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The Dalai Lamas Influence on American Culture Research Paper

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Updated: May 7th, 2020


One of the most peculiar aspects of a contemporary living in America is the fact that, even though this country has traditionally been considered closely affiliated with Judeo-Christianity, the influences of Buddhism become ever more apparent, within what accounts for the discursive framework of American culture. This phenomenon has remained the subject of ethno-cultural research for quite some time now.

Nevertheless, even though the growing popularity of the Buddhist philosophy in the U.S. is being commonly referred to in terms of a ‘thing in itself’, there are many reasons to think of it, as something that was predetermined by the socio-economic dynamics in today’s America. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while expounding on what should be deemed the actual significance of how Buddhism affects the country’s cultural and social realities.

Main Body

During the course of the Dalai Lama’s last few visits to the U.S., it was noted that, as time goes on, more and more Americans begin to perceive him as their own spiritual leader, and not as merely the symbol of Tibet’s struggle to gain independence from China. This, of course, can be seen as the clearest proof that the Buddhist teachings do in fact correlate with the existential anxieties of the growing number of Americans. However, there are also many subtle indications that this indeed being the case, mainly concerned with how Buddhism finds its way into the currently predominant socio-cultural discourse in America. The main of them can be formulated as follows:

Buddhism exerts much influence on the discourse of environmentalism in the U.S.

The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the growing rate of the environmental awareness among Americans, extrapolated by their emotional comfortableness with the idea of the so-called ‘ethical consumerism’. According to it, while deciding in favor of buying a particular product, people must remain mindful of what may account for the would-be effects of their purchasing choice on the surrounding natural environment.

This idea, of course, is fully consistent with Buddhism, as a religion-philosophy that teaches that, instead of trying to subjectify themselves within the surrounding reality, people should seek becoming thoroughly ‘blended’ with it. Therefore, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that it is namely people’s familiarity with the main philosophical provisions of Buddhism, which sets them on the path of becoming ‘ethical consumers’.

As Daniels noted: “Environmental, economic, ethical and cosmological dimensions of Buddhism represent a logical and practical basis for reducing the climate change pressures deriving from prevailing global modes of production and consumption” (952).

After all, as many discursively relevant sociological studies indicate, the measure of one’s commitment towards buying ‘ethically produced’ goods (such as ‘organic food’, for example), positively correlates the rate of the concerned person’s intellectual advancement. Essentially the same correlation can be found, within the context of how Americans define their attitudes towards the ideas of Buddhism – the more educated a particular person happened to be, the more likely it will be for him or her to find these ideas appealing.

Buddhism became the integral part of American pop-culture.

Despite the fact that American pop-culture continues to remain essentially euro-centric, during the course of the last few decades (ever since the 20th century’s seventies), it never ceased becoming increasingly associated with the unmistakably Orientalist themes and motifs. As Van Biema, David, McDowell and Ostling pointed out: “Type Buddhism into the search engine of amazon.com, the Internet bookstore, and it spits back 1,200 titles, from scriptures to modern inspirational writings to a robust selection of cookbooks” (52).

Partially, this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that the mentioned themes and motifs do represent a certain appeal to Americans, in the sense of being utterly exotic. The concerned exoticism is brought about by the sheer incompatibility between the American/Western (ego-driven) mode of people’s existence, and the Orientalist/Buddhist one, which is supposed to reflect one’s conscious desire to apply a continual effort into suppressing its own ego.

Because the purveyors of American pop-culture have always been interested in ensuring the strong emotional appeal of this culture’s expressions, it does not come as a particular surprise that many of these individuals have made a deliberate point in associating themselves with Buddhism, at least in the formal sense of this word. Such a move, on their part, did make much logical sense – it is in people’s nature to perceive exotic things as being particularly attractive.

In this respect, we can refer to such American celebrities as Oliver Stone, Courtney Love, Harrison Ford and Richard Gere – while remaining at the center of public attention (due to their celebrity-status); these individuals continue to apply much effort into promoting the ideas of Buddhism among Americans. It is understood, of course, that this contributes to the popularization of the Buddhist teachings in America rather substantially.

Buddhism became embedded into the methodological paradigm of psychotherapy.

Nowadays, it does not represent much of a secret that, as time goes on, more and more Americans grow increasingly dependent on being provided with the psychotherapeutic counseling, as such that helps them to address the challenges of a post-industrial living. This explains the growing social demand for psychologists in today’s America – this development appears to have been predetermined by the discursive implications of the ongoing process of Globalization.

In this respect, Buddhism comes in rather handy – the philosophy’s conceptual premise contains clues, as to what can be considered the best strategy for a psychotherapist to proceed with helping patients to deal with their subliminal anxieties. According to Finn and Rubin: “The basic psychotherapeutic listening technique is completely in line with the fundamental Buddhist stance in meditation- that is, evenly hovering attention. A therapist, like a meditator, attends to his or her experience without judgment. Listening in this way increases receptivity to the depths of the client’s material” (361).

There is, however, even more to it – many American psychotherapists think of the Buddhist insights into how one’s psyche operates, as such that are being thoroughly consistent with the conventions of classical psychoanalysis.

The reason for this is quite apparent – the Buddhist assumption that one’s animalistic desire/craving is the actual cause of suffering, conveys essentially the same message, as it happened to be the case with the psychoanalytic convention that a person’s unconscious desires define the workings of his or her conscious mind. The most peculiar thing about is that, while counseled, most Americans do not even suspect that, during the course of the process, they are being prompted to adopt nothing short of the Buddhist outlook on the surrounding reality and their place in it.

Buddhism contributes towards the emergence of new anti-consumerist subcultures in America.

The fact that this is indeed being the case can be illustrated, in regards to the emergence of the so-called ‘Beat’ subculture in the seventies. The founders of this subculture (Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) were practicing Buddhists. Even though that the majority of those who used to consider themselves being affiliated with the ‘Beat’, did not have anything to do with Buddhism (in the factual sense of this word), they nevertheless could not help adopting ‘ego-destroying’ lifestyles.

In its turn, this was extrapolated by these people’s tendency not to concern themselves with the thoughts of enrichment, by their tolerance towards the opinions of the others, and by their refusal to subscribe to the rationale-based conventions of existential appropriateness. The reason for this is apparent – once affiliated with Buddhism, one will naturally be tempted to question whether people’s obsession with trying to earn as much money, as possible, does make any good sense, whatsoever.

In this respect, Barnhill came up with the perfectly legitimate observation: “Buddhism… can give us a vision of a social and political alternative, one that is based not on the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion but on generosity, compassion, and wisdom” (56).

This, of course, helps to explain why it became a commonplace practice, among the participants of anti-Globalist public rallies, to fly Tibetan flags. Apparently, these flags do not merely symbolize the anti-Globalists’ favorable attitude towards the idea that Tibet should be granted independence, but also their overall discontent with the actual message, conveyed by the notion of ‘American dream’ – the true worth of just about anyone is reflective of the amount of money that he or she happened to have in the bank.

Buddhism plays an active role in the process of the American society’s religious fabric being progressively transformed.

As of today, Buddhism is estimated to be the fourth most popular religion in the U.S. (after Christianity, Islam and Judaism). What is particularly notable, in this respect, is that, unlike what it happened to be the case with the adherents of the mentioned monotheistic religions, the affiliates of Buddhism consist primarily of Asian-Americans, on one hand, and of ‘progressive’ (educated, politically-correct, agnostic) Whites, on the other.

This, of course, should prove an asset, within the context of how Buddhism will go about trying to expand its ‘religious niche’ in America. The reason for this is that the representatives of the mentioned populations contribute the most towards the generation of what can be deemed as the country’s ‘national intellectual product’, which in turn increases the rate of their social empowerment.

Partially, this explains why many intellectually advanced Americans tend to perceive the referral ‘Buddhist’; as such that connotes the sheer ‘coolness’ of the denoted object. It is understood, of course, that this contributes even further towards the continual legitimization of Buddhism in the U.S.

After having been told of the above-clues, as to what can be considered the signs of Buddhism’s intrusion into the socio-cultural life of America, one will naturally wonder about what were the objective preconditions, which predetermined the growing popularity of this philosophy-religion in the New World. Nowadays, this subject matter is being most commonly discussed, in relation to the fact that, ever since the end of the WW2, the number of Asian immigrants in the U.S. continued to grow in the exponential progression to the flow of time (Wuthnow and Cadge 368).

The mentioned point of view, however, cannot be referred to as anything else but being much too simplistic. After all, the dramatic increase of Buddhism’s popularity in America took place through the seventies – well after the time when Asian immigrants started to appear in big numbers in this country. What it means is that there must be a phenomenological explanation to why the philosophy-religion in question continues to be considered utterly attractive by the growing number of Americans.

Such an explanation does exist. Its main thesis can be formulated as follows: The rising popularity of Buddhism in America is the direct consequence of the ongoing process of American society becoming increasingly urbanized, which up until recently used to allow Americans to generate the ever-increased amounts of wealth. Initially, the proposed explanation may appear being deprived of any rationale, whatsoever. The reason for this is that the values of greed-driven consumerism, commonly associated with the American way of life, stand in the striking opposition to the values of ‘holistic’ existence, promoted by Buddhism.

Yet, this naturally arising inconsistency will prove illusionary, once we mention what accounts for the main characteristic of one’s thoroughly urbanized lifestyle – the concerned individual’s emotional detachment from the tribal conventions of a rural living. The most important of these conventions relates to the assumption that people must value their family-relationships above everything else. After all, the physical survival of rural dwellers does in fact often depend on their ability to cooperate – especially during the time of drought or flooding.

In its turn, this explains the presence of many tribal motifs (such as the one, concerned with suggesting that God favors solely his ‘chosen people’) in all three of the world’s major religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. These motifs, however, do not correlate with the unconscious anxieties of American urbanites, as those that happened to be associated with the highly self-centric and intellectually liberated lifestyles.

Therefore, it is rather unsurprising that, as time goes on, the mentioned monotheistic religions continue to lose their appeal in the country’s highly urbanized regions. It also makes a perfectly good sense that this process is being closely followed by the rising popularity of Buddhism in the same regions. Because it is concerned with promoting the idea of ‘energetic harmony’, Buddhism does have what it takes to tempt the mentioned categories citizens.

Thus, for as long as we refer to the American (Western) version of Buddhism, this philosophy-religion is best described in terms of a secular lifestyle. After all, unlike what it is being the case with the purpose of adopting just about any monotheistic religion, Americans do not adopt Buddhism to transform their essence, as individuals, but rather to emphasize their existential identity, which in turn happen to be reflective of these people’s taste for consumerism.

In this respect, we can only agree with Thelle, who noted that: “The superficial attraction to Eastern ways may seem to involve a religious interest, but in many cases it is just a picturesque addition to a secular lifestyle that is not supposed to be changed by the Eastern touch” (72). We can say that by affiliating themselves with the ideas of Buddhism, Americans strive not be seen as being merely consumers, but rather ‘cool’ consumers.

As Royal aptly suggested: “Cool functions as a discourse that reins in potential threats to consumer capitalism, by re-working them representationally into the circuits of consumption. The notion of cool becomes especially necessary in developed economies… it stokes the coals of the economy through fashion” (12). In its turn, this explains why, contrary to what it should have been the case, many of the social manifestations of Buddhism in America appear to be essentially concerned with the generation of commercial profit.

The validity of this idea can be illustrated, in regards to the famous ‘ozone-hole scare’ (experienced by Americans in the late eighties), due to the emergence of ozone holes in the atmosphere over Antarctica. What contributed to this scare rather substantially is that the Dalai Lama himself had expressed his concerns about the sheer danger of the occurrence in question.

Nowadays, however, it became perfectly clear to just about anyone that the mentioned ‘ozone-hole scare’ was artificially induced by the DuPont Corporation, as the mean of addressing the expiration of its patent on producing Freon-based sprays (Schiermeier 383). This, of course, can be interpreted as the example of how the American-based transnational corporations go about taking advantage of the increased levels of the environmental awareness among Americans, which in turn came about as one of the consequences of the process of this country’s citizens becoming increasingly familiarized with the ideas of Buddhism.

Another good example, in this respect, can serve the functioning of the organization Greenpeace, which proclaims itself committed to the ‘holistic’ (Buddhist) idea of keeping the planet pollution-free. The reason for this is that, as practice indicates, this organization uses the mentioned environmental agenda, on its part, as the legitimizing excuse to proceed with extorting money out of what Greenpeace claims to be the ‘environmentally unfriendly businesses’.

Thus, it will only be natural to suggest that, contrary to what it is being commonly assumed, the growing popularity of Buddhism in America should not be seen as the sign of ‘spiritual awakening’, on the part of Americans. Rather, it should be referred to as yet additional indication that, just as it always used to be the case, American society continues to remain preoccupied with consumption, as the main purpose of its existence.


I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in regards to what accounts for the cultural/social influence of Buddhism on contemporary America, and to what can be considered this influence’s discursive significance, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis.

Apparently, it will indeed prove thoroughly appropriate to suggest that there is the quality of ambivalence to how the concerned philosophy-religion manifests itself in this country. On one hand, it encourages the affiliated citizens to adopt a tolerant/environmentally-friendly stance in life. On the other, however, it contributes to the process of American society becoming increasingly consumerist, which in turn has a negative effect on this society’s structural integrity.

As a result, the state of environmental affairs in America suffers a considerable deal of damage. For as long as the government manages to prevent the American economy from collapsing (due to the enormous budget deficit), this situation is likely to persist into the future. After all, as it happened to be the case with just about any quasi-religious ideas, the ideas of Buddhism can be adjusted to endorse the ‘values’ of consumerism and to justify the consumerist-minded people’s tendency to indulge in the bellyful idling, as their main priority in life.

Works Cited

Barnhill, David. “Good Work: An Engaged Buddhist Response to the Dilemmas of Consumerism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 24 (2004): 55-63. Print.

Daniels, Peter L. “Climate Change, Economics and Buddhism: An Integrated Environmental Analysis Framework.” Ecological Economics 69.5 (2010): 952-961. Print.

Finn, Mark and Jeffrey Rubin. “Psychotherapy with Buddhists.” Handbook of Psychotherapy and Religious Diversity. Eds. Scott Richards and Allen Bergin. Washington: American Psychological Association, 2014. 347-369. Print.

Royal, James. “Buddhism and the Production of American Cool.” Order No. 3467709 University of Florida, 2009. Print.

Thelle, Notto. “The ‘Humanization’ of Buddhism: Aspects of Western Adaptations of Buddhism.” Ching Feng 10.1 (2011): 67-79. Print.

Van Biema, David, Jeanne McDowell and Richard Ostling. “Buddhism in America.” Time International (South Pacific Edition) 49.1 (1997): 50-55. Print.

Schiermeier, Quirin. “Chemists Poke Holes in Ozone Theory.” Nature 449.7161 (2007): 382-383. Print.

Wuthnow, Robert and Wendy Cadge. “Buddhists and Buddhism In The United States: The Scope of Influence.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43.3 (2004): 363-380. Print.

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