Times, Tuesday, February 18, 1997
Buddhism Takes On a Uniquely American Form as Asian Youths and Westerners
Look to the East for Meaning;
TIMES STAFF WRITER
the Student Union Building of Cal Poly Pomona, over a lunch of Gummi
Bears and sodapop, the members of the Buddhist Assn. are gathered
to learn about the religious traditions of their parents and grandparents.
say it is one part of the family heritage their relatives all but
left behind in China, Vietnam or other countries where Buddhism has
six students, all of them Asian American and all of them men, although
women would be welcome, want to know everything about their spiritual
roots. Since this is America, however, they are learning from experts
quite unlike those who taught their elders. Their teachers are likely
to be as American as a Diet Coke.
the students' guest is the Rev.
Kusala of the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles.
Born in Iowa, raised Lutheran, 47 years old, he wears the brown robes
and shaved head of a Vietnamese monk. He was ordained 12 years ago
at the same time that he graduated from the College of Buddhist Studies
in Los Angeles. Kusala represents the growing number of Westerners
taking leadership roles and passing along a heritage that for centuries
was preserved by Asian monks and nuns.
maturing of Buddhism in this country is not the only recent development
for the religious tradition founded in 6th century India. As Buddhism
takes root here, increasingly it is a hybrid that combines traits
from the many varieties practiced in countries throughout Asia. In
the process, a distinctly American Buddhism is evolving with characteristics
all its own.
of Kusala's audience at Cal Poly say their parents are not as qualified
to teach them because they have lapsed or simply go through the motions
of their religion. Not unlike some Americans who were raised Christian
parents call themselves Buddhist, but they don't really practice,"
says Tony Lieu, 21, of West Covina. Born in Taiwan, he immigrated
to the West at age 8. Now he wants to go back to his religious roots.
"I practice on my own, by choice," he says.
Chiang, 27, of Rowland Heights was raised a Christian. "In ninth grade,
I visited my aunt in Korea, and she sent me to a monastery for two
weeks," he says. "That changed everything. Now, I want to stay true
to myself as a Buddhist."
true Buddhist, American style, is a disciple of a certain stripe.
This country's cultural diversity has made American Buddhism yet another
expression of the melting pot.
of Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Japanese and some Chinese Buddhism are
alive and well in Los Angeles," says Ken McLeod, raised Episcopalian,
now a Tibetan Buddhist who teaches meditation at his Culver City institute,
the Unfettered Mind.
the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Abbott Nyogen sits with legs crossed,
Buddha style, in a living room filled with Japanese furnishings and
photographs of Maezumi Roshi, a Japanese Zen priest who founded the
center in 1967.
60, was born William Yeo in Colorado and raised in the United Methodist
church. He started practicing Zen more than 30 years ago. From the
beginning, his teacher expected that his students' native culture
would affect their religious practice.
Roshi's whole goal was to allow an American form of Buddhism," he
Roshi's dream is coming true. This year, two Japanese-born monks,
one of them a woman, have come to the Zen Center to continue their
studies and practice with Nyogen.
religious institutions in America are like a mall," says Ananda Guruge,
who served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to America until 1994 and now
teaches Buddhist studies as a visiting professor at various American
universities. "People are looking for what they want, not necessarily
from just one Buddhist tradition. They shop around for what the different
traditions can provide."
Los Angeles, they don't have to look far.
who never knew one another in Asia are coming together in Los Angeles
in a rich diversity of immigrant Buddhist traditions," says Diana
Eck, a professor of religion at Harvard University who has completed
documentary films on several newly prevalent religious communities
in America as part of her "pluralism project."
Angeles wrote the book on Buddhism," she says. "It is radical for
these various cultures to come together as they do. The city represents
the whole range of Buddhist traditions: Vietnamese, Tibetan, Chinese,
Korean, Japanese and others.
is not unusual for a religious tradition to change when it enters
a new country," Eck continues. "In China, Buddhism was largely centered
in filial piety and the family. In Southeast Asia, it was largely
monastic. The difference is, in the United States we can see the changes
Tworkov, born Jewish, now Buddhist, is the editor of Tricycle, a magazine
about Buddhism published in New York City. She has been a close observer
of the changes, such as:
majority of American-born teachers are lay teachers. The minority
are monks or priests. "That is a significant difference," she says.
half of all American-born teachers of Buddhism are women. "It's a
reflection of American culture; it comes from the feminist movement
that started in the '60s and it's radically different from the situation
in Asia," she says.
emphasis is on practice, and meditation is central. "We wanted something
to do, not something to believe," Tworkov says. "In our own religious
traditions, Judaism, Christianity or another, we didn't have anything
to do. The meditative and contemplative practices of Christianity
and Judaism had been lost. That's what we were looking for."
doesn't surprise her that Americans imported Buddhism. "We already
had chopsticks and cars," she says of the '60s generation that was
particularly drawn to Buddhism. "But we didn't have a worldview. We
didn't have clarity about where we fit in relation to the rest of
society, the world, the cosmos. Buddhism teaches the interdependence
of all things. We had an intuitive sense that this was right."
also observes that American Buddhists are vigorous students of the
is taken for granted," she says. "Everything is investigated. It is
a completely different ethos than if you were growing up with Buddhism
in your family."
intensely American is the emphasis on social activism among Buddhists.
"In the West, we see how people can actually do things to improve
the world," Tworkov says. "We can pass laws and work toward creating
a more civilized, enlightened society. It's not up to divine intervention.
Asia has no great history of this approach."
part of his Buddhist practice, Kusala organized a prison ministry.
He teaches at the Juvenile Detention Center of Los Angeles County,
where he is building a program that includes study, meditation, tai
chi and yoga classes. He also works at the California State Prison
in Lancaster, where the inmates, all adult men, are currently most
interested in acquiring incense and prayer beads. "I finally realized
they want to form an identity. These symbols help them feel like Buddhists,"
is moving the inmates toward the next level of thinking: "Now that
I am a Buddhist, I need to relate to the world a certain way."
explains the essence of that way when a student at Cal Poly Pomona
asks what it means to be a Buddhist.
no suffering to yourself or others. And, as long as you are purifying
your mind, actions and speech, you are following a Buddhist path."