Home > Spirituality > Why are Buddhists such assholes?

Why are Buddhists such assholes?

I had some particularly troubling experiences surrounding Buddhists growing up in Boulder, Colorado. I had trouble avoiding contact with Buddhists, as many of the most interesting cultural events in town were put on by the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), and they sometimes got involved in the wildlife community. I remember hearing that Buddhism was about kindness, compassion and suffering, but got confused when I encountered a lot of seemingly rude, cruel and disrespectful behavior on the part of these “Buddhists.” I also (wrongly) thought Buddhism was about giving up material possessions and so was very confused by all the gold, Volvos and nice suits I saw on people from Naropa. I mean really, nobody in Boulder wears a suit outside of city government (and not most people in it, even then).

English: Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

English: Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question kept coming up: why are Buddhists such assholes? I’m not the only one to ask this question: Stephen T. Asma, author of Why I am a Buddhist writes that a lot of Buddhists he’s met are grumpy “brown rice eaters who wake up and say ‘no’ to life.” This clearly was not the Buddha‘s intention when he taught the Dhamma.

I want to be clear about a couple of things: the problem I’m talking about addresses why I didn’t give Buddhism a fair shake when I was growing up, around those people. Hopefully things are different in Boulder now for people who are interested in Buddhism. I don’t know what your experiences are, but I hope they have been better than mine. I also want to be clear that I’m talking about “convert Buddhists” here. Convert Buddhist is code for “white Buddhist,” but a more proper definition would be someone who didn’t learn Buddhism from his parents, i.e. not an Asian (I know plenty of Black Buddhists). I have a reason to expect your experiences might be different as a “cultural Buddhist” (code for “Asian”) under my primary hypotheses, but please let me know. What I do know is that the reflective process inspired by the Buddha’s teachings is particularly tough for people brought up with Judeo-Christian backgrounds because the first thing we tend to associate with self-reflection is guilt. I’ve been told this is even true for some Westerners whose parents were converts. Last point to clarify: what I mean by “asshole” is someone who is deliberately cruel. I do not mean someone who is unintelligent, forgetful or unfashionable (only assholes use those definitions).

The Symptoms

Let me give you an example of what can happen to people when they try to take up the path of self-reflection. When my next-oldest brother Michael turned eighteen and was a senior in high school, he started dating a girl who lived in downtown Boulder, went to a different high school from he and myself, and came from a family of convert Naropa Buddhists. Unbeknownst to our Christian family my brother was meditating and taking part in some other Buddhistic stuff. Well known to our family at this time was he acted like a complete asshole. He would scream and yell at my dad, who had the annoying habit of getting up and getting things after we’d sat down for dinner; suddenly I was a horrible person for using paper towels; he insisted that the words “Buddha” and “Buddhism” were pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “wood.” His girlfriend was totally arrogant too, lecturing me on everything from how to conduct conversations to my relationship with my girlfriend. What the hell was going on? Why had hanging out with Buddhists turned my brother into an asshole?

A less personal example of assholiness I encountered was self-identification: (three seconds into conversation): “I’m a Buddhist, so…” Most often I came away feeling like people were saying “You better not piss me off.” It’s presumptuous to think that I know enough about your choices in life that I would know well enough how not to piss you off. I’ve even seen self-identification on cars: recently (not in Boulder, in Durham) I saw a car whose back side was completely covered with self-identifying stickers: “Metta,” “Kindness is my religion,” etc. Every slogan I’ve ever heard was stuck to the back of that car. Mission accomplished: I knew that I had something in common with the driver right away. The problem I have is what if you accidentally cut somebody off? The next time the driver of the car behind sees or hears “Kindness is my religion,” they’re going to have a hard time buying it. I would hope that the driver that got cut off was also “into kindness” and would mindfully recognize that it was just an accident, but I’m going to be realistic about his or her attitude in such a frightening situation. I worry that if you put “I’m kind” on the back of your car, the results could be enabling (encouraging?) cynicism for the people behind you.

Buddhists attack other Buddhists. The most common attack is that whatever form of Buddhism one person practices is The Real Thing, and everyone else’s form is a terrible bastardization. People fond of Theravada Buddhism will often charge Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism of being corrupt, power-structure-inviting perversions of the Buddha’s message. Mahayana Buddhists will say that Theravadins are following the “Hinayana path” and the Pali Canon was deliberately dumbed down by the Buddha out of pity. Vajrayana practitioners, I won’t mention any names, but someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, will claim that their form of meditation is superior to others; I’ve heard other Vajrayana monks and nuns say things like “mindfulness isn’t everything; you need mindfulness to stab somebody.”

Dalai Lama

So what the hell’s going on here? Why would people who supposedly value kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity be so good at turning people off? Why would people who are trying to let go of the defilement of anger seem so angry? Why is it that when people hear “kindness is my religion,” they just don’t buy it? If Buddhism is about compassion and generosity, then why do some Buddhists seem so damn snooty and self-indulgent?

The Problem

If you’ve suffered any assholic behavior from self-identified Buddhists, then allow me to let you in on a few little discoveries I’ve made. My first hypothesis has to do with what Buddhism itself entails, and the devastating personality effects this can have for people who grow up in a guilt-focused culture. The basic instruction of the Buddha is that if you want to find the root of your suffering, look inward. This is tough. When many people look inward, they don’t like what they see. I think we in America are taught to be movers and shakers, and if we’re not, its our own damn fault. So self-reflection to a lot of people just means guilt. Many people report that after they start meditating they get pissed off because they see how angry and self-deceptive they are. Then they’re pissed off because they’ve been told that meditation makes everything “better.”

There’s another aspect of this: after you’ve seen that things actually do feel better when you have performed some self-reflection, you start seeing unmindful behavior not only in yourself but in others. I used to really not be able to sit still. If I was sitting still I was worried about what was happening because I was sitting still. This keeps some people from starting meditation. But after you really sit down and get used to it on a daily basis, you start to notice that it’s really nice to just sit down. Just to sit down and enjoy things, or really focus on what you’re doing, is a joy. At the same time, seeing people not doing this can be maddening! Going back to the story of my brother, I am pretty sure that what had happened was that he just wanted to mindfully sit down and enjoy dinner, and seeing my dad get up to get the salt and pepper, sit down, and then get up to get the parsley, sit down, and then get up to get himself a drink was probably even more annoying than it had been before. One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is that you will eventually remember to bring the salt and pepper to the table. In the meantime, however, it’s hard to put up with normal “deluded” human behavior. This is, in fact, the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: the way we all do things does drive us mad and to behaving like assholes.

Seated Buddha with flower

Seated Buddha with flower (Photo credit: BaboMike)

My second potential explanation is that perhaps the chain of causation is reversed: maybe people are Buddhists because they are assholes, not assholes because they are Buddhists. My first idea explained that the reflective process of the spiritual path can indeed inspire assholey behavior. Now I’d like to ask why people take up that path in the first place. Simple answer: they’re angry, unkind, selfish, spiteful, cynical, anti-social and self-destructive. “So what?” you’re saying. “So’s everybody else.” The difference is that these people notice. Someone who takes up a spiritual path usually does so because they notice the pain and suffering that they and others are enduring.

When I tell non-meditators I’m anxious or depressed, they say “Yeah, whatever, so’s everybody.” They are not mean about it, but they don’t seem to think it’s a big deal. When I tell my Buddhist friends, it’s the start of a dialogue about why we (not just me) are anxious and depressed and what we can do about it. These people notice their pain and suffering, they study it, they give it real attention. They don’t just say “Everybody suffers, let’s go get a beer,” they say “Everybody suffers: what can we do about it?” Why do we suffer? What would it look like not to suffer? How can we change our lives to create less suffering?

My point is that if these “Buddhists” have gotten to the point of saying “I’m going to change my life because I see my suffering,” then that is a pretty huge change. Enlightenment doesn’t happen overnight, however. What I’m saying is that if any self-identified Buddhist deliberately hurt you, my experience tells me that they know it and are probably guilty about it, as opposed to a regular asshole, who is a lot less likely to even notice, much less care. I’d like to have enough faith in people to think that every person who behaves in a cruel way does at least notice, but my experience tells me that most of the people who notice are working hard to fix it.

A third minor hypothesis states that when someone self-identifies as “Buddhist” or “spiritual” or even simply “kind,” that is an idea. It’s a great idea, but it’s not how you actually manifest in the world. Even though your aspiration may be toward these things (and that’s great!), the problem is that you will forget, and you might just forget while you’re driving, while you’re buying a house, or while you’re interacting with someone at work. You might forget for weeks or years at a time. If you didn’t ever forget, you would be done with your spiritual path; you’d be a Buddha.

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first repr...

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what people are after when they attack forms of Buddhism other than their favorite, but it seems to stem from (surprise!) ignorance. Ignorance about history: Buddhism spread mostly by oral tradition along the Silk Road, before the creation of the internet, much less public libraries; ignorance of culture: wherever Buddhism goes, to Afghanistan, China, Tibet, Japan, or the United States, it will take on aspects of the local culture. That doesn’t mean it isn’t “pure.” The only question the Buddha asked people to consider was “Do you want to be free from greed, hatred and delusion?” He didn’t say “Do you want to be free from greed, hatred and delusion in a particular way that seems like the right kind of ‘Asian’ to you?”

The Solution

My own story is that despite the assholification of Buddhism that I’d seen in Boulder, I managed to discover that Buddhism was much more diverse than I thought. I was only exposed to (splattered with?) a particular offshoot of Tibetan Buddhism in Boulder. I’m going to be contentious here and say that the form of Buddhism I encountered in Boulder was deliberately contrived to be palatable to the people who I encountered as particularly asshole-rific. However, there’s really a form of Buddhism for anybody, from hardcore anti-religious people (so-called “atheists”) to hardcore Christians (some believe that Amitabha Buddha was either Jesus or Zoroaster; others believe Jesus was a Buddhist monk). There are forms of Buddhism that emphasize meditation (Zen and Theravada), there are forms that emphasize ritual and ceremony, there are forms that de-emphasize meditation (e.g. Nichiren), and there are forms that only emphasize generosity and ethics. Even within something that most Americans consider monolithic, like “Tibetan Buddhism,” or “Zen,” there is a huge diversity of practices, teachings and ceremonies. Evolutionary biologist perspective: the current diversity of Buddhism is the result of over 2500 years of development, with many forms in complete isolation with one another. I doubt the Zen masters of thirteenth century Japan were having Webinars with Theravada monks in Sri Lanka.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn (Photo credit: Mari Smith)

I rediscovered Buddhism by way of mindfulness in modern psychotherapy. After meditating for a while I decided to find others, although I still didn’t want to call myself a Buddhist, and wasn’t looking forward to trying to find a meditation group. I thought I would find a bunch of ego-driven jerks! What I found instead were some of the nicest, most welcoming people I’d ever met. That group itself is diverse, with some people who primarily meditate for its psychological benefits, and others who call themselves Buddhists because of their interest in the Dhamma. They don’t shove it in anybody’s face, however. If you saw my friend Eddy, you wouldn’t think “There’s one of those Buddhists who’s going to tell me how to feed my dog.” Instead you would just see a smile.

This leaves me disappointed and guilty (okay, not really) about some of the interactions I had in Boulder. The father of my brother’s girlfriend was actually a nice guy, and he and I were both big fans of Philip Glass. Many times he tried to engage me in conversation about music (my favorite topic) and I just didn’t give him a chance. However, the point of my own spiritual path is that I can learn to let go of all that. And hopefully the next time I visit Boulder, I can greet people with a smile, even if they look really disturbed and grumpy. If any of you have experienced the dukkha of interacting with a self-righteous Buddhist, you can still keep an open mind.

  1. July 29, 2013 at 18:45

    Hmm. Funny post. My initial response is that assholes are assholes, and the especially pretentious ones are prone to self-identifying quite rapidly and erratically. I don’t have your experiences, but my guess is that these people call themselves Buddhists but do not actually apply any of the teachings, or at least not for more than 30 seconds at a time. They call themselves Buddhists for their own reasons, but they are in fact just assholes, by your definition. You could call them assholes. Not sure they’re Buddhist Assholes, though. They think they’re the former, you think they’re the latter, but almost no objective onlooker should conclude that they’re both.

    Just my white-guy-slight-fan-of-some-of-the-Buddhist-doctrines opinion. But like I said, very funny. Truly.

    • July 30, 2013 at 11:49

      Thanks for reading. I’m glad you mentioned “assholes are assholes” because that’s exactly why I took a long time to consider before writing this (as I said, I’ve been thinking about this question for years). Yes, I could have written “Why are left-handed Chicken-pot Pie bakers assholes?” but there’s nothing inherently contradictory about that form of self-identification. When someone insults me and then gets into a car with “Kindness is my religion” on the bumper, I get a little puzzled. Basically I’ve found out how unwise it was for me to condemn an entire religion based on the behavior of a few people, at specific points in time. Maybe certain assholes are just assholes, but I’m not going to hold them to that; I’d be an asshole to not give them another chance.

      As to whether they actually apply the teachings in their lives: even if someone is applying the teachings, how do I know what their aspirations are when I catch them on a bad day? Maybe most of the time they don’t treat people that way; or maybe they are incredibly depressed and just trying to take the first step toward living a life of kindness and compassion. I just can’t know that. At some point they will hopefully wake up.

  2. August 1, 2013 at 01:37

    Joel, you’re right, many new converts to any religion act like assholes. Buddhism, unfortunately, is no exception. But it’s especially unsurprising, when you consider the history of the Naropa Institute and its founder, and the craziness of the 60s it was born in. I’ll leave looking into the details of that as an exercise or the reader. American Buddhists were such a turnoff that I became a yogi instead. But authentic Buddhists don’t behave like that. The Buddhists I live with and around here in Sri Lanka are very sweet, well-behaved, non-fanatical people. So will be any Buddhist who actually get it.

  3. August 2, 2013 at 14:49

    I’ve seen so much assholification – Boulder or Buddhist or no – that the temptation is there to blame religion. But I’ve met with those asses in every other sphere of life, too, atheist and new age-hippie and nature conservationist alike (no war criminals as yet), that I’m voting for the ‘we are all assholes, but some of us are a little more asshole than others’ :) Great post!

  4. stu
    August 28, 2013 at 08:46

    I love this post. One thing I find interesting: If I like it so much, why am I hesitant to share it with the other folks in my sangha?

    • August 28, 2013 at 11:56

      I wouldn’t recommend sharing it as an oblique way of saying “Don’t be a dick.” Hopefully you could share it just as a way of pointing out that our spiritual path is rocky, and sometimes we pick up those rocks and hurl them at people without realizing it. I hope to point out to non-Buddhists that when someone says “I’m a Buddhist,” they are not saying “I’m perfect.” Quite the opposite.

      • stu
        August 28, 2013 at 14:07

        Yea…The main value I get from it is the amusing picture it paints of my own behavior. (I asked my wife this morning, ‘you haven’t encountered any assholic behavior for any self-identified buddhists, have you?’) I’d like to share that joy with others…But then laughing at oneself isn’t a joy for everybody.

  5. August 30, 2013 at 20:56

    Found your post through WP search. Nice article and true enough even outside Boulder. Not a new problem, though. Swift mentions this mental phenomenon in Gulliver’s Travels with the big-endian and little-endian feud. You could substitute Mac versus PC, Mac versus anything or Theravada versus Mahayana. It is a quirk of our consciousness to think truth is absolute. Pilate asks Jesus “what is truth”. I don’t recall him getting a good answer back. Well done.

    • September 3, 2013 at 10:26

      Yes, the real problems are black-white thinking and fault-finding :) That Gotama fellow was on to something…

  6. Tenzin Chodron
    December 29, 2013 at 01:25

    Well done. I’m a monk and I’ve been consistently perplexed by the sort of behavior you described. When I was first ordained 14 years ago, I remember meeting cranky, mean Buddhists who had been practicing longer than I’d been alive (Western converts, obviously) that made me despair for the human race and question the benefits of practice. I still love my tradition and plan on remaining ordained until I die, but I wish some Buddhists weren’t such jerks because they scare people away from Buddhism.

  7. April 25, 2014 at 00:32

    The sense of wrong is simply to see where something fits into a pattern. We cannot have the good without the bad, the black without the white. By holding onto these “assholes” yourself, you are prevented from being free of them. There is a very good story I’ll poorly translate here for you – two monks are walking along a path when they come to a river that has become very deep from floods – and a girl is struggling to cross it. The monks both cross the river, and one instinctively lifts the girl up as he passes, puts her on his shoulders and helps her to cross. Then the monks and the girl continue walking in different directions. After quite some time, the monk who did not lift the girl, who is clearly agitated, looks at the other and says, “you know, just then you broke your oath by touching that girl” the other monk says, “I left her on the other side of the river, it is you who is still carrying her”

    • April 25, 2014 at 11:21

      Thanks for reading and communicating with me. My motivation for writing was not that I am still upset over the behavior of these people, in fact quite the opposite. I find that when I tell certain people I am following the Dharma, particularly when I use the words “I am a Buddhist,” they tell me stories of bad interactions they had with people who self-identified as Buddhists. The other reason was that I’m finally getting over the confusion inspired by getting insulted by someone who might have “Kindness is my religion” written on their t-shirt. Don’t you think that’s a little confusing? If people go around talking about living a kind life, but any break from that conversation is a rude insult, that seems a little contradictory. I thought I would try to help ease the confusion. Not everyone who says “I’m a Buddhist” is ideal, in fact no one except an arahant could even hope to be in daily life.

      • June 3, 2014 at 08:00

        Is the asshole percentage among people that claim to be Buddhists higher than among people who don’t?

        Buddhists are people too. Not everyone of them is a perfectly enlightened Buddha.

      • June 3, 2014 at 15:07

        This is a good point to bring up. I certainly don’t make any claims as to statistical relationships between unkind behavior and religion. However, I did encounter more people than I ever expected who would say rude, inconsiderate and disrespectful things to me right before or after saying “I’m a Buddhist.” I found it confusing.

        In my own judgment, it’s unwise (at the very least) to wear a sign saying “I’m in favor of kindness,” because, as you say, nobody’s perfect, and someone’s interpretation of your behavior might not agree with your own. There are people who do wear such signs that are not Buddhists. However, when such people are advertising themselves as Buddhists, other Buddhists (or Buddhism in general) get the blame for the confusing events. I myself, for example, was turned off from Buddhism from childhood, and only gave it a chance as an adult.

  8. June 3, 2014 at 07:48

    Interesting points.

    I think that the reason that buddhists often are assholes is that the assholes don’t understand what it is all about. True wisdom. True compassion.

    Smiles!

    /Gustaf

    • June 3, 2014 at 15:00

      Do you mean they don’t understand the value of kindness to Buddhist practice? The Simile of the Saw emphasizes this quite forcefully.

      • June 3, 2014 at 17:04

        I mean they haven’t understood the whole idea about Buddhism and only practice parts of it (which isn’t really Buddhism at all) or not at all (like only praying to Buddha to get the good stuff. How would that even be possible?! Buddha was an ordinary man achieving something extraordinary!), or they have come a little way along the road.

        I know I was so glad to have found Buddhism when I first started to practice what I thought was Buddhism. Really, I was just an asshole calling myself a Buddhist! :)

        But we all have to start somewhere, don’t we? Too bad we sometimes are so stupid we don’t realise we are Buddhist practitioners at all – yet!

        There is no Buddhism without either wisdom and compassion. Think of it: the one without the other will not lead to a more wholesome life.

      • June 3, 2014 at 17:05

        I agree about the sign wearing.

      • June 3, 2014 at 17:08

        And of course nothing is perfect.

        …we are not Buddhists at all – yet, is what I meant to write.

  9. June 6, 2014 at 19:18

    I think many of them perhaps haven’t even read the “Simile of the saw”

  10. June 12, 2014 at 06:54

    i was recently in a forum, unrelated to this but on the topic of Buddhism, and I had said that i was just researching it because well, I’m free to do as I please. I’m white and American and was cyber-attacked by two “asians” claiming to be Buddhists, about why the hell white people are so interested in Asian philosophy, and was constantly defending myself but in the end was called a “disgusting cracker”. So I’m a 30 year old female, and have had my first run in with racism as a white person. it hurt. So yeah, I agree with this article about “some” of these people being complete bitches and assholes. i thought we were all supposed to learn love, tolerance and acceptance.. Idk… my hope is going down the tubes.

    • June 16, 2014 at 16:10

      One reason I specified that I was writing about “convert Buddhists” is that Buddhism means something very different to Asian people who grew up with it than it does to (mostly white) Americans who learned about it from friends or books. The funny thing about Boulder is that many of the teachers are Asians who grew up with it, but the students are not. That’s how lots of things (music, food, African dance classes) are in Boulder.

    • June 16, 2014 at 16:11

      BTW do you have a link to this discussion? I’d be interested in reading it.

      • June 16, 2014 at 19:28

        Thanks for the reply. The chat was deleted by the creator of the group itself but I would’ve shown you. Even a white girl from the states around my age attacked me and sarcastically said how close I must be to Enlightenment lol. I have since found my own spiritual path. Love and light to you :)

  1. May 26, 2014 at 05:59

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