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Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to Buddhism in the West


A standard business-style SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis has been carried out on the future prospects for the growth of Buddhism in the West.

In recent years, Buddhism has been undergoing a rapid expansion in the West, especially America. But what of the future?   This article applies a simple SWOT business analysis to the potentials and limitations affecting the growth of Buddhism in the West.  

SWOT stands for

- Strengths: characteristics of the 'business' that give it an advantage over others.

- Weaknesses (or Limitations): are characteristics that place the business at a disadvantage relative to others.

- Opportunities: external chances to improve performance in the 'business  environment'.

- Threats: external elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business. (The threats to Buddhism in countries where is established - eg Korea, Mongolia, Burma, Thailand - are outside the scope of this analysis. I hope to look at them in future articles.)



1.1 Diversity in presentation.

Buddhism can be presented as an applied psychology or philosophy, as well as a religion. And we can get a lot of mileage from the first two aspects before we need to invoke religious faith.

1.2 Lack of sectarianism.

Another aspect of Buddhist diversity is that the various traditions of Buddhism coexist without mutual animosity.

1.3 Intellectual  openness.

Among religions, Buddhism is uniquely open to examination and rationalism.  Unlike most religions, which don't like their dogmas to be questioned, Buddha said that subjecting his teachings to searching critical analysis would help us understand them.

1.4 Compliance with science.

The worldview of modern science, in areas such as quantum physics, computer science and biology, has become increasingly in agreement to that of Buddhism, especially as essentialism has declined.   Buddhism has no anti-rational foundational tenets such as creationism and 'young earth'.

1.5 Convergence with Western Philosophy

Essentialism has taken longer to disappear from philosophy than it has from science. To quote Daniel Dennett:

'Even today Darwin's overthrow of essentialism has not been completely assimilated .... the Darwinian mutation, which at first seemed to be just a new way of thinking about kinds in biology, can spread to other phenomena and other disciplines, as we shall see. There are persistent problems both inside and outside biology that readily dissolve once we adopt the Darwinian perspective on what makes a thing the sort of thing it is, but the tradition-bound resistance to this idea persists.' (Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea , p 39)

But as essentialism declines, newer philosophical approaches such as Process Philosophy are far closer to Buddhist thought than the old 'footnotes to Plato' that have dominated Western Philosophy throughout the Christian era.

1.6  Critique of materialism

Buddhism is the only religion that can offer a convincing philosophical challenge to the bleak doctrine of materialism - the default 'scientism' that the mind is the product of machine-like neural activity and there is no spiritual dimension to existence.

1.7 Medical applications

Buddhist techiques are becoming accepted in mainstream medical practice as treatments for a variety of psychological disorders.

1.8  Corporate Buddhism

Techniques of mindfulness and Buddhist based meditation (though often in a secularized form) are also finding their way into business organizations.  However this has its downside, see 4.2

1.9 Honoring the feminine.

The Abrahamic religions are patriarchal and misogynistic to greater or lesser extent. Buddhism, like Paganism, honors the feminine aspect of humanity. One of the favorite devotional Buddhas is the female Buddha Tara.

1.10  Grieving for dead animals

Only Buddhism offers solace and rituals for the death of pets. In contrast, Christianity regards animals as mindless machines whose souls do not survive death. 

1.11 No historical baggage

Buddhism in the West does not have the burden of historical baggage carried by other religions (inquisition, witch hunts, Galileo, religious wars, 911, institutionalized child-abuse etc). This is not to say that Buddhism's record is spotless, but its trangressions are fewer and less well known in the West than those of the usual suspects.

1.12 Rising status of Buddhism. 

At a time when other religions are coming under increasing attack from the 'New Atheists' for their absurdities, illogicalities and ingrained intolerance, Buddhism is escaping unscathed.  This is possibly in part to due its lack of an anthropomorphic Samsaric God (though Buddhism isn't necessarliy atheist), and in part due to its rising intellectual status, especially among the medical profession.


2.1 Coldness and aloofness

Buddhism is sometimes perceived as being cold, intellectual and aloof.  This may in part result from contrasting traditional visual representations of Buddha and Jesus.  Whereas Buddha is portrayed as serene but detached, Jesus is seen interacting with people.

2.2  Not family-friendly

Related to 2.1, though perhaps arising from different causes, dharma centers in the West have not in the past been particularly welcoming to children.   This may be a result of rapid growth and demographics, as many new Buddhists are often young students.  'Many U.S. Buddhists say that meditation centers aren’t especially welcoming of children, and some worry it will cost them the next generation of adherents'

2.3 Cultural 'otherness' and exclusion

When the Christian Church spread across pagan Europe, it did so by a process of 'transculturation', where local pagan customs were adapted rather than repressed, and given Christian significance. Hence pagan Eostre became Christian Easter, Yule became Christmas, Imbolc became Candlemas etc.
Although the exocitism of Buddhism has its attractions, this should not be at the expense of Western Buddhists withdrawing from their traditional culture and festivals. Like Lisa Simpson in 'She of Little Faith', Western kids won't take to any religion that prevents them celebrating Christmas and Halloween.

2.4 Misunderstanding and Misrepresentation

In the past, Buddhism has often been misrepresented by proponents of other religions, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes out of ignorance.

A favorite accusation is that of idolatry.  As accurate information is now available via the internet, this is becoming less of a problem. The anti-Buddhist propagandists are simply making themselves look stupid. For the usual anti-Buddhist arguments, and answers to them,  see here.

2.5 Lack of Philosophical Presence in Academia

Buddhist Philosophy (eg Madhyamaka - The Middle Way) is seldom studied in Western university philosophy departments, and when it is studied, it is often treated as of cultural, historical or anthropological interest only. 

Contemporary topics that can be addressed from the Madhyamaka perspective include:


3.1 'Spiritual but not religious'

The decline of traditional religions is leaving a spiritual gap which less doctrinaire faiths can fill.

There seem to be a number of factors at work:
3.1.1  Militant atheism
3.1.2  Collateral damage to other Abrahamic religions from Islam.
3.1.3  Decline of Catholicism due to child abuse scandals.
3.1.4  Perceived homophobia and bigotry
3.1.5  Anti-rationalism. Many evangelical Protestants have shackled themselves to a corpse in their commitment to the literal truth of Genesis and rejection of evolution.

Nevertheless, although the claim to be 'spiritual but not religious' has become something of a cliche, this reflects a need for some form of spiritual nourishment as an alternative to bleak materialism.  This is mostly being filled by 'New Age' spirituality, where you can pick and mix whatever beliefs and practises you like without any reference to doctrinal authority.  

As meditation and rebirth are popular New Age themes, bits of Buddhism usually get incorporated into the mix alongside Paganism, Celtic spirituality, crystals, geomancy etc.

3.2  Increasing the awareness of the medical benefits of Buddhist practice.  

Although Buddhist meditational techniques have gained orthodox medical approval to an extent unthinkable 20 years ago, there is probably still scope for expansion nere.

3.3 Increasing the awareness of the parallels of Buddhism and science.

Most westerners, because of the increasingly bitter battle between evolution and creationism, assume that religion and science must always and inevitably be in conflict. There is consequently immense scope for public education in the compatiblity of Buddhism and science.

3.4  Celebrating the Feminine

The Abrahamic religions started out as Bronze Age warrior cults, and it still shows. Their attitude to women, and the feminine side of human nature in general, varies from bad to appalling.   Buddhism can do more to establish its  reputation as the one major religion that doesn't denigrate women.

3.5  Acceptance of LGBT  people

Many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people find the Abrahamic religions unwelcoming, if not downright hostile.  Buddhism provides them with an object of refuge.

3.6 Pop Buddhism and Buddha Chic

Ever since those long ago days of hippies and flower power, Buddhism has enjoyed a certain chic status among creative and artistic people. This aspect of pop Buddhism has become more widespread in recent years, with Buddhas appearing in suburban gardens, magazine advertisements and even nightclubs.

...but unlike showbiz, all publicity isn't necessarily good publicity, and there's an ill-defined boundary where Buddha chic turns into Buddha kitsch, and Pop Buddhism becomes trivializing...


4.1 Pop Buddhism and Buddha Chic (revisited)

The danger of Buddha kitsch is that Buddhism will be trivialized and may even become to regarded as a quick fix for Samsara (which is, of course, ultimately unfixable). 

Sogyal Rinpoche discusses this threat:

"How will Buddhism in the future find the way to make its fullest contribution towards the transformation of society? And yet how can we avoid it being absorbed and neutralized by its encounter with the contemporary world, so that it is reduced to yet another tool to numb us, conscripted and ‘integrated’ into western society, to become simply an interesting offshoot of psychology, a branch of the New Age, or part of the health movement? Many of the Tibetan masters I know today have the same concerns and are asking themselves the same questions as western Buddhists, as we pass through this period of transition together. They also have concerns of their own. They see a number of warning signs for the future.

When we see Buddhist images on advertising hoardings, in Hollywood films and as icons of the chic, it is a testimony to the popularity of Buddhism, which can be gratifying, even exhilarating—but at the same time chilling. Because where will the popularity of Buddhism lead? Are we witnessing the conversion of Buddhism into a product, something which is quick and easy to master, and which ignores the patient discipline and application that is really needed on the Buddhist path, like on any other spiritual path? Then what are the dangers of trying to make Buddhism too palatable for American tastes and fashions, so that we are subtly editing or re-writing the teachings of Buddha? Is there a risk of Buddhism being ‘sold’ too hard, and being too pushy, even evangelical? Commercial-style grasping seems foreign to Buddhism, where the emphasis has always been on examining ourselves. Driven by our compulsive desire for something ‘new’, what will be the long term result of seeking to put a little bit of knowledge into action too soon: rushing in too early, only in order to be productive? My feeling, and that of the masters I know, is that practicality should never take priority over the authenticity of the teachings."

4.2 Secularization   

In attempting to impose 'scientism' and physicalist philosophical views on Buddhism,  the secularizers risk throwing out all the spiritual and mystical aspects leaving an arid, spiritually-barren, materialist philosophy. This has been critiqued by Alan Wallace.

4.3 New Age

Another double-edged sword is the New Age. Although some New Agers may incorporate selected Buddhist beliefs and practices into their worldview, there is a danger that authentic dharma will become diluted,  garbled and corrupted by mixing with everything and anything, in multiple New Age spiritual fruit salads.   

4.4 Competing religions.

Apart from the New Age, which is so syncretistic that it's unclear whether it's competing or complementary to Buddhism, there are other possible threats:

4.4.1 Christianity

Although evangelical Christianity is a major threat to Buddhism in traditionally Buddhist countries like Mongolia and Korea, it doesn't seem to be in competion with Buddhism in the West. This is probably because most Western Buddhists are people who have already abandoned their Judeo-Christian religion before developing an interest in Buddhism, and are unlikely to go back to their ancestral faiths for a variety of pre-existing reasons.

4.4.2 Paganism

Some versions of paganism, such as Wicca, are fishing in the same pool as Buddhism, in that they attract post-Christians who are looking for spirituality without the dogma, misogyny, judgementalism and homophobia that infest their ancestral religions.

4.4.3 Jihadism

As regards competing for converts with Buddhism in the West, Jihadism is a non-starter.  The growth of Jihadism in Europe and North America is due to immigration and massive birthrates.  Conversions of westerners are mostly among dissaffected sections of society such as street gangs and jail inmates, who are attracted by the violence, machismo and promise of divine approval for predatory and anti-social activities.

Conversions of 'normal' Westerners are so rare that Jihadists make a huge publicity circus whenever a prominent Westerner converts, in contrast to conversion to Buddhism, which is so commonplace it goes unremarked.

Jihadism is definitely not fishing in the same pool as Buddhism.

The main danger of Jihadism is that the aggression, destruction and violence that has characterized its attacks on Buddhism wherever the two have met throughout Asia, will carry over to the West.  Jihadism doesn't play nicely with others, and won't compete on a level playing field...

...Coercion, intimidation, thuggery and outright terrorism are intrinsic and essential features of Jihadism.

Jihadism is so intellectually moribund and ethically repulsive that it cannot compete for followersin a free marketplace of ideas, but must eliminate its competitors by whatever means may be necessary. 

Attacks on synagogues and churches are beginning in America and Europe, and it's only a matter of time before Buddhist centers and individual Buddhists are also victims of the growing  Jihad in the West.   The problem is potentially worse for Buddhists than for other religions, since Jews and Christians are allowed to live as 'people of the book', but Buddhists must be exterminated, as Lama Ole Nydahl explains

“If we go southward in Afghanistan from Mazar-i-Sharif and down to Kandahar and then east, we will find the old Buddhist core area that was destroyed by three Muslim invasions over the period from 900 to 1100. That was Ashoka’s [1] old core area and where Buddhism originated. Later Islam began to penetrate down through India. And, according to new Indian research, the Muslims killed some 80 million Indians from ca. A.D. 1200 up until the English stopped it in the 18th century. We are talking about Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and others. If you peruse Arabian sources, the term “budh” — the root word of Buddha and Buddhism — denotes someone worshipping many gods and whom Muhammed says must be killed under all circumstances. Who cannot even obtain dhimmi-status. Even the original Buddhist ‘little road’ through Central Asia was destroyed by Muslims. So one might say that we have had much to thank Islam for throughout the years.”

Embarrassing pacifism
– Why didn’t the Buddhists fight back?

“Having a waterproof, completely logical system is very dangerous. When you do, you will have a tendency to bring all your friends along with you into an ivory tower and forget all the ordinary people running around down below. What will people do whose religion resembles a Swiss cheese – full of holes and devoid of logic and thus standing on feet of clay? Well, the more porous one's religion is, the more one will try to convince others in order to convince oneself. All according to the well-known principle: billions of flies eat manure, billions of flies cannot be wrong.”

Ole Nydahl emphasizes that there is nothing wrong with Jesus encouraging his adherents to make all people his disciples. After all, Nydahl himself tries to convince people of the blessings of Buddhism. What he rejects is the practice of subjugating the infidels by means of the sword.

– Are there no examples of Buddhists having taken up arms? Have they all adhered to a radical pacifism?

“Yes, I’m afraid so. I am not aware of any adequate resistance to aggression. And that is really embarrassing when you see your wife, your children, your loved ones, your friends being butchered, and you have not armed yourself to protect them. It must be terrible...”
     Full article

- Sean Robsville


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