Today, Buddhism is one of the most popular religious systems in the United States of America. The number of its adherents is not that significant quantitatively, but it gains much in quality since many of celebrities and popular people are showing their interest in Buddhism. Besides, the number of Buddhists is steadily growing during the last decades. There is no doubt that this growth of Buddhism in America is closely related to the teachings of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, because they offer the attractive ideals of inner peace and freedom and are popularized by celebrities.
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There is no exact information on the number of Buddhists in America; the data vary. However, the overall trend of growth is unquestionable. American Religious Identification Survey reports the growth in the number of followers of Buddhism in almost three times since 1990: there were 404,000 Buddhists, or 0.2%, in 1990; 1,082,000, or 0.5% in 2001, and 1,189,000, or 0.5% in 2008. The figures in the CIA World Factbook are slightly higher: it reports that 0.7% of population follows Buddhism, which is a little more than 2 million people. Both immigration from Asia and conversion of Americans of different confessions add to this trend. The most common reasons for conversion were studies by Terry Muck, associate professor of comparative religion at Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, and he reports two of them: 1) “a peace and contentment through the meditative technique” offered by Buddhism to victims of “hectic and busy and stressful” American culture; and 2) “the visibility of the Dalai Lama, the telegenic "god-king" of Tibetan Buddhism” (Guthrie 72).
Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s activity aimed at the freedom of Tibet has a general growth of popularity of Buddhism as a side effect. To gain more political support, many Tibetan monks came to America and established centers for the study of Buddhism thus popularizing it (Bridgers 227). The Dalai Lama himself visited the US several times during the 1980s and 1990s, both attracting attention to the struggle in Tibet and teaching Buddhist’s notions (Burgan 43). His activity resulted not only in a formal recognition, or Nobel Peace Prize wined in 1989, but also in an informal recognition evinced in the conversion of many prominent figures in the US. A famous actor Richard Gere, who started the Gere Foundation and donates money to the Dalai Lama, is one of the most prominent examples (Burgan 79).
Celebrities are often commonly recognized as opinion leaders, and, as a result, the Dalai Lama has become one more popular culture figure in America. Forbes and Mahan define this status as “the icon of the Oriental monk” (26); he embodies oriental wisdom for the popular conscience in the United States. This ability of the Dalai Lama to fit into the popular culture raises the chances of his influence being successful. If Americans are ready to buy brands advertised by celebrities, they are ready to adopt beliefs popularized by celebrities.
In addition, the absence of any signs of dictate and dogmatism attracts the new followers very much. “He talks about following 'a religion of kindness.' He doesn't say, 'I follow the religion of Tibetan Buddhism.' Well, who doesn't want to practice kindness?”, says Terry Muck about the Dalai Lama (Guthrie 73). And Burgan refers to the Dalai Lama himself: “I don’t want you to be a Buddhist necessarily” (99). This freedom of thought is one of the most attractive features of Buddhism. Many of Americans are ready to practice it without a formal break with the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Therefore, the number of people practicing Buddhism can be significantly higher than the official number of the adherent of Buddhism, because many of them prefer to meditate and learn Buddhist concepts being still formally attached to the religion of their parents. It is no doubt that this freedom of thought propagated by the Dalai Lama is one of the most attractive traits of the Buddhist’s worldview. The personality of Dalai Lama also adds to the growth of Buddhism in America, because his status is close to that of celebrities, and popular culture is very strong in America.