Editor’s note: This is the ninth of an 11-part series on Buddhism.
Today, America is home to practitioners of all three of Buddhism’s major groups (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana). While Buddhism remains strong in Southeast Asia, it has suffered in East Asia. In China, Mao’s Cultural Revolution destroyed many temples and drove Buddhism underground. Japan’s military losses in World War I and World War II led the Japanese to conclude that their religion had failed them. As a consequence, several “New Religions,” then “New New Religions” were created. Some observers have even claimed that the future of Buddhism lies in Europe and America.
With respect to America, it may be helpful to think of Buddhism as having arrived here in four waves. The first wave consisted of Chinese and Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii and the West coast beginning in the middle of the 19th century. They were laborers on the railroads and in agriculture. Their religion was Pure Land Buddhism, which adapted readily to the American religious scene by modeling itself after Christian churches. Adherents meet on Sundays, have Sunday schools for instruction, refer to themselves as “churches,” and have adopted and modified Christian songs. One well-known Christian children’s song, for example, says: “Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so.” American Pure Land Buddhist children sing: “Buddha loves me. This I know. For the Sutras tell me so.” Yet, Pure Land has made few inroads among other Americans and remains largely an ethnic religion.
The second wave, and the first to attract converts in significant numbers, was Zen, which came from China, Korea and especially Japan to become popular in the 1950s. Especially important was the arrival before World War II in America of D.T. Suzuki, who taught a version of Zen known as “new Rinzai,” which was self-consciously modified to appeal to Americans. It emphasized the importance of intuition as a universal feature of all human minds. He and other immigrant Zen teachers found willing converts here and established Zen centers in major cities and also in remote locations.
The heyday of Zen came after World War II, when it was taken up by disaffected Americans known as “Beatniks.” Novelists, poets and essayists like Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, Alan Watts and Gary Snyder popularized a version of Zen that expressed Beatnik values. So-called “Beat Zen,” however, was perhaps rather superficial and had little staying power. Zen itself persisted, however, and even produced women roshis (masters, teachers), including Charlotte Joko Beck in San Diego and Susan Postal, who became both the ordained rector of an Episcopal congregation and also the head of a Zen group.
The next wave occurred in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when, according to scholar Bradley Hawkins, American military personnel in Vietnam and Peace Corps volunteers in Southeast Asian countries grew interested in Theravada. Some Americans went to Asia to train under Theravada masters, from whom they received certification to teach. Returning to the States, these Americans began to offer instruction in the Theravada form of meditation.
The final wave began when Tibetans fleeing Tibet in the wake of the communist takeover in the 1950s came to the United States. Hawkins records that Geshe Wangal of the Gelugpa lineage established in New Jersey the first Vajrayana temple in America. Chogyam Trungpa of the Kagyu lineage established a center in Boulder, Colo., while Tarthang Tulku of the Nyingmapa lineage did the same in Berkeley, Calif.
Since then, however, the peripatetic Dalai Lama has become the most popular face of Tibetan Buddhism in the world, including the United States.
Nowadays, movie stars such as Richard Gere plead the case for liberating Tibet from Communist rule, and “Free Tibet” bumper stickers are common. Perhaps less well known is that more than a decade ago, the Dalai Lama came to Berea College at the invitation of former President John Stephenson. From that time forward, young Tibetan monks have continued to come to Berea to study. The Dalai Lama will visit Louisville for three days this coming spring.
Another factor in the spread of Buddhism (and other religions) in America was the court ruling in the mid-1960s that permitted the scholarly teaching of religion in state universities. As a result, college students across the U.S. can choose elective courses in which they are introduced to the major religions of the world. This fact may well have contributed to the establishment of Buddhist centers across the country.
In Kentucky, for example, Soka Gakkai (a lay Buddhist organization), Zen, and Vajrayana (Shambala) have Lexington and/or Louisville centers. At Furnace Mountain in Powell County stands a beautiful Korean-style Buddhist temple as part of a Zen retreat center.
Finally, there are an undetermined number of so-called “nightstand Buddhists.” They are people who have not taken the triple refuge (a pledge to rely on the Buddha, his teaching, and the Buddhist community), which officially commits one to Buddhism. Instead, they are people who occasionally may attend weekend meditation retreats, practice meditation privately, or keep a few books on Buddhism around the house.
Milton Scarborough is emeritus professor of philosophy and religion at Centre College.