Buddhism in the United States: Implications for Managers of Buddhist Values in the Workplace

Joan Marques. International Journal of Management. Volume 28, Issue 2. June 2011.

Buddhism Americana is in full development. While it is structured on established Buddhist training practices and ancient Buddhist values, there is a Western-based interpretation of this ancient philosophy in development that is worth recognizing. This paper discusses the recent evolution of Buddhism in the United States with special reference to the contemporary workplace. The paper examines a number of implications of this evolution for managers in today’s workplaces, which should be considered of particular significance since these implications fit in well with the contemporary trends of greater awareness, environmental sustainability, and increased social responsibility.


This paper presents a literature review that was built on input provided by eight Buddhist scholars, all adhering to Tibetan Buddhism, yet representing two distinctly different cultures: four were from American origin, and four from Tibetan origin. The scholars were intended about the applicability of Buddhist practices in today’s workplace. They all agreed that Buddhists will perform well in the workplace, but may do better in non-profit than in for-profit settings. Yet, an even more interesting insight surfaced as a result of the literature that was reviewed to support the scholars’ statements: the evolution of Buddhism in the Western world, simply to be referred to in this paper as Buddhism Americana. For readers’ orientation, I will first present a general overview of Buddhism, including a concise history, and then proceed with a brief review of Tibetan and American Buddhism.

General Overview on Buddhism

Buddhism, in this article, will be approached predominantly as a philosophy and not as a religion. This is not a unique perspective as will be illustrated through citations from multiple authors, and as the below-posted statement demonstrates:

“When we study Buddhism, we are studying ourselves, the nature of our own minds. Instead of focusing on a supreme being, Buddhism emphasizes more practical matter, such as how to lead our lives, how to integrate our minds, and how to keep our everyday lives peaceful and healthy. In other words, Buddhism always accentuates experiential knowledge-wisdom, rather than some dogmatic view.” (Lama Yeshe, 1998, p. 5)

Lama Yeshe (1998) points out that many Buddhist scholars don’t see Buddhism as a religion in the conventional sense. He explains that, from many lamas’ points of view, Buddhist teachings are often related to philosophy, science, or psychology. Johansen and Kopalakrishna (2006) concur with Lama Yeshe and many other Buddhist Lama’s perspectives. They content that Buddhism presents a specific worldview and way of living that leads to personal understanding, happiness, and development. They describe Buddhism as a moral, ethical, value-based, scientific, educational system, that serves the purpose of enabling its observers to see things in their true nature, which will, in turn, help them get rid of suffering and attain happiness for themselves and others. Johansen and Kopalakrishna underscore that, although Buddhism allows for supernatural beings, it is non-theocratic. The Buddha is not worshipped as a god but revered as an enlightened teacher.

Buddhism: Some Basic Concepts

Currently, the two main Buddhist streams, as referred to by a majority of sources, are Theravada, also known as the teaching of the elders, predominantly centered in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and Mahayana or great vehicle, mainly practiced in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. One of the most important differences between these two schools is, that Theravada teaches that only a precious few will ever attain enlightenment, while Mahayana teaches that enlightenment can be obtained by everyone, and that there are Buddha’s all around us. These everyday Buddha’s from the Mahayana teachings are called Bodhisattva’s (enlightened beings). They focus on giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom, and are compassionate. Another important difference is the perspective about Buddha: Mahayana believes that Buddha is a phenomenon that keeps recurring, while Theravada sees Buddha as one single human teacher that once lived. Nevertheless, both streams adhere to Buddha as their primary teacher, and take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, also known as the three jewels. Both schools also agree that all conditioned things are impermanent, that all conditioned and unconditioned things are without self, and both schools adhere to the Four Noble Truths.

Because the truth is considered a foundational aspect in Buddhism, The Four Noble Truths are considered of high importance. The Four Noble Truths are: 1) The nature of suffering (Dukkha); 2) The origin of suffering (Samudya), 3) The cessation of suffering (Nirodha), and 4) The way leading to the cessation of suffering (Magga). As for the first Noble Truth, Buddhists see the entire cycle of life as a manifestation of suffering. The Second Noble Truth explains that the suffering we experience in life arises from our desires, greed, or craving. The Third Noble Truth is explained as the liberation from suffering, which can be attained by giving up craving. The Fourth Noble Truth entails the way leading to the cessation of suffering. This way is also known as The Noble Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path consists of 1) Right Understanding (also referred to as Right View); 2) Right Thought; 3) Right Speech; 4) Right Action; 5) Right Livelihood; 6) Right Effort; 7) Right Mindfulness; and 8) Right Concentration.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, is the current Tibetan religious leader, residing in exile in Dharamsala, India, since 1959, when the Chinese invaded Tibet. In line with the Mahayana tradition, Tibetans define their culture by an experience of real Buddhas dwelling among them. They feel that Buddha is all around: he is not a dead hero who awaits resurrection. Tibetans find proof of their stance in the presence of many people whom they consider living Buddhas (Thurman, 1995).

Tibet’s whereabouts are of great concern in these times to the global society. Some Buddhist scholars, like Robert Thurman, feel that Tibet has been shattered in the past 50 years beyond recognition, suffering horrendously under the oppressive domination of the Chinese occupants. Others, like Alan Wallace, present the perspective that the Tibetan Diaspora, which eventually led to the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to many Western countries and gaining great popularity for Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, is actually a blessing in disguise. Wallace asserts that the separation from Tibet liberated the Dalai Lama from an isolated life, into more intimate contact with his people, and into an horizon expansion that was unthinkable before.

Indeed, The Dalai Lama is currently one of the most popular and revered religious and political leaders in the world, and Tibetan Buddhism has been gaining tremendous popularity in the Western part of the world. The Dalai Lama has come to the realization that his extensive travels serve as a powerful marketing instrument for Tibetan Buddhism.

Two important Buddhist principles, which The Dalai Lama endorses in his teachings, are altruism and compassion. He calls for more individual responsibility toward the direction in which our world is evolving, and warns that we should not merely place all the blame on politicians and others who are directly responsible for disparaging situations. When asked whether he thinks compassion and altruism can be enhanced, he emphatically agrees. He advises, “through constant training one can change one’s mind: in other words, our positive attitudes, thoughts and outlook can be enhanced, and their negative counterparts can be reduced” (The Dalai Lama, 1995, p. 64).

Recent Buddhist Developments in the United States

In regards to the entrance of Tibetan Buddhism in the U.S., Coleman (2002) mentions names such as Tarthang Tulku and KaIu Rinpoche. Tarthang Tulku established the Nyingma Meditation Center in Berkeley, California, and KaIu Rinpoche established his main North American center in Vancouver, Canada. Yet, it is the name of Chogyam Trungpa, also referred to as Trungpa Rinpoche, that rings most bells when reviewing the popularization of Tibetan Buddhism in America. According to Coleman (2002), Trungpa was also a Tibetan refugee, identified as the eleventh Trungpa Tulku when he was thirteen months old. Trungpa was known for his unconventional ways of behaving, including drinking heavily, smoking, and having sex with his students. He founded the Naropa institute and had a way about him that delivered him a large group of Caucasian-American followers. The Naropa Institute now offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Buddhist studies, while several of Trungpa’s Buddhist centers in the U.S. also engage in Shambala training, a secularized path to spiritual awakening, which is still in debate as to whether it was Trungpa’s own invention or an existing secret Tibetan tradition.

As times progressed, American Buddhism developed along two main lines: the ethnic Buddhists, consisting of “immigrants and their descendants” (Numrich, 2003, p. 57), and the Caucasian-American Buddhists or “occidentals” (Numrich, p. 57). Prebish describes these two groups as “ethnic Asian-American Buddhist groups” and “mostly members of European-derived ancestry” (Baumann, 2002, p. 53), and Masatsugu (2008) prefers the terms “ethnic” versus “convert” (p. 425). Masatsugu (2008) clarifies that the two groups often held opposing views about what Buddhism in America should reflect, based on their specific preferences, and Numrich (2003) reports that the scholarly attention toward Buddhism, ignited in the 1970s, was primarily focused on the converts, which were predominantly Caucasian-Americans. Numrich also depicts a growing controversy between the two groups in the beginning of the 1 990s, starting with the Caucasian group claiming responsibility for all the progress made for Buddhism in the U. S., and rebutted by representatives of the Asian Buddhists through a declaration that they had contributed significantly as well by weathering harsh initial opposition in order to achieve the current level of acceptance of their religion or philosophy. This controversy led to the introduction of the term “two Buddhisms” (Numrich, p. 59) in America. The interesting development is now that, among the scholars who study American Buddhism, some divergence of opinion has emerged about this division. Some scholars acknowledge and elaborate on the division, while others feel that the division is relatively insignificant, as it is subdued by much stronger points of Buddhist unity.

Those who acknowledge the division have introduced other typologies such as a subdivision of the ethnic-Asian category into “old-line” and “recently arrived” Buddhists. Others have divided Buddhists in America into the categories “baggage Buddhists” and “converts,” pointing out that the first of these two categories consists of those who were born into the religion culturally, and the latter of predominantly Caucasian- Americans. Yet others have distinguished three categories, elite, ethnic and evangelical (Nattier, 1997), and some even listed four categories: traditional, ethnic, convert and Americanized (Numrich, 2003). Then there are those who feel that the division should not be ethnicbased, but rather focused on the approaches toward Buddhism, which leads to a division of “traditionalists” versus “modernists” (Numrich, 2003, p. 67), with members of both Asian and Caucasian- American groups represented in each category.

Those who oppose the perspectives of multiple Buddhisms in America prefer to speak of Buddhist diversity in America and stress that there are plenty of occasions where there is positive interaction between White, Asian, and other Buddhists in the U.S. These scholars, according to Numrich, feel that the classification of multiple Buddhisms in America worsens tensions and implicates a segregation that is not as pertinent as it sounds.

Current standing. As the diversification continues, Buddhism is also increasing in popularity in America. Many of the scholars who classify American Buddhism, also justify this classification. Numrich (2003), for instance, reviews all of the above classifications as some kind of ongoing trend in religions, emphasizing similar diversifications in Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam. Nattier (1997) compares the modest Zen Buddhist environment with the colorful Tibetan halls in the U.S., and emphasizes the division that still exists among American Buddhists in class, culture and ethnicity, with the Caucasian- American “elite” group in the financial and intellectual lead. To add to this confusion, Chandler (1998) emphasizes that, due to the fact that most current Chinese immigrants enter America for work or study purposes, they also represent a rather privileged group, free from financial hardship, and with relatively high levels of education. This, of course, is in opposition to Chinese immigrants in previous centuries.

Perspectives between members of the various groups differ till this day, often stimulated by cultural and ethnic convictions. Nattier (1997) reviews some interesting perceptional differences within American Buddhists. She mentions, for instance the discrepancy in views between a Chinese Buddhist woman who describes her shame upon insight into prior selfishness, and White American Buddhist women who praise their newly gained sense of self and self-realization. Nattier (1997) also highlights the enthusiasm gap between “baggage” Buddhists (those born into the religion), and converts. She stresses that many Caucasian-American, or “elite”, Buddhists have no interest in becoming nuns or monks, but see their devotion to Buddhism rather as a way to enhance the quality of their lives as laypeople. These elitists don’t seem to be bothered by ethical codes or the lack thereof. The main interest of this elite group, according to Nattier, is “individualism, freedom of choice, and personal fulfillment” (Nattier, 1997, p. 76). This interest is very much based on the dominant cultural mindset in the United States.

An important factor in support of the growing popularity of Buddhism in America could be found in the increased visibility of the Dalai Lama, who frequently visits the U. S., and has gained support from a growing number of Caucasian- American elites and several high-profile celebrities such as Steven Seagal, Richard Gere, and Harrison Ford. It is particularly the Dalai Lama’s unique blend of political leader, peace proponent, and personal charisma that has elevated his popularity worldwide.

As a final note on the current status of Buddhism in America I would like to comment on the multiple levels of diversity in American Buddhism, starting with Dugan and Bogert’s (2006) assertion that, inline with the general trend in the U.S., American Buddhist sanghas are now also trying to enhance understanding and acceptance for racial diversity within. Another type of diversity that is increasingly entering the picture of Buddhism in America is the diversity in the teaching itself. Several prominent Buddhist teachers, such as Jack Kornfield, have started to incorporate Western psychology into their teachings, developing unique diversifications that one may or may not want to identify as Buddhism. Coleman (2002) stresses that a growing number of Western Buddhist teachers obtain training in more than one Eastern tradition, unlike the more traditional Asians. They subsequently combine insights from several Buddhist, Sufi, Taoist, Hindu and Western traditions, and create a whole new blend and multi-facetted style and content of teaching.

Critical review on American Buddhism. It is interesting to take notice of all of the past and current issues of Buddhism in America. Throughout the development of this religion or philosophy in the U.S., it seems that the typical American standards of racism, financial and intellectual discrimination and segregation, and a strong sense of individualism, have trickled their way into many instances of organized Buddhism in the U.S. Fields (1998), for instance, capitalizes on the racist foundations of America and stresses that it is the Caucasian, also labeled as “elite” or “convert” group, that is busy doing the defining of Buddhism in this country, and unsurprisingly, doing so “in their own image” (p. 200). Being a white middle-class American himself, Fields criticizes white American Buddhists, more or less referring to them as segregationists in regards to their approach to ethnic Buddhists in the U.S. He also labels them as arrogant, naïve, and engaging in “a lay practice based on monastic models” (p. 205).

Another interesting note pertains to the recent attempts to restore relational respect in American Buddhist circles. Especially in the seventies and eighties several American Buddhist centers experienced crises resulting from the loose sexual relations hips between leaders and students, causing recurring turmoil and disruption among members and Buddhist adherents in general (Coleman, 2002). In more recent years, American Buddhist organizations have undertaken efforts to streamline their codes of conduct, and refocus on Buddhist precepts. According to Coleman (2002) it is the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who deserves most credit for spearheading this positive turnaround in organized American Buddhism. To ensure clarity and end the chaotic situation that had emerged in earlier decades, Nhat Hanh specifically detailed the issues of sexual misconduct and the use of intoxicants as taboos in the practice of Buddhism. In several meetings with Western Buddhist teachers throughout the nineties, the Dalai Lama also spoke out against casual sexual relationships between teachers and students, referring to them as sexual misconduct.

One remarkable deviation from Eastern Buddhism in America is the role of women. While men are still in the majority when it comes to leadership positions, an increasing number of women are rising to prominence in the American Buddhist community. As Coleman (1999) puts it, “men and women practice as equals in this Buddhism” (p. 92). It truly seems that America is currently experiencing the birth of a new Buddhism, which may emerge over the next few decades and which may not look and sound like, or even be named, Buddhism anymore once fully developed. Coleman (1999) echoes the notion that Buddhism has seen many ups and downs over the past 2500 years, and is typified by diversity and change. He also points out that the new Buddhism in the West is marked by fundamental sociological differences from the Eastern traditions of this religion. Yet, states Coleman, it is therefore even more in line with Buddha’s initial idea: the new American Buddhism is based on looking at the nature of things from the American individual’s experience, which is an entirely different one than the experiences of Buddhist practitioners in the East.

lninsbook Luminous Passage Prebish (1999) presents a vision of the future of Buddhism in America, as Rick Fields worded it in an article titled Future of American Buddhism. He describes this emerging American Buddhism as practice-oriented, lay-oriented, influenced by feminism, Western psychology, societal concern, and democratic principles, authority – , competency-, and ethics-based (pp. 253-254). Because of the major transformations that American Buddhism is still undergoing at this time, it is somewhat understandable that Asian Buddhists and others are puzzled by Western Buddhism, and wonder if this tradition should be called Buddhism at all. Yet, if we consider that the Dalai Lama repeatedly stresses that the beauty and strength of Buddhism is the fact that it reinvents itself under different circumstances, and that this may be the reason why this religion or philosophy has withstood the hands of time, and if we consider the many faces and streams of Buddhism that currently coexist in Asia alone, this Americanization of Buddhism may, after a few decades, become another fully established type, listed along the lines of Theravada, Mahayana, and Hinayana, as Buddhism “Americana”.

Buddhism Americana: Applicability to the Workplace

It seems that the question whether Buddhism has a proper place in the capitalistic American society, more specifically its work environment, has been deliberated upon by several prominent Buddhists. In an article titled Dharma and Greed: Popular Buddhism meets the American Dream, Templeton (2000) posts the question as to whether one can be truly Buddhist while being truly American. He does so after observing the obvious contradictions between the Buddhist ideals of social behavior, moderation, and transcending greed and envy, and the American way of living that is exactly based on the opposite: individualism, affluence, greed and envy. Templeton reviews a meeting held in June 2000, in which 220 prominent Buddhist leaders in America participated, and in which the Dalai Lama partook as well. Templeton reports that the Dalai Lama was informed about the fact that, in the U.S., Buddhism mainly appealed to more intellectual and affluent Americans who could afford expensive retreats and pricey Buddhist paraphernalia: the “spiritual” materialists. As a consequence, the Dalai Lama stressed that Buddhist practitioners in the U.S. should still focus on compassion and freedom of anger and greed, even in a money—mad nation as America. Subsequently reviewing an American Buddhist businessperson, Peter Bermudes, who is the director of a Bostonbased Buddhist book publishing company—a non-profit entity that makes a healthy living because Buddhist literature sells great in America—Templeton draws the conclusion that most American Buddhists are independent. They read books and don’t feel compelled to be part of a congregation of any sort. Templeton further analyses other American Buddhist ventures, such as Greyston Bakery in New York, and finds that the combination of being commercial while still adhering to spiritual values is possible, even though it requires thorough and regular self-examination. Templeton leaves the question as to whether this being truly Buddhist while being truly American unanswered. Templeton’s comments are also included in Holender ‘s (2008) book Zentrepreneurism, in which Holender introduce s a number of new terms such as zentrepreneurism, zenployees, and zenvesting, in an attempt to combine Buddhist virtues to American commercialism.


The increased popularity of Buddhist practices in American society and the American workplace may very well be attributed to the fact that they fit in well with the contemporary trend of greater awareness, environmental sustainability, and increased social responsibility. Buddhism forms a welcome response to the call for spirituality at work, which is fueled by a number of factors such as increased diversity in U.S. workplaces, greater insight into the motives of greed of American corporate leaders, and a desire toward greater satisfaction at work. Bookstores, online sources, and management speakers capitalize cunningly onto this trend, and gear their product offerings heavily on this need. In the middle of this all emerges Buddhism, now even more than before, as the Dalai Lama, the most prominent Buddhist personality, travels and speaks throughout the world, writes one book after the other, and gains popularity amongst American celebrities. It is difficult, at this point in time, to distinguish whether the current flare of Buddhism in America will merely be a fad that will subside as soon as a new one emerges, or whether this trend should be seen within the greater scope of increased human, thus also American, awareness against the developments of the 21st century: greater access to information, more international human interaction, and enhancement in conscious choice-making. The series of occurrences to which the U.S. society has been exposed in the last two centuries and since the start of this new Millennium, may also have ignited a serious urge among Americans to rethink the conventional U.S. way of careless spending, adhering to external appearances, and mindlessly following trends. Among these occurrences are: the attacks on U. S. properties on September 11, 2001; the fall of several prominent U.S. businesses due to unethical activities and the major losses that many Americans consequently suffered; the massive outsourcing of manufacturing, engineering, and service operations of large American corporations to emerging economies such as China and India, and most recently, the tremendous economic recession of 2008 in which large numbers of U.S. citizens lost their homes, jobs, and savings. All these occurrences may have contributed toward the creation of a fertile foundation for a change of mentality in the U. S., to which Buddhism may be a useful inspiration. So, while the Americanization of Buddhism is a fact, it may also be that Americans are deviating from their traditional ways (de-Americanizing) and redefining themselves (re-Americanizing). This entails, that the ultimate look and practice of “Americanized Buddhism,” or Buddhism Americana, is still in process of development.