Home » Discussion » "How Buddhism Came to the West" by Maia Duerr

"How Buddhism Came to the West" by Maia Duerr

17 March 2010

Shakyamuni Buddha lived in India more than 2,500 years ago. Yet the influence of his life and his teachings continues today in multitudes of ways. There are an estimated 1.2 billion Buddhists worldwide, and perhaps 6 million in the U.S. alone. Over the past two decades, interest in Buddhism and meditation has grown tremendously in the United States—in 2003, Time magazine estimated that 10 million people meditate regularly.

This increased interest in Buddhism in the West is happening at a time when many people are experiencing the strain of living with the fear and anxiety generated by an unstable economy, terrorist threats, social unrest, and environmental peril.

The simple practice of becoming aware of one’s breath and thoughts, as taught by the Buddha, has yielded benefits in health care, psychology, education, and many other fields. But the Buddha’s teachings are also a path of liberation. In fact, he called suffering a “Holy Truth,” because suffering has the capacity to show us the path to liberation (from Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings). Buddhists who practice to transform suffering have made an impact on the arts, on the way we view death and dying, and even on the way we engage in politics.

This website explores the Buddha’s influence on all these areas, and more.


Buddhism first came to North America through Chinese immigrants who settled in the western parts of the United States beginning in the 1840s, as well as by North Americans and Europeans who visited Asia and brought back with them Buddhist texts. In the latter part of the 1800s, the influence of Buddhist thought began showing up in the literary works of Walt Whitman, Henry Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The World Parliament of Religions, held in 1893 in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair, was a key event in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. Japanese Zen master Shaku Soen was one of the participants; he returned to the U.S. several years later to travel around the country and give lectures on Buddhism. Three of his students went on to help establish Buddhism in the U.S., including Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, author of An Introduction to Zen Buddhism and many other books.

Another participant of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions was Sri Lankan Buddhist teacher Anagarika Dharmapala, who would also travel extensively across the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century to lecture about Buddhism.

In 1898, the Buddhist Mission of America was established by members of the Pure Land school (also called Shin Buddhism) of Japanese Buddhism. The internment of more than 100,000 Japanese American citizens during World War II was a serious impediment to the development of this institution, but it eventually became the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). The BCA continues today as one of the largest and most stable Buddhist communities in the country.

By the 1950s and 1960s, a number of Buddhist teachers emigrated to the U.S., Canada, and Europe and started establishing Buddhist centers. These included Taizan Maezumi Roshi (founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles), Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (founder of the San Francisco Zen Center), Dae Soen Sa Nim (founder of the Providence Zen Center), and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (founder of Vajradhatu and, later, Shambhala International).

The spirit of experimentation of the 1960s and 70s, exemplified by Ram Dass, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and others from the “Beat Generation” fueled an interest in Eastern religions including Buddhism. During these decades, a wave of young people traveled to Asia in search of teachers and gurus, and to learn meditation. Some of them included Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, who started the Insight Meditation Society; Mirabai Bush, who helped found the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society; and Jon Kabat-Zinn, who went on to pioneer innovative applications for meditation such as its use in health care and stress reduction.

Ironically, for a religion that values the cultivation of inner and outer peace, war and military conflict have played a role in bringing a number of streams of Buddhism to the West. In the wake of World War II and the Korean War, U.S. servicemen who had been stationed in Asia brought back with them an interest in Asian culture and Buddhism. Robert Aitken Roshi, founder of the Diamond Sangha, was a prisoner of war on Guam when he first learned Buddhist teachings. After communist China’s takeover of Tibet in 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama re-settled in Dharamsala, India, and Tibetan refugees began arriving in America, bringing with them Vajrayana Buddhism. The government of Vietnam refused to allow Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh to return to that country after he spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1973. He later established Plum Village, a monastic training and retreat center, in the south of France. He continues to live there in exile, though he travels frequently to the U.S. and Europe to lead mindfulness retreats.

Western Buddhism is notable for questioning the traditional role of women (often subservient in many Asian Buddhist monastic communities) and increasing the number of women Dharma teachers. Some of these include Pema Chodron, Joan Halifax, Kamala Masters, Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Toni Packer, Ven. Tenzin Palmo, Sharon Salzberg, and Jan Willis; there are many more.

Buddhism gained a higher profile in the West in the last part of the 20th century as celebrities and artists like Leonard Cohen, Richard Gere, Herbie Hancock, Phil Jackson, Tina Turner, and Alice Walker openly shared the influence that Buddhism has had on their lives and work.

This is a very brief summary of the history of Buddhism in the West. If you want to learn more, here are some good sources:
The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture, by Stephen Batchelor (Parallax Press, 1994)
How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, by Rick Fields (Shambhala, 1992)
The Faces of Buddhism in America, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka (University of California Press, 1998)


Today’s Western Buddhist community is vibrant and vital, and comprised of immigrant Buddhists from Asian countries such as Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, and Laos, as well as native-born North Americans (of all ethnic backgrounds) and Europeans who have converted to Buddhism.

There is as much pluralism in Buddhism as there is in Christianity. Schools of Buddhism include Pure Land (Shin), Zen, Theravadin, Vajrayana, and Soka Gakkai. Some, such as Zen, emphasize sitting meditation practice while others, such as Pure Land, are more devotional in nature and emphasize practices like chanting. However, all Buddhists share a set of common beliefs in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, as well as a commitment to an ethical code of living: the Precepts.

“Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?” is a frequently asked question. In reality, it is both. Buddhism is certainly a way of looking at life and making choices about how one lives it. At the same time, the beliefs and rituals centered on the inspiring example of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life are, for many people, at the heart of this tradition. As Barbara O’Brien writes,

“In many ways, the ‘religion versus philosophy’ argument is an artificial one. The neat separation between religion and philosophy we insist on today didn't exist in western civilization until the 18th century or so, and there never was such a separation in eastern civilization. To insist that Buddhism must be one thing and not the other amounts to forcing an ancient product into modern packaging.”

Maia Duerr is a writer, editor, anthropologist, and founder of Five Directions Consulting. She practices Zen Buddhism and has worked with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Upaya Zen Center, Parallax Press, and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She writes The Jizo Chronicles, a blog on Socially Engaged Buddhism, found at http://jizochronicles.wordpress.com/.


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.