The Western Reception of Buddhism

Celebrity and Popular Cultural Media as Agents of Familiarisation


  • Carole Cusack University of Sydney



Buddhism, Celebrity, Popular Culture, Media


This article argues that the West’s positive reception of Buddhism from the late nineteenth century to the present has been informed by the continuing influence of three factors: first, popular cultural transmission of information about the religion; second, celebrity patronage and Buddhist celebrities; and third, the manipulation of the image of Buddhism to fit the pressing intellectual and social issues of the time. This has resulted in a distinctively modern form of Buddhism that is deeply imbued with the key cultural and religio-spiritual discourses of secularisation, individualism and consumer capitalism that have resulted in the transformation of Western religion since the late nineteenth century (McMahan 2008: 27-59). Recent scholarship has emphasised that the encounter of Buddhism and the West, mediated in the nineteenth century by popular cultural phenomena including Edwin Arnold’s poetic biography The Light of Asia (1879) and the World’s Parliament of Religions (held in Chicago in 1893 in conjunction with Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World), was a mutual affair in which certain Buddhists engaged with Western discourses in order to exhibit the congruence of Buddhism with modernity and science, and Western Buddhists and sympathisers attempted to incorporate Buddhism into the framework of Western philosophy and the emergent discipline of psychology (Snodgrass 2003: 115-22, 227-30). Central to this was the rhetorical construction of Buddhism as a religion that rivalled Christianity in ethical excellence and outshone it in compatibility with science and thus modernity (Prebish 1999: 6). This articles concentrates on the influence of celebrity and popular cultural forms in the familiarisation of Buddhism in the West to build on and reinforce the intellectualist scholarship of Prebish, Snodgrass and McMahan (among others), because until very recently these factors were rarely admitted to be of significance in matters of religion.

Author Biography

Carole Cusack, University of Sydney

Carole M. Cusack is Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. She trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011). She has published widely in academic journals and edited volumes, and has edited (with Peter Oldmeadow) This Immense Panorama: Studies in Honour of Eric J. Sharpe (Sydney, 1999) and (with Christopher Hartney) Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Professor Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney she is Editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk, she is Editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox).


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How to Cite

Cusack, C. (2011). The Western Reception of Buddhism: Celebrity and Popular Cultural Media as Agents of Familiarisation. Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, 24(3), 297–316.

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