The deeply concerning lack of Theravada perspectives in western media

Why is representation of Theravada Buddhists so lacking in western media. When it comes to Buddhism the only representations that are ever brought up is either Zen or Tibetan. Other than the BSWA Youtube channel, there is hardly any popular presence of Theravada teachings popping up in the feeds of people.

I completely understand that the purpose of Theravada institutions and monks aren’t to go after fame, but if there is a lack of Theravada representation on western media networks we run the risk of allowing other organisations and people, some of them who have a certain agenda they are trying to push, create a distorted image of Theravada Buddhism.

Why aren’t Theravada Buddhist institutions using some of their more media savvy volunteers to get some of these awesome teachings that are a part of regular Dhamma talks and Guided Meditation sessions out onto the internet feeds of the average Joe.

Why do I keep getting videos from Rajneesh or Sadhguru on my feed with millions of views, those organisations are much smaller than Theravada Buddhism but their opinions and philosophies are pushed into the mainstream, while Theravada videos languishes in the niche sides of the internet when they can provide such a positive influence to more people.

How about get someone like Ajahn Brahm on Joe Rogan? :wink:

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In some ways it’s like the Western media fixation on the Catholic Church. Whenever an issue of moral, cultural, political, economic, or social significance comes to the fore the Western media looks to the Pope to see what is the position of the Catholic Church. If Protestant denominations or even the various Orthodox churches had an individual of such singular fame as the Pope, the media might look to them for some sort of official pronouncement on Christianity’s position.

The Buddhist equivalent of the Pope, in the eyes of the news media, is the Dalai Lama, which is why Tibetan Buddhism receives so much media attention. There is no equivalent in the Theravada traditions to the Dalai Lama. As for Zen Buddhism, Zen practice attracted quite a large number of adherents in the West starting around the late 1960s and early 1970s. If you asked the average person in the United States what they know about Buddhism, most likely the first word that would come to mind would be “Zen.”

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There could be the effect of social bubble.

There could be others out there who is just surrounded by Theravada teachings all around.

It’s not easy to make a generalization in this age of algorithm customization.

Also, there’s plenty of teachers, YouTube etc out there, of Theravada background.

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Vestiges of colonial pasts perhaps?
Judeo-Christian and Eurocentric views have dominated media outlets for the last century. Subconscious or deliberate, history has had an influence. Even now history books overwhelmingly stress a “Christian/Western” mindset. Things are changing of course ( like in the last decade or so books including First Nations/Indigenous history etc) but prior to that a class full of kids in the west were taught the Greek civilization was the epitome of human potential for example. These kids then grow up to run western media companies. The gurus and Rajneeshes are curiosities who expouse “Orientalist” wisdom of the ages to soothe the stressed Western masses, and generate great ad revenue :wink:. I may sound cynical, but that’s what I see.

So what can we do?
Keep subscribing to those great Buddhist channels and let’s get those numbers up :muscle:

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It’s not just Theravada that has this problem — Chinese Buddhism is also underrepresented in Western Media. And Korean Buddhism. And pretty much anything Pureland related. Heck, any Japanese Buddhism other than Zen is pretty invisible.

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We’ve tried a few times to get representation on ABC, but so far little luck.

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The issue is a bit circular in that the media will claim that they are giving airtime to what people want and media consumers pay more attention to what the media projects aggressively. The issue is probably not limited to schools of Buddhism. I doubt many people eagerly want to hear from Christian monastic orders that promote silence and contemplation and prayer. They are absent from the media too.

At the end of the day, any voice, platform, or organization that makes people feel good about themselves and validate their householder lifestyle will be more popular. For example, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s messaging and focus is usually on positive, family-friendly aspects and the self-critical or self-examination aspects are usually presented in a gentle, palatable form.

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There’s even a lack of representation in Western academic writing.

Tibetan Buddhists make up just a few percent of the global Buddhist population, but take up a plurality of Buddhist studies scholarship. This is in no small part due to generous U.S. State Department funding for Tibetan studies. “The Great Game,” it seems, never really ended. India and China are still in dispute over Ladakh, for example. It’s no coincidence that that tiny corner of the Tibetan plateau gets so much ink.

It’s also “exotic” in a way that appeals to Orientalist notions of “the East.” The majority of Buddhists are Pure Land followers, but Pure Land is both too similar to and too distinct from Western theism to make for thrilling contrasts or comparisons.

Orthodox Theravada also seems pretty boring from the outside. I surveyed several books about Buddhism in America recently and Wat Metta and Bhavana Society (two of the most impactful Buddhist organizations in the country) get only glancing mentions, usually as foils to the more “exciting” secular orgs they prefer to talk about.

I tend to think that the media is slowly following the academy. If even the Buddhologists aren’t paying attention to Theravada, why should the non-experts?

In this way, I think the Dalai Lamas “Mind and Life” programs, etc have been genius marketing. Theravada should, imo, engage more directly like this with the Western Academy if it wishes to get more air time.

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What role does the non-evangelical aspect of orthodox Buddhism play? We’re not supposed to proselytise, right.
My view is that our care and attention should be internal, on nurturing healthy communities and practicing appropriately. Whether other people hear about or find the dhamma is their business.

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This is false and a narrative promoted in order to make Buddhism less scary to the west. It may be better suited to a different thread, but I’d say this mistaken belief may in fact be one of the issues in the low profile of Theravada.

Honestly I’m a little relieved that Theravada Buddhism has a low profile because when people do take notice, it’s often the rather un-Buddhist extremists in SL and Burma that get attention. But perhaps there needs to be a higher profile of more mainstream Theravada.

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A thread would be great as I had no idea! Am curious to know how this happened

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I think that we should differentiate two things in your post. 1. The Media. 2. Youtube channel subscribers.

They maybe related, but I think different platform have different problems.

Now for my casual observation, Tibetan buddhism and Zen buddhism is more represented in western films. But they are only superficial. I think it is more of what they are associated with.

Zen is associated with eastern martial arts. Many traditional martial arts from Japan and China teach philosophy that is influenced by Buddhism. Even the Bushido (way of samurai) is influenced by Zen.
That’s why it is easy for action movies to feature Zen, as part of character martial art.

Tibetan buddhism, is perceived as mystery. Tibet is located in arguably one of the corner of the earth, so it is easy to imagine that it hides some secret within. Whether it was treasure, treasure map, secret knowledge, hidden paradise shambala, magic…
The exotic thangka and art and ritual enforce this perception.
This is why it is easy to make a plot around Tibet and Tibetan buddhism. In Ace Ventura 2, the protagonist went to tibet to learn something from the monks before the film start.

The Sorcerer Supreme from Dr Strange/ Avengers is arguably based on Tibetan buddhism.

Also, Tibetan monks create their own movies to better represent their own culture and religion.

But I think average people would not know deeper than the outer package. They wouldn’t know that Vajrayana has thick commentaries explaining the philosophical tenet, or that meditation to observe the mind in natural state. Or that Zen need one to sit for hours doing nothing…

While Theravada… I failed to find what popular thing it is associated with.
No martial arts, no tea ceremony, there is magic but it is only known in thailand produced movies, only some monks meditating silently in forest…

I am not sure about youtube situation. In my case, since I actively search and subscribe any good buddhist channel. There is Ven Sujato, Amaravati, BWSA, Ajahn Sona.

Not sure about sadhguru, never listen to him (false guru from false religion why listen). But I have seen some of followers comment. What I perceive is that his philosophy feels good, mysterious, and affirming soul/self.

Compared to (Theravada) Buddhism with dry and boring themes such as not self, suffering, impermanence… I see why it is not popular. It just cut straight through the important matter, but people are uncomfortable with the truth.

Edit: Also, I have seen some with clickbait titles
“This is how you supposed to meditate”
“The Guru explain meditation you can master in one hour”

Usually respected teachers don’t do this. Though I have seen some local Buddhist channels doing this, but I think it is not sanctioned by the teachers they feature.

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Im no media expert but Buddhist Youtube Channels could start uploading seperate short clips from their larger 1hour plus long Dhamma talks, at least that will be easy to digest for the average Joe, and then they can decide if they want to hear the full Dhamma talk.

These are the things I have learned about Buddhism from the Australian media, mostly ABC and SBS over the past 20 years:

-you definitely need a Buddha statue in your garden to make your house authentic Balinese (thank you Burke’s Backyard, for making Australia the Western country with the most home Buddha statues per capita)
-Buddhists don’t hug their mum
-Buddhists don’t get covid (?)
-Buddhists are good at lockdown
-Sutta Central is amazing, yay.
-Buddhists feed the dead
-Buddhist beliefs stop people speaking up against human trafficking and slavery (when they are trafficked)
-a random Buddhist friend of a friend is always an appropriate spokesperson for Buddhism. The more random, the better.
-Buddhists shouldn’t give up home shrines because they will never be fully localised like aboriginal people, so they had better keep their customs, like in Vietnam.

**A rare moment of ABC endorsement of the humble home altar in the midst of otherwise relentless secularism? Not sure what happened there?

-Buddhist women are limited and oppressed by their beliefs in karma
-you don’t need any particular Asian religion specific background or training to be a journalist covering Asian religion in Australia

Not saying there haven’t been moments or coverage involving major temple projects. But those moments are wayyy too few. Also, Buddhists equally missed out on some of the ABCs more generous criticism/investigation of religion in relation to domestic violence. So there are fringe benefits of not being in the media spotlight.

The things I could reasonably infer from the above:
-Buddhist communities are insignificant in Australia compared to groups of approximately the same size
-Buddhists don’t have representative bodies or community leaders
-if you want to be in the media, you need a big building
-Buddhists don’t have opinions on moral and social issues of significance
-there is no celebration of Vesak in Australia

This is widely acknowledged as a hard nut to crack.

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Well, we need to remember that first of all, Mahayanists outnumber Theravadins in the Buddhist world. So that is certainly part of it. Also, most Buddhist immigrants to the West have been from Mahayana countries, like China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Of course, there is a sizable Thai population, but its not as big as the Mahayana populations.

Another issue is that the highest profile Buddhist figures in the West - The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are Mahayanists. This makes Mahayana much more visible.

Then there’s the history of the dissemination and reception of Buddhism in the West. Mahayanists have made much more concerted efforts here as well, particularly in spreading Buddhism among the laypeople. For example, the popularity of Zen skyrocketed during the beat generation and the sixties boom of interest in eastern religions, and many Japanese and Asian Mahayanists came to teach here.

For Tibetan Buddhism, even though it is a tiny minority of Mahayana worldwide, many Tibetan lamas forced from their homes and monasteries in Tibet by the Chinese had no better option than turn to the Westerners for support, and thus they had to cultivate a Western base instead of rely on the immigrant population. The popularity of this tradition is also boosted by various celebrity figures and by the Free Tibet movement.

Just a small example, in my corner of the world, South Florida, there is a large Thai Temple, but this caters to the Thai community completely. Everything is done in Thai except sometimes they offer a meditation in English by a layperson. But there are numerous Zen and Tibetan Buddhist centers down here made up largely of westerners. This makes it so that most westerners will gravitate towards the Mahayana groups.

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If I may share my exposure to Theravada Buddhism as recently as 5 - 6 years ago (before I started any actual study of Theravada), as a somewhat outsider take:

  • From my early days in Zen I had absorbed some of the “Hinayana” bias
  • “Doctrine of the elders” does not sound very interesting
  • Zen has The Beat Poets and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and various artistic/literary ways on entrance. I’m not aware of contemporary art that acts as a gateway to Theravada in the same way
  • Theravada is still arguing about whether nuns can be ordained - being on the wrong side of a human rights issue is a big, big turnoff.
  • Really, really long scriptures. You can easily read the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the New Testament.
  • Boring scriptures. They are very repetitive. Yes, with time, you can find richness and beauty. But it takes some work.

Anyway, the above are not my current beliefs or understandings. (Well, except that there is still an argument against ordaining nuns. I consider bagging Theravada and going back to Zen over that one fairly regularly.) But 6 years ago, after decades of exposure to Zen and the Western Vipassana tradition, I still held those unhelpful beliefs about Theravada. And those beliefs - to the extent they represent common misconceptions - don’t make for compelling media stories. They don’t make reporters excited about reaching out for the Theravada perspective.

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There are a few notable exceptions. I am reading this book which I have found very interesting:

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What are the “Theravada perspectives”? Do you refer to the Pali traditions of Buddhism?

The Pali suttas are fully in the direction of dispassion, relinquishment and liberation, which aren’t billable. In fact, the deeper a person were to pursue the path personally, they’re going to lose reasons why they would opt to publicize through mainstream channels. At that point it just makes more sense to make things freely available because the want of gain is far beside the point. All in all, the lack of attention speaks to the unworldliness of the path and the fact that most people wouldn’t be very receptive to its message.

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Having audible trial and kindle unlimited, most Buddhism Books are from Mahayana authors. The tendency of Theravada culture to give books for free then to not put them in normally available bookstores, but special print in temples, or host the ebook on their respective websites instead on the ebook platform which most ebooks are placed. It’s possible to price the books as free, but I wonder if the reason why people don’t put it there is because there’s entry barrier, like need to pay amazon certain amount of money to put free ebooks in their kindle store.

So, for the non-Buddhist interested to go into Buddhism, there’s very little Theravada books available on the more non-Buddhist ebook platforms.

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