& ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY
___The Tensions in American Buddhism___
ALICE WILLIAMS: Buddhism is the world's fourth largest religion,
founded about 2500 years ago in India. The Buddha taught that
life is suffering and the way to overcome that is to get rid
of attachments. Widely practiced across Asia, Buddhism has attracted
many converts in this country. They are developing forms of
Buddhist practice that are often very different from the practices
of Asian-Americans. Some observers believe there is a growing
ethnic divide in American Buddhism. Correspondent Kim Lawton
has our cover story.
LAWTON: In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Pat Phelan is being
installed as abbess, head of the Red Cedar Zen Temple. She has
taken the name Taitaku Josho to demonstrate her acceptance of
Buddhist precepts. She is being elevated to her new position
in a symbolic "Mountain Seat ceremony," attended by
the Zen Center's members. Like Phelan, all of the Center's members
are converts to the Buddhist tradition and its sometimes puzzling
few miles across town there's another Buddhist temple, which
people often mistake for a Chinese restaurant. Here Vietnamese
Buddhists gather to worship in what's known as the "Pure
Land" Buddhist tradition. Some members of this sangha,
or worship community, have been in the U.S. for more than 20
years; others have arrived more recently.
two Buddhist centers are in the same Bible Belt community, but
virtually separate, largely unaware of each other. That's a
situation increasingly common as Buddhism takes hold across
America. The forms of practice are diverse, with numerous traditions.
But many believe the biggest divide may be an ethnic one.
CLAUDE D'ESTRÉE (Chaplain, George Mason University):
There is an Asian Buddhist community, and there is a Western
American Buddhist community, and they don't often mix.
RYO IMAMURA (Buddhist Priest and Professor, Evergreen State
College): I think we co-exist peacefully, probably not interacting
a whole lot.
TWORKOV (TRICYCLE magazine):
There's definitely some divides, and I think we could call it
a racial divide. I do not think it's a racist divide.
Buddhism has always traced a wide cultural path. From its beginnings
-- 2,500 years ago -- in the Himalayan Mountains to its spread
across Asia, Buddhism has adapted to and ultimately shaped each
culture it has encountered.
first came to the United States more than 150 years ago with
the arrival of Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Even in those
days, there was interest from non-Asians.
STEPHEN PROTHERO (Associate Professor, Religion, Boston University):
There was a sort of Buddhist boom in the late-19th century,
and there was a second one that began in the '50s with the Beat
generation and those kinds of people.
In the '60s and '70s that boom became a virtual explosion of
non-Asian conversions, among them a relatively large number
of Jews. Many of those converts now lead their own Buddhist
communities, also mostly non-Asian converts.
figures are difficult to come by. Experts say there are between
three and four million Buddhists in the United States today.
About 75% of them are of Asian heritage. But despite their numbers,
many Asian Americans say they don't feel sufficiently acknowledged
in this country's Buddhist landscape.
and the media have perpetuated the impression that the American
Buddhist community consists of mostly-white practitioners who
follow charismatic Asian leaders such as Thich Nah Hahn or the
I think when the term "American Buddhism" is used,
most Asian-American Buddhists feel outside of the dialogue.
Ryo Imamura is an 18th-generation Buddhist priest and a third
generation Asian American. His grandfather ministered to the
Buddhist community in the early-20th century in Hawaii, and
in the '40s and '50s, Imamura's parents began a Buddhist Study
Center in Berkeley, California. The Center attracted some non-Asians.
Imamura says those times have largely disappeared. He says while
Asian teachers may have started Buddhist groups here, white
converts now lead them.
Racism has to play a role because of the times. I think most
Caucasian Americans have not interacted with Asians, certainly
not in ways that put Asians in more authoritative roles, or
roles of respect. And I don't know if you want to characterize
this as racist, but I think they are much more comfortable looking
up to a white, male authority figure, or maybe a female one.
Many say there are clear reasons that Buddhist groups tend to
divide along racial lines. In addition to obvious language barriers,
there are differences in practice. Most convert Buddhists focus
on meditation. Their communities tend to be more lay oriented,
with more women in positions of leadership. For some converts,
Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion.
Asian Americans, the temple has more congregational importance,
playing a key religious, social, and cultural role in the community.
In a sense, we have two different agendas or maybe cultural
agendas. The Asian tradition is based on something they have
grown up with and has more ritual aspects. Coming to a service
on Sunday is like coming to church anywhere else. Western Buddhists
tend to be more interested in learning how to meditate and Buddhist
philosophy. So there is somewhat of a clash of cultures.
Cultural divides also exist within Asian-American communities,
with little interaction across those ethnic lines either.
TWORKOV: In some cases, you have communities of these people.
I mean they really came out of the killing fields. They came
to this country traumatized by the wars in Southeast Asia. Their
needs are not only very different [from the] needs of white
middle-class Americans, they're very different from the needs
of very well educated middle-class Japanese Americans.
Tworkov's magazine, TRICYCLE, focuses on the needs of the diverse
By nature, the immigrant relationship to religion is conservative.
You want to conserve your culture, your values, your heritage,
your language. And that is done primarily through the church,
the temple, the religious value system. We came along in the
'60s and we wanted to transform everything, so everything was
about, really it was like an opposite direction.
Experts say ethnic divides aren't unique to Buddhism.
PROTHERO: It needs to be admitted that this is the normal
course of things in American religion. We have had a history
of Lutheran groups in the U.S. who are Finnish or who are German,
who don't particularly interact with one another. [The same
can be said about] the Orthodox, Russian Orthodox Christians,
and the Orthodox from Greece, for example, the Greek Orthodox.
But Prothero admits with Buddhism the definitions are more fluid,
leading some to wonder whether all the differing strands can
still be kept under one umbrella.
PROTHERO: There is no central authority in Buddhism. There
is no Buddhist pope, as much as some like to position the Dalai
Lama as the sort of pope-designate for the American scene. There
isn't anyone who can excommunicate you if you have a goofy idea
of what Buddhism is all about, or if you try to define Buddhism
in a way that is unorthodox.
Some Buddhist leaders believe all of American Buddhism would
be enriched by more dialogue and interaction.
TanakaKEN TANAKA (Co-editor, THE FACES OF BUDDHISM IN AMERICA):
I certainly feel an excitement in the fact that you do have
virtually all the Buddhist groups represented here. And not
only for a conference, but living in a same community. Given
that, it is always going to be a minority religion, that there
ought to be much more interaction, mutual support,... to survive
for one thing.
But others on both sides of the divide say that shouldn't be
rushed or forced.
TWORKOV: There's a lot of concern about bringing the groups
together. But frankly my own view is it's always coming from
a place of being politically correct, and there's not necessarily
a good reason for it. There's no reason why people should not
be developing their own kinds of practice and their own forms
of practice and working according to their own needs.
I think because of the realities of our society, our diverse
society, and the need of we, who are called racial minorities
or ethnic minorities, to maintain our identity and our pride
in our communities, I think we need that racial divide in a
Many say the fact that this is even an issue at all shows the
extent to which Buddhism has taken root and is maturing here
Kim Lawton reporting.
FACES OF BUDDHISM IN AMERICA
edited by Charles Prebish and Kenneth Tanaka
PASSAGE: THE PRACTICE AND STUDY OF BUDDHISM IN AMERICA
by Charles Prebish
IN AMERICA: FIVE TEACHERS AND THE SEARCH FOR AMERICAN BUDDHISM
by Helen Tworkov and Natalie Goldberg
COMPLETE GUIDE TO BUDDHIST AMERICA
edited by Don Morreale et al.
AMERICA: CENTERS, RETREATS, AND PRACTICES
edited by Don Morreale
THE SWANS CAME TO THE LAKE: A NARRATIVE HISTORY OF BUDDHISM
by Rick Fields
STORY OF BUDDHISM: A CONCISE GUIDE TO ITS HISTORY AND TEACHINGS
by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
WHITE BUDDHIST: THE ASIAN ODYSSEY OF HENRY STEEL OLCOTT
by Stephen Prothero
AMERICAN ENCOUNTER WITH BUDDHISM
by Thomas A. Tweed
RELIGIONS IN AMERICA: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY
edited by Thomas A. Tweed and Stephen Prothero
WITHOUT BELIEFS: A CONTEMPORARY GUIDE TO AWAKENING
by Stephen Batchelor
by Richard Hughes Seager
BUDDHISM IN THE WEST
edited by Christopher Queen
SPIRITUALITY IN AMERICA: SELECTED WRITINGS
edited by Robert Ellwood
THE WHEEL: AMERICAN WOMEN CREATING NEW BUDDHISM
by Sandy Boucher
BUDDHA FROM BROOKLYN
by Martha Sherrill
by Karen Armstrong
WISDOM IN THE NEW WORLD: AMERICANIZATION IN TWO IMMIGRANT THERAVADA
by Paul D. Numrich
PETALS OF THE LOTUS
by Janet McLellan
NEW BUDDHISM: THE WESTERN TRANSFORMATION OF AN ANCIENT TRADITION
by James Coleman
BUDDHISM: METHODS AND FINDINGS IN RECENT SCHOLARSHIP
edited by Duncan Ryuken Williams and Christopher Queen
GAKKAI IN AMERICA: ACCOMMODATION AND CONVERSION
by Phillip Hammond and David Machacek