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.
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.
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.
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.
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.