Buddhisms: Lived and Portrayed Traditions

Buddhisms: Lived and Portrayed Traditions

By David G. McAfee


            Within the United States of America, Buddhism is a commonly misunderstood or misinterpreted religious tradition. The American media’s portrayal of Buddhism is one way to account for incongruities between how the tradition is understood and how it is actually practiced, but there are many others. Scientists who practice Buddhism or support it have long been attempting to portray a seamless transition between modern scientific discoveries and Buddhist doctrine in which Buddhism not only confirms these discoveries but also allows for further investigation and research.[1] The American misconceptions of Buddhism as a superiorly peaceful, exotic, and pure philosophical viewpoint are easily diminished upon further research of Buddhist doctrine and background as overwhelming evidence that contradicts these fantasized and romanticized views is commonly unveiled upon elaboration on historical and current events. Popular culture has morphed Buddhist principles to western ideals including, but not limited to, areas ranging from Buddhist practices involving race, science, and warfare.

           Race in Buddhism can be seen as a primary source of confusion and conflict for anyone attempting to learn more about Buddhist history and current events. Whether the incident called into question is an ethnocentric ethnographer studying the ways the primitive “oriental” or the sweeping generalizations and associations with Asians as Buddhists within American culture, race is a very hot-button issue. The portrayal in American cinema of Buddhists is heavily favored for ascetic, exotic, and foreign monks; this calls attention away from the majority of Buddhist practitioners who are non-ordained, or Lay people. Because of this monastic focus in American pop-culture, Americans begin to associate this lifestyle with the general practice of Buddhism and vice versa. It is a rare occurrence that a television show or advertisement featuring this theme does not further the racial generalizations that already so heavily plague our popular culture. Anthropologists studying Buddhism and Asian traditions are often tinged with religious motives, such as priest and missionary Ippolito Desideri[2] who provided one of the most detailed accounts of the culture in the region of Tibet with ethnocentricity extremely prevalent in the writings. The word oriental itself is another racially and culturally loaded term, meaning that it has a specific history and implication when the word is used. According to Edward Said, the term Orientalism refers to the “imaginative process used to signify the other.[3]Some researchers and ethnographers, such as Donald Lopez, use orientalism as a slightly less oppressive word; however, one cannot ignore the background and past utilization of the term oriental or what it still means to many people in other cultures.

            Scientific discoveries have sometimes caused conflict in many religious traditions’ histories. Buddhism is not an exception, though many Scientist-Buddhists and media representations of Buddhism would indicate otherwise. A Popular quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, is said to have read “…If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.”[4] Though there is no evidence to prove that Einstein is the originator of this controversial quote, and Albert Einstein himself was not Buddhist, it remains an influential reminder of the attempts to link Buddhism and science. Einstein is not the only great mind that people today are attempting to link to Buddhism, Charles Darwin has also recently been introduced as a figure who agreed with Buddhist doctrines, at least in some respects. Paul Ekman, a psychologist in San Francisco, claims that “Darwin’s views on emotion and compassion were inspired directly by Tibetan Buddhism.”[5] Other comparisons between Darwinian Theory and Buddhist ideas include the idea of evolution as a scientist’s rendition of the Buddhist concept of rebirth and reincarnation into a more perfect form.[6] A more modern example of a Scientist-Buddhist attempting to marry the two concepts is Alan Wallace. Wallace is a scientist who has written and spoken in depth about the similarities between Buddhist and scientific advances, he also speaks about the European religions and their relationships with Science, or lack thereof. The relationship between these two ideas has not always been a healthy one, similarly to the Catholic Church and other major religions, there was once a war between the Buddhist monastic community and scientific discoveries ranging from the invent of the camera, and even a round earth. In Tibet in 1887, a teacher named Sengchen was brutally beaten and drowned for his works with cameras, “magic lanterns”, and working with the British.[7] This is only one example of the separation between Tibetan Buddhism and science in the past, a history that, in our popular culture, is often forgotten.

            In American cultures, Buddhism is often portrayed as an extraordinarily peaceful religion, often depicted in contrast with Western religions’ barbaric nature. It is true that Buddhist doctrine deters acts of violence and shows murder as one of the worst “sins”, however, those same things can be said for the tradition of Christianity (after all, “Thou shall not murder” is the sixth of the bible’s ten commandments.) Though Buddhist traditions (and many other religions) preach peace as the answer to life’s questions, there are also many instances of faith-based killings and other acts of violence justifiable by the Monastic community. Even within Buddha’s own teachings, representations are given of acceptable murders to avoid an even larger chaotic event. Commonly, the perpetrator of the violence in Buddhist history will use Buddhism itself as a tool to not only justify the act, but to dehumanize the victim by using religious beliefs and principles.[8] A history of this practice and general militarization of Buddhism (among the Lay people and within the Monastic community) is a common motif throughout the history of the tradition and is seen in many countries including Japan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Because the canon of Buddhism does universally condemn pranatipata, the act of killing, proper justifications, dehumanization, and protection are usually warranted. When the Hiei-Zan monks, for example, began to wage their holy war, they draped veils over their faces in order to protect themselves from the judgment of their own religion.[9] These acts are rarely seen in American representations of Buddhism and that is part of the reason that understandings of the Buddhist lived tradition is skewed in the United States towards an extraordinarily peaceful ideal religion.

            The relationship between Buddhism and America is beginning to change, in that some researchers are bringing to light the common misconceptions of the religion furthered by our pop culture and media representations. In a globalized society, information about Buddhist warfare, Buddhist racism, and scientific disagreements and refutations by Buddhist practitioners are becoming more and more difficult to retain. Though many still see the idealized version of Buddhisms as true, many well-known figures are attempting to show the lived versions as well; this increase in knowledge about the culture is necessary in order to understand our own culture, as well as those of other groups. Most religions have some sort of justified murder, scientific refutation, or racist tendencies that haunt the past, present, and future of the tradition and it is important to understand the Buddhism is not an exception. In practice, Buddhism is not superior or inferior to other traditions, nor is it extremely different and exotic as it is often portrayed; it is simply another way of looking at the world. Whether or not the misconceptions about Buddhism in the United States of America negatively affect the Buddhist community, they still exist, and they are continually built upon by the culture of television shows, advertisements, and even scientists with agendas for increasing popularity of American Buddhisms.


Demieville, Paul. “Buddhism and War.” Translated by Michelle Kendall in Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, 21-76 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Jerryson, Michael. “Lecture 17: Buddhisms and War.” RS 4: Intro to Buddhism. March 3, 2009.

Jerryson, Michael. “Lecture 18: Buddhisms  and Science.” RS 4: Intro to Buddhism. March 5, 2009.

Jerryson, Michael. “Lecture 19: Buddhisms and Race.” RS 4: Intro to Buddhism. March 10, 2009.

Lopez, Donald.  “Foreigner at the Lama’s Feet.” In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, 251-295. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Lopez, Donald. “Introduction.” In Buddhism & Science, 1-37. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[1] Jerryson, “Lecture 18”, 7.

[2] Lopez, “Foreigner”, 342.

[3] Jerryson, “Lecture 19”, 4.

[4] Lopez, “Introduction”, 311.

[5] Jerryson, “Lecture 18”, 1.

[6] Jerryson, “Lecture 18”, 9.

[7] Jerryson, “Lecture 18”, 12.

[8] Jerryson, “Lecture 17”, 16.

[9] Demieville, “Buddhism and War”, 255.



5 responses to “Buddhisms: Lived and Portrayed Traditions

  1. Brilliant piece, David. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Buddhist Religious Violence Worsens In Burma: Report | The Secular Writings of David G. McAfee

  3. Pingback: Buddhists Impose 2-Child Limit On Muslims In Burma | The Secular Writings of David G. McAfee

  4. Pingback: Christianity isn’t a Relationship, It’s Still a Religion - Atheist Boutique

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