Master Uy, a Buddhist monk in El Monte, California, escaped Communist Vietnam in 1990. He is one of the so-called, “Boat People,” a group of some 2 million refugees who fled Vietnam from the time of the fall of Saigon in 1976 until the mid-1990s. Approximately 800,000 of those refugees settled in the United States, some 65,000 in Houston.
During their treacherous journey, many found comfort and solace calling on Quan Âm, a Buddhist bodhisattva— an enlightened individual who continues to aide humanity — revered throughout Asia as ‘Guanyin,’ (or by other names) who is believed to be a compassionate mother to all who call on her for help in time of need.
Every year in the spring, over 10,000 Vietnamese Buddhist monks, laity and practitioners make the pilgrimage to southwest Houston’s Vietnamese Buddhist Center (VBC) to celebrate the annual Quan Âm Festival at the feet of what is claimed to be the largest Quan Âm statue in the Western Hemisphere. It is this festival that acts as the pinnacle point of the Vietnamese Buddhist calendar in the United States, a moment when they not only celebrate their Buddhist heritage, but their identification as Vietnamese and American.
Today, 1 percent of Americans claim to be Buddhist, with particular concentrations in Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Worldwide, there are an estimated 500 million Buddhists. By 2050, the Pew Research Center suggests, that the U.S. — due to immigration, birth rates, and community growth — will have the 10th largest Buddhist population per capita. That growth is bringing awareness, influence and some contentious issues to the fore in U.S. media.
Buddhism began about 2,500 years ago in what is now northern India. It 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 context and culture of each place and various lineages of teaching and tradition. While practices differ according to time and place, the concept of following the “dharma” — the Buddha’s fundamental teachings and doctrines — holds constant.
Journalists may encounter Buddhism in several ways — among immigrants, among U.S. converts or among people who adopt or appropriate Buddhist practices (e.g., meditation) without its beliefs. Though immigrant Buddhists outnumber converts, there tends to be little overlap between the two groups, and Buddhism’s profile in the U.S. is largely due to its outsized influence on popular culture.
One of the five largest religions of the world, Buddhism is based on the teachings of the historical Buddha — Shakyamuni. Buddha comes from the Sanskrit language, meaning “awakened.” Named in some texts as Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha was born in sixth century B.C. in northeast India. According to Buddhist tradition, he was born into a noble family that protected him from the horrors of the outside world, due to a prophecy at his birth that said he would either be a great king or a great religious leader. On a trip outside the palace he came upon the suffering of a few particular individuals. Seeing the suffering of this world he walked away from his noble right and instead lived the life of a religious ascetic in the Hindu tradition of his day.
He was an intense ascetic — sometimes living on only one piece of rice a day — who was influenced by a broader Indian/Hindu renunciate movement. He abandoned worldly life for the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. As he continued to live this way, he came to a time of enlightenment, or awakening, at the age of 35 sitting under a bodhi tree where he is said to have understood that the correct way of living was what is now called the “Middle Path” and its rejection of the extremes of both self-denial (which he experienced wandering around Northern India) and hedonism (which he experienced in the palace of his youth) and the embrace of compassion. This posture toward religious ideals and practice came to shape his teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Way. He believed in karma (actions have consequences) and cycles of death and rebirth.
In general, Buddhists do not explicitly worship any deities – technically the Buddha was an agnostic. However, in practice, multiple gods are interwoven into Buddhism by practitioners who have integrated deities from regional religions throughout Asia. Depending upon the thread of Buddhism that one follows, there are various ideas of what and who the deities are — or whether they exist at all.
There are also various forms — or manifestations — of the Buddha throughout the world. Sometimes he is seen simply as an enlightened human in history (“The Enlightened One”), sometimes as a Buddha of paradise (“Amitabha”) or as a Buddha of the future (“Maitreya”). In other traditions there is more than one Buddha.
Then there are Buddha’s disciples — “the Arhats” — and “other enlightened ones” known as bodhisattvas who graciously remain in human form to help others reach enlightenment. The most famous examples of a bodhisattvas are perhaps the Dalai Lama who is claimed by the Tibetans to be incarnation of the deified teacher Chenresi/Avalokiteshvara. There is also Guan Yin (a.k.a., Guanyin or Quan Âm) who is an East and Southeast Asian bodhisattva associated with compassion and venerated as a kind of “Goddess of Compassion and Mercy” in places like China, Korea, Vietnam, and their diasporas (for example, by the Vietnamese Buddhists in Houston, Texas referenced above).
When the Buddha died, his oral teachings were collected into volumes that formed the core of Buddhist sacred texts. These are called the Sutras. There is also a collection known as the Tripitaka, the ‘Three Baskets of Knowledge,’ or the Pali Canon. This canon, which means “the word of the Buddha,” includes some of the Buddha’s discourses, but it also includes teachings from his pupils as well.
There are numerous other collections of teachings from the Arhats, the bodhisattvas and modern day teachers such as lamas and sensei. In addition to these sacred texts, there are commentaries on these texts that are considered authoritative for Buddhist life and practice. Different Buddhist traditions follow their own canonical and noncanonical texts to varying degrees.
Unlike other Buddhists, Zen Buddhists don’t tend to emphasize the sacred texts. The very nature of Zen Buddhism is transcending intellect, logic and language, drawing nearer to the meaning of life through meditation.
The sheer number of authoritative Buddhist texts, and attitudes toward them, adds to the confusion of what Buddhism “really is” and allows for considerable innovation by Buddhists past and present.
The basic teachings shared among Buddhist traditions are: first, to do no harm to any living being; second, to do good; and third, to purify the mind from impurity. Buddhist religious practice is the formal discipline of sitting meditation and mindfulness in everyday life.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are: 1) suffering is universal, 2) there is a cause of suffering and it is attachment to self and worldly desire, 3) there is an end to samsara, the cycle of suffering, and this end is nirvana [enlightenment or awakening] and 4) there is a way that leads to enlightenment or awakening – the Eightfold Way.
The Eightfold Way of righteous living involves right meditation (mental condition), right intention (pure thoughts and motives), right speech (speak truthfully, but kindly), right action (be kind and do not hurt), right livelihood (have a vocation that does not cause pain), right effort (focus on cleansing and changing), right mindfulness (be aware of what you do) and right concentration (work for inner peace).
There are various terms in Buddhism that are used in popular culture, but may not necessarily be understood. Terms such as nirvana, dharma, karma, samsara and the like can prove confusing to someone from another faith tradition.
Karma is probably the most well ‘known’ of the Buddhist terms. Karma is accrued from worldly attachments and is affected by present day actions. Essentially, the doctrine of karma says that every present deed actively impacts future experiences and consequences. You are responsible for all your life and action, and in some way the consequences of your actions come back to you. This is all predicated on the ultimate truth and existence of the dharma, or divine reality of the universe; dharma being a mechanical law without any deference to a deity.
Nirvana is the break from the cycle of life (a.k.a. samsara). Nirvana is different from Hindu moksha in that it means you become indistinguishable from the rest of reality (like a drop of wine into the ocean). Moksha on the other hand means that you break free from life and become part of the greater theo-reality of the Brahman.
For summaries of basic Buddhist teachings, take a look at the following resources:
- 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.
- Introduction to Buddhism: A brief, scholarly introduction to Buddhism by Stanford professor Waka Takahashi Brown.
- Buddhism for Beginners: A colorfully illustrated introduction provided by Tricycle magazine, one of the foremost Buddhist publications in the U.S.
- Buddhism Religion Library: Read about the origins, history, rituals, worship, beliefs, ethics and community of Buddhism on the Patheos library. The library also includes more specific entries on Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism. Patheos is a website intended for global dialogue about religion and spirituality through its library, online discussions, blog posts and more.
- Harvard University offers two resources for those interested in learning more about Buddhist traditions. First, the Pluralism Project’s “Introduction to Buddhism.” Second, a free online course called, “Buddhism Through Its Scriptures.”
- 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.
Branches & Groups
The Buddha’s message spread north to China, Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia, Korea and Japan and south to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. European scholars brought Buddhism to Western Europe in the 1800s, and the religion was formally introduced in the United States in the 1890s.
Schools and sub-schools of Buddhism, emphasizing various aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, have developed over the centuries with little conflict.
Buddhism has several main branches: The major divisions of Buddhism are: Theravada (a.k.a. The Way of the Elders or unfortunately the “Lesser Vehicle”), Mahayana (a.k.a. the “Greater Vehicle”) and Vajrayana (a.k.a. Indestructible Diamond Vehicle or Tantric Buddhism). These three major paths, or vehicles, also include the sub-divisions of Pure Land, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. More common sects like Pure Land, Zen and Insight meditation are within the fold of Mahayana Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is the most visible form of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhism, which is part of a broader Southern tradition practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, and also known as the Way of the Elders bases its teaching on the early Buddhist Scriptures – primarily the Pali canon, which expound upon rules about the sangha (or religious community) and contain the teachings of the Buddha and commentary on his teachings. In Theravada the individual is responsible for themselves and their own nirvana. All Buddhists in this tradition are taught to trust in the Triple Gem — the Buddha, the Dhamma (aka Dharma, principle of cosmic order), and the sangha. The formulaic ritual saying, “going for refuge in the Triple Gem” is heard often from Theravada Buddhists. Theravada Buddhists stress mindful meditation. There is a high emphasis on monks and the monastery in Theravada Buddhism; in fact, some would say that the only way to nirvana is by total dedication to the Way through joining a monastery. Families in Asia will often dedicate their first born son to a monastery or other times the head of the household, once retired, may spend a season at the monastery.
Mahayana Buddhism pushes against the individualism of Theravada Buddhism, and instead stresses that all of us exist within the dharma as a ‘network’ of souls. They teach that the Buddha tapped into something when he came to nirvana. It is part of a broader East Asian stream practiced in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and their diasporas. Some Mahayana teachers call the network of souls the ‘Buddha Nature.’ As a follower of the Buddha, the individual strives to tap into this along with others. Mahayana Buddhists adhere to the Tripitaka, but also rely upon the teachings of the bodhisattvas and they prioritise various scriptures, which they believe to be more advanced than the simple Tripitaka.
As Cathy Cantwell and Hiroko Kawanami write, “East Asian Buddhism [of which Mahayana Buddhism plays an outsized role] has coexisted with a variety of regional practices and beliefs such as Daoism in China, Shamanism in Korea, and Shinto in Japan. Moreover, a prevalent undercurrent of indigenous folk religions and ancestor worship has added to its diversity and pluralistic orientation.” (Religions in the Modern World, 78)
Within the ranks of Mahayana Buddhism are Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism most likely originated in China and centres on Buddha Amitabha (a.k.a. Amida, Amitofo) who dwells in the Pure Land, which is described as a ‘Buddha field’. Often it is perceived to exist in the ‘west’ of the earth. It is not an ultimate paradise, but only a better place in which to practise the dharma, in order to gain better karmic merit, and so reach enlightenment quicker. There is no sin, suffering, evil, impure thoughts, mountains or animals in the pure land. There are instead plains, rivers, humans, gods, palaces etc. To get there you need to meditate upon Amitabha (variations include simply believing in Amitabha or chanting his name etc.).The more you meditate the closer you come to living your next life in the Pure Land.
Zen Buddhism is another tradition within Mahayana Buddhism, and it is very well seen in the popular culture of the West. The Chinese word for Zen is ‘Ch’an’ or meditation. Zen Buddhists teach that the Buddha Nature is inside of you, you just do not know it yet. They do not hold to any writings in particular, but instead believe that writings and teachers can sometimes get in the way of you finding the Buddha Nature within. Zen Buddhists believe that direct experience alone leads to truth. This is very individualistic. They believe that satori (illumination) is the goal of meditation and that it can come either gradually or in one sudden shock of revelation.
Finally, there is Vajrayana Buddhism, or sometimes known as Northern Buddhism. Practiced largely in Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan areas (e.g. Mongolia and parts of China) this group derives its teachings from Indian Buddhism from the Pala dynasty incorporating monastic scholarship, Mahayana traditions, and tantric practices. Some religious commentators note that this is a syncretism of Mahayana Buddhism and Shamanism. In Vajrayana Buddhism (or tantrayana) one learns how to transform the mind to be like an ‘indestructible diamond’. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Vajrayana Buddhism. The Dalai Lama would be a major figure within this tradition, though as we will explore next week he also stands outside of it in major ways as a political and popular figure as well.
What about secular Buddhism? What if the aim of Buddhism was not nirvana—release from the cycle of rebirth—but thriving in the day-to-day grind of human life within a broader Buddhist ethical framework? In this collection of Batchelor’s writings on Buddhist practice, readers get an overview of his perspectives on practicing Buddhism without its religious sensibilities. Exploring ancient texts and a cast of characters from Buddhist history, Batchelor tries to recover the historical Buddha and provide a renewed “Buddhist vision for our times.”
The goal of this “Buddhism 2.0” is doing something, not believing in something. At times, Batchelor (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) comes off as condescending toward popular approaches to Buddhism or religion in general, and he admittedly co-opts Buddhism’s historical sources, plunders its practical ethics, and appropriates its philosophical premises for his own purposes. In the broader context of increasingly numerous secular approaches to religion (or religious approaches to secularism), Batchelor’s work will undoubtedly appeal to many “spiritual, but not religious” readers.
What is Mahayana Buddhism? A scholar of Buddhism explains
By Pierce Salguero, The Conversation
November 17, 2022
(The Conversation) – Mahayana is the name of one of the two primary branches of Buddhism. The word is formulated from the Sanskrit “mahā,” meaning great or large, and “yāna,” meaning vehicle. Taken together, the term can be translated as the Great Vehicle.
As I explain in my book “Buddhish: A Guide to the 20 Most Important Buddhist Ideas for the Curious and Skeptical,” Mahayana is the most popular type of Buddhism in the world today.
How is Mahayana different?
There has been considerable scholarly debate about precisely how the Mahayana emerged. Early Buddhism in India advocated that followers apply themselves to the practice of meditation to become enlightened individuals, or “arhats.” Scholars believe that Mahāyāna emerged in the first centuries A.D. as a movement among devout monastics who were interested in methods that would allow one to progress toward enlightenment more rapidly than through meditation alone.
Some of the most important Mahayana practices included memorizing, chanting, listening to, copying and worshiping scriptures or “sūtras.” Its practitioners were also interested in ways to accumulate karmic merit or good karma as a means of propelling themselves along the path to Buddhahood.
Over time, Mahayana developed into a new kind of Buddhism that differed markedly from earlier forms — which it often has denigrated as the Lesser Vehicle or “Hinayāna.”
Mahayana became notable for significant developments in Buddhist doctrine and philosophy. Popular Mahayana scriptures such as the Lotus Sūtra and the Flower Garland Sūtra also introduced a much more elaborate pantheon. Rather than just one Buddha named Siddhartha Gautama, there were many Buddhas. Each lived within its own world or dimension, called a Pure Land or Buddha Field or buddhakṣetra.
Additionally, Mahayana Buddhism introduced celestial bodhisattvas, powerful deities who helped the Buddhas and looked out for suffering beings across the universe. Practices such as prayer, offerings and chanting the names of Buddhas and bodhisattvas became popular among devotees who sought their blessings.
Mahayana around the world
It’s best to think of Mahayana Buddhism as a colorful and loose-knit family of Buddhist traditions rather than a singular school or sect. Carried by merchants and missionaries across the Silk Road and maritime trade routes, Mahayana was the form of Buddhism that was most readily adopted beyond India. By the fifth century, it was widespread across Asia from Afghanistan to Japan, and from Tibet to Indonesia.
Mahayana Buddhism continued to develop over the succeeding centuries as waves of influence continued to spread outward from India. In addition, local culture was a major factor in the development of regional types of Mahāyāna, resulting in traditions as diverse as Zen in Japan and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet.
A pre-Mahayana form of Buddhism called Theravada Buddhism still remains popular in Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia today. However, the vast majority of Buddhists in historical and contemporary times have been followers of Mahayana. Notable Mahāyāna leaders in the current era include the 14th Dalai Lamaand the late Thich Nhat Hanh.
Buddhism proclaims the dignity and worth of each living being, respect and compassion for all life and the need for all people to find their own path to enlightenment and to an understanding of the nature of life. Buddhism incorporates many different traditions, but some fundamental beliefs are shared across groups.
Reincarnation, or the idea that the consciousness is reborn when one dies, is a central tenet encompassing the concept that life is cyclical, and most people will experience many cycles of life, death and rebirth. Reincarnation differs from rebirth in the eyes of many Buddhists, however, in that reincarnation represents the soul or spirit coming back to life in a newborn body. Rebirth, on the other hand, can take many different forms, and it is not assumed that the deceased will return to earth in the same entity.
After many cycles, a person who has released their attachment to desire and self can achieve nirvana, a state of ultimate peace that is the goal of all beings. Nirvana represents freedom from suffering, desire and the cycle of rebirth.
The Four Noble Truths refer to the fundamental realizations that the historical Buddha came to in meditation and then taught to his followers: Life is suffering; the cause of suffering is craving; suffering can be eliminated by the extinguishing of craving; there is a way to achieve this goal (by following the eight principles of conduct known as the Eightfold Path).
The Eightfold Path refers to the eight practical steps taught by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, to end craving and thus eliminate suffering. The steps are right understanding, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Together with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path constitutes the foundation of Buddhist thought.
The Buddha’s Eightfold Path consists of:
- Right understanding of the Four Noble Truths
- Right intention; following the right path in life
Sila, virtue, morality, ethical conduct:
- Right speech; no criticism, lying or harsh language
- Right conduct by following the Five Precepts
- Right livelihood; supporting yourself without harming others
Samadhi, concentration, meditation:
- Right effort towards privileging good thoughts over evil thoughts
- Right mindfulness and being aware of your body and mind
- Right concentration and meditation.
The Five Precepts mentioned in the Eightfold Path are a series of training rules to be followed by Buddhists. If one breaks a rule, he or she must learn from it and move forward with a better understanding of how not to break the rules in the future. These precepts guide ethical and moral behavior.
The Five Precepts:
1. To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings.
2. To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given.
3. To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct
4. To undertake the training to refrain from false speech.
5. To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness.
The entrance into the right of Buddhism is generally understood to be the three fold confession of ‘taking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha’. In general, the practical expression of Buddhism can be summed up by saying that all Buddhists, from whatever tradition, try to live in such a way as to avoid accruing bad karma and by doing so eventually come to nirvana. The majority of Buddhists do this by living according to the Eightfold Way. The different vehicles (or traditions) of Buddhism lead to various practical expressions. Some general practical expressions are covered here.
The most general practical expressions of Buddhism are mediation and ritual, which take place in many different places, but most visibly in monasteries, at shrines or at temples (a ‘wat’ if you are visiting Thailand). Meditation practices vary amongst Buddhist adherents.
With that said, the ways Buddhists practice the dharma are as numerous as the sands on the beach. This is due to two things. First, there are various divisions and subdivisions of Buddhism, which were explored above. Secondly, each of these divisions does not necessarily split over what they believe, but how they practice Buddhism. Instead of asking you ‘what you believe’, a Buddhist is more likely to ask you ‘what is your practice?’
Theravadan Buddhists focus on the meditation and practices of monks in the monastery, and those who do not live in the monastery attempt to avoid bad karma by supporting monks and nuns. Broadly speaking, Mahayana focuses on less meditation and more devotion, things like prayer wheels and compassionate acts of mercy. The Zen branch of Mahayana Buddhism focuses on meditation and employs things like haiku poetry, martial arts, gardening, tea ceremonies, long and strict meditation, and koans (riddles, questions for thought etc.). Vajrayana Buddhism also focuses on meditation but also uses the mandala, mudra and mantra extensively.
Although monasteries are not universal, most Buddhist traditions do have monks and teachers who live at monasteries. Traditionally there are two sanghas (communities of monks) – one of men and one of women.
In addition to monasteries, people can practice Buddhism in a myriad of places such as temples, retreat centers or with the aid of individual shrines in their homes and local communities. There is no strict adherence to where these can be done, although in Theravadan Buddhism the monastery is the only place the Eightfold Path can be fully realized and lived out.
In Buddhist traditions, regardless of the title, teaching authority is established through lineage. The authority of a teacher is predicated upon the teacher who trained and ordained them. In this way Buddhists the world over trace their lineage through various teachers back to major buddhas, bodhisattvas, the Arhats or Buddha himself.
There are three frequently encountered means of meditation in the Mahayana traditions (and which are often visible in the West): mantras, mudras and mandalas. Check out the following three posts to learn more about each.
MANTRAS are chants of allegedly karmic bearing words. The point of mantras is that in chanting a phrase your mind and body focus on making the notes, whether they be extremely high or low, or saying the repetitive words clearly. You can differentiate between various groups according to the chants they do. Some Buddhists accrue good karma through mantras that are written on things like Tibetan prayer flags, prayer wheels and other forms of motion. Each time a prayer flag waves, a prayer bell is rung, or a prayer wheel spins, good karma is being accrued for the one in possession of, or spinning the vehicle of, the mantra.
MUDRAS are postures or hand positions that convey some truth. Many Buddha statues have the Buddha sitting in a meditative position with his hands in mudra positions. These mudras show different aspects of the Buddha’s journey and thus help practicing Buddhists walk their own path to enlightenment.
As symbolic or ritual gestures (in Hindu traditions as well as Buddhist traditions) some mudras involve the entire body, but most are performed with just the hands and/or fingers.
MANDALAS are geometric paintings and other forms of art that are very complex, particular and precise. They have complex theology embedded in them, including the physical location and invocation of deities. They are used as tools for meditation.
Originally a term from Sanskrit, mandala literally means “circle.” In can take form as a schematic visual of the universe or as a guide for spiritual meditation. They can be painted on paper, wood, stone, cloth, or walls. They have also recently become popularized in adult coloring books!
The methods used in creating mandalas are very precise and merged with different rituals including the chantings of sacred formulas. Mandalas may be based on or include a variety of geometric shapes using patterns that have evolved from different symbols.
According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, “In the many traditions where mandalas are used, there are different rites where the practitioner, at least metaphorically, establishes a dialogue with the symbol or deity at the core of the mandala by moving progressively from the outside towards the centre. Once within the centre, the practitioner connects with the central symbol or deity and he or she is able to perceive all manifestations as part of a single underlying whole and gets closer to the goal of enlightenment or perfect understanding. The Vajrayana Buddhist school (Tantric Buddhism), has a very complex set of rituals. In order to help the disciples to gain enlightenment, they use a wide range of physical disciplines and tools including mandalas. This school believes that achieving enlightenment by traditional methods requires a very long time, even many lifetimes, while the methods used in Vajrayana can deliver the same result in just a single lifetime.” Pictured here is a Tibetan Buddhist monk working on a mandala for public meditation and display in Atlanta, GA.
BUDDHIST PRAYER FLAGS – Originally thought to be symbols of battle and protection in the colors of the five elements and then reimagined over the centuries as prayer flags printed with mantras and symbols, these flags now evoke the ethos of Buddhist culture and make the perfect backpacker cliché souvenir.
In countries from Mongolia to Japan, Myanmar to Vietnam, and Nepal to China, they hang over frenetic city streets, from serene temple awnings, and across forgotten Himalayan valleys. For independent travelers their welcoming presence often signifies arrival in a backpacker street with cheap hostels, used book stores, cafes serving ubiquitous banana pancakes, and pubs filled with smoke and stories. The sound of their fluttering inspires musicians, the primary-colored design inspires artists, and the practice of prayer inspires spiritual seekers.
Perhaps as iconic as the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China, Buddhist Prayer flags are a powerful symbol of the very spirit and movement of travel itself.
“The more you give, the more will be yours to give”: The Karmic Philanthropy of Kushil Gunasekera
By Nalika Gajaweera, The Arrow Journal
May 13, 2021
(The Arrow Journal) – “I want to be one of the nicest human beings that this earth has seen,” Sri Lankan Buddhist philanthropist Kushil Gunasekera told me in an interview early in 2020.
I’ve known Kushil for years, so I’m no longer surprised when he makes such bold pronouncements about his life goals. From the naming of his humanitarian organization as the Foundation of Goodness, to its organizational mission of promoting “unconditional compassion,” bold claims of moral excellence are fundamental to Kushil’s understanding of himself as a Buddhist humanitarian.
At first glance, Kushil’s ambition to be one of the nicest human beings may seem overzealous or even audacious. Yet, such a gloss would overlook Kushil’s passionate and earnest desire to cultivate and perfect his spiritual vocation of generosity.
Take for instance the time when, facing severe personal financial duress, Kushil used the last remaining credit on his credit card to pay the college fees for three children of a woman he hardly knew.
Facing financial bankruptcy, he had mortgaged his home for a personal loan. He was not deriving a salary from his organization, for he believed that relying on charitable contributions given to an organization primarily to serve poor beneficiaries was akin to deriving a “profit” from others’ misery. Taking financial benefit from humanitarian work, he felt, tainted the purity of his intention of unconditional compassion. At the outset of his charitable work, Kushil supported himself and his daughters from the proceeds of the sale of his lucrative sugar import business. Yet, over the years, those resources had run dry.
It was in the midst of this significant financial uncertainty that he received a phone call from a widow in Sri Lanka who needed urgent financial help. The woman’s husband had died suddenly, and she found herself struggling to pay for the final semester of her children’s education. Someone she knew who had heard of Kushil’s altruism had suggested she reach out to him for help.
“I told her, ‘Look, your problem is far worse than mine, I have one month to worry about my next payment and I can somehow sort that out, you go ahead and pay this now,’” he recalled. “At that moment, there was a fire that was burning within her and I was able to just put it out.”
Kushil reminded me of the phrase, “When you give more, you get more.” But he lives by another phrase: “The more you give, the more will be yours to give.”
“And you know, this has happened to me many times,” he said. “It’s a miracle. Every time I want to do something good, money has come from somewhere.”
Social change-making through humanitarian work is a field that for the most part is centered around a secular moral discourse; that is, the focus of the work is on ending social injustice, affirming equality, and advocating for fundamental human rights. Yet, amid the aid world’s landscape of good works, there are also individuals and groups who engage in these efforts out of motivations that are not reducible to liberal humanist reasoning and who undertake this type of work as a kind of spiritual vocation.
There are many Buddhist scriptures and texts, and no single text is preferred by all traditions of Buddhism. For the most part, scriptures are in Pali, Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese, but some texts still exist in Sanskrit. Over time, efforts have been made to formulate a single text to encompass all the primary teachings in Buddhism, but this has not been universally successful.
The major texts include:
- Tripitaka (Pali Canon): The Tripitaka (Pali Canon), which means “Three Baskets,” is the earliest collection of Buddha’s teachings and the only text revered by Theravada Buddhists. It includes the Vinaya Pitaka (“Basket of Discipline”), the Sutta Pitaka (“Basket of Discourses” ) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (“Basket of Higher Teachings”). The Vinaya Pitaka deals with rules for Theravada monks and nuns and explains etiquette and conventions for the monastic community. The Sutta Pikata includes more than 10,000 discourses mostly delivered by the Buddha, although some are attributed to his disciples. The Abhidhamma Pitaka includes theoretical frameworks of philosophy, psychology, metaphysics and others.
- Buddhist Sutras: The Sutras are held sacred by Mahayana Buddhists. They are a loose collection of texts designed to unify contradictions among the various teachings and thus very difficult to describe succinctly.
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol, records the stages of death and rebirth. It is intended to guide one through the bardo, or the conscious interval between death and rebirth.
- “A Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms”: AccessToInsight.org posts John Bullitt’s “A Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms.”
- “Glossary of Buddhist Terms”: See a glossary of terms relevant to the Buddhist faith.
Dying ‘the Buddhist way’ gains in hospice centers in the West
By Ken Chitwood, Religion News Service
November 12, 2020
BERLIN (RNS) – The man, a local baker, appeared one morning at Sukhavati, a Buddhist center for the dying in the north German spa town of Bad Saarow. ”His friends said he never talked about being a Buddhist,” Oliver Peters, head of spiritual care and volunteering at Sukhavati, said of the unexpected client, who died that evening. “Only one friend knew his little secret, but his wish was to live and die the Buddhist way.”
There is no single “way of death” in a faith that is the dominant religion across Southeast Asia and Japan, and rites vary greatly by region, culture, class and tradition. But Buddhism puts an emphasis on encountering death that is answering a call in the West for a more spiritual approach to palliative care, hospice service and chaplaincy programs.
“In Buddhism, there are a lot of texts and sutras that emphasize death and dying,” said Dr. Tuck Wai Chan, a physician in Singapore who has worked to bring Buddhist ideas about the end of life into hospitals. “In certain traditions, the whole purpose of Buddhist practice is about death and dying. … We know death well.”
In the past decade and more, a Buddhist end-of-life movement has sprung up in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, testifying to a need for spiritual accompaniment at the end of life that is felt not only by an aging generation of Buddhist converts and immigrants but to those who only know that a secular, clinical approach is not enough.
Buddhanet’s Buddhist Hospice Directory lists about 20 such hospices in predominantly English-speaking countries, as well as Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. There are many more, such as Sukhavati, not listed on the site.
At Sukhavati, Peters said the center looks to the teaching of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, particularly the bestselling “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” by Sogyal Rinpoche.
In practice, this means the regular chanting of mantras, guided meditations on death and instructions from Sogyal Rinpoche’s book on the passages and obstacles faced in what are known as “the bardos” — the liminal states between death and rebirth.
Finally, the body is attended to for three days after death. Requiring special permission from the German health authorities, this time allows the deceased to be honored by family and friends, guided through the bardos, and for those left living to contemplate the separation of the body and mind at death.
A belief in Buddhism is not required, Peters said: “We don’t want to make people Buddhists. Everyone can come here — Muslim, Christian, atheist.
“We want to help the people to live and to die how they believe and want,” he said. “It’s important for us, what someone believes. If someone is a Christian, we find a Christian priest. We try to be open.”
To that end, Peters and his team have worked with a range of religious leaders to provide spiritual accompaniment for the dying. Recently, Peters sat by a Muslim man’s bedside as an imam said prayers and recited verses from the Quran.
Peters tells of a client who came to spend his last day at Sukhavati despite never being interested in Buddhism. When Peters asked him why, he simply said, “I am here that you pray for me.”
People like this man, said Peters, “don’t really know where they are, but they like the environment or they’ve heard something about the Dalai Lama or think that Buddhists are quiet and peaceful. Maybe they don’t have a good history with Christianity and they think Buddhists are better with caring for the dying.”
But in the rising popularity of places like Sukhavati is an implicit critique of conventional Western views of life and death. Frank Ostaseski, Buddhist teacher and co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, said that, in a consumerist culture often enchanted by youth, Buddhist hospice care is offering an alternative whose unvarnished view of death also offers a new perspective on living.
It also suggests that people are realizing they don’t want to end their lives in the company of medical professionals, said Ostaseski, author of “The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully.”
We don’t “want to just give this over to medicine anymore,” he said. “Death is much more than a medical event.”
Medical professionals from a variety of backgrounds have echoed Ostaseski’s point and are recommending that Buddhist principles be part of palliative and hospice care.
In a paper in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, co-authors Dr. Eva K. Masel, Dr. Sophie Schur and Dr. Herbert H. Watzke wrote, “Buddhist teachings may lead to a more profound understanding of incurable diseases and offer patients the means by which to focus their minds while dealing with physical symptoms and ailments.”
Buddhist spirituality, said Chan, the Singaporean doctor, doesn’t aim to alleviate fears about death by concentrating on an afterlife. “Buddhists reflect on difficult things like death in order to deal with it, to make a better life in full view of the difficult facts.
“One of the key principles of Buddhism is balance — between compassion and wisdom, faith and facts. It is like a bird with two wings. The balance makes us able to fly,” he said.
Nor does Chan advocate that medical professionals be involved in patients’ spirituality or use of Buddhism as a method of care. But he suggested that a basic literacy in Buddhism makes them able to provide compassion and comfort alongside medical insight.
“Medical science isn’t able to treat and cure everyone,” he said, “but they can provide comfort to everyone.”
That comfort can transform caregivers as well as patients.
Chenxing Han, author of “Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists,“ spent a summer volunteering for the Brahmavihara AIDS Project in Cambodia, the country with the highest per capita concentration of Buddhists.
“It was a humbling summer,” she said. “I did not speak Khmer and my undergraduate degree had not taught me how to be present with people who are severely ill and dying. Many times I wanted to run away, to flinch from the reality before me.”
Her mentors at Brahmavihara helped her by modeling a spiritual care “suffused with steadiness, love, faith and compassion,” she said.
After her time in Cambodia, Han not only deepened her own Buddhist practice, but volunteered at the Pathways hospice in California’s Bay Area, then enrolled for formal training as a Buddhist chaplain at the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in Redwood City, California.
“As a chaplain,” she said, “my work was not the same as hospice, though many of the patients I met died.
“For me, Buddhism isn’t all gloom and doom,” she said. “I appreciate Buddhism’s lessons for life and living as much as its insights on death and dying.”
Through her experiences, Han said, she learned that “the chaplain’s role is in many ways countercultural to the biomedical model of care.
“In the chaplain’s view, death is not a failure, but a sacred transition that awaits us all.”
Most Buddhist holidays are based on the lunar calendar and are celebrated at different times depending on country, ethnic background and tradition.
The Buddha’s birthday (and in some traditions, his enlightenment and death) is the focus of a festival in May called Wesak. There are also many holy days of celebration for the birthdays of Bodhisattvas in the Mahayana tradition.
In countries with Theravadin traditions, such as Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos, the Buddhist New Year is celebrated for three days in April. Areas with predominant Mahayana populations, such as China, Korea and Vietnam, start the new year at the first full moon in January. Tibetan Buddhists tend to celebrate in March.
Additional celebrations include Magha Puja Day, Dhamma Day, Observance Day, Kathina Ceremony, Festival of Floating Bowls, Elephant Festival, Festival of the Floating Tooth, Ancestor Day and many others.
- “Buddhist Festivals and Special Days”: Read a listing of Buddhist festivals and special days on Buddhanet.com.
- “Buddhist Personal Ceremonies”: Read a description of Buddhist personal ceremonies, such as marriages and funeral rites.
Where the Search for Simplicity Leads
By Megan Sweas, Yes! Magazine
August 10, 2021
(Yes!) – Before entering monastic life, Brother Chân Pháp Dung gave away his worldly possessions. The last step was cutting up his credit, insurance, and store membership cards. All was left was his driver’s license and passport.
“That is the moment where you realize, actually this is all a prison,” the Buddhist monk recalls. Fear may force us to seek security through money, a house, cell phone, and insurance, but he adds, “Are you secure inside?”
Pháp Dung (the name he was given upon ordination) is among a unique set of people—those whose spirituality has led them to eschew material consumption. As part of the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s global project on engaged spirituality, a team of journalists and researchers have interviewed 80 exemplary individuals committed to making the world a better place. For a significant number of these people, living simply is more than enough, it is a source of freedom.
Wisdom traditions across the world privilege restraint over consumption and generosity over greed. This common thread points to simplicity not as a pietistic virtue for true believers, but an ethical path for those of us who feel the weight of the contradiction between our values and lifestyles.
Notes on coverage
About visiting a temple
- Casual dress is acceptable at most temples. Modest dress is preferred. Some temples expect more formal attire, so it is best to check in advance with the temple you are visiting.
- Oftentimes you may be asked to remove your shoes.
- It is customary to arrive early to service.
- Guests should not leave during meditation, but participation is optional. Talking during service is also inappropriate.
- Use of reporting equipment (i.e. camera, flash, video camera, tape recorder, etc.) should be approved by a priest or monk at the temple.
- When addressing clergy, they may be called Reverend, Lama, or Roshi.
- A priest, monk, or nun leads service.
- Statues and other representations of the Buddha are not idols for worship, but are instead symbols of enlightenment, representing the highest ideals of perfect wisdom and compassion.
In remote Himalayan desert, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians unite to protect land, heritage
By Priyadarshini Sen, Religion News Service
March 2, 2023
NEW DELHI (RNS) — On Jan. 26, when 56-year-old Buddhist engineer-innovator Sonam Wangchuk started his hunger strike in the remote Himalayan desert of Ladakh, Muslims and Buddhists — communities divided for more than six decades — rallied around him.
Wangchuk was on a five-day symbolic fast to draw the attention of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government to the demands of the people of Ladakh. Currently governed by India, the union territory of Ladakh in the larger Kashmir region has been a major point of dispute among India, Pakistan and China since 1947.
“I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I am saying we were better off with Jammu and Kashmir than today’s union territory,” Wangchuk said in one of his video statements during the protest.
In 2019, when India’s government, led by Narendra Modi, revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and divided it into two federally governed territories — Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir and Buddhist-dominant Ladakh — Buddhists cheered the decision.
But four years later, the people of Ladakh, who were once friendly allies of the Modi government, have united with the Muslims of Ladakh’s second largest district, Kargil, to challenge BJP’s politics.
Buddhists and Shiite Muslims — the two dominant communities in Ladakh — are now demanding full statehood, greater parliamentary representation, constitutional safeguards and job reservations.
“We were happy back then,” said Lama Nyantak, who has been at the forefront of the protests over the last three years. “But when our utopia ended, all religious leaders decided to come together.”
Scattered protests started right after the revocation in 2019. But Wangchuk’s leadership has broadened the protests, bringing different communities together.
Nyantak explains that Ladakhis initially welcomed the government’s decision to strip Kashmir of its autonomy since they felt sidelined by the Jammu and Kashmir government. They thought the move would safeguard their lands and livelihoods. But now they feel their dispossession has increased.
Ladakh has neither received tribal area status nor has its demand for its own legislature been met. Instead, Ladakhis say the government is pushing ahead with mega development projects that would displace the Indigenous people and threaten their ecologically fragile region.
“Our protest isn’t just political,” said Sajjad Kargili, a social activist from Ladakh’s Muslim-majority Kargil region. “It is for safeguarding our lands, culture, local languages and environment.”
Kargili believes Ladakh’s change of status has united everyone on the grounds of their shared history.
“We are going from village to village to educate people about our common heritage,” said Dechen Chamgha, a former pastor and president of the Christian Association of Leh district. “During COVID-19 our work suffered, but now religious functions have become major mobilization platforms.”
Chamgha said he narrates stories from the past to forge unity among people and break stereotypes.
“I tell them how Muslims and non-Muslims would cook meat in the same vessel, about interfaith marriages and our vibrant secular democratic polity.”
Spearheading these solidarity-building campaigns in the towns and villages are Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance — civil society groups consisting of social, political and religious leaders.
Feroz Khan, a leading member of the Kargil Democratic Alliance, said the movement has been effective because “faith leaders are trusted more than political parties” in their religious society.
Muslim scholars trained in Islamic law are teaching Ladakhis about the need to preserve their environment and cultural heritage during Friday prayers, gatherings and religious programs.
Of particular concern is the government’s green light to several mega development and industrial projects since the region came under its direct rule that locals believe would adversely impact their land.
Seven hydropower projects are proposed to be built on the River Indus, while the government has announced plans for a major solar energy plant in the fragile Pang region of Changthang.
“We are not against development,” said Jigmat Paljor, a social activist and member of the Leh Apex Body. “But these projects should not be at the cost of livestock and the livelihoods of nomadic people.”
Paljor fears that renewable energy projects will be a drain on natural resources such as glacier water and will alter the ways in which land is used in the region, including concerns over the disposal of solar panel debris.
Ladakhi protest groups have said the development projects sanctioned in Delhi would only jeopardize the demography of the region — 97% of Ladakh is tribal — and drown out the voices of Indigenous people.
“These grassroots-level concerns are being raised by our community and faith leaders,” said Nazir Mehdi, the president of Jamiat-ul-Ulama Isna Asharia, Ladakh’s largest Islamic organization.
Mehdi said religious leaders are harnessing the community spirit in the region through their village walks, programs and conferences, as well as social media.
Such online mobilization campaigns proved effective during Wangchuk’s five-day symbolic fast for Ladakhis’ rights.
When Wangchuk held his fast, performed in the open when temperatures dropped to -13 Fahrenheit, Buddhists across Ladakh’s towns and villages organized symbolic retreats to express their solidarity and nonviolent resistance to discrimination.
“On the last day of his fast, Buddhist monks led prayers at the Chokhang Vihara Temple where over 500 devotees had congregated,” said Chering Dorjay Lakrook, the vice president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association. “All the Buddhist monks were supporting Wangchuk’s protest.”
Mohammad Taha, a member of Jamiat-ul-Ulama Isna Asharia, says Ladakh’s diverse Muslim community also turned up in large numbers to support Wangchuk.
“Muslims and Buddhists were kept apart by politicians for their own selfish agendas,” said Taha at the protest site. “Our idea is to strengthen community bonds so Ladakh is saved.”
Even though communal conflicts have not been reported widely from the region, some incidents have created rifts. Last June, for instance, a campaign by a Buddhist monk to lay the foundation of a Buddhist monastery in a Muslim neighborhood of Kargil sparked tension between the two communities. But some Buddhist leaders suspect the monk was manipulated by the BJP government.
Interfaith marriages and accusations of love jihad have also set communities apart in recent times.
But Ladakh’s current interfaith solidarity received a boost last September when Kargil’s leaders handed over a contentious tract of land to Buddhists for the construction of a small monastery.
“The monastery’s construction was a major bone of contention between the two communities since 1969,” said Sheikh Bashir Shakir of the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust, a socio-religious organization in Kargil. “This step has helped promote communal harmony in our region.”
Religious leaders are talking about initiating more interfaith dialogues around the growing politicization of religious identity and majoritarian politics across India.
“Ladakh’s interfaith traditions embedded in our Indigenous society are a major reference point,” said Dr Qayum of the minority Sunni community. “Those need to be safeguarded against internal threats and the deeply volatile situation along the border with China.”
In February, Ladakh’s political and religious leaders held a major demonstration in the center of India’s capital, New Delhi, to assert their demands. But the government’s response was lukewarm.
“The delaying tactics of the government has emboldened us,” said Shakir. “Our humanism and inclusive approach will hopefully inspire other nonviolent struggles across the world.”
Important and contentious issues
Buddhist teachings position themselves as rooted in peace, with scriptures that promote non-violence. Buddhism calls for respect of the lives of all beings and freedom from suffering, but conflict within Buddhist countries and groups has occurred and Buddhists have inflicted violence on adherents of other traditions.
Typically, Buddhist conflicts are conflated with intolerant ethnic and nationalist identities. In recent years and in combination with political, social and cultural factors, Buddhism has primarily clashed with Islam, as well as Hinduism and Christianity, in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. In Southeast Asia, Muslims make up more than 42 percent of the population, accounting for one quarter of the world’s Muslims, while Buddhists claim about 40 percent, accounting for two-fifths of the world’s Buddhists.
Conflicts in Southeast Asia
- In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalism has led to the complete separation of a previously coexistent population, with more than 150,000 internally displaced Muslim Rohingya people. The Rohingya are an ethnic minority who practice Islam, speak Rohingya and live in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Sparks of unrest in 2012 turned a tense relationship into violence. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency country profile of Myanmar, “there are over 1.2 million persons of concern in Myanmar. This figure includes 810,000 internally displaced persons and 600,000 stateless Rohingya, of which 148,000 remain displaced.”
- In Sri Lanka, the emergence of the ethnic Sinhalese majority’s Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) organization, or the “Buddhist Power Force,” has led to anti-Muslim sentiments and attacks on the country’s minority Muslim population off and on in recent decades. Christians have also been targeted. In 2009, the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists ended a nearly 26-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a predominantly Hindu group.
- In Thailand, the Buddhist-majority state’s political and cultural stigmatization of ethnic Malay Muslims has created long-standing violence.
- These conflicts have also fueled anti-Buddhist rhetoric and actions in India, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
News and Analysis:
“The military coup in Myanmar presents opportunities to Buddhist nationalists” – February 8, 2021, The Conversation
The military’s seizure of power in Myanmar and the detention of head of government Aung San Suu Kyi is far from the first time generals in the country have interfered in national politics.
Myanmar’s military has held a prominent political position in the country for decades. For almost 50 years – between 1962 and 2011 – the country was under successive military regimes.
These regimes displayed an ambivalent attitude to the country’s main religion, Buddhism – Buddhist movements, which were on the whole in opposition to military rule, were severely repressed. At the same time the military drew a significant level of legitimacy from nationalism, which in Myanmar is intrinsically linked to Buddhism.
As scholars of international relations who examine social movements, identity formation and conflict, we have studied the evolution and growth of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. While these groups might not be reliable allies for the military, they are a powerful force with a large grassroots base.
Emergence of a Buddhist nationalism
Myanmar is ethnically diverse. Its government officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups. In terms of religion, there is a sizable presence of Christian and Muslim minorities, but close to 90% of the population identifies as Buddhists.
The roots of Buddhist nationalism go back to the country’s colonial past. Myanmar came under British colonial rule in 1824. The colonial administration withdrew traditional state support for monasteries, promoted secular education, suppressed Buddhist practices and encouraged Christian missionary activity.
Under colonial rule, the British often moved local populations to different colonies. In Myanmar – called Burma under British rule, but changed by the military after crushing the pro-democracy movement in 1989 – the colonists brought in Hindu and Muslim Indians to serve in the colonial administration.
This resulted in Indian businessmen dominating some sectors of the economy. The British also promoted migrant labor to increase rice cultivation and profits. Between 1871 and 1911, the Muslim population tripled.
Each of these factors generated significant resentment among the majority Buddhist population. In the 1930s, violence erupted between Burmese and people of Indian descent. Muslims, in particular, were cast as a threat to the local way of life.
In 1948, Myanmar gained independence from British rule. But for the next 14 years, the country struggled with armed ethnic conflict and political instability.
During military rule, Buddhist groups were violently repressed. In 2007, some 80,000 Buddhist monks came out in protest against the military government’s decision to stop subsidies of fuel. This became known as the “Saffron Revolution.” The revolution itself was put down by the military regime, but experts believe it might have helped usher in the era of democratization which began in 2011.
It was at this time Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, or NLD, and daughter of Myanmar’s independence leader, General Aung San, was released from nearly 15 years in detention.
Resurgence of Buddhist nationalism
The current crisis unfolds in an environment of heightened tensions between Buddhist nationalists and minority groups. Since 2011, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence.
This surge was not coincidental. The military-appointed government that led the democratic transition between 2011 and 2016 lifted restrictions on speech and assembly, allowing Buddhist monks to engage politically. The most prominent of the nationalist groups was the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly referred to by its Burmese language acronym, MaBaTha, led by Buddhist monks.
Because of its highly decentralized nature, estimates of their membership vary greatly, but it is believed to have between 20,000 and 80,000 members in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, alone.
The MaBaTha Movement became an increasingly destabilizing actor, particularly in their vocal campaign against the Rohingya, and Suu Kyi’s government tried to curtail its growth by outlawing it in 2017. This did little to stop the movement’s growth, as it simply rebranded itself as the Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation and encouraged its followers to continue their work under that name.
Nationalism and its broad appeal
The nationalist rhetoric found appeal among wide swaths of the Buddhist population, and made Buddhist nationalism an important social force in Myanmar. In 2017, during the violent military crackdown on the Rohingya, there was significant popular support for their actions among Myanmar’s Buddhists.
Meanwhile Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are not blameless when it comes to encouragement of a certain type of Buddhist nationalism. In the run up to the 2015 elections, no Muslim appeared on the ballot for the ruling party or the opposition. The National League for Democracy did not allow Muslims to run as political candidates.
In 2017, the National League for Democracy actively participated in the attempts to discredit reports of atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
Despite this, many nationalists in Myanmar believe that Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are “weak” protectors of Buddhism.
Return to military rule
The military coup came as the new parliament was set to hold its first session since the November elections. Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy had won a substantive victory. The main opposition to the National League for Democracy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, or the USDP, has military support.
While there are no formal ties between the Union Solidarity and Development Party and Buddhist nationalist groups, the party’s rhetoric in the 2020 election campaign certainly courted them. They adopted the nationalist theme of “protecting” religion, portraying the National League for Democracy as a “religion-destroying” party.
Following the election, the Union Solidarity and Development Party accused the National League for Democracy of election fraud, but offered very little evidence to that effect. In this context of heightened tension and misinformation spreading online, the military made their move to seize power.
In addition to the nationalist rhetoric centering on religion, another sign that the military seeks the support of Buddhist nationalists is that among the many civil society actors arrested are three Buddhist monks who have been outspoken critics of both the military and the extreme Buddhist nationalist groups. This signals to Buddhist nationalists that their rivals from within the Buddhist monk community are also seen as a threat to the military. But Buddhist nationalists might not be reliable allies for the military. As history shows, they will not support a military regime unless it caters to their interests.
“Sri Lanka has a history of conflict, but the recent attacks appear different” – April 22, 2019, The Conversation
Sri Lanka has long been subject to extremist violence. Easter Sunday’s coordinated bomb blasts, which killed almost 300 and injured hundreds more, are the latest in a long history of ethno-religious tragedies.
While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, 24 people have been arrested. Three police were killed in their capture.
The Sri Lankan government has blamed the attacks on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a radical Islamist group known for vandalising Buddhist statues.
These attacks are different from previous ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka. By fomenting generalised religious hatred, they appear to have more in common with Al-Qaeda, which has sought specific political change.
or many, the bomb blasts immediately recalled Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war. The war was fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lanka government from 1983 until 2009.
In its final weeks, around 40,000 mostly Tamil civilians were killed, bringing the war’s total toll to more than 100,000 from a population of around 20 million.
The Tamil Tigers were completely destroyed in 2009. Many Tigers, including their leader, were summarily executed. There remains much bitterness among Tamils towards the ethnic majority Sinhalese, but there is no appetite for renewing a war that ended so disastrously.
A history of unrest
Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka were high prior to independence in 1948, and stoked by the 1956 election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike.
Bandaranaike proclaimed himself “defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture”, and oversaw the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act. The act privileged the country’s majority Sinhalese population and their religion of Buddhism over the minority Hindu and Muslim Tamils. The fallout from this legislation forced Bandaranaike to backtrack, but he was assassinated in 1959 by an extremist Buddhist monk for doing so.
Inter-ethnic tensions continued with outbursts of mob violence. In 1962, there was an attempted military coup, and in 1964, around 600,000 third and fourth generation “Indian” Tamils were forcibly removed to India.
In 1972, and again in 1987, the predominantly Sinhalese Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) launched insurrections that were bloodily suppressed. Clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils in 1983 led to an attack on a Sri Lankan army convoy. This sparked the “Black July” Sinhalese rampage against ethnic Tamils, leaving at least 3,000 dead and marking the start of the inter-ethnic civil war.
The war was noted for its bitterness, with the Tamil Tigers using suicide bombing as a tactical weapon, as well as for targeted political assassinations. India intervened in the war in 1987. In retribution, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Extremist violence isn’t new
Sri Lanka’s Muslims are predominantly ethnic Tamils and make up about 10% of the population. They have been at the margins of these more recent conflicts – excluded as Tamil speakers, but at odds with the more numerous Hindu Tamils. However, they also have long been subject to Sinhalese persecution, with anti-Muslim riots dating back at least as far as the early 20th century.
As the Tamil Tiger war progressed, Sinhalese Buddhism became more radicalised. Some Sinhalese claimed that all of Sri Lanka should be exclusively Buddhist. With the Tamil Tigers defeated, Sri Lanka’s non-Buddhist communities were again persecuted. This culminated in 2013 with a Buddhist attack on a mosque. Anti-Muslim riots in 2014 resulted in a ten day state of emergency. Last year, there were more anti-Muslim riots. Buddhist monks have also disrupted Christian church services.
Sri Lanka’s history of extremist violence, then, is far from new. Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism has been the driver of much of this conflict. It may be that the Colombo East bombings are a reaction to recent ethnic persecution.
But if so, this raises the question of why Christian churches and upmarket hotels were bombed, rather than symbols of the Sinhalese Buddhist community. One can speculate about the logic of radicalisation and its possible manifestations. It is possible that, if Islamist-inspired, the bombings were not a direct retaliation for last year’s anti-Muslim riots, but part of a wider jihadi agenda.
It is instructive that, when the suspected terrorists were arrested and weapons found, three police were shot dead. Clearly, whoever was responsible was well trained, and there have been suggestions of international links. This contributes to speculation of returned Islamic State fighters having joined NTJ.
The Sri Lankan government was slow to release details of those believed responsible, as it knows ethnic and religious tensions are easy to spark. Identification of responsibility could well provide fuel for another round of inter-ethnic bloodletting.
If NTJ links are proven, or if the more radical elements of the Buddhist community are persuaded by wider speculation, it is likely Sri Lanka’s Tamil Muslims will bear the brunt of their reprisals. It is in this manner that Sri Lanka’s wheel of ethno-religious conflict turns.
“Militant Buddhism is on the march in South-East Asia – where did it come from?” – November 7, 2017 The Conversation
Even ten years on, the first mental image that comes to mind with regard to Theravāda Buddhism is that of Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution of August-September 2007: thousands of Buddhist monks peacefully demonstrating in the streets of Yangon, Mandalay, Pakokku, Sittwe and other towns against the ruling military junta. These peaceful monks still exist, although many of them went into hiding, or fled abroad. But the Burmese monks in the headlines today are preaching violence instead of peace, and “firm action” instead of meditation.
It’s not just in Myanmar that this militant Buddhism is on the rise: it’s also surfacing in the other two leading Theravādin countries: Sri Lanka and Thailand. In all three countries, Buddhists make up the vast majority of the population: 70% in Sri Lanka, 88% in Myanmar, and 93% in Thailand. One could be excused for thinking that there is nothing to worry about: with such towering demographic majorities, Buddhists are surely to some extent safe and secure in their respective countries.
This is not how the militant monks see things. They are convinced that Buddhism is under siege, and in grave danger of being wiped out. To explain this, they point out that while Muslims or Hindu Tamils (in the case of Sri Lanka) are in the minority in these countries, they enjoy significant support from beyond their national borders.
In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the notion that a non-Buddhist minority is the vanguard of an imminent invasion is very strongindeed. It is believed that firm action has to be taken to prevent “them” from taking over Buddhist lands and eradicating Buddhism. Basically, the militant monks see their communities as targets of a relentless “holy war”, and see it as their duty, to respond in kind with their own variant of “holy war”.
The conviction that Buddhism is under threat also allows these leaders to justify the use of violence. Militant monks usually start their argumentation by pointing out that even the Buddha himself showed some understanding for the wars conducted by his benefactor King Pasenadi instead of condemning them. He did still warn him that “killing, you gain your killer, conquering, you gain the one who will conquer you” – the message being that violence begets violence. Even for the Buddha, then, nonviolence was not necessarily an absolute value – a point seized on by many of today’s militant monks. Although they readily concede that an offensive use of violence should never be allowed, they point out that peaceful and nonviolent Buddhist communities still have the right to defend themselves, especially if and when the survival of the religion as such is at stake.
This point of view is dated. As soon as Buddhist-majority states came into being, the monkhood had to find ways to justify violence, including war, especially that perpetrated by their virtuous sovereign against an opponent. Indeed it was by the monarch’s benevolence, and under the law and order he created, that the monastic order was able to survive.
An early example of such a justification comes from the Sinhalese Mahāvamsa (the Great Chronicle): After a battle against a Hindu-Tamil army, Buddhist King Dutugāmunu felt remorse for all the deaths he had caused, and asked senior monks for advice. They basically told him not to worry since he had caused the deaths of only one and a half persons – one who had just converted to Buddhism, and another who had been a Buddhist lay follower. All the rest had just been “unbelievers and men of evil life […], not more to be esteemed than beasts”.
This notable verdict implies that killing is excusable as long as the intention behind it is in the defence of the religion. Not surprisingly, this quote still is used to condone the use of violence – most recently by the Sitagu Sayadaw, an esteemed Burmese monastic leader, in order to justify the current persecution of perceived enemies of both state and religion – in this case, the Rohingya.
Sanctioning the violent actions of one’s ruler or one’s government is one thing; actively inciting lay-followers to commit such acts in defence of the religion is something completely different. Compared to “preachers of hate” from Abrahamic religions, today’s militant monks have a difficult tightrope to walk, since incitement to murder constitutes one of Buddhism’s four disrobing offences (pārājikas) – offences resulting in the automatic expulsion from the monkhood. In September for example, a Thai monk was forced to disrobebecause he had publicly demanded that for each monk killed in Thailand’s deep south, a mosque should be torched.
Most militant monks are therefore very careful in avoiding open calls to violence – instead, they attend mass rallies and demonstrations to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments and to preach “passive resistance” or “pro-Buddhist affirmative action”: not buying from Muslims, not selling to Muslims, not fraternising with Muslims, not allowing one’s children to marry Muslims. They leave it to their followers, especially those organised in pro-state vigilante groups or Buddhist militias, to draw the right conclusions.
Although there is anecdotal evidence of armed monks actively taking part in violence, the majority of militant monks shy away from directly becoming involved: again, this would be a grave violation of the monastic code. Ashin Wirathu, a monk and leader of the Burmese anti-Muslim movement, describes this passive role very eloquently: “I am only warning people about Muslims. Consider it like if you had a dog, that would bark at strangers coming to your house – it is to warn you. I am like that dog. I bark.”
The rise of this strain of militant Theravāda Buddhism can be explained in ethnic, social and economic terms, but from the perspective of the militant monks themselves, it’s about religion. It’s not about the control of resources or worldly goods, but a defensive “holy war” or “Dhamma Yudhaya” in response to a perceived aggressive “jihad” against Buddhism that has been waged for centuries, from the destruction of the Buddhist library in Nalanda/Bihar at the end of the 12th century, to the destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001.
This somewhat simplistic reading of history, reminiscent of Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, reinforces the militant monks’ belief that now is the time not for peaceful meditation, but for firm action. The Buddha’s warning that violence begets violence seems to have fallen on deaf ears for the time being.
Other International Issues
- Tibetan Buddhism and relations with China are major issues that should be carefully covered. The status of Tibet is at the heart of this contentious relationship. China states that Tibet is a part of China, while Tibetans maintain that Tibet has historically been an independent country. For background information, read a chronology of key events in Tibetan Buddhism and a Q&A on China-Tibet relations on the BBC website. This issue will become even more prevalent when the Dalai Lama dies, as “the Chinese government will almost certainly move to pick a new Dalai Lama in Tibet – one who is expected to support the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control of the region” according to CNN.
- Communism and Buddhism are often portrayed as systems or ideologies at odds with one another. Journalists should be careful to parse the two out carefully. See this essay on Marxism and Buddhism in Aeon magazine or this article on Chinese communist programs related to Buddhism within its borders.
- Buddhist monuments have fallen victim to attacks and desecration in recent years, such as the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in central Afghanistan in 2001. This trend has faded from media attention, but still remains a contentious issue among Muslims and Buddhists alike. It is also a matter of concern for global agencies, like UNESCO, concerned with such sacred sites and their protection, restoration and preservation. Be cautious when reporting on ethno-religious Buddhist and Muslim community conflicts, which can be used as propaganda for more sectarian violence.
News and Analysis:
“When the Dalai Lama dies, his reincarnation will be a religious crisis. Here’s what could happen,” – Feb. 16, 2021, CNN
A decade ago, the Dalai Lama set himself a significant deadline.
The best-known living Buddhist figure in the world said that when he turned 90 years old, he would decide whether he should be reincarnated – potentially ending a role that has been key to Tibetan Buddhism for more than 600 years, but in recent decades has become a political lightning rod in China.
While the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is reportedly still in good health, he is now 85 and questions over his succession are growing, along with fears that his death could spark a religious crisis in Asia.
After an unsuccessful revolt against the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India where he established a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, leading thousands of Tibetans who have followed him there. While the Dalai Lama had originally hoped his exile would only be temporary, Beijing’s control of Tibet has only tightened, making a return unlikely anytime soon.
Today, Beijing views him as a separatist with the aim of breaking Tibet away from China, and is therefore keen for the next reincarnation of his role to fall in line with its own political aims.
Since 1974, the Dalai Lama has said he does not seek independence from China for Tibet, but a “meaningful autonomy” that would allow Tibet to preserve its culture and heritage.
Over the years, the Dalai Lama has floated a number of options for his reincarnation, including picking a new successor himself in India, rather than in Tibet – and has even toyed with the idea of a woman taking on the role.
Experts, however, have said that, regardless of what he chooses, the Chinese government will almost certainly move to pick a new Dalai Lama in Tibet – one who is expected to support the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control of the region.
That could lead to two separate Dalai Lamas being chosen – one in China and one in India.
“Exclusive: Dalai Lama contemplates Chinese gambit after his death,” – March 18, 2019, Reuters
DHARAMSHALA, India (Reuters) – The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, said on Monday it was possible that once he dies his incarnation could be found in India, where he has lived in exile for 60 years, and warned that any other successor named by China would not be respected.
Sat in an office next to a temple ringed by green hills and snow-capped mountains, the 14th Dalai Lama spoke to Reuters a day after Tibetans in the northern Indian town of Dharamshala marked the anniversary of his escape from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, disguised as a soldier.
He fled to India in early 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and has since worked to draw global support for linguistic and cultural autonomy in his remote and mountainous homeland.
China, which took control of Tibet in 1950, brands the 83-year-old Nobel peace laureate a dangerous separatist.
Pondering what might happen after his death, the Dalai Lama anticipated some attempt by Beijing to foist a successor on Tibetan Buddhists.
“China considers Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as something very important. They have more concern about the next Dalai Lama than me,” said the Dalai Lama, swathed in his traditional red robes and yellow scarf.
“In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here, in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect (the one chosen by China). So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese! It’s possible, it can happen,” he added, laughing.
“Fears Mount Over The Future Of Afghanistan’s Historic Bamiyan Valley” – March 7, 2023, Radio Free Europe
March 11 marks the anniversary of the destruction of Bamiyan’s sixth-century Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2001. According to experts, encroaching construction, negligence, and looting are endangering the status and future of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Nalanda: The university that changed the world” – February 23, 2023, BBC Travel
The winter morning was cloaked in thick fog. Our car swerved past horse-drawn carriages, a mode of transport still popular in the rural reaches of the eastern Indian state of Bihar, the trotting horses and turbaned coachmen looking like shadowy apparitions in the pearly-white mist.
After spending a night in the town of Bodhgaya, the ancient settlement where Lord Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, I set out that morning for Nalanda, whose red-brick ruins are all that remain of one of the greatest centres of learning in the ancient world.
Founded in 427 CE, Nalanda is considered the world’s first residential university, a sort of medieval Ivy League institution home to nine million books that attracted 10,000 students from across Eastern and Central Asia. They gathered here to learn medicine, logic, mathematics and – above all – Buddhist principles from some of the era’s most revered scholars. As the Dalai Lama once stated: “The source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have, has come from Nalanda.”
U.S. Buddhism and Cultural Issues
- U.S. Buddhism practice can differ with that of other countries. For example, U.S. Buddhists are known to focus on meditation and karma or merit-based efforts. They are also known to be more pluralistic, putting less importance on authority, as remains prevalent in Asia. It is a mistake for journalists to generalize information about “Buddhists” as if they were a unified whole.
- Asian Buddhists may feel as if they are marginalized from U.S. Buddhist dialogue or discourse. There is no central or primary leader in Buddhism, so unity or common understanding across cultures can be an issue.
- Separation between Buddhists also occurs in Asian countries (i.e. Japanese versus Korean Buddhists). Race can be a source of division and understanding as well.
- Buddhists do not have a single stance on third-rail issues like abortion, capital punishment, or sexual orientations and identifications.
- For example, Western and Japanese Buddhists may not take issue with abortion, while others may consider it to be unacceptable.
- Furthermore, while Buddhism does not necessarily require family life as a religious requirement, Buddhists may view contraception use as against the teachings of Buddha.
- Finally, there is no single view on capital punishment, but Buddhists do not support physical punishment to other humans.
News and Analysis:
“After 30 years, Buddhist-inspired message of ‘Groundhog Day’ still holds spiritual power” – February 2, 2023, Religion News Service
WOODSTOCK, Ill. (RNS) — Woodstock Willie, perhaps the second most famous groundhog in the country, saw his shadow Thursday (Feb. 2), predicting another six weeks of winter.
The early morning prediction, viewed by a crowd who braved below-freezing temperatures, was part of a five-day celebration of the release of “Groundhog Day,” a now classic film starring Bill Murray released in 1993 and filmed in this small town about an hour northwest of Chicago.
Despite almost no mention of God or religion, the filmmakers made one of the more spiritual films of the era.
“You can argue about whether it is a Buddhist, Christian or Jewish movie — but it is deeply religious,” said author and Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, who has shown the film in his classes.
“Groundhog Day” tells the story of Phil Connors, a self-centered TV weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival at Gobbler’s Knob, where it’s been celebrated since 1887. (The movie’s creators chose to film it in Woodstock because the city’s historic square and downtown shops meant most of the film could be shot nearby.)
“Traditional Buddhist teachings exclude LGBTQ people from monastic life, but change is coming slowly” – December 22, 2022, The Conversation
(The Conversation) — The symbolic image of the silently meditating nun or chanting monk often embodies the Buddhist religion. Such representation may make it appear that Buddhist teachings and practices are grounded in heterosexual norms. However, there is also plenty of discussion on the various expressions of human sexuality and sexual orientations in pre-modern Buddhist literature.
In contemporary debates about gender, nonbinary definitions in particular, have reached many countries where this ancient religion is practiced.
Gender and sexuality in Buddhism are central to my scholarship. And my researchdemonstrates that queer life in the context of traditional Buddhist monastic ordination appears to be slowly changing.
“Asian faiths try to save swastika symbol corrupted by Hitler” – November 7, 2022, The Associated Press
Sheetal Deo was shocked when she got a letter from her Queens apartment building’s co-op board calling her Diwali decoration “offensive” and demanding she take it down.
“My decoration said ‘Happy Diwali’ and had a swastika on it,” said Deo, a physician, who was celebrating the Hindu festival of lights.
The equilateral cross with its legs bent at right angles is a millennia-old sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that represents peace and good fortune, and was also used widely by Indigenous people worldwide in a similar vein.
But in the West, this symbol is often equated to Adolf Hitler’s hakenkreuz or the hooked cross – a symbol of hate that evokes the trauma of the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazi Germany. White supremacists, neo-Nazi groups and vandals have continued to use Hitler’s symbol to stoke fear and hate.
Over the past decade, as the Asian diaspora has grown in North America, the call to reclaim the swastika as a sacred symbol has become louder. These minority faith communities are being joined by Native American elders whose ancestors have long used the symbol as part of healing rituals.
“Searching for Asian American Buddhists” – January 26, 2021, Lion’s Roar
“Who do you think are the most famous Buddhist individuals in America?” The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are the first names to come up, of course.
“And what about Buddhists living in America?” Jack Kornfield, Robert Thurman, Steve Jobs, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Richard Gere, Tina Turner, Pema Chodron, Joan Halifax … A deluge of answers from the thirty-two people in the room.
“What about Asian American Buddhists?” Crickets.
Finally, someone mentions EBMC teachers Larry Yang and Anushka Fernandopulle, with the caveat that they might be better known to this crowd than Americans at large. We are, after all, sitting in the East Bay Meditation Center. EBMC is hosting the 2014 Buddhist Peace Fellowship National Gathering this Labor Day weekend, BPF’s first such conference in eight years.
“It’s like we’re invisible not only to the mainstream but also to each other.”
Someone adds Tiger Woods, whose Thai Buddhist mother raised him in the religion. I suggest George Takei, surprising those in the room who didn’t know the Star Trek actor and LGBT rights activist is also a Shin Buddhist.
Among the participants who stick around to talk with me after my workshop is a Chinese American Unitarian Universalist raised with Buddhist influences. She tells me she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She is happy and relieved to learn that her experiences and struggles are shared by others. Yet she is saddened and angered by the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Asian American Buddhists.
She shakes her head. “It’s like we’re invisible not only to the mainstream but also to each other.”
“The Land of Many Dharmas” – Summer 2021, Tricycle Magazine
For me, growing up Buddhist in Northern California in the early 1960s was sometimes difficult. There were very few Buddhists around, and many Americans looked at Buddhism as some kind of weird Asian cult. Fortunately, things have changed enormously since then. Buddhism is today much better known and more widely practiced. As the Harvard professor Diana Eck, an expert on contemporary American religions, declared in 1993, “Buddhism is now an American religion.”
Professor Eck observed that Buddhists have been in America since around 1850, and their numbers have increased greatly over time. Surveys indicate that today over 30 million people, or close to one-tenth of the US population, identify themselves as Buddhist; read and engage in Buddhist spirituality but don’t identify themselves as members of a religion; or have been strongly influenced by Buddhism. Which taken together means that Buddhism is, whether in numbers or influence, one of the fastest-growing religions in America.
While the vast majority of the approximately 500 million Buddhists in the world live in Asia, one fascinating aspect of Buddhism in America is that, for the first time in nearly the entire 2,600 years of Buddhism’s history, all the major Buddhist denominations in the world today coexist in one country. In many large American (and Canadian) cities there are more different kinds of Buddhism than are found anywhere in Asia, including Bangkok, Taipei, Seoul, and Kyoto. In the Los Angeles area, for example, close to 100 different Buddhist traditions—representing virtually all the world’s main denominations—find a home. Whereas in Asia, Buddhists from different countries have rarely known, or even known of, each other, in Los Angeles you may find temples with roots in Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam located near each other, sometimes even on the same street. For me, this trend provides a new and exciting opportunity for all Buddhists to learn from and better understand each other.
Despite the promising demographics, and despite Buddhism’s high level of cultural visibility and accessibility, few introductory books seem to address youths and young adults.
“The Experience of Diversity in American Buddhism” – November 15, 2020, KSQD Radio
Many Buddhist centers in the United States have a membership that is mostly white, middle-class and heteronormative. What are the experiences of Buddhist students who identify as BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ in these spaces? We will be joined for this episode by two special guests who are Buddhist students and also leaders in their Buddhist communities, Leilani-Kali Rivers who is a student and Board member at Shantideva Center in Brooklyn, and Christian Howard who is a student and teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, and a teacher of Cultivating Emotional Balance.
“New book explores Buddhism in the American South” – April 26, 2012, The Houston Chronicle
The popular caricature of American Buddhism is perhaps of a Zen master practicing in a remote locale in the rural highlands surrounding the Bay Area of California or of a Chinese immigrant with a golden Buddha adorning his shop in New York.
But what about a factory worker from Louisiana named Butsu who used to go by “Bubba?”
“Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas,’ Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators” – November 18, 2012, Huffington Post
SEATTLE — They came from near and far on a Monday night last month for an unusual gathering in the city’s chic Capitol Hill neighborhood, a place known for its vibrant restaurants, art galleries and gay bars, not for its diversity. They were nervous, confused and a bit scared. Should they — seven women of African-American, Native American and Asian descent — even be here?
None of them would use the same words to describe their race, but they were united around the colors of their skin. They entered a small church hall, sat in a circle, closed their eyes and faced their teacher, hungry for Buddhist wisdom.
“Challenge your notions,” the 55-year-old woman with dreadlocks told them, sharing her journey as a black Christian turned Buddhist, a racial rarity among meditators. “I once thought there was something devilish and ‘woo-woo’ about this, that people would find out, that they would say bad things about me. There was a cultural ‘I can’t do this’ thing. But I tell you: You can do it.”
This class of Buddhist meditation was for beginners, tailor-made for minorities. Men could come, but the group happened to be women. No whites were allowed.
“Being an American Indian woman, I am judged all the time. I just feel more accepted if it’s not white people telling me what to do, how to meditate,” said Teresa Powers, a 54-year-old university researcher and mother of two who was drawn to the study of meditation after losing her job. “It’s like I’m among my own.”
Here in Seattle, one of the least racially diverse cities with one of the largest Buddhist communities in the country, a controversial movement in American Buddhism is forming. A handful of exclusive “people of color” Buddhist groups have started to meet each week, far away from the long-established — and almost entirely white — major Buddhist meditation centers that have dominated the Pacific Northwest’s well-known Buddhist scenes. Many members, who have until now shied away from meditation and Buddhism, say practicing away from the white majority, among whom they say they don’t feel welcome, has spiritually empowered them — and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
DharmaNet International is a nonprofit, multimedia resource center that is dedicated to education on meditation, wisdom and compassionate action.
DorjeShugden is a website providing a comprehensive background, history and lineage of Dorje Shugden and benefits of the practice. Dorje Shugden, a Tibetan Buddhist deity, has been publicly denounced by the Dalai Lama and is a source of controversy. Contact through the website.
Shambhala is a global community with more than 170 centers and groups worldwide. The Shambhala vision is rooted in the contemplative teachings of Buddhism. It is the Shambhala view that every human being has a fundamental nature of goodness, warmth and intelligence which can be cultivated through meditation, following ancient principles and further developed in daily life.
Shinnyo-en is an international Buddhist community that teaches laypeople how to use each day as an opportunity to connect with others and seek enlightenment. Currently led by Shinso Ito, Shinnyo Buddhists promote the values of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Its website includes a list of sanctuary locations worldwide.
SotoZen-Net is a website that offers in-depth information on the Soto Zen school, including a directory of organizations and temples within and outside Japan.
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.
Bodhi Path is an online organization founded by Shamar Rinpoche that provides resources on Buddhism in Latin America. The website offers links to centers around Latin America, teachers of Buddhism, curriculums, philosophies and links to other Buddhist organizations. For more information contact one of the centers in your area.
The Kadampa Meditation Center in Brazil is a Kadampa Buddhist temple located in Brazil. The organization offers resources on modern Buddhism and teachers and centers located throughout the country.
The Zu Lai Temple is a Fo Guang Shan (Mountain of Light Buddha) Buddhist temple located in Brazil. The denomination has its distant roots in Mahayana Buddhism, whose tradition emphasizes that the Buddha nature is within every living being.
Mathieu Boisvert is a professor in the department of Religious Sciences at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal in Canada. He studies Buddhist monasticism, pilgrimage and transmission of traditional knowledge.
The Canadian Engaged Buddhist Association is a nonprofit, spiritual organization that is dedicated to promoting the Buddhist faith in Canada and internationally. The website offers resources on general practices and philosophies and current news and events.
Robert Florida is an associate fellow at the University of Victoria in Canada. He studies ethical issues in modern Buddhism.
Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada (formerly Buddhist Churches of Canada) is a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist organization affiliated with the Nishi Hongwanji of Kyoto, Japan. The sect focuses on the ultimate goal of enlightenment symbolized by Pure Land Buddhism. The website offers information on temples in Canada and other readings and resources on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
The Manjushri Buddhist Community is an online organization that offers Buddhist resources such as the teachings, philosophies and practices of the religion. The website offers links to additional Buddhist organizations in Canada.
Bruce Matthews is a professor of comparative religion at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He teaches courses on the geopolitics of Asia, with an emphasis on the influence of Buddhism. His research interests include Buddhism and politics in South and Southeast Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Ottawa Inter-Community Buddhist Society is a temple with several resident Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka and other Asian Buddhist countries.
The Sumeru Guide to Canadian Buddhism is an online organization that provides resources on all things Buddhist, from resources on practices to additional organizations in Canada. Contact through the website.
Jeff Wilson is an associate professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at the University of Waterloo. He focuses on the interaction of Buddhism and various aspects of North American culture and published Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture in 2014.
Association Zen Internationale, based in Paris, is the oldest and largest Zen association in Europe. It brings together several hundred places of practice such as temples, Zen centers and groups.
Stephen and Martine Batchelor are Buddhist teachers and authors who live in South West France and conduct meditation retreats and seminars worldwide. They both trained as monastics for ten years in traditional Buddhist centers in Asia, and now present a lay and secular approach to Buddhist practice.
The Buddhist House (Das Buddhistische Haus) is a Buddhist house of worship for Theravada Buddhists in Berlin, Germany. The house provides a place for meditation, education, prayer and peace. It claims to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Europe.
The Buddhist Society is an organization in London that makes known the principles of Buddhist traditions and beliefs and encourages the practice of those principles.
Centrum Lotus is an organization in the Czech Republic that promotes the spiritual side of life “with emphasis on Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice.”
European Buddhist Union (EBU) is an organization that unites the communities and all denominations of Buddhism across Europe. The organization works to promote Buddhism in Europe and connect the current Buddhist communities with each other across the country. Contact President Jamie Cresswell.
European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) is a nonprofit organization based in Waldbröl, Germany, and founded by globally known Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. EIAB offers a program of training in concrete methods that relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace. The training integrates the study of Buddhist texts with concrete applications in daily life.
The Garden of Buddha Vajradhara (Kagyu Dzong) is a Buddhist temple in Paris affiliated with the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Rupert Gethin is a professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Bristol in England. His main research interest is the history and development of Buddhist thought in the Nikayas and Abhidhamma.
International Buddhist Association maintains a primary office in Lausanne, Switzerland, and aims to advance and contribute actively to the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary development of Buddhist studies through conferences, symposia and publications.
The Italian Buddhist Union is a nonprofit organization in Rome that works to meet the increasing demand of Italians interested in Buddhism. The organization offers resources on the history and beliefs of Buddhism.
Rita Langer is a senior lecturer in Buddhist studies at the University of Bristol in England. Her research focuses on the theory of consciousness in early Pali sources and Buddhist ritual and its origin in South and Southeast Asia, particularly Sri Lanka.
The Network of Buddhist Organizations in the United Kingdom is “a national umbrella organisation for UK Buddhism.” Contact Jamie Cresswell.
The Valencia Buddhist Centre is an international organization located in Valencia, Spain, that works to implement and communicate Buddhist teachings and tools to the Western world.
Plum Village, located in Loubes-Bernac, France, is the home-base for Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar and peace activist who founded the Unified Buddhist Church, the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon and the School for Youths of Social Services in Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. Plum Village is a Buddhist monastery for monks and nuns and a mindfulness practice center for lay people.
Western Chan Fellowship is an association of lay Chan practitioners based in the United Kingdom. Its principal activities include organizing meditation retreats and coordinating a network of local meditation groups. It has overseas contacts in Croatia, Norway, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and the U.S.
The Zen Buddhist Association of Europe (ABZE) is an organization in France that works to organize and spread the practice of Soto Zen Buddhism.
The Bahrain Meditation Centre is a registered society non-profit organization in Bahrain, serving the kingdom’s Buddhist community since 2012.
The Community of Mindfulness in Israel practices and promotes the mindfulness tradition of Zen throughout the Middle East. The organization is located in Tel Aviv.
Mahamevnawa Buddhist Temple in Dubai is the only Buddhist temple serving the United Arab Emirates’ Buddhist population (estimated to be at around 500,000).
Tovana is an organization that promotes the spiritual teachings and practices of Buddhism, focusing on inner peace, awakening and a life of harmony and wisdom.
Human Rights Watch published a 99-page report in 2009 titled “The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Protest in Burma.” The report, also available in Burmese, describes the repression Myanmar’s monks experienced after they led demonstrations against the government in September 2007. It tells the stories of individual monks who were arrested, beaten and detained.
Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is an organization based in Dharamshala, India, established by the Dalai Lama shortly after his exile from Tibet. It is commonly referred to as the Tibetan government-in-exile, politically advocating for Tibetan refugees and for freedom in Tibet.
Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies, located in New Taipei City, Taiwan, concentrates on being a global advocate for the academic study and research of Chinese Buddhism. It is part of the Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education.
The International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies (IASBS) is a worldwide organization with headquarters in Japan that works to promote Jodo Shinshu and Pure Land Buddhism throughout the globe by providing academic classes and information on the religion.
Japan Theravada Buddhist Association is an organization in Tokyo that provides resources on Theravada Buddhism such as meditation, prayer, history and traditions.
Jinwol Y.H. Lee, a Buddhist monk and Zen master, teaches Buddhist meditation and culture as chair professor of the department of Seon studies and director of the Institute of Seon at Dongguk University, Gyeongju, in South Korea. He belongs to the Jogye order of Korean Buddhism, the major traditional Mahayana Buddhism in Korea.
Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, founded by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, is considered one of the most important libraries and institutions of Tibetan works in the world. It was first established to house manuscripts carried out of Tibet when refugees escaped to India. The library now includes major collections of artifacts, manuscripts and other records, while also serving as a center for language and cultural education.
Bruce Matthews is a professor of comparative religion at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He teaches courses on the geopolitics of Asia, with an emphasis on the influence of Buddhism. His research interests include Buddhism and politics in South and Southeast Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
The Moscow Buddhist Center of Lama Tsong Khapa is a Buddhist organization that works to unite the followers of Mahayana Buddhism in Moscow. The organization focuses on the study of Buddhist theory, practice, culture and spiritual heritage of Tibet. Contact through the website.
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.
National Office of Buddhism is a Thailand-based organization that aims to protect and promote the prosperity of Buddhism in the country, operating under the prime minister’s office.
Nichiren Shu Order Headquarters is the worldwide headquarters for the Nichiren Shu Buddhist order.
Nung Chang Monastery was constructed by master Dong Chu in Taipei City, Taiwan. It is the birthplace of the Dharma Drum Mountain tradition of Chan Buddhism.
Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, known in Tibetan as Gaden Phodrang, is the personal office of the current Dalai Lama and is located in Dharamsala, India. It handles the the Dalai Lama’s schedule and correspondence.
Plum Village Hong Kong (formerly known as Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism) is a center for Buddhism studies and practices, with a resident monastic community in the tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. It was established to bring relevant aspects of Buddhism to the people of Asia by promoting the teachings and the practices of Buddhism.
Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, author, translator and photographer. He is originally from France, but now lives in at the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal. He is the author of several books, such as Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Why Meditate?, The Quantum and the Lotus and The Monk and the Philosopher. He is an active member of the Mind and Life Institute, and founder of Karuna-Shechen, a humanitarian association that develops education, medical and social projects for the most destitute populations of the Himalayan region.
Rissho Kosei-kai is a Buddhist organization with headquarters in Tokyo that promotes Buddhism in communities throughout Japan. The organization has “2.05 million member households in 245 churches throughout Japan as well as in other countries.”
Sakya Centre, situated in Dehradun, India, is the personal monastery of Sakya Trizin, the 41st head of the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered second only to the Dalai Lama in the spiritual hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism. The Sakya Centre is the main center for the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The center is a registered nonprofit society catering to the needs of society without any bias. It consists of a community of more than 200 monks, most from Tibet while some come from India, Nepal, Bhutan and other neighboring regions.
Sakyadhita in Sri Lanka is a Buddhist organization that promotes humanitarianism and dharma based on the spiritual teachings of Buddhism. The organization provides resources on Buddhism.
Sathira Dhamasathan Center in Bangkok is a meditation and learning community for peace and harmony that has programs open to people regardless of age and gender. Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta, a Buddhist nun who is renowned in Thailand for her teachings and humanitarian efforts, founded the center in 1987. The center believes that every human being has the potential to live a life that is free from suffering.
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.
Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is an international organization with its roots in Ontario that is committed to spreading peace, culture and education based on the humanistic Buddhist philosophy of Nichiren Daishonin. The organization has more than 12 million members in 192 countries and territories worldwide.
￼Diana Winston is the director of mindfulness education at the University of California, Los Angeles Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. She has taught mindfulness practices for more than 25 years and published Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness in 2010.
World Fellowship of Buddhists, with headquarters currently in Bangkok, is an international Buddhist organization. The WFB mission includes the propagation of Buddhism, promotion of solidarity and unity of Buddhists all over the world. There are more than 140 regional centers in 37 countries worldwide.
In the Northeast
Kaydor Aukatsang, head of the Office of Tibet in New York, is the representative of the Dalai Lama to the Americas. He has served as a special adviser to Lobsang Sangay, the elected leader of the of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and as president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California.
Blue Cliff Monastery, in Pine Bush, N.Y., is an extension of Plum Village meditation center in France. It is home to a community of Buddhist monks and nuns practicing sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful eating, deep relaxation meditation and cultivating togetherness.
Bodhi Monastery is a monastery in Lafayette, N.J., based on the teachings of Master Yin–Shun, a foremost Chinese modern scholar and monk. The monastery promotes the study and practice of Buddhism as a whole, with a special focus on Pali Buddhism and the early Mahayana tradition.
Buddhism Directory is an online source for Buddhist organizations operating in the Northeast United States, including New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont.
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.
Buddhist Global Relief, based in Sparta, New Jersey, is an interdenominational organization consisting of people from different Buddhist groups who are committed to alleviating social and economic suffering. Its mission is to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition.
Chan Meditation Center, located in Queens, N.Y., was founded by the late Chan master Sheng Yen with the purpose of bringing Chinese Chan Buddhism to the Western world. The organization runs various programs to teach the doctrine and practice of Chan Buddhism, to promote the purification of human life and to preserve traditional Chinese culture. The center is also a small monastery where bhikshus and bhikshunis live and practice the traditional precepts.
Ronald Davidson is a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. His primary area of expertise is the history of tantric Buddhism in India and Tibet.
Cheryl A. Giles is a licensed clinical psychologist and the Francis Greenwood Peabody Senior Lecturer on Pastoral Care and Counseling at Harvard Divinity School. She is a core faculty member of the Buddhist Ministry Program and the co-editor of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work. She is a student of Tibetan Buddhist meditation.
Joseph Goldstein is co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., where he is part of the IMS Guiding Teacher Council. He is the author of One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.
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.
Charles Hallisey is a senior lecturer on Buddhist literature at the Harvard Divinity School. He is co-chairman of the American Academy of Religion’s Buddhism section and can speak about Theravada Buddhism and Buddhist ethics.
Maria R. Heim is an asssociate professor of religion at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. Her research centers on South Asian religions, with a specialization in Buddhism. She primarily focuses on the intellectual history of the Theravada tradition today in Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia.
Insight Meditation Society is one of the Western world’s oldest meditation retreat centers. Teachers offer guidance in Buddhist meditations known as vipassana (insight) and metta (lovingkindness). IMS includes two retreat facilities – the Retreat Center and the Forest Refuge – in Barre, Mass.
The Interdependence Project in New York City is a nonprofit organization dedicated to Buddhist-inspired meditation, psychology, activism, mindful arts and media. It the only multi-lineage, secular buddhist center in New York City.
Dokuro Jaeckel is a Buddhist chaplain at Harvard University. He was ordained a Zen monk by one of the foremost Japanese Zen masters in the United States, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies was founded in Medford, Mass., under the direction of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. The center’s mission is to provide a community of support for those who are studying and practicing the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
John Makranshky is an associate professor of Buddhism and comparative theology at Boston College. He is the senior faculty advisor and visiting lecturer for Kathmandu University’s Centre for Buddhist Studies in Nepal. He is also the guiding teacher and co-founder of the Foundation for Active Compassion. He researches Indian Buddhist texts to see how doctrines of buddhahood have developed.
Mind and Life Institute was created in 1987 to promote neuroscience research on the mind, Buddhism, health and meditation.
Natural Dharma Fellowship is a nonprofit religious organization of Buddhist practitioners who follow the Tibetan traditions of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. Guided by Lama Willa Miller, the organization supports practice groups in the Northeastern United States and offers contemplative retreats at the Wonderwell Mountain Refuge retreat center in New Hampshire.
New York Insight is an urban center in New York City for the practice of Vipassana meditation. In reflection of the diversity of New York City, the center focuses on welcoming people of different ages, cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities and spiritual backgrounds.
Office of Tibet in New York is the official agency of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan administration-in-exile, based in Dharamsala, India. It was established in 1964 to raise the issue of Tibet at the United Nations. Its responsibilities now include supporting Tibetans living in the US and Canada, coordinating visits of the Dalai Lama to the Americas and more.
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 is a professor emeritus 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.
Prison Dharma Network, founded by Fleet Maull in Providence, R.I., is a national nonprofit, nonsectarian support network for Buddhist prisoners, volunteers and prison staff. Its mission is to provide evidence-based tools for rehabilitation, self-transformation and personal and professional development, particularly through mindfulness-based interventions. Contact through the website.
Sharon Salzberg has taught insight meditation worldwide for more than 30 years. She is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Mass. Her many books include The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life With Love & Compassion and Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
Anthony Stultz is the founder and director of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg, Pa., a nonprofit organization devoted to sharing the universal teachings of the Buddha in the 21st century. He also oversees the Center for Mindfulness Counseling, integrating Eastern and Western counseling techniques.
Tibet House US aims to promote and preserve Tibetan culture by serving as both a cultural center in New York City and an online global resource for Tibetan civilization. The New York City center serves as a meeting place for the local Tibetan community to hold programs and events. The website includes a global directory for Tibetan businesses and organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad, as well as a a list of experts on Buddhism, Tibetan medicine and science, meditation and Tibetan art and culture.
Kyoko Tokuno is a senior lecturer in comparative religion at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. She focuses on Buddhist texts and culture of medieval China and Japan, their relation to Indian Buddhism and the development of Buddhist canon in East Asia.
Washington D.C. Buddhist Vihara was the first Theravada Buddhist monastic community in the United States. It is an educational and religious organization staffed by resident Bhikkhus (monks).
￼Jan Willis is a professor emerita of religion at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. She is one of the earliest American scholar-practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Time named her one of six “spiritual innovators for the new millennium,” while Ebony called her one of its “Power 150” most influential African Americans. Some of her books include The Diamond Light: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation, On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi and Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition.
Zen Mountain Monastery, located in Mount Tremper, N.Y., is the main house of the Mountains and Rivers order, a respected Zen Buddhist monastery and training center in the West. The sangha also includes practitioners at the Zen Center of New York and the order’s affiliate groups.
In the South
Tara Brach is a leading Western teacher of Buddhist meditation, emotional healing and spiritual awakening. She is the senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. A clinical psychologist, she is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha and True Refuge: Finding Peace & Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.
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.
Henepola Gunaratana is the founding abbot of the Bhavana Society, community of monastics and lay people dedicated to the practice of Theravadan Buddhism. Born in rural Sri Lanka, he has been a monk since age 12 and took full ordination at age 20 in 1947. He has written several books, including Mindfulness In Plain English and Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, and taught in a number of settings, including American University. He received the title of Chief Sangha Nayaka Thera for North America, acknowledging his status as highest-ranking monk of his sect in the United States and Canada.
Magnolia Grove Monastery is a residential monastery in Batesville, Miss., and is simultaneously Magnolia Village, a mindfulness practice meditation center in the tradition of Plum Village founded by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
Louis Mitsunen Kyogen Nordstrom is an ordained monk in both the Rinzai and Soto schools who teaches at the Hokori-Ji Temple, a Zen community located in Lakeland, Florida. He has taught at Columbia Unviversity, Wesleyan University, New York University and more. He is the editor of Namu Dai Bosa: A Transmission of Zen to America, and is also the non-resident teacher at Brevard Zen Center in Cocoa, Florida.
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 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.
Daniel Stuart is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina. He is a scholar of South Asian religions, literary cultures and meditation traditions who specializes in the texts and practices of the Buddhist tradition.
The University of Virginia Tibet Center provides a forum for faculty, students and staff from diverse fields, united by their expertise and interest in Tibet. Tibet Center affiliated faculty span multiple departments, including anthropology, art, computer science, East Asian languages, literatures and cultures, history, politics and religious studies. Tibetan Buddhism scholars include David Germano, editor of the Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies and the founder and director of the Tibetan and Himalayan Library Tibetan and Himalayan Library (THL), and Jeffrey Hopkins, professor emeritus who served as the Dalai Lama’s chief interpreter into English on international lecture tours and founded the UVa program in Buddhist studies and Tibetan studies.
World Religions & Spirituality Project (WRSP) through Virginia Commonwealth University provides comprehensive information about the world’s religious and spiritual groups, with a primary focus on groups currently found in North America. The WRSP website includes profiles that include a presentation of a group’s distinctive beliefs, rituals, organization, leadership and challenges.
In the Midwest
Stephen C. Berkwitz wrote “History and Gratitude in Theravada Buddhism,” which appeared in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. He heads the department of religious studies at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Deer Park Buddhist Center, founded in 1975, is a full-scale monastic teaching center and community of monks, nuns and laypersons committed to practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Center Director Geshe Lhundub Sopa is globally renowned Tibetan Buddhism spiritual master who has played a key role in rooting Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. His life work has been in the heartland of America. He was the first Tibetan to be tenured in an American university, and went on to teach Buddhist philosophy, language and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 30 years.
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.
In the West
James Baraz leads the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley and is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center where, in addition to leading retreats, he coordinates the Community Dharma Leader program. He created and teaches the Awakening Joy course, is on the international advisory board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and leads meditation retreats nationally and internationally.
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.
Mark Blum is a University of California, Berkeley professor and Shinjo Ito distinguished chair in Japanese studies. He specializes in Pure Land Buddhism throughout East Asia and also works in the area of Japanese Buddhist responses to modernism, Buddhist conceptions of death in China and Japan and historical consciousness in Buddhist thought.
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.
BLIA is a faith-based organization of monastic and lay Buddhists, and an NGO under the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Work done by BLIA include promoting education and raising gender equality, providing medical services and emergency relief, and supporting environmental sustainability. The association emphasizes long-term assistance, especially regarding education and basic health services for women and children.
Buddhist Churches of America, with headquarters in San Francisco, Calif., is the United States branch of the Honpa Hongan-ji sub-sect of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. The main temple of this sect is Ryukoku-zan Hongwanji in Kyoto, Japan. BCA is a nonprofit religious corporation with more than 60 independent temples and a number of fellowships and sanghas. It is the second oldest Buddhist organization in the United States.
Robert Bushwell is a professor of Buddhist studies in the University of California, Los Angeles department of Asian languages and cultures, the Irving and Jean Stone Chair in humanities at UCLA and the founding director of the university’s Center for Buddhist Studies and Center for Korean Studies. He is considered to be the premier Western scholar on Korean Buddhism and one of the top specialists on the East Asian Zen tradition.
Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, oversees a variety of research programs, scholarly events and outreach activities. Activities include a colloquium series, conferences, a visiting scholar program and the International Buddhist Film Festival.
James William Coleman is a sociology professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He is the author of The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition.
Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, Calif., is a residential monastic community and lay sangha under the guidance of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in the tradition of engaged Buddhism and mindfulness practice in everyday life.
Everyday Zen Foundation is a nonprofit foundation in Oakland, Calif. Their work includes traditional Zen practice and work with Jewish and Christian meditation, the dying, lawyers, businesses, poetry and literature. This work is accomplished through the writings of Zen teacher and poet Norman Fischer.
Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, based in Portland, Ore., is an international, nonprofit organization founded by Lama Thubten Yeshe, a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The foundation is devoted to the transmission of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and values worldwide through teaching, meditation and community service. Some of its affiliated projects include monasteries and nunneries in six countries, meditation centers in 36 countries, health and nutrition clinics, hospice services, publishing houses and more.
The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism, based in Los Angeles, seeks to inspire an enlightened American society that reflects universal Buddhist values of compassion, mindfulness and wakefulness. The foundation provides general assistance and restricted grants, program-related investments, education and training and other programs designed to grow American Buddhist institutions.
Gedatsu Church of America is an American Buddhist church with branches in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Honolulu. Gedatsu is an adaptation of Shugendou, an old Japanese practice focused on the development of spiritual experience, to modern life. Gedatsu is open to all people, including those from other religious faiths.
Peter Hershock is an educational specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. His research includes examining contemporary issues from Buddhist perspectives.
Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, located in Los Angeles, Calif., is an affiliate of Shinshu Otani-ha, one of the oldest and largest denominations in Japan. It practices Shin Buddhism.
Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii is a religious organization in Honolulu belonging to the Jodo Shinshu sect of Mahayana Buddhism. It represents 37 temples spread throughout the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Lanai, Oahu and Kauai. It is affiliated with the head temple Ryukoku-zan Hongwanji located in Kyoto, Japan.
Institute of Buddhist Studies provides graduate-level Buddhist education, ministerial and chaplaincy training and other educational programs in the San Francisco area. Based in Berkeley, Calif., it is affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union and the Buddhist Churches of America — the oldest Buddhist institution in North America.
International Buddhist Meditation Center was founded by Thich Thien-An, a Vietnamese scholar and Zen master. It was one of four original Zen centers founded in the U.S. to promote meditation and Buddhism in English to interested Americans.
Karuna Buddhist Vihara is a Theravada monastery founded in Mountain View, Calif. The monastery is formally incorporated as a nonprofit Buddhist church in the state of California.
Tetsuden Kashima is a Professor of American ethnic studies and and an adjunct professor in the department of sociology at the University of Washington. He is the author of Buddhism in America: The Social Organization of an Ethnic Religious Institution. His research interests include World War II American and Canadian internment camps, Asian-American sociology and communities and Japanese American religious institutions, attitudes and beliefs.
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.
Noah Levine is a Buddhist teacher based in Los Angeles and author of the books Dharma Punx: A Memoir and Against the Stream. He is the founding teacher of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, with two centers in Los Angeles and more than 20 affiliated groups around North America. As a counselor known for his philosophical alignment with Buddhism and punk ideology, he identifies his Buddhist beliefs and practices with both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. He teaches meditation classes, workshops and retreats nationally as well as leading groups in juvenile halls and prisons.
Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher based in Boulder, Colo. She wrote Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality and presents workshops on a contemplative approach to death and on the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
David R. Loy is a professor, writer and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism based in Boulder, Colo.
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.
Metta Forest Monastery is a meditation monastery in Valley Center, Calif., in the lineage of the Thai Forest Tradition. Their dhamma teachings and more information about Buddhism, meditation and the Thai Forest Tradition can be found at dhammatalks.org.
Nichiren Buddhist International Center, based in Hayward, Calif., is a U.S. headquarters for the Nichiren Shu Buddhist order. The worldwide headquarters is in Tokyo, Japan. The website offers a global directory for temples around the world.
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.
The Pema Chodron Foundation, based in Steamboat Springs, Colo., is dedicated to preserving and sharing the teachings of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher, author and nun.
Rissho Kosei-kai International of North America, located in Los Angeles, is the Rissho Kosei-kai’s regional center for North America. Originally founded in Japan in 1938, Rissho Kosei-ka shared teachings in the United States about 50 years ago. The website offers a directory for dharma centers in the U.S. and worldwide.
San Francisco Zen Center was established in the 1960s by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and his American students. The center aims to make the Soto Zen tradition accessible. It is one of the largest Buddhist sanghas outside Asia, with three practice places, including the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center – the first Zen training monastery in the West.
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.
Robert Sharf is the D. H. Chen distinguished professor of Buddhist studies in the Department of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies at Berkley. He also serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Journal for the Study of Chinese Religions and Journal of Religion in Japan.
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.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center is a spiritual education and training institution in Woodacre, Calif. It was created to be a living mandala: a Western dharma and retreat center dedicated to discovering and establishing the dharma in life.
Bob Stahl is a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and has founded seven mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in medical centers throughout the San Francisco area. He is the guiding teacher at Insight Santa Cruz and visiting teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Insight Meditation Society. Stahl also serves as an Adjunct Senior Oasis Teacher for Oasis Institute at the UMass Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness.
UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies trains scholars and educates the broader community about the diversity of Buddhist religion and culture. Among U.S. universities, only UCLA covers all of the major traditions in this world religion. Today, UCLA has more faculty dedicated to Buddhist Studies than any other Western university.
Alexander von Rospatt is a professor for Buddhist and South Asian studies and director of the Group in Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkley. He specializes in the doctrinal history of Indian Buddhism and in Newar Buddhism, the only Indic Mahayana tradition that continues to persist in its original South Asian setting. He is the leading authority on Newar Buddhism.
Duncan Williams, associate professor of East Asian languages and literature at the University of Southern California, specializes in Asian-American Buddhism and its relationship to the environment.
￼Diana Winston is the director of mindfulness education at the University of California, Los Angeles Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. She has taught mindfulness practices for more than 25 years and published Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness in 2010.
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.
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.
The Buddhist Channel provides online Buddhist news and features.
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.
Inquiring Mind is a semiannual journal dedicated to Buddhism in the West. It offers provoking interviews of Buddhist teachers, philosophers, psychologists and artists, art, poetry, stories and humorous essays.
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.
The Journal of Global Buddhism is an online scholarly academic journal. Charles S. Prebish is its editor emeritus.
Lion’s Roar is one of the world’s best-selling and most widely read Buddhist magazines, providing Buddhist teachings and ways to apply Buddhist wisdom to modern life issues. It was formerly known as Shambhala Sun.
The Mindfulness Bell is a journal of the art of mindful living. It is published three times a year by the Community of Mindful Living. The website includes a complete list of worldwide sanghas in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Sweeping Zen is a web-based encyclopedic project dedicated to the advancement of Zen Buddhist studies in the West. It features in-depth interviews, an extensive database of biographies, news, articles, podcasts, teacher blogs, events, directories and more. Contact through the website.
The Tricycle Foundation is a nonprofit educational organization that works to make resources on Buddhist views, values and practices broadly available.
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.”
Urthona magazine explores the arts and world culture from a Buddhist perspective.
Related source guides
- Pronounced “ah-HIM-saa.” The Sanskrit word meaning non-injury in any form, including action, thought or speech. This is an important principle of Hinduism and a core principle of Jainism. For this reason, many Hindus and most Jains are vegetarians, as are significant numbers of Sikhs and Buddhists.
- Pronounced “ah-MEE-dah.” Japanese name of the Buddha of Infinite Light, a celestial Buddha venerated in Chinese and Japanese Mahayana Pure Land schools, which teach that calling upon the Buddha’s name (Namu-Amida-Butsu, “Veneration to the Buddha Amida”) will bring them into his paradise, or state of Buddhahood. His name is also seen in its Sanskrit form, Amitabha (pronounced “A-mi-TAH-bhah”). See Pure Land school.
- Pronounced “AAR-het.” In early Buddhism, one who has attained full realization and transcended desires and defilements and who thus will not be reborn. It is the ideal goal in the Theravada tradition. In Pali, it is called arahant.
- Pronounced “BHIK-koo.” A fully ordained monk in the Theravada Buddhist tradition; a nun is a bhikkhuni. In the Mahayana tradition, the Sanskrit forms (bhikshu, bhikshuni) are used. Capitalize when used with a name.
- Bodh Gaya
- Pronounced “Bohd guh-YAA.” The site in northeast India of the tree under which the meditating Buddha attained realization.
- Pronounced “bohd-hi-SAHT-tvah.” In Mahayana Buddhism, one who strives to attain Buddhahood through the practice of prescribed virtues, while postponing his or her own entry into nirvana for the sake of helping others to enlightenment. The term also refers to various celestial beings who are venerated in some schools for their special ability to help those on the Buddhist path. See enlightenment and nirvana.
- bodhisattva vow
- The resolve in Mahayana Buddhism to become a Buddha for the sake of aiding all beings.
- Pronounced “BUD-dah” (first syllable “u” as in “put,” not a long “oo” sound). The Buddha, meaning “the awakened one,” refers to Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. A Buddha is anyone who has attained enlightenment. There are human Buddhas of the past, present and future as well as celestial Buddhas who are venerated in some Buddhist schools for their ability to help those on the path to liberation.
- Buddhism, the fourth-largest organized religion in the world, was founded in India sometime between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, or the “awakened one.” Buddhism teaches that meditation and the practice of moral behavior (and, according to some schools, rituals) can lead to the elimination of personal craving and hence the release of suffering and the attainment of absolute peace (nirvana). This is gradually achieved through successive cycles of rebirth (although some schools say such liberation may be obtained as quickly as within one lifetime). Although Buddhism is frequently described as a nontheistic tradition since the historical Buddha did not claim to be divine and there is no concept of a divine absolute God — the vast and complex tradition of Buddhism includes an intricate cosmology of beneficent and wrathful deities as well as transcendent Buddhas and bodhisattvas who can be propitiated to help Buddhist practitioners on the path to enlightenment. There are three major forms or “vehicles” of Buddhism: Theravada, found in most of Southeast Asia, focuses on individual realization, with practices particularly directed to monastic life; Mahayana stresses the universality of Buddha-nature and the possibility of enlightenment for all beings. It developed into many variant schools in China, Japan and Korea; Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhism, is found in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. Vajrayana developed from the Mahayana tradition but is often considered separately as a third “vehicle.” See Buddha, Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path and Siddhartha Gautama. Titles for Buddhist teachers or masters are capitalized when used with a name but lowercase otherwise. The title of lama generally precedes a name; rinpoche, sensei and roshi generally follow the name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. (For example, a well-known Japanese Zen teacher is always referred to as Maezumi Roshi; a well-known American Zen teacher is Roshi Bernard Glassman.) To determine how to refer to a particular Buddhist teacher, ask or try looking up the name through a database or other Web tool.
- Dalai Lama
- The title of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual and (now exiled) political leader of the people of Tibet. Dalai Lama is a title rather than a name, but it is all that is used when referring to the man. Capitalize when referring to the person who currently holds the title; lowercase when referring to the title in general. Each dalai lama is considered to be the reincarnation of the last; the current, 14th Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959 after China’s invasion and resides in Dharamsala, India. Tibetan Buddhists address him as Your Holiness and refer to him in writing as His Holiness.
- Pronounced “Dhahm-muh-PAA-dah.” One of the most widely known verse texts of the Buddha’s teaching, it means “the path of dharma” and is part of a collection within the Sutta Pitaka.
- Pronounced “DAHR-muh.” The mode of conduct for an individual that is most conducive to spiritual advancement. It includes universal human values as well as values that are specific to persons in various stages of life. In Hinduism it also refers to individual obligations in terms of law and social law. In Buddhism it is the teachings of Buddha from which an adherent molds his conduct on the path toward enlightenment.
- Eightfold Path
- In Buddhism, eight practical steps taught by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, to end craving and thus eliminate suffering. The steps are right understanding, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Together with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path constitutes the foundation of Buddhist thought; also referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path.
- The goal of life in both Buddhism and Hinduism. For Hindus, it is union with God and self-realization. For Buddhists, it is realization of the truth about reality, achieved by following a system of practices (which may especially include meditation), in accordance with the particular school to which an adherent belongs. See Four Noble Truths.
- Five Precepts
- In Buddhism, principles for conduct that are followed by lay adherents. They are: Do not kill; do not steal; do not lie; do not be unchaste; do not take intoxicants. These precepts have broader, metaphorical as well as literal applications; for example, “Do not steal” means more broadly, “Do not take what is not given.”
- Four Noble Truths
- The fundamental truths that the historical Buddha realized in meditation and then taught to his followers: Life is suffering; the cause of suffering is craving; suffering can be eliminated by the extinguishing of craving; there is a way to achieve this goal (by following eight principles of conduct). See Eightfold Path.
- Advanced degree of a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, much like a Ph.D.
- Pronounced “hi-nuh-YAA-nah.” A term meaning “little vehicle” that was originally used by Mahayana Buddhists to refer to early Buddhism. It is generally considered pejorative; use Theravada instead. See Theravada.
- In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universal law of cause and effect; the effect (or fruits) of a person’s actions in one’s next lifetime. Lowercase in all references.
- A Tibetan Buddhist teacher or master. Capitalize when used as a title before a name, as in Lama Surya Das, or when referring to the man who holds the title Dalai Lama.
- Pronounced “muhd-YAA-mih-kah.” A Mahayana Buddhist sect based on the third-century teachings of Nagarjuna. It focuses on the emptiness (shunyata) of the cycle of worldly existence (samsara) and nirvana. It rests on the scripture known as the Prajnaparamita Sutra.
- Pronounced “muh-hah-YAA-nah.” Literally “great vehicle,” it is one of the two main forms of Buddhism, along with Theravada. Its traditions emphasize the Buddha-nature of all beings; the ideal is the bodhisattva, one who works for enlightenment while delaying personal attainment of liberation in order to help others, and realization is as much a goal for lay adherents as for monastics. Its followers are called Mahayanists. Mahayana has many sects in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia including the Madhyamika, Yogachara, Nichiren, T’ien-t’ai, Zen, Pure Land and Vajrayana schools. Mahayanists see Buddha as more than a man who was a great spiritual teacher; they believe he is also a universal spiritual being to whom (in his various forms) prayers may be effectively directed. Mahayana schools use different scriptures, such as the Lotus Sutra (Nichiren and T’ien-t’ai schools) and the Heart Sutra (Zen schools).
- Pronounced “MUN-tra.” A syllable, word or phrase with spiritual power, it is chanted or held in the mind in connection with meditation or ritual. Mantras are commonly used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and are traditionally drawn from Sanskrit scriptures, such as the Vedas. The adherents of some vernacular texts, such as the Hindi Ramcharitmanas, believe their verses have the power of mantra as well. Some of the more powerful mantras consist of a single syllable, the most popular of which is “om.” See om.
- A quiet, alert, sustained, powerfully concentrated state in which new knowledge and insights are awakened from within as awareness focuses on an object or specific line of thought. In the West, practices that are taught as meditation are primarily techniques of concentration (“dharana” in Sanskrit). The more appropriate Sanskrit term for meditation is “dhyana”; it is more of a state of reflection on the nature of the self or of reality, and is one of the eight limbs of yoga.
- By ritual and ethical practices, the Buddhist adherent accumulates merit, or adds positive karma and offsets negative karma (the spiritual fruits of former actions) on the path to liberation.
- Middle Path, Middle Way
- The moderate path taken by the historical Buddha to enlightenment, one that avoided both the hedonism he had seen as a prince and the total asceticism he practiced for a time.
- A term in Buddhism for the central practice of an alert, objective awareness that is directed to all activities throughout the day.
- A movement founded by B.R. Ambedkar in India in the mid-1950s to encourage members of the Hindu caste of untouchables to convert to Buddhism, which would assure them of social acceptance as well as spiritual guidance. Mass conversions are still held today.
- A school within Mahayana Buddhism that was founded in 13th-century Japan by Nichiren. It calls on adherents to rely on the Lotus Sutra as the sole scripture needed for salvation, which is attained through veneration of the sutra’s sacred title, Namu-Myoho-renge-kyo.
- Pronounced “nir-VAA-nah.” In Buddhism and Hinduism, a state of ultimate peace that is the goal of all beings, which includes freedom from suffering, desire and the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha’s entrance into nirvana at his death is referred to as his parinirvana (pronounced “PAH-rih-nir-VAA-nah”).
- In Buddhism, the major tenet that no “self” exists as an individual, independent substance; rather, the ego is a transitory collection, an ever-changing process of mental formations and impressions. Also called not-self, it is referred to as anatman in Sanskrit and anatta in Pali.
- om mani padme hum
- Pronounced “OHM MAH-nee PAHD-may HUMM.” An important mantra in Tibetan Buddhism, roughly translated as “(Homage to) the jewel in the lotus.” It honors the Buddha-nature of all beings.
- Prajnaparamita Sutra
- Pronounced “PRUHJ-nyaa-PAA-ruh-mi-taa SOO-trah.” The “Perfection of Wisdom Sutra,” a major scripture in Mahayana Buddhism. It teaches that all phenomena are marked by impermanence and insubstantiality and presents the bodhisattva path.
- The term used for ordained clergy of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopal faith. Priest also is used by Wiccans and for some clergy in Buddhism and Hinduism. It is not a formal title and is not capitalized. Avoid the term minister when referring to Catholic priests. Also, while every priest has pastoral duties toward the baptized, the term pastor refers to the priest (and in rare cases, laymen or laywomen) charged by the bishop with overseeing a parish. A pastor may have one or more assistant pastors. Most Catholic priests in the United States are diocesan clergy, ordained by and for a particular diocese. They make promises of celibacy and obedience, but although they are expected to adhere to a modest lifestyle, they do not take vows of poverty and can own a home, for example, or a car. The term religious priests refers to priests who belong to a religious order, such as the Jesuits, and hold possessions in common.
- Pure Land school
- Japanese schools of Mahayana Buddhism whose teachings are based on devotion to the celestial Buddha Amida (also known as Amitabha). Jodoshu (Pure Land School), established in the 12th century by Honan, teaches that devotees have only to call upon Amida by name to invoke his aid on the path toward liberation. Honan’s disciple Shinran established Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School) with the same focus on the chanting of Amida’s name but specified that Amida Buddha had already provided liberation for his devotees, who need only realize it.
- The belief that a person’s soul is reborn in another body after physical death. It is common in many Asian traditions — including Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism — as well as some Native American traditions. According to Hinduism and Buddhism, incarnation in the next life is determined by one’s previous actions. See karma.
- Reverend, the
- An attributive form of address given to many but not all ordained Christian and Buddhist clergy. Do not use this honorific form unless you are sure that the particular denomination accepts its use. Follow AP style of using the article the to precede the abbreviation Rev. Never use the Rev. Dr. together before a name. See religious titles for guidance.
- Pronounced “RAHN-poh-shay.” Literally “precious one,” rinpoche is a title of respect for a Buddhist teacher, often signaling one considered to be an incarnate lama. The title of rinpoche generally follows a name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. Capitalize when used before or after a name. See lama and tulku.
- Title for Zen Buddhist master, literally “old teacher.” It generally follows a name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. Capitalize when used before or after a name.
- Pronounced “sahm-SAA-rah.” The cycle of birth, death and rebirth (and thus continual return to the suffering that constitutes human life). The fundamental goal of Buddhist practice is to be freed from samsara.
- Term in Zen Buddhism for the experience of awakening to the truth.
- Title of teacher in a Zen Buddhist lineage, it refers to one who has received dharma transmission, or formal recognition of his or her awakening. Capitalize with a name. The title sensei generally follows a name, but practice varies, especially in the United States. Sensei is also a title in Japanese martial arts.
- Pronounced “SHOON-yuh-taa.” Emptiness, a key teaching in Mahayana Buddhism that all phenomena lack real and permanent substance.
- Siddhartha Gautama
- Pronounced “Sid-DHART-hah GAU-tuh-mah.” Name of the historical Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni (“sage of the Shakya clan”). Born to a wealthy ruling family between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. in an area that is part of modern-day Nepal, he left the kingdom at age 29 after encountering the outside world of illness, old age and death beyond the palace walls, to find enlightenment and release from suffering. After years as a wandering ascetic, he awoke to the true nature of reality after meditating under a bodhi tree and spent the rest of his life passing on to others what he had realized. The title Buddha means awakened or enlightened one. Gautama did not teach that he was a god; as a historical figure, he is venerated in Buddhist tradition as a perfect teacher and ultimate authority. (“Lord Buddha” is a term of respect rather than a title of divinity.) See Buddha and Buddhism.
- Soka Gakkai
- “Value Creation Society,” a Japanese Buddhist group based on the teachings of the Nichiren school of Mahayana Buddhism. It holds the Lotus Sutra to be the only scripture needed for salvation, which is achieved by venerating and chanting its title.
- Soka Gakkai International-USA
- An American Buddhist association based on the teachings of the Nichiren school of Mahayana Buddhism. See Buddhism.
- Burial mounds containing relics of the historical Buddha across the Indian subcontinent. Many were later developed into shrines or temple compounds.
- sutra, sutta
- Pronounced “SOO-trah” and “SUHT-ta.” In Buddhism, a sutra is a text containing the Buddha’s discourses. Sutras have been preserved in Sanskrit and Pali and in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The scriptures of Theravada Buddhism — the Pali canon, which are in the Pali language – include a collection of such texts, which are called suttas. They are subdivided into sections called Nikayas. These texts are said to have been transmitted from Ananda, the Buddha’s closest disciple. The schools of Mahayana Buddhism base their teachings on the interpretation of any of a number of other sutras originally written in Sanskrit. These are known by the Sanskrit term sutra. Individual Mahayana schools base their teaching on specific sutras.
- Pronounced “SVA-stik-a.” It is one of the most popular symbols for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. The word swastika is derived from Sanskrit words that mean “auspicious,” “luck” and “well-being.” It is also a sign of the Sun-God Surya and his generosity. The swastika is one of the 108 symbols of Lord Vishnu and represents the sun’s rays, without which there would be no life. The swastika is used in religious and civil ceremonies in India, both public and private. Use extreme care in stories that mention the hooked-cross symbol associated with Nazi Germany and neo-Nazi groups. Although the symbol is commonly called a swastika, some historians say Adolf Hitler and the Nazis never called it that. The emblem can be referred to as the Nazi cross or by its German name, Hakenkreuz.
- An important Chinese Mahayana Buddhist school founded in the sixth century; the scripture on which it rests is a discourse of the Buddha known as the Lotus Sutra. The tradition was later brought to Japan, where it is known as Tendai.
- taking refuge
- In Buddhism, taking refuge is an important act of commitment in which a person proclaims his faith in the Three Jewels — Buddha, the dharma and the Sangha. See Three Jewels.
- A building used for worship or religious purposes. Uppercase when part of a formal name or when referring to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The word temple is used differently in different religious traditions. It is the place of worship for Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, although Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews believe the only temple is the one destroyed in Jerusalem and so they call their congregational buildings synagogues. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, temples are sacred buildings with restricted access; they differ in purpose from meetinghouses, where weekly worship takes place.
- Pronounced “teh-ruh-VAA-dah.” One of the two main forms of Buddhism, it means “the way of the elders.” (The other is Mahayana.) Theravada is an early tradition directed to the monastic community. Its ideal is the arhat, the individual who attains enlightenment and thus escapes the cycle of rebirth through practices involving ethical conduct, meditation and insight. Its scriptures are those of the Pali canon, held to represent the earliest direct teachings of the Buddha. Theravada Buddhism is the form found in most of Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Laos). An adherent of the Theravada school is a Theravadin.
- Three Jewels
- In Buddhism, the three objects Buddhists take refuge in or give themselves to: the Buddha (both the historical Buddha and the Buddha-nature that is in every sentient being), the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings as well as universal law) and the Sangha (the monastic community as well as the wider community of Buddhists everywhere). See taking refuge.
- Pronounced “ti-PIH-tuh-kah.” The “Three Baskets,” or collections, of early Buddhist texts that make up the Pali canon, the scriptures of the Theravada school of Buddhism. The Vinaya Pitaka lists regulations for monks and nuns, the Sutta Pitaka consists of discourses from the historical Buddha or his disciples, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka presents a systematic organization of the teachings.
- Pronounced “tül-koo.” In Tibetan Buddhism, an incarnate or reincarnated lama.
- Pronounced “vuh-jruh-YAA-nah.” Considered the third major tradition or “vehicle” of Buddhism, after Mahayana and Theravada. It is also called Tibetan Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism (its scriptures are called tantras). Vajrayana literally means “diamond vehicle.” It developed from Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. Vajrayana Buddhists emphasize the use of ritual, meditative practices, mantras, mudras (symbolic gestures) and mandalas (symbolic diagrams in the form of a circle). Schools of Tibetan Buddhism include Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelugpa, the order to which the dalai lamas belong. See Buddhism.
- Ordained monks and nuns in Theravada Buddhism are given the honorific Venerable before their names. In Roman Catholicism, the term is applied posthumously when a pope has approved the first stage in a person’s official cause for canonization, as in Venerable Fulton Sheen. Also, in the Episcopal Church, archdeacons are addressed with the honorific the Venerable, as in the Venerable Jill Smith. See religious titles.
- Pronounced “vih-PAHS-suh-nah.” In Theravada Buddhism, a profound, nonjudgmental self-awareness practiced in meditation. Often called insight meditation.
- Pronounced “VISH-noo.” In Hinduism, the name used when God’s role as preserver is emphasized. Shiva is the name used when the emphasis is on God’s role as lord of time and change. Brahma is the name used for God when God’s role as creator of the universe is described. The divine is always understood to be one. For most Hindus, Vishnu is either equated with or a manifestation of Brahman. Vishnu has many avatars or incarnations, the best-known of which are Ram, Krishna and the Buddha. His consort is Lakshmi.
- Most often associated with body poses, stretching exercises and breathing techniques developed in India. It is a Sanskrit term that means union; yoga is a discipline found in Hinduism. It is the philosophy, process, disciplines, and practices whose purpose is the unification of individual consciousness with transcendent or divine consciousness. One of its eight “limbs” is referred to as asana (also known as “hatha yoga”) and involves various body postures meant to keep the body physically relaxed and healthy as an important prerequisite for meditation.
- A Mahayana Buddhist school whose followers practice yoga and meditation and whose focus is the teaching of shunyata (emptiness).
- Zen Buddhism
- A Mahayana Buddhist tradition that teaches enlightenment through meditation. It developed in China as Ch’an. Two major schools of Japanese Zen are the Rinzai school, which emphasizes koan practice, in which the student is given a traditional paradoxical sutra or story to consider (and, by having ultimately to transcend the logical use of mind, thereby is propelled into a direct encounter with reality beyond words), and the Soto school, whose primary practice is shikantaza (“just sitting” meditation, in which there is no object but simply a state of awareness).
- In Zen Buddhist schools, a meditation hall.