The rise and fall of Buddhism in the West

Jeffrey Kotyk of the Flower Ornament Depository 華嚴藏 blog has a fascinating piece up today about the recent decline in web searches for Buddhism. There he discusses statistical data showing that digital mentions of Buddhism is on the decline, and in a dramatic way:

Searching for Buddhism

Searching for Buddhism

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hinduism has faced a similar fate in recent years.

Searching for Hinduism

Searching for Hinduism

But what about Abrahamic religions? Well, here’s a look:

Searching for Judaism

Searching for Judaism

Finding Jesus

Finding Jesus

Finding Islam

Finding Islam

These are the search results, but what do they tell us about what people are actually doing on the ground? Perhaps they are a predictor of things to come? It’s complex, of course. But have a look at Jeffrey’s great discussion of the topic and let us know what you think – is Buddhism on its way out? (Along with Hinduism and Judaism) Is the future all about Christianity and Islam? (this graph suggests that it’s not so clear) And Atheism? Have a look. (It’s curious that atheism took such a dive during the publishing career of Freidrich Neitzsche and following Karl Marx and Charles Darwin.)

  • Jonathan

    It might not be a bad thing! Buddhism ought not to be ‘chasing sales’. It will always be a minority movement, of necessty, by definition. Why? Because many people – maybe even the majority – will not respond to the message of the ‘first noble truth’. For those who do, the teaching is available.

  • Nathan

    At least to some degree, organized religion in general is on the decline. When you look at any uptick in Christianity, it tends to be amongst non-denominational communities that function more like rock concert gatherings than formal church worship. Minimizing ritual, presenting overly simplified messages, and creating the feeling of church as extended family or friendship group typifies these communities. The Buddhist counterpart here might be secular mindfulness groups, which seem to be everywhere these days. I would be the word? minfulness is on the rise.

  • http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.com/ Matthew O’Connell

    Yep, Nathan’s said it, Mindfulness is the commercial, readily-available, mass-market form of Buddhism. I would like to see the same statistics for Mindfulness, which I would guess will show a trending rise. It’s not a bad thing though. I would be curious to see the long-term effects of Mindfulness’ popularity and whether people actually stick to it or just use it to for short term stress reduction.
    I think excessively apparent forms of religion are generally in decline in the developed countries anyhow. This has been the case for a long while, but as you mention happy-dancing, finger food forms of Christianity are ever more popular in the States and, unfortunately, also in the UK. These organisations also provide a sense of family that is not based on the traditional guilt and misery that more traditional expressions of Christianity and Judaism favoured. It’s no surprise that a lot of people are looking for a sanctuary from the misery of the world. Escapism has always been the preferred choice. Buddhism is way too pragmatic to ever reach such levels of popularity that the Abrahamic religions have enjoyed in the West.
    Here’s a question, ‘How many practicing Buddhists have you met that refuse to define themselves as Buddhists?’ I think a lot of Buddhists and even potential Buddhist are basically put off by any mention or association with religion. Many define Buddhism as a path, which of course it is, but it is also a religion. The Humanists have tried tackling a non-religious method for giving a sense to non-atheistic human expression and this has included a major adoption of Mindfulness. They are never going to become that popular though.
    I honestly think that western Buddhisms still need to change a great deal and that innovation will be the determining factor of Buddhism’s long-term survival and relevance. An increasing interface between Buddhism and science should go beyond simple affirmation that meditation works and start exploring cleaner less symbolically loaded methods for waking up. Perhaps this will eventually lead to an increasing irrelevance of Buddhism and the emergence of a new general technology for awakening. This would require a decent measure of the actual sustained experience of being awake, but I don’t see why this shouldn’t become possible int he near future. There was an interesting talk on Buddhist Geeks recently about developments in FMRI scans and the ability to measure meditational success: http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2012/06/bg-259-mapping-the-mindful-brain/
    MBSR is the more neutral face of meditation, but it is not a path for awakening. Perhaps a stronger interface between the western philosophical religion and Buddhism’s centuries of practical, experience based results would lead to the creation of a new way? Have any of you guys heard of Contemplative Philosophy and Ran Lahav? HJe seems to be having a go at this. Jonathon is right though, in its current forms Buddhism will remain a minority religion and that’s perhaps fine too?

    http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.it

  • http://www.howtomediation.com Sean

    I wonder whether “Buddhism” as a search term is being replaced by “mindfulness”, “dharma” or “meditation”… Any insights into this?

    Also, I found an interesting article called What’s An American Buddhist here: http://dharmadhamma.com/dharma-dhamma-blog/whats-an-american-buddhist/

  • http://buddhanadtea.blogspot.com/?spref=fb johnl

    Is Buddhism on the way out, based on some trends in google searches? I would say that’s a bit of a stretch. Buddhism is what it is, regardless of google searches. There are plenty of Buddhists around the world who have never googled. So, first, we need to restrict the discussion to the English-speaking convert community. In my own case, I cut way down on googling Buddhism after I got a few good bookmarks (like this one! Thanks! :) ). For some people, the elderly Japanese lady who drops a coin in the box and puts her hands together in front of the temple, on her way to the supermarket or wherever, isn’t a real Buddhist–spend more time on the cushion, Granny! I say no, she is doing great without any advice from me.

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  • http://www.joshuaeaton.net Joshua Eaton

    The instances of “Buddhism” in English-language books (that have been digitized, at least) shows a similar trend:
    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Buddhism&year_start=1955&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=
    Here’s “Buddhism” and “Zen” graphed against “mindfulness”:
    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Buddhism%2C+Zen%2C+mindfulness&year_start=1955&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=
    It’s clear that uses of “Buddhism” and “Zen” dovetail—and are both declining—while uses of “mindfulness” are on the rise.
    One thing I’d point out, though: It’s not clear that “mindfulness” always means “mindfulness” in a Buddhist sense (or even in any meaningful sense at all). See, for example, “mindfulness” graphed against “meditation”:
    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=mindfulness%2C+meditation&year_start=1955&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=
    The two don’t dovetail at all, and “meditation” has been declining for the past decade even as “mindfulness” continues to rise.

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