Why Buddhism, Why Now? AND WHY IN AMERICA
By JAN Nattlier
1960 there were 200,000 Buddhists in the United States. Of these, a few were "self-converts" who had begun to think of themselves as Buddhists after reading a book, traveling to Asia, or having some other chance encounter with this unfamiliar religion. But the vast majority-more than half of them residents of Hawaii-were the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Asian Buddhist countries, primarily China and Japan.
Estimates of the number of Buddhists in America today vary widely-the U.S. Census Bureau no longer records religious affiliation but most observers put the figure at between two and three million adherents. Even the more conservative figure represents a tenfold increase in only 40 years. Some of this growth can be attributed to waves of immigrants from Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Taiwan. But Americans of non-Asian ancestry are also becoming Buddhists. if we include those who merely admire Buddhist ideas or use Buddhist texts for inspirational reading~ people whom Tom Tweed, author of The American Encounter wtn Buddhism, calls "night-stand Buddhists"-the number of Buddhist sympathizers might well exceed ten million.
What fuels this attraction to the Buddhist faith? How are we to account for the fact that millions of Americans who were not raised as Buddhists are now drawn to a religion that holds that ultimate realty can be attained not through a relationship with a Supreme Being, but through a radical transformation of our notion of the "self"?
No systematic survey has yet been made of why Americans are drawn to Buddhism, though nary menhon diidolties with the idea aftmi~ iteef. But the s~gle factor most often credited by converts with leading them to abandon their inherited traditions is an existential longing for a road map for personal change.There are great differences among the various forms of Buddhism now taking root in America, but virtually all of them offer clear-cut instructions for dally religious practice. These range from chanting to meditating to receiving initiation from a guru, but they share one common-ality: the prornise that the I.conscientious observance of these practices will result in a profound change in Ore’s spiritual condition. There are two major, and very different, strands of "new Buddhisrn" in America: the ohanting~entered practice of the Soka Gakkal International (SGI) and the meditation-centered practice of the Zen, Tibetan, and vipassana traditions.
In the SGI, the promise that chanting the formula Nam-myoho-renge-~o not only will bring spiritual peace but also will enhance ore’s social, economic, and professional circumstances has drawn large numbers of less-than-affluent adherents. Meditative Bud-dhism, on the other han~ favored by the upper middle ciass~rtiques the concern with material well-being as fundamentally un-Buddhist, focusing instead on understanding the ultimate nature of onesetf and thewold.
The SGI is relatively homogeneous in its practice and teachings; all local groups in the United States are linked directly to a single head organization in Japan. Wrthin meditative Buddhism, by contrast, there are substantial differences in both content and style, due in part to the different cultures from which they are derived. The aura Of a Tibetan Buddhist shrine room, with its riot of color and dizzying variety of images of gods and goddesses, could not be more different from the black-and-white austerity of a Japanese Zen meditation hall or the neutral decor favored by practitioners of V~passana-a meditative tradition drawn mainly from the Theravada Buddhism of Burma and Thailand.
Significant doctrinal differences exist as well. While most Tibetan Buddhists tend to accept that enlightenment requires many lifetimes of gradual practice, Zen Buddhists, like followers of SGI, believe that enlightenment is avallable here and now. Md while both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism consider a relationship with a spiritual teacher to be vital, "ipassana places far less importance on cuitivating such a bond, thus appealing to independent "non-joiners," many of whom do not call themselves Buddhists at all. Commenting on the differences between Tibetan Buddhists and her own Zen tradition, one longtime priest declared, "They’re Catholics, and we’re Quakers." Following this logic, vipassana practitioners are surely Unitarians.
All of these forms of Buddhism~ncluding both the SGI and the various meditative tradition~xperienced their first phase of rapid growth in this country during the 1960s, when they were embraced in substantial numbers by baby boomers. But since then they have taken quite different turns. Most "ipassana groups (and Zen groups, to a slightly lesser degree) still consist overwhelmingly of aging beby boomers, while the SGI tends to have a somewhat broader demographic appeal. But young peopl~men and women in their teens and early twenties-today seem to find Tibetan Buddhism the most attractive. Surely the high profile of the Dalai Lama has been one factor in this attraction, as has the popular perception of Tibet as a pristine Shangri-la whose very real suffering under Chinese control has drawn condemnation even fromconservativeChristians.
Sk~~ the recent spate of Thet~uil~ed movies (kundun, Seven Yea’s in Tibet) and the patronage of a number of celebrtties (Richard Gere, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys) has placed Tibetan Buddhism in the limelight Yet farnous names are associated with other forms of Buddhism. So why do younger Americans choose Tibetan Buddhism over the other brands of Buddhism available on the American market?
One item often mentioned by converts is what might be called the aesthetic factor. Feeling comfortable with a religion means not only finding the doctrines and practices appealing, but also feeling comfortable with its iconography. It may well be that the austere aesthetics of Zen and Vpassana are simply too minimalist for a generation raised on the nonstop visuals of MTV If more is better, the rich, multicolored imagery of Tibetan Buddhism may give it a subliminal aesthetic edge.
Although the images and teachings of Tibetan Buddhism may seem wild and chaotic on the surface, it is overall the most highly structured of all the forms of "new Buddhism" in America today. And while the offspring of the baby boom generation may share their parents’ skepticism, they do not share their 1 9605-bred confidence in spontaneity. Indeed, this generation often expresses a need for structure, and the fact that Tibetan Buddhism offers the most elaborately structured map of the path to enlightenment-and demands the strongest commitment to the authority of the guru-may actually be not a weakness but a strength.
For the moment, then, we can expect the fascination with Tibetan Buddhism to continue, and the other forms of "new Buddhism" to grow at a more moderate pace. But whatever American Buddhism looks like today, we can be certain that in 50 years it will have quite a different face. For what distinguishes all forms of the I
"new Buddhism" from the more traditional Asian-American temples is that these new organizations consist almost entirely of first-generation converts. And a new convert to any religion is a veryatypicalmember~ Consciously or unconsciously, converts reinterpret their adoptive religion in ways that conform to their own needs and preferences, often failing to see problematic elements in a new religion that they would be quick to condemn in their own. Will the security of a detailed road map to enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism, for example, eventually give way to dissatisfaction with its strongly hierarchical system? Or will fascination with images of tantric goddesses turn to disillusionment as foilowers discover that Tibetan Buddhism-like virtually all religions on our planet-accords a distinctly second-class status to women? It has been argued that one of the distinctive features of American Buddhism is the extent to which non-Asian converts insist on reconfiguring Buddhism in aocerdance with their own values and preferences. Yet it is ironic that Tibetan Buddhisrn, which has arguably made the fewest concessions-and in many circles is moving away from adaptation and farther toward the maintenance of tradition is scoring the greatest success with the younger generation.
As these newly transplanted forms of Buddhism enter their second and third generations in Americ~including the old and the young, from the casual to the devout practitioner-we can expect that they will come to bear a far greater resemblance to their more traditional Asian-American counterparts. Md given the fundamental Buddhist tenet that all conditioned things must chang~all things, that is, save nirvan~ne can expect that the future of Buddhism in America will be as kaleidoscopic as its past. *******
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