Buddhism Flourishing in Southland

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

In the drizzling rain of a predawn morning, a dozen practitioners inside the Zen Center of Los Angeles light a candle, burn incense, gently strike a bell and begin a silent sitting meditation on traditional Japanese tatami mats. Across town at the colorful Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood, monks in bright orange robes begin their morning chants.

Over at the biggest temple compound outside Asia--the 15-acre Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights--the mostly Chinese devotees offer fruits and vegetables in a service honoring the Amitabha Buddha's birthday. And in hundreds of temples and private homes across Southern California, the sound of Buddhist chanting can be heard in the languages of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Korea, Tibet--and America.

The sounds represent a diverse chorus of practitioners who make Buddhism one of the fastest-growing religions in America today--and Southern California a singularly unique home for it.

A Singular Distinction

Buddhism has wielded a more dominant influence across more disparate cultures for a longer period of time than any other religion. But Southern California is the only place in the world where all of the more than 100 types of Buddhism are actively represented, according to J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of Religion at UC Santa Barbara.

"Over the past 10 years, we've had a fairly high level of immigration from Buddhist countries to the Southern California area," Melton said. "What this means is that 40% of all Buddhists in the U.S. live in Southern California."

The number of Buddhists nationwide has grown to an estimated 1.5 million from a broad range of ethnic backgrounds, compared with only about 100,000, mostly Japanese, in 1965, Melton said. The number of Buddhist meditation centers has exploded as well, from 428 in 1986 to 1,100 in 1996, according to Don Morreale, author of the "Complete Guide to Buddhist America."

Both a religion and a philosophy, Buddhism was founded more than 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama, a rich Indian prince who walked away from his worldly wealth in search of the cause of human suffering. The practice he founded on Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path--basically, a road to compassion, wisdom and liberation from suffering by cultivating detachment in an ever-changing world--is centered on chanting, meditation, visualization, study and rituals that vary depending on the type of Buddhism.

In the United States, many adherents are immigrants who flock to temples not only for spiritual sustenance, but for comfort and companionship in a strange land.

Wat Thai attracts more than 1,000 people every weekend for religious services and lessons as well as classes in English, U.S. citizenship, the Thai language, classical dance and even decorative fruit-and-vegetable carving. The temple also offers free medical checkups and Thai food booths; it serves as a social meeting place, polling place and, in a highly publicized case a few years ago, as a refuge for Thai workers who escaped from virtual slavery in a local sweatshop.

Wat Thai was the first Thai temple in the United States when it was established in 1979. Today, Southern California is home to as many as 15 other temples, said the Rev. Samana Barua of Wat Thai.

"The temple helps preserve our traditions, beliefs, unity and cooperation in the community," Barua said. "That has been the inspiration from the beginning."

But Buddhism is also blossoming among home-grown Americans.

A New Generation

Many of the Buddhist masters who brought the teachings from Asia have died, leaving their American successors to reshape the religion here, Morreale said. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, now led by an American of Japanese and Portuguese descent, Wendy Egyoku Nakao.

Nakao studied with the center's founding master, the late Maezumi Roshi, who brought Zen out of Little Tokyo's Japanese immigrant community in 1967 in a deliberate attempt to reach out to non-immigrant Americans.

Since taking over the leadership in 1996, Nakao has worked to flatten the hierarchy, soften the patriarchy and encourage greater interaction with the community.

She has introduced discussion circles, where the sangha, or Buddhist community, can openly chew on whatever issues are of concern. She has added a line in the liturgical recitation of the male lineage of her Soto sect to remember "all women whose names have been forgotten or left unsaid." In January, she plans to introduce a regular memorial service for "our Buddhist women ancestors."

Last year, Nakao took a small group of her members to live on skid row for three days. The center has stepped up its community service and interfaith gatherings, where she regularly invites a Jewish rabbi and Catholic priest--both Zen practitioners--to the center to discuss religious issues.

"We want to have life in our face so we can look at our differences and get beyond them," said Nakao. Adding these activities, she said, more actively honors one of Buddhism's fundamental tenets--that all life is interconnected.

The move from isolated ethnic enclaves into the larger community is one of what Morreale and Melton call one of the most noticeable changes in American Buddhism.

Soka Gakkai International--the largest Buddhist organization in Southern California, claiming 20,000 members here--originated in Japan. Today, according to a recent study of the organization, 41% of members are white, 23.4% are Asian, 14.6% are black and 5.7% are Latino, said spokeswoman Nancy Simms.

Lonnie Mogil is one Soka Gakkai member who embraced Buddhism after growing up in the Jewish faith. Although she continues to respect Judaism, she said, Buddhism gave her the tools to transform her life--centering around a specific chant that practitioners say taps into the power of universal laws to attain your desires.

In her 24 years of practice, Mogil says, she has overcome illness, launched a marketing career, found love and developed confidence and courage "to face difficulties, challenge them, and win."

The religion's emphasis on actual practices for self-transformation appears to be one of the most powerful attractions to many American adherents.

"You show Americans a set of self-improvement tools and chances are they'll go for it," said Martin Wassell, an independent producer and director of the Los Angeles Friends of Tibet.

Tibetan practices have only begun reaching the West since the late 1940s, when scores of Tibetans--including the Dalai Lama--began fleeing the Chinese occupation.

Today, Tibetan Buddhism is regarded as the fastest-growing branch of Buddhism; at least 21 major study centers have been established in the Los Angeles area in recent years.

By contrast, the number of Korean Buddhist temples has not appreciably grown since the late 1970s and early '80s, when most of the current 22 in L.A. County were established, said Sharon Suh, a Harvard doctoral student and researcher at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC.

Between 70% and 80% of Korean Americans surveyed in one study in the early 1990s identified themselves as Christians, Suh said, noting that nearly half converted to Christianity after immigrating here.

And traditional sects of Japanese Buddhism--still the largest and oldest presence in Southern California--are in decline as succeeding generations assimilate and weaken ties to the faith of their ancestors.

The Rev. Noriaki Ito of the Higashi Hongwanji Temple in Little Tokyo said his congregation has declined to about 350 families from more than 450 in the late 1970s.

Many of the sutras and songs are still in Japanese, a language that has become entirely foreign to most baby boomers.

"We're starting to realize, with the assimilation of the Japanese community almost complete, that we can no longer depend on the ethnic members to sustain us in the future," Ito said.

"But the biggest question is whether an American Buddhist denomination can be born that will swallow up many of the ethnic temples," he added. "Can we come together, or are we going to stay separated?"

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