Buddhism in America: East meets West, and takes root

Buddha, from the Sanskrit language, means “awakened,” and in the United States today, Buddhism has come wide awake. Immigration from Asia and a growing indigenous following has made Buddhism is a major religious presence in the U.S. with more than 1.5 million practitioners. That growth is bringing awareness, influence and some contentious issues.

In July 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published an extensive new survey titled “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths.”

The research provides a comprehensive overview of the religious composition of the Asian-American community, noting that while Christians account for about 42 percent of the Asian-American community – and the religiously unaffiliated come in second, at 26 percent – Buddhists account for about one-in-seven Asian-Americans (14 percent).

The report provides an unprecedented look at this community, but the numbers do not begin to account for the cultural impact Buddhism has had in the U.S. and much of the West, and the spiritual appeal Buddhism holds for many Westerners.

This ReligionLink source guide provides background and contact information for a range of organizations and experts on Buddhism.

Issues to explore

  • Buddhism often takes on the flavor of the land in which it’s planted. In America, it is flourishing with considerable variety as both a religion and a philosophy of life, demonstrating the influence both of Asian immigrants and Western converts. That can lead to some tensions between groups from different cultural backgrounds and competing ideas about what aspects of Buddhism should be stressed.
  • Buddhism’s emphasis on mindfulness, peacefulness and social action – sometimes described as “engaged Buddhism” — is having an impact on everything from environmental justice to hospice care. Buddhist environmental groups include the Zen Environmental Studies Institute.
  • Scientists are studying what goes on inside the brains of Buddhist monks as they meditate to see if meditation and mindfulness actually change the way the brain works. References to Buddhist thinking are popping up in the workplace, medicine, conflict resolution, film and sports.
  • Lots of folks are trying meditation techniques, including corporate executives, prisoners and athletes seeking to reduce stress; people struggling to manage pain; and people from all sorts of religious backgrounds looking for peace of mind. One recent article about the rising popularity of Buddhism in the West carried the subtitle, “Out of the monastery, into the living room.”

Why it matters

While often not fully understood in its complexity, Buddhist thinking quietly permeates the American landscape. Ideas such as mindfulness, simple living and the interconnection of all living things resonate with many, including increasing numbers who identify themselves as Buddhist and others who consider themselves spiritual but not religious.

Buddhism basics

See the ReligionLink guide to Buddhism.

Buddhism, now a worldwide religion with an estimated 350 million adherents, began about 2,500 years ago in India and has spread, in a variety of forms and incarnations, around the world. The type of Buddhism practiced varies from country to country, shaped by the culture of each place. While teachings and rituals differ by time and place, the concept of following the “dharma” or the Buddha’s fundamental teachings and doctrines as a way of avoiding suffering holds constant.

For summaries of basic Buddhist teachings, read:

  • Basic Buddhism Guide

    Read the Basic Buddhism Guide posted by BuddhaNet, the website of the Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc., based in Australia. BuddhaNet is an effort to create a nonprofit, online “cyber sangha” of people committed to the Buddha’s teachings and lifestyle — an effort to combine an ancient tradition with the information superhighway.

  • Basics of Buddhism

    An introduction to Buddhism posted in connection with a PBS documentary on Thailand.

  • Resources for the Study of Buddhism

    A list of resources for the study of Buddhism compiled by Ron Epstein, who is now retired as a professor from San Francisco State University. It includes links to background information on Buddhist history, teachings in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, Buddhist texts and such subjects as Buddhism and children and Buddhism and science.

  • About.com: Buddhism

    About.com: Buddhism provides information on the religion such as its history, its principles, common practices and traditions.

  • Internet Guide to Buddhism and Buddhist Studies

    The Internet Guide to Buddhism and Buddhist Studies is an online resource for information on all things Buddhism.

  • Do Not ZZZ

    Do Not ZZZ is a multimedia, interactive and humorous introduction to Zen.

  • DharmaNet International

    DharmaNet International is a nonprofit, multimedia resource center that is dedicated to education on meditation, wisdom and compassionate action.

Types of Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism—The oldest form of Buddhism, it emphasizes the difference between monks’ authority and practice and lay people’s. Those who attain enlightenment are equal to the Buddha, who is not regarded as a god.

Mahayana Buddhism—The second-oldest form of Buddhism, it offers gradations of Buddhahood—in bodhisattvas—to more people instead of concentrating authority among monks. Buddha is regarded as a god.

Tibetan Buddhism—The Dalai Lama is the leader of Tibetan Buddhists, who were forced into exile in India when the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959. Tibetan Buddhism is based on Mahayana teachings, and its followers still campaign to return to Tibet.

Zen Buddhism—A combination of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, it has roots in China, moved into Korea and Japan and became popular in the West. Zen teaches that everyone is a Buddha, and each person can discover that through Zen practice.

Buddhist festivals

Buddhist media

  • BuddhaZine

    BuddhaZine is an online magazine associated with BuddhaNet. It provides Buddhist teachings, news, art and a variety of other current and interactive features relating to Buddhism.

  • Buddhistdoor

    Buddhistdoor is an online site published by the Tung Lin Kok Yuen charitable foundation. It provides information about Buddhist teaching and the impact of Buddhist culture on the global community.

  • Journal of Buddhist Ethics

    The Journal of Buddhist Ethics is an academic journal affiliated with Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. It was the first academic journal focused on Buddhist ethics. Daniel Cozort is general editor.

  • Journal of Global Buddhism

    The Journal of Global Buddhism is an online scholarly academic journal. Charles S. Prebish is its editor emeritus.

  • Shambhala Sun

    Shambhala Sun is the world’s best-selling and most widely read Buddhist magazine. It provides Buddhist teachings and ways to apply Buddhist wisdom to modern life issues.

  • Tricycle Foundation

    The Tricycle Foundation is a nonprofit educational organization that works to make resources on Buddhist views, values and practices broadly available.

On the web

  • Buddhist Blogs

    A Buddhist blog webring has links to Buddhist bloggers.

  • The Buddhist Channel

    The Buddhist Channel provides online Buddhist news and features.

  • Urban Dharma

    Urban Dharma is a web site offering articles, essays and photographs describing Buddhism in America. Offerings have included pieces on fasting, politics, psychedelics and a “meditation on a Coke can.”

  • WZEN

    WZEN offers a webcast (“Sounds from Zen Mountain”) from the teachers of the Mountains and Rivers order, along with Cybermonk, through which a senior monk will answer online questions about dharma.

  • BuddhaNet

    BuddhaNet is a not-for-profit organization affiliated with the Buddha Dharma Education Association that provides resources on all things Buddhism.

Definitions

  • Buddha: A royal prince named Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism in northern India. Gautama, now known as the Buddha, was born about 563 B.C. in the Himalayan foothills of what’s now Nepal. He was the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. While sheltered in his youth, Gautama later left the palace and saw the four sights – an old man, a sick man, a dead man and a holy man. Exposure to their suffering led him to spend the rest of his life seeking truth. While meditating under a tree, he finally understood how to become free from suffering, and became known as the Buddha, or the “Enlightened One.” The Buddha claimed to have found a path to freedom that had been lost, but he is considered one of many buddhas, not the first and not the last.
  • cycle of rebirth: Any living being can be reborn into one of six planes. Three are fortunate realms and three unfortunate.
  • dharma: The Buddha referred to what he taught as the “dharma vinaya.” Dharma is often referred to as teachings or doctrine, and vinaya as the rules of monastic discipline. In practice, dharma can involve anything from chanting to meditation to studying the Buddha’s words.
  • Four Noble Truths: These four truths about suffering are at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. They are: suffering exists; suffering is caused by attachment to desires, by wanting things to be different than they are; suffering can be eliminated by ceasing to want things to be different; and there is a path to eliminating those desires – a path known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • karma: Good or bad actions one takes during one’s lifetime.
  • Noble Eightfold Path: These are the steps to attaining nirvana – the end of suffering: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
  • sangha: A community of people who walk the Buddhist path and practice together. It is one of the three Buddhist treasures, along with Buddha and dharma.

Articles

National sources

Organizations

  • Buddhist Association of the United States

    The Buddhist Association of the United States operates the Chuang Yen Monastery, an education center in Carmel, N.Y., dedicated to explaining the different schools of Buddhism and the common beliefs uniting them.

  • Mind & Life Institute

    The Mind & Life Institute, based in Massachusetts, is working to foster discussion and a research partnership involving science and Buddhism – studying, for example, the impact of meditation on the brain. It sponsors conferences exploring these issues, and holds a summer research institute.

    Contact: 413-387-0710.
  • Faith Communities Today (FACT)

    Based at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. Has data from 2000, 2005, 2008, and 2010. The survey involved researchers and religious leaders in a survey of 14,300 American congregations of all faiths and denominations. FACT can provide information about megachurches (Protestant churches claiming 2,000 or more attending weekly worship), which have been growing at the same time as the planting of small churches has increased. The site also provides links to recent articles about church growth and trends.

  • Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

    The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explores the connection between religion and other aspects of American culture.

  • Americas Society/ Council of the Americas

    The Americas Society/Council of the Americas provides information on diverse cultures in the Americas. It has offices in New York City, Washington D.C., and Miami.

  • Soka Gakkai International (SGI)-USA

    Soka Gakkai International (SGI)-USA is an American Buddhist association based on the teachings of the Nichiren school of Mahayana Buddhism. Its website includes state-by-state contact information for Soka Gakkai centers around the United States.

  • Zen Peacemakers

    Zen Peacemakers is a global community of individuals and Zen centers that want to pursue peace and wholeness through combining social action and Zen practice. The Zen Peacemakers operate the Maezumi Institute in Montague, Mass., and have a list of Zen Peacemaker Circles in the U.S. and overseas.

Individuals

  • Janet Gyatso

    Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard Divinity School in Boston, where she is co-chairwoman of the American Academy of Religion’s Buddhism section and president of the International Association of Tibetan Studies. Her work focuses on Tibetan Buddhism and religious culture, including issues of sex and gender. She is co-author of Women in Tibet: Past and Present.

  • Ruben Habito

    Ruben Habito is a professor of world religions and spirituality at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is co-editor of The Practice of Altruism: Caring and Religion in a Global Perspective. He specializes in Buddhism and wrote a chapter in Altruism in World Religions.

  • Jane Iwamura

    Jane Iwamura is the chair of the religious studies program at the University of the West in Rosemead, Calif. She specializes in Asian-American religions, race and popular culture. She co-edited Revealing the Sacred in Asian & Pacific America.

  • Khyati Y. Joshi

    Khyati Joshi is an associate professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., and a scholar on cultural and religious pluralism in the United States. Her books include New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race and Ethnicity in Indian America. She served as an adviser for the Pew survey and wrote a column for The Huffington Post about the findings.

  • Jack Kornfield

    Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist monk, is founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif. Kornfield is the author of Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path and other books on Buddhist life.

  • Charles Muller

    Charles Muller is a professor in the humanities department at Toyo Gakuen University in Japan. He is the author of The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment: Korean Buddhism’s Guide to Meditation and can speak about Buddhism among Koreans. He also runs the website Resources for East Asian Language and Thought and has become interested in how the Internet can be used to share information about East Asian religions and philosophy. He has worked to electronically translate and interpret classical Buddhist works for Western audiences, including producing the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism.

  • Sharon Suh

    Sharon Suh is a professor and chair of the department of theology and religious studies at Seattle University. She specializes in the study of Buddhism and was an advisor to the Pew Research Center on its study of Buddhism.

  • Robert Thurman

    Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University in New York, wrote “Human Rights and Responsibilities: Buddhist Views on Individualism and Altruism” in Religious Diversity and Human Rights. Thurman is also the author of The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism.

  • Janelle Wong

    Janelle Wong is director of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland and a professor of American studies. She served as an adviser for the Pew survey.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Daniel Cozort

    Daniel Cozort is associate professor of religion at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and general editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

  • Charles Goodman

    Charles Goodman is an associate professor of philosophy at Binghamton University in Vestal, N.Y., where he teaches Buddhist metaphysics and Buddhist ethics. He is the author of Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation & Defense of Buddhist Ethics (2009).

  • Stephanie Kaza

    Stephanie Kaza is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where she teaches courses on religion and ecology, eco-feminism and “unlearning consumerism.” She is a practicing Soto Zen Buddhist and is co-editor of Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism.

  • David L. McMahan

    David L. McMahan is a religious studies professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and editor of Buddhism in the Modern World (2012).

  • Jin Y. Park

    Jin Y. Park is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy and religion at American University in Washington, D.C. She specializes in Buddhist philosophy; her doctoral dissertation was on Zen Buddhism and postmodern thought.

  • Charles S. Prebish

    Charles S. Prebish is a professor of religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is a co-founder of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and can speak about the development of Buddhism in North America and the way the Internet has been used to connect Buddhists worldwide. He wrote a chapter, “The Cybersangha: Buddhism on the Internet,” for the book Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet.

  • Stephen Prothero

    Stephen Prothero is professor in the religion department at Boston University. He is author of Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America and American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which looks at popular images of Jesus in film, television and print. He has also written about American Hindus.

  • Christopher S. Queen

    Christopher S. Queen is a lecturer on the study of religion and dean of students for continuing education at Harvard University in Boston, where he teaches courses on Buddhism in America and Buddhism and social change. Read a June 18, 2004, interview he did with the Echo Chamber Project, in which he discusses Buddhism, war, peace and violence in movies. He is editor of Engaged Buddhism in the West and co-editor of Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism.

  • Kristin Scheible

    Kristin Scheible is assistant professor of religion at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and serves on the steering committee of the American Academy of Religion’s Buddhism section. She can address questions about Theravāda Buddhism, South and Southeast Asian Buddhist history, Buddhist literature and Buddhism in the West.

  • Richard H. Seager

    Richard H. Seager is an associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He is studying the globalization and Americanization of Buddhism and is the author of Buddhism in America and Encountering the Dharma: Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai and the Globalization of Buddhism Humanism.

  • Janice Willis

    Janice Willis is a retired professor emerita of religion and social sciences at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. She is the author of Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. Read an excerpt on Beliefnet.com. Willis has talked about her journey from the segregated, revival-preacher South to a Buddhist monastery in Nepal where she began to find peace.

In the South

  • Paula Arai

    Paula Arai is an associate professor of Asian religions and a specialist in Buddhist studies at Louisiana State University.

  • Daniel Capper

    Daniel Capper is an associate professor in the religion and philosophy department at the University of Southern Mississippi. His research interests include Tibetan Buddhism, and he is the author of Guru Devotion and the American Buddhist Experience.

  • John D. Dunne

    John D. Dunne is a professor in the department of east asian languages and literature and the distinguished professor of contemplative humanities at the Center for Healthy Minds. He was a former assistant professor in the religion department at Emory University in Atlanta. He is the author of Foundations of Dharmakirti’s Philosophy, an examination of Buddhist epistemology. Dunne has also written about meditation and neuroscience, and his current research focuses on theories of Buddhist mysticism.

  • Steven Heine

    Steven Heine is professor of religious studies and history and director of the Asian studies program at Florida International University in Miami, where he specializes in Japanese Buddhism and can also speak about contemporary Buddhism in the West. He is the author of White Collar Zen: Using Zen Principles to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Your Career Goals.

  • Richard M. Jaffe

    Richard M. Jaffe is an associate professor of religion at Duke University and serves on the steering committee of the American Academy of Religion’s Buddhism section. He specializes in Japanese Buddhism.

  • Kristin Beise Kiblinger

    Kristin Beise Kiblinger is an associate professor of religious studies at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and the author of Buddhist Inclusivism: Attitudes Towards Religious Others.

  • Anne C. Klein

    Anne C. Klein is a professor of Asian religions at Rice University in Houston. The author of five books, she can speak about Indo-Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice and about women in Buddhism. She is also co-founding director of Dawn Mountain, a center in Houston for contemplative study and practice.

  • Miriam Levering

    Miriam Levering is professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she is the editor of Zen Inspirations: Essential Meditations and Texts and can speak about women in Zen Buddhism.

  • Charles D. Orzech

    Charles D. Orzech is a professor in the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and serves on the steering committee of the American Academy of Religion’s Buddhism section. His specialties include medieval Buddhism and Taoism.

  • Mario Poceski

    Mario Poceski is assistant professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where his work focuses on the Chan school of Chinese Buddhism.

  • Jeffrey Samuels

    Jeffrey Samuels is an assistant professor of religious studies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where he has studied monastic recruitment and the training of young children as Buddhist novices. He has interviewed monks in Sri Lanka and children in training to become monks, studying how the rituals and aesthetics of Buddhist life inform their decisions and giving them cameras to record their own lives.

  • Thomas A. Tweed

    Thomas A. Tweed is a professor in the religious studies department at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include (as author) The American Encounter With Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture & the Limits of Dissent and (as co-editor) Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History.

In the Midwest

  • Daniel A. Arnold

    Daniel A. Arnold is assistant professor of philosophy of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion.

  • Donald S. Lopez Jr.

    Donald S. Lopez Jr. is Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the author of Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West and editor of Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Read an interview with Lopez from a university publication in which he describes the rising Western interest in Buddhism.

  • Paul David Numrich

    Paul David Numrich is a professor of world religions and interreligious relations at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio . He was also the co-director of the Religion, Immigration and Civil Society in Chicago Project. He is co-author of Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America. He is the author of “Marriage, Family and Health in Selected World Religions: Different Perspectives in an Increasingly Pluralist America,” published in 2002 in Marriage, Health and the Professions.

  • Christian K. Wedemeyer

    Christian K. Wedemeyer is associate professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School and co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Buddhism section.

In the West

  • Carl W. Bielefeldt

    Carl W. Bielefeldt is a professor of religious studies and director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University in California. He specializes in East Asian Buddhism and is editor of the Soto Zen Text Project, which is preparing annotated translations of the scriptures of the Soto school of Japanese Zen.

  • William M. Bodiford

    William M. Bodiford is professor of Asian languages and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism and editor of Going Forth: Visions of Buddhist Vinaya. He can speak about Japanese Buddhism, including rituals and worship of local gods.

  • José Cabezón

    José Cabezón is a professor of Tibetan Buddhism and cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Gelukpa order for almost 10 years, living and studying for six years at the Jé College of Sera Monastery in South India. His current research involves Buddhism and sexuality, and the global commodification of Tibet and its culture. He’s also involved with the Sera Project, a digital multimedia effort designed to document life in one of Tibet’s great monasteries.

  • Richard P. Hayes

    Richard P. Hayes is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Mexico who has written extensively and taught courses on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy.

  • Ejo McMullen

    The Rev. Ejo McMullen is resident priest at the Eugene Zendo, a Soto Zen Buddhist temple in Eugene, Ore.

  • Lori Meeks

    Lori Meeks is associate professor of religion and East Asian language and cultures at the University of Southern California. She is co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Buddhism section.

  • Franz A. Metcalf

    Franz A. Metcalf teaches comparative religion at California State University in Los Angeles and edits the national newsletter of the Forge Guild of Spiritual Teachers and Leaders. He is the author of Buddha in Your Backpack: Everyday Buddhism for TeensWhat Would Buddha Do?: 101 Answers to Life’s Daily Dilemmas and co-author of What Would Buddha Do at Work: 101 Answers to Workplace Dilemmas. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Why Do Americans Practice Zen Buddhism?”

  • Richard Payne

    Richard Payne is dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies and professor of Buddhist studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. He can speak about Tantric rituals and Buddhist spiritual practices.

  • Juliane Schober

    Juliane Schober is an associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University. She has studied Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar, including Myanmar rituals and the veneration of icons. Schober is editor of Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia.

  • Judith Simmer-Brown

    Judith Simmer-Brown is a professor of Buddhist studies and chairwoman of the department of religious studies at Naropa University, a college founded in the Buddhist tradition in Boulder, Colo. She can speak about American Buddhism and about Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Read an article Simmer-Brown wrote called “American Buddhism: The Legacy for Our Children.” She is the author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism and is co-author of Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict.

  • Zen Hospice Project

    The Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, founded in 1987, is the only residential Buddhist hospice in the United States and seeks to be open and present for those facing death. B.J. Miller is executive director.

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