The Buddha boom

by KATE TAYLOR, The Oregonian, June 28, 2005

Tigard, Oregon (USA) -- A lotus grows in the mud, the Eastern spiritual saying goes. But if the proliferation of Buddhist images, icons and language means anything, then it's also thriving in boardrooms, shopping malls and cyberspace.

As an unprecedented number of Americans turn to Buddhism -- there are now an estimated 6 million Buddhists nationwide -- more and more Buddhist ideas and symbols are popping up in bookstores, gift shops and business retreats.

A shopper cruising the Washington Square Mall, for example, can find Buddha T-shirts, Buddha key chains, Buddha photo holders, books that coach readers to become a bodhisattva, music for Buddhist meditation and a Buddha-ball that shoots beams of light.

"This is a really popular item. I think they like this because it's more unique," Sandy Berney of Spencer Gifts said of the Electrostorm Buddha Ball on a recent weekday.

Shoppers will not, however, find in the mall's Victoria's Secret store the notorious Buddha tankini swimsuit with its strategically placed Buddhas. Victoria's Secret and the tankini's manufacturer, the Ondademar swimwear company, yanked it from the market last year after outraged Buddhists launched protests against it.

"It was crass. It was like having the Koran on toilet paper," said Robert Beatty, leader of the Portland Insight Meditation Community. Yet Buddhists like Beatty do see a logic in the way Buddhist images and icons are appearing all over the United States.

"Every time Buddhism enters a culture, it transforms the culture," he said. "What's happening now is there's this deep flowing into our culture of rather significant Buddhist practices, and along with that come the accoutrements."

Some of those accoutrements are sleazy and cheap, said Charles S. Prebish, Pennsylvania State University professor of religion studies and author of scores of books and articles about Buddhism. "But some are making (and writing) good stuff, and are doing it to support Buddhist causes."

Prebish, the oft-cited source of the 6 million U.S. Buddhists figure, says he doesn't see any harm in people dabbling in Buddhism, or becoming what some call "nightstand Buddhists" or "freelance Buddhists," but said they should avoid "a lot of junk out there."

That aside, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism," he said, has nothing on his book, "American Buddhism."

Yes, Buddhist terms tossed around in pop culture often have little or altered meaning. In glossy home decor magazines and facial product lines, words like "Zen" usually mean clear, relaxed or above the fray and hassle of daily life.

For Barbara Brunner, owner of Urbane Zen in Portland and Lake Oswego, "The name indicates peacefulness and an essence of relaxation. It sounds good, but it really isn't more complicated than that."

For those who are religiously unaffiliated but seeking answers to spiritual questions, Buddhist icons draw like a beacon.

The stream of customers wandering through The Mystery Gallery in Milwaukie to buy Buddha statues or Tibetan prayer flags "are often just searching," said co-owner Kathy Casey. "Often, they don't even know that much about Buddhism, but they're just drawn to it, for some kind of peace. They want something that's going to make them feel good or bring them luck."

Others snatch up such books as "Your Buddha Nature" or "If the Buddha Dated" -- not because they want to don crimson robes and take on the life of a monk, but because they want to learn how to apply concepts of compassion, detachment and the inner peace to their own lives.

"Pop culture very much embraces it," said James Davis, supervisor of the Bridgeport Village Borders bookstore. "These ideas that were once so alien and uncommon -- maybe we've reached a point in our society where ideas from Buddhism and other Eastern religions can flow freely. Maybe we're seeing a certain truth in them, and that causes us to be more interested in them."

Beth Bingham, national spokeswoman for the Borders Group Inc. said that after the 9-11 terror attacks, the sale of Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired material dropped. Now, she said, it's steadily rising.

Assisting the climb are Hollywood stars Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, who have appeared with the Dalai Lama and raised large amounts of money for Tibetans living in exile.

And those who've read Oprah's interview with the Dalai Lama or listened to Gere read "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" can chat about it with just a few keystrokes -- Internet chat rooms are full of talk about that, of sangha (Buddhist community) and The Noble Eightfold Path (right speech, right intention, right action, etc.).

Other forms of technology also offer to help players enhance their spirituality. The video game "The Journey to Wild Divine" promises players the chance to deepen their meditation skills to the accompaniment of dreamy graphics and New Age music.

Businesspeople who've never even thought of Buddhism also are finding themselves booked for Zen retreats with colleagues. Seminars with titles like Executive Zen, Zen at Work and Zen and Business offer businesses a way to help their employees handle stress and excel.

"When we take a moment out of an overfilled day and incorporate a very basic Zen practice, for instance, the practice of mindfulness, it's amazing how your day can turn around," said Monique Muhlenkamp, publicity manager for California's New World Library. In her work, she promotes such books as Marc Lesser's "Z.B.A.: Zen of Business Administration: How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work and Your Life" ($14.95 paperback, 256 pages).

Meditation retreats for businesspeople and books about Zen practice and business "are filling an increased need for books and experts that address the delicate balance between living a working life and spiritual practice, especially as employees expect more from the workplace," she said. "For many people, it's no longer just about a job; they want and need more. Applying Zen to the day-to-day helps on many levels."