Buddhism in Greater Boston

Since the Buddha attained Enlightenment in the sixth century BCE, his teachings on human suffering and the path to liberation have spread throughout Eastern and Western cultures alike. Buddhism arrived in Boston in the nineteenth century with the first Chinese immigrants to the city and a growing intellectual interest in Buddhist arts and practice. Boston’s first Buddhist center was the Cambridge Buddhist Association (1957). The post-1965 immigration brought new immigrants into the city—from Cambodian and Vietnam, as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea. These groups brought with them a variety of Buddhist traditions, now practiced at over 90 area Buddhist centers and temples. Representing nearly every ethnicity, age, and social strata, the Buddhist community of Greater Boston is a vibrant presence in the city.

Since Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment in northern India in the 6th century BCE, practitioners have found truth in the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddhist tradition grew and spread throughout India and Tibet, southeast to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and further east along the Silk Road to China and then into Korea and Japan. In these countries, people adopted and transformed the Buddhist traditions based on their individual insights and societal and cultural norms. Over time, Buddhism has come to represent how millions of people across centuries and continents have come to understand the Buddha’s teachings.

In the United States, travel, emigration, and immigration throughout the past few centuries have introduced Americans to the Buddhist tradition and Buddhists to the United States. Euro-American interest and understanding of the Buddhist tradition has grown as scriptures have been translated and Buddhist teachers have opened centers across the country.

Buddhism in Boston

The history of Buddhism in Boston begins in the nineteenth century with the first Chinese presence in the city. In 1870, approximately 150 Chinese workers came to Massachusetts, where they were hired to take the place of striking shoe factory workers in North Adams. In 1875, some of the workers moved to Boston to work on building the Pearl Street Telephone Exchange. The streets where they lived eventually became a part of what is now Chinatown. A backlash against the Chinese workers began in the 1870s and generated the rhetoric that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a ban that suspended Chinese immigration to the United States for over 60 years. The exclusion policy was reaffirmed and expanded to include other Asian immigrants with the Immigration Act of 1924. The Chinese population came to a standstill and many Chinese workers, unable to afford the return to China, were stranded thousands of miles from their families. From 1920 to 1950, the population of Boston’s Chinatown only grew from 1,000 to 1,600. Nevertheless, the Chinese established a number of community organizations during this time, including the area’s first Buddhist temples, which consisted of small home altars and family shrines.

Simultaneously, in the mid-1800s many individuals within intellectual and literary circles of the transcendentalist movement gained interest in Buddhism. Henry David Thoreau translated part of the Lotus Sutra, an important Mahayana Buddhist text, from French into English. Sir Edwin Arnold published a very successful rendition of the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, which became the first Buddhist bestseller in the United States. In 1882, several Boston intellectuals, including Edward Morse, Ernest Fenollosa, and William Sturgis Bigelow, traveled to Japan, cultivating a deep interest in Buddhism. In 1885, both Fenollosa and Bigelow received the Five Precepts – the formal initiation into Buddhist lay life, practice, and ethics.

Both Fenollosa and Bigelow, sometimes called the “Boston Buddhists,” greatly contributed to the intellectual and spiritual encounter of the West with the Buddhist tradition. In 1892, Fenollosa read a poem at Harvard University called “East and West” in which he imagined the harmonious blending of Eastern spirituality with Western science. In 1908, Bigelow was appointed Lecturer in Buddhist Doctrine at Harvard. He delivered the Ingersoll Lectures at Harvard Divinity School on “Buddhism and Immortality.” In his bequest, Bigelow left a fund to Harvard University for the advancement of Buddhist studies, stipulating, “I feel strongly the more Buddhism is taught at Harvard the better.” In the early 1900s, the growing intellectual interest in Buddhism at Harvard brought many Buddhist professors and teachers to the Boston area. In 1959, a professorship in Buddhist studies was established, and in the 1980s, a visiting Numata Professorship was established to bring distinguished professors of Buddhist studies to Harvard on a yearly basis.

Among the many Buddhist organizations in the Boston area today, the oldest is the Cambridge Buddhist Association (CBA). Founded in 1957, the Association began as a non-sectarian center for Buddhist study and practice. Its first board of directors represented the diversity they aspired to include – members of both the Rinzai and Soto Zen schools, the Shingon tradition, and the Jodo Shinshu tradition. D.T. Suzuki, a famous translator of Japanese Zen texts and author of introductory books on Buddhism in English, became the first president of CBA. Today, CBA’s space is used by Buddhist groups in the area, including Tibetan groups, a Sri Lankan group, Zen groups, the Sakya Institute, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and the Boston Old Path Sangha.

Since the founding of the Cambridge Buddhist Association in 1957, many Buddhist traditions have moved into the Boston area, established temples and centers of study and practice, and opened their doors to the American public. This is largely due to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which reformed the strict national-origin quota system that had previously been in place. Since 1965, immigrants from dozens of Buddhist countries have come to call Boston home. In doing so, these immigrants have brought their religious practices with them, introducing Boston to a multiplicity of Buddhist traditions.

Korean Buddhism

From Korea came the Mahayana traditions of Zen and Won Buddhism. The Cambridge Zen Center is one of a number of centers in the United States within the Kwan Um School of Zen. A residential center in Central Square, the Cambridge Zen Center accommodates thirty-five to forty full-time practicing residents. The American Buddhist Shim Gum Do Association of Brighton teaches a unique form of Zen that integrates martial arts and traditional contemplative practices. A newer wave of Korean Buddhism can be found at Won Buddhism of Boston. Members of Korean and Euro-American descent attend weekly services of meditation, chanting, dharma talk and discussion.

Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the United States dates back to the 1970s, with the arrival of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the Shambhala tradition. The Dharmadhatu Center of Boston was founded in 1971 and has moved from residential Upland Road in Cambridge, to a spacious temple above shops on Boylston Street in Boston, to an imposing former Orthodox church in Newton. Now under the name of Boston Shambhala Meditation Center, it has become an active community in Brookline. A number of other Tibetan centers were opened following the Immigration Act of 1990, when Boston became one of eighteen “cluster sites” for the Tibetan Resettlement Project. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, opened the Kurukulla Center in a former nursing home in Medford. The Center offers classes on Tibetan Buddhism and regularly hosts visiting teachers. The Sakya Center in Harvard Square offers courses on Tibetan Buddhist scriptures and teachings to Harvard students and local professionals. Drikung Meditation Center in Arlington, affiliated with the Jokhang Institute, now boasts a full-size replica of Tibet’s most revered statue, the Jowo Rinpoche. This addition in 2008 established the Drikung Meditation Center as the first Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage site in the United States.

Vietnamese Buddhism

In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge terror, tens of thousands fled Vietnam and Cambodia and came to the United States as refugees. As many refugees settled in the Boston area, Buddhist temples grew within the new immigrant communities. The Vietnamese community has temples scattered throughout the Boston area – in Roslindale, East Boston, Dorchester, Lawrence and Braintree. The Samantabhadra/Pho Hien Buddhist Center attracts thousands of attendees each May to the largest annual Buddhist celebration in New England, the Buddha’s birthday festival. The Bode Buddhist Center in Braintree was established in 2001 as a branch within a network of over thirty temples. They were able to construct their pagoda-style temple due to the work of resident monks and volunteers from the Vietnamese community.

Cambodian Buddhism

With close to 30,000 Cambodians living in Lowell, the area is home to a number of Cambodian Buddhist temples. Triratanaram Temple in North Chelmsford is the largest of these, with annual gatherings in the thousands. Resident monks live in the temple, and community members come daily to bring offerings and receive teachings. The leader of the Cambodian community in New England and the Supreme Patriarch of the Cambodian Buddhist community throughout the world was the Venerable Maha Ghosananda. He helped to establish some thirty Cambodian Buddhist temples in North America, three of which are in the Boston area. After his passing in 2007, over 3,000 were in attendance at his funerary services at Triratanaram Temple.

Thai Buddhism

The Thai community has also sponsored and supported the foundation of Buddhist temples in the Greater Boston area. Wat Nawamintararachutis (NMR Buddhist Center) in Raynham was founded in the late 1990s by a group of Thai families in honor of a Thai monarch who was born at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. Home to six resident monks, the Center is in the midst of plans to build a large, traditional Thai temple on their fifty-acre property. Located in a small residential house in Bedford, Wat Boston Buddha Vararam is supported primarily by the local Thai and Lao communities, but also attracts recent Cambodian and Malaysian immigrants.

Laotian & Sri Lankan Buddhism 

Within the Laotian community, Westford is home to Wat Buddhabhavana, previously the Laotian Temple of Massachusetts. The center, contiguous to a nature preserve and bird sanctuary, hopes to construct a rural Buddhist retreat center. Also within the Theravada tradition, the New England Buddhist Vihara and Meditation Center was founded in 2003 with support from a small group of local Sri Lankans in Massachusetts. Since settling into a residence in Framingham in 2006, the Center has offered meditation classes and dharma talks, and participates in monthly full moon observances.

Chinese Buddhism

Chinese Buddhists began immigrating to Boston again in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of China’s political turmoil, and they have also created a vibrant Buddhist community. The Samantabhadra Society, now known as the Massachusetts Buddhist Association, was formed largely by Taiwanese students and is housed in a former church in Lexington. The Association holds classes on Ch’an and Pure Land Buddhism that incorporate chanting and meditation, and also hosts visiting teachers. In 1996, the Thousand Buddha Temple was founded in Quincy under the auspices of an existing Buddhist organization, Massachusetts Budhi Siksa Society, Inc. The Temple, now the second largest Chinese Buddhist temple in New England, is named for the 1,000 Buddha figures that encircle the main meditation hall. They hold weekly services and classes that serve over 1,600 families. Also within the Chinese tradition is the Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center in Cambridge. The Center offers a variety of classes, including vegetarian cooking, meditation, yoga, Chinese painting, and dharma classes for children.

Other Contemporary Buddhist Movements

Other contemporary Buddhist movements, with diverse but primarily Euro-American membership, have also found a home in Greater Boston. Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a global Buddhist association originating in Japan, serves a variety of interest groups and estimates a local membership of more than 3,000 people. In addition to the Boston Community Center, located near Boston University, the newly-formed New England Activity Center in Woburn serves regional organizations throughout Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Members gather in smaller groups on a weekly basis to cultivate their faith, discuss, practice and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, or “Adoration to the Scripture of the Lotus of the Perfect Truth.” An affiliated organization, the Ikeda Center in Cambridge (formerly the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century), is an international peace institute that seeks “to build cultures of peace through dialogue and education.”

Farther west of Boston, the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts is the first and largest of the American centers for Vipassana, or insight meditation. The Insight Meditation Society holds various retreats throughout the year. Around Boston, Vipassana meditation is practiced at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, an “urban forest retreat” in an old Victorian house in Cambridge.

Buddhism at Colleges and Universities 

Another aspect of Buddhism in Boston lies in the extensive college and university Buddhist communities. These groups highlight the ways in which Buddhism has become uniquely “American” in some settings. They provide a space in which individuals from different backgrounds and religious traditions can come together with a shared interest in Buddhism. The Tufts Buddhist Sangha actively participates in interfaith events at the University, and also hosts open meetings each week, in which discussion of Buddhist philosophy is framed by meditation practice. At Wellesley College, the Buddhist Community holds open meditation several days a week and often invites guest teachers to lead Dharma talks on the campus. The Harvard Buddhist Community similarly leads weekly practice and frequently hosts events for individuals at Harvard and in the greater Cambridge community.

The multiplicity of Buddhist groups in Greater Boston provides a microcosm of Buddhism in the United States as a whole. Because of the significant immigrant populations from traditionally Buddhist countries and a long history of local interest in the study and practices of Buddhism, the tradition has played a prominent role in Greater Boston’s religious landscape. The result has been the development of many Buddhisms. Not merely a static tradition, Buddhism in Greater Boston is a growing and dynamic interaction between many diverse peoples and their practices.