But do popular notions of Buddhism conform to what scholars know about the religion as it has been practiced in Asia? According to Robert Sharf, the director of the University of California, Berkeley's new Center for Buddhist Studies, the answer is straightforward: No.
Sharf would like to do something about this. Through the new center, he hopes to hold not only scholarly symposia in which academics from around the world share and discuss their latest research, but also host events designed to reach a lay audience. The center's "Speaking for the Buddha? -- Buddhism and the Media" conference that took place this week reflects that effort.
"I want to start a dialogue that will lead to a more sophisticated appreciation among the public of Buddhist history and teachings," said Sharf.
In American pop culture, he said, Buddhism is indistinguishable from modern New Age spirituality that promises meditative insight, happiness and self-fulfillment, yet demands nothing in return such as attendance at church, participation in ritual, moral restraint or study.
According to Sharf, this depiction of Buddhism would have been unrecognizable to most Asian Buddhist authorities throughout history. Buddhism, like any other tradition that deserves to be taken seriously, does not offer simple answers to complex questions, and is far from the stereotypically peaceful faith that is often presented in the media, he said.
Scholars who study Buddhist scriptures and historical documents in their original languages (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, etc.), and who are familiar with the Buddhist traditions that survive today in Asia, are often astonished and dismayed at how Buddhism is presented in American media and consider it to be caricature, Sharf said.
He contends that what passes for Buddhism is often antithetical to the principles of Buddhism first established in India by the Buddha some 2,500 years ago. For example, Sharf points out that while meditation was valued by Buddhists, throughout much of Buddhist history meditation was not considered appropriate for the masses but was reserved for ordained celibate monks. A life of scriptural study, ritual practice and self-restraint -- strict observance of the Buddhist precepts -- were just as central to Buddhist practice as was meditation.
The notion that Buddhist meditation could make one a better parent, spouse, lover or boss -- a notion repeated in a host of modern "Buddhist" self-help books -- would have struck traditional Buddhist masters as bizarre at best, dangerous at worst, Sharf said.
He also believes that the romantic image of Buddhist monks as always leading lives of quiet contemplation is equally misguided. Many Buddhist institutions, like Christian churches, had broad economic and political interests, and this resulted in not only efforts to promote peace but also complicity in racism and even war.
Like any other tradition, said Sharf, for Buddhism to remain meaningful and relevant it must come to terms with its past.
"Whitewashing Buddhism does not serve anyone's interests, including the Buddhists," said Sharf. "Buddhism deserves to be better understood -- it is an intellectually sophisticated tradition with a rich literary and artistic legacy."
He should know. Sharf's passion for the subject led him across the globe and into a career studying Buddhism. Sharf became interested in the subject as a teenager in Canada during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Feeling the need to learn more from Asian authorities, he traveled to India and Burma where he studied with a number of Buddhist teachers, later becoming an ordained priest himself.
As a college student, he read classical Buddhist texts in their original languages, eventually receiving a master's degree in Chinese from the University of Toronto and a doctorate in Buddhist Studies from the University of Michigan.
His research focuses on understanding medieval Chinese adaptations of Indian Buddhist tenants and institutions. As Zen was one of these adaptations, his research led him to reexamine how Zen came to be understood in the West. One focus of his work has been a number of Japanese Zen "missionaries" who came to Europe and the United States at the turn of the last century.
These missionaries, said Sharf, many of whom were urbane intellectuals versed in Western philosophy, packaged Zen for export in a manner that rendered it appealing to Western intellectuals interested in religion but alienated from the church. As a result, many of the ideas that Americans consider central to Zen -- the centrality of spiritual experience for example -- are actually lifted from Western thinkers such as the philosopher William James. Sharf concludes that Buddhism was made to order for a Western audience hungry for "spirituality" but wanting little to do with rituals, moral precepts or institutions.
Sharf admits that Buddhism's current cachet in pop culture does have one positive consequence for scholars, namely, a growing demand for Buddhist specialists in universities and colleges throughout America. Sharf noted that, in recent years, new faculty positions and programs have been established or expanded at most of the nation's leading research institutions, including UC Berkeley, Harvard University, Michigan, Stanford University, UCLA, and Yale University. Buddhist Studies has emerged as a mainstream discipline within academia, he said.
Unfortunately, Sharf said, while scholars of Buddhism seek to deepen knowledge and understanding of the religion, few are inclined to take that knowledge directly to the public.
"Most (Buddhist studies) academics don't even try to reach a lay audience because they feel the gap between the scholarly and the popular understandings of Buddhism is simply too great,." he said.
The goal of UC Berkeley's new Center for Buddhist Studies, however, is not only to promote research among scholars, but also to bring the findings of scholarship to non-academics interested in the history and teachings of Buddhism.
The scholar's task is not to pass judgment on how any individual chooses to practice his or her faith, Sharf said, but through the center, he wants to begin a dialogue with the community.
Said Sharf: "I want to try to reduce the gap."