Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

I have come to think that in the English speaking world Tibetan Buddhism (hereafter TB) is somewhat more popular than other types of Mahāyāna Buddhism. While I do not have statistics available and none are probably available at the moment, I believe the following points demonstrate a greater widespread interest in TB:

- Volume of printed materials on Tibetan Buddhism compared to works on East Asian traditions is comparatively greater. The latter often seem to be more academic and inaccessible to ordinary readers.

- The number of students in East Asia from the west studying Buddhism seems much smaller than those going to India and elsewhere to specifically study and practice TB. If you wanted to study Buddhism in Taiwan, they would basically pay you to do so, but not so many students have an interest. On the other hand, International Buddhist Academy and Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Kathmandu attract dozens of new students every year who pay US$6000 or more in tuition, room and board out of their own pockets. There are a lot of fresh students every year who travel to Dharamsala specifically to study Tibetan at their own expense. Japanese Buddhist Universities have a few western students, but they're usually on scholarship (or at least in my own observations), and probably half or more are scholars and not practitioners.

- Taiwanese Buddhist organizations like Foguang Shan and Dharma Drum Mountain have vast sums of wealth and resources, yet between them there are less than two dozen western monastics. Meanwhile I hear about many western Tibetan Buddhists very much wanting to ordain, but not having any economic means to support themselves.

- Tibetan teachers draw larger crowds of long-term committed students and disciples. HH the Dalai Lama easily fills stadiums of not just Buddhists, but also people with a general interest in what he has to say.

- TB groups are working on the 84,000 Project, an ambitious plan to translate the Tibetan canon, whereas no such comparable project is in the works with the East Asian Chinese canon. Plenty of it is being translated, but nothing coordinated on the same scale of 84,000.

- TB groups are rapidly producing translators. Many colleges and programs now exist for that express purpose, yet nothing comparable is seen within Japanese or Chinese traditions. This is clearly not a priority for East Asian traditions.

Now it begs the question why would this be?

- TB traditions have linear and progressive curricula. For instance, Lama Tsongkhapa's Lam Rim Chen Mo is an exhaustive and complete manual read by all Gelug-pa students. Similar works exist in Chinese and Japanese, such as the work of Tiantai Zhiyi, though contemporary traditions, with perhaps the exception of Soto Zen, do not necessarily use such manuals in the same manner as Tibetan traditions do.

- A lot of the eminent TB teachers speak English. Some East Asian teachers speak English, but many don't. The household names in Japanese and Taiwanese-Chinese Buddhism that are well known in their respective countries are largely unknown in the western Buddhist world.

- The Dalai Lama is a recognizable and attractive figurehead who speaks English. Other eminent figures like HH Sakya Trizin speaks English as well.

- TB is not heavily tied to an immigrant ethnicity unlike, say, Chinese Buddhism which is very closely tied to a specific ethnic group. Chinese Buddhist traditions might even specifically promote themselves as exclusively "Chinese Buddhist" and in the process exclude members of the host culture.

- The intellectual and scholarly traditions within TB are more readily accessible and understood by Tibetan monastics and teachers, while this may not be the case with East Asian teachers where it is largely just academics who understand the classical scholarship and can thoroughly discuss such subjects. In contrast TB traditions tend to promote such activities more readily than most East Asian traditions. TB places more emphasis on critical thinking and debate, at least formally, than contemporary East Asian traditions which are more devotional and deferential in their orientation.

- TB figures have been engaging scientists in fruitful discussion in the last number of years. In a society which highly esteems science it gives a religious tradition a positive image to have open dialogue with scientists.

- Japanese monasticism is so limited as to be unavailable to most foreigners. Chinese monasticism on the other hand is possible, though the culture is extremely demanding in terms of the hierarchy. There might also be a lack of autonomy. Moreover, the strict expectation that one will conform to Chinese culture and behave as is expected of a Chinese bhikṣu is something many westerners I think simply could not tolerate over the long-term. Taiwanese Buddhist organizations have vast sums of wealth and would happily take western applicants, but between the big four there are probably less than two dozen western monastics.

- TB culture is generally more relaxed and free than Chinese Buddhism. For example, in a Chinese temple there will be choreographed group prostrations done in traditional long flowing robes (laity included). There are prescribed forms for how to properly bow, prostrate, salute, eat and walk. In a TB gonpa, on the other hand, you can generally do things in whichever way you please. Seating is usually first come first serve without the gender segregation you see in Chinese temples.

- TB has a tradition of debate and it is not considered impolite to engage in it with your superiors.

I think these points generally explain why TB is more popular than any other type of Mahāyāna Buddhism in the west. After having some experience with Tibetan, Japanese and Chinese traditions of Buddhism I have come to honestly think TB is far more approachable and accommodating than Chinese Buddhism, at least as I have seen it in Taiwan.

I imagine unless there are large changes to Chinese traditions they'll never really make in-roads into the western world. Some people might take an interest in Chan practice, but forming living stable traditions in new lands means having strong communities and a culture everyone can relate to. For various reasons it seems many westerners can invest themselves emotionally, materially and spiritually into Tibetan traditions, but that is not at all the case with Chinese traditions. I think my points above start to explain perhaps why.

In passing I should note that some years ago Chan Master Sheng Yen and His Holiness the Dalai Lama did have a dialogue. I wrote about this before here.


Eisel Mazard said...

Various comments on religion in Taiwan:

Statistics on the same subject:

CajunMick said...

I think another factor in the spread of Vajrarana (TB) is the Tibetans see the disemination of TB as an excellent way to preserve their culture. As is well-known, since the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, the Chinese has worked diligently to homogenize Tibet into the Han majority.
The spread of the TB Dharma is an excellent survival strategy.

Wu Ming said...

You can get paid to study Buddhism in Taiwan??

How does this program work? I would like nothing more than to devote myself to serious study of the dharma, but like many young people in the West I am bogged down with student loans and other obligations that make this little more than a pipe dream.

Can you share some more information about this?

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Wu Ming:

Foguang University has a MA degree program as well as a PhD program which as I understand are fully funded with scholarships. Foguang operates in English for the Buddhist Studies.

Likewise Dharma Drum College has a few minimal costs if you study Buddhism. They basically don't charge anything, and room and board are minimal. It is entirely in Mandarin.

Eisel Mazard said...

J.K., have you been there to visit those guys? (i.e., 法鼓山 and/or 佛光山.)

I talked to pretty much everyone in Taiwan who exists about university programs in Buddhist studies. The results of that research were… disappointing to even the most modest of expectations.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Yeah, I've been to both places.

The quality is up to the student I reckon. If you can do your own research and don't need to rely on an advisor so much, you can spend a few years leisurely studying your subject. Some of the profs at both places are highly knowledgeable, though they're just a small part of the programs.

A lot of Buddhist colleges in any case are not really held in high esteem by the larger academic world. In Kathmandu I hear their colleges are hit or miss, largely up to the student's own initiative. You can either master Tibetan, or screw around in a backpacker's paradise.

Hongyang Shi said...

I'm a mid-western woman and a Chinese Buddhist bhikshuni. I do believe your article not based on realistic numbers or any numbers as you stated in the first paragraph.
I do not see what you are claiming. Just because something is marketed in Shambala Sun, Tricylce, and Buddhadharma does not make it as well-known as you claim. TB Westerners are really good business people. It is remarkable how ad orentated these rags are, little content in them.
I do not agree with you. Chinese Buddhism is about 160 years old in the USA and came with the Chinese immigrants working on the USA railroads. TB is relatively new since the rush of English print books in the mid-90s only featured Japanese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism by said rags.
Why we are not seen, maybe we are not desirable maybe not as marketable. US Media and religious organizations claiming diversity does not include us in all its so-called coverage of religion. It is because somehow Western people lump Chinese Buddhism as part of the hated-CC; we are to be hated for a government we are not a part of overseas and never were. Chinese does not equal Commies. But somehow that get played up in the politics of those engaging in persecution of one ethnic group that followed Buddhism for centuries. Our order survives because we understand Buddhist culture, endure to save it, uphold our precepts, struggle for time to cultivate and study on our own. We have always mixed different Buddhist traditions in our temples, all forms. Most western people don’t realize that, if they did take the time to really understand Buddhist culture from a Sangha member’s view then they would really treasure their time in temples everywhere.
Real advanced TB practice requires fluent Tibetan, high level of reading skills in Tibetan Sanskrit, and great deal of time and patience waiting so you can gain access to a highly achieved master who can actually teach you well. These masters are in demand and do not have time to dummy down for those too lazy to do this. Most of the TB monks and very few of the TB nuns have any degree of traditional TB monastic education; mostly they are rim sitters which is sad for they cannot attain much levels at all. Lots of this has to do with lack of language ability, for you can’t train if you can’t understand. Interpreters cannot give you the details, they are too pressed for time. I’m fluent in Chinese so I know this first hand, at dharma talks you must be able to understand the high level masters very detailed instructions or you gain nothing.
Tolerance of other cultures should be given to understand how to excel in your Buddhist practice. It is not fair to say our Chinese Buddhist communities demand conformity from Western people, they do not. They say over and over again, we do not want you to think we want you to be Chinese when you come into our temple we want you to be who you are, American. Every temple says this even FGS, DDM, CTTB. They have all races and all countries people in their communities, fully accepted and fully ordained.
Realize there are Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Burmese, and many more including Japanese (non Vinaya); there are new movements too here in the USA that are all colors of people. The white elite it seems that is who you talk about most, I think maybe so; is such a small number as not to matter in the data about Buddhism here in the USA. In all these temples from all these countries there are Americans who take refuge, a few ordain and you got way more than that 12 that you say you eyeballed when you visited 2 places. Please let me know if you want to visit more diverse places now, I say start with CTTB and then visit Thich Nhat Hahn’s group in Deer Park.

Merle Langlois said...

I've been going to DDM for about nine months now and I do share some of your concerns. On the one hand, I like their fairly straight to the point teachings and lack of ostentation. I can also say that the people have been the nicest people I've ever met. On the other hand there are some cultural elements that I've found off-putting, or that take some getting used to. Currently they seem to be placing their eggs in the college-system type basket and trying to get a sizable number of Mandarin/Taiwanese/English speaking bhiksunis (I've seen in person only nuns here, but I like that better).

I don't really understand the attraction of TB at all. To me it seems campy, classical polytheist in Buddhist drag, sleazy, and worst of all not Buddhist. Granted I realize I'm an uptight grumpy person.

I went to another place that was Shunryu Suzuki originated and they did stuff in English mostly, which I liked, but they still had some Japanese style cultural elements, albeit much toned-down.

I think if any Buddhist organization is to really thrive out here it needs to first grab some core Buddhist teachings that westerners actually feel a desperate need for (I'm not sure what such a large group actually needs spiritually, but there's gotta be something), become independent, and carry on in English while dropping foreign cultural remnants.

Nonduality Georg said...

I also heard the argument that TB is so popular because it is the closest we got from the original Indian Buddhism. Since Tibet is quite an isolated place high in the Himalayas it preserved Indian Buddhism most adequately.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, etc. has seen great changes during the last centuries of attempted colonialization by Western powers. It has also been changed from within by anti-colonial politics in their respective countries. There are even many similarities between German 19th century Philosophy (Hegel, Spinoza, Schopenauer,...) and what we call nowadays Theravada, Zen, etc.
Why? Because those countries which were expoused to the threat of colonial Christianity looked at Europe and their dominant philosophies to understand and change their Buddhist-religions to build up a new Buddhism with elements from Europe to combat colonial-christianity. (source: https://meaningness.wordpress.com/)