Buddhism in America

Buddhism in America

Though Buddhism started in the East, it did not stay in the East. In the 1500 years since the Buddha began his journey, his spiritual teachings have spread across the globe. Buddhism has become very popular across the world, including in the West. Like all forms of Buddhism, American Buddhism has its own distinct flavor. There are different ways of observing customs, texts, teachers, and more.

In this guide, we will discuss the spread of Buddhism to the west. We will look at the different types of American Buddhism. We will look at the similarities and differences between Western and Eastern Buddhism. Finally, we will touch on the basic practices commonly seen in American Buddhism.

Buddhism in the West

As noted above, while Buddhism started in India, the teachings have been spread far and wide. There are practicing Buddhists in every country on the globe. The first “western” Buddhists were Greeks that settled in the east during the Hellenistic period. These western minds were influenced by the teachings of the Buddha and his followers. 

While Greeks in the east discovered Buddhism and took to the faith, it took much longer for it to spread farther west. There was distinct Greco-Buddhist art and writing. However, outside this small group of followers, there was not much exposure to Buddhism in the rest of the west. During the Middle Ages, there was little transmission of ideas between east and west.

This all began to change as global trade increased and the world became more dependent on far away lands. Trade not only meant the spread of different goods and services, but also different ideas. This increased exposure of the west to east (and vice versa) allowed the tenets of Buddhism to spread. 

Christianity and Buddhism

Early Christian theologians brought back much knowledge of the Buddhist faith, particularly the Jesuits. They traveled to Asia and studied the Tibetan languages and sacred texts. They then brought this information to the west and wrote detailed accounts. However, their main goal was to promote Christianity and critique the Buddhist faith. Regardless of their intention, these holy men helped to spread the ideas of the Buddha to the shores of the west. 

Additionally, Catholic missionaries also began to learn about the practices and beliefs of Buddhism. They saw it as a real, fully-fledged faith and belief system. They did not see Buddhism as a pagan religion that could easily be stamped out. The Catholics saw in the Buddhists a real threat to the hearts and minds of potential followers of the faith. 

Buddhism As A Challenge to the Christian Faith

This fear lead to more Catholic missionaries being sent to the east to learn about Buddhism. The idea was that the deeper they studied and understood Buddhism, the better they could refute it. Though some theologians took the ideas of Buddhism and molded into a strange form of proto-Christianity. They saw similarities in the teachings of Buddhism, but also felt that it had been “corrupted by the devil.”

Acceptance From the West

Thanks to the early accounts from the Jesuits and Catholics, the transmission of the ideas of the Buddha came to the attention of more people. In the 19th century, philosophers and scholars began to look at Buddhism in a new light. This is when Buddhism really began to spread across the globe in earnest. 

The practice of mystery religions and theosophy also really helped to spread Buddhism farther west. In America, theosophy was of particular interest, especially to the upper classes. With these belief systems also came the teachings of the Buddha.

First Buddhists in America

The first known immigration of eastern Buddhists to America came in the late 1800s during the Gold Rush. Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants flocked to the West for jobs in the mines. With them, they brought their varied forms of Buddhist belief systems. Not even 30 years after the first Buddhists arrived on the shores of California, there were already 8 major temples in just the Bay Area.

Trancendentalists and others were open to the ideas of Buddhism and also contributed to the spread of these ideas. Speaking tours, conferences, and publications from Eastern and Western practitioners proliferated. Though California still boasts a high concentration of Buddhists, they can be found across the country. 

American Buddhism

Like all belief systems, Buddhism does not remain unchanged as the ideas spread. Depending on where you go, there will be slight or even major differences in beliefs and practices. American Buddhism is no different. There are some common beliefs shared across all sects, but there are also differences. American Buddhism is its own unique iteration of the ideas of the Buddha.

One of the key differences in American Buddhism is in practice. The ceremonies and services tend to be shorter than they are in the East. The relationship between the teacher and the student is also a bit different. There is a higher level of “equality” allowed to western Buddhist students. They are allowed and even encouraged to ask questions of their teachers. This is not a common element of Buddhism in the east.

Appeal to Americans

There are many reasons that the Buddhist teachings appeal to people in America. Converting to Buddhism doesn’t require one to renounce or engage in ceremony. It is a belief system that can easily be personally practiced. This is appealing to Americans who live in a culture where the individual is of utmost importance.

American Buddhists are, by and large, converts. This is in contrast with the east where most practitioners were brought up in the faith. Though it is impossible to count, there are some estimates that put the number of American Buddhists at 5 million.

Diversity of Forms

Since the spread of Buddhism to America was largely a result of immigration, this allowed for a diversity of beliefs to spread. Buddhism had already spread across Asia and had touched almost every country in the region. This means that in those places, distinct forms of Buddhism developed. Immigrants brought these varied forms to America.

Immigration and Buddhism.

Immigration from Tibet, China, Vietnam, Japan, etc., led to the spread of a real diversity of Buddhist ideas. Buddhism in America is incredibly varied with belief systems that take their root from all across Asia. There were two major waves of Asian immigration. The first was during the Gold Rush where an influx of Chinese and then Japanese immigrants came to the shores of the Western United States. 

In the 1960s, US immigration laws were relaxed and this led to a further influx of Asian immigrants. These immigrants brought with them many varied forms of Buddhism.

Immigrant Buddhism

Immigrant Buddhism is, as the name implies, the form of Buddhism brought to America by immigrants. This is a bit of a misnomer. It indicates some sort of unity where no such unity exists. Immigrant Buddhism simply refers to the varied beliefs that were brought to America by the first Asian immigrants.

These systems of belief were largely based in family traditions. This generally means a great reverence for ancestors plays a big role in the practice of this form of Buddhism. A more family-oriented faith focuses less on meditation and more on family beliefs and veneration of ancestors. Meditation plays a role in this form of Buddhism. In contrast with the more common type of American Buddhism, however, meditation plays far less of a role.

Import Buddhism

This might not seem like it is different from immigrant Buddhism, but it very much is. Import Buddhist traditions are those that typically come from British Indian and East Asian colonies. This is Buddhism distilled through American intellectuals and comes almost entirely from source material from these colonies.

Additionally, many masters of some of the biggest branches of Buddhism have immigrated to America. This has allowed for Americans to directly receive teachings from native practitioners. These masters tend to come from the Theravadan, Tibetan, or Zen branch of Buddhism. These two are the most commonly practiced schools of American Buddhism.

American Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is a Japanese tradition that came to America during one of the early waves of Asian immigration. Priests from the Zen tradition were sent to America to provide services to the small immigrant communities now there. Rinzai was the main form of Zen Buddhism practiced in the United States in the early years.

During the so-called Beat Generation of the 1950s, many famous writers including Jack Kerouac, took great interest in Zen teachings. Through these famous proponents, many tenets of Zen Buddhism were transmitted to a greater segment of society. Rinzai, Soto, and Sanbo Kyodan are still the main forms of Japanese Zen practiced.

The Zen tradition is not just limited to Japanese forms. There are also Chinese and Vietnamese variants on the Zen tradition. These have found a small but dedicated home in the United States.

Tibetan Buddhism in America

For many in America, this is the most visible form of Buddhism. It is what most will think of when thinking about Buddhism. This is largely due to the popularity and visibility of the current Dalai Lama. Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, has done much to spread the teachings of the Buddha to the west.

Due to political turmoil and exile, the Dalai Lama’s family have a strong presence in the United States. There are four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism: the Gelug, the Kagyu, the Nyingma, and Sakya. The Dalai Lama practices the Gelug, so it is the most well known of the forms of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States.

Theravada Buddhism in America

Theravada Buddhism really began to take root in America in the 1960s. The best known type of Theravada is called Vipassana. Vipassana is often called “insight meditation.” It refers to ancient meditation practice and set of teachings. The first Theravada temple was erected in the 1960s. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s when a group of practitioners came back from studying with masters in Asia that it really took hold.

Many who took to the teachings and practices of Theravada set up schools and areas for practice around the country. There are major and influential native-born American masters that teach at many of these institutions.

Main Tenets and Practices of American Buddhism

Equality in American Buddhism is invisible in other parts of the world. There is a strong female tolerance and democratic struggle in the operation of American Buddhist organizations. All members of the Buddhist community are very concerned. This means that less emphasis and reverence are given to the masters in American Buddhism.

Meditation is often a huge part of American Buddhism. While it plays a major role in all forms of Buddhism, American forms take it a bit farther. American Buddhists also emphasize social and community action. The tenets of not doing harm and only doing good really manifest in this area. Community service and other forms of social assistance have a strong and deep tradition in American Buddhism.

For millions of Americans, Buddhism is a comforting and fulfilling set of spiritual beliefs. Though it was a slow process, Buddhism spread across the west. As it gained adherents, the teachings continued to evolve and flourish in diverse forms. As waves of Asian immigrants came to America in the late 1800s, Americans began to get exposure to Buddhist beliefs. These beliefs spread from the west coast across the country.

Since that time, with subsequent waves of immigration, a diverse array of forms of Buddhism have made it to the United States. Today there are millions of followers of one form of Buddhism or another. American Buddhism shares many commonalities with Asian Buddhism, but it also has its own distinctive flair. American Buddhism is more inclusive and democratic. Women and minorities are far more represented in American Buddhism. There is a greater emphasis on meditative practice and community-oriented deeds. Learning and the spreading of the teachings to the masses is also another common theme of American Buddhism.