That genial face has become familiar across the globe - almost as
recognizable when it comes to religious leaders, perhaps, as Pope
John Paul II. When in America, the Dalai Lama is a sought-after
speaker, sharing his compassionate message and engaging aura well
beyond the Buddhist community.
After inaugurating a new Dalai Lama Center for Peace and
Education in Vancouver, B.C., the Tibetan leader this week begins a
visit to several US cities for public talks, sessions with young
peacemakers, scientists, university faculty, corporate executives,
and a California women's conference. But he'll also sit down for
teach-ins among the burgeoning American faithful.
Buddhism is growing apace in the United States, and an
identifiably American Buddhism is emerging. Teaching centers and
sanghas (communities of people who practice together) are spreading
here as American-born leaders reframe ancient principles in
contemporary Western terms.
Though the religion born in India has been in the US since the
19th century, the number of adherents rose by 170 percent between
1990 and 2000, according to the American Religious Identity Survey.
An ARIS estimate puts the total in 2004 at 1.5 million, while others
have estimated twice that. "The 1.5 million is a low reasonable
number," says Richard Seager, author of "Buddhism in America."
That makes Buddhism the country's fourth-largest religion, after
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Immigrants from Asia probably
account for two-thirds of the total, and converts about one-third,
says Dr. Seager, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton
College, in Clinton, N.Y.
What is drawing people (after that fascination with Zen Buddhism
in the '50s and '60s)? The Dalai Lama himself has played a role,
some say, and Buddhism's nonmissionizing approach fits well with
Americans' search for meaningful spiritual paths.
"People feel that Buddhist figures like the Dalai Lama and Thich
Nhat Hanh of Vietnam are contributing something, not trying to
convert people," says Lama Surya Das, a highly trained American lama
in the Tibetan tradition. "They are not building big temples, but
offering wisdom and ways of reconciliation and peacemaking, which
are so much needed."
Even a larger factor, he suggests, is that Buddhism offers
spiritual practices that Western religions haven't emphasized.
"People are looking for experiential practices, not just a new
belief system or a new set of ethical rules which we already have,
and are much the same in all religions," Surya Das says. "It's the
transformative practices like meditation which people are really
At a sangha "sitting" in Cambridge, Mass., last week, some 20
devotees sat cross-legged on four rows of large burgundy-colored
cushions before a small candlelit altar. A practice leader led a
quiet hour of meditation interspersed with the chanting of prayers
and mantras. The group then gathered in a circle for a half hour of
Carol Marsh, an architect who served as practice leader for the
evening, had an interest in finding a spiritual path for years, but
was "resistant to anything nonrationalist," she says afterward in an
interview. "Then I read 'Awakening the Buddha Within,' [Surya Das's
first book on 'Tibetan wisdom for the Western world'], and it spoke
to me directly.... My ultimate aim is liberation."
After eight years of practicing, "I am happier, more grateful,
more able to roll with whatever punches or moments of annoyance may
present themselves," Ms. Marsh says.
What's so valuable to Jane Moss, who's been practicing 15 years,
is learning how "to be in the present moment." And also to accept
that reality involves perfection and "to view the world as good and
people as basically loving." Each month, the group holds a
meditation focused on love and compassion.
The sangha has been meeting since 1991, when Surya Das opened the
Dzogchen Center here after decades of training with Tibetan