A Reason Many Western People Idolize Buddhism


If you're anything like me, you're often pondering your place in the universe or a means to understand it. Many of us do this and one of the ways we do it is by turning to religion. And who could blame us; a religion has put all of the answers in a neat little package and is usually complicated enough for us to explore it before we find something that we question, challenges us, or simply doesn't make sense. That is, provided we've explored and questioned the belief long and deep enough to search its scriptures and roots. I say this because I was raised a Jew surrounded by Christians and met many people who accepted the religions without reading the Bible from cover to cover.

Having found no real answers or solace in either of these faiths, I didn't think much of them, but was curious enough to read the scripture to try and understand what had shaped much the world as we know it. I moved to Thailand in my mid-20's and made sure to read up on Buddhism quite a bit beforehand in hopes to avoid being a loud, ignorant, American traveler and eventually, an expat. It didn't work.

I had read all of these amazing things about Buddhism and how supposedly few wars over it had occurred; how ideally Buddhists are humble vegetarians; about how little judgement comes from those who practice and administer it; about how there was little talk of punishment in the fire and brimstone style; and about how it brought an idea of harmony to those who practiced it in this life, rather than focusing on the afterlife. I thought "Wow, what an amazing people to be found in these Asian Buddhist countries!"

Boy was I naive. I also found that this was common thinking amongst young travelers of other Western countries. I backpacked around Indochina, spending most of my time in Thailand for several months and I would eventually live there for nearly three years. In those years, one of the things I had hoped to understand was a deeper sense of spirituality. What I see now is that Theravada Buddhism (arguably the closest to the original form of it) is no more adhered to by the average citizen in Thailand as Catholicism is in Italy.

I found just as much hypocrisy in the people who practiced Buddhism as in any other I had come across. I've met few Thai vegetarians, and even less who meditate. They had commercialized many of their holidays the same way Christmas and Easter have been. Not to mention that I saw the monks smoking cigarettes and talking on cell phones. Yet I, nor could many of the other travelers/ex-pats amongst me, stop idolizing this religion...why?

Well, on the surface, it gives advice that's parallel to many of the ideas in modern psychology and it demands a fair bit of introspection for something other than the fear of God's wrath. The perceived goal of this introspection is for balance and happiness in the current life, regardless of the one that proceeds it. At least that was my interpretation of Theravada Buddhism. Of course, different forms of Buddhism have different definitions of what happens when you die and what the implication of karma is, but this is how most Western people I knew who put it on a pedestal saw it.

Below the surface, there's something larger in my eyes. Meditation and the belief that one must find some sort of flow in this life rather than spending too much time worrying about the afterlife calms the nervous system in way that I don't see in the Judeo-Christian world. Sure, it's very settling if you're taught to love God rather than fear Him. Far be it for me to question the solace that one might find in praying to God, I truly want that for all people, regardless of their religion.

It doesn't change the fact that many Christians still have to worry about whether their faith is solid enough to save them from hell. And American Judasim is so vague that many of it's followers have the neuroticism of unanswered questions. Some even cling to the belief as a sense of identity with little concern over the true nature of God. Fear and uncertainty, from a psychosomatic/physiological perspective, affects the nervous system, often negatively.

I won't speak for Islam, because well, having not grown up with any Muslims and only meeting a handful of them as travelers, I would be speaking from a place of ignorance. But I did live across the street from a Mosque and a Muslim community for a year in Lampang, Thailand.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where everyone went to temple just to keep my father happy, but nobody really cared that much about the religion. Some of my peers, on the other hand, grew up being constantly threatened with fire and brimstone or being less favored in the eyes of God if they didn't adhere to the gospel. That's quite a bit for a child to take on as they grow up. Again, that will affect the nervous system negatively.

So imagine idolizing a religion and having the freedom to mold it to the way that suits you which really only affects you personally without fear of consequence, unlike the one you grew up with. Or making it adaptable to the religion you already practice by only taking on the psychological and therapeutic aspects of it (many Jews do this, they call them BuJews). If your body resonates with the calmness and balance it brings to your nervous system, how could you argue with the body? Especially with all the trauma thats accumulated from the fear you dealt with during your upbringing.

Again, I want to reinforce the fact that I do not see the aspects of Buddhism that I was presented practiced strongly amongst the Asian communities I lived in, rather how it shaped the culture. And let's be clear, Buddhism has been altered to fit the cultures that adopt it, just as Christianity, and to some extent, Islam have. So it's hard to imagine that anyone is getting the full story correctly.

I'm not here to preach Buddhism and I'm not recommending that everyone should learn more about it or consider converting, I merely wish to point out why it appeals to people outside its culture. The calming aspects of it is also why so many therapists and bodyworkers adopt it as well. I don't believe that I could do craniosacral therapy effectively had I never learned to meditate. It would be very difficult to put my nervous system in such a state that I could hold space for another's without this resource. In short, for many bodyworkers and New Age people, it's not merely a trend; there are benefits rooting from it that support them in their professions and day to day lives.

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