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Los Angeles Monk Advocates an Americanized Form of Buddhism

Times Religion Writer

In welcoming the Dalai Lama to Los Angeles on behalf of the diverse Buddhist community this week, a monk already prominent in organizing American Buddhists took the occasion to propose new ways to reduce tensions arising among U.S. practitioners of the ancient religion.

There is an urgent need to bring Buddhists “into the mainstream of American culture,” said the Venerable Havanpola Ratanasara, whose talk Wednesday at a Korean temple outlined problems faced by largely immigrant Buddhist communities in America.

The 20-minute speech was ostensibly fashioned to solicit the advice of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet who has now lived for 30 years in India, on how to adapt the practice of Buddhism in a new country.

Hoping for Blessing

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But Ratanasara was obviously hoping also to obtain the blessings of the Dalai Lama, who is respected widely by non-Tibetan Buddhists, for the Los Angeles Buddhist leader’s ambitious steps toward creating a distinctly American brand of the religion.

It is a goal that has been pursued with some success by Ratanasara, a native of Sri Lanka, who became A U.S. citizen last year despite the usual reluctance of Buddhist monks and clergy to step beyond the pressing concerns of their own ethnic and sectarian enclaves.

As president of the 9-year-old Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, Ratanasara has brought together ordained leaders of American, Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Sri Lankan, Tibetan and Vietnamese communities for dialogue and pursuit of common interests.

Fledgling Group

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Ratanasara, 69, also co-chaired the founding in 1987 of the American Buddhist Congress and serves as its administrator in his Los Angeles office. That fledgling group will hold its second national meeting Nov. 18-19 in Chicago.

In his proposals, Ratanasara suggested convening a national Buddhist conference in 1990 which, among other things, would seek to agree on common rituals and universal English translations of certain chants.

He also recommended the formation of a mediation board to resolve disputes among Buddhists; a commission to assist groups with immigration, legal and financial problems; an educational commission to promote U.S. Buddhist publications, and guidelines for religious dialogues with non-Buddhists.

Focal Point

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“We could also ponder the establishment of a new university of Buddhism or the selection of an existing university to be the focal point of the work of creating a non-sectarian Buddhist education,” he said.

Earlier in his talk, Ratanasara noted that the Buddhist Sangha Council founded the College of Buddhist Studies in Los Angeles six years ago.

The Dalai Lama, a well-educated monk himself, said he liked the idea of an American Buddhist university and generally endorsed Ratanasara’s emphasis on the need for Buddhists to adapt their practices to new cultures and countries.

“Eventually, an American or English Buddhism will happen to some extent,” said the Tibetan leader, whose given name is Tenzin Gyatso.

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‘There Is No Problem’

The Dalai Lama did not seem to believe that the existence of so many different Buddhist traditions in this country would prevent understanding and cooperation. “In Buddhism, we study all the tenets of the different schools. . . . There is no problem if you know all the explanations,” he said.

The exiled Tibetan leader also stressed the benefits of applying the insights of science to Buddhism and studying other religious philosophies. “The mind needs variety . . . to deepen understanding,” he said.

Ratanasara has a similar intellectual bent. After undergraduate studies in Sri Lanka, he received a master’s degree at Columbia University and a Ph.D. in education at the University of London. In addition to holding university positions in Sri Lanka, he was a United Nations delegate for that country in 1957 and has been a frequent participant in international interfaith conferences.

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Limited English Skills

But Buddhist teachers who settle in the United States “often are limited in their English skills,” Ratanasara said.

Moreover, he said, “the authority which they enjoyed in their old countries is undermined and they may be unable to understand or adapt to the new problems faced in a new country.”

Even when some Buddhist monks or ministers show broader interests and openness to change, he added, “they often are trapped by their congregation members who wish them to remain ‘old country’ in order to preserve a nostalgia for their old home life, while they themselves pursue the new American dream.”

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‘Lack of Understanding’

Buddhists must find ways to become involved in the larger American scene, he said. “A lack of understanding of what Buddhism is, coupled with a growing anti-immigrant bias, affects all of us, whether we are immigrant or not,” he said.

To put the question succinctly, he concluded, “How can we become Americanized, yet hold to the core of Buddhism? How can we develop an American Buddhism, which will be vital and appropriate to this society and still retain our individual, unique traditions?”


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