Elitism in Buddhism, again

I distrust the extremes. Scratch a conservative and you find someone who prefers the past over any future. Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat…

–Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

After reading a post by the Angry Asian Buddhist, I found this article by Wired Magazine. It talks about the popularity of Buddhism in Silicon Valley, and some of the people who are involved in this movement.

While reading this article, I got really irritated. One the one hand, it’s great that people are using Buddhism to help manage stress, work with other people better, and be more mature. On the other hand, the movement feels very elitist to me. If you don’t have a nice job at Google or another tech company, you probably can’t access these kinds of teachings. What about the millions and millions of Americans who live in rural or poor-urban areas who cannot afford to meet teachers at Yoga centers, or afford to eat organic/vegan food, or pay membership at expensive Zen “centers”? There’s a big, big world outside of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

A while back while training in Phoenix, Arizona, I remember talking with one of the people who worked in a warehouse. She was a single mom, about the same age as me, and she worked two jobs to take care of her son. When I mentioned reading in my past-time, she joked that she had no time for past-times. But it’s not a joke. When I was a kid, my mother worked 2 jobs also so she could feed 3 kids. As a little kid, I remember being in the car with my mom and my younger sisters before sunrise, so she could deliver newspapers.

The idea of Buddhism as something “geeky” or something modern and scientific is kind of arrogant too. It implies that Buddhist geeks are somehow “smarter” than people around them, even smarter than other Buddhists. How can you say that, when there are so many good and genuine people out there who don’t have a college education? That’s why I referenced the quote above: people who believe they’re smarter and more progressive than others are usually just being aristocratic. Like the monk I mentioned in this post, there are a lot of good Buddhists out there in Asia and the West1 who don’t have flashy websites, conferences, podcasts or anything like that. What they do have is genuine heart.

But after reading this article, I remembered another point in history that looked like this: early Buddhism in China and later Japan.

When Buddhism first came to China, it was a foreign-imported religion. In the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) of China, Buddhist culture was very sophisticated. Many monks from India or Central Asia came, gave lectures, translated sutras, taught the latest practices and trained a lot of native Chinese monks. But this was mostly in the capitol of Chang-an (長安). People from elite families had many opportunities to learn from great Buddhist masters in India and such, but regular people at that time had little or not exposure. They followed more native Chinese religions (Confucianism, Taoism, etc).

Eventually, after the Tang Dynasty fell, many of these elite Buddhist societies disappeared too, but the Buddhist schools that had better support from regular people survived and became the Chinese Buddhism you see today.

The same story happens again later in Japan. In the Heian Period (平安時代), many wealthy families, especially the Fujiwara, could become Buddhist monks, or could afford to build and own Buddhist temples. When you read Lady Murasaki’s Diary, you get the impression that Heian Period Buddhism had many elaborate rituals and teachings, but only elite families in the capitol could afford to have these ceremonies, or participate. Many of these rituals were focused on material matters (safe birth, curing disease, power and wealth), in other words: happiness here and now.2

But when the Heian Period ended, many of these Buddhist groups declined too. The Hossō School (法相宗) used to be the most powerful school in Japan. They almost totally controlled the Buddhist institutions at the time, but now the school is very small. The Five Schools of Rinzai Zen (gozan, 五山) were very influential in the capitol in the Muromachi Period (室町時代), but now the temples are mostly tourism attractions now.

Instead, low-ranking monks, monks of common birth, eventually started newer schools in Japanese Buddhism and these schools are the ones that are most commonly seen in Japan today.

In the same way, when I see articles like this, I think that this kind of “aristocratic Buddhism” or elitist Buddhism in the West is a temporary thing. I believe such people are well-intentioned, but it’s flashy, it gets a lot of attention in the media and such, yet it’s not sustainable in the long-run. When tech companies fail, and the money dries up, where will these guys go? Who will buy their books or pay for their counseling services?

When my grand-kids or great-great-grand-kids are adults, I suspect that Buddhism will look different, more accessible, more diverse I hope.

1 Reverened “J.W.”, if you ever read this, I think you were a great minister.

2 Not unlike popular “self-help” books and teachers in the West, now.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “Elitism in Buddhism, again”

  1. That is very interesting. Even in economic or social decline, these schools have adapted and overcome to maintain their existence. I have been wondering about this issue lately because of my circumstances and inability to attend at my local zendo. How do others in my position (living in poverty, no resources to contribute to the zendo or even the gas to get to a Sunday service etc.) practice? How do people like me keep the temple going if they have no way to contribute (monetarily or physically)? How does someone in that position receive guidance in their practice? How do they make it work? What do other members of the sangha do that I’m not? Have they given up something essential to be there? Are they (have they been) in the same position? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

    Thanks for another great article, Doug. I really enjoy your blog.

    In gassho,


    1. Hi Jason,

      I’ve met people before who couldn’t attend the local temple because the financial resources wren’t there. I once saw a fellow get kicked out of a Buddhist class because he hadn’t paid the dues (Jodo Shinshu temple). It happens.

      I don’t have an easy answer. Mostly, just find a Buddhist practice that’s sustainable in your situation. It may not be Zen meditation, it may be something else. The only advice I can offer is to be flexible and adaptable, and always remember to follow the Five Precepts and practice generosity if possible. If you can have a solid foundation in those two, the rest will follow.


  2. I like your voice, and this sort of comparison would not be especially controversial to either a sociologist or a psychologist – but please be careful not to get too overblown with what the real world consequences are for all of this – after all the politics of Dharma are not quite the same as the Dharma of politics? As long as we know what side of that particular little expression we are on I think that’s as good as it gets no matter how much privilege we may have accumulated, or how much impoverishment we have had to bear with. Inequity in opportunity is of course offensive in any guise but when it comes to opportunity there is no absolute distinction between social class in dharma, the distinctions we make are only relative and dependent on innumerable factors and dimensions. If we observe elitism then there is a clearly an intellectual and emotional deficit in those places and so it might be safer for us to avoid them – or if you are an aspiring saint you could stop by for a while because they obviously will need to change for the better, and the best way to do that is what you have done here – simply wake up to it – but if they are unwilling or incapable of changing then that inability to adapt will inevitably lead to obsolescence and extinction. This process for me then is therefore more about evolution than revolution and in any persons life it’s interesting to think that if Buddhism lasts as long after we die as it has done before we were born, we are only going to experience less than one percent of that process. This longer view might help in coming to terms with what action we need to take now to see the changes we want to see in our own lives as well as in the lives of people we care about, and further still, people who seems to be causing all the problems for everyone else through policies that not only serve to enrich a minority, but also cause imperceptible harm on others.


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