Buddhism: A New American Icon?


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Aug 4, 2023


Apr 7, 2009

This article first appeared in the Christian Research REPORT, volume 11, issue 2 (March/April 1998). For further information, go to http://www.equip.org


For the past century Buddhist teachers and priests have publicly shared their beliefs both within the Asian-American communities and among other American racial groups. Indeed, Zen and Nichiren Buddhism have converted tens of thousands of Americans in the past several decades. Nevertheless, the presence of Buddhism has been particularly evident during the past year.

Buddhism in America- Not Just the Rich and Famous

The branch of Buddhism that has captured the most attention in the past year is Tibetan Buddhism. Besides the countless articles that have appeared in magazines and newspapers about the Dalai Lama and the plight of Buddhists in Tibet, several major motion pictures have focused on this charismatic leader and his oppressed country. They include Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, and Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese. Moreover, Hollywood celebrities, such as Richard Gere and Steven Seagal, have vigorously campaigned for their spiritual guide, the Dalai Lama.

Other well-known Americans who have embraced the Buddhist philosophy and have publicly testified to the merits of other branches of Buddhism include pop singer Tina Turner (Nichiren Buddhism) and the coach of the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson (Zen Buddhism). In addition, several popular rock groups, such as the Beastie Boys, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins, openly promote Buddhist teachings.

Corporate advertising agencies are also not hesitant about featuring their products with serene Buddhist monks, which happen to pitch not just the desirability of their products but an alluring image of Buddhism as well. IBM and Gatorade stand out in this regard.

Exponents of Buddhism stand not only in the public spotlight but also in the conference rooms of American businesses, in the classrooms of public schools, and in the family rooms of many American homes. Buddhist speakers have enthralled many motivational consultants who conduct seminars on relaxation for corporate executives and educators. They have also inspired Buddhist enthusiasts to share their new beliefs with their family, friends, and neighbors. It is no wonder many believe that Buddhism has become a new American icon.

Buddhism in America- At the Heart of the Issue

What is wrong with a religious leader of another faith gently asking people to learn inner peace and deal with others compassionately? Isn’t that what we see Buddhists doing in films and commercials? Wouldn’t Christians be narrow minded and self-righteous to condemn such presentations? Why be alarmed by what is probably just another passing fad for Americans anyway?

It would be very easy for non-Christians to hurl these questions at Christians in order to box us in a corner and keep our mouths shut. In fact, that is what is frequently occurring, and far too often these people succeed. Yet there is at stake a far more important issue than how we perceive another religion as it appears in our pop culture. Indeed, the Dalai Lama frequently addresses this issue himself, clearly stating that the central doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity are not compatible. You cannot be a Buddhist Christian or a Christian Buddhist, he notes, as many people strive to be in our society.

At the heart of the Buddhist faith is the belief that no individual has a soul. Since people think they have a soul, they are rooted in ignorance and are in bondage to the desire to please one’s “self,” which results in suffering, sorrow, and anguish. We are truly enlightened when we finally believe we have no soul. Nevertheless, Buddhists still believe in some sort of reincarnation; only they assert it is not the soul that is reborn, but rather elements of one’s former identity.

Associated with the no-soul or no-self doctrine is the teaching of the Buddha that asserts that the search for and devotion to a particular god is a major hindrance to attaining true enlightenment. It is actually a false hungering of a soul that really does not exist. Instead, such a faith reinforces the illusion that there is a soul. A weakness in this Buddhist teaching is that most devout Buddhists in the world pay homage to some supernatural figure, whether it is a deity (one of the many Buddhas) or a renown holy man or ancestor in the distant past. Even a Buddhist longs to know his or her Creator.

Finally, what is the ultimate spiritual goal of a true Buddhist? No matter what school of Buddhism is at question, the summit of the mountain is nothingness — like the candle flame that is blown out. It is being totally extinguished. At that point there will be no more illusions, no more suffering and pain to endure, and no more deaths to experience. Yet there will also be no more truths to be learned, no more love to express, and no more life to enjoy with the Creator who made us so we might be His eternal, beloved children.

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