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FILMS—Secular pop culture movies featuring Buddhist elements

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“How to Witness to a Buddhist”
Ray Comfort
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Buddhism: On the Rise in the West

It was only 150 years ago that there was virtually no knowledge of Buddhism in the West. But during the nineteenth century this has changed dramatically and the Buddhist tradition has succeeded in generating great interest and attracting large numbers of Westerners to its ideas and lifestyle.[1] The reasons for this attraction are many and varied, some of which will be examined below.

Unofficial Buddhism

Although few Westerners become actual members of the Buddhist religion, there are many who do adopt significant parts of its teaching into their lives.[2] Metz observes that there is also what might be called "an unofficial or anonymous Buddhism."[3] This can be seen in the amount of literature that is obtainable on the subject and the numerous meditation courses available.[4] Attracted to this level of Buddhism are those who have become disillusioned with their own culture and religious roots and have instead reached out to embrace the wisdom of the East. The outcome of such involvement often results in a wide conglomeration of syncretistic religious ideas which normally ends up having very little in common with actual Buddhism.[5]

Burnett also recognizes this fact, and feels that the most significant influence that Buddhism has had in Europe does not come from those who adhere wholeheartedly to it as a religion, but rather from the influence that it has managed to advance through its ideas and thinking as a philosophy.[6] But although there are many and varied expressions of Buddhism in existence in the West they all have similarities and originate from the same roots.[7]


Buddhist Monk. Buddhism, with its many diverse forms, has teachings and techniques that are custom built to accommodate the needs of any individual.[8] Some may be attracted to a form of Buddhism that is mystically orientated and stresses the elaborate with large golden statues and miraculous stories.[9] Others may be attracted to the Tibetan tradition, with its emphasis on the devotional, spiritual and mystical elements of Buddhism.[10] Burnett observes how the initial appeal for many to Tibetan Buddhism was the colorful art and rituals that accompany it.[11]

The popularity of Zen in the West can be discerned by the large selection of literature available on the subject, adapting itself under such titles as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen and Creative Management,[12] and Zen in the Art of Archery.[13] Other topics originating from Zen include: Judo, Kendo (Fencing), and Ikebana (Flower-arrangement), now well known in Europe through the writing and lecturing of Stella Coe.[14]

Coe points out the correlation that Ikebana and Zen share and stresses that they should be studied simultaneously as complementary practices to attain tranquillity in life.[15] In addition to the involvement that Zen has had in presenting itself in ways that suit the individul other forms of Buddhism have found their way into virtually every aspect of Western life. In England, for example, there is a Buddhist prison chaplaincy organization, a hospice project, an animal rights group, a peace fellowship, a psychology and psychiatry group, and a scientific association.[16]

The Rising of Buddhist Groups Especially Tailored for Westerners

Due to the influence that Buddhism has had in attracting Westerners by offering something that will accommodate the needs of everyone, new Buddhist groups have emerged in the twentieth century especially suited for the Western clientele.

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order was founded in Britain in 1967 by an Englishman called Venerable Sangharakshita as an organization with a strong Western emphasis.[17] Although it is essentially Mahayana in its outlook it has been somewhat criticized by other Buddhist groups because of the extreme lengths that it has gone to adapt itself as a form of Buddhism to suit the Western world.[18] The Order, therefore, attracts Europeans because it is moulded to cater for their needs, offering such things as yoga, Ti chi, massage, communication exercises,[19] and an interest in the arts.[20]

The 1970s and the 1980s have seen the introduction and growth in popularity of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism in Britain.[21] Nichiren Buddhism did not become formally established in Britain until 1974 when Richard Causton, an English businessman who started to practice while working in Japan returned to the UK and founded Soka Gakkai International UK (SGI-UK).[22] Today, under his leadership, the movement has an estimated membership of about 6,000.[23] The primary reason for the attraction of Nichiren Buddhism for Europeans is found in its guarantee of a successful and happy life for those who practice it.

Causton himself promises:

“…You will develop a state of life in which your desires are completely fulfilled, which creates the maximum value and good fortune for yourself and your society, and which is powered by unshakable happiness and confidence, no matter what problems you may be facing.” [24]

Such promises prove to be irresistible to Europeans searching for happiness; a happiness that become all the more attractive when one considers the simplicity involved in attaining it. The basic practice involved consists of chanting the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to a scroll called 'The Gohonzon'.[25] In addition, the twice daily practice of gongyo, the recitation of two key chapters of the Lotus Sutra, is practiced, followed with more chanting of the above phrase.[26]


Buddhism also offers a place for Westerners who have a desire for a religion but have rejected a belief in God. The Dalai Lama, of the Tibetan tradition, has observed how those in the West who do not have any interest in religion and are of an atheistic persuasion will often be attracted to Buddhism because it too “is a kind of atheism” and a “form of humanism.”[27] Converts to Buddhism who have previously struggled with a belief in God have claimed to have experienced a freedom by rejecting the metaphysical, and contradictory accounts of the doctrine of God, that theologians argue over.[28]


The Buddhist practice of meditation has proved to be attractive to Europeans who are finding themselves overwhelmed by the increasing stress and pressures of modern Western life and are searching for peace.[29] Converts to Buddhism often testify of the peace that they have attained through meditation and it is claimed that this peace manifests itself in love and compassion.[30] Claxton believes that it is also as a result of seeing such a peace manifested in the meditator that further attracts people to Buddhism. Claxton states: "There is a feeling of being drawn, not so much by what they say as by who they are - by a sense of them being at peace with themselves."[31]

Beginning with concentrating the mind on a simple object, such as a flower, to the exclusion of everything else, the meditator gradually progresses to meditating on the abstract. From this stage, the mind moves away from the effort of meditation to an effortless state where an individual experiences a feeling of freedom.[32]

Yamaoto has observed that another attraction of Buddhism, via the means of meditation, and particularly with regards to the Zen tradition, is that it is experience orientated.[33] This, however should not be surprising because Western society is persistently seeking for experiences in the search for fulfillment. Often this search takes the form of entertainment, art, sex, philosophy and music; and those who become dissatisfied with such things have found Zen meditation to be the agency by which to attain fulfilment.

The Theravada approach to meditation gained popularity in Britain through the Thai master Ajahn Chah (1918-1922). He founded the Chithurst Forest Monastery in West Sussex in 1978, which was the first flourishing Theravada Sangha to consist of Western members. Under its British abbot Ajahn Sumedho, other centers were established throughout Britain, as well as Germany, Italy and Switzerland.[35] Meditation practice gave Buddhism a previously unknown appeal and attracted wider social groups. In the early period, it was primarily the better educated who were attracted to Buddhism, but through the influence of meditation the doors were opened to captivate a wider class.[36]


The ultimate goal of all Buddhists is to attain nirvana, the extinction of all desire, passions and individual identity.[37] Metz has observed that this concept, among the many other aspects of Buddhism that are singled out as attractive, has caught the interest and imagination of those in the West.[38] The idea of nirvana could prove particularly attractive to Westerners as both a means of escape and a goal to work towards, whereby attainment of it extinguishes a person from all greed, hatred and ignonorance, and brings a release from the cycle of samsara.[39]

An Answer to the Problem of Suffering

Another reason for Buddhism's attractiveness to the non-Eastern contemporary is that people are looking for an answer to the problem of suffering. Between the two world wars Buddhism was studied widely in Germany and explains the present day existence of the many groups and societies that have been established there. Humphreys believes that the popularity of Buddhism arose in Germany between the two wars because of desire for peace and an answer to the problem of suffering.[40]

The basic message of Buddhism is centered upon the whole question of the problem of suffering. Causton states that there can be only three possible explanations for the existence of suffering: 1)It is either the will of a supreme being, 2) the result of pure chance, or 3) it is because of a persons own karma which they themselves are responsible for.[41]

Causton points out the difficulty that the Christian has in reconciling suffering with a belief in God and consequently reasons that to believe in such a being one must conclude that it is He who is responsible for both good and suffering.[42] The belief that suffering is caused by chance is also rejected by Causton who observes that one would have to deny the eternity of life and the continuity of cause and effect if this view is held. Causton concludes that bad karma, whereby bad rebirths are seen as simply the result of certain actions, caused by desire (tanha), is the most positive and attractive choice of the three options.[44] Buddhism teaches that karma can change and suffering can cease when a person detaches themselves from desire.[45]

Harvey feels that the Buddhist concept of past karma is the only religiously satisfying explanation to explain why those who are good people undergo seemingly unfair degrees of suffering.[46] Westerners who have previously professed Christianity have been attracted to Buddhism's explanation of suffering because it is simplistic and practical; offering both a diagnosis and a solution.[47]


Many Westerners are attracted to Buddhism because of its apparent tolerance. Although there is a body of teaching, it is not forced on the individual in a dogmatic way.[48] Claxton states that even the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation does not have to be adhered to.[49] The only requirement that Claxton thinks is necessary is that a person must believe that it is possible for one's personality to change and that things can be seen differently.[50] Room for tolerance is therefore wide.

The Buddha himself taught that there are as many ways of teaching the darma as there are practitioners of it.[51] As well as Buddhism's creedal tolerance, others are attracted because it is not necessary to conform to any particular form of clothing, haircut, or ritual. [52]

Unlike many other religions, Buddhism is also attractive to Europeans not only because of the tolerance that exists within its own system but also in its general acceptance towards other world faiths.[53] It is this acceptance that attracted the Jesuit missionary Hugo Makibi Enomiya-Lassalle (1898-1990) to Buddhism and motivated him to incorporate Zen meditation practice into Catholic worship, proposing 'Zen for Christian'.[54]


Metz observes that another aspect of Buddhism that attracts Westerners is its high quality of ethics, which is at the very heart of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.[55] Buddhism provides its adherents with general ethical advice with which to attain happiness and as a means of reducing suffering.[56] But what is particularly attractive to Westerners regarding the Buddhist ethical system is that conformity to certain ethical precepts and vows is not necessary.[57] Harvey illuminates the point:

“Having no real ‘oughts,’ Buddhist ethics has levels of practice suiting different levels of commitment, rather than one set of universal obligations.” [58]

In Conclusion

Although few Westerners have become actual members of the Buddhist religion, its influence can be measured by the amount of individuals who have embraced parts of its teaching and practice into their lives. This has been seen with the many and diverse forms of Buddhism, expressing itself in a broad array of topics and having teachings and techniques that are custom built to adapt to the needs of any individual.

For those who have sought a deeper commitment, new Buddhist groups like The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism have emerged specially suited to accommodate Westerners. For those who are religiously inclined but have rejected belief in God, Buddhism provides the ideal attraction. The Buddhist practice of meditatation, with its emphasis on experience, has proved to be attractive to those who are seeking an escape from the pressures of modern Western life.

Buddhists claim that the results of meditation, manifesting itself in love and compassion, have also drawn many to Buddhism. In addition, Buddhist meditation has an appeal to all social groups. The goal of attaining nirvana is attractive as a means of escape and a goal to work towards. Particularly attractive is that Buddhism appears to offer both an explanation and an answer to the problem of suffering. Many are drawn to Buddhism because of its apparent tolerance; and although there is a body of teaching, it is not forced on the individual in a dogmatic way.

Buddhism's high quality of ethics has also proved to be effective in attracting Westerners, especially since there are different levels of practice suiting each individuals particular level of commitment, rather than one set of universal obligations that have to be strictly adhered to.

Author: Spotlight Ministries


[1] D. Burnett, The Spirit of Buddhism (E. Sussex: Monarch Publications, 1996), 249. Due to the many and varied forms of Buddhism practised in the West it is difficult to determine with accuracy how many people are involved in its practice. Burnett lists the following statistics as an estimate of those who associate themselves with Buddhism (1990 figures): Austria - 5,000; Denmark - 5,000; Italy - 15-20,000; Germany - 20-40,000; England - 130,000; France - 150,000. Burnett, 260.
[2] W. Metz, The World's Religions (Herts: Lion Publishing, 1982), 242.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Burnett, 260.
[7] J. I. Yamamoto, “The Buddha”, Christian Research Journal, Spring/Summer, 1994, 34.
[8] G. Claxton, The Heart of Buddhism (Cornwall: Crucible, 1990), 26.
[9] Ibid., 29. As an example of the miraculous Claxton describes how some monks have been known to keep themselves warm while sitting up throughout the night wrapped in wet sheets in a snow storm.
[10] Burnett, 258.
[11] Ibid.
[12] J. McDowell, and D. Stewart, Concise Guide to Today's Religions (Bucks: Scripture Press, 1988), 303.
[[13] C. Humphreys, Zen a Way of Life (London: The English Universities Press Ltd., 1962), 106.
[[14] Ibid.
[[15] S. Coe, Ikebana, A Practical & Philosophical Guide to Japanese Flower Arrangement (London: Octopus Paperbacks, 1986), 15.
[[16] P. Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 12.
[[17] Dharmachari Vessantara, The Friends of The Western Buddhist Order, An Introduction (Birmingham: Windhorse Publications, 1996), 8.
[[18] Harvey, 317.
[[19] Vessantara, 18-19.
[[20] Ibid, 23-24. This interest in the artistic world includes the existence of two arts centres in England, which offers an environment for artists to work, puts on exhibitions and lectures, and encourages the development of music and poetry. In addition, the FWBO's artists are also producing images of the Buddha that are "more Western in appearance."
[21] 1995 figures. Burnett, 259.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] R. Causton, The Buddha in Daily Life, An Introduction to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin (London: Rider Books, 1995), 13.
[25] Causton, 195. Concerning the alleged power of the phrase zam-myoho-renge-kyo, Causton draws attention to the words of Nichiren Daishonin who claimed that if it is chanted only once, or even if the phrase is merely heard, good fortune will inevitably come as a result.
[26] Ibid.
[27] D. Biddulph, "His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Address to the Buddhist Society", The Third Way, The Journal of the Buddhist Society, Vol. 71, No. 3, November, 1996, 147.
[28] I.S. Markham, A World Religions Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996), 148-149.
[29] M. Keene, Seekers After Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 67.
[30] Claxton, 27.
[31] Ibid. 18.
[32] Keene, 96. Keene points out that Zen Buddhism has its own distinctive form of meditation. The master will begin by asking a riddle (koan). One of the best known ones is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Because the riddle cannot be solved intellectually one must break through to a higher level of reality, using the medium of meditation to resolve it.
[33] J.I. Yamaoto, “Zest For Zen”, Christian Research Journal, Winter, 1995, 11, 14.
[34] Ibid., 14.
[35] Burnett, 253.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Yamaoto, Zen, 13.
[38] Metz, 242.
[39] Keene, 80.
[40] C. Humphreys, Buddhism (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1974), 29.
[41] Causton, 186.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Humphreys, Buddhism, 229.
[46] Harvey, 44.
[47] Markham, 148. Markham quotes from a section of the book Why Buddhism Makes Sense where Jane Compson describes how she became dissatisfied with her own cultural option of Christianity and became attracted to Buddhism.
[48] Metz, 242.
[49] Ibid., 30.
[50] Ibid., 31.
[51] Markham, 150.
[52] Claxton, 29.
[53] Biddulph, ed., "Buddhism From a Tibetan Buddhist Perspective", 182. Harvey notes that the only exception to Buddhism's acceptance of other world religions is the FWBO. Although the group has a strong European emphasis, it is extremely critical of Christianity and considers it to be both limited and harmful. Harvey, 317.
[54] Burnett, 254-255.
[55] Metz, 242.
[56] Harvey, 196.
[57] Ibid.
[58] Ibid.


Biddulph, D. “His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Address to the Buddhist Society,” and “Buddhism From a Tibetan Buddhist Perspective.” The Third Way, The Journal of the Buddhist Society. Vol. 71, No. 3, November, 1996.

Burnett, D. The Spirit of Buddhism. E. Sussex: Monarch Publications, 1996.

Causton, R. The Buddha in Daily Life, An Introduction to the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin. London: Rider Books 1995.

Claxton, G. The Heart of Buddhism. Cornwall: Crucible, 1990.

Coe, S. Ikebana, A Practical & Philosophical Guide to Japanese Flower Arrangement. London: Octopus Paperbacks, 1986.

Harvey, P. An Introduction to Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Humphreys, C. Buddhism. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1974.

Humphreys, Zen a Way of Life. London: The English Universities Press Ltd., 1962.

Keene, M. Seekers After Truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Markham, I.S. A World Religions Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996.

McDowell, J. and Stewart, D. Concise Guide to Today's Religions. Bucks: Scripture Press, 1988.

Metz, W. The World's Religions. Herts: Lion Publishing, 1982.

Vessantara, D. The Friends of The Western Buddhist Order, An Introduction. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications, 1996.

Yamamoto, J.I. “The Buddha”, Christian Research Journal. Spring/Summer, 1994.

Yamamoto, “Zest For Zen.” Christian Research Journal. Winter, 1995.

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