Buddhism Comes to Main Street

By Nattier, Jan | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Buddhism Comes to Main Street


Nattier, Jan, The Wilson Quarterly


Buddhism is big news in America these days. Whether through a New York Times article carrying the Dalai Lama's latest remarks or a CNN spot on a political fund-raising scandal at a Taiwanese branch temple in Los Angeles, whether by seeing Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha or following Tina Turner's life story in What's Love Got to Do With It?, Americans have become more aware than ever before of something called "Buddhism." But it is not only as interesting bits of cultural and political exotica that Buddhism has entered the American consciousness. Increasingly, Americans themselves are becoming Buddhists. Though precise statistics are impossible to come by, according to most estimates between one and two million Americans now consider themselves practicing Buddhists.

American Buddhists are a far from homogeneous lot. The austere minimalism of a Zen meditation hall contrasts starkly with the riot of color in a Tibetan Buddhist center, and the mostly Caucasian crowd of baby boomers arriving for a talk on meditation at a Vipassana center outside San Francisco bears little resemblance to the multigenerational gathering of Thai Buddhists assembling in Chicago for a celebration of the Buddha's birth.

And there are conflicts, as well as contrasts, within Buddhist America. Like many other religious groups, Buddhists frequently find themselves divided by class, culture, or ethnicity. At an outdoor lecture by a famous Vietnamese monk, three Asian-American friends cluster together, feeling the not altogether friendly stares of the mostly Caucasian (and overwhelmingly vegetarian) crowd as they try to enjoy their hot dogs and potato chips. At a small Japanese-American Buddhist church, the parishioners chafe at the identity of the new minister appointed to serve them: a Caucasian man in his thirties, who converted to Buddhism only 10 years before. The differences can be fundamental. Writing in the Buddhist journal Tricycle, Victor Sogen Hori describes how, at the conclusion of a week-long Chinese-style Zen retreat he attended, the white American and ethnic Chinese Buddhists offered profoundly different views of their experience. One Chinese woman broke down in tears as she described the deep sense of shame and repentance she had felt over her selfishness. Her white American coreligionists were often impatient with such sentiments. These participants, Hori writes, "spoke uniformly of how the long hours of meditation had helped them get in touch with themselves . . . and assisted them in the process of self-realization."

How, then, can we get our bearings in this new and confusing territory? For Americans, especially those raised as Christians, doctrine might seem the obvious place to start. Yet there are relatively few propositions that would be accepted by members of all Buddhist communities. That a person known as the Buddha had an experience of "enlightenment," that we live not once but many times, and that our karma (which simply means "actions") will have an effect on us in the future, are all ideas that would be accepted by most Buddhists. But beyond this minimal consensus, differences emerge almost immediately, including disagreements over such fundamental matters as which scriptures are really the word of the Buddha.

Buddhist practices are diverse as well. While one group views meditation as essential, the next insists that Buddhahood is accessible only through recitation of a certain mantra, and a third considers ritual empowerments by a guru to be required. Watching elderly Buddhists reverently offering small gifts of money or food to the Buddha in hopes of achieving a better rebirth, one realizes that in still other groups enlightenment, at least in this life, isn't the issue at all.

With some persistence, though, we can identify a few major fault lines within Buddhist America that can serve as basic points of orientation. First is the obvious distinction between those who were born into the faith and those who have become Buddhists by conversion. …

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