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Buddhadharma : Fall 2011
53 fall 2 01 1 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly politically oriented concerns usually center on the impact of the Christian right on national politics or the role of islam in international terrorism, and once again Buddhism is largely ignored. What image the general public does have of Buddhism is surprisingly negative, given the fact that it has not been subject to the constant din of negative publicity that islam has, and its most prominent spokesman, the Dalai Lama, seems to be almost universally respected and admired. Yet when the Faith Matters Survey, conducted by American political scientists robert Putnam and David Campbell, asked a broad sample of Americans how warmly or coolly they felt toward members of other religious groups, Buddhists were ranked second to last—above only Muslims and well below those with no religion at all. Another question in that survey found that one in five Americans would object to building a large Buddhist temple in their neighborhood, but not to a large Christian church. the survey showed that positive atti- tudes about Buddhism seem to increase as income increases and decline with involve- ment with more conservative religious move- ments. Putnam and Campbell speculate that the reasons for such a negative evaluation is that Buddhism is seen as standing outside the accepted mainstream of American religious life. to most Americans, Buddhism is still unfamiliar and somewhat strange. The Coming Challenge Western Buddhism has grown to a point that it is unlikely to be ignored much longer. the question is not so much if Buddhism will develop a new public face, but who will shape it. Some Buddhists feel we should simply focus on practicing the dharma wholeheart- edly, and that it doesn’t really matter what the general public thinks. in this view, those who are ready for the dharma will find it. While most Buddhists would agree that aggressive proselytizing is counterproductive, it seems that there is a middle way between that approach and complete passivity. People need to know about the dharma, its virtues and its challenges, before they can be expected to know if it is the right path for them. And if Buddhism’s public image is cast in negative stereotypes, people are likely to be far less open to even hearing about the dharma. the Buddha himself was certainly very concerned with the way the public viewed his sangha. Many of the monastic rules and restrictions in the Vinaya were clearly intended to protect Buddhism’s public image, if for no other reason than that the monks depended on the public’s largess for their food and thus their survival. none of this is to suggest that we launch some kind of massive public relations cam- paign, or that we should try to project an idealized picture of Western Buddhism that attempts to conceal its problems and deficien- cies. What i am suggesting is that Buddhist leaders and everyday practitioners need to make more of an effort to participate in the religious, cultural, and social dialogues of our times, and bring the principles of dharma into full public view—not just to promote the future of Buddhism in the West, but because Western society desperately needs the kind of new direction that Buddhism can help provide. Until now, Western Buddhism has been something of a marginalized subculture, but it need not stay that way. the growing acceptance of the value of pluralism, the ever- increasing number of Western Buddhists, and Buddhism’s status as one of the world’s larg- est and most ancient religious traditions are all helping to raise Buddhism’s profile in the West. this means that we must think seri- ously about what we have to offer to the people of the postmodern Western world, let them know what we stand for, and then do our best to live up to the ideals we proclaim. of course, many will challenge our assertions and paint a far less flattering picture of what for them is a new and alien religious phenom- enon. But if we respond to our critics with the openness and understanding our ideals proclaim, the facts will speak for themselves. And if we are indeed successful in shaping the emerging face of Western Buddhism, its future will, i think, be assured for generations to come.