The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

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The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by cooran » Mon Feb 13, 2012 7:30 am

Hello all,

I found this of interest:

The Success of Buddhism in the Western World... byAjahn Brahm

I was born a Christian, was educated in Christian schools, and I even sang in the local church choir. But when I read my first book on Buddhism, at the age of 16, I immediately knew I was a Buddhist. I was moved by the compassion, the wisdom, and the freedom that shone more brilliantly in the Lord Buddha's Teachings than in anything else I had met before. Experiences similar to my own are being repeated hundreds of thousands of times, in the lives of the people of this 21st century. When ordinary people in non-Buddhist countries encounter the pure Teachings of Buddhism, presented in a clear and reliable manner, then they quickly recognize it as the most fragrant of all paths, the most precious of all truths, and the best of all religions. They only wonder why such liberating wisdom is not made more widely known.

In my own land, Australia, the number of Buddhists was insignificant in 1983 when I first arrived from Thailand. By 1991 the proportion of Buddhists grew to 0.8%. In 1996, that had increased to 1.1%. Recently, in the Australian Census of August 2001, the number of Buddhists had grown by 75% to 1.9% of the population. That is almost one in fifty Australians declaring themselves to be Buddhists. As the Christian religion declines in the West, Buddhism has become the fastest growing religion in Australia and many other developed countries.

That is good news and bad news. It is good news in that more Australians are benefiting from the world's most peaceful religion. It is bad news in that it means monks like me have to work so much harder with more disciples to look after!

I would now like to suggest why I think Buddhism is growing so well in the West. I will use the acronym PURE to summarize four key strategies that have helped extend the spread of Buddhism:
1. Presentation – in ordinary language
2. User friendly -- inviting and accessible,
3. Relevant -- concerned with everyday Problems
4. Examples -- monks leading by example

1. Presentation

If we want the wonderful Teachings of Buddhism to reach our modern generation, then it needs to be presented in a modern way. It is not the essence of the Dhamma that needs to be changed; it is the presentation that needs continual adjustment. The generations of tomorrow are not going to listen to boring monks droning on giving irrelevant sermons.
We all know that the Lord Buddha said to teach the Dhamma in ordinary language (e.g. Aranavibhanga Sutra). Let me give an example of what I think this means. Last century, Western priests and scholars dismissed Buddhism as pessimistic, saying that it only focuses on suffering. This was even repeated by Pope John Paul II in his controversial book on world religions. To avoid this misunderstanding one may rearrange the central Dhamma Teaching of the Four Noble Truths as Happiness (Dukkhanirodho); the Cause of Happiness (the Eight-Fold Path); the Absence of Happiness (Dukkha); and the Cause for the Absence of Happiness (Craving). This shifts the focus onto happiness.
This is a simple re-packaging of the Dhamma that retains the essence while being more attractive to modern audiences. It is justified by the Lord Buddha's statement that "Nirvana is the highest happiness" (Dhammapada 203, 204). When I present the Four Noble Truths in such a way, I find all generations listen and come back for more.

2. User Friendly
Presenting the Dharma in ordinary language is the first step to making Buddhism user friendly. However, I have found many cases of people, in the West and in the East, who want to learn about Buddhism but are too afraid to come into the temple or monastery because they are not familiar with the traditional customs, or even because they are scared of scowling monks! When Buddhist temples are more welcoming to their visitors, and more accommodating to newcomers, when the monks are more approachable, then the temple is user friendly.
In these modern times, though, people are so busy that they rarely have time to visit the temple. So the temple should go to the people with books, audiocassettes, CDs and, of course, the Internet. Our Buddhist Society of Western Australia has a large web-site that loads weekly spoken Dharma talks in English so that anyone, anywhere in the world can listen to Dhamma in the comfort of their own homes convenient to them. This has been highly successful with a large audience of regular disciples all over the world, with no need for expensive and extravagant buildings.

3. Relevant
Religions like Christianity are declining in the West because they are seen as irrelevant to most people's lives. Few are concerned about abstract philosophy, rituals with no apparent meaning, or with speculations that go against reason. However, they are very concerned about how to find more happiness amid the common problems of life.
I have found it easy to explain that keeping moral precepts raises one's average level of happiness, just as a rising tide lifts the average level of the sea. The result is that many of my audience keep the Five Precepts. It is also not difficult to illustrate that kindness to your colleagues, family and to yourself, brings much more comfort into your life. So my disciples become less angry and more forgiving. There is so much medical evidence to prove that traditional Buddhist meditation practices case the stress of modern life and relieve so many other related problems. So the members of my temple are all keen meditators. These three central Buddhist trainings – morality, kindness and meditation – when framed in the context of personal growth in happiness, attract so many to Buddhism. They relate to what many people consider as important to them.
When we focus on what is relevant to ordinary people, then Buddhism becomes important to them. They might begin with interest in solving their worldly problems, but that soon leads to the Path that liberates one from all suffering.

4. Examples
All this means nothing to the modern generation without high quality leaders to provide the inspiration. The growth of Buddhism relies crucially on living examples of virtuous, compassionate, wise and peaceful monks. People of the 21st century are sceptical. They withhold their belief until they see some evidence that it will benefit them. Does Buddhism help? Does it really lead to virtue, compassion, contentment and freedom? They are looking at us monks for examples of where Buddhism leads, before they will follow. How can we expect to inspire the questioning modern generation when monks live in luxury, more wealthy that the common person, when we are slack in our precepts and know little of serenity? The Dhamma is spread mostly by example, much more powerfully than by any sermon.
As one well-educated Australian wrote in her recent book, before becoming a Buddhist she observed the monks in Perth for many months. When she saw that they were very frugal, kept their precepts, worked hard and were very happy, only then did she go for refuge and start calling herself a Buddhist. Actions speak louder than words.
So, for example, in Western Australia we have established monasteries for training Sangha leaders of both genders, what I call a 'monk factory' and a 'nun factory' By putting many resources into training high quality Sangha leaders we will be ensuring the supply of high quality examples for the next generation.

These are some of the strategies that have worked in Australia to make Buddhism the fastest growing religion there. We do not need to change the message of the Lord Buddha, nor do we need to change the monastic rules. We may fulfil our duty to the Greatest Teacher, our Lord Buddha, and spread the delightful Dhamma throughout all parts of our modern world, by making Buddhism PURE. That is, Presented in ordinary language, User friendly, Relevant, and with us monks as the inspiring Examples. ... world.html" onclick=";return false;

with metta
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by Kim OHara » Mon Feb 13, 2012 11:28 am

To update the figures on Buddhism in Australia:
Wikipedia wrote:Buddhism is now one of the fastest growing religions in Australia. Immigration from Asia has contributed to this, but some people of non-Asian origin have also converted. ...
According to the Australian census in 2006, Buddhism is the largest non-Christian religion in Australia, with 418,000 adherents, or 2.1% of the total population. It was also the fastest growing religion in terms of percentage, having increased its number of adherents by 109.6% since 1996.

Before we get too excited about that growth rate, perhaps we should try to find out how much of it is via immigration and how much from conversion.


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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by Sanghamitta » Mon Feb 13, 2012 11:34 am

And in what proportion of those immigrants is it a living reality rather than a social group indicator.
The going for refuge is the door of entrance to the teachings of the Buddha.

Bhikku Bodhi.

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by retrofuturist » Tue Feb 14, 2012 3:22 am


Good points made, Kim and Sanghamitta.

I can't get too enthused about Ajahn Brahm's attempt to turn the Dhamma on its head by re-framing it as the Four Noble Truths of Happiness. The market-place of things (e.g. goods, services, religions, philosophies, new-age hokum, talk show hosts) offering happiness is massive, but how many things can offer the cessation of suffering? How many things can stand out and appeal to those who are jaded by the other offerings in the immense market-place of happiness, who are starting to wise up to the unsatisfactoriness of these other offerings? "Me too" product placement is hardly a positive point of differentiation.

Retro. :)
"Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education." - Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by DNS » Tue Feb 14, 2012 4:47 pm

I like looking at these statistics as a hobby:" onclick=";return false;

And yes, it is true, that although the numbers of Buddhists are rising in non-Buddhist countries, certainly a large percentage of it is due to immigration. There is conversion, but the majority of the numbers I believe are from immigration, upwards toward even 80% of all Buddhists in non-Buddhist countries are Asian or Asian-descent.

There are roughly about 6 million Buddhists in the U.S., 20% or 1.2 million are not Asian or Asian-descent; which is still pretty good considering there were probably less than 50 in the year 1900.

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by SDC » Tue Feb 14, 2012 5:31 pm

cooran wrote:3. Relevant -- concerned with everyday Problems
This is what was so striking and impressive to me when I first started to learn and practice. It deals with a timeless problem that all must face. It transcends wealth, technology, politics, language, age, race, species, etc.

If there is impermanence the teaching will be relevant.

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by SamBodhi » Tue Feb 14, 2012 5:59 pm

2. User Friendly
This reminds me of when I first became a Buddhist, a friend of mine told me that "You know man...being a Buddhist is hard. I really admire that you are taking it on." It took me a few years to come up with a suitable response other than what I said at the time ("thanks.") Now I would say, "Being a Buddhist is difficult, until you become a Buddhist."

with Metta,
pung S
"An inward-staying
unentangled knowing,
All outward-going knowing
cast aside."
--Upasika Kee Nanayon

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by Alobha » Tue Feb 14, 2012 7:29 pm

Good posting cooran.

Modern Western society tells that happiness is to be achieved by highest recklessness and highest heedlessness.
Modern Theravada tells that happiness is to be achieved by kindness and mindfulness.

Ajahn Brahms interpretations are keeping with the spirit and he has the guts to actually challenge both buddhist and western mindsets. Pretty good if you ask me =)

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by Cal » Tue Feb 14, 2012 10:53 pm

While I have heard and read some helpful things from Ajahn Brahm in the past, I feel his attempt to re-brand the 4 Noble Truths is a bit unfortunate. They've stood the test of time over the last 2500 years, so why re-write them now?

I await his losing a couple of apparently unneccessary steps to make a new, streamlined, Noble "6-fold" Path, and perhaps his attempt to polish the Triple Gem a bit... ;)

If it ain't broke....

Right Speech: It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will. [AN 5.198]

Personally, I seem to gain the most insight when I am under the most pressure, when life is at its most unpleasant. There is something in me on those occasions which feels that there is nothing left but to be aware of 'this'. Ajahn Sumedho - Don't Take Your Life Personally, p288

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by Goofaholix » Tue Feb 14, 2012 11:47 pm

Cal wrote:While I have heard and read some helpful things from Ajahn Brahm in the past, I feel his attempt to re-brand the 4 Noble Truths is a bit unfortunate. They've stood the test of time over the last 2500 years, so why re-write them now?
I agree it's unfortunate. The whole point is that trying to avoid dukkha creates more dukkha, whereas acceptance and embracing dukkha leads to it losing it's power.

Rebranding it to happiness just fuels the idea that avoidance can work.
“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: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by Ferox » Wed Feb 15, 2012 1:16 pm

pretty much sums up my experience as well..east coast USA(NJ born and raised) 12 years of catholic school, alter boy, leader of my youth group, Eucharistic minister.. but It never felt right, never fit into my wold view, the older I get the more I know I was follower of the path, probably in many former lives as well. For many years I considered myself " a scholar of all religions and a practitioner of none" and I would say " if someone put a gun to my head and made me choose I'd choose Buddhism".. wasn't until I was 30 that I fully took the plunge.

I view it as part of my mission in this life to help spread the Dhamma to westerners like me, who are searching for truth like I was. You cannot force the teachings on anyone however, they have to be searching for them first and ready to receive them. By living by the dhamma I know I am an example to others and if they want to learn, I am always there to help.
-just one more being treading the ancient path of Dhamma-

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Re: The Success of Buddhism in the Western World

Post by cooran » Wed Feb 15, 2012 7:45 pm

Hello all,

Ajahn Brahms uses skillful means to get and hold the attention of all types of practitioners and those new to the Buddhist teachings.

Here is his talk to members of the ordained Sangha in a Rains Retreat :

Joy at last to know there is no happiness in the world - A Talk On The First Three Noble Truths
by Ajahn Brahmavamso
(This is an edited version of a talk given during the 1999 Rains Retreat at Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery, near Perth, Western Australia)

......... I'm going to start from there because so often in our practice and in our lives we are seeking for happiness in the world. We seek for happiness in so many areas and in so many ways, always seeking in the wrong place. Eventually we realise that not finding happiness in these places doesn't mean there is something wrong with us. It doesn't mean we are incompetent or hopeless. Insight will show us that there is no way anyone can find happiness in the place we were looking. The mind realises that the world can only be dukkha (suffering). The wise person, instead of being distressed by that suffering and wallowing in it, contemplates what the Lord Buddha says about suffering, the Four Noble Truths. That means, they seek to understand this whole process of suffering. ............ ... _World.htm" onclick=";return false;

with metta
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---

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