In an auspicious moment for American Buddhism, the 38-year-old World Fellowship of Buddhists will meet for the first time outside of Asia--convening today on a hillside in Hacienda Heights at the $25-million Hsi Lai Temple.
Delegates from Asia may feel at home in the magnificent complex patterned after and financed mainly by Taiwan’s Fo Kuang Shan temple.
But they may have trouble otherwise recognizing the transplanted, 2,500-year-old religion in its Americanized version.
Ethnic and sectarian rivalries are being put aside for cooperative efforts such as the nine-nationality Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, headed by the Venerable Havanpola Ratanasara, a leading exponent for a “united Buddhism in America.”
American-born converts are increasingly accepted in leadership ranks. A notable example is the Venerable Karuna Dharma, a Caucasian woman who only two decades ago taught high school in Downey. She studied under a Vietnamese master and now directs Los Angeles’ International Buddhist Meditation Center.
Women monks, rarely prominent in Asia even where permitted, are credited with pushing through the temple project in Hacienda Heights. Despite strong initial neighborhood objections and escalating costs, nearly a dozen female monks led by the Venerable Hsin Kuang, the abbess, and the Rev. I Han, the project director, are being praised for completing what many call the largest and finest Buddhist monastery to rise on U.S. soil.
Asians have lately looked with hope to the growing Western interest in Buddhism--both in North America and Europe--because of the religion’s decline in Marxist-ruled countries and in population centers affected by Western modernity.
Yet, undeniably, the pace of new visibility and innovation in the United States has been startling for a religion in which patience is a virtue in meditation, chanting and acquiring inner wisdom and compassion. In the last two years alone:
The U.S. Defense Department announced that it will allow Buddhist chaplains to serve in the U.S. armed forces--a first time for a religious body other than Christianity or Judaism. The right to certify military chaplains was granted to the Japanese-heritage Buddhist Churches of America, which this fall made the first appointment--the Rev. Hiroshi Abiko of Palo Alto as a part-time chaplain at a large Veterans Administration hospital.
An ongoing Buddhist-Christian dialogue, popular among religious intellectuals, attracted more than 600 people to Berkeley last year, including ex-California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., a self-described “mellowed Roman Catholic” who has intermittently studied with Buddhist teachers. The dialogue has involved Catholic theologians Hans Kung and Rosemary Ruether and Protestant thinker John Cobb of Claremont.
* To enhance Buddhism’s presence nationally and further propagate its teachings, the American Buddhist Congress was officially organized last November. It now has about 60 member organizations among a wide range of ethnic and sectarian groups. Two key leaders are Los Angeles’ Ratanasara and the Rev. Karl Springer, an American-born practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism.
* In a bold step taken in Los Angeles by Ratanasara and colleagues, Dhammamitta, a Thai woman following the Theravadan Buddhist tradition (practiced principally in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia) was ordained May 29 in a rite that started her on a one- or two-year path toward ordination as a bikkhuni (female monk). The order of fully ordained bikkhunis had been maintained through the centuries in the Mahayana Buddhist countries ranging from Japan to the north and Vietnam to the south, but in Theravadan circles the practice of ordaining women inexplicably died out several centuries ago. Theravadans, often the conservative traditionalists of Buddhism, have been reluctant to reinstate the order.
Calls for Fresh Look
“The state of women in Buddhism must be viewed afresh,” said Ratanasara, 68, a Sri Lankan native who became a U.S. citizen last summer. Having sought and gained the blessings and participation of many Thai and fellow Sri Lankan monks living in this country, Ratanasara said it was decided that since the Buddha himself approved of ordaining women, it could be done again.
Despite some objections raised in Sri Lanka, Ratanasara said he did not expect that the action would be an issue at the conference of the World Fellowship, which is a non-legislative body bearing no doctrinal authority.
With its stated purpose of fostering harmony among world Buddhists and peace in the world, the fellowship has emphasized that “Buddhism remains unique in that it does not attempt to eliminate plurality and diversity . . . whereby one ideology is imposed on another.”
That kind of spiritual freedom has helped make Buddhism popular with native-born Americans unsatisfied with their Christian or Jewish heritages.
But just how many American Buddhists there are is undetermined, in the absence of any systematic surveys. At its inception a year ago, American Buddhist Congress leaders estimated between 3 million and 5 million adherents, but some guesses put the total at less than 2 million. (By comparison, U.S. Jews number 5.9 million and Episcopalians total 2.5 million.)
Evidence of Rapid Growth
“Buddhist America,” a book of essays and directories published this fall, describes more than 425 U.S. and Canadian Buddhist centers that teach or promote meditation. While not venturing an estimate on numbers of practitioners, Don Morreale, the editor, exulted over evidence of rapid growth:
“Twenty years ago when I first went in search of a Zen master, there was only a handful of centers, concentrated in the bigger cities on each coast. To my knowledge, there were none in Colorado. Today there are more than 20 in (Colorado) alone, and on beginners’ nights and at introductory workshops they are packed.”
Sitting groups, lamas, monks and lay teachers now can be found in “the most unlikely places,” Morreale said--Kearney, Neb.; Eureka Springs, Ark.; Des Moines, Iowa; Reno, Nev., and Nashville, Tenn., for example.
In the view of Ninian Smart, an authority on world religions at UC Santa Barbara, “Buddhism is undoubtedly the most successful of the Asian religions among non-Asians in the West.”
Even if its numbers, once compiled, are found to be relatively small, “I feel it has a solid base and has a strong future,” Smart said.
Paradoxically, Buddhism appears to attract both the most undiscriminating New Age spiritual explorer and the most skeptical intellectuals. Aside from myths and superstitions ingrained in the religion, many Buddhists speak matter-of-factly about “energy” emanating from accomplished masters while they are alive and the reputededly long delay in their bodies’ deterioration when they die. Many practitioners, however, appear to be selective in their beliefs.
“I like the idea that you can be a Buddhist and still participate 100% in the 20th Century,” said Francis Cook, who recently retired from the religion faculty at UC Riverside. Skeptical of many supernatural claims in Buddhism as well as the theistic (God) claims of Christianity, Cook said he has been a practicing Buddhist for nearly 30 years because, among other things, “it has a world view to help make sense out of experience.”
For some psychologists, Buddhist theories of the mind have offered possibilities for therapeutic applications, Daniel Goleman wrote in Psychology Today several years ago. The Buddhist idea of no “self,” that a person has no ongoing identity, “presents a direct challenge to Western psychology’s notion of the ego,” Goleman said.
“The most widespread form of Buddhist meditation, called ‘mindfulness,’ requires that meditators witness their stream of awareness with an even attentiveness. . . . (In so doing,) a person can see his or her own experience as a set of impersonal processes which comprise the sense of self,” Goleman wrote.
The core teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha (563-483 B.C.) say that craving leads to suffering, and that by understanding unhealthy desires, the one who seeks wisdom of this sort will strive for dispassion (toward such wants) and compassion (for others who suffer).
Actions Affect Status
With Hinduism and other Eastern religions, Buddhism shares the concepts, with modifications, that good or bad actions (karma) affect one’s status in future rebirths.
When Buddhist practice and ideas took root in America, it was usually planted during waves of Asian immigration and spurts of Westerner fascination with Eastern spiritual ideas.
In the late 1800s, Chinese and Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and the West Coast brought Pure Land Buddhism, which prays in gratitude to Amitabha (or Amida) Buddha, who provides unlimited merit in Paradise for those who believe in him. Buddhism holds that there have been and will be thousands of Buddhas (the “awakened ones”) throughout time.
The Japanese Pure Land (Jodo) Buddhists in America, as in their homeland, shunned a monastic order and established lay congregations led by ministers. Resembling Christian churches more than any other Buddhist groups, Jodo Shinshu Buddhists for a time before World War II were even singing (to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me”): “Buddha loves me, this I know, for the sutras tell me so,” a reference to one set of Buddhist scriptures.
After Pearl Harbor, all Japanese Buddhist temples in Southern California were closed when the U.S. government evacuated Americans of Japanese heritage into detention camps.
Buddhist minister Julius A. Goldwater, among the first of many Jewish-born Americans who would adopt Buddhism, was instrumental in storing families’ goods and visiting relocation camps in eight states to conduct services.
“Relatives thought of me as some kind of clever traitor,” Goldwater recalled. Now 80, Goldwater, also known by his Buddhist name Subhadra, has only recently cut back on teaching and ministering.
Zen (“meditation”) Buddhism was introduced by a Japanese teacher at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The resulting interest led to the arrival in America of D. T. Suzuki, who began a long career of translating and writing. After World War II, Suzuki’s wit and gentle, scholarly abstraction caught the public imagination and left strong impressions on people such as Catholic monk-author Thomas Merton.
By the 1950s, no non-Oriental taken with Buddhism was without the books of Suzuki and Alan Watts, who popularized Zen for Americans. The San Francisco Bay area, where Watts moved, was also home for the counter-culture “beat generation,” embraced Buddhist ideas in the writings of Jack Kerouac and poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.
In 1960, the aggressive Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist movement in Japan, related to the controversial Sokagakkai political party, launched a North American mission out of Los Angeles. By 1967, through the sect’s active proselytizing, Nichiren Shoshu of America was rapidly winning converts among non-Japanese Americans--more than 30,000 households then. At the Santa Monica headquarters, officials who declined an interview request, said only that membership is “a half-million,” including followers in Guam and a Mediterranean district.
By chanting daily before a scroll at home, Nichiren Shoshu leaders have claimed, anyone can achieve happiness, success and wealth as well as promote world peace. The sect’s authoritarian style, however, has intermittently brought disaffections. And its insistence that it is “true Buddhism” isolates it from mainstream Buddhists.
Tibetan Buddhism, uprooted by Chinese military occupation of the Himalayan province in 1959, got its primary U.S. foothold with the arrivals in 1968 and 1970 respectively of Tarthang Tulku, who settled in Berkeley, and Chogyam Trungpa Tulku, who would establish the first accredited Buddhist college in Boulder, Colo., and a continentwide string of centers.
Buddhism escaped much of the alarm raised in the 1970s and early 1980s by the most irresponsible of the new religious movements. Nevertheless, problems did crop up because of the unquestioning devotion that many foreign-born Buddhist teachers either commanded or received without asking from naive students.
“Buddhism has no central licensing agency, no Pope, no board of elders,” wrote Rick Fields in “How the Swans Came to the Lake,” a history of Buddhism in America. Each school had its own system of authorizing teachers, but in reality “one man’s enlightened master was another man’s fool, or worse yet, a charlatan,” Fields said.
North American Buddhism needs more courage to mature, cautioned Jack Kornfield, an American who studied in Theravadan countries and helped found a meditation center in Massachusetts.
“We will need to look honestly at such difficult issues as abuse of power and authority, alcohol, sexuality, money, and at our political and social responsibilities,” said Kornfield, now of Woodacre, Calif. Writing in “Buddhist America,” he identified favorable trends in shared decision-making, female leadership and practitioners keeping careers and families.
The increasingly integrated lives of today’s Buddhists may make them rather invisible to fellow Americans, observed Charles Prebish, who wrote “American Buddhism” a decade ago.
“They use word processors, but they also read the Diamond-sutra. They eat at Pizza Hut, but still appreciate the tea ceremony. They laugh at ‘Ghostbusters,’ but visit the City of the 10,000 Buddhas,” said Prebish, referring to the one-time Mendocino State Hospital that was converted into a monastery and college by a Chinese sect.
Although religious analysts expect that someday U.S. Buddhists will make themselves heard on peace, environmental and church-state separation issues, it may take unusual events to realize that Buddhists have become part of American culture.
After the tragic 1986 explosion of the Challenger shuttle, it was noted that one of its astronauts, Air Force Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka, had a year earlier become the “first Buddhist in space” on a shuttle flight. In memorial services in his native Hawaii and on the mainland, Onizuka was eulogized as one who exemplified Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in his honesty and dedication.