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BUDDHISM IN AMERICA

Robert Topmiller

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During the Summer of 1996, I visited Vietnam to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation. AT that time, I met a number of monks including Thich Nguyen Tang who is in the process of writing a book about Buddhism throughout the world and also contributes articles on "Buddhism around the World" to the Buddhist journal, Giac Ngo. He invited me to contribute an article on Buddhism in America and what follows is my humble effort to fulfill his request. I would be remiss, however, if I did not acknowledge the kindness of Thich Nguyen Tang and his friend Thich Tam Thien (assistant editor of Giac Ngo) in asking me to contribute this article and in assisting me in my work in Ho Chi Minh City.

Buddhism came to the United States at the end of the 19th century mainly through the efforts of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Helena Petrova Blavatsky. In addition to their efforts, important members of the American transcendental movement, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, endorsed certain aspects of Buddhism in their rejection of American materialism.

 Nevertheless, Buddhism did not gain widespread adherence in the US until the 1960s. Many members of the anti-war movement, convinced that greed and materialism had spoiled American society and led the US into an unjust and reprehensible war in Vietnam, rejected Western religious traditions in favour of Buddhism. The Buddha, of course, argued that our attachment to things and ideology stood at the root of our unhappiness. Thus, many anti-war activists saw Buddhism as a path to cure the problems of America. In addition, the Buddhist emphasis on peace and non-violence appealed to some Americans who desperately wanted to end the war. At the same time, some scholars and informed Americans developed an interest in Asian culture because of the war. From their interest, an appreciation of the wisdom of the Buddha grew, combined with significant levels of ambivalence towards many of the main precepts of Christianity with its focus on the necessity of faith and compliance with doctrinal imperatives and rejection of the concept of goods works, some American began to comprehend that the Buddha rightly taught that we are all responsible for our conduct and that our actions will ultimately determine our fate in the future.

 Out of the seeds of the anti-war movement, Buddhism became firmly established in the United States. Estimates range widely concerning the number of Buddhists in the US, but the most accurate figure seems to be around six million. In addition, America has over five hundred temples and 1500 Buddhist societies. 

Today, Buddhism in the US seems as diverse as America itself. Several main currents presently exist in the US. The most prevalent among native born Americans follows the practice of Zen and is centered in New York City and along the west coast of the US, particularly in California. Most members of these groups tend to be highly educated, elite members of American society who combine their study of Zen with other aspects of Asian philosophy and practice such as New Age philosophy. Taoism or Japanese flower arranging.

Buddhism, however, has not remained confined to these areas. Phil Jackson, coach of the world champion Chicago Bulls basketball team, claims that the study of Zen has enabled him to become more mindful and thus a better coach, while also encouraging his players to subvert their egos for the good of the team. The great American dancer, Erick Hawkins, argued that Zen allowed him to reach new heights in his performance while Chuck Norris, a popular actor and martial arts expert, credits Zen and meditation with his success. Many American feminists have also been attracted to Buddhism because of its egalitarian teachings and the opportunity it offers for woman to realize the full potential of their inner selves. In addition, another well known American singer and actress, Tina Turner, popularized the practice of Soka Gakki Buddhism in a movie about her life while Bernardo Bertolucci recently directed The Little Buddha, a popular movie that told the story of three children considered as possible reincarnations of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The movie also provided a short history of the early life of the Buddha and his great renunciation. For many Americans, this represented their first exposure to the early history of Buddhism.

 Asian immigrants represent another significant group of Buddhists in America although they normally brought Buddhism with them from their home countries. To them, the pagoda symbolizes a religious refuge in a foreign culture, a place to seek familiar themes and gain a sense of cultural reinforcement and fellowship with other members of their ethnic or language group. An important element of their religious practice are extensive education programs for their children both in native language and culture and Buddhism. Seattle, for instance, has 53 Asian Buddhist temples. While it is hard to estimate how many Asian-American Buddhists reside in the US, the number is most likely several million. These Buddhists also cover the broad spectrum of Buddhist belief including Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana schools.

 Another important form of Buddhism in America occurs in Shambala centers. Over 100 of these meditation centers exist in the US and Europe which serve an important function in disseminating the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and teaching meditation techniques throughout the US. Many of these facilities have eclectic programs that include many forms of practice including Tai Chi, art classes and Japanese Flower arranging. Another meaningful aspect of the Shambala centers has been an effort to increase awareness in the US over the plight of Tibetan Buddhism and the work of the Dalai Lama. Recently, this sect has witnessed a great expansion in interest due to the support of Richard Gere, a famous American actor. 

Finally, Buddhism has been associated with the growing environmental movement in the US for the last twenty years. Based on the Buddhist notion of Ahimsa (no harm to any living thing), combined with a strong belief in the importance of non-violent social action to effect peaceful change, many environmentalists equate Buddhist teachings about non-violence and compassion to increased concern about the fate of our world and its fragile ecology. Many of these ecobuddhists believe that meditation allows them to separate from the concerns of the world and focus on the critical relationship between human kind and its provider of life. Thus, "the cultivation of intimacy with nature is a central aim for many Buddhist environmentalists." Yet, coming together as a group with common ideas about the importance of conservation also encourages people to gain the courage to confront entrenched interests bent on environmental degradation. Some groups combine meditation with forays into the wilderness to gain a greater awareness of the interdependence of all living things while residing in a natural environment rather than the artificial life of urban existence. Finally, their activism has reached a fever pitch over the issue of nuclear proliferation and the disposal of nuclear waste since the resolution of both issues severe implications for the future of life on earth.

 From an Academic standpoint, Buddhism has enjoyed substantial growth in the US. When I returned to the University of Kentucky this week, I entered Buddhism into the computer at the library and discovered 556 articles, 374 books and 1557 entries on the World Wide Web concerning Buddhism. At schools with a greater emphasis on Asian or Buddhist studies, the collections are substantially larger. Most universities in the US, moreover, offer courses on Buddhism as part of their Eastern philosophy curriculum or as a section in a Religions of Asia course.

 Fifteen universities offer complete programs in Buddhist studies along with degrees as high as Ph.D. Included in this group are some of the most prestigious universities in America including the University of Chicago, University of Virginia, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Wisconsin in Madison (this is where I studied Vietnamese language), Stanford University, University of California in Berkeley, Columbia University, Northwestern University, University of Hawaii and the University of Michigan. All of these institutions also have strong Asian study and language programs and instruction in Buddhist canonical languages in addition to their Buddhist studies programs and report growing interest on the part of American students to learn more about Buddhism. In addition, Charles Prebish reported in 1983 that only one publication, the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, focused completely on issues concerning Buddhism while other scholarly publications like the Journal of Asian Studies often featured works on Buddhism. In 1994, however, he listed over ten scholarly journals mainly dedicated to Buddhist studies in the United States. I also discovered a recent publication, the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, on the World Wide Web which contained a number of scholarly articles such as "A Buddhist Ethic Without Karmic Rebirth?", "Buddhist Ethic in Western Context" and "Ethics and Integration in American Buddhism."

 Probably the best known non-academic Buddhist publication in the US is Tricycle. Reflecting the culturally elite aspects of American Buddhism, it is a high quality media creation that adheres to no specific Buddhist sect but attempts to apply Buddhist principles to current issues like abortion, AIDS, and euthanasia. Today, it has reached a circulation of 40,000 and an annual budget of close to one million dollars.

 Finally, in my community, Lexington Kentucky, there are two centers of Buddhist practice. One is Furnace Mountain, a Korean Zen Buddhist temple located forty miles from here in the remote mountains of Central Kentucky. The temple is built in such a way that it blends into the surrounding forest giving a sense of harmony with nature. The master of the temple lives in Lexington, however, and leads mediation and study sessions in the city while also conducting retreats in the mountains. Normally, at least two monks and a nun reside at the temple year around while the temple also has cabins for visitor’s who wish to take advantage of its remote location to meditate in solitude.

 The other facility is a Shambala center very close to the university. Its members conduct classes in meditation and often brings Buddhist speakers to Lexington who address the wider audience in the city and the university. I have attended a number of these lectures and have found them immensely satisfying. Having the center close to the university, with its near proximity to the student body, provides members with the potential to reach young people with the liberating message of Buddhism in our own community.

 The foregoing has been a brief sketch of American Buddhism that highlights some of the more important aspects of its growth in the US but fails to cover fully the richness of the Buddhist experience in the United States. Nevertheless, many commentators predict that Buddhism stands on the verge of explosive growth in the US as more people discover that the message of the Buddha holds the key to the problems that beset America.

 August 15, 1996

Robert Topmiller
University of Kentucky

 


Computer typing: Lydia Quang Nhu
Update : 01-12-2001

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