Is Tibetan Buddhism the most popular in America?

Anam Thubten Rinpoche teaches in Missoula, MT (2010)

Anam Thubten Rinpoche teaches in Missoula, MT to a standing-room-only crowd (2010).

My friend Jeffrey Kotyk* of the Flower Ornament Depository 華嚴藏 blog has another interesting post worth reading this week, discussing the visibility, if not overall popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in America. His post is titled Why is Tibetan Buddhism more popular?

As you can see by my title, I’m not so sure that it is, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Tibetan Buddhism as a whole had more adherents in America than Theravadin or Zen. But the methodology of counting who’s who gets tough. Do we count Seon and Ch’an practitioners with the Zen? And do all of the ‘mindfulness’ practitioners, followers of Kornfield and Kabat-Zinn, somehow fit into Theravadin (some might self-affiliate with it, some might not). However, difficulties with methodology and categories shouldn’t stand in the way of thoughtful discussion and fruitful research.

(I wrote about the broad issue of Buddhists in America recently here.) Jeffrey notes about a dozen reasons he thinks Tibetan Buddhism is most popular (I’ll liberally paraphrase them – see his postfor the full discussion). And I note that he is particularly comparing Tibetan Buddhism here with other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, but I think it’s fair to toss in Theravada:

  • The volume of printed materials on Tibetan Buddhism is greatest and most accessible to non-specialists.
  • More Western students are going Tibetan institutes in India than to East Asia (I imagine Theravadin countries get more ‘religious-scholar tourism’ than East Asian ones, but still less than the Tibetan institutions in India).
  • Specificially, Taiwanese Buddhist organizations Foguang Shan and Dharma Drum Mountain have great resources, yet less than two dozen Western monastics.
  • Tibetan teachers (e.g. HH the Dalai Lama) draw larger crowds of committed students.
  • Tibetan groups are working on the 84,000 Project, an ambitious plan to translate the Tibetan canon, and actively training translators; there is nothing comparable for the East Asian canon.
 Jeffrey continues, “Now it begs the question why would this be?”


  • Perhaps the teaching curriculum? Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lam Rim Chen Mo (Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path) is a simple go-to for Gelugpas. Chinese and Japanese don’t have anything quite like this. Theravadins have the Visuddhimagga, but it doesn’t seem to have been popularized in the way that the Lam Rim Chen Mo, or Mipham’s “Lamp” have, or works like those of Shantideva or even Atisha.
  • Tibetan Buddhists speak English – many big names at least, while East Asian big names often don’t.
  • Tibetan Buddhism “is not heavily tied to an immigrant ethnicity unlike, say, Chinese Buddhism which is very closely tied to a specific ethnic group. Chinese Buddhist traditions might even specifically promote themselves as exclusively “Chinese Buddhist” and in the process exclude members of the host culture.” – This I quote specifically because I don’t think it’s accurate – based at least on various accounts and my limited time at Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles.
  • Tibetans have been engaging scientists in fruitful discussion.
  • East Asian monastic life is difficult for Westerners (inaccessible, too foreign, strict, etc).
  • Tibetan culture is generally more relaxed than Chinese, e.g. prostrations, prescribed forms for how to bow, prostrate, salute, eat and walk.
  • Tibetan Buddhism “has a tradition of debate and it is not considered impolite to engage in it with your superiors.”

Again, see his post for more on each of his points.

As I mentioned, I’m not entirely sure Tibetan Buddhism is the most popular form of Buddhism in the West, or even Mahayana Buddhism (although I agree with Jeffrey in suspecting that it is). I think his work is commendable in it’s thoughtful approach to the topic and what I hope to get from you is some feedback and thoughts. Where you live are there more Tibetan groups? A city full of Theravadins or six different Zen groups? I can’t hope to amass anything approaching a systematic survey, but perhaps a small and hopefully reasonably representative sample could be gathered.

One interesting statistic that most of us overlook is that there are more than an estimated 300,000 SGI members in the US (See Prebish: Looking West: A Primer for American Buddhism). If we pick a low estimate for total Buddhists, say one million, then they are very likely the largest single group. But if we estimate high, perhaps six million Buddhists, then SGI is but a small part of that picture. Obviously this is a question dying to be answered, however tentatively, by some earnest young scholar who is able and willing to go do the polling.

If indeed Tibetan Buddhism is the most popular, I would like to have seen some discussion of the diaspora as a key underlying ingredient. Tibetans HAD to leave Tibet, HAD to learn new systems and HAD to attract foreign benefactors in order to survive and maintain a semblance of the culture and life they knew for centuries in Tibet. They HAD to be more flexible in adopting different techniques and norms regarding teaching and ediquette.

At the same time, I think there are real cultural differences that may have played a part. Tibetans are, typically, quite funny and fun-loving people. I recall one Independent Study I read while on the Antioch program in India that was devoted entirely to Tibetan humor – something that the author found utterly unique amongst the many different Buddhists she encountered in Bodh Gaya. This has been my experience as well.

I’m also not so sure about how ‘easy’ Tibetan monasticism is compared to that of East Asia. Certainly there are some images of rather brutal conditions in Zen monasteries, but Tibetan monastic life is no picnic, and there are Zen orders that are notably more relaxed (the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives is one such Zen group that has attracted Western monastics in the US and UK.) And in terms of texts, Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind has probably outsold every living Tibetan author combined over the last 40 years (that is very conjectural and I’m happy to be corrected). But Zen and Zen-inspired works were the big thing in the 60s and 70s. True, none of these works were anything like the systematic philosophical  works of Tsongkhapa or Buddhaghosa, but many were, in their own way, ‘complete’ textual guides.

But these are only minor objections. Again, I’m hoping to hear back from you (readers), on both what types of Buddhism are practiced near you (feel free to be creative in how you choose to classify/categorize them) and why you think this is.

If Jeffrey is correct, and I suspect he is, then East Asian (and South Asian) Buddhists might want to change some of their strategies for winning over new Buddhists and monastics in and from the West.

*I last mentioned Jeffrey in discussing his fascinating idea to use the Google NGram to trace the rise and fall of Buddhim – in search.

  • Matthew O’Connell

    A few thoughts: The allure of the exotic was not mentioned. Tibetan Buddhism is way more colorful, exotic, mysterious and full of bells and whistles than the stripped down versions of Thervada we see. In highly visual cultures such as the US, this element should not be underestimated. Plus you have organizations like the NKT continuously seeking to expand and push themselves into new territories in ways that other forms of Buddhism, apart from the Soka Gai, do not. However dubious the NKT are as an organization, they are certainly skilled at marketing and have a rather scary rate of expansion. When Buddhism is seen as a commodity fighting against rival products on the market place, Tibetan Buddhism seemingly has more apps and a shinier casing.
    Theravada Buddhism is much less showy than Tibetan Buddhism and has less techniques. I think even the promise of higher levels, vehicles, empowerments and the notion of advanced practice and levels acts as a seductive element that pulls people in. There is also the usual ‘our Buddhism is better than yours’ amongst Tibetan Buddhists that manifests in the traditional three vehicle teaching. From personal experience, in spite of appearances, most of the Tibetans and teachers of Tibetan Buddhism I’ve met can’t help but state that there Buddhism is the best.
    Finally, Tibetan Buddhism has more of the obviously religious elements that seemingly simpler forms of Buddhism don’t display. A lot of Buddhists are more interested in the religious side of practice than in depth exploration of the human condition and the consequences of actually waking up, which can be highly disruptive.
    What do you think?

  • Dion Peoples


    Are you missing a point? Theravadans cater to the ethnic-diaspora, and is relatively unattractive; however you may know that on Facebook, I have many followers of Theravada spread-out through the USA, but most of my “friends” over there are independent. There are many independent-Theravadans (like myself), who would not register in some count, perhaps as a result of being bypassed by the tabulator. Anyhow, having my PhD in Buddhist Studies, and teaching the bhikkhus subjects in Buddhism at the largest Buddhist monastic university has some rewards: but as far as foriegners (Americans) are concerned, in the USA some of them may be married to ‘natives’ – but the ethnic-wife may be the only one going to the temple, while the man stays home and watches football, paying only lip-service to Buddhism. Thanks for writing; these were my thoughts.

  • Stephen Schettini

    I lived among Tibetans for eight years back in the 1970s and 80s, a part of that time in Sera monastery in South India. Although the Tibetans had arrived as refugees, they quickly outstripped the local population in wealth and establishment. The Tibetan monastic management style is resourceful and highly organized. Spurred by the threat of cultural disintegration they rose quickly to the challenge, and surpassed it. Tibetan monastic institutions have a firm grasp of public relations and fundraising, and senior lamas have a deep sense of responsibility to their dependants and an enterprising way with the wealthy. For a number of reasons my interests now align much more with Theravada Buddhism, but I must admit that Southern Buddhism is much dryer on first contact than its Tibetan counterpart. Tibetans are more colorful, fun-loving, attractive and exotic. Their tantric art is way more cool than the saintly images of Lord Buddha found in other Buddhist cultures. The scope of their teachings offers something for everyone. Dzogchen and similar teachings even offer something to those unable to relinquish a fundamental ground of being. Personally, I can’t reconcile that with the Buddha’s basic teachings, but that’s beside the point. While other traditions can be quite austere, Tibetan Buddhism is never so.
    My sense is very strongly that they are the dominant form of Buddhism right now. They’ve weathered their scandals well, and I suspect that Sogyal Lakar will recover from his recent bad press. Guru Devotion, repugnant to many, but it’s exactly what many other are looking for:
    In Europe, where the various national Buddhist Unions are aligned themselves to receive donations funded through government-sponsored tax exemptions, the Tibetans seem to have taken a firm hold. One exception: Germany.
    It helps that many (perhaps most) people around the world, vaguely consider the Dalai Lama to be the leader of world Buddhism. Perhaps, de facto, he really is.

  • Windsor Viney

    “Erstwhile” means “former”; I think you may have intended to say “earnest”.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Ahhh – thanks! Yes, you’re absolutely correct. Fixed.

  • CajunMick

    Choosing Buddhism, after spending most of my life in the Abramic faiths, was a big leap. After the leap, then what?
    I ended up choosing Vajrayana as the path on which I’d concentrate my efforts. Some of these points were made above, they include: Big umbrella- many ways of practice under the Vajrayana banner; elements of the diaspora (large body of work translated into English, English speakers, etc.); rigor of texts and training; aesthetics- I was raised a Roman Catholic, and there are some similarities (art, candles, smells, bells) that I was comfrotable with; the kindness and good-humor of the monks I had met; and finally, it just felt correct.
    Intuitively, it felt like like a skillful, peaceful decsion. One of the best I’ve ever made.
    Speaking of the ‘best,’ I don’t harbor any delusions that Tibetan Buddhism (TB) is superior to any other form of Buddhism. It’s not the ‘One True Buddhism.’ I am apathetic to any discussions such as these- my school, my vehicle, is better, more authentic, older…blah,blah,blah. Nothing skillful about them.
    I’m not uncritical to TB. The whole guru-student relationship bothers me. Perhaps, I’m too cynical, too Western, to really have this kind of trust in an authority figure. Even someone as kind as a monk or nun.
    Metta to all,

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  • Moon Meyers

    It is not a valid comparison to look at Tibetan Buddhism and Zen, whereas Tibetan Buddhism was chosen as a religion for an entire culture and Zen is a sect within Japanese Buddhism or Chan in Chinese Buddhism. What is happening in the West, is the choice of a strong meditative component such as in Dzogchen, Zen or Vipassana. This is also the prime difference in any “convert” Buddhism “immigrant” Buddhism comparison.

  • Moon Meyers

    Let me add a further comment. It will be interesting to follow Trungpa Rinpoche’s
    Shambhala tradition in the West as it becomes more Tibetan. As a strong meditative tradition, will it last among other Tibetan traditions or will it veer to a closer association with Zen or Dzogchen?