Buddhism in Greater Boston

Since the BuddhaBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther... attained EnlightenmentEnlightenment means awakening to or realizing the true nature of reality. The term is used with various nuances in the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions to express the spiritual awakening that is the goal of religious life. “The Enlightenment” also... in the sixth century BCE, his teachings on human suffering and the path to liberation have spread throughout Eastern and Western cultures alike. BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... 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 templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref.... Representing nearly every ethnicity, age, and social strata, the Buddhist community of Greater Boston is a vibrant presence in the city.

Since Siddhartha GautamaSiddhartha Gautama, a prince of India in the 6th century BCE, came to be called the Buddha, the “awakened one,” after his enlightenment at the age of thirty-six. He spent the remainder of his life giving spiritual guidance to an ever-growing body of d... 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 templesBuddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajra..., which consisted of small home altarsAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said. and family shrines.

Simultaneously, in the mid-1800s many individuals within intellectual and literary circlesIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita... of the transcendentalistTranscendentalism was a movement of 19th century American thought, associated especially with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), and subsequent liberal and Romantic thinkers. Their vision was stretched toward universalism by a v... movement gained interest in Buddhism. Henry DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon... Thoreau translated part of the Lotus SutraOne of the earliest Mahayana sutras, the Lotus Sutra has played a significant role in shaping the Buddhist tradition in East Asia. Especially influential has been its teaching of the one Great Vehicle (Mahayana) under which is subsumed all other lesser ve..., an important MahayanaMahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” is a form of Buddhism the originated in India and spread to Central and East Asia, encompassing schools in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Its primary characteristics include a more supernatural view o... 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 PreceptsFor Buddhists, spiritual progress typically requires the acceptance of an ever-greater number of moral precepts. Upon taking refuge in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), most Buddhists will participate in a five precepts ceremony, in which ... – 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 ZenThe Caodong school of Chan Buddhism was founded in China the 9th century. Dogen introduced Soto (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese graphs for Caodong) to Japan in the 13th century, where it quickly developed into one of the preeminent schools. In ... schools, the Shingon tradition, and the Jodo ShinshuThe Jodo Shinshu or True Pure Land school of Buddhism was founded by the Japanese monk Shinran Shonin in the 12th century. This tradition regards chanting the name of Amida Buddha as the most appropriate form of practice in the current degenerate age. Tod... tradition. D.T. SuzukiD.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) first introduced Zen Buddhism to the general American public. Although he was never ordained as a full monk, for several years as a young man he lived in one of Japan’s main Rinzai temples, where he mastered koan study. After arr..., 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 SakyaShakya is the name of the clan into which the Buddha was born. Thus, he is sometimes referred to as “Shakyamuni Buddha” which can be translated as “Sage of the Shakya Clan.” Institute, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and the Boston Old Path SanghaThe Sangha is the community of monks or, more broadly, the community of Buddhists. To formally become a Buddhist, one takes refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and Sangha. In its widest sense, “sangha” refers ....

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 BuddhismWon Buddhism is a form of Buddhism founded by the Korean Sot’aesan Pak Chungbin (1891-1943) in 1924 in response to the doctrinal and institutional challenges presented to Korean Buddhism by its Neo-Confucian critics and Christian missionaries. According.... The Cambridge Zen Center is one of a number of centers in the United States within the Kwan UmAvalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva who looks down with compassion upon the suffering of all beings. In East Asia, this bodhisattva came to be popular in female form as Guanyin (China), Kannon (Japan) or Kwan Um (Korea), holding a willow branch and vase sy... 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 meditationMeditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is commo..., chanting, dharmaDharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings ... talk and discussion.

Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the United States dates back to the 1970s, with the arrival of Chogyam Trungpa RinpocheChogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-87) was a recognized lineage holder in both the Kagyu and Nyingma Buddhist traditions of Tibet. During the Tibetan sovereignty debate in 1959, Trungpa fled to northern India. He began presenting Buddhist teachings in North A..., the founder of the ShambhalaFormed in 1973 by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala Vajradhatu is a worldwide organization with its headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, two other main centers in Boulder, Colorado and Marburg, Germany, and more than 100 meditation centers around the w... tradition. The DharmadhatuDharmadhatu is the name of a group of Tibetan Buddhist meditation centers in North America affiliated with the Vajradhatu association founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1973. The term “Dharmadhatu” refers to the underlying spiritual reality, the i... Center of Boston was founded in 1971 and has moved from residential Upland Road in Cambridge, to a spacious templeA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... above shops on Boylston Street in Boston, to an imposing former OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, 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. LamaLama, the Tibetan term meaning “superior” refers especially to those of superior spiritual attainment. It is a translation of the Sanskrit word “guru” and is used for any venerable monk or qualified spiritual teacher. Zopa RinpocheIn Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, rinpoche, meaning “precious jewel,” is the honorific title for highly respected lamas (teachers), especially tulkus (enlightened teachers who have consciously taken rebirth for the benefit of others)., 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 KhmerKhmer refers to the indigenous people of Cambodia and their language, the official language of Cambodia. 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 monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... 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. WatA wat (Thai) or watt (Cambodian) is a Buddhist temple-monastic complex. Thai and Cambodian temples typically have two sections, one in which both monks and laity worship the Buddha, and the other reserved for the monastic community. The former typically i... 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 TheravadaTheravada, literally “the way of the elders,” was one of the eighteen earliest sub-schools of Buddhism. Today, the term designates the various traditions of Buddhism most prominent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Although these traditions differ in i... tradition, the New England Buddhist ViharaVihara means “residence” in Sanskrit and Pali; the term is used to designate the living quarters for Buddhist monks, i.e. a Buddhist monastery. In addition to the living area for the monastic community, a Vihara will typically include a Buddha image, ... 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 talksDharma talks are daily or weekly lectures on the Buddha’s teachings (Dharma) held at Buddhist temples or meditation centers. These lectures on Buddhist epistemology, values, or practice have become a staple of the life of Euro-American Buddhist centers...., and participates in monthly full moonThe different phases of the moon’s cycle are significant in some Pagan traditions, especially in Wicca, where the moon is associated with the Goddess. Wiccans believe the inherent spiritual power in nature is greatest on the night of the full moon. They... 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 LandPure Land is a term used in the Mahayana Buddhist traditions to denote the realm under the auspices of a particular Buddha, most often referring to Sukhavati, the Land of Ultimate Bliss presided over by Amitabha Buddha. A Pure Land is an ideal place of cu... 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 templeBuddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajra... 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, yogaYoga is a Sanskrit word, deriving from a verb meaning “to yoke” or “to join.” Body and consciousness are joined together in the discipline of yoga. Yoga practice involves ethical restraints, the mastery of bodily postures (called asanas), the cont..., 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 InternationalSoka Gakkai was founded in Japan in 1930 by an educator named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Soon after its founding, it became associated with Nichiren Shoshu, a sect of Nichiren Buddhism. In the early 1990s, all formal ties between Soka Gakkai International and... (SGISoka Gakkai was founded in Japan in 1930 by an educator named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Soon after its founding, it became associated with Nichiren Shoshu, a sect of Nichiren Buddhism. In the early 1990s, all formal ties between Soka Gakkai International and...), 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 MeditationVipassana is a form of Theravada Buddhist meditation, also called “insight mediation.” This method directs the attention toward the moment-to-moment workings of the mind and body, thereby developing “mindfulness” of the contents of consciousness a... Society in Barre, Massachusetts is the first and largest of the American centers for VipassanaVipassana is a form of Theravada Buddhist meditation, also called “insight mediation.” This method directs the attention toward the moment-to-moment workings of the mind and body, thereby developing “mindfulness” of the contents of consciousness a..., 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 BuddhismsBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther.... Not merely a static tradition, Buddhism in Greater Boston is a growing and dynamic interaction between many diverse peoples and their practices.