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.


Cartoon (c)Mark Stivers

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. 

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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