Last Updated 28 Dec 2020

Buddhism in the United States

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It has almost become part of a regular routine. Like a habit. Practitioners enter this type of monastery to chant and meditate using Tibetan mantras while sitting cross-legged on mats, simultaneously being led by a lama. Their surroundings – bright Tibetan paintings – depict of a scene quite unfamiliar from their own. Indeed this picture can portray an Asian vista, but it is not in Asia.

This is private in the Rime Center, located just off Interstate 35 in Kansas City, identified as one of approximately 1,000 Buddhist centers in the United States (Browning, 2007). In 2006, National Geographic magazine accounted that Buddhism has become one of United States’ religion with an increasing number of supporters, given an estimated 1. 5% of the country’s total population (Jan Hai, 2006). This is strongly held up by an established 2,000 Buddhist societies and associations of various sizes found in the United States (Jan Hai, 2006).

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To further highlight the prevalence of Buddhism in the West, Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader, has done several visits to cities of the United States for public talks and other forms of assemblies with young peacemakers, scientists, the academe, business executives and to all other budding faithful Americans (Lampman, 2006). According to the 2006 edition of the Christian Science Monitor, “Dalai Lama’s visits spotlights the fact that with 1. 5 million adherents, Buddhism is America’s fourth largest religion. ”

Buddhism is steadily growing in the region and is incessantly spreading as American-born leaders present this traditionally ancient belief structured into the Western perspective and conditions (Lampman, 2006). America, with its diverse environment and cultures for Buddhism, lays out a unique history on how this religion laid its foundation and further distinguished itself towards a continuing process of development in the nation (Wikipedia, 2007). Buddhism making History in the United States Buddhism originated as a progeny of Hinduism in India (Zukeran, 1994).

Founded by Siddharta Gautama (the Enlightened One) in the 6th century B.C. , Buddhism’s central focus is to sought the answer of the existence of pain and suffering in this world (Browning, 2007). The basic teachings of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path – aim to address these. It is only through the total self-annihilation of desires made by following these teachings is one able to attain the eternal state of being called, Nirvana (Zukeran, 1994). This belief was carried on to various parts of Asia, with almost every denomination represented: Southeast Asian, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Korean, Chinese and Japanese varieties of ancient Buddhism (Gross, 2005).

Buddhism endlessly spread across Asia. James Browning, an English Pastor of Englewood Baptist Church noted that Buddhism came to the United States in the 20th century due to three factors: (1) large number of Asian Buddhist immigrants, and the contact of Westerners with Asia during and after the World War II; (2) diaspora of Buddhist leaders from Tibet, China and Southeast Asia instigated by the Marxist Revolutions; and (3) the various missionary activities of Buddhist teachers in the United States (Browning, 2007).

With the Asian immigrants spreading across the United States with their teachings in Buddhism, American intellectuals were starting to become involved and took interest to this religion or belief. (Wikipedia, 2007). To name a few, Englishmen William Jones and Charles Wilkins initiated translation works from Sanskrit to English to comprehend the ancient religion. Even Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson took the extra mile in understanding the Buddhist philosophy and published later the first English version of the Lotus Sutra.

Henry Steel Olcott was the first popular American to publicly convert himself to the religion. And the most remarkable event in the history of Buddhism in America was when the World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago in 1893 to pave way for a public forum wherein Buddhists can freely communicate with the rest of the Western public (Wikipedia, 2007). Types of Buddhism in the United States With the successful emergence of Buddhism in the United States, even to date, both immigrants and native-born continue to practice Buddhism in diverse forms (Browning, 2007).

According to some scholars such as Charles Prebish, three broad types of Buddhism in America are predominantly being carried out (Wikipedia, 2007). The oldest and largest is the “immigrant” or what is called “ethnic Buddhism”. The next oldest and what is accorded to be the most evident is the “import Buddhism”, which is also sometimes called as “elite Buddhism”. Finally, the newest sect of Buddhism actively purported in America from various backgrounds is the “export” or “evangelical Buddhism” (Wikipedia, 2007).

The differences and distinctions of these three types will be elaborated further below. Immigrant Buddhism is largely the Buddhist tradition brought about by the early Asian Buddhist settlers in the United States. This is home to the Buddhists from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and from nearly all other Buddhist country in the world over (Wikipedia, 2007). The largest national immigrant Buddhism in the United States is the Buddhist Churches of America or the BCA. Japanese immigrants founded this organization and are linked with the Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) branch of Buddhism.

Its model has incorporated certain devotional practices with the likes of American Protestantism (Browning, 2007). Import Buddhism on the one hand, has its nature as its definition. As American intellectuals seek the truth and pursue a quest from a variety of countries in Asia, three trends of Import Buddhism have emerged, as follows: Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and Vipassana (caused by Theravada Buddhism). (Wikipedia, 2007). Several Zen centers are already situated in the United States with emphasis on sitting meditation (zazen), and are being taught by a master (roshi).

Zen is able to attract individuals due to its minimalism, its center of attention on both spontaneity and discipline, its mystique, its appeal with the arts (examples of its respective poetry includes haiku, gardening, ink landscape paintings, and No Theater) and its likeness towards martial arts (Browning, 2007). Tibetan Buddhism stems from its ancestors’ teachings with the most prominent Buddhist teacher in the world as their current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. He has attracted a number of celebrities in the Hollywood arena and ahs established a series of meditation centers, also called as Dharmadhatu (Wikipedia, 2007).

Currently there are four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism in the West: the Gelug, the Kagyu, the Nyingma, and the Sakya (Wikipedia, 2007). The last trend of Import Buddhism is Vipassana which is rooted from Theravada teachings. With a rough translation of “insight meditation”, Vipassana’s ancient meditative practices aim to simplify ritual and other ceremonial activities in order to achieve a more effective and available-to-all type of meditation. This sect is more open to lay involvement which sets Theravada differently amongst other teachings (Wikipedia, 2007).

Import Buddhism was earlier noted as an “elite Buddhism”, reason being is the nature of its origins. The elite American society with its keen interest to know more of the religion tends to go overseas in various Asian regions to pursue their explorations. Lastly, Export Buddhism focused on recruiting converts from the public, one of which is Soka Gakkai’s Nichiren Buddhism. Nicheren Shoshu of America or NSA’s goal is world peace and harmony which can be achieved by the total transformation of lives. Their central focus in their meditation centers are on the Buddhist sculpture, the Lotus Sutra. (Browning, 2007).

NSA actively promotes its chanting of mantra expressing its allegiance to the Lotus Sutra. The most distinct feature that sets Soka Gakkai apart is its meditative technique solely articulated through chanting. Over the years, Buddhism in the United States has developed and made itself suitable to its environment. With the numerous sects branching out from Buddhism, it is not unlikely that another trend has developed in the West: socially engaged Buddhism. With the notion of quietism and passive approach to the society, this new trend sets to bring forth Buddhism in a different angle – moving it outside its norms.

Engaged Buddhism is simply to apply its values and teachings to a wider and more involved spectrum in the society. This may concern the environment, political issues and community welfare. (Wikipedia, 2007). Role of Buddhism in Revolutionizing the West With all these sectors of Buddhism prevalent in the United States, another question boils down, regardless which sect you are involved into: What is it in Buddhism that has created an enormous appeal, interest and following in the Western way of living?

Perhaps what is drawing people is Buddhism’s non-missionizing approach that suits the American’s search for more meaningful spiritual ways (Lampman, 2006). According to Lama Surya Das, a highly-trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition, “they are not building big temples, but offering wisdom, and ways of reconciliation and peacemaking, which are so much needed. ” (Lampman, 2006). Westerners are in search of meaning of their traditional spiritual practices, and they have found answers in the transformative practices of meditation.

Though this may suggest Buddhism as being able to serve as one of the answers being sought after by the faithful Americans, it should also be noted that the entry of Buddhism in the United States, particularly in North America was not as natural. Americanization of Buddhism: Its Limitations Americanization of Buddhism has emerged due to the convert Buddhists whose concerns are primarily different from those of traditionally Buddhist populations (Gross, 2005). Convert Buddhists find the Asian culture forms encase Buddhism in an uncomfortable manner (Gross, 2005).

They have therefore developed approaches to Buddhist teachings that suits best their new religious identity in the Western point of view. In addition to the controversial topic of “Americanization” of Buddhism, the role of women was also tapped as another concern in the United States. It can be observed that in almost all major world religions, it is always male-dominated, similar to that of Buddhism. With Japan as an exception, another feature to note is that all traditional Buddhist societies or associations are empowered by lay-monastic dichotomy.

Male denouncers for their religion are often labeled with prestige and honor, yet it is the other way around for women. Finally a deeper complication surfaced. The very teachings of Buddhism, when extrapolated, can be seen as depicting mostly lineage ancestors of men (Gross, 2005). Nevertheless, this did not hinder American women from participating in American Buddhism. It is apparent that women had taken the task in meditation centers and other Buddhist forums.

Based on some observers, they claim that this is the most noticeable difference between Asian and American Buddhist centers (Gross, 2005). This seemingly key concern of women involvement in American Buddhism can be highly attributed to the second wave of feminism simultaneously occurring when the Asian Buddhist immigrants arrived in the United States. They say that if it were not for this coincidence, the face of American Buddhism will have changed forever (Gross, 2005).

Buddhism Side by Side Christianity American Buddhism clearly made its mark in the region being the fourth-largest religion, after Christianity, Judaism and Islam (Lampman, 2006). According to Dr. Seager, a professor of religious studies in Hamilton College, immigrants from Asia may have accounted for 67% of the total and the converts around one-third. Christianity being the number one religion practiced in the United States can be set in a comparative study between Buddhism to further illustrate what sets the two apart and how the two are so different (Zukeran, 1994). Here is a brief review of these two religions.

As much of the Buddhist scriptures, Lotus Sutra for instance, were written hundreds of years after the death of Gautama, the factor of accuracy is questioned. In Christianity, however, the Bible is made of human testaments, of eyewitnesses surrounding the life of Jesus and the events taking place then (Zukeran, 1994). The concept of “God” also differs between the two religions. Buddhists claims that the Absolute does not play a vital role in their everyday living, unlike for Christians, where God is the central of the universe – omnipotent and omniscient.

The Christian God is a personal god (Zukeran, 1994). It was also made clear that Buddha is not deity. Jesus, on the other hand, claimed to be God, the Saviour of mankind. Although various sects in general sees Buddha as having a status of god, Buddha clearly and solely sees himself as the way-shower of Nirvana (Zukeran, 1994). The final distinction that can be illustrated further here is the concept of the final destination – where does one religion aim to go to? Buddhism does not aim for salvation or life after death as with Christianity.

After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians no longer fear death as they themselves have witnessed that their God did conquered the grave. Buddhists hope to enter the state of Nirvana, despite its unclear description of what it really is (Zukeran, 1994). Intensification of Buddhism in the United States Finally, Buddhism has definitely proven its firm foundation in the Western culture when the variety of Buddhist groups started establishing institutions of higher learning in America. (Wikipedia, 2007).

Naropa University was the first four-year Buddhist College in the U.S, founded by Chogyam Trungpa. It is a fully accredited institution which offers degrees not necessarily or not directly related to Buddhism. His Lai University is also another Buddhist university. There is also the Dharma Realm Buddhist University which is a four-year college university offering mainly subjects into Buddhism, but also including generalized ones. BCA runs its own Institute of Buddhist Studies in California which offers a seminary-type of Buddhist Studies (Wikipedia, 2007). The contemplative practice of Buddhism infiltrated successfully that of the United States.

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