Comments on Tensions in American Buddhism

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly invited several scholars to comment on the divisions and direction of Buddhism in America today:

Carl Bielefeldt is professor of religious studies and co-director of the Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University:

For 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.


American 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.”

Clearly 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.

We 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.”

Of 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.

Does 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”?


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 Buddhism.”

News 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 rule.

Compare 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).

To 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.

The 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 worshiping 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.

The 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.

The 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 magic.


Recently, 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.

This 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.

In 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.

Within 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.

“Hereditary 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 dearly departed.

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.

There 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.


The 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 popularity here.

Some 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.

To 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.


While 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.

If 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 Society.

Vipassana 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 Movement.

Of 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 organizations.


Donald K. Swearer is the Charles & Harriet Cox McDowell Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College:

Buddhism 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) (, 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.

The 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” Buddhism either.

Whatever 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:

The 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 more complex.

The 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.)


In 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,

meditation 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.

And 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.

In 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 at Bloomington:

Buddhism — like most other religions in America — includes a tremendous diversity of beliefs, practices, and cultural styles.

American 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.

But 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 America.

It 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.


Meanwhile, 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 into Buddhism.

These 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.

But 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.

The 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.

Will 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.

While 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.

Given 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.

Be 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.)

In 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 State University:

To make sense of the many and seemingly conflicting Buddhisms currently on American soil, five key issues need to be examined:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 democracy.

4. 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.

5. 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.”

Finally, 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.

Because 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

Theologian 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.