The Yale Buddhist Sangha, under the auspices of the Yale Chaplain’s Office, is Yale’s flagship organization for Buddhist life. Its stated aim is to provide the Yale community with an opportunity to learn about and practice Buddhism. The organization also advertises itself as open to “the curious, beginners, experienced Buddhists, and those of other religions equally.” However, this welcoming facade belies a far more serious problem. YBS, like many Western Buddhist organizations before it, professes a variant of Buddhism that undervalues devotionalism and religiosity. They partake in the secularism and New Age idealism that have dominated Buddhism in America for the better part of the last half century.

For the vast majority of Buddhists around the world, Buddhism entails an intensely devotional religiosity. Contrary to the prevalent conception of Buddhism that associates the religion with meditation, in most Buddhist-majority countries, practicing Buddhism involves elaborate ritual worship, listening to monks deliver sermons and patronage of monastic asceticism. Many lay Buddhists also believe in Buddhist cosmology, which owes its complexity and richness to over two millennia of commentaries and scriptures. Even through a cursory observation of Buddhist art — be it Mahayana, Theravada or Vajrayana — one will encounter deities, demons, rakshasas and depictions of otherworldly realms.

My personal experiences are no different. I spent most of my formative years in Thailand and was raised a Theravada Buddhist. I grew up prostrating before Buddha images in temples and presenting offerings to Buddhist clergy to make merit. Some of my immediate family members are not ethnically Asian and were raised Protestant, but later converted and now practice similar types of Buddhist religiosity. I was even ordained as a Buddhist Monk during the summer of my freshman year. In the monastery, scriptural education, ritual worship and sweeping the temple grounds constituted the majority of my responsibilities. I barely had time to meditate. 

Devotional practices such as these first came to America in the mid-1800s, when Chinese workers arrived in Hawaii and California. Asian American Buddhists born into the faith continue to comprise the majority of Buddhists in the United States, making up over two-thirds of the total population. 

However, their distinct forms of devotional worship have failed to enter popular Western imaginings of Buddhism for a number of reasons. By the late nineteenth century, European and American scholars had produced a considerable amount of scholarship on Buddhism. While their work on scripture and thought has produced valuable contributions to fields such as historical linguistics and religious history, they did so through a distinctly Orientalist, modernist lens, often under the patronage of an imperial power. These Orientalist textual approaches necessarily selected for Buddhist tenets compatible with Enlightenment rationality while rejecting practices at odds with prevalent forms of Western religiosity. They prioritized the psychological aspects of Buddhism and individual meditation over devotionalism, ritual and cosmology. 

To be clear, meditation has a long history in Buddhism, but for many lay Buddhists, it is only one of many aspects of their everyday religious practice and for some, plays little to no role in their daily lives. Many forms of everyday devotional worship in Buddhist societies came about as Buddhist ideas mixed with pre-existing folk and animistic traditions. These “impurities” led early Orientalist scholars to emphasize what they saw as “rational” aspects of Buddhism in line with post-Enlightenment conceptions of reason. 

Today, many Western Buddhist “converts” continue this Orientalist legacy, regarding meditation as the most authentic component of Buddhist practice at the expense of ritual and devotional religiosity. More often than not, they scientize meditation as a practice, articulating the benefits of meditation in empirical language for maximum appeal to a secular audience. This prioritization of meditation above all else devalues the plurality of ritual practices that have arisen in Buddhist societies spanning South, Southeast and East Asia. Just as Western Orientalists dismissed particular forms of religiosity as superfluous and backward, so too Euro American “converts” to Buddhism neglect devotionalism in their valorization of meditation and scientization of Buddhist psychology.

YBS is no different. While I certainly appreciate the regular visits by Buddhist teachers and accessibility of their shrine space — both of which attracted me to YBS as an underclassman — I found the over-emphasis on meditation peculiar. YBS’s most visible public activity is meditation, with weekly sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays open to all members of the community. Advertisements for events about meditation dominate YBS’s weekly emails to the Yale Buddhist community. However, the far more problematic issue at hand is the secularization and commodification of meditative practices.

The increasing popularity of “mindfulness” is a paradigmatic example of this. Today, “mindfulness” has become so ubiquitous to the point where it is almost impossible to keep track of all the different ideas and practices to which the term refers. It appears everywhere, from self-help books to corporate retreats. Mobile meditation apps like “Headspace” are emblematic of what happens when this commodification encounters technological modernity. In light of this, anyone who has partaken in the so-called “Mindfulness Movement” will have likely reckoned with the relationship between modern mindfulness practices and its Buddhist origins. Buddhism, of course, entails much more than mindfulness — right mindfulness is only one of the Eightfold Path’s components, for example. Calling mindfulness meditation “Buddhist” is about as ludicrous as equating blowing birthday candles with Christian prayer.

Advocates contend that turning mindfulness into a secular, self-help tool can psychologically benefit anyone regardless of background. To be clear, Buddhists should absolutely welcome interest by non-Buddhists in any aspect of the religion. I also understand that introducing an unfamiliar faith to a target population often involves simplification or distillation of key ideas.

However, it is precisely this watering down of mindfulness, and by extension, meditation, that renders the practice ethically and sacrally vacuous. YBS is more than guilty of this. In addition to labeling secular mindfulness practices “Buddhist,” they promote these practices using the language of wellness, self-care and mental health. For instance, the YBS website openly advertises Being Well at Yale — the university’s campaign to promote physical and mental wellbeing — as a resource for beginners looking for an introduction to Buddhism. The first page of YBS’s “Meditation Handbook” — published last September — begins by declaring how “solid scientific research” confirms the “benefits of meditation.” It subsequently lists a range of mental illnesses before proclaiming that meditation “increases” qualities such as “compassion,” “inner peace” and “intimacy.” This utilitarian secularization of meditation and mindfulness extends to YBS events, which run the gamut from “Mindful Kimbap Making” to “Bringing Mindfulness to Anti-Racism and Climate Activism.” These guidebooks and events belong in the Good Life Center, not a religious organization under the Yale Chaplain’s Office.

In addition to selective portrayals of mindfulness and meditation, YBS further denigrates the religious integrity of the Buddhist faith, alleging its universal compatibility with other major religions. Some of YBS’s student board members publicly adhere to other major faiths while simultaneously professing commitment to Buddhist principles. It is easy to see why this is the case — if you cherry pick specific practices, secularize them and divorce them totally from their original religious contexts, why wouldn’t seemingly benign mental health practices be compatible with other belief systems? 

A basic understanding of Buddhism’s core tenets reveals how farcical this is. Even the Dalai Lama concluded that it is impossible to be a Buddhist and Christian at the same time. How can someone who believes in a timeless cycle of reincarnation believe in a Creation that had a beginning? How can they believe that meritorious deeds will result in a better rebirth while holding that Jesus is the only path to salvation and good deeds alone will not get one into heaven? How can they reject divine intervention in karma while believing in the grace of God? The contradictions are striking and obvious. Buddhism is a religious knowledge system, not simply an identity marker that one can collect and carelessly tack on. 

The unfortunate result of all this is the alienation of people, like myself, whose relationship with the Buddhist faith hinged largely upon devotional religiosity and worship. Reducing Buddhism to a series of feel-good self-help rituals purportedly backed by scientific evidence is a surefire way to deprive the faith of its sanctity. It reaffirms the cliché that Buddhism is an areligious “philosophy, not a religion” that can be liberally construed to justify anything from treatments for depression to the counter-cultural, drug-fueled lifestyles of the Beat Generation.

The absence of a community in which I felt that I could worship authentically bred a great sense of disillusionment. I no longer practice Buddhism in any meaningful way as I found its upkeep simply impossible without a space to engage in familiar forms of devotionalism. Because there are no temples in the vicinity of campus, my sole source of continued engagement with Buddhism became through an academic lens. For the past four semesters, I have been taking Sanskrit and Pali classes, scrutinizing epic poems and philosophical discourses in their original languages. It has been an intellectually rigorous, but different, experience. This entire ordeal has compelled me to reconsider some of my deepest religious convictions about theism and soteriology, many of which I have held since childhood.

I realize that there are factors limiting YBS’s ability to successfully appeal to Buddhists from all walks of life, backgrounds and denominations. All organizations at Yale are subject to bureaucratic and financial constraints, and the population of self-identifying Buddhist undergraduates is relatively small, often under two percent of each incoming Yale College class. However, as long as YBS continues its current practices, it cannot claim to be a home for all Buddhists at Yale. YBS must better accommodate all forms of religiosity lest even more formerly avowed Buddhists become disillusioned and lose faith. 

At stake is not simply the ability of Buddhists at Yale to worship authentically. Events at YBS are symptomatic of the state of Buddhism in our country more generally, where distorted and commodified secular practices masquerade as “Buddhist” in the mainstream, alienating and excluding those born and raised in the faith. Buddhists should not have to sanitize their practices in response to the pressures of modern liberalism. Compromising one’s religiosity should not be a precondition for meaningfully participating in the pluralistic religious patchwork of America.


PUTT PUNYAGUPTA is a senior in Saybrook College. He is a member of the Yale Student Buddhist Community. He can be reached at