& ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY
Direction of Buddhism in America today___
& ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY invited several scholars to comment
"The Divisions and Direction of Buddhism in America
* Carl Bielefeldt is professor of religious studies and co-director
of the Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University:
more than a century, Buddhism has been on a remarkable ride
in America. It has gone from the marginal religion of Chinese
and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast (plus a few eccentric
Euro-Americans who dabbled in Theosophy and spiritualism) to
a religion practiced by millions of Americans throughout the
country and known, at some level at least, to millions more
through books, magazines, television, and movies.
bookstores are filled with volumes on "Zen and the art
of" this or that; Hollywood makes movies on the Dalai Lama
and a Nazi's conversion to Tibetan Buddhism; and TIME magazine
runs cover stories on America's fascination with Buddhism. Buddhist
ideas appear in New Age religions, psychology, medicine, and
even sports and business. Buddhist values are cited in social
movements for feminism, peace, ecology, and animal rights. Buddhist
temples pop up in unlikely places, from Hacienda Heights, California
to the cornfields of Iowa. Buddhist studies flourish in colleges
and universities from Smith to Stanford. We even have a new
facial lotion called "Hydra-Zen," advertised as relieving
skin stress, and a snack called "Zen Party Mix."
the "Zen" in the face cream and snack food has nothing
to do with religion as we ordinarily understand it. We're dealing
here with something else. An aura surrounds words like "Buddhism"
and "Zen." There is a set of associations with familiar
American values, such as simplicity, naturalness, peace, and
harmony. There are the favorite values of the health and food
industries, such as wholesomeness, well-being, and natural goodness;
and there are the aesthetic values of the young urban sushi
culture, such as tasteful understatement, sophisticated minimalism,
and multicultural cosmopolitanism.
seem to be dealing not with a religion, but with something that
might be called American "secular spirituality" --
a longing among many (especially the white middle and upper
classes) who are still not satisfied with what they have and
who want something more; who have all they can eat, but are
still searching for that special flavoring, some "psycho-spice"
of self-acceptance, perhaps, some rare "inner herb"
of guilt-free self-satisfaction. This longing for something
more, though in most societies very often associated with religion,
seems in our society to be associated with a suspicion of religion.
We want something more than institutional religion -- something
more personal, more private, more narrowly focused on "me"
and how I feel about myself -- what might be called "I-dolatry."
all the religions in America (and ironically enough for a religion
famous for denying the self), Buddhism seems to have been the
one best able to tap into this desire for spirituality -- to
transcend its status as a religion and present itself as a free-floating
spiritual resource not tied to a particular institution, community,
dogma, or ritual. We can add a dash of Buddhism whenever we
need some spiritual flavor. We can market Buddhist cosmetics;
we can have bars called "Buddha" and rock bands called
"Nirvana"; we can have cartoons about Zen masters
and jokes about how many it takes to change a light bulb --
all without imagining that we're being sacrilegious or insulting
anyone's religion. We can even adopt Buddhist values or practices
without converting to the Buddhist religion.
this mean, then, that Buddhism is not really a religion analogous
to Christianity or Judaism -- that it's not an institution (or
set of institutions) with members, but simply an intellectual
style, point of view, or set of tastes, like, say, "feminism"
or "postmodernism"? American Buddhists If so, what,
then, are we supposed to think when we read that there are millions
of Buddhists living in America? What about the hundreds of organizations
that we find listed in directories of American Buddhist groups?
No one seems to know just how many millions of Buddhists there
are in America, in part because no one has figured out who "counts"
as a Buddhist. Thomas Tweed, a professor of religious studies
at the University of North Carolina, suggests that we need to
take into account a large number of people who fall into a category
he calls "nightstand Buddhists" -- people who read
about Buddhism and are attracted to what they read, some of
whom may even describe themselves as Buddhist, but who don't
belong to any Buddhist organization. We might also call them
"Buddhist sympathizers," and we might describe their
nightstand reading as "public Buddhism" or "media
coverage of Buddhism seems extraordinary. Not only is there
quite a bit of it relative to other religions, but it tends
to be highly positive. In international news, Buddhism is almost
never blamed for the foibles of Asian societies. No one associates
the state religion of Buddhism with the nasty politics in Burma;
no one implicates the Buddhists of Sri Lanka in the bloody campaign
against the Hindu Tamils. Rather, Buddhists tend to be [depicted
as] peaceful victims of Asian politics -- Vietnamese monks burning
themselves in protest against the government or Tibetan nuns
tortured and jailed for their demonstrations against Chinese
this with the media images of fanatical Muslims, Sikhs, and
Hindus (not to mention Catholics and Protestants in Northern
Ireland). The domestic news almost never treats Buddhist groups
as "cults" or plays up the (not uncommon) sexual misadventures
of Buddhist leaders. Rather, it tends to focus on "human
interest" feature stories: the latest peace mission of
the Dalai Lama or interviews with Buddhist superstars like Richard
Gere. Compare this with dark media images of black Muslims and
Hindu guru cults, or the evil empire of the Korean Christian
movement of Reverend Moon (not to mention lurid stories of televangelists
and their prostitutes or Catholic priests and their choirboys).
be sure, we still get occasional hints of something suspicious
(as in the campaign fund-raising stories of Al Gore and the
devious Taiwanese Buddhist nuns), but for the most part, Buddhism
seems to have slipped free from our old images of an alien Oriental
paganism, blending smoothly into the American scene as a familiar,
if still somewhat exotic, feature of our cosmopolitan new multiculture.
It is often said that we have adopted Asian Americans as our
"model minority," and the media seem to have adopted
Buddhism as our model minority religion.
transformation of Buddhism from an alien Asiatic paganism to
a modern, international spiritual resource capable of blending
into the American scene owes much to the work of western academics.
In the 19th century, while newly arrived immigrant Chinese were
worshipping the Buddha in their temples in California, Caucasian
Americans were beginning to read about the Buddha in books produced
by scholars of classical Indian languages. Buddhist StatuesThe
books often depicted the Buddha's teachings as a rational system
of philosophical and moral thought -- nontheistic; free from
myth and ritual, superstition and magic; emphasizing ethical
conduct and psychological understanding -- this in marked contrast
to Christian beliefs in a creator god, an immaculate conception,
a miraculous resurrection, and Christian emphases on church
ritual, piety and faith, hellfire and brimstone. To be sure,
there were bits of the teachings that were difficult to swallow:
reincarnation, and escape from reincarnation into what seemed
the oblivion of nirvana. But with these bits overlooked or explained
away, for the most part Buddhism seemed safely familiar and
modern, surprisingly compatible with a scientific worldview
and western way of life -- in short, a religion ideal for disaffected
Christians and Jews looking for a spiritual alternative.
academic study of Buddhism has come a long way since the 19th
century, and we now know enough to see clearly how little that
early western image of Buddhism corresponds to the actual history,
teachings, and practices of the religion in Asia -- how many
of the difficult bits were overlooked or explained away in the
projection of modern western ideals onto the religion. Still,
the projected image remains in our books and minds -- an image
much more attractive and influential than all the more sophisticated
studies we now produce, describing the often bizarre and alien
views that Buddhists actually held and detailing the history
of a religion riddled with myth and ritual, superstition and
when Stanford's Center for Buddhist Studies organized a one-day
retreat on Buddhism for the Continuing Studies Program, 100
people had signed up by noon on the first day of registration,
and the list had to be closed. Some were simply curious about
Buddhism; some were no doubt practicing Buddhists. But most
seem to have been "sympathizers": people drawn to
something they see in the religion who feel some "affinity,"
some spiritual possibility. Many of them wanted to talk during
the discussion sessions not about the scholarly presentations
on Buddhist history and culture, but about liberal American
interests such as ecology and social justice. More than a few
wanted to share their personal understanding of what Buddhism
really is and what Buddhist values are or ought to be. Such
people are almost all educated, affluent, and white. At the
retreat, I did not see a single black or Latino, and only one
or two Asians, in the group. Terms like "nightstand Buddhist"
or "Buddhist sympathizer" don't really capture the
full range of these people's relationship to Buddhism. We also
need a subcategory like "freelance Buddhist" -- those
who identify themselves as Buddhist without belonging to any
Buddhist organization, and perhaps another category called "client
Buddhist" -- those who make use of Buddhist organizations
without belonging to them.
last category is perhaps the most remarkable of all. At the
Stanford retreat, about half the people came one hour early
to participate in an optional instruction session on meditation
taught by Buddhist monks. These people were, for that session
at least, operating as "client Buddhists." Because
of Buddhism's odd status as a "nonreligious" spiritual
resource, Americans seem to feel relatively free to drop in
on Buddhist events and participate in Buddhist practices. They
would rarely think of dropping in at a synagogue for prayer
if they weren't Jewish or taking the Eucharist if they weren't
Catholic, but joining in a Buddhist meditation retreat seems
to come quite naturally. They often tend to think of such participation
along the lines of, say, going on a Sierra Club hike, doing
massage therapy at a hot spring resort, or attending a golf
clinic or an investment seminar. Some Buddhist groups, in fact,
depend on such drop-in clients for income and cater to them
with specially prepared programs. One of the best-known Buddhist
monasteries in America, Tassajara, supports itself with a summer
guest season, when it turns itself into a spiritual resort.
institutional terms, Buddhists are a disorganized lot. There
is no national Buddhist organization; there is very little interest
in anything like an ecumenical movement. Some groups have ties
to church organizations in Asia; some have networks of affiliated
communities in this country. But for the most part, American
Buddhism is splintered into many different groups and factions,
each with its own organizational structure, teachings, and practices.
These can be very different. Buddhist probably disagree on more
than they agree on. No one "speaks for" or "represents"
Buddhism in this country.
this generally messy situation, we can make some distinctions
of type. First, all commentators on the sociology of American
Buddhism are quick to point out that we are dealing here with
two distinct kinds of communities. Some use the unfortunate
terms "American Buddhists" and "ethnic Buddhists,"
or the fighting words "white" and "yellow"
Buddhists. Let's call them "convert" and "hereditary"
Buddhists. Whatever we call them, the distinction between the
two types is striking.
Buddhists" are mostly (so far) members of Asian immigrant
groups or their Asian-American offspring. Buddhists from China
and Japan, of course, have been living in America since the
19th century, but especially since the relaxation of quotas
on Asian immigration in the 1960s, the number and variety of
Asian Buddhists in America have grown dramatically. We now have
representatives from virtually all the Buddhist cultures of
Asia -- Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Tibet, and Mongolia
-- as well as newer Buddhist groups continuing to enter from
Japan and Taiwan. Of course, there is much variation in the
types of Buddhism found in these communities, but sociologically
speaking, they typically have deep roots in and reflect the
ways of the old country. They serve to provide not only religious
services, but also a sense of cultural continuity and a cultural
center of gravity. Membership in the Buddhist organizations
of such groups is typically not a matter of conscious choice
or the result of a spiritual quest but a more or less unconscious
cultural practice. In this sense, hereditary Buddhists are more
like the majority of traditional, mainstream Christians and
Jews than white convert Buddhists. And in fact, the functions
of their religious organizations often look very familiar: worship
services, church holiday festivals, church youth groups, fund-raisers,
and maybe a scripture study class, as well as confirmation of
the kids, pastoral care for the troubled, and funerals for the
food may be sushi instead of hot dogs, the games may be mahjong
instead of bingo, but the functions are more or less like that
old-time religion that many nightstand Buddhists and white Buddhist
converts are looking to escape. For the most part, laity in
immigrant Buddhism, like laity in Asia, don't engage in meditation
-- a practice for the ascetic monks who are imitating the Buddha's
lifestyle of renunciation. They don't expect to become enlightened
beings like the Buddha; they just want the Buddha to help them
make it through this life and into better circumstances in the
next. This kind of old-time Buddhism doesn't often get into
the American media and doesn't attract many converts from outside
the ethnic group.
are, however, a few interesting groups that have managed to
bridge the ethnic divide. Most notable is the Nichiren Shoshu
of America (NSA) or Soka Gakkai, the American offspring of a
large Japanese Buddhist lay movement. The American organization
is very large, with centers throughout the country, and the
ethnic makeup is diverse, mixing together not only Japanese
and Euro-Americans but also many African-American converts.
NSA is almost the only form of Buddhism that has significantly
penetrated into the America that lies beyond the affluent, educated
classes. Perhaps in part for this reason, it is typically ignored
or dismissed by other Buddhists. More commonly, in those congregations
where the clerical leadership has attracted a convert following
from outside the ethnic group, it is quite usual for parallel
programs to develop -- one for the ethnic community, based on
traditional Asian Buddhist lay beliefs and practices, another
for the mostly Euro-American converts that emphasizes their
interest in the philosophical doctrines and spiritual practices
traditionally left to the religious specialists or professionals.
three basic forms of American Buddhism -- Zen, Vajrayana, and
Vipassana -- represent only a small fraction of the various
forms of Buddhism actually present in America. In fact, they
exclude most of the forms followed by the immigrant Buddhist
population that makes up the majority of Buddhists in this country.
But they are the forms that have most appealed to convert Buddhists
and the Buddhist sympathizers from whom most converts are drawn.
Of these three forms, Zen is undoubtedly the best known. Zen
Buddhism developed in medieval China and then spread throughout
East Asia to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. It is by far the oldest
and most successful form of Buddhism in America, introduced
around the turn of the 20th century, discussed in both popular
and academic books, and, at least since the Zen boom of the
1960s, widely practiced in many centers throughout the country.
In recent decades, there have been popular Zen teachers from
China, Korea, and Vietnam, but American Zen is dominated by
styles imported from Japan (hence, the Japanese name "Zen").
The American versions are typically a package of traditional
forms of monastic practice wrapped in western philosophy and
psychology. This package was first developed by Japanese intellectuals
in early 20th-century Japan, in response to their study of western
ideas. Thus, the religion was already "prepackaged"
for export to the West -- a fact that does much to explain its
of the Zen organizations are very small -- just little meditation
clubs meeting at someone's home. Some are quite large and include
a network of residential meditation centers, monasteries, and
businesses. Whether large or small, the focus is typically on
lay meditation practice. In its early years, Zen groups often
formed around Asian meditation teachers who were given almost
complete authority over the group. But as they have matured
and leadership has fallen to the converts themselves, the groups
have increasingly taken on a more Protestant style: egalitarian
and antiauthoritarian, with relatively little distinction between
clerical and lay roles. In the process, women have increasingly
moved into leadership roles.
the right of the Zen groups are the organizations devoted to
Vajrayana Buddhism. These represent a more recent development,
largely of the last two or three decades. They are the result
of the Tibetan diaspora, after the flight of the Dalai Lama
to India in 1959, that led to the appearance of Tibetan monks
in the West. Although this Tibetan Buddhism has attracted more
or less the same segment of American society looking for more
or less the same spiritual results, its religious style is rather
different from Zen. Because it has arrived quite suddenly and
recently, brought by monks steeped in the old ways of Tibetan
culture and largely innocent of modern western values, it still
retains more of the "raw" flavor of Tibetan religion.
It tends to have a more "Catholic" feel, with a sharper
division between monks and laymen; a greater emphasis on ritual
practices of worship, chanting, initiation rites, healing, and
empowerment ceremonies; and a less critical acceptance of traditional
Buddhist scholasticism and the mystical theologies and cosmologies
developed in medieval India and Tibet.
modern Japanese Zen has the advantage of looking familiar, Tibetan
Vajrayana has the lure of the exotic. Where Zen has appealed
to Americans as a kind of this-worldly asceticism, Tibetan Buddhism
has the attraction of other worlds -- of a distant pure land
of Shangri-la beyond the Himalayas and the reach of international
capitalism, an ancient magical realm of the spirit that preceded
the modern disenchantment of the world. How this style of Buddhism
will adapt to America, after Americans have become bored with
Tibetan politics and leadership of the groups has passed to
the American converts, remains one of the more interesting questions
in the future of Buddhism in America.
Tibetan Vajrayana is to [the] right of Zen, Vipassana is to
the left. This style is also quite recent and growing rapidly.
Its name comes from a Pali word meaning "observation"
or "discernment," and it refers to certain forms of
Buddhist meditation. The Vipassana movement represents a modern
adaptation of traditional meditation practice to lay life. The
movement began in Burma around the beginning of the 20th century.
It is promulgated in America not by Burmese, but by American
converts to the movement -- especially by the Insight Meditation
is the style of American Buddhism that has gone the farthest
in breaking its ties with the Asian Buddhist tradition and adapting
the religion to a secular American context. Although there are
some residential Vipassana centers, the characteristic emphasis
is on individual meditation practice in the home, supplemented
by short retreats at the centers -- very much a "do-it-yourself"
form of spirituality. Vipassana groups typically do not have
a clerical leadership. They lack most forms of traditional Buddhist
worship and depend little on the categories and vocabulary of
traditional Buddhist theology. Instead, they often draw heavily
on the concepts and techniques of American psychology -- especially
the types known as transpersonal psychology and the Human Potential
all the forms of Buddhism in America, Vipassana comes closest
to institutionalizing the notion of Buddhism as a nonreligious
spiritual resource. And in fact, Vipassana teachings are now
beginning to find their way into such best-selling books as
Daniel Goleman's EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE and Jon Kabat-Zinn's
FULL CATASTROPHE LIVING. In such books, Buddhism, even Vipassana
itself, has almost completely disappeared, submerged in a spiritual
soup in which the Asian religion of Buddhism has been so fully
blended into American culture that we may no longer be able
to speak of it either as "Asian" or as "religion."
It will be interesting to watch what will happen to this "nonreligious"
Buddhist spirituality as the Vipassana movement grows into national
Donald K. Swearer is the Charles & Harriet Cox McDowell
Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College:
in America is characterized by a very broad sectarian, ethnic,
and cultural diversity. Distinctions such as convert versus
immigrant Buddhism or American versus Asian Buddhism necessarily
gloss over this diversity. Even within a single Buddhist sectarian
tradition, such as Japanese Jodo Shinshu (the Buddhist Churches
of America), individual churches will vary considerably depending
on the nature of the congregation. Among South and Southeast
Asian Theravada groups, those that have been here the longest,
such as the Washington, D.C. Buddhist Vihara (Sinhalese/Sri
Lanka) (http://www.buddhistvihara.com), have tended to adapt
to the American cultural environment more than recent arrivals,
such as the Thai, Lao, and Khmer. Among first-generation Southeast
Asian immigrants, many of whom came as refugees, Buddhist temples
serve as important social/cultural centers, "safe spaces"
in an alien cultural environment.
Buddhist traditions that have most influenced the development
of American Buddhism during the past fifty years are Zen, Tibetan
Buddhism as mediated through such popularizers as Trungpa Rinpoche,
and more recently Theravada Vipassana meditation. The diversity
of Buddhist expressions in America in particular, and the West
more generally, is a unique chapter in the history of Buddhism.
Buddhist sectarianism and its development in different cultural
traditions are nothing new, so in a sense, we're witnessing
a new version of an old story. How this diversity will sort
itself out in the coming decades remains to be seen. Culturally
distinctive forms of immigrant Buddhism will gradually change
and adapt if they are to survive, but these distinctive traditions
will not be replaced by a lowest-common-denominator, "shopping-basket"
its forms, Buddhism will become an increasingly important part
of the American landscape. Religious ecumenism in this country
will be seen more and more not simply in terms of Protestant,
Catholic, and Jew, but Buddhism, Hindu, Muslim, Santeria, and
other traditions as well. Interreligious dialogue, I hope, will
promote better understanding among diverse religious traditions
that are being woven into the American social fabric.
Wendy Cadge is a Ph.D. candidate in the sociology department
at Princeton University:
divide between Asians and non-Asians is often described as one
of the main characteristics of Buddhism in America. While this
has often been the case, the current picture is considerably
majority of Asian Buddhists attend Asian temples and non-Asian
Buddhists go to meditation centers, but there are important
exceptions to this pattern. Across the United States, Asians
and non-Asians share space in Theravada Buddhist organizations.
(This is the kind of Buddhism that comes out of Southeast Asia,
and it is different from Tibetan Buddhism or the Mahayana Buddhism
of China and Japan.)
his book OLD WISDOM IN THE NEW WORLD: AMERICANIZATION IN TWO
IMMIGRANT THERAVADA BUDDHIST TEMPLES, Paul D. Numrich describes
a Thai temple in Chicago and a Sri Lankan temple in Los Angeles
where "parallel congregations" of Asian and non-Asian
Buddhists gather in the same place under the guidance of the
same monks, though at different times to practice different
rituals. Such parallel congregations are not uncommon. At Wat
Thai in Washington, D.C., for example, Vietnamese Buddhistmeditation
classes in English, offered three nights a week, are attended
by 30 non-Thai people. At Thai temples in North Carolina and
Washington State, Asians and non-Asians are beginning to attend
meditation classes and weekend services together, and teachings
are given in both Thai and English. Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery,
a community of white monastics in Redwood Valley, California,
is supported by lay Asian and non-Asian Buddhists alike, as
is Metta Forest Monastery, a Thai temple near San Diego led
by American-born Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Asian and non-Asian monks
live together at some U.S. Buddhist temples. At Ammayatarama
Buddhist Monastery in Seattle, for example, two Thai monks and
two American-born monks are in residence.
across the country some Asians do visit the meditation centers
that are attended primarily by non-Asian Buddhists. In Massachusetts,
the Vipassana Meditation Center has begun to facilitate the
visits of non-English speakers by offering retreats in Khmer,
Hindi, and Chinese.
interviews, both Asians and non-Asians often report coming to
Buddhist practice and Buddhist organizations in the United States
in response to stressful life events. Many Asians and non-Asians
alike practice Buddhism privately at home, as well as communally
in temples or meditation centers. While Asians are more likely
to chant or pray and non-Asians are more likely to meditate,
there is quite a bit of overlap in their practices and their
commitment to the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha, and the four
noble truths that underlies the practices. Further in-depth
research about specific Buddhist groups in the United States
may uncover more similarities between Asian and non-Asian Buddhists
than are evident in current thinking about Buddhism in America.
Jan Nattier is associate professor of Buddhism at Indiana University
-- like most other religions in America -- includes a tremendous
diversity of beliefs, practices, and cultural styles.
Buddhism includes the wealthy and the poor, single people and
multigeneration families, immigrants with advanced technical
degrees, and refugees who can barely communicate in English.
It includes those whose Buddhism emphasizes the importance of
living a moral life and those who view moral rules as too constraining,
those who consider contributing to the monastic community ("making
merit") to be a central Buddhist practice and those who
focus exclusively on meditation. It includes those who believe
that our actions (in Buddhist terminology, our "karma")
determine what our next incarnation will be and those who believe
that this life is all there is. American Buddhism, in short,
resembles American religion in general: its most striking feature
is its variety.
what sets Buddhism apart from other American religions -- at
the present historical moment, at any rate -- is that the overwhelming
majority of its members belong to two rather unusual groups.
On the one hand are recent converts to Buddhism who are mostly
of non-Asian ancestry; on the other are recent Asian immigrants
to America, many of whose families have been Buddhist for generations.
American Buddhists at the dawn of the twenty-first century are
thus almost all new in one way or another: either they are Americans
who are new to Buddhism or they are Buddhists who are new to
has not always been this way. As recently as 1960, the overwhelming
majority of American Buddhists -- at that time a tiny minority
on the American religious scene -- were second- and third-generation
Asian Americans, mostly of Japanese ancestry. But with the liberalization
of American immigration policy in 1965 and the youth rebellion
that swept the globe in the late 1960s, this situation underwent
a dramatic change. Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia,
and East Asia poured into the United States in record numbers.
the anti-establishment attitudes that spread across college
campuses in the late 1960s led to scathing critiques of many
of the central features of western civilization, leaving young
Americans far more receptive than before to things nonwestern
(including nonwestern religions, above all Buddhism). American
Buddhism as we know it today is largely a product of these two
simultaneous cultural changes, which brought thousands of Asian
Buddhists into America and thousands of non-Asian Americans
two contingents, needless to say, have not always seen eye to
eye. New converts to Buddhism -- like new converts to any religion
-- have for the most part been young, single, and idealistic,
and they have often viewed those who are Buddhist by heritage
as less religiously devoted than themselves. Post-1965 immigrants
to America, by contrast, have generally arrived not as individuals
but as families. They are less prone to single-minded religious
fervor and more concerned with passing on their cultural heritage
to the next generation, including not only Buddhism but other
values and practices as well. To the extent that they are aware
of these new (first-generation) Buddhists at all, heritage Buddhists
have tended to view their single-minded religious enthusiasm
as excessive. In particular, the new adherents' sometimes self-righteous
pronouncements on what true Buddhism should be do not sit well
with families that have been Buddhist for generations. New Buddhists,
for their part, have often been impatient with the more worldly
concerns of heritage Buddhists struggling to adapt to a new
language, a new educational system, and a new job market in
their adopted land.
to portray these two groups as polar opposites is to tell only
part of the story, for there is great diversity within them
as well. New Buddhists include not only those who focus on meditation
(drawing primarily from Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Theravada
school of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia) but also those who focus
on chanting (a practice disseminated in the United States primarily
by a Japanese lay organization known as Soka Gakkai International).
While participants in the former are generally well educated
(and overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, Caucasian), Soka
Gakkai members come from all educational and economic levels
and a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. A visitor who attends
a Zen meditation session on Thursday and a Soka Gakkai meeting
on Friday would see almost no similarity between them.
diversity among heritage Buddhists is at least as great. A temple
built by Sri Lankan professionals may hold its services in English
and offer separate sessions for meditation and the study of
Buddhist scriptures. A temple founded by Laotian refugees, by
contrast, may feature traditional merit-making ceremonies, classes
in English (and in Lao, lest the children forget their heritage),
and job-networking services. Members of a Thai temple chant
Buddhist texts in the traditional Pali language, while Japanese
Buddhists sing hymns accompanied by an organ. Temples that include
recent immigrants from a single country but of widely different
social backgrounds have sometimes suffered from schism as a
result of the very different needs and religious preferences
of their membership.
these differences continue? There is every reason to think so,
for there are deep divides even in religions that have been
established in this country for centuries. Just as a working-class
Pentecostal and an upper middle-class Episcopalian understand
Christianity in very different ways, and just as a Reform Jew
and a member of a Hasidic community envision very different
types of Judaism, so Buddhists of diverse social, ethnic, and
sectarian backgrounds are likely to continue to participate
in and create quite distinct communities. But there is a difference.
The major monotheistic religions of the Middle East -- Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam -- all share, on some level, the idea
that there is a single correct way to be a Jew or a Christian
or a Muslim. And both Christianity and Islam make the additional
claim that all people should adhere to these teachings. But
with Buddhism this is not the case. On the contrary, a central
theme in Buddhism from its earliest days is that different teachings
and practices are appropriate for different people. In addition,
the fact that Buddhism assumes multiple lifetimes implies that
there is no ultimate urgency to "get it right" this
time around. Though the prospect of a nearly infinite series
of rebirths is generally viewed with dread rather than fascination
in Asian Buddhist societies, this scenario still serves to undercut
the tendency toward one-lifetime fundamentalism. If an individual
does not succeed in achieving liberation from the cycle of death
and rebirth in this lifetime, he or she will have another chance
in the next.
this implies a certain doctrinal flexibility, it does not mean
that particular Buddhist communities see no difference between
themselves and other Buddhist groups. Individual differences
-- ranging from the language in which services are conducted
to the form of ritual and social activities to styles of dress
and even tastes in food -- are stark. A Cambodian Buddhist who
happens upon a service being held by Japanese American Buddhists
would see little that strikes her as Buddhist, while a Thai
Buddhist layman would find the imagery of a Chinese Buddhist
temple foreign indeed.
this great diversity, there have been some attempts in recent
years to find areas of consensus among Buddhist groups: to participate
in an annual ecumenical ritual, for example, or even to establish
a list of common beliefs and values that can be shared by all.
Ironically, though, much of the drive for such ecumenism has
come not from Asian-American Buddhists but from new Buddhists
of non-Asian ancestry. And these ecumenical moves -- while often
based on a genuine desire to establish a broader community --
have been accompanied by criticisms of many of the practices
of particular Asian Buddhist groups as mere cultural baggage.
It is worth considering the possibility that such attempts at
establishing unanimity reflect a western (especially Christian)
need for consensus, not traditional Buddhist values.
that as it may, one thing seems certain: that American Buddhism
will continue to change. As refugees and immigrants from Asia
become acclimated to their new environment, certain changes
in the style of Buddhist practice are inevitable. (Even the
custom of holding meetings on Sundays, for example, is unknown
in Asian Buddhist societies and is borrowed from Christian practice.)
Likewise, as new Buddhists grow older and begin to raise children,
the question of whether and how to pass on their Buddhist values
to a new generation will arise. (The fact that many of these
Buddhists see their practice more as a form of individual self-transformation
than as a religion has made them reluctant, in many cases, to
give their children any religious education at all; for the
same reason, they are not always happy with the term "convert"
that I have used above.)
sum, the fact that both new arrivals and new Buddhists are faced
with significant challenges of adaptation makes it virtually
certain that the beliefs and practices of both groups will continue
to change. Is this a problem? Not necessarily, for one of the
core teachings of Buddhism -- found in all Buddhist cultures,
including those of North America -- is that all conditioned
things are subject to change. With admirable consistency, Buddhists
have applied this dictum to the institutional forms of their
own religious tradition, even predicting (in a number of scriptures
contained in the Buddhist canon) that Buddhism as we know it
will eventually disappear. No such disappearance seems evident
on the American scene at the moment, however. A more likely
scenario, for the immediate future, is that a colorful -- and
constantly changing -- array of Buddhist groups will continue
to enrich the American religious landscape.
Charles S. Prebish is professor of religious studies at Pennsylvania
make sense of the many and seemingly conflicting Buddhisms currently
on American soil, five key issues need to be examined:
Ethnicity: Of the estimated 3 to 4 million Buddhists in the
United States, the vast majority are Asian Americans. Only 800,000
are American converts. In recent years, the relationship between
the two Buddhist communities has become extremely tenuous, and
any potential for future cooperation remains highly uncertain.
Practice: There is no disagreement among researchers that Asian
immigrant Buddhist communities and American convert communities
engage in significantly different Buddhist practices. With the
exception of those who have taken up the practices of Soka Gakkai,
American converts' almost exclusive focus on meditation has
created conflict with and concern in some Asian immigrant communities.
A growing chasm is emerging, one that also reinforces problematic
ethnic distinctions. It is still necessary, though, to ask what
constitutes a truly balanced and complete Buddhist practice?
Stephen Batchelor, the author of BUDDHISM WITHOUT BELIEFS, is
one of the few scholar-practitioners who identifies Buddhist
spiritual practice and applied Buddhist ethics as interpenetrating
and complementary. "Ethics from this perspective,"
he says, "is seen as a set of values and precepts that
support one's practice." He offers the most reasonable
methodology for a Buddhist practice that is integrated and comprehensive.
Democratization: The democratization of Buddhism in America
is evident in three essential aspects of American Buddhist communities.
First, it is apparent in changing patterns of authority in various
Buddhist sanghas, highlighted by a reevaluation of the nature
of the relationship between monastic and lay communities. Second,
it can be witnessed in changing gender roles, especially the
prominence of women in American Buddhism. Finally, it can be
seen in the manner in which individuals pursuing a nontraditional
lifestyle, particularly with regard to sexual preferences, are
finding a meaningful role in American Buddhist communities.
As a result of this democratizing process, American Buddhism
has moved away from the hierarchical patterns of Asian Buddhism
toward an egalitarianism that is more consistent with American
Social engagement: Socially engaged Buddhism applies to a wide
variety of human rights issues, such as antiviolence and environmental
concerns, and to the lives of individual Buddhists living "in
the world." Perhaps the greatest challenge for socially
engaged Buddhism in the West is organizational, but an exciting
array of activities can already be documented in the records
of individual American Buddhist communities. The socially engaged
Buddhist movement in the United States represents a radical
yet creative re-visioning of traditional Buddhist approaches
to societal issues, and as it gains in maturity, it promises
to permeate the American Buddhist environment.
Adaptation: Some North American Buddhists are concerned about
the implications of modifying or altering Buddhist tradition
in the name of adaptation. Victor Sogen Hori, a Canadian Rinzai
Zen priest and academic professor, for example, has criticized
the ritual life, methods of teaching and learning, social organization,
and meditation practice in Japanese and American Zen. He concludes
that "the call for an Americanization of Buddhism is unnecessary.
Every attempt by Americans to comprehend Zen intellectually
and to implement it in practice has already contributed to its
Americanization. What Americans have been practicing for the
last several decades is already Americanized Zen."
many Buddhist leaders emphasize the importance of ecumenism
in American Buddhism. The underlying hope seems to be that an
ecumenical attitude will function as a protective umbrella under
which issues of ethnicity, practice, democratization, engagement,
and adaptation may be addressed in a constructive and productive
fashion. There have been some preliminary attempts at implementing
this approach, but so far most have not been very successful.
America affords the first occasion in history for every Buddhist
school from every Asian tradition to exist together in one place
at the same time, it is likely that the following issues will
emerge as key factors in the development of American Buddhism
in the next century:
1. Dharma without dogma
2. A lay-oriented sangha
3. A meditation-based and experiential tradition
4. Gender equality
5. A nonsectarian tradition
6. A simplified tradition
7. An egalitarian, democratic, and nonhierarchical tradition
8. A psychologically astute and rational tradition
9. An experimental, innovative, inquiry-based tradition
10. A socially informed and engaged tradition
Harvey Cox has written: "Few faiths ever escape modification
when they collide or interact with others. Most profit from
such encounters." As we try to understand how Buddhism
will become American, we impatiently expect that the process
is already complete. But American Buddhism is still growing,
changing, and adapting. The most astute contributors to the
new literature and emerging commentary on American Buddhism
counsel that it is through the process itself that acculturation
and adaptation occur.