One Buddhism? or Multiple Buddhisms?

At first glance, 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... in America seems to have two separate histories—that of Asian immigrants and that of American converts. The extent to which they discover common ground with one another is a story that is still unfolding. For the most part, there has been a gulf between the two communities. Immigrant Buddhists from Asia, whether of the first wave of Chinese and Japanese or the second wave of Southeast Asians, seem to focus on the preservation of their own ethnic forms of Buddhism and, at the same time, struggle with issues of acculturation and being accepted by the mainstream. Most American convert BuddhistsConvert Buddhism tends to refer to groups of Euro-American Buddhists that have converted to Buddhism rather than being born into the tradition. Generally speaking these Buddhists are focused more on personal and social transformation than their immigrant ..., however, are focused more on personal and social transformation and often critique the relentlessly ambitious culture of the “American dream” that new immigrants seek to emulate.

The 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... of Asian Americans often serve as institutions of preservation—where the cultural forms of art, dance, and music are preserved, Thai or Mandarin is taught to youngsters, and the festivals and celebrations particular to the culture’s form of Buddhism (or even a particular culture’s non-Buddhist celebrations) are observed. They are community centers as well as religious centers. Survival is difficult in a new culture. Creating small temples, recruiting 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..., establishing a Vietnamese or Japanese Buddhist practice in a new place is a full-time job for these communities. The Japanese are now in their fifth generation and have a long experience to share. Most temples of 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, for example, still have bilingual congregations, and conduct services in both Japanese and English.

Inevitably, as the younger generations grow up, these temples also become the site of identity questions. What does it mean to be Buddhist and American? Cambodian American? Chinese American? For some communities there is conflict within the community about where the emphasis should be—on the “Cambodian” or the “American.” In Lynn, Massachusetts, for example, the community was polarized over this issue, one side claiming that the head monkA 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 his supporters did not care about the local community and paid attention only to what was happening in Cambodia. As one leader put it, “If we build a 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..., we try to think, ‘What do we build the temple for?’ Not only for the monks. We have to try to have programs to help our people and our children. How do we help them grow up, here in America? If our children don’t speak Cambodian, don’t read Cambodian then, in ten or twenty years, what are we going to do with the temple? If all the children go away, what are we going to do with the temple?”

For American converts, on the other hand, although notions of maintaining and preserving the dharma are important, the overriding concern is not the preservation of any particular “Asian” form of Buddhism, but the transformation of one’s self, of society, and even of Buddhism. Devotion toward 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... and toward monks, as practiced in Asian 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..., is de-emphasized. The prevalent practice of the “transfer of merit” in ethnic Buddhist communities, wherein the laity support the monasticA 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... community and thereby gain future merit for themselves and their ancestors, is not a central concern to most American converts.

Becoming Buddhist for most American converts already means standing over-against the dominant culture. While assimilationAssimilation refers to the process of “making similar,” a process by which people lose their national, cultural, or even religious identity through absorption in the wider society. In the history of American immigration, it has usually meant the absor... into mainstream culture has occurred to a certain extent, American convert BuddhismConvert Buddhism tends to refer to groups of Euro-American Buddhists that have converted to Buddhism rather than being born into the tradition. Generally speaking these Buddhists are focused more on personal and social transformation than their immigrant ... historically has had a countercultural tinge—from the early TheosophistThe Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky “to study ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and to investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the psychical powers latent... Henry Steel OlcottColonel Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky were the founders of the Theosophical Society, a group with interests ranging from the mysteries of ancient Egypt and Greece to Eastern religions. In 1878 Olcott and Blavatsky went to India and Sri ... to the Zen boom of Alan WattsAlan Watts was one of the earliest Euro-American Buddhists to introduce the Zen tradition to the wider American community. In such books as The Way of Zen, this Episcopal priest turned Zen practitioner introduced meditation as a way of enlightenment well .... Many American converts see Buddhism as a do-it-yourself religion focused first and foremost on 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..., often pursued as a solitaryA solitary is a Pagan who does not regularly practice with a group. Solitaries may join groups for special occasions, but the bulk of their practice occurs alone. Today, solitaries make up the majority of self-identified Pagans. practice. The creation of a community, a sangha, out of the multitude of solitary meditators has become an ongoing challenge for American Buddhist communities, as new Buddhists have families and seek ways to raise children in the teachings of the Buddha.

The impulse toward preservation among immigrant Buddhists and the impulse toward transformation among new American convert Buddhists may, in time, converge. It is not enough to preserve a religious or cultural heritage; that heritage must also nourish a new generation in a new environment. Many immigrant Buddhist communities are finding that the social life of the temple is not enough and that, contrary to how most lay people behaved prior to coming to the United States, meditation classes are becoming popular. And American convert BuddhistConvert Buddhism tends to refer to groups of Euro-American Buddhists that have converted to Buddhism rather than being born into the tradition. Generally speaking these Buddhists are focused more on personal and social transformation than their immigrant ... communities are finding that meditation programs are not enough and that the social life of a gathered community is, in fact, important to young people as they come to identify themselves as part of the community.

As new generations of American Buddhists emerge and flourish, they defy easy categorization. What is occurring in the United States is definitely new, different, unprecedented in Buddhist history, and heading to some form of “American Buddhism,” but for the time being it is probably best to speak of “American 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....”


X
- Enter Your Location -
- or -