July 07, 2011

American Buddhism Keeps Asian Influence, Adapts to West

Mike O’Sullivan | Los Angeles | Voice of America



This week's visit of the Dalai Lama to the United States is focusing attention on American Buddhism, which is growing because of the influx of Asian immigrants and conversion of Westerners to the faith. American Buddhism retains its Asian flavor, but is adapting to Western ways.

Boys aged five to 14 have their heads shaved as they start a five-day retreat. A rite of passage in many parts of the Buddhist world, it gives them an introduction to Buddhist teaching and offers a brief taste of the life of a monk. Here at the Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles, the congregation is predominantly Chinese American, but these children get their instruction in English.

The Hong Kong-born director of outreach, Miao Hsi, explains that American Buddhism is largely divided on ethnic lines.

"That is why there is Chinese Buddhism, there is Tibetan Buddhism, there is Japanese Buddhism, and so on," said Miao. "So I think that right now, we have some form of American Buddhism as well."

An American-born priest at the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles, Kusala Bhikshu, said Buddhism has a history of more than 100 years in the United States.

"And it now has dug its roots into the soil of America, so there are people [like] myself being born in Iowa - people who were born in America - who are coming as a convert to Buddhism, some becoming ordained as Buddhist monks or nuns, and bringing those teachings to everyday Americans."

The Dalai Lama may be the world's best-known Buddhist, and he enjoys wide respect among Americans. He has drawn some notable followers, including actor Richard Gere. His message of compassion has attracted other Americans.

There are Tibetan Buddhist facilities around the United States. Kusala Bhikshu said his Los Angeles center brings together several Buddhist schools. He studied under a teacher from Sri Lanka and was ordained in the Vietnamese tradition. His center was founded by a monk from Vietnam, and is located in a Korean-American neighborhood.

He noted that Buddhism's rich body of teaching varies from one tradition to another. Here at the Hsi Lai Temple, they say that despite the diversity, the core of the teaching is the same: a respect for the tradition, a desire to adapt it to the American context, and a search for harmony among people of all faiths.

"Every being is connected. It is like we are connected to this world," said Miao. "So I think we should be working towards harmonizing with one another. Harmony and peace would be something that we should all work toward."

Buddhists say there is a bridge that links the many strains of American Buddhism. It is the American-born children, who share a Buddhist faith and American culture, regardless of where their parents were born.