Malcolm Browne/AP

As Wendy Cadge and Robert Wuthnow have argued, the influence of Buddhism in the United States “increased considerably” during the last decades of the 20th century and its reception has been mostly positive. In 2003, one person in eight reported that Buddhist teachings or practices “have had an important influence on his or her religion or spirituality.” That means that “a sizeable number of Americans—as many as 25–30 million”—reported contact with Buddhism, and one quarter of the American public claimed “to be very or somewhat familiar with the teachings of Buddhism.” And familiarity bred contentment: “relatively small proportions of the American public thought negative words, such as violent (12 percent) and fanatical (23 percent) applied to the Buddhist religion and, continuing 19th-century patterns, “a majority thought this about positive words such as tolerant (56 percent) and peace loving (63 percent).”

One way of framing this positive view of Buddhism is to compare it with Americans’ reception of Islam. Surveys suggest that Americans are less likely to claim personal Islamic influence and more likely to view Muslims as intolerant and violent. Why? Does material culture play a role in this contrasting reception? Here I can only raise the comparative question and offer a tentative suggestion. American news media have represented the religious rituals and public engagement differently. In turn, I propose, those representations, which fail to capture the complexity of the two traditions, have meant that since 1945 Buddhism has been interpreted as individualistic and pacifist and in harmony with shared cultural values, whereas Islam has been imagined as communal and violent and in tension with all that Americans say they cherish most.

Images have swirled amidst the transcultural flows that have produced America’s understanding of “Buddhism” and “Islam,” and some of those images in national print and television news have portrayed ritual. Since the late-1950s, the prevailing image of Buddhist practice has been the solitary meditator, eyes half closed, sitting in the lotus position. This image does not accurately reflect the religious life of most Buddhists around the world or across the centuries. Meditation has been practiced in some Buddhist traditions, though mostly by monks, but it is rarely isolated from a cluster of other practices, from offerings to chanting. Nonetheless, this image of the solitary meditator, which appeared in literary form in Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel Dharma Bums and in visual form in print and television news since the Sixties, seems to resonate with long-standing American affirmations of individualism, the inclination to celebrate the value and authority of the individual, not the church or the state. The most familiar representation of Muslim practice, on the other hand, is communal: a group of Muslims, usually men, in ritual prayer at the mosque. The individual seems lost in the crowd, and the crowd is mostly a menacing image in American culture, a problem to be overcome, the source of economic alienation, political submission, or religious authoritarianism. As with the Buddhist representations, this image strains against the complex realities of Islamic practice, which include solitary actions as well as communal rites. But the media return again and again to the image of communal prayer—the group bowing, kneeling, prostrating, and standing—and by doing so they position Islam in opposition to American individualism.

Representations of the two religions’ place in public life have varied too and that also might help to explain the differing valuations of Buddhism and Islam. American representations of Islam have a long history, and the negative impressions have multiple sources, including images that emphasize Muhammad’s polygamous and martial tendencies. Most important, the link between Islam and violence was reaffirmed for American audiences in the photographs from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, especially the widely circulated image of blindfolded Americans being paraded by their captors. In this image, and in the videos and photographs of the burning Twin Towers from the 9/11/2001 attack, Islam has become associated with coercion and violence.

It is not that Buddhists have been portrayed only in private spaces and apart from public violence, however, as an analysis of national magazines and television reporting suggests. Consider television news. According to the holdings of the most extensive archive of evening new broadcasts, there were 142 stories about “Buddhists” between 1968 and 2005. Slightly more than half of those stories (79) dealt with conflict, violence, or disaster. As with many other topics, and certainly with Islam, Buddhists seemed newsworthy to journalists when something was going wrong. That association began in a clear way with a Malcolm Browne photograph that circulated widely in 1963. The image of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself on fire on a Saigon street shaped public opinion about the Vietnam War. It was “the Buddhist uprising”—and especially the published and televised images of the self-immolations by the protesting monks—that triggered negative American perceptions. Former CIA official William E. Colby recalled the impact: “when that picture of the burning bonze [monk] appeared in Life magazine, the party was almost over in terms of the imagery that was affecting the American opinion … ‘How can you possibly support a government that has people doing this against it?’” More important for the issue at hand, the photograph also linked Buddhism with violence but it was violence produced by the solitary meditator and it was public action turned toward the self, not others. It was interpreted in the media as a religiously motivated act of protest and public protest is a longstanding form of democratic expression in the USA. Of course, some Muslims understood the Iranian hostage taking and the Twin Towers crash in a similar way, although that interpretation did not win the day in the US media.

Buddhism has been able to loosen its association with public violence in ways that Islam has not. There are multiple reasons for this, including the influence of D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama. However, it seems that images—Buddhist images of the solitary meditator and the righteous protester and contrasting Muslim images of the crowd in prayer and the crowd doing harm—have played an important role.

Further Reading

The Original Ray,” by Helen Tworkov with Thomas A. Tweed



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