Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is increasingly popular among people in the United States, including a large number of non-Buddhists. Mindfulness and meditation are popular for many reasons. MBSR practices are now practiced in mainstream health facilities, as part of a new effort to improve the lives of chronic health patients (Bazarko, Azocar & Kreitzer 110). According to the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, more than 22,000 people in the United States have participated in a formal MBSR program since the program’s founding in 1979 (1). MBSR is increasingly popular in the United States in part due to promotion of mindfulness and meditation by large media outlets including NBC, ABC and CNN (UMASS 1). MBSR is also seen as a tool that can help Americans cope with stress, challenges, and obstacles including health challenges that people face on a daily basis. Mindfulness is not seen as a religion, but as a tool that people can use to feel better emotionally and physically (Bazarko, Azocar, & Kreitzer 110). Many people engage in MBSR as regularly as they would an ordinary exercise and diet program.
These practices are adapted to new contexts in new contexts to help people overcome many chronic conditions including pain, anxiety, depression and other conditions common to United States citizens (UMASS 1). Studies demonstrate consistent positive results in patients that engage in consistent practice over eight or more weeks; for this reason, MBSR continues to be popular in the US (UMASS 1; Bazarko, Azocar, Kreitzer 110).
These practices can be considered Buddhist even if taken out of a Buddhist context, because they encourage greater compassion and love for the self, which in turn promotes greater love and compassion for others. Further, these practices are considered wholly to be known of as “Dharma” or a group of collective practices that help human beings to understand their universal character, which includes a universal ability to become self-aware and wise to humanities ability to engage in compassion for all (UMass 1). This is again, not something that takes away from core Buddhist principles, whether one declares him or herself to be Buddhist or not.
Popular media, including films, commercials, and television, often portray Buddhism and Buddhists as Asian people in stereotypical context. One way that Buddhist’s are often portrayed is as ascetic. In this version, the Buddhist in Hollywood is often seen in red robes, chanting and practicing asceticism on mountains in Tibet. The more popular view of the Buddhist in this stereotypical version can be remembered in movies such as Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt (IMDB, 1997). While this movie is meant to depict the “true story” of an Australian mountain climber that became friends with the infamous Dalai Lama during the time just before China took over Tibet, the movie lends itself to a shocking amount of glamour, and feelings of “hippie” spirituality that many associate with new age spirituality rather than mindfulness practices (IMDB 1). The movie portrays less of the actual art of Buddhism than the famous leading actors charm and charisma, along with ideals of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and feeling “goodness” that many people may associate with Buddhism.
Alternatively, the mass media also portrays Buddhism as a better alternative, or much more lenient and forgiving religion than “harsher Western Christianity” (Mitchell 17). In this light, at times Buddhism may be portrayed as a religion that allows for tantric and wild lovemaking, depending on the type of Buddhism one engages with (Mitchell 20). In this form of Buddhism, one may be forgiven of one’s sins, yet still engage in a comely and popular, laid back Hollywood lifestyle. This is the more modern and often popularized version of Buddhism that many mainstream movies portray. This is the Buddhism that many associate with a “hippie” lifestyle (Mitchell 18). While this laid back concept, or ideal, may be true for some individuals that refer to their lifestyle as Buddhist, real Buddhist’s may practice in many different ways throughout the United States. Stereotypes are common in the media, and persist in reference to the Buddhist faith, but do not always capture the heart and soul of compassion and mindful living so relevant to core beliefs.
According to Mitchell, a famous celebrity that turned to Buddhism after having several publicized affairs in the media was Tiger Woods (17). The media compared Buddhism to Christianity, suggesting that Buddhism was a “panacea for troubled celebrities” and an “alternative spirituality of hippies and Beatniks” (Mitchell 17). This is another way that Buddhism is sometimes stereotypically represented in the media. As Mitchell describes, Buddhism is often placed in opposition to Christianity, reflecting what many may describe more in the way as the “hopes and fears” of Americans that claim to fall from grace (Mitchell 18). Buddhist communities, however, do not emphasize these stereotypes. Many new to Buddhism may find there are many different types of Buddhism that one may follow, just as there are many different Christian faith sects. Further, meditation often requires stringent practice, but does not require that an individual converts and live an ascetic lifestyle. There are many forms of sexuality, norms, and family values adopted by members of the faith, just as one may expect in other religions.
In Hollywood however, the stereotypes of Asian religions are more often depicted than reality. As long as people remain ignorant of the Buddhist faith, these stereotypes may persist as the dominant manner of thinking of Buddhism. Stereotypes abound in media, whether one is talking about Buddhism, or minorities generally.
- Bazarko, D., Cate, R., Azocar, F., Kreitzer, M.J. The impact of an innovative mindfulness-based stress reduction program on the health and well-being of nurses employed in a corporate setting. J Workplace Behav Health, 28(2): 107-133. 2013.
- Mitchell, S.A. Christianity is for rubes; Buddhism is for actors: US Media representations of buddhism in the wake of the Tiger Woods’ scandal. Journal of Global Buddhism, 13: 61-
- Seven Years in Tibet. IMDB. 1997.
- University of Massachusetts. History of MBSR. University of Massachusetts, Center for Mindfulness. Web. 2014. Accessed Nov. 22, 2015: http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/stress-reduction/history-of-mbsr/