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.
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say if this were true,(and I don't necessarily think that it is actually) it probably would have a lot to do with the Dalai Lama and the linked political cause and publicity surrounding Tibet.
This is also related to Hollywood and major Actors supporting the Tibetan cause which gives them much publicity.
Namely, Seven Years in Tibet with Brad Pitt, Kundun, Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion, The Dalai Lama winning the Nobel Piece prize, and also the relevance of the Tibetan cause to the international political and economic competition the west has with China.
When was the last time you saw a major motion picture about east Asian Buddhism
"Zen" about Dogen, doesn't count, nor does "Enlightenment Guaranteed", as they were both international films, and not Hollywood productions.
The only film that might come kindof close would be "The Last Samurai", but in that, Buddhism played only a minor role.
Chinese films seem to be mostly martial arts dramas or comedies such as Hero (which was very beautiful) or Shaolin Soccer, neither of which were Buddhist movies.
This and also the fact that Shambala publications is a major Tibetan Buddhist Publishing house that puts out a lot of their books in very pretty bindings that look nice on executive desks. (and also some very good publications)
Also, Naropa University in Boulder, is essentially a Tibetan Buddhist University,
And, then there's the very basic fact that the aesthetics in Tibetan Buddhism are a lot more colorful than the minimalist Zen aesthetics.
Then there's the esoteric nature of Tibetan Buddhism which may appeal to those in the west who are used to esoteric western orders like fraternities, etc, that may feel more familiar and comfortable in an esoteric setting.
That would be my guess, if your guess is actually true.
Actually though, I'm not sure that it is true.
Keep in mind, you're living and traveling overseas.
A lot of people may be traveling to India, etc for Tibetan Buddhism, but the main reason that may be so, is that people simply don't need to travel anywhere far in the US to get access to a good Zen Teacher.
We have them right here, within driving distance, and nearby, and they speak English. lol.
I don't need to travel to Japan to learn Soto Zen, I was taught right here in America by qualified Zen Priests.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there still seems to be an element of the exotic, which is why it may attract so many travelers overseas.
I think that is starting to change, as now American and British, etc, western Tibetan disciples are now starting to do teaching of their own.
It also is location specific.
In certain towns there seems to be more of a Tibetan influence, and in others more Zen or other east asian linages.
Certainly in the Asian American communities there's a lot of Shin.
The location has a lot to do with it.
Such as being near a major training center or Monastery.
Also, I've noticed generally, the Western United States seems to lean a bit more towards the Zen side of things (perhaps because of the close proximity to Japan, as well as the minimalist aesthetic appealing to the western rugged mentality), and the East Coast, seems to be a bit more Tibetan (flights closer to India perhaps, and also Washington being a political center which is relevant to the politics of Tibet and China and lobbying, and activism, etc, as well as Gampo Abbey being a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in NE Canada, and Shambala Publications being out of Boston).
With Boulder CO having a lot of Tibetan Buddhists due to Chugyam Trungpa and Naropa.
I think the Rockies remind the Tibetans and Nepalese of the Himalayas somewhat, and so there's also a Nepalese community there.
That would be my thoughts.
I'm sorry for the rambling post, it's getting late.
EDIT: Edited to clean up idle rambling