism" .) Eternal existence in the form of enlightened being with incredible power appeals to most of people, this idea (for them) is even better than eternal life in christian heaven.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by daverupa » Sat Apr 18, 2015 7:49 pm

Zom wrote:The answer is very simple and the key term is "eternalism" .) Eternal existence in the form of enlightened being with incredible power appeals to most of people, this idea (for them) is even better than eternal life in christian heaven.
This is about the size of what I see, as well.
  • "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Apr 18, 2015 8:14 pm

dhammarelax wrote:
From Ven. Dhammikas Broken Buddha:

“If further evidence is needed for the richness of the Tibetan contemplative tradition and the poverty
of its Theravadin equivalent, one only need look at the literature produced by each. Sri Lanka has
been a Buddhist country for about two thousand two hundred years and yet did not produce any
meditation manuals or practical works on meditation until the 20th century.”
Well, of course there is the Visuddhimagga, which he mentions later, which is about 2000 or so years old and is probably the equal of any Mahayana manual in terms of detail and thoroughness. He does, unwittingly, make a point that western converts have not made much effort to understand their traditional sources, and hence downplay, or are openly hostile to them, whereas Mahayana converts revel in the stories of Bhoddhidhamma, etc.

I'm not sure about manuals from a few hundred years ago. Those may exist untranslated. However, practical manuals from the likes of Ledi Sayadaw exist from the late 1800s.
“Even Buddhaghosa did not really believe that Theravada practice could lead to Nirvana. His Visuddhimagga is supposed to be a detailed, step by step guide to enlightenment. And yet in the postscript he says he hopes that the merit he has earned by writing the Visuddhimagga will allow him to be reborn in heaven, abide there until Metteyya appears, hear his teaching and then attain enlightenment. Thus we have the extraordinary and I believe unprecedented situation where the majority of people adhering to a religion, including many of its clergy, freely admit that their religion cannot lead to its intended goal. Is it surprising that so many monks seem to be lacking in conviction?”
This is simply a misreading. It's a note by a scribe, not Buddhaghosa.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhaghosa#Critics

:anjali:
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Apr 18, 2015 8:24 pm

David N. Snyder wrote:Here are some of my hypotheses:

1. Tibetan Buddhism has nice flashy, beautiful colors, their altars, their robes, their temples, better ambiance.
2. The popularity of the Dalai Lama and other high-profile Rinpoches.
3. The allure of Tibet, an exotic culture, a shangri-la ambiance place that is appealing to Westerners who were not raised in a very religious environment.
4. The greater use of community found at their temples and centers (family programs, community programs).

One or more of the above or most likely all of the above. None of the above meant to be anything derogatory, in fact I admire their use of community.
These are good points. On point 4, that is, of course, the case for Chinese, Thai, Sri Lankan, etc communities as well. The difference is that there are plenty of Chinese, Thai, and Sri Lanans in the West and so they have little need to reach out to the general community for support (though of course they are happy if the general community turns up). For the Tibetans, support from the Western community is crucial.

:anjali:
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by Goofaholix » Sat Apr 18, 2015 8:27 pm

I doubt whether your observation is actually the case, at least not everywhere.

One of the main reasons that Theravada may be less visible is that recognising that most westerners are interested in meditation more than religion teachers have played down or dropped the religious aspects in favour of the meditation practices, so we have several Theravada based offshoots Insight Meditation, Goenka Vipassana, MBSR etc.

Where I come I'm aware there are lots of small Tibetan groups, but other than New Kadampa they aren't as visible as Theravada which has half a dozen temples of various sizes.

Have a look at the volume of Dhamma talks on Dhamma Seed http://www.dharmaseed.org/talks/" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false; these all come from retreats or public meetings, I doubt there is anything like that for Vajrayana, I know I've come up empty handed when looking for something similar for Zen.

Have a look at the Buddhanet directory for your country http://www.buddhanet.info/wbd/search.ph ... &tradition" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;[]=vajrayana I get 6 pages for Vajrayana, 5 pages for Theravada, and 5 pages of Non Sectarian/mixed (I'm guessing a high proportion of the latter are Theravada offshoots.
“Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.” ― Ajahn Chah

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Apr 18, 2015 9:10 pm

Good points. In my city there are a lot more Western practitioners who would label themselves "insight meditators" rather than "Theravada Buddhist", though their approach is mainly Theravada.

:anjali:
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by Bakmoon » Sat Apr 18, 2015 9:27 pm

mikenz66 wrote:
dhammarelax wrote:
From Ven. Dhammikas Broken Buddha:

“If further evidence is needed for the richness of the Tibetan contemplative tradition and the poverty
of its Theravadin equivalent, one only need look at the literature produced by each. Sri Lanka has
been a Buddhist country for about two thousand two hundred years and yet did not produce any
meditation manuals or practical works on meditation until the 20th century.”
Well, of course there is the Visuddhimagga, which he mentions later, which is about 2000 or so years old and is probably the equal of any Mahayana manual in terms of detail and thoroughness. He does, unwittingly, make a point that western converts have not made much effort to understand their traditional sources, and hence downplay, or are openly hostile to them, whereas Mahayana converts revel in the stories of Bhoddhidhamma, etc.
There's also the issue that a lot of the literature in Theravada countries simply hasn't received much attention at all, especially writings that don't fit the common way that Theravada is often seen, so books like the Yogavacara or the Triphummikata don't get talked about.

Also it's important to remember that Theravada countries (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) are all tropical countries that get a lot of moisture, and most of the literature was written on palm leaf manuscripts that disintegrate extremely quickly, so there's a good chance that good amounts of literature that were composed have simply been lost.

Plus, the historical divide between forest monks and city monks means that a lot of the practical meditation teachings would have just been passed down orally anyways.
The non-doing of any evil,
The performance of what's skillful,
The cleansing of one's own mind:
This is the Buddhas' teaching.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by rohana » Sat Apr 18, 2015 10:09 pm

dhammarelax wrote:
Mawkish1983 wrote:Sorry if this has been discussed before. I do not want this thread turning into a battle between sides.

I have noticed that there is more awareness of Tibetan-style Buddhism* than Theravada in the UK. Tibetan-style meditation centres are more common, and when I've spoken with practitioners, they tend to have very little awareness of Theravada at all; sometimes going as far as saying that Mahayana and Hinayana [sic] are the same.

Does anyone have any hypothesis why this is the case?

*(I'm carefully not using the word 'Vajrayana' here because I do not know enough about it to state whether that is what I'm seeing in the UK)
From Ven. Dhammikas Broken Buddha (http://www.buddhistische-gesellschaft-b ... dhanew.pdf" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;):

...
I wonder why Ven. Dhammika chooses to apply a rose-colored-glasses view towards the Tibetan tradition but not the other. His statement about the Visuddhimagga is just really poor scholarship on his part.
Zom wrote:The answer is very simple and the key term is "eternalism" .) Eternal existence in the form of enlightened being with incredible power appeals to most of people, this idea (for them) is even better than eternal life in christian heaven.
I think there's some truth here, and another point would be the lack of strict ethical boundaries (at least that's what it seems like from an outsider's view) - i.e. using the idea of "skillful means" to subvert strict adherence to sīla - which makes it more appealing to the prevailing cultural norms. Some of the views on the Bōdhisattva path reminded me of the "pseudo-prilgrims" story posted by Bhikkhu Dhammanando.
"Delighting in existence, O monks, are gods and men; they are attached to existence, they revel in existence. When the Dhamma for the cessation of existence is being preached to them, their minds do not leap towards it, do not get pleased with it, do not get settled in it, do not find confidence in it. That is how, monks, some lag behind."
- It. p 43

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by soapy3 » Sat Apr 18, 2015 11:12 pm

In addition to the many spot on sounding theories thus far I would like to add that I think part of the problem would be the translations of the Pali Canon thus fur. They sound like a recycled puritanism where life is awful and our natures are suspect, to be "heedful" against,etc. There is next to zero that is obvious in regards to emotional support in situations where people look to religion for emotional support.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by paul » Sat Apr 18, 2015 11:33 pm

dhammarelax wrote: “I agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi when he says, ‘The main reasons (Zen and Tibetan Buddhism) have gained in popularity over the Theravada is, I believe, because within their fold the lineage of meditation has been kept more alive than in mainstream Theravada...rarely do (Theravadin monks in the West)
exhibit the same degree of spiritual vitality as the Mahayana and Vajrayana masters.”
Much as Bikkhu Bodhi's work is valued, he never was a meditator, as meditation literally gave him headaches and he is clearly a scholar-monk. Further, he lived in Sri Lanka which although it does have a few forest meditation monasteries, is known primarily for the preservation of the Pali Canon in written form, the Visuddhimagga and the relatively recent writings of the Western monks, that is, scholarship; so he was not in an environment which was in touch with developments in Theravada meditation. He certainly overlooks the masters of the Thai Forest Tradition, who cannot be said to be lacking in vitality.
"BB: Many new Western Buddhists take the word practice as almost synonymous with meditation and then drive a sharp wedge between study and practice. They assume that if a monk is devoted to scholarship, he can’t be a serious practitioner, as if scholarship were somehow antithetical to real practice. I have to admit that my own meditation practice has fallen far short of my ideal, but I ascribe this largely to a chronic health condition (a personal karmic obstacle with which I must deal) rather than to a dedication to scholarship and a concern to translate the Buddhist scriptures."

http://www.inquiringmind.com/Articles/Translator.html" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
Last edited by paul on Sun Apr 19, 2015 12:32 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by mikenz66 » Sun Apr 19, 2015 12:03 am

Bhikku Bodhi is certainly modest but if you listen to his many excellent online talks it's clear he has considerable mediation experience. His suggestions about dealing with pain and still maintaining a practice are excellent.

Being a "forest monk" doesn't give some automatic superiority and perpetrating these myths is part of the problem being discussed here.

Does someone have a source to see his comments in context?


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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular than Theravada in the west?

Post by Bakmoon » Sun Apr 19, 2015 12:41 am

I have to agree with Mikenz that the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has meditative experience. In his lectures on the Suttas that have meditative instructions in them it seems to me that he draws a lot of his explanations from personal experience (and sometimes very illuminating advice), and he once mentioned about how he noticed once that at a forest monastery he was staying at just how quickly time flies by during walking meditation so that several hours can go by with you hardly noticing, which to me indicates that he must have at the very least some level of samadhi.

While he may not be able to meditate as much as he would like to because of his headaches, how many of us laypeople get as much meditation as we should? And yet we still call ourselves meditatiors, so I think we can give the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi the same courtesy.
The non-doing of any evil,
The performance of what's skillful,
The cleansing of one's own mind:
This is the Buddhas' teaching.

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