No longer an exotic import, Buddhism is firmly planted on American soil. It is growing both in its traditional and non-traditional forms.
But this monastery isn’t in Asia. It’s just off Interstate 35 in Kansas City. The Rime Center is one of approximately 1,000 Buddhist centers in the United States.
Founded in the 6th century B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha or “Awakened One”), Buddhism spread across much of Asia. In the 20th century, Buddhism came to the United States, due to three factors:
- U.S. contact with Asia during and after WWII, and immigration to the United States by Asian Buddhists;
- the diaspora of Buddhist leaders and adherents caused by Marxist revolutions in Tibet, China and Southeast Asia;
- and the missionary activity of various Buddhist sects and teachers.
From 1 to 4 million Americans, both immigrants and native-born, practice Buddhism in some form. Many others are interested in the philosophy of Buddhism or borrow from the ideas and practices of Buddhism.
Representatives of all major Buddhist sects are present in the United States. Some maintain traditional Buddhist beliefs and practices from their original Asian setting, while others seek a Buddhism adapted to the American context.
Some examples of Buddhist groups in the United States include:
Buddhist Churches of America. This organization was founded by Japanese immigrants and is associated with the Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) branch of Buddhism. It has merged its devotional practices with the form and organization of American Protestantism. One may find services with hymns like “Yes, Buddha Loves Me” and a sermon, and “Dharma schools” modeled after Sunday schools.
Nicheren Shoshu of America. This group is associated with the Japanese Buddhist movement founded by Nicheren Daishonin (b. 1222). The goal of NSA is world peace and harmony, achieved through the revolution of individual human lives transformed by Buddhism, the “true humanism.” Major worship practices center around the Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra.
Chanting a mantra of allegiance to the Lotus Sutra is said to produce total harmony in the individual’s life, including emotional health, spiritual liberation and physical abundance. At meetings, testimonies laud the fruits of chanting, which may range from monetary gain to healing to success in academics. Unlike many Buddhists groups, NSA actively proselytizes and sees itself as the “One and Only True Buddhism.”
Zen centers across the United States emphasize sitting meditation (zazen) taught by a master (roshi). The appeal of Zen lies in its elegant simplicity, its humorous iconoclasm, its emphasis on both spontaneity and discipline, its nature-mysticism, its affinity with the arts (Zen poetry such as haiku, gardening, ink landscape paintings, and No theater), and its affinity to the martial arts. Zen has also impacted the American intellectual scene through the writings of proponents such as Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki.
After the Chinese took control of Tibet, many lamas came to the United States and founded meditation centers. Two of the most influential, Chogyam Trungpa and Tarthang Tulku, similarly attempted to integrate orthodox practices and teachings with Western psychology and education.
They both founded religious centers that offer initiation into esoteric Tibetan practices, publishing companies that present books tailored to the American public, and specialized programs that adapt meditation techniques to the American context.
Chogyam Trungpa also began an accredited Buddhist college, Naropa University. Tarthang Tulku built an ambitious replica of a Tibetan Temple called Odiyan in California, complete with more than a thousand prayer wheels and 144 acres of park land.
No longer an exotic import, Buddhism is firmly planted on American soil. It is growing both in its traditional and non-traditional forms. From the traditionally monastic Sitagu Vihara Meditation Center in Austin, Texas, to the diversified offerings of the Ecumenical Buddhist Society of Little Rock, Ark., Buddhism is thriving.
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.