How many of us have seen the image of a happy little man, dressed in his red and yellow robes, sitting with different world leaders? How many of us have seen his infectious smile, or heard his almost childlike laugh, or listened to his intense wisdom? His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is often considered the face of Buddhism here in the United States, yet what of Buddhism itself? We know that the Dalai Lama has been force on the world scene, emphasizing the need for peaceful answers to the troubling problems that all countries face. But what has been the impact of Buddhism in the West?
As a religion Buddhism has been enjoying a resurgence of growth. It is currently the 4th largest religion within the United States, narrowly nudged out of 3rd position by Islam. But more impressive than its growth is the practicality Buddhism offers for anyone regardless of belief in their day to day lives. I have had many conversations regarding the effects of Buddhism in the West, specifically here in the United States. Every year I see more and more references to Buddhism, and more and more Buddhist practices applied to every day life.
In the Western culture of mass media, fast food, and the dog-eat-dog corporate structure, Buddhism offers up several easy-to-apply practices that can really be beneficial in coping with stress, improving our relationships and helping us achieve a general level of satisfaction and happiness.
With buzzwords liked Compassion and Mindfulness, Buddhism speaks to the importance of living “now”, enjoying life, interacting with friends and family here in this moment, instead of working only toward retirement and focusing on the material. Through what boils down to an easy-to-follow eight step program called the Noble Eightfold Path, it emphasizes the importance of not just thinking about being more responsible in life, but how to enact that positive change. Couple that with some very effective meditation practices, and you find yourself very well equipped to deal with most anything life sends you way.
In truth, Buddhism is less a religion (since there is no central figure to worship) and more a philosophy. It is a philosophy for living a happy, satisfying life and sharing that with others. Because of this, the influence of Buddhism is cropping up not just at company retreats, but in other religions as well. More people are quoting the wisdom held within the Dharma, the ancient yet still very relevant words of the Buddha. And we are starting to see more people focus on the importance of “now”, of not missing out on what this moment has to offer, instead of that head down, “I will have time to be happy and enjoy life when I am retired” mentality that so many Americans have come to accept.
However, Buddhism also stresses another important point, the importance of doing the right thing. In fact, there are several points in the Noble Eightfold Path that discusses this, Right Speech, Right Living, Right Concentration and more. To get down to brass tacks, Buddhism encourages us to be responsible, to be honest, and to have good ethics, both in our social lives and at work. It encourages us to do the best we can at whatever we are doing, to give each challenge before us appropriate focus, and to treat everyone around us with compassion.
History, of course, will be the final judge of what the long term impact of Buddhism in the West really has. But for now, I see a world of great possibilities as more and more people come to see Buddhism for what it truly is, a resource toward helping us live rich and fulfilling lives.