The Appeal of Buddhism in the Modern World
Dr. Alexander Berzin
Question: This year  you have been on a teaching tour to 26 countries. Please share with us your observations of how Buddhism is spreading to new places.
Dr. Berzin: Buddhism is spreading rapidly around the world now. There are Buddhist centers in many European countries, North America, South America, South Africa, Australasia, and so on. We find Buddhists in Europe not only in the Western capitalist countries, but also in the socialist countries of the East. For example, Poland has about 5,000 active Buddhists.
Buddhism appeals very much to the modern world because it is reasonable and scientifically based. Buddha said, “Do not believe in anything that I say just out of respect for me, but test it for yourself, analyze it, as if you were buying gold.” Modern-day people like such a non-dogmatic approach.
There are many dialogues between scientists and Buddhist leaders, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Together they are discussing and investigating what is reality. Buddha said that all problems come from not understanding reality, from being confused in this regard. If we were aware of who we are and how the world and we exist, we would not create problems out of our confusion. Buddhism has an extremely open attitude in examining what is true. For example, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that if scientists can prove that something Buddha or his followers taught is incorrect or just superstition, he would be happy and willing to drop it from Buddhism. Such an approach is very attractive to Western people.
Since learned masters of the past have adapted Buddhism to the culture of each society to which it has spread, it is only natural that teachers today need to present Buddhism in different modern countries in slightly different ways. In general, Buddhism emphasizes a rational explanation. Within this context, however, different points and approaches need more emphasis depending on predominant cultural traits.
Buddha taught such a variety of methods, simply because people vary so much. Not everyone thinks in the same way. Consider the example of food. If there were only one type of food available in a city, it would not appeal to everyone. If, on the other hand, different foods could be had with varied flavors, everyone could find something appealing. Likewise, Buddha taught a large variety of methods for people with a wide spectrum of tastes to use to develop themselves and grow. After all, the objective of Buddhism is to overcome all our limitations and problems and to realize all our potentials so that we can develop ourselves to the point at which we can help everyone as much as is possible.
In some Western countries that emphasize psychology, such as Switzerland and the United States, teachers usually present Buddhism from the point of view of psychology. In other countries where people prefer a devotional approach, such as many Southern European lands and in Latin America, teachers tend to present Buddhism in a devotional manner. People there like to chant very much, and one can do that in Buddhist practice. People in Northern European countries, however, do not enjoy chanting as much. Teachers tend to emphasize an intellectual approach to Buddhism there.
Many people in Eastern Europe are in a very sad situation. The Buddhist teachings appeal to them greatly because many find their lives empty. Whether they work hard at their jobs or not seems to make no difference. They see no results. Buddhism, in contrast, teaches them methods for working on themselves, which do bring results that make a difference in the qualities of their lives. This makes people unbelievably appreciative and enthusiastic to throw themselves fully into practices such as making thousands of prostrations.
In this way, Buddhism adapts itself to the culture and the mentality of the people in each society, while preserving the major teachings of Buddha. The principal teachings are not changed – the aim is to overcome our problems and limitations and to realize our potentials. Whether practitioners do this with more emphasis on the psychological, intellectual, scientific, or devotional approach depends on the culture.
How is Buddhism adapting to the 20th century in general?
Buddhism is adapting by emphasizing a rational scientific approach to its teachings. Buddhism gives a clear explanation of how life’s experiences come about and how to deal with them in the best manner possible. Then it says do not accept anything on blind faith; think for yourself, test it out and see if it actually does make sense. This resembles science asking us to verify the results of an experiment by repeating it ourselves, and only then to accept the results as fact. Modern people do not like buying something without examining it; they would not buy a car without testing it. Likewise, they will not turn to another religion or philosophy of life without checking it first to see if it really makes sense. That is what makes Buddhism so appealing to many people of the 20th century. Buddhism is open to scientific investigation and invites people to examine it in that way.
Revised excerpt from Berzin, Alexander and Chodron, Thubten. Glimpse of Reality. Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1999.