Times, Tuesday, February 18, 1997
Buddhism Takes On a Uniquely American Form
as Asian Youths
and Westerners Look to the East for Meaning;
TIMES STAFF WRITER
the Student Union Building of Cal Poly Pomona, over a lunch
of Gummi Bears and sodapop, the members of the Buddhist Assn.
are gathered to learn about the religious traditions of their
parents and grandparents.
say it is one part of the family heritage their relatives
all but left behind in China, Vietnam or other countries where
Buddhism has thrived.
six students, all of them Asian American and all of them men,
although women would be welcome, want to know everything about
their spiritual roots. Since this is America, however, they
are learning from experts quite unlike those who taught their
elders. Their teachers are likely to be as American as a Diet
the students' guest is the Rev.
Kusala of the International
Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles. Born in Iowa, raised
Lutheran, 47 years old, he wears the brown robes and shaved
head of a Vietnamese monk. He was ordained 12 years ago at
the same time that he graduated from the College of Buddhist
Studies in Los Angeles. Kusala represents the growing number
of Westerners taking leadership roles and passing along a
heritage that for centuries was preserved by Asian monks and
maturing of Buddhism in this country is not the only recent
development for the religious tradition founded in 6th century
India. As Buddhism takes root here, increasingly it is a hybrid
that combines traits from the many varieties practiced in
countries throughout Asia. In the process, a distinctly American
Buddhism is evolving with characteristics all its own.
of Kusala's audience at Cal Poly say their parents are not
as qualified to teach them because they have lapsed or simply
go through the motions of their religion. Not unlike some
Americans who were raised Christian or Jewish.
parents call themselves Buddhist, but they don't really practice,"
says Tony Lieu, 21, of West Covina. Born in Taiwan, he immigrated
to the West at age 8. Now he wants to go back to his religious
roots. "I practice on my own, by choice," he says.
Chiang, 27, of Rowland Heights was raised a Christian. "In
ninth grade, I visited my aunt in Korea, and she sent me to
a monastery for two weeks," he says. "That changed everything.
Now, I want to stay true to myself as a Buddhist."
true Buddhist, American style, is a disciple of a certain
stripe. This country's cultural diversity has made American
Buddhism yet another expression of the melting pot.
of Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Japanese and some Chinese Buddhism
are alive and well in Los Angeles," says Ken McLeod, raised
Episcopalian, now a Tibetan Buddhist who teaches meditation
at his Culver City institute, the Unfettered Mind.
the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Abbott Nyogen sits with legs
crossed, Buddha style, in a living room filled with Japanese
furnishings and photographs of Maezumi Roshi, a Japanese Zen
priest who founded the center in 1967.
60, was born William Yeo in Colorado and raised in the United
Methodist church. He started practicing Zen more than 30 years
ago. From the beginning, his teacher expected that his students'
native culture would affect their religious practice.
Roshi's whole goal was to allow an American form of Buddhism,"
Roshi's dream is coming true. This year, two Japanese-born
monks, one of them a woman, have come to the Zen Center to
continue their studies and practice with Nyogen.
religious institutions in America are like a mall," says Ananda
Guruge, who served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to America until
1994 and now teaches Buddhist studies as a visiting professor
at various American universities. "People are looking for
what they want, not necessarily from just one Buddhist tradition.
They shop around for what the different traditions can provide."
Los Angeles, they don't have to look far.
who never knew one another in Asia are coming together in
Los Angeles in a rich diversity of immigrant Buddhist traditions,"
says Diana Eck, a professor of religion at Harvard University
who has completed documentary films on several newly prevalent
religious communities in America as part of her "pluralism
Angeles wrote the book on Buddhism," she says. "It is radical
for these various cultures to come together as they do. The
city represents the whole range of Buddhist traditions: Vietnamese,
Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and others.
is not unusual for a religious tradition to change when it
enters a new country," Eck continues. "In China, Buddhism
was largely centered in filial piety and the family. In Southeast
Asia, it was largely monastic. The difference is, in the United
States we can see the changes happening."
Tworkov, born Jewish, now Buddhist, is the editor of Tricycle,
a magazine about Buddhism published in New York City. She
has been a close observer of the changes, such as:
majority of American-born teachers are lay teachers. The minority
are monks or priests. "That is a significant difference,"
half of all American-born teachers of Buddhism are women.
"It's a reflection of American culture; it comes from the
feminist movement that started in the '60s and it's radically
different from the situation in Asia," she says.
emphasis is on practice, and meditation is central. "We wanted
something to do, not something to believe," Tworkov says.
"In our own religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity or
another, we didn't have anything to do. The meditative and
contemplative practices of Christianity and Judaism had been
lost. That's what we were looking for."
doesn't surprise her that Americans imported Buddhism. "We
already had chopsticks and cars," she says of the '60s generation
that was particularly drawn to Buddhism. "But we didn't have
a worldview. We didn't have clarity about where we fit in
relation to the rest of society, the world, the cosmos. Buddhism
teaches the interdependence of all things. We had an intuitive
sense that this was right."
also observes that American Buddhists are vigorous students
of the tradition.
is taken for granted," she says. "Everything is investigated.
It is a completely different ethos than if you were growing
up with Buddhism in your family."
intensely American is the emphasis on social activism among
Buddhists. "In the West, we see how people can actually do
things to improve the world," Tworkov says. "We can pass laws
and work toward creating a more civilized, enlightened society.
It's not up to divine intervention. Asia has no great history
of this approach."
part of his Buddhist practice, Kusala organized a prison ministry.
He teaches at the Juvenile Detention Center of Los Angeles
County, where he is building a program that includes study,
meditation, tai chi and yoga classes. He also works at the
California State Prison in Lancaster, where the inmates, all
adult men, are currently most interested in acquiring incense
and prayer beads. "I finally realized they want to form an
identity. These symbols help them feel like Buddhists," he
is moving the inmates toward the next level of thinking: "Now
that I am a Buddhist, I need to relate to the world a certain
explains the essence of that way when a student at Cal Poly
Pomona asks what it means to be a Buddhist.
no suffering to yourself or others. And, as long as you are
purifying your mind, actions and speech, you are following
a Buddhist path."