Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

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Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Oct 01, 2012 2:22 pm

I'm going to go out on a limb here and ask a question I've been pondering for awhile.

Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular in the western world than, say, Zen, Chan, Tendai, Pure Land, Seon or any other form of contemporary Mahāyāna? I'll set Theravada aside as it is in a different realm. Basically, why is Tibetan Buddhism proportionately more popular than East Asian traditions?

I don't have statistics or studies to back up my ideas here, but these are things I've noticed:

- Volume of printed materials on Tibetan Buddhism compared to works on East Asian traditions is comparatively greater. The latter often seems to be more academic and not accessible to ordinary readers.

- The number of students in East Asia from the west studying Buddhism seems much smaller than those going to India and elsewhere to specifically study and practice TB. If you wanted to study Buddhism in Taiwan, they would basically pay you to do so, but not so many students have an interest. On the other hand, IBA and RYI in Kathmandu attract dozens and dozens of students every year who pay 6K or more in tuition out of their own pockets. There are a lot of fresh students every year who travel to Dharamsala specifically to study Tibetan at their own expense. Japanese Buddhist Universities have a few western students, but they're usually on scholarship (or at least in my own observations there), and probably half or more are scholars and not practitioners.

- Taiwanese Buddhist organizations like Foguangshan and Dharma Drum Mountain have vast sums of wealth and resources, yet between them there are less than two dozen western monastics. Meanwhile I hear about many western Tibetan Buddhists very much wanting to ordain, but not having any economic means to support themselves.

- Tibetan teachers draw larger crowds of long-term committed students and disciples.

- TB groups are working on the 84,000 Project, whereas no such comparable project is in the works with the East Asian Chinese canon. Plenty of it is being translated, but nothing co-ordinated on the scale of 84,000.

- TB groups are rapidly producing translators and many colleges and programs exist for that express purpose, yet nothing comparable is seen within Japanese or Chinese traditions (maybe Korean is different?). This is clearly not a priority for East Asian traditions.

Now it begs the question why would this be?

- A lot of the eminent TB teachers speak English. Some East Asian teachers speak English, but many don't. The big names in Japanese and Taiwanese-Chinese Buddhism that are well known in their respective countries are largely unknown in the western Buddhist world.

- The Dalai Lama is a recognizable and attractive figurehead who speaks English.

- Tibetan Buddhism is not heavily tied to an immigrant ethnicity unlike, say, Chinese Buddhism which is very closely tied to a specific ethnic group. Chinese Buddhist traditions might even specifically promote themselves as exclusively Chinese and in the process exclude members of the host culture.

- The intellectual and scholarly traditions within Tibetan Buddhism are more readily accessible and understood by Tibetan monastics and teachers, while this may not be the case with East Asian teachers where it is largely just academics who understand the classical scholarship and can thoroughly discuss such subjects. In contrast Tibetan Buddhist traditions tend to promote such activities more readily than most East Asian traditions. TB places more emphasis on critical thinking and debate at least formally than contemporary East Asian traditions which are more devotional and deferential in their orientation.


Please by all means offer your own opinions, especially if you disagree with me.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Dechen Norbu » Mon Oct 01, 2012 2:44 pm

Three words: Dalai Lama & Hollywood :lol:

Mostly I agree with what you wrote above, Huseng.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby lobster » Mon Oct 01, 2012 2:50 pm

Most people do not actually want Buddhism or the goals of Buddhism or even the teachings . . .
They want entertainment.
Bells and whistles and gongs and sex and weird practices.
Now who does that best? :shrug:

Time for the popcorn . . .
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby viniketa » Mon Oct 01, 2012 2:51 pm

Huseng wrote:Now it begs the question why would this be?

- A lot of the eminent TB teachers speak English. Some East Asian teachers speak English, but many don't. The big names in Japanese and Taiwanese-Chinese Buddhism that are well known in their respective countries are largely unknown in the western Buddhist world.

- The Dalai Lama is a recognizable and attractive figurehead who speaks English.

- Tibetan Buddhism is not heavily tied to an immigrant ethnicity unlike, say, Chinese Buddhism which is very closely tied to a specific ethnic group. Chinese Buddhist traditions might even specifically promote themselves as exclusively Chinese and in the process exclude members of the host culture.

- The intellectual and scholarly traditions within Tibetan Buddhism are more readily accessible and understood by Tibetan monastics and teachers, while this may not be the case with East Asian teachers where it is largely just academics who understand the classical scholarship and can thoroughly discuss such subjects. In contrast Tibetan Buddhist traditions tend to promote such activities more readily than most East Asian traditions. TB places more emphasis on critical thinking and debate at least formally than contemporary East Asian traditions which are more devotional and deferential in their orientation.


All of the above play a factor. But, mostly, HHDL is a rock star. Further, he is a rock star with a cause ("Free Tibet" - largely seen as anti-communist) that resonates with Westerners. He only recently began to speak English, but has had highly competent English translators and advisers for some time. Tibetan culture has been advertised as endangered and, moreover, exotic.

Other Asian Buddhist traditions are associated in the Western mind with the ancient religions of Asian peasants (whether correct or incorrect, this is the perception).

More people desire to follow rock stars than peasants.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Karma Dondrup Tashi » Mon Oct 01, 2012 2:52 pm

Smells and bells.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:05 pm

viniketa wrote:He only recently began to speak English, but has had highly competent English translators and advisers for some time.


I remember in the 90s he was on CNN speaking English. Although in his formal teachings he uses Tibetan, having highly competent translators helps enormously. In other traditions this isn't always the case.

But now more than ever you have people studying to become Tibetan translators, or even just learning how to read Tibetan. You don't see anything similar with East Asian traditions.

Tibetan culture has been advertised as endangered and, moreover, exotic.


Well, the other thing is you can appropriate it without looking like a dolt. There are few Tibetans outside of India and Tibet. I mean, if you tried to appropriate Chinese culture in a western city you'd be laughed at, and the Chinese community in your area might think it kind of odd and even unwelcome.

You could deck your house out with all the traditional Tibetan gear plus some Newari decorations for good measure, too, and that'd be fine, but doing it Chinese style just wouldn't have the same charm.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Dechen Norbu » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:08 pm

And we all know that has a lot of Dharma practice in it, right? :lol:

HHDL inclusively advises people not to get "Tibetanized" (meaning funny clothes, ornaments, expressions and so on). When westerners want to look Tibetans, they just end looking silly.

But the peak of the fad seems to have passed.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby viniketa » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:12 pm

Huseng wrote:I remember in the 90s he was on CNN speaking English.


Haltingly, yes, but the point is, for us old folks, the 90s is recent. ;)

Huseng wrote:could deck your house out...


Or your altar...

Huseng wrote:...with all the traditional Tibetan gear plus some Newari decorations for good measure, too, and that'd be fine, but doing it Chinese style just wouldn't have the same charm.


Well, I rather like Chinese style from certain periods, much better than classic Tibetan. But, true, the grande colors, etc., are more in line with current tastes.

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Last edited by viniketa on Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby viniketa » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:14 pm

Dechen Norbu wrote:HHDL inclusively advises people not to get "Tibetanized" (meaning funny clothes, ornaments, expressions and so on).


Moreover, he has repeatedly advised that people stick with the religions of their own culture. :quoteunquote:

:shrug:

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Malcolm » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:19 pm

Huseng wrote:I'm going to go out on a limb here and ask a question I've been pondering for awhile.

Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular in the western world than, say, Zen, Chan, Tendai, Pure Land, Seon or any other form of contemporary Mahāyāna?



(Leaving aside Zen, which is actually more widespread than Vajrayāna Dharma), Vajrayāna is more popular because it promotes liberation in a single body and a single lifetime. Second, it is intrinsically more adapatable to our highly technilogical civilization because it is very much based on a yogic understanding of liberation i.e. how the body is an instrument of liberation, not just the mind alone.

M
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:31 pm

viniketa wrote:Moreover, he has repeatedly advised that people stick with the religions of their own culture. :quoteunquote:


The problem nowadays is we don't have culture so much as products. In terms of practice oriented spirituality, much of what passes as occult practices on sale at bookstores is easily seen for what it is, though there actually are western traditions of magic with comparable complexity and theory as, say, Tibetan Vajrayāna, though they don't seem to attract much of a following, let alone have large widespread institutions. If people are interested in Buddhism they should of course pursue it, but I just find it curious how western traditions of magic seem to be largely forgotten (maybe it is largely due to the perception of magic = Wicca / New Age stuff).

Spirituality aside, we don't have a lot of native culture left. A lot of products, but not much organic culture. Just look at how people closely follow Apple and what happened when Steve Jobs died.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:34 pm

Malcolm wrote:(Leaving aside Zen, which is actually more widespread than Vajrayāna Dharma), Vajrayāna is more popular because it promotes liberation in a single body and a single lifetime. Second, it is intrinsically more adapatable to our highly technilogical civilization because it is very much based on a yogic understanding of liberation i.e. how the body is an instrument of liberation, not just the mind alone.

M


How many Tibetan Buddhists in the west though study it to that extent (the body as an instrument of liberation and all the technical details)?
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Malcolm » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:38 pm

Huseng wrote:
Malcolm wrote:(Leaving aside Zen, which is actually more widespread than Vajrayāna Dharma), Vajrayāna is more popular because it promotes liberation in a single body and a single lifetime. Second, it is intrinsically more adapatable to our highly technilogical civilization because it is very much based on a yogic understanding of liberation i.e. how the body is an instrument of liberation, not just the mind alone.

M


How many Tibetan Buddhists in the west though study it to that extent (the body as an instrument of liberation and all the technical details)?


I would say most, since empowerment into that knowledge is the defining feature of Vajrayāna.

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:41 pm

Malcolm wrote:
Huseng wrote:How many Tibetan Buddhists in the west though study it to that extent (the body as an instrument of liberation and all the technical details)?


I would say most, since empowerment into that knowledge is the defining feature of Vajrayāna.

M


That might be an optimistic assessment. Empowerment into it is one thing, but actually studying and understanding it thoroughly is something else.

I don't think the technical side of Vajrayāna is what makes TB more popular. It seems more to do with more basic features and cultural appeal.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Kaji » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:45 pm

Huseng wrote:
Malcolm wrote:(Leaving aside Zen, which is actually more widespread than Vajrayāna Dharma), Vajrayāna is more popular because it promotes liberation in a single body and a single lifetime. Second, it is intrinsically more adapatable to our highly technilogical civilization because it is very much based on a yogic understanding of liberation i.e. how the body is an instrument of liberation, not just the mind alone.

M


How many Tibetan Buddhists in the west though study it to that extent (the body as an instrument of liberation and all the technical details)?

Interestingly, if we look beyond Buddhism, Taoism shares the same concept of using the body as an instrument of liberation. Taoism has a great deal of supernatural stuff as well. But for possibly similar reasons as Chinese Buddhism, Taoism doesn't seem to have attracted as many Western followers as Tibetian Buddhism (my educated guess anyway).
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Sherlock » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:45 pm

Malcolm wrote:
Huseng wrote:I'm going to go out on a limb here and ask a question I've been pondering for awhile.

Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular in the western world than, say, Zen, Chan, Tendai, Pure Land, Seon or any other form of contemporary Mahāyāna?



(Leaving aside Zen, which is actually more widespread than Vajrayāna Dharma), Vajrayāna is more popular because it promotes liberation in a single body and a single lifetime. Second, it is intrinsically more adapatable to our highly technilogical civilization because it is very much based on a yogic understanding of liberation i.e. how the body is an instrument of liberation, not just the mind alone.

M


How much does the average practitioner know about that before getting involved with either tradition? I doubt the majority of people getting involved in various Dharmic traditions (including Hindu traditions) make a comprehensive comparative study of all the traditions they can before starting. e.g. Westerners on another forum I visit quoting Patanjali on meditation while being ignorant of the four dhyanas.

I think it's for the most part, a linguistic issue. Translations of Zen works from Japanese seem to have been popularized quite early on during the "hippy generation"; some Tibetan translations like the "Book of the Dead" were available quite early in the 20th century and of course the Theosophists and some of the occult crowd passed on many myths about Tibet, although more serious writing and translations available for non-scholars only really started appearing more recently.

By contrast, translations of Chinese Buddhist works in English are still quite limited.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Sönam » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:46 pm

Dalai Lama, Great Masters in the west and so on ... but mostly Tibet itself which still have an attractive veil of mistery for a new comer. A bit like flying saucer ...

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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:47 pm

Kaji wrote:How many Tibetan Buddhists in the west though study it to that extent (the body as an instrument of liberation and all the technical details)?

Interestingly, if we look beyond Buddhism, Taoism shares the same concept of using the body as an instrument of liberation. Taoism has a great deal of supernatural stuff as well. But for possibly similar reasons as Chinese Buddhism, Taoism doesn't seem to have attracted as many Western followers as Tibetian Buddhism (my educated guess anyway).[/quote]

That's largely because Daoist masters are not really found outside their native culture and most of the literature has never been translated or even thoroughly studied in English.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Kaji » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:50 pm

Huseng wrote:I don't think the technical side of Vajrayāna is what makes TB more popular. It seems more to do with more basic features and cultural appeal.

A side note... Empowerment, mysticism and the technical side may not be what make Tibetian Buddhism more popular in the West, but they are certainly what makes Esoteric Buddhism more appealing to some Buddhist followers in the East. Unfortunately some people have used those aspects for personal gains, some even illegal... I don't know if this is an issue in the West with Tibetian Buddhism.
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Re: Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Oct 01, 2012 3:52 pm

Sherlock wrote:By contrast, translations of Chinese Buddhist works in English are still quite limited.


Yeah, everyone knows who Candrakirti is, but not Jizang. :smile:

A lot of the scholarship on Chinese Buddhism has been directed around Zen and anything which can teach us about Indian Buddhism (these are concerns influenced by Japanese academia where a lot of scholars of East Asian Buddhism got their training). In the case of post-Tang Dynasty material, it is really just anything related to Zen that gets much attention, though this is slowly changing as funding opens up the other areas as well. If you want to read more about these trends see this article (scroll down past the Chinese for the English):

http://www.chibs.edu.tw/ch_html/CHIBS30/ch/115.html
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