Buddhism in America

1853 CE The First Chinese Temple in “Gold Mountain”

Chinese workers and miners, bringing Buddhist and Taoist traditions with them, were attracted by the Gold Rush to California, which they called Gold Mountain. They built their first temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown. By 1875, Chinatown was home to eight temples; and by the end of the century, there were hundreds of Chinese temples and shrines on the West Coast.

1869 CE Weaverville Joss House

The oldest Chinese temple still standing is today maintained by the Weaverville Historical Society in Weaverville, California. Among the images of various Taoist and folk deities is also one of Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. It was rebuilt in 1874 after the original structure burned down.

1875 CE The Theosophical Society

The Theosophical Society was formed in New York under the direction of Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, both of whom took the five precepts of a lay Buddhist in Sri Lanka. The Society promoted the study of Buddhism along with other spiritual traditions. Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism, published in 1881, became popular throughout the Buddhist world.

1878 CE Kuan-yin in Hawaii

The monk Leong Dick Ying brought gold-leaf images of the Taoist sage Kuan Kung, and Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, to Honolulu. The Kuan-yin Temple is the oldest Chinese organization in Hawaii. It has been located on Vineland Avenue in Honolulu since 1921.

1879 CE The Light of Asia Comes West

Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia, a biography of the Buddha in verse, was published. This immensely popular book, which went through eighty editions and sold over half a million copies, gave many Americans their first introduction to the Buddha.

1882 CE Chinese Exclusion Act

Two decades of growing anti-Chinese sentiment led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act barred new Chinese immigration for ten years, including that by women trying to join their husbands who were already in the U.S., and prohibited the naturalization of Chinese people.

1889 CE First Japanese Buddhist Temple in Hawaii

A temple of the Jodo Shinshu lineage was established for Japanese immigrants on the island of Hawaii. This lineage later became known as the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii (Hawaii was not annexed to the United States until 1898), and the mission continues to serve Hawaiian Buddhists today.

1890 CE The Boston Buddhists

Ernest Fenollosa, a Harvard graduate and philosophy professor at the Tokyo Imperial University, and William Bigelow, a Harvard Medical School doctor, returned to Boston after several years in Japan. While there, both of them took the precepts as Tendai Buddhists. Their collection of Asian art, now part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, afforded Americans an appreciation of Buddhism and eastern aesthetics. After their deaths, Fenollosa and Bigelow had a part of their ashes sent to Miidera, the Tendai temple in Japan where they had studied.

1893 CE World’s Parliament of Religions

The Parliament, held in Chicago in conjunction with the World Columbian Exposition, included representatives of many strands of the Buddhist tradition:  Anagarika Dharmapala (Sri Lankan Maha Bodhi Society), Shaku Soyen (Japanese Rinzai Zen), Toki Horyu (Shingon), Ashitsu Jitsunen (Tendai), Yatsubuchi Banryu (Jodo Shin), and Hirai Kinzo (a Japanese lay Buddhist). Days after the Parliament, in a ceremony conducted by Anagarika Dharmapala, Charles T. Strauss of New York City became the first person to be ordained into the Buddhist Sangha on American soil.

1894 CE The Gospel of Buddha

This influential book, published by Paul Carus, brought a selection of Buddhist texts together in readable fashion for a popular audience. It had been through 13 editions by 1910.

1898 CE Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in San Francisco

The Rev. Dr. Shuya Sonoda and the Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima arrived in San Francisco, as missionaries of Jodo Shinshu. The Young Men’s Buddhist Association (Bukkyo Seinenkai), the first Japanese Buddhist organization on the U.S. mainland, was then founded in 1899 under their guidance. The following years saw temples established in Sacramento (1899), Fresno (1900), Seattle (1901), Oakland (1901), San Jose (1902), Portland (1903), and Stockton (1906). This organization, initially called the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Mission of North America, went on to become the Buddhist Churches of America, today the largest Buddhist organization serving Japanese-Americans.

1900 CE First Non-Asian Buddhist Association

A group of Euro-Americans attracted to the Buddhist teachings of the Jodo Shinshu organized the Dharma Sangha of the Buddha, in San Francisco.

1906 CE Separate Education for Asians in California

The California State Board of Education enacted legislation calling for “separate but equal” public schools for Asians and Asian Americans.

1915 CE World Buddhist Conference

Buddhists from throughout the world gathered in San Francisco, from August 2 to 8, at a meeting convened by the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Mission of North America. Resolutions from the conference were taken to President Woodrow Wilson.

1927 CE Soto Zen Mission in Los Angeles

The Soto Zen Mission of Los Angeles, called Zenshuji, was established as the headquarters of the North American Soto Zen Buddhist order, to serve Japanese Americans and others in Los Angeles interested in Zen meditation.

1931 CE Zen in New York

The Buddhist Society of America was incorporated in New York under the guidance of Rinzai Zen teacher Sokei-an. Sokei-an had first come to the U.S. from 1906 to 1910 to study with Shokatsu Shaku, in California. He completed his training in Japan where he was ordained in 1931. Sokei-an died of poor health in 1945, after having spent two years in a Japanese internment camp from 1942-1943. The center he established in New York City would evolve into the First Zen Institute of America.

1932 CE The Buddhist Bible

Dwight Goddard, who studied Buddhist meditation practice in both China and Japan, tried to establish an American monastic community dedicated to practice in Thetford, Vermont. It was not a success, but Goddard’s anthology of Buddhist sources, The Buddhist Bible, made an enduring contribution to Americans’ understanding of Buddhism.

1935 CE Relics of the Buddha to San Francisco

A portion of the Buddha’s relics was presented to Bishop Masuyama of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Mission of North America, based in San Francisco. This led to the construction of a new building which had a stupa on its roof for the holy relics– the Buddhist Church of San Francisco on Pine Street, completed in 1938.

1942 CE Internment of Japanese Americans

Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which eventually removed 120,000 Japanese Americans, both citizens and noncitizens, to internment camps where they remained until the end of World War II. Buddhist priests and other community leaders were among the first to be targeted and evacuated. Zen teachers Sokei-an and Nyogen Senzaki were interned. Buddhist organizations continued to serve the internees in the camps.

1944 CE Buddhist Churches of America Incorporates

At a meeting in the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, the national organization of Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, known as the Buddhist Mission of North America, formally incorporated under the new name Buddhist Churches of America. Today there are some 60 temples and a membership of about 19,000.

1944 CE Buddhist Temple of Chicago

The Buddhist Temple of Chicago was established as a nonsectarian temple in the Mahayana tradition by Rev. Gyomay M. Kobose. He would later found the Chicago-based American Buddhist Association, the first nonsectarian religious organization of American Buddhists, in 1955.

1949 CE Buddhist Studies Center in Berkeley

The Buddhist Studies Center was established in Berkeley, California, under the auspices of the Buddhist Churches of America. In 1966, the center changed its name to the Institute of Buddhist Studies. It is active today in training clergy for the Buddhist Churches of America.

1950 CE D.T. Suzuki in New York

D.T. Suzuki first came to the United States in 1897, spending the next fourteen years translating Taoist and Buddhist works and writing introductory texts to Mahayana philosophy and history. After returning to Japan in 1911, he and his wife, the American theosophist Beatrice Erskine Lane, founded the English-language journal, The Eastern Buddhist, in 1921. He returned to the United States in 1949, teaching at the University of Hawaii and then Claremont Graduate School. A year later he gained a position at Columbia University. Suzuki’s writings and seminars led to Zen’s popularity in the late 1950s, mediated in part through such Beat Buddhists as Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder.

1955 CE Beat Zen

The first public reading of the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg at the Six Gallery in San Francisco is said to have signalled the beginning of the Beat Zen movement.

1957 CE Cambridge Buddhist Association

The Cambridge Buddhist Association was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a non-sectarian meditation and study center. Since its founding it has had a number of directors from different lineages, including Hisamatsu Shinichi (Rinzai Zen), Masatoshi Nagatomi (Jodo Shinshu), Maurine Stuart (Rinzai Zen), and George Bowman (Korean Chogye).

1957 CE Zen Boom

In the late 1950s, several popular books on Buddhism were published, including Alan Watt’s bestseller The Way of Zen and Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

1959 CE Sino-American Buddhist Association

The Sino-American Buddhist Association was established under the direction of Ch’an Master Hsuan Hua from Hong Kong. In 1976, it evolved into the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association with headquarters at the City of 10,000 Buddhas in Talmage, California. Today the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association has temples in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Maryland, Vancouver, and Calgary.

1960 CE Soka Gakkai in the U.S.

Daisaku Ikeda (President of Soka Gakkai) visited the United States. By 1992, Soka Gakkai International–USA estimated that it had 150,000 American members.

1962 CE San Francisco Zen Center

The San Francisco Zen Center was established for the practice of Soto Zen Buddhism under the direction of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, whose book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is a classic introduction to Zen meditation.

1962 CE Joshu Sasaki-roshi in Los Angeles

Sasaki-roshi, one of America’s foremost Zen masters, first taught in a garage and then later in a dentist’s office before establishing the Cimarron Zen Center in South Central Los Angeles, in 1968. In 2012, allegations emerged that described Sasaki-roshi’s continuous sexual misconduct stretching back over twenty years.

1964 CE Buddhist Association of the United States

The largest Chinese Buddhist group in the New York area established headquarters in the Bronx. In 1981, under the inspiration of one of its leading teachers, Dr. Chia Theng Shen, the Association also built a substantial rural monastic center, the Chuang Yen Monastery, in Kent, New York.

1965 CE Immigration and Nationality Act

This act ended the quota system, enacted in 1924, which had virtually halted immigration from Asia to the United States for over forty years. Following 1965, growing numbers of Asian immigrants from South, Southeast, and East Asia settled in America; many brought Buddhist traditions with them.

1966 CE Thich Nhat Hanh to America

In the midst of the Vietnam conflict, Vietnamese monks in Saigon immolated themselves–an act the entire world witnessed through press coverage. Secretary of State Henry Cabot Lodge then met with Vietnamese and Japanese Buddhist leaders, and the State Department established an Office of Buddhist Affairs headed by Claremont College Professor Richard Gard. While Americans were reacting to the monks’ acts of self-immolation, another Vietnamese monk, named Thich Nhat Hanh, came to the United States to speak about the conflict. His visit, coupled with the publication in English of his book, Lotus in a Sea of Fire, so impressed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

1966 CE First Buddhist Monastery in Washington D.C.

The Washington Buddhist Vihara, established in Washington, D.C., as a missionary center with the support of the Sri Lankan government, was the first Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in America. The Ven. Bope Vinita Thera brought an image and a relic of the Buddha to the nation’s capital in 1965. The following year, the Vihara was incorporated and, in 1968, it moved to its present location on 16th Street, NW.

1966 CE First Buddhist Seminary in Berkeley

The Buddhist Studies Center in Berkeley, founded in 1949, changed its name to the Institute of Buddhist Studies and became the first seminary for Buddhist ministry and research under the auspices of the Buddhist Churches of America. It affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union in 1985, and currently offers three degrees, a Master of Jodo Shinshu Studies, a Master of Buddhist Studies, and a PhD in Cultural and Historical Studies of Religion with a focus in Buddhist Studies.

1967 CE Zen Center of Los Angeles

The Center was established under the direction of Taizan Maezumi-roshi. Some of those trained at ZCLA would be among the first American-born cohort of roshis:  Bernard Tetsugen Glassman (Yonkers), Jan Chozen Bays (Portland), and John Daido Loori (Mt. Tremper, New York).

1969 CE Tibetan Center in Berkeley

Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan monk educated at Banaras Hindu University in India, came to Berkeley and within a few years established the Nyingma Meditation Center, the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the U.S.

1970 CE Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to America.

This Oxford-educated Tibetan teacher brought the Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist lineage to the U.S. He first taught at Tail of the Tiger (now Karme-Choling), a center on a farm his students purchased in Barnet, Vermont. In 1971, he established Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado. In 1973, he founded Vajradhatu, an organization consolidating many Dharmadhatu centers. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, a classic introduction to Trungpa’s form of Tibetan Buddhism, was published in 1973.

1970 CE International Buddhist Meditation Center

IBMC was established by Ven. Dr. Thich Thien-An, a Vietnamese Zen Master, in Los Angeles. The College of Buddhist Studies is also located on the grounds of the Center, which is currently under the direction of Thien-An’s student, Ven. Karuna Dharma.

1972 CE Korean Zen Master to Rhode Island

Zen Master Seung Sahn came to the United States with little money and little knowledge of English. He rented an apartment in Providence and worked as a washing machine repairman. A note on his door said simply, “What am I?” and announced meditation classes. Thus began the Providence Zen Center, followed soon by Korean Zen Centers in Cambridge, New Haven, New York, and Berkeley, all part of the Kwan Um School of Zen.

1972 CE Wat Thai in Los Angeles

Land for a temple was purchased on Cold Water Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood, opening rites were performed, and monks began living in a residence on the property in 1972. The main hall of Wat Thai, the first Thai Buddhist temple in America, was completed and consecrated in 1979.

1974 CE Buddhist Chaplain in California

The California State Senate appointed Rev. Shoko Masunaga as its first Buddhist and first Asian-American chaplain.

1974 CE First Buddhist Liberal Arts College

Naropa Institute was founded in Boulder, Colorado, as a Buddhist-inspired, but non-sectarian liberal arts college, which aimed to combine contemplative studies with traditional Western scholastic and artistic disciplines. The accredited college now offers courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in Buddhist studies, contemplative psychotherapy, environmental studies, poetics, and dance.

1974 CE Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig’s novel popularized the image and teaching of Zen in the American literary imagination.

1974 CE Redress for Internment of Japanese Americans

Rep. Phillip Burton of California addressed the U.S. House of Representatives on the topic “Seventy-five Years of American Buddhism” as part of an ongoing debate surrounding redress for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

1975 CE The Fall of Saigon and the Arrival of Vietnamese Refugees

About 130,000 Vietnamese refugees, many of them Buddhists, came to the U.S. in 1975 alone. By 1985 there were 643,200 Vietnamese in the U.S.  Dr. Thich Thien-an, a Vietnamese monk and scholar already in Los Angeles, began the Chua Vietnam in 1976. It was the first Vietnamese Buddhist temple in America and is still thriving on Berendo Street, not far from central Los Angeles.

1975 CE Laotian, Hmong and Mien Refugees Arrive from Laos

With the end of the war in Vietnam some 70,000 Laotian, 60,000 Hmong, and 10,000 Mien people arrived in the U.S. as refugees bringing their religious traditions, including Buddhism, with them.

1975 CE Insight Meditation Society in Rural New England

IMS was established in a former Catholic monastic center in Barre, Massachusetts, under the guidance of Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Christina Feldman for the intensive practice of vipassana meditation.

1976 CE Council of Thai Bhikkhus

The Council, a nonprofit corporation based in Denver, Colorado, became the leading nationwide network for Thai Buddhism.

1976 CE City of 10,000 Buddhas

Established in Talmage, California, by the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association as the first Chinese Buddhist monastery for both monks and nuns, the City of 10,000 Buddhas consists of sixty buildings, including elementary and secondary schools and a university, on a 237-acre site.

1976 CE First Rinzai Zen Monastery

On July 4, Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji, America’s first Rinzai Zen monastery, was established in Lew Beach, New York, under the direction of Eido Tai Shimano-roshi.

1979 CE Cambodian Refugees Come to the U.S.

Four years of the “Killing Fields” under the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ended with the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam. Refugees poured across the border into Thailand. Between 1979 and 1989, 180,000 Cambodian refugees were relocated in the United States. In 1979, the Cambodian Buddhist Society was established in Silver Spring, Maryland, as the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in America. The nearly 40,000 Cambodian residents of Long Beach, California, purchased the former headquarters of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and converted the huge building into a temple complex.

1980 CE First Burmese Temple

Dhammodaya Monastery, the first Burmese Buddhist temple in America, was established in Los Angeles.

1980 CE Buddhist Sangha Council

The Buddhist Sangha Council of Los Angeles (later of Southern California) was established under the leadership of the Ven. Havanpola Ratanasara. It was one of the first cross-cultural, inter-Buddhist organizations, bringing together monks and other leaders from the entire range of Buddhist traditions.

1981 CE A History of Buddhism in America

The first edition of Rick Field’s How the Swans Came to the Lake:  A Narrative History of Buddhism in America was published. It became the classic history of Buddhism in America.

1983 CE Kwan Um School of Zen

The Kwan Um School of Zen was formed as an umbrella organization to facilitate the teaching, communications, and administrative needs of the many Korean Zen centers founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn. Ground was broken for the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery, in Rhode Island, the first Korean-style monastery in the United States.

1985 CE First Laotian Temple

Though it had been operating unofficially since 1979, Wat Lao Phouthavong, the first Laotian temple in America, was legally incorporated in Catlett, Virginia.

1986 CE Buddhist Astronaut on Challenger

Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka, a Hawaiian-born, Jodo Shinshu Buddhist was killed 73 seconds after take off in the space shuttle Challenger. He was the first Asian-American to reach space.

1987 CE Conference on World Buddhism in North America

For ten days in July, Buddhists from all the Buddhist lineages in North America came together in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a conference intended to initiate dialogue among them and further mutual understanding and cooperation.

1987 CE Buddhists Get Organized

The Buddhist Council of the Midwest gathered twelve Chicago-area lineages of Buddhism, including traditions from five Theravada countries, four Mahayana countries, Tibet and the United States. In Los Angeles, the American Buddhist Congress was created, with 47 Buddhist organizations attending its inaugural convention as a national ecumenical Buddhist organization. And this same year, the Sri Lanka Sangha Council of North America was established in Los Angeles to be the national network for Sri Lankan Buddhism.

1987 CE Buddhist Books Gain Wider Audience

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield published what became a classic book on vipassana meditation–Seeking the Heart of Wisdom:  The Path of Insight Meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh, who was residing at Plum Village in France and visiting the United States annually, published Being Peace, a classic treatment of “engaged Buddhism”–Buddhism that is concerned with social and ecological issues.

1988 CE Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights

Construction of Hsi Lai Temple, a Chinese Pure Land Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, California, was completed. The center of Fo Kuang Buddhism in the United States, the temple cost more than $30 million, occupies 14 acres of land, and was begun in 1967. It is the largest Buddhist temple in the western hemisphere.

1990 CE Trungpa’s Vajra Regent Dies

Tom Rich, who had been empowered as Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin in 1976, died. In 1989, he had revealed that he had AIDS and had not informed his partners. Controversy shook the movement.

1991 CE Tibetan Resettlement in the United States

The National Office of the Tibetan Resettlement Project was established in New York after the United States Congress granted 1,000 special visas for Tibetans, all of them Buddhists. Two years later the Tibetan Community Assistance Program, designed to assist Tibetans resettling in the United States, was opened in New York. Cluster groups of Tibetan refugees have established their own small temples and have begun to encounter Euro-American practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism.

1991 CE Tricycle: the Buddhist Review

The first issue of Tricycle:  the Buddhist Review, a non-sectarian national Buddhist magazine was published. The journal features articles by prominent Buddhist teachers and writers as well as pieces on Buddhism and American culture at large.

1991 CE Thai Buddhists Slain in Arizona

On August 9, six Thai monks, a nun, and two novice monks were slain at Wat Promkunaram, a Thai temple and monastic complex outside Phoenix, Arizona.

1991 CE Dalai Lama in Madison Square Garden

For more than a week in October, the Dalai Lama gave the “Path of Compassion” teachings and conferred the Kalachakra Initiation in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

1992 CE Korean Zen Transmission

At the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, Rhode Island, Zen Master Seung Sahn gave formal Dharma transmission to three American-born students, Barbara Rhodes, George Bowman, and Mu Deung Sunim, who became full Zen masters.

1993 CE Centennial of the World’s Parliament of Religions

There were many prominent Buddhist speakers at the Centennial of the Parliament in Chicago, among them Thich Nhat Hanh, Master Seung Sahn, the Ven. Mahaghosananda, and the Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara. The Dalai Lama gave the closing address. Buddhist co-sponsors of the event included the American Buddhist Congress, Buddhist Churches of America, Buddhist Council of the Midwest, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Buddhist Society of Compassionate Wisdom, Chicago Dharmadhatu, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Rissho Kosei-kai, Kwan Um School of Zen, Maha Bodhi Society, World Fellowship of Buddhists, Wat Dhammaram, Wat Thai of Washington, D.C., Won Buddhism of America.

1995 CE Buddhist Temple Construction Surges

The Vietnamese community dedicated a new Buddha Hall in Roslindale, Massachusetts. The Thai community is building new temples in Dade County, Florida; Kew Gardens, New York; and Fremont, California. Throughout the country immigrant and American-born Buddhist communities are growing and building.

2003 CE United Celebrations for the Buddha’s birthday in Boston

Over fifty Buddhist groups came together in downtown Boston  to celebrate Vesak, recognizing the 2547th birthday of the Buddha, and celebrating his Enlightenment and his entering into Nirvana. Until this occasion, the Buddhist communities and organizations in Boston, as throughout the United States, had ordinarily held such celebrations independently.

2006 CE American Monk Named First U.S. Representative to World Buddhist Supreme Conference

Venerable Bhante Vimalaramsi (Sayadaw Gyi U Vimalaramsi Maha Thera) was nominated and confirmed as the first representative from the United States for the World Buddhist Supreme Conference, which is held every two years and includes representatives from fifty countries.

2007 CE First Buddhist Congresswoman Sworn In

Rep. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, was the first Buddhist to be sworn into Congress.