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The Branding of Buddhism

posted by Jerry Kolber

One thing that the Buddhist community doesn’t seem to think about very much is branding.  Gasp! Branding and Buddhism? I’m sure some Buddhists would find this hideously inappropriate, and they may be right.  But, following up on my post two weeks ago about how to bring the incredible benefits of regular meditation practice to a larger contemporary audience (i.e. beyond the velvet roped circle of artists and smart people that seem to mostly practice in the West)  it’s time to talk about Brand Buddhism.  Here’s a few ideas I have about how the philosophies of Buddhism can really grow and take root over the next few years beyond the limited community that currently practices.

Stivers-2-11-05-Meditator.gif

Cartoon (c)Mark Stivers www.markstivers.com



1. Present Buddhism as a way to think about life, rather than a religion.
Even some of the most “non secular” Buddhist organizations still feel
“religiulous” to an outsider, with images of deities, mandalas,
Buddhas, and chimes. While these may be important elements of ritual
for some, and just plain awesome and inspiring for those with a deeper practice, the core practice of Buddhism – sitting down and noticing
your thoughts – can be practiced even sitting alone under a tree. Or so I’ve heard.  It
requires nothing, no equipment, and no ritual.

The running craze took
off in the early 70’s because of two simultaneous things – Dr. Kenneth
Cooper’s widely and well-received research on the benefits of a regular
practice of cardiovascular excercise, and the easy and cheap
availibility of running gear thanks to Bill Bowerman (Nike).   It was considered great excercise that
anyone can do anywhere, and tens of millions of people have become
regular runners. It would not be hard for Buddhism to achieve the same
kind of cultural trajectory.  Running had to shed its trappings of
grueling track miles and spiked shoes and coaches to penetrate the
mainstream. Buddhism may have to do the same.

2. Lose the Buddha
Sure the whole thing is named after the dude and inspired by his
teachings. But just as Jesus Christ didn’t mean to have his crucified
image used as a weapon of mass distraction, neither did Buddha intend
for his smiling image to become a symbol of whatever it’s meant to
symbolize.  When most folks see Buddha, they see a foreign and
unfamiliar face that speaks of mysterious eastern religions – oooooo, Buddhists.   Buddhism
in America is at the long end of the initial boom sparked in the 60’s
among intellectuals and artists who craved that elite connection with the east. 
Now it’s time for Buddhism to be cool just because regular
contemplative practice is cool – it means you know better who you are
and how to be in the world.  Image is everything, and unless we figure
out a way to make the image of the Buddha hip and cool, we’d be better
off figuring out some other way to present the techniques without the
awesome smiling face of our Eastern inspiration.

3.  Push the benefits, price, and ease of use
People love getting amazing returns on their time and money.  Buddhism
is free, takes only 10 to 30 minutes a day depending on the depth of
your practice, and delivers benefits far beyond anything you can
imagine.  Peace, compassion, insight, stress reduction, healthier minds
and bodies – all can be had from a regular practice of sitting
meditiation. Yes, the benefits are interdpendent and affect others
around you, but people get hooked based on the benefits to themselves.
Make it clear that it’s accessible and useful for everyone, no matter
income level, education level, or where you live. 

4.Accessorize
Buddhism can be presented as the ultimate lifestyle accessory. It
doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or practice no
organized religion – Buddhism is mind-science that complements and
accessorizes any other spiritual or philosophical technique.  With the
right branding and advertising Buddhism can be the iPod of
philosophies, cool first then avilable at WalMart three years later.

Prosletyzing Buddhism and telling people they “should” do it is counter to the very nature of the practice. But embracing smart techniques for making it relevant to contemporary life as a philosophy that anyone can get into, because the philosophy IS the space between your own thoughts, seems right on the money. 

Maybe the brand is (Mi)ndfulness? or BeHere? 

What other ideas are there for making Buddhism broaden its appeal?  Does the thought of Buddhism being as available as an iPod at WalMart make you cringe or make you excited? Why?



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gza

posted September 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm


The point I’ve always tried to make is, if you’re going to pull a few elements out of the larger context in an effort to popularize them, it would be far cleaner, easier, more sensible, more effective, and less confusing for everyone concerned if it is called something other than “Buddhism.”
Which is pretty much what people like Jon Kabat Zinn are doing with Mindfulness Meditation. That is the way to go I think.



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Jerry Kolber

posted September 9, 2009 at 4:40 pm


Gza – isn’t the question though – What is this thing called Buddhism that you are pulling elements out of ? Isn’t what you label Buddhism not exactly (or in some cases, remotely like) what other people call Buddhism?



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gza

posted September 9, 2009 at 6:37 pm


The “Buddhism is whatever anyone says it is” approach is not prudent. There may not be one version of Buddhism that all lineages agree on, but there is a spectrum of elements that all lineages draw from. And individually, each lineage has its own integrity and 2,500 years of precedents.
If you want a tabula rasa, better to start with new name. Far less confusion.



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David Bartlett

posted September 9, 2009 at 7:27 pm


If the goal is “to bring the incredible benefits of regular meditation practice to a larger contemporary audience” which is the practice of “sitting down and noticing your thoughts” then “telling people they ‘should’ do it is counter to the very nature of the practice.”
What is Branding? “A Brand is a product, service, or concept that is publicly distinguished from other products, services, or concepts so that it can be easily communicated and usually marketed. A brand name is the name of the distinctive product, service, or concept. Branding is the process of creating and disseminating the brand name. Branding can be applied to the entire corporate identity as well as to individual product and service names.” from whatis.com an award winning IT business site.
Meditation is possibly a “distinctive product, service, or concept”, but
is meditation,”easily communicated” and do we want, “the process of… disseminating the brand… applied to the entire corporate identity.”
Society has no precedent of understanding branding other than the promotion of a corporate identity. I think branding is “telling people they ‘should’ do it.”
Unless we consider the idea of branding meditation as a way to undermine the whole nature of branding to be the promotion of peace and not capital gains, which is the bottom line of every corporation.
I do agree, “to bring the incredible benefits of regular meditation practice to a larger contemporary audience,” then we need to consider through what avenues the practice can be found and,”It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or practice no organized religion…”– meditation,”is mind-science that complements…any other spiritual or philosophical technique.”
There are many traditions of contemplation and meditation throughout the world, so how do we encourage each person in their own process to discover peace?
How does our being and actions inspire others to this goal?
Is peace scientific, philosophical or religious?



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Sandy G

posted September 10, 2009 at 8:24 am


We call it OM yoga (wink, wink;) and we use the term “middle path”. Go to OM yoga 826 Broadway in NY and see what I mean. The only Buddha there is painted subtly on the wall of each class room next to the Dedication of Merit. If you have a meditation practice, this style of yoga I for you:)



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Damaris

posted September 10, 2009 at 9:39 am


It sounds like a great sell and I guess that’s the reason why I feel uneasy about it.
You know the story about the difference between a dog and a tiger.
The dog looks toward the object that has been thrown while the tiger looks for the object that threw it.
The dog will go for the product. The tiger will ask – Who owns this brand?
Branding is also about ownership and the accumulation of wealth. Who will own “21 Century Buddhism” ?
It’s kind of like some yoga communities. The “Downward Dog, Inc.” with their unique brand and their insistence in controlling what “they’ve created” ( really did they do it all by themselves?).
What’s the incentive for doing it this way? – Ownership and Profit.
When you start thinking about it in that way you start strategizing for the optimal way. Then you start thinking about who are the optimal people? and that’s where it starts to get tricky and aggression becomes one of the vehicles used.
Think about Buddha and how he went around India teaching anyone who asked and according to their level. I’m sure there where bumbling students who didn’t appear to get it in the socially accepted way.
I’m sure there are stories like that somewhere.
Finally, I remember going to a yoga studio that appeared to have the best situation. They even had a working kitchen with cooking classes. The basic open house class teacher was a young guy who could not have been older than 25. There was a woman new to yoga who look around 50 , fat and sweaty. I noticed he couldn’t even look in her direction while he was fully engage with the more youthful and young. When she had trouble with simple poses he was so disturbed he couldn’t find a way to communicate with her about what was needed. It was clear he was disgusted. It’s was clear that she was ashamed.
Who knows what courage it took for her to go to that class.
That school had all the right images. It said all the right things. I’m sure the ultimate intention was good but he didn’t have the time nor the heart and someone who really needed yoga was left behind.
I paid my $20 and bought a book. I never went back and I’ve never been interested in reading the book. I doubt that woman had the strength to return.
Btw – what Gza wrote makes sense.



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Nancy

posted September 10, 2009 at 11:01 am


you’re talking about meditation divorced from Buddhist principles — suffering, impermanence, no self. and that’s already happening in a big way culturally. it’s called “mindfulness.” Oprah promotes it. tons of best-selling authors profit off their version of it. It used to bother me to listen to friends sing the praises of Eckhart Tolle or some other author who’s basically re-packaging Buddhist meditation practice, but then I realized that any increase in mindfulness is a good thing. most hospitals/health care places offer mindfulness based stress reduction, and even my gym has meditation classes.
Buddhism is something different, for those who want to go deeper into awareness and explore what they become aware of in their mindfulness meditation.
let mindfulness bring people to awareness. don’t water down Buddhism to do it.
oh, and I bought a T-shirt with a huge picture of Buddha at Old Navy last year. The image of Buddha is a popular icon, all over fashion, so #2 is out of date.
unless the whole post is snarky, and once again I’ve missed the sarcasm and taken a post here seriously in error.



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Damaris

posted September 10, 2009 at 11:49 am


@Nancy – your last sentence is priceless. LOL



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dana c.

posted September 10, 2009 at 12:12 pm


I appreciate your post and the well thought out comments. THe idea of branding Buddhism does not cause me to *gasp*; to my mind, Buddhism already has a 2500 year old brand – peace, kindness, personal commitment, ancient wisdom. Also, I see branding efforts by various buddhist groups all the time. This is also not new. (See Tibetan politics, Zen schools) You are, in fact, touching on an ongoing question for many contemporary sanghas – how to attract more people to the benefits of buddhist meditation practice without proselytizing.
I agree with Nancy, who points out that what you’re talking about already exists as “mindfulness” has already been trademarked as “mindfulness based stress reduction,” has been re-packaged and sold by Tolle, and has been endorsed by none other than the Great Validator, Oprah Winfrey. Go with that, if you must. If you need to “lose the buddha”, then lose the buddha entirely and don’t call your enterprise buddhist at all, because Buddhism is really NOT just “a mind-science that complements and accessorizes any other spiritual or philosophical technique.” Also, (and I know this may be a hugely unpopular thing to say) it DOES matter “if you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim…” At the end of the day theism and non-theism are incompatible. ONe needs to make a choice. By reducing buddhism to the product you’re suggesting, you risk completely negating the importance of lineage, which, last time I checked, is right up there with sitting quietly under a tree.



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Auntie Seldoen

posted September 10, 2009 at 1:42 pm


What Nancy said sums up my own thoughts on the matter. Given the amount of discussion in the online Buddhist world about the westernization of Buddhism, I will assume you are being provocatively ironic. And if you aren’t, might I suggest that “NObelief.net” might be a more suitable venue for your posts? :-)



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ellen9

posted September 10, 2009 at 2:10 pm


Dana C., I’ve thought about the theist/nontheist issue too. As possibly the only existent Italian JuBu, I wonder about decisions one way or the other.
Finally, I heard a respected Buddhist teacher say,
“Kuan-Yin doesn’t exist. But if you ask her to help you, she will.”



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Jerry Kolber

posted September 10, 2009 at 2:23 pm


No, I’m not being ironic. Some of the commenters here are making quite a logical leap to say that branding Buddhism is already done, because Eckhart Tolle is promoting his own thing on Oprah. “Mindfulness” is Buddhism reduced to self-directed present moment awareness for personal bliss and relaxation – nothing wrong with that, but it’s maybe a small first step towards the ideas of interdependence and compassion that Buddhism is focused on.
@Dana – you are building your concern about my ideas based on commenter Nancy’s suggestion that what I am suggesting is the “mindfulness” promoted on Oprah etc. Feel free to take issue with Nancy on her terms, but please don’t conflate my desire to spread the benefits of Buddhism to a wider audience with her incorrect assertion that this has already happened because of Oprah. Buddhism – even stripped of its religious context – is a far deeper practice than Western mindfulness stress-reduction meditation.
I did not intend, though suspected, that this post would cause some horrified reactions and gasps.
Nancy you say that “Buddhism is really NOT just “a mind-science that complements and accessorizes any other spiritual or philosophical technique.” Also, (and I know this may be a hugely unpopular thing to say) it DOES matter “if you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim…” At the end of the day theism and non-theism are incompatible.”
Maybe – maybe not. You are making a pretty sweeping decision for everyone who is theistic and everyone who practices Buddhism at the end of your post.
There are many examples of religious (theistic) people who have deeply incorporated Buddhist teachings into their lives and the lives of their churches and temples. Likewise, there are many examples of people who leave their theistic tradition when they engage with Buddhism. It’s a flexible practice that offers incredible benefits to anyone no matter where they are on their path, and I absolutely stand by statement that is a mind-science that offers benefits to anyone no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they hold.
In fact, if I do nothing else for the next few months with my space here at Beliefnet other than help clarify that Buddhism is not a religion, I’ll feel that my time was well spent.



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Evelyn

posted September 10, 2009 at 3:48 pm


Actually, Buddhist contemplative practice as an accessory can actually help non-Buddhist’s strengthen ties to their church:
http://www.denverpost.com/ci_13023827



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Nancy

posted September 10, 2009 at 5:48 pm


You’ve attributed Dana’s comments to me.Therefore, I am not “making a pretty sweeping decision for everyone who is theistic and everyone who practices Buddhism at the end of your post.” I avoid sweeping whenever possible.
I disagree with idea the Buddhism is a “mind science,” but if that works for you, then use it. calling it a mind-science, in my view, doesn’t take into account compassion and the heart-core dharma aspect.



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Anan E. Maus

posted September 10, 2009 at 6:08 pm


Paramahansa Yogananda was once asked about promoting spirituality. The idea was if it was taboo to do so. He responded by saying something like, well, if Wrigley’s advertises to sell gum (and that is supremely unimportant), why would it be wrong to advertise spirituality?
So, generally, I don’t think it is wrong to promote spirituality. People are promoting everything else…and all sorts of destructive things for people, why would it be wrong to try and compete with the negative influences.
At the same time, we don’t want to diminish spirituality by watering it down to please a mass crowd.
If you want to promote your ideas of spirituality, that is always fine. However, I would maintain some caution about choosing to promote what you view as spirituality as Buddhism. I mean, if you want to excise the personality of Buddha, I don’t think it would be fair to call it Buddhism.
You can do so anyway, if you choose, but just in the general sense of fairness…why do so?
There is a 2500 year history of Buddhism referencing Buddha. Why would there be a need to excise him?
This reminds me of an incident at my mother’s house. When we had a seder. My brother, who is in UU and is an atheist, decided to run the service with his impression of what Passover meant. I felt that to be extremely rude. It is a Holiday for people who believe in God, and people who believe in God do not need to have outsiders dictate to them what their own tradition is.
In the same way, Buddhists really do not need anyone to excise Buddha, and then promote that as Buddhism.
So, forget about spirituality for a moment. Just in the sense of say, Buddhism as a “club.” If you want to excise Buddha from Buddhism, you really are no longer a member of that “club.” It is fine to start your own, new club, but to present that new club as Buddhism, is, I think a bit licentious, no?
Or, say you began this blog. And someone else came along and said, you know…this is not the real One City blog The real One City blog is a blog about conservative politics and the worship of Buddha as a deity. How would you feel? Would that be your place?
You have to understand that this is exactly how some Buddhists will feel about that kind of effort.
Why is it necessary to call it Buddhism? If you want to call it something else, that is fine.



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Your Name

posted September 10, 2009 at 6:48 pm


useless back and forth



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Abambagibus

posted September 10, 2009 at 8:04 pm


Buddhism as accessory completely misses the point. But, since the analytically dimensionless point is thought irrelevant to minds synthetically dimensioning themselves into a spatiotemporal illusion, Buddhism as accessory is sure to take hold anyway. Still, the path that leads to no path is ever sure to follow, eventually.



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David

posted September 11, 2009 at 1:05 am


But Ana, Buddhism is not about worshipping Buddha. He didn’t do it, so why should we? The icons, the statues the chanting, that all came later. Buddha just sat and thunk (sp?) The idea as far as I can see is not to excise Buddha from Buddhism but to excise the statues and icons. It’s good to remember who came up with the idea, but the thought of Buddha as god is repellent to me. If you want to believe in God, go for it, but Buddha did not set himself up as one. We should absolutely give him credit for what he achieved, and look up to him as a teacher and an ideal. But worship? I think not.



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Rinchen Gyatso

posted September 11, 2009 at 6:00 am


“Prosletyzing Buddhism and telling people they “should” do it is counter to the very nature of the practice.”
The Buddha himself, when there were 61 Bikkhus in the newly formed Sangha, sent each of his disciples out to preach, all in different directions. So it is not counter to the practice at all, though it may be counter to some modern western Buddhist’s sensibilities.



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Jerry Kolber

posted September 11, 2009 at 9:06 am


Nancy – sorry about the incorrect attribution. I too, avoid sweeping whenever possible.
David -exactly!! that’s my point. put much better than I did.
How can we hold up this idea of what Buddhism must be, when the dude it’s named after just sat under a tree, meditated, and taught people?



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assaji

posted September 11, 2009 at 10:11 am


Oh dear, yet another westerner trying to change Buddhism to fit into his westernism.



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Ethan

posted September 11, 2009 at 10:40 am


“But, since the analytically dimensionless point is thought irrelevant to minds synthetically dimensioning themselves into a spatiotemporal illusion, Buddhism as accessory is sure to take hold anyway. Still, the path that leads to no path is ever sure to follow, eventually.”
Abambagibus wins most abstract comment of the month with the above.



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Ethan

posted September 11, 2009 at 10:53 am


@Assaji: Everyone changes Buddhism to fit in with their culture. You think Rinzai Zen is what Siddhartha taught? Or Tibetan Buddhism has anything culturally similar to Ancient Northern India? Or Nichiren? Not even close. Buddhism has now made by far the largest cultural leap in its history. The things proposed by Jerry are pretty minor is relation to the cultural leap.
I think we bristle at the term brand because we relate it to advertising, which is a science of perception that unfortunately has been used for empty profit motive. But everything and everyone has a brand, as in a feel or lifestyle or mode of expression that they skillfully or unskillfully present to others and the world. I relate to the word “Brand” as mode of expressing our values. To not contemplate brand is wrong speech. at the Interdependence Project, we have to think about our brand constantly, precisely BECAUSE we want to help people. I have had many conversations with friends, leaders, and teachers in the Shambhala community about brand as well.
Re: Dropping the Buddha. I think the notion of “Buddha as narrative archetype” is helpful. But Buddha as Statue needs to be re-examined. Buddha as Idol was always an idea dead on arrival, as you mentioned. However, many asian buddhist communities seemed to miss this point.
Great discussion!



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ellen9

posted September 11, 2009 at 11:20 am


I think “brand” is a difficult word because it seems almost inextricable from consumerism, which many equate with materialism. So “branding” buddhism seems awfully close to spiritual materialism.



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A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

posted September 11, 2009 at 11:35 am


Nice grenade, Ethan. =)
I’ll make a useful response, then a useless compulsive response.
Useful response: Many young people like myself who grew up on Kung Fu movies and The Matrix find the exoticism of Buddhism attractive. Don’t forget, in your surgical approach to Buddhism, how useful the exotic Asian Buddhist brand has been. Why did Alan Watts dress up in Japanese clothing to give lectures? Because Asiaphiles liked it!
Useless compulsive response: Buddhism’s survived a long time because it’s been a religion — a practice with monastics, bells, incense, rituals, etc. — since the time of the Buddha, whereas philosophies come and go in generations, transforming no one. Who practices Krishnamurtism now? For the self-centered who fear religions because they require devotion to something outside our small selves, “Buddhism is a philosophy” is a comforting idea, one that doesn’t threaten the ego, and you can select texts that support this idea. But when you actually walk into a Buddhist temple you need a very unconventional definition of “philosophy” to make the word fit what you see. The word “religion” fits naturally. I’ll concede that Buddhism is a more philosophy-like religion than most, but it’s still closer to other religions, in practice, than to other philosophies. Do existentialists chant texts, wear robes, and bow to altars…? No, but Catholics and Buddhists do.
-Jiryu



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Jon

posted September 11, 2009 at 12:01 pm


The best way to make Buddhism more relevant is if the people practicing it become authentic and powerful from using the methods. Nothing teaches better than ‘by example’. If we popularize too much we lose the continuity of our history and (in some traditions) very necessary transmissions that come from the Buddha himself (read Donald Lopez for some recent thinking on this). Our lineages are the oldest forms of ‘quality control’ and if we discard them too casually we run the risk of just being populist and new agey. For sure we can change the rituals but we should gain mastery of the teachings first before re-branding Buddhism’s ‘essence’
Also Buddhism should not be politically cliquey. People should feel that they learn how to think not what to think when they come to our centers. Western Buddhists should challenge themselves to be socially relevant without being political as organizations. Engaged Buddhism is a misinterpretation of the Bodhisattva promise when its applied to our institutions because its in effect creating a ‘Buddhist Left’ which will kill us when our shared political views change or fall out of fashion. Our focus should be more on personal development and less on politics. As individuals develop then can participate in politics, their jobs, or society in ways relevant to them that are INFORMED by their Buddhist practice and not dictated by their sangha. If we accomplish this I bet you Buddhism can live a long time in the west.



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Michael

posted September 11, 2009 at 3:08 pm


Hey Ethan. I was reeeeally skeptical when I saw the title of the blog, but I think you are keying in to some vitally significant observations. I’m especially emphatic about points #1 and #4. I think that people need to understand that the point of Buddhism—unlike Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.—is NOT to cultivate faith in deities or preachers, but to learn to see clearly for ones’ self (which thus organically permits an escape from suffering). I think that many, many, many in the non-Buddhist world view Buddhism as inherently threatening or anti to their religion, de facto. It is not. John Powers, among others, talks explicitly about how a person’s dharma might include Islam or Christianity, etc.—that Buddhism does not try in any way to rip someone from their dharma, whatever it might be. So, yeah, I think that “pitching” Buddhism in a way that clearly articulates the non-threat of Buddhism to religion is vital in order to permit Buddhism to prosper in the midst of more fundamentalist religious communities.
Also, in concert with point #3, I think it would be well to continue and perpetuate the dialog between western science and Buddhism. I think this will give increasing credibility to the contemplative path in the minds of western culture.



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Ethan

posted September 11, 2009 at 4:06 pm


Michael: I am not the author of this article. We have over a dozen bloggers. The author’s name (Jerry Kolber) is always listed on the piece.
Be well!



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Michael

posted September 11, 2009 at 5:26 pm


10-4!



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athene

posted September 11, 2009 at 8:15 pm


Wow, this is such a moving topic. I think of Buddhism as a religion, it’s also a philosophy and a way of life, not to mention it’s a “mind science”. It seems to incorporate all that someone would look for.
As a long time practitioner I will honestly agree that at some point adopting what we call Buddhism will not fit or be congruent with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, but a lot of the practices are non-religious, life enhancing and specifically geared to just becoming more awake, mindful, cognizant and appreciative of our precious human condition. There is not much dogma or blind belief in the Buddha’s teachings, but there is a lot of love and kindness for oneself and others. That is what most religions teach, so there are many teachings compatible with followers of other faiths.
There will be a time when one runs into a wall with Buddhism, as some of the philosophy is completely foreign and can be confusing when one references or adheres to certain concepts of soul, eternity, heaven, hell, good/bad, guilt, shame and even the concept of self-love ( this is not about ego). In Buddhist teachings these words are not so straight forward, there is a depth of understanding that is lost or hidden to those who just read words and assume an understanding. It isn’t an intellectual understanding, but a heart and mind function that really is beyond words. It is a path that shakes you to the core of your being, it’s in your face and doesn’t allow escape. It asks all the time ” who are you” and doesn’t accept quick answers or beliefs as a stop-gap to continuing to be what you have been.
There is no shaming or compulsive thinking ” I am bad”, it’s loving and at the same time quite judging but in an asking way “is this you?”, but everyone is left intact, no one is excommunicated or abandoned because of a flaw. Acknowledge the flaws. Buddhism can be complicated or simple to practice. It embraces everyone, regardless of their religious faith, there are so many teachings that address the human condition and they aren’t all centered on religion. They are just wisdom teachings suitable for all people.
For me this is the only path I could have taken. I can’t say that branding Buddhism would be a good thing. Buddhism will always be relevant as it goes to the heart and penetrates the mind. It’s not entertainment, it’s not feel good therapy, stress reduction, self-esteem building exercises or getting in touch with ourselves in some superficial way. It’s been a journey to find out who and what I really am, at the deepest level. For me it’s been sometimes frightening, fearful, disappointing, glorious, inspiring, boring, illuminating, crazy-making, humbling in many ways and in all ways, very expansive. Buddha dharma is not something one would seek to make available to everyone ( we don’t proselytize), it isn’t that anyone is trying to keep anything secret. I would like to know why Christianity, Judaism. Islam, Hinduism are not the topic of branding. Why is dharma such an open field? What makes Buddhist thought and philosophy something anyone would want to brand ? That seems quite creepy on some level and disrepectful. Why does anyone feel okay with watering down and creating a McBuddha with this tradition?



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Sharon

posted September 12, 2009 at 11:16 pm


I think you’re right on Jerry.
What attracted me to Buddhism, at the risk of sounding [insert something negative here], is exactly what you wrote about in your post. So if I am perhaps a member of your targeted demographic–someone who even occasionally finds the ID project, as you put it, on the “religulous” side (however I also think it’s great and am a monthly donor), then as I said–you’re right on.



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Christopher Mohr

posted September 14, 2009 at 5:44 am


what kind of ridiculous nonsense is this? You say you want to spread Buddhism to a wider audience but you also say proselytizing is against the very nature of Buddhism? You can’t have it both ways. And watering the Teaching down will not make Buddhism any more attractive. Mainstream Buddhist schools (particularly Mahayana) are doing very well in the West. Why? Because they offer a teaching that is attractive to the general Western audience without being diluted down. If you have a problem with Buddhism being religious and being a religion, then that’s a problem with you and religion. We have no need to “brand” Buddhism, or to take away from it the central religious charateristics therein just to raise numbers. We have no need to “popularize” Buddhism in the ways you describe just to fit your particular views on what Buddhism could be and we have no need to change Buddhism just because a bunch of old hippies don’t like the implications of a religion being religious, and not conforming to their New Agey views. Seriously. If you don’t like Buddhism the way it is, find something else. I’m sure there is something out there.
And your comment that you can practice Buddhism by yourself, just sitting and thinking is off base. Even in Vipasana and Theravada, the community (sangha) is essential. That myth has been perpetuated about as much as the one spread since the 1800’s that says Buddhism isn’t a religion but a philosophy. Both are nonsense.



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Jerry Kolber

posted September 14, 2009 at 7:59 am


@Christopher –
Please examine why you are having such a visceral response to my ideas. Think about the difference between leading by example, vs. proselytizing. I have friends and family who have asked me about my practice and how to learn about it because they have seen a change in me. I do not go around telling people I attempt to practice what the Buddha taught, or that I have a regular meditation practice. If someone asks what’s different about me, I offer my own experience and leave the door open. This is a far cry from proselytizing. If, when asked, I can point my contemporary friends and family to resources that do not have Sanskrit words and lineage-specific rituals, they are more likely to engage in the practice to the benefit of themselves and the community. I know this is true.
I am always surprised when someone who practices tries so rigorously to defend their lineage-specific expression of Buddhism as The One True Way. The fact that there are so many lineages, some of which consider themselves religious and some that do not, each with their own “brand” of Buddhism, supports what I am saying and Ethan and others pointed out above – Buddhism can (and does) evolve in a cultural context in order to best serve the needs of a given time and place. To put the question back to you, since there are so many lineages, each with a varying degree of “dedication” to the original teachings, please tell us which of them is watered down and which are authentic and pure.
At no point did I say Buddhism should be practiced by yourself – I merely pointed out that the core of the teaching revolves around examining space between your thoughts. Of course, a teacher and community to help you understand the practice and go deeper into the nature of reality is advised, as is studying as much of the philosophy as possible and discussing it. But is it essential? Is your suggestion that Buddhism would fail if I were alone on an island, or in isolation in a prison? I think the technique would still work and I am cautious of telling someone who cannot join a sangha or find a proper teacher that they cannot practice what the Buddha taught.
I have nothing against religion; for many people, a rigorous system of ritual and devotion and deity is what is appropriate for their spiritual life – whether they practice fully or merely find its existence comforting, if it works for them that’s great. And if you want to engage in a manifestation of Buddhism that you prefer to call religion, more power to you.
But for me, what resonates about Buddha is not a theological system or extensive internal religious hierarchy. I resonate with his desire to liberate all beings from their suffering, and the specific technique and teachings he proposed for doing so. I find I am able to practice these techniques and learn (slowly, slowly) the teachings more adequately in a non-religious study of Buddhism than a religious one, but I don’t think that waters down the Buddha’s intention to teach me how to liberate all beings from their suffering. I was curious about Buddhism for years, but every attempt I made to study it came with way too much Eastern baggage (see earlier comment about Alan Watts and robes) and it wasn’t until I found the IDP that I found a place where I could study in a way that didn’t feel separate and disconnected from the rest of my life.
And, by the way, we are not old hippies. Okay maybe some of us are. But we are also young (and not so young and in between) hippies, hipsters, regular people, business people, artists, men, women, straight, gay, in between, married, single, serious, fun, well dressed and couldn’t care less, type people all struggling with the same issues Siddhartha did and finding some measure of success by degrees with what is often a surprisingly difficult and deceptively simple practice. If you are ever in New York please come join us, or check out our podcast online, I think you would find our approach to the teachings far more meaningful and relevant than I gather you do from your post.
all best
Jerry



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gza

posted September 14, 2009 at 11:59 am


Jerry, i think part of the problem is that it is not very clear from the post who you think should be “rebranding” their Buddhism by removing all of the elements that don’t appeal to you. The ID project? All Buddhist lineages?



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luke

posted September 15, 2009 at 5:15 am


there is a slippery, slippery slope thats leads from trying to cut out “eastern cultural baggage”, to a sly orientalist imperialism and a repackaging of one of the most ancient traditions as a therapy tool. honestly, i don’t know anyone in their right mind from any tradition who thinks that buddhism should just stay the same as it comes to the west. looking back, historically, people don’t change religions (or whatever, faith, way of life) in large numbers because they learn about a new god to pray to or a way to meditate. they are motivated by a vision of social life, (“the kingdom of god is at hand”, or “the true communion of saints is being re-established” or “a world without caste, where nobility is based on your actions and not on your birth” or “an entire movement striving towards not only liberation but buddhahood”). of course, that’s just one factor. but i think buddhism will have its widest and strongest effect when meditation practice is just one part of the appeal of creating a world of compassionate, caring humans. the “baggage”, whatever and wherever that is, will fall away organically as communities strengthen ties in whatever way they see fit. let buddhism be conservative (in “accoutrement”) but forward facing and open. no need for iconoclasm, methinks.



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Jerry Kolber

posted September 15, 2009 at 11:55 am


GZA
There are no elements of Buddhism that I’ve encountered yet they do not appeal to me. My attempts in the past to study Buddhism were met with frustration as most of the organizations and books I encountered had a certain flavor that seemed very foreign to me.
Jer



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gza

posted September 15, 2009 at 4:20 pm


Ok then, to rephrase the question, it is not very clear from the post who you think should be rebranding their Buddhism by “presenting Buddhism as a way to think about life, rather than a religion” and “losing the Buddha.”



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Omar W. Rosales

posted September 16, 2009 at 12:54 pm


When I met His Eminence, the State Oracle of Tibet, the Medium for the Nechung Kuten, the religious master he most quoted was Jesus.
The most important thing is practice. Its not meditation, its not mantras, its practice.
“I’ve come to save the World, not Destroy it.”
“Love One Another, as I have loved You.”
“Love God with all your Heart and all your Soul. This is more important than all burnt offerings and Sacrifice”
“For the Kingdom of Heaven is Within You”
All Rivers lead to the Ocean. But the Secret is in the Practice. So do you practice Buddhism or just talk about it?
Thanks,
– Omar W. Rosales
Author “Elemental Shaman”
http://www.elementalshaman.com



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arunlikhati

posted September 18, 2009 at 12:34 am


I cannot believe that in this entire series of comments, no one bothered to point out the glaring problem with the sentence, “Buddhism in America is at the long end of the initial boom sparked in the 60’s among intellectuals and artists who craved that elite connection with the east.” These words disgust me.



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arunlikhati

posted September 18, 2009 at 12:35 am


I cannot believe that in this entire series of comments, no one bothered to point out the glaring problem with the sentence, “Buddhism in America is at the long end of the initial boom sparked in the 60’s among intellectuals and artists who craved that elite connection with the east.” These words disgust me.



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Adam

posted September 18, 2009 at 3:57 pm


“embracing smart techniques for making it relevant to contemporary life” – that was one good point I found here, though I couldn’t find any good techniques offered in this post. Super Sizing Buddhism for the masses isn’t the right approach.



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Kozan

posted September 20, 2009 at 5:43 pm


I see no problem with branding your own contemplative practice. If one divorces Buddhism from the spiritual and religious roots, dropping all iconography, monastic practice, precepts, etc…, fine. At that point it is not Buddhism anymore, it is something else. Toni Packer went that way long ago in the spirit of Krishnamurti after many years of Zen training under Phillip Kapleau for many years.
The only real problem I see with the whole branding initiative, is that you might have a problem with ownership. Regardless of the particular Buddhist tradition or lineage, these ancient techniques are well documented and known to many, including their root source, in the twenty-first century. Your going to have to go out on a limb and invent something like Genpo Merzel Roshi did, something completely new that he calls ‘Big Mind’, and is trademarked I believe. Although I do not think that term would actually stand up to any real scrutiny in a court of law.
If you choose to go out on a limb, be careful that there aren’t any tigers waiting below. You might find out what it means to lose your self.
Peace – Kozan



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