Are You A “Fashionable Buddhist”?

I’ve been reading a bit lately from Alexander Berzin and the following paragraphs got me thinking. Was I like this when I got started? Did I really look like “that guy”?

“Now, there are many different levels of practice of Buddhism and how we would go about applying it into our daily life. There is a very, very superficial level which doesn’t really do very much to change us internally. And, then there is a deeper level, in which we are actually working on ourselves, working on our personalities, working toward the goals of liberation and enlightenment. Now, in the beginning, many people are attracted to this superficial level and so they deal with externals. By externals I mean you have to have a red blessing string around your neck, or around your wrist, or both, and wear a mala…a rosary of beads…around the other wrist and, maybe when we are walking around or sitting, then you thumb the rosary and mumble something. And we have to have a good supply of incense and candles, and all the proper meditation cushions, and Tibetan paintings and pictures, and, if we really go far in this direction, we might even start to wear some sort of Tibetan clothing.

I remember when I first went to India, in 1969, when I started living there. That was the height of the hippie era and there were very few Westerners who were there at that time. But many of them dressed fully in Tibetan exotic robes and costumes, and things like that. And I was rather judgmental about the whole thing and thought that it was offensive to the Tibetans; that these Westerners were just mimicking them and copying them. At that time, I was living with a Tibetan monk. So I asked him, “What do Tibetans think of these Westerners, who go around dressed in Tibetan clothes?” And he said, “We think that they like Tibetan clothes.” So, no judgment there, whatsoever. It was very, very helpful.

But, whether we are judgmental about it or not, just changing our clothing, wearing a rosary around our wrist, having many blessing cords, red strings around our neck, doesn’t really change us very much, does it? Internally? So, I think that, particularly in the West, it’s not such a great idea to go around with all of this because it brings about people making fun of us. If a woman is dressed in a very beautiful, elegant dress for an evening event and they have some dirty red strings around their neck, that doesn’t quite look proper, does it? So, I always advise people that if they would like to keep these red blessing cords, keep it in their wallet, keep it in their pocket, keep it in their pocketbook, whatever. You don’t have to actually display it. Displaying it doesn’t bring more “blessings,” does it? And, if you want to say mantras, the same thing; you don’t have to bring out your rosary and make a whole big show out of it. You can say it silently in your mind, if you are in a crowd, or on a bus, or whatever. So, this is what I mean by a slightly changed circumstance that we have. If we are in a society in which such type of behavior, or such type of strings, would look pretty weird, then there’s no need to have them – externally. And, if our practicing Buddhism is simply wearing these strings, then obviously that’s not a very deep practice of Buddhism, and not very helpful.

Actually, if you look at the way that Tibetans deal with these strings, they only wear them for a short period of time. They don’t just wear them until they really get them dirty and horrible. They wear them for a very short period of time and then retire them; put them on their altar or something like that. So, I think the advice that we have in the seven points of attitude training, or mind training, lojong, is very helpful here. Which is, “Transform internally, but leave your external form consistent with what is ordinarily around.” So, it’s best to keep our practice private. This is particularly true if we are lay practitioners living in a non-Buddhist society.”


  1. Wow…this really caught me by surprise. My first impulse was to try to not judge the jugdement in the above piece; it says a lot about the author, bless him, but it produced such unease that I felt compelled to return the following day to comment. I am not a Buddhist, only try to follow the path, and I’m fairly new to it, aside from being a long-term meditator, so maybe I can be forgiven my arrogance in stating my opinion. Yes, I have noticed others who “play the part”, and somehow the judgement is usually toward myself; do I really fit in? do I need the “right” clothing, cushions, books, posture, etc. to be a more authentic practitioner? I assume that others with the “right” things are at whatever place in their path they may find themselves, where the outward expression of their beliefs or self-image is important to them in some way, religious or not, and I let them be. We all do that to a certain extent, don’t we? We dress the part of whatever image we wish to portray of ourselves to the world. They may later adapt their exterior expression to fit new growth and beliefs. I do wear a red cord on my wrist, as my teachers do; it was received after I committed to accepting the refuges and the five precepts. It was one of the most meaningful and emotional commitments of my life, anchoring me to a new way of living and connecting me to others of like mind. It is with heartfelt gratitude and tenderness that I wear it, clean it, and look at it as a reminder of the constant daily choices I have to choose wisely, compassionately. I have nothing else, other than an assorted pile of old pillows I use for my sitting practice, and a few books. And I will wear my cord with my elegant evening dress, make-up, and heels to go out to the opera in the city; it will be just as beautiful beside gold or pearls, regardless of whatever or whether others may think or feel about it, that’s their stuff, not mine. There are surely a lot stranger things to notice in the city beside a red cord on someone’s wrist or neck. It is strictly for me, from the second I awake in the morning and see it, visible to others on not, and for everything it deeply means to me. And the others- not for me to concern myself with. Peace to all.

  2. This is very interesting to me on a couple of levels. I came here via a search for “pretentious Buddhism”. An acquaintance in Russia peppered every conversation with his claims of Buddhism, began all opinion sentences with “As a Buddhist…” Any comments I make about my time in the city where we were are always responded to asides about how I hated the place, at the least ignorant of my experience, at worst a projection of his own fears. I wanted to find any material about this condition, this flaunting. I’ll admit, in a judgmental way. I flirted with spiritual education some time ago, and I myself returned from a trip abroad wearing a tatty blessing. I returned to say goodbye to my dying father. Before he was cremated, I tied the string to his coffin, without thinking. I was given a blessing for Christmas three years ago; it lives in my wallet. To provide some balance on this subject, I have two Buddisht icons winking at me from my desk now, purely aesthetic; a souvenir from travels in Kalmykia given to me by my hosts, and a souvenir from my mother and her time in China. I’m not a Buddhist, but I’ll be less quick to judge in the future.

  3. I’ve seen students with so many blessing cords around their neck they looked like white Masai warriors. Earlier this year I took a photography course & the tutor wore malas complete with counting beads & rainbow tassels around her neck. After class, the students said many nasty things about her beads like, “It’s like she is trying to prove she is spiritual or something.”
    I myself went through years of being attracted to malas & have quite a collection. One day, I bought a couple of cheap necklaces, pulled them apart & made my own set. They have stayed with me since & I am satisfied with them.
    I came to the conclusion a while ago that it is better to be viewed as a happy type of person, not a freaky, pretentious Buddhist (similar to what commenter Phillip above says). Still, my shrine is a sight to behold. We keep the door shut when non-Buddhists visit.

  4. Thanks everyone for the great comments.

    I hate to admit, but when I first got into Buddhism, I felt like I needed to “wear my colors” if you will. That quickly came to a stop, as I began to realize how ridiculous I was being.

    Buddhism isn’t a badge, or a t-shirt, it’s the life we lead. Do you wear a shirt telling people your ethinicity, your job, whether you are a mother or father? No, it’s just what you do or who you are, no need to advertise it. That’s the realization I came to after a while… took some time though, and I have the t-shirt!

    Now, I do wear a mala but I do it for a different reason. I wear it not only as a reminder, but when I have down time I count mantras with it. I do have a couple shirts like I said, but I wear them with a different feeling, they are just t-shirts now.

  5. Excellent post.

    I admit, i’ve fallen into this trap, albeit just around my home; I have lots of little statues and trinkets etc. It came very much at the start of my investigation of Buddhism. I’ve pondered wearing beads, or strings, or t-shirts that exclaim my position, but an article like this really focuses me to what is important. I used to also have a habit of bringing up my practice/learning in a conversation with others whenever I could, which I think is a similar thing. Its kind of self-justification.

    Now, if it arises naturally I will mention it, but not go out of my way.

  6. Great post and comments afterwards! I am afraid I fall into this category a bit, but in more of a hidden way. I do not show anything in public as far as clothing or beads (though I do have a Thich Nhat Hanh calendar in my office). I do not get into conversations about Buddhism with anybody outside of the true Buddhist community (even my wife & kids unless they ask). However, I am just the type of person who tends to want to surround myself with all of the “right stuff” in order to practice anything I get into. That has happened with golf, music and now Buddhism. I become fearful of heading down a path unless I feel I have all of the right tools to succeed as I move down the path, looking outside of myself for those tools too often. So in my basement where I meditate, I have my little Buddha statue, Samadhi cushion set, framed pictures, singing bowl, music, prauer flags, etc. in order to setup a nice comfortable area to meditate. These things are mostly hidden away when not in use. It does feel good to have these things as a part of my meditation, and they are helpful (just to help create a calm environment), but the biggest thing is just to sit and breathe!! That always is what I get the most positive and peaceful feelings from. So it’s a matter of just trusting what is within me rather than what surrounds me. When I can really do that then the peace I feel stays with me longer and translates into the rest of my life.

  7. I’ve made it a point to be completely opposite of the “fashionable Buddhist”, probably to my own peril but I didn’t want to be a new guy that just soak up all the trappings of the practice and never really has a practice or understanding what that means. I don’t ever wear a mala or even a cool Buddhist T-shirt because I don’t feel like I am qualified (I guess that’s the word I want) to be a example of a Buddhist. I think its easy to get caught up in the fad of something new and different and wanting to share that but what is it that you are sharing. I want people to be able to see me walking down the street and go “Wow what a happy dude” that is the kind of “fashionable” Buddhist I’m working to be.

  8. Thanks, and so true! I remember as a newbie going to a party and proudly displaying my blessing strings (note the plural), someone inquired about them and when I told them I was Buddhist that thought that was very weird! Not the effect I wanted!

  9. Reminds me of the parable in the Bible where rich folks show off how much they give at the Temple to “impress” others how holy they are. Yet, the humble woman who gives quietly, without any fanfare, wins more merit all the time.

    Don’t own any of the beads. Have none of the clothes and only buy candles and incense when they’re on sale (50 to 75% off!). Still use common lingo when I write, sprinkling a few Buddhist terms to keep my Sangha happy, yet I hope to interest more people in love and compassion the Buddha Way using the Western Way.

    You know what I mean?

    michael j

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