Inhale… exhale… concentrating on your breathing. This is often an exercise many do in yoga or meditation. Many Americans have incorporated yoga and meditation into their lives, not knowing its origins.
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Buddhism is one origin of these exercises. The goal of this exercise is to reach enlightenment, a term you will learn more about later in this paper. Buddhism is an ancient religion, that originated in India. In the article Comments on Tensions in American Buddhism published by pbs.org, it was estimated that there are roughly 3 to 4 million Buddhist in the United States. Out of those 3 to 4 million, only 800,000 are American converts, the majority are mostly Asian Americans. Out of the 800,000 Buddhist Americans, majority of the age range was those who were from the baby boomer generation and the younger millennials. Throughout this paper, I will be briefing you on the origins of Buddhism, how Buddhism came to America, and how Americans have interpreted this ancient religion. There is a difference in Buddhism as a religion and Buddhism as a philosophy. Many Americans have been using Buddhism practices in more modern ways. America has westernized Buddhism, the religion, into more of a philosophy.
The origins of Buddhism date back to the man Siddhartha Gautama, who became the first Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama was from a family of wealth and luxury. As Siddhartha got older he realized those items don’t bring true happiness to one. In A Five Minute Introduction of Buddhism from the Buddhanet, the article states after six years of study and meditation he finally found the middle path and was enlightened (White). The article also says Buddhism explains a purpose to life while also providing a code of practice or way of life that leads to happiness (White). The Dharma, the principles of Buddhism, was taught by Buddha up until his death.
Buddhism teaches the Four Nobles and the Noble 8-Fold Path. In summary, the Four Noble Truths exclaim, life is suffering and saying that is not a pessimistic way of life but rather a realistic view. The Second Noble Truth exclaims that suffering is caused by a craving or a want. The Third Noble Truth states that we can overcome our suffering by becoming truly happy. And the Fourth Noble Truth states that by following the Noble 8-Fold Path, we can truly end our suffering. (White).
The textbook, Invitation to World Religions, second edition, explains the Noble 8-Fold Path. In summary, a person should see things as they are. One should cultivate their path to enlightenment. One should address others with kindness while keeping away from lying. One should abstain from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. One should make a living in a way that doesn’t bring harm to others and benefits all. One should abandon all thoughts and actions that are harmful to oneself and others. One should focus awareness on their body and mind. The final Noble 8-Fold states that one should concentrate the mind on overcoming and going beyond their pain and suffering. (Brood pg. 152). This overcoming pain and suffering is enlightenment. Enlightenment is reached that place where you are at true peace and happiness.
Buddhism is an evolving and an ever changing religion. It also adapts to its surroundings and environments. This allows for many interpretations from many different cultures.
According to the article Why so many Americans think Buddhism is just a philosophy, written by Pamela Winfield, Buddhism came to America in the 19th century (Winfield). The article also goes into discussing the World Parliament of Religions, that took place in Chicago in 1893. Apparently, this was the first time in modern history that representatives from the world’s major religions came together to learn about one another’s spiritual traditions (Winfield). The Buddhist masters presented their ideas to America not as a religion, but rather as a philosophy, to stay relevant to the modern world. They did not misrepresent their religion on purpose, but rather to make it something many would understand and want to use (Winfield). The mindfulness movement began as a result of Buddhism being presented as a philosophy. Therefore, majority of Buddhism practiced here in the United States, is non-religious.
Ryan Anningson, author of the article Before Americans turned to Buddhism for life hacks, they treated them like a dangerous cult, states that religions must adapt and change for their new surroundings (Anningson). Americans used to not accept a religion if it didn’t have a creator god, therefore Buddhism had a god. This just shows how narrow minded Americans can be. Buddhist wanted to teach Americans the spirituality of their religion, mostly because of how materialistic Americans are. They saw a need and knew that their religion could help. The Buddhist masters and others had to manipulate their religion in order for it be relevant and accepted in America. Again, Buddhism is an evolving religion that does allow for interpretations of it.
There is an ongoing debate in America as to whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. In the article Is Buddhism a Philosophy or a Religion?, written by Nicholas Liusuwan, he states calling Buddhism a philosophy is pretty accurate (Liusuwan). He says this because the dictionary definition of philosophy is something along the lines of finding the truths in life. Since the Dharma literally means ultimate truth, then Buddhism must be a philosophy. Ultimately, in the end of the article he goes to state who cares about this argument.
Why do Americans see Buddhism more as a philosophy than as a religion?
In the same article written by Ryan Anningson, he states within a century, Buddhism in America has gone from being frequently portrayed as a dangerous cult to becoming the prime spiritual practice of the business elite. Many Americans have, and are, turning to Buddhism for spiritual purposes, life hacks, and to help instill mindfulness into their everyday lives. As previously discussed, the Buddhist masters have relayed their religion more as a philosophy, when they initially introduced Buddhism to America. So to answer the question Why do Americans see Buddhism more as a philosophy than as a religion, this simply is because that is how we were first introduced to Buddhism. The Masters wanted it to be relevant to Americans, otherwise they would have dismissed it on the spot.
However, in today’s modern world, we have continued to alter the religion for our individual purposes. Many Americans are still fascinated by the mindfulness aspect of Buddhism and how it really can benefit one’s life. Many have gotten into yoga and essential oils. These aren’t so much the basis of Buddhism but these practices are connected. Yoga and meditating help one unwind, get more in tune with nature and their body, as well as clear their mind. Using essential oils can bring about a feeling, similar to meditation, essential oils can help one unwind and clear their mind.
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