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Skillfully Bringing Buddhism to the West: San Diego’s Dharma Bum Temple, Part One

From Dharma Bum Temple Facebook

This is Part One of a look at how Dharma Bum Temple in San Diego brings the Dharma to local residents and students in an American context of meaning-seeking and meditation. Rather than Americans “becoming Buddhist,” how is Buddhism “becoming American?” Click here for Part Two.

Common Western Misconceptions about Buddhism

The pulse of spirituality in modern America is ever changing, and in recent years, Western people have been seemingly more in touch with their spirituality than ever before. Western scholars have been writing books on the Buddha’s teachings for decades, and people have been increasingly drawn to the practice as a result. Nevertheless, there are numerous factors that make Buddhism subject to certain misunderstandings in the Western world. To explain Buddhism in a “Western” culture, we must first begin to explore the common American misconceptions about Buddhism and that often make the two experiences incompatible. The Dharma Bum Temple in San Diego, California is a prime example of a Western Temple that has worked and continues to adapt to Western needs and mindsets. Not only does the temple want to recognize where Western people struggle with Buddhism, but they ultimately must do this in order to successfully transform Western worldviews for the better.

Reading a book about Buddhist thought can be beneficial as an initial introduction to the practice, but when bringing Buddhism into Western spaces, leaders often face a myriad of obstacles due to the way in which Western worldviews have shaped people’s lives. Before all else, Western people often find the cultural and traditional aspects of Buddhism intimidating due to their unfamiliar nature. This disconnect outlines the initial cultural struggle when it comes to bringing Buddhism to the West; practices such as bowing and chanting in an unfamiliar language are foreign to most Westerners, and although many find it interesting, they typically struggle to connect with it. As a result, many Buddhist spaces in the West have a “revolving door” of visitors. People go into a cultural temple, see the formal practice, and very often fail to return after their first few visits.

If Western Buddhist temples want to draw in American people in order to expose them to the Dharma, it is helpful to begin with the Dharma and then slowly introduce them to ritual if they are interested.

A Dharma Bum Temple meeting. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Co-founder and CEO of the Dharma Bum Temple, Jeffrey Zlotnik, has noticed this pattern in Western Buddhist spaces since he first began exploring the practice in 2003. As a result, he has been extremely strategic in how he has formatted and structured the Dharma Bum Temple’s various programs so that people are not too intimidated to enter the space. For example, there are no cultural rituals that anybody must participate in at the classes. Leaders at the Dharma Bum Temple recognize that if people want to understand Buddhism, they must first understand it within the realm of their own local culture, so presenting Buddhist thought and practice through a non-ritualistic lens is how the Dharma Bum Temple initially introduces Buddhism to Western people.

When a curious but unfamiliar American walks into a Buddhist space for the first time, they might very often be in their mid-to-late adulthood and looking for an escape from all of the troubles and worries they have accumulated over the years. Their newfound interest in Buddhist practice often stems from a desire to forget about their past problems. This is an immensely more notable challenge to overcome than the cultural disconnect, as genuine Buddhist practice could not be further from being an escape from struggle. This common misconception stems from the Americanized view of meditation.

What Meditation Really Means

In American culture and media, meditation is often represented as a peaceful and joyful experience, where the mind can easily be turned off and on. One might imagine a person with anxiety sitting in silence for twenty minutes, and then coming out of their meditation with a perfectly clear mind and understanding of how to solve their problems. After being bombarded with this representation of meditation, one might enter a Buddhist temple believing that after sitting in meditation, they will achieve peace of mind and find clarity. So, when they actually try a meditation practice for the first time, American people are often unsatisfied with the results and find themselves frustrated upon the discovery that meditation is usually difficult and not always peaceful.

Koshin Paley Ellison giving a Dharma talk. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Upon finding out that meditation isn’t always soothing, a new practitioner might be compelled to ask, ‘If the goal of meditation is not to achieve peace of mind, then what is it?’ While there are many forms of meditation from traditions all over the world, the goal typically is not to completely shut off the mind. Rather, it is to gain an awareness of the present moment, even if it contains discomfort. More often than not, there is some sort of unpleasant experience in the current moment, whether it be mental, physical, or emotional. The practice of meditation is simply learning what it is like to respond to those conditions in a way that is quiet, calm, and still. Although practitioners often cannot change unpleasant conditions or escape from distressing experiences by entering a meditative state, they can refine the way in which they respond to them through the practice of sitting and breathing. Nonetheless, before being able to do this, practitioners must recognize this truth. Then, once they stop expecting to come out of meditation feeling perfectly refreshed, new meditators may begin to reap the benefits of the practice.

If it isn’t meditation practice alone that makes people’s worries go away, many might feel that when they hear the teachings of the Buddha, then their problems will begin to dissolve. Unfortunately, this is also not the case. As Thich Nhat Hanh said in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering, “The Buddha said, over and over again, ‘I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.’” Very often people tend to want to push away their suffering and use Buddhism as a bandage to cover up their previous wounds, whether they be self-inflicted or caused by other forces or people. One likely reason for these misconstrued assumptions is that many Western religions operate in this way. Western religions tend to be belief-centered, and practitioners heavily rely on faith to help guide them. In doing this, they place the responsibility for their struggles elsewhere, typically in the hands of a higher power. So, when entering a Buddhist temple, many people might expect that the practice follows a similar guideline. The most instrumental realization that a new practitioner must come to is that this is ultimately not possible; rather, Buddhist practice requires a deep exploration of past and current wounds and abiding in suffering in order to understand and transform it. The true teachings of the Buddha challenge people to take accountability for their actions and in time better themselves through compassion and wisdom. While it is worth noting that the practice is not to hold onto old hardships, they cannot be let go of without being explored first.

Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Moreover, there are a few different ways in which teachings are often misused by new practitioners, which leaders have to be aware of when they are sharing the Dharma. As established, if one is grasping onto the desire for Buddhist practice to fix them without being willing to sit with and explore their pain, simply having a knowledge of the teachings will not benefit them. People frequently either oversimplify or over intellectualize Buddhist teachings rather than allowing the practice to manifest within their actions. Oversimplification often goes hand in hand with the concept of meditation being a simple and straightforward practice.

For example, the Dharma Bum Temple offers an Intro to Buddhism class twice a week where community members are given the opportunity to come together, meditate, and learn. Class typically concludes with a Q&A session with Zlotnik. At this time, he prefers visitors to ask questions about meditation, practice, Dharma, and anything else they may have on their hearts and minds. Oftentimes, the majority of the questions asked are along the lines of wanting to know how to make some unfavorable feeling or mental state go away. Then, they expect a straightforward answer that will enlighten them in that very moment and take away their suffering without having to truly explore it themselves first.

From Dharma Bum Temple Facebook

Conversely, the Dharma Bum Temple also has recurring visitors who feel that after attending the “Intro to Buddhism” class a few times, they are ready to “move on” to intermediate or advanced teachings. This desire to know more is very reflective of Western craving, especially when it comes to the accumulation of knowledge and status. These people often tend to center their practice around thinking about Buddhism rather than implementing the teachings into their actions. For example, the temple has had visitors who have claimed that they already “know” the Four Noble Truths and are ready to know what is next. More common than not, this “knowing” only really means that they can recite the Four Noble Truths from memory.

Therefore, the desire to “know” more is really just the desire to be able to recite more and prove their intellectual knowledge of Buddhist thought to others. In most cases, these people are failing to realize that if they really understood the truths, then they would already have a full, well-rounded understanding of their suffering as well as the ability to cut through it. They would understand the origins and weight of their dukkha, and practice the Four Noble Truths as well as follow the Eightfold Path every day. If this was the case, then they would have far more satisfaction with their personal growth. It is the desire to know more itself that reflects a discontented mind.

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