What is a Nightstand Buddhist?

Michael Pollick

A number of people do not claim a particular religious faith, but when pressed on the issue will respond that Buddhism describes their spiritual belief structure better than anything else. Christian author Thomas Tweed called such a casual adherent to Buddhism a nightstand Buddhist, largely because of the number of books on Buddhist philosophy such a person would keep on his or her nightstand for bedtime reading.

Many "nightstand Buddhists" engage in meditative practices.
Many "nightstand Buddhists" engage in meditative practices.

A nightstand Buddhist is more of a dabbler in the surface philosophy of Buddhism rather than a traditional convert or an ethnic Buddhist raised in the philosophy since birth. This is not to suggest a nightstand Buddhist is not sincere in his or her spiritual beliefs, but critics of the practice suggest there is a significant difference between reading entry-level books on Buddhism and actually embracing the entire culture and tradition of what many ethnic Buddhists view as a religion more than a philosophy.

A "nightstand Buddhist" may embrace Buddhism as a philosophy, rather than as a spiritual practice.
A "nightstand Buddhist" may embrace Buddhism as a philosophy, rather than as a spiritual practice.

There are a number of people who would describe themselves as spiritual seekers, but have either had bad personal experiences with organized mainstream religion or have issues with the rituals and other trappings of Christianity and Judaism. These mainstream religions do not address what a nightstand Buddhist would consider the basic spirituality inherent in all people, not just those who ascribe to an established religion. Many nightstand Buddhists would have considered themselves to be agnostics or skeptics before embracing the alternative teachings of Buddha.

The derisive term "nightstand Buddha" was coined by Thomas Tweed.
The derisive term "nightstand Buddha" was coined by Thomas Tweed.

One of the concerns surrounding the practice of nightstand Buddhism is the level of dedication of the practitioner. Ethnic Buddhists traditionally practice extended periods of meditation and reflection, often in spiritual retreat centers far removed from the trappings of modern society. Buddhist monks and other devout Buddhists spend years learning the rituals and philosophy associated with true Buddhism. A nightstand Buddhist may not be able to devote significant amounts of time to meditation, and it may be difficult to find a proper Buddhist temple or spiritual adviser.

Nightstand Buddhists are more casual practitioners of Buddhism.
Nightstand Buddhists are more casual practitioners of Buddhism.

Some American Buddhists have expressed concern over the growing interest in nightstand Buddhism, primarily because it has already proven challenging to import true Buddhism from its Asian origins. American and European Buddhists may be able to study the philosophy and model their behavior by observing ethnic Buddhists, but the culture and traditions which inspired the philosophy are much more difficult to adopt. A nightstand Buddhist may be able to grasp the concepts of Zen Buddhism from reading literature, but the religion of Buddhism has just as many trappings, hypocrisy, rituals and congenital failings as the mainstream religion he or she previously dismissed.

Monks devote years to learning the philosophies of Buddhism.
Monks devote years to learning the philosophies of Buddhism.

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Discussion Comments

anon39094

PS. Commenter #2 again--I thought of a few other salient points I wanted to mention.

1. There is no one Buddhism in Asia. It varies wildly: Mahayana, Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, etc. There is no "right" Asian Buddhism that Americans should emulate.

2. In parts of Asia, Buddhism is largely practiced by monastics. Lay people go to the temple and make offerings, but do not engage in much of the practice. The American Buddhist tradition is more of a lay tradition, with lay practitioners meditating, taking the precepts, reading Dharma, and listening to Dharma talks. This democratic attitude is spreading back to Asia and influencing the way that Buddhism is practiced there.

anon39019

I found this article to be rather insulting. Like many American Buddhists, I came to Dharma first through the books of authors like Thich Nhat Hanh, and began to integrate the practices into my life, including meditating and attending retreats.

The beauty of the American Buddhist tradition is, in fact, that it is stripped of many of its religious and cultural trappings and presented as a rather unadorned practice.

The most recent podcast from Buddhist Geeks features a scholar of Buddhism discussing how Buddhism was perhaps the first cross-cultural religion. It is, in fact, a tradition of Buddhism for the Dharma to be reinterpreted into many languages and cultures.

anon33282

I was once a "nightstand" buddhist when I was a young teenager. I came in contact with a number of Buddhist philosophy books and felt they thoroughly answered the questions I had. In my adulthood I sought to experience the teachings. For the first few years, nothing made any sense, but after a few years of sticking to it, I have come to experience what dharma is and it's been on a more personal level. I never got this from books but it came through practice.

I often wonder if it is possible to "know" what dharma is if one is not a practitioner. When I wasn't practicing I seemed to have a lot of concepts, misunderstanding, and no real feel for the sometimes clumsy English interpretations. Words were interpreted based on the culture I grew up in and I have to admit that after 20+ years of being a practitioner, what I thought I understood in the beginning is so different than what I understand now. I study the Tibetan tradition, fortunately with a teacher, but have also taken instruction with Theravadan and Mahayana teachers, that has made a world of difference for me. Doing this additional study filled in the blanks, explained a myriad of things, dashed a lot of concepts on the rocks and left me more open, listening and receptive.

What I have found interesting is when I meet people who study solely from books, they may know dates, details, historic events I am unaware of, but when the conversation becomes solely dharma, they have no experiential reference and things become dry, rote and repeated. It's like describing something you have never experienced. I am just wondering if it is at all possible to really know dharma without practicing it!

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