The Allure of Buddhism

The Allure of Buddhism

I’ve come to a cultural conclusion: While Hinduism dominates our theology, Buddhism dominates our practice.

Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright, became a best seller in 2017. Four in 10 American adults now say they meditate at least weekly. Major companies like Google, Apple and General Mills have adopted Buddhist meditation programs for their employees.

Which means Buddhism will win the popular mind. There’s an old Latin tag, lex orandi, lex credendi. It literally reads “the law of praying, the law of believing.” The idea is that what is prayed paves the way for what may or will be believed.

Hinduism marks the philosophy of everything from The Matrix to Star Wars. But Buddhism is what we increasingly practice. Or, more to the point, pray.

So why Buddhism?

In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, Olga Khazan writes about why so many Americans are turning to Buddhism. Short answer? Mental health. And, to be sure, mental health is the new holy grail of our inner world. She writes that it’s not about “spiritual enlightenment or a faith community, but rather hoping for a quick boost of cognitive healing.” People have run out of options. “Mental health disorders are up in Western societies, and the answer doesn’t seem to be church attendance, which is down. There’s always therapy, but it’s so expensive. My meditation class was $12.”

So why Buddhism? Khazan is worth quoting here at length:

The ancient religion, some find, helps them manage the slings and arrows and subtweets of modern life. Many people are stressed out by the constant drama of the current administration, and work hours have overwhelmed the day. There’s something newly appealing about a practice that instructs you to just sit…

What’s different—and perhaps reassuring—about Buddhism is that it’s an existing religion practiced by half a billion people. Because relatively few Caucasian Americans grew up Buddhist, they generally don’t associate any familial baggage with it like some do with, say, the Christianity or Judaism of their childhoods. 

Much like “cafeteria Catholics” ignore parts of the religion that don’t resonate with them, some Westerners focus on only certain elements of Buddhist philosophy and don’t endorse, say, Buddhism’s view of reincarnation or worship of the Buddha. Call them “buffet Buddhists.”

Taken out of their Buddhist context, practices like meditation “become like a dry sponge,” McMahan said, “soaking up whatever values are around.” 

Yes. And that is the appeal of Buddhism. It gives us the easy appeal of spirituality without the accountability.

The Tibetan mountaintop monasteries, the shaved heads, the flowing robes, the exotic locations, the meditation…it all seems to hold the promise of the experience of the spiritual. Yet you don’t have to join anything, or really believe in anything.

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James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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