Sunday, July 6, 2008

Buddhism In America, Part 1

"Three things cannot be hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth" - Lord Buddha

Buddhism is a religion with millions of followers in North America, including traditionally Buddhist Asian Americans as well as non-Asian converts. America presents a strikingly new and different environment for Buddhists, leading to a unique history and a continuing process of development as Buddhism and America come to grips with each other.

Early history
Occasional intersections between Western civilization and the Buddhist world have been occurring for thousands of years. Perhaps the most significant of these began in 334 BCE, early in the history of Buddhism, when the Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered most of Central Asia. The Seleucids and successive kingdoms established an important Hellenistic influence in the area, which interacted with the Buddhism that had been introduced from India to produce Greco-Buddhism. While this trend was very significant in the development of Mahayana Buddhism, it has yet to be established that it made a corresponding impact on Western thought. In the Christian era, Buddhist ideas would periodically filter into Europe via the Middle East. A notable example is the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, folk heroes who were canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and whose story is believed to be an altered account of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, translated from Persian to Arabic to Greek.

The first direct encounter between European Christians and Buddhists to be recorded was in 1253 when the king of France sent William of Rubruck as an ambassador to the court of the Mongols. Later, in the 17th century, a group of Mongols practicing Tibetan Buddhism established Kalmykia, the only Buddhist nation in Europe, at the eastern edge of the continent. Because the above examples produced very little real religious interaction, the European settlers who would come to colonize the Americas had virtually no exposure to Buddhism. This almost complete isolation would last largely undisturbed until the 19th century, when significant numbers of immigrants from East Asia began to arrive in the New World. In the United States, the first immigrants from China entered around 1820, but they began to arrive in large numbers following the California Gold Rush of 1849.
The first Buddhist temple in America was built in 1853 in San Francisco by the Sze Yap Company, a Chinese American fraternal society. Another society, the Ning Yeong Company, built a second in 1854; by 1875, there were eight such temples, and by 1900 there were approximately 400 Chinese temples on the west coast of the United States, most of them containing at least some Buddhist elements. These temples were often the subject of suspicion and ignorance by the rest of the population, and were dismissively referred to as joss houses. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 curtailed the growth of the Chinese-American population, but large-scale immigration from Japan began in the late 1880s and from Korea around 1903. In both cases, immigration was at first limited primarily to Hawaii. Populations from other Asian Buddhist countries followed. In each case, the new communities established Buddhist temples and organizations.

For instance, the first Japanese temple in the Hawaii was built in 1896 near Paauhau by the Hompa Hongwanji branch of Jodo Shinshu. In 1898, Japanese missionaries and immigrants established a Young Mens Buddhist Association. The first Japanese Buddhist temple in the continental U.S. was built in San Francisco in 1899, and the first in Canada was built at the Ishikawa Hotel in Vancouver in 1905

The first Buddhist clergy to take up residence in the U.S. were Shuye Sonoda and Kakuryo Nishimjima, missionaries from Japan who arrived in 1899. At about the same time that Asian immigrants were first starting to arrive in America, some American intellectuals were beginning to come to terms with Buddhism, based primarily on information reaching them from British colonial possessions in India and East Asia. The Englishmen William Jones and Charles Wilkins had done pioneering work translating Sanskrit texts into English.

The American Transcendentalists and associated persons, in particular Henry David Thoreau took an interest in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. In 1844, the Dial, a small literary publication edited by Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, published the first English version of a portion of the Lotus Sutra; it had been translated by Thoreau himself from a French version recently completed by Eugne Burnouf. His Indian readings may have influenced his later experiments in simple living: at one point in Walden he wrote: I realized what the Orientals meant by contemplation and the forsaking of works. The poet Walt Whitman also admitted to an influence of Indian religion on his writings. The first prominent American to publically convert to Buddhism was Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott, a former U.S. army colonel during the Civil War, had grown increasingly interested in reports of supernatural phenomena that were popular in the late 19th century.

In 1875, he, along with Helena Blavatsky and William Quan Judge founded the Theosophical Society, which was dedicated to the study of the occult and was partly influenced by Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. The groups leaders believed or claimed to believe that they were in contact, via visions and messages, with a secret order of adepts referred to as the Himalayan Brotherhood or the Masters. In 1879, Olcott and Blavatsky travelled to India and then, in 1880, to Sri Lanka, where they were met enthusiastically by local Buddhists, who saw them as allies against an aggressive Christian missionary movement.
On May 25 of that year, Olcott and Blavatsky took the pancasila vows of a lay Buddhist before a monk and a large crowd of onlookers. Although most of the Theosophists appear to have counted themselves as Buddhists, they held idiosyncratic beliefs that separated them from all known Buddhist traditions; only Olcott was enthusiastic about following mainstream Buddhism. He would return to Sri Lanka on two further occasions, where he worked to promote Buddhist education, and also visited Japan and Burma. Olcott authored a Buddhist Catechism, stating his view of the basic tenets of the religion. A series of new publications greatly increased public knowledge of Buddhism in 19th century America.
In 1879, Edwin Arnold, an English aristocrat, published The Light of Asia, an epic poem he had written about the life and teachings of the Buddha, expounded with much wealth of local color and not a little felicity of versification. The book became immensely popular in the United States, going through eighty editions and selling more than 500,000 copies.

Dr. Paul Carus, a German-American philosopher and theologian, was at work on a more scholarly prose treatment of the same subject. Carus was the director of Open Court Publishing Company, an academic publishing house specializing in philosophy, science, and religion, and editor of The Monist, a journal with a similar focus, both based in Lasalle, Illinois. In 1894, Carus published The Gospel of the Buddha, which was compiled from a variety of Asian texts and, true to its name, presented the Buddhas story in a form resembling the Christian Gospels. Perhaps the most significant event in the 19th century history of Buddhism in America was the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Although most of the delegates to the Parliament were Christians of various denominations, the Buddhist nations of China, Japan, Thailand, and Sri Lanka sent representatives. Buddhist delegates included Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen abbott; Zenshiro Noguchi, a Japanese translator; Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan associate of H. S. Olcotts; and Chandradat Chudhadharn, a brother of King Chulalongkorn of Thailand. Paul Carus also attended as an observer.

The Parliament provided the first major public forum from which Buddhists could address themselves directly to the Western public; Dharmapala was particularly effective in this role because he spoke fluent English. A few days after the end of the Parliament, in a brief ceremony conducted by Anagarika Dharmapala, Charles T. Strauss, a New York businessman of Jewish descent, became, it is believed, the first person to formally convert to Buddhism on American soil. A few fledgling attempts at establishing a Buddhism for Americans followed. One the most interesting, in fact, had initially appeared prior to the Parliament, met with little fanfare, in 1887: The Buddhist Ray, a Santa Cruz, California-based magazine published and edited by Phillangi Dasa, born Herman Carl (or Carl Herman) Veetering (or Vettering), a recluse about whom little is known. The Rays tone was, in the words of Rick Fields, ironic, light, saucy, self-assured... 100% American Buddhist (Fields, 1981), which was by all means a novel development in that time and place.
It ceased publication in 1894. Elsewhere, six white San Franciscans, working with Japanese Jodo Shinshu missionaries, established the Dharma Sangha of Buddha in 1900 and began publishing a bimonthly magazine, The Light of Dharma.
In Illinois, Paul Carus wrote further books about Buddhism and attempted setting portions of Buddhist scripture to Western classical music. In the first half of the 20th century, it would prove to be Buddhist teachers from Japan who played the most active role in disseminating Buddhism to the American public, perhaps because Japan was the most developed and self-confident Buddhist country at the time. In 1905, Soyen Shaku was invited to stay in the United States by a Mr. and Mrs. Russell, a wealthy American couple.
He lived for nine months in their home near San Francisco, where he established a small zendo in their home and gave regular zazen lessons, making him the first Zen Buddhist priest to teach in North America. This short sojourn eventually produced an effect on American Buddhism that continues to the present. Shortly after Shaku settled in to his erstwhile home, he was followed by Nyogen Senzaki, a young monk from Shakus home temple in Japan. Senzaki briefly worked for the Russell family and then, expressing his desire to stay in America, he was reportedly advised by Shaku to spend seventeen years as an ordinary worker before teaching Buddhism. Thus, it was in 1922 that Senzaki first rented a hall and gave an English talk on a paper by Soyen Shaku; his periodic talks at different locations became known as the floating zendo. In 1931, he established a permanent sitting hall in Los Angeles, where he would teach until his death in 1958.

Another Zen teacher, Sokatsu Shaku, one of Soyen Shakus senior students, arrived in late 1906. Although he stayed only a few years and had limited contact with the English-speaking public, one of his disciples, Shigetsu Sasaki, made a permanent home. Sasaki, better known under his monastic name, Sokei-an, spent a few years wandering the west coast of the United States, at one point living among American Indians near Seattle, and reached New York City in 1916. After completing his training and being ordained in 1928, he returned to New York to teach. In 1931, his small group incorporated as the Buddhist Society of America, later renamed the First Zen Institute of America. By the late 1930s, one of his most active supporters was Ruth Fuller Everett, a British socialite and the mother-in-law of Alan Watts.

Shortly before Sokei-ans death in 1945, the two would wed, at which point she took the name Ruth Fuller Sasaki. In 1914, under the leadership of Koyu Uchida, who succeeded Shuye Sonoda as the head of Jodo Shinshu missionary effort in North America, several Japanese Buddhist congregations formed the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA). This organization would later form the basis of the Buddhist Churches of America, currently the largest and most influential ethnic-based Buddhist organization in the U.S. The BMNA focused primarily on social and cultural activities for and ministering to Japanese American communities. In the late 1920s, it first began to develop programs to train English-speaking priests, for the benefit of the growing number of American-born parishoners. Also, in 1927, the Soto sect of Japanese Zen opened its own mission with Zenshuji temple in Los Angeles, although it did not make attempts at the time to attract non-Japanese members. One American who made his own attempt to establish an American Buddhist movement was Dwight Goddard (1861-1939).

Goddard had been a Christian missionary to China, when he first came in contact with Buddhism. In 1928, he spent a year living at a Zen monastery in Japan. In 1934, he founded the Followers of Buddha, an American Brotherhood, with the goal of applying the traditional monastic structure of Buddhism more strictly than Senzaki and Sokei-an. The group was largely unsuccessful: no Americans were attracted to join as monks and attempts failed to attract a Chinese Chan (Zen) master to come to the United States. However, Goddards efforts as an author and publisher bore considerable fruit. In 1930, he began publishing . In 1932, he collaborated with D. T. Suzuki (see below), on a translation of the Lankavatara Sutra. That same year, he published the first edition of A Buddhist Bible, an anthology of Buddhist scriptures focusing on those used in Chinese and Japanese Zen, which was enormously influential.

However, another Japanese person, also an associate of Soyen Shakus, had an even greater literary impact. This was D. T. Suzuki. At the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, Paul Carus befriended Soyen Shaku and requested his help in translating and preparing Oriental spiritual literature for publication in the West. Shaku instead recommended Suzuki, then a young scholar and former disciple of his. Starting in 1897, Suzuki worked from Dr. Caruss home in Illinois; his first projects were translations of the Tao Te Ching and Ashvagoshas Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. At the same time, Suzuki began writing his first major book, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, which was published in 1907. Suzuki returned to Japan in 1909 and married an American Theosophist and Radcliffe graduate in 1911. Through English-language essays and books, such as Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927), he established himself as the most visible literary expositor of Zen Buddhism, its unofficial goodwill ambassador to Western readers, until his death in 1966. His 1949 book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, featured a 30-page introduction by Carl Jung, an emblem of the deepening relationship between Buddhism and major Western thinkers.
Modern American Buddhism
Some scholars, such as Charles Prebish, have suggested that the social phenonemon of Buddhism in America can be seen to compromise three broad types. The oldest and largest of these is immigrant or ethnic Buddhism, those Buddhist traditions that arrived in America along with immigrants who were already believers and that largely remained with those immigrants and their descendants.
The next oldest and arguably the most visible and best heralded type is referred to as import Buddhism, because it came to America largely in response to the demand of interested American converts who sought it out, either by going abroad or by supporting foreign teachers; this is sometimes also called elite Buddhism because its practitioners, especially early in the process, tended to come from social elites.

The newest trend in Buddhism is export or "evangelical Buddhism, groups which are based in another country and who are actively recruiting members in America from various backgrounds; by far the most successful of these has been Soka Gakkai, which will be discussed below.

Immigrant Buddhists
Immigrant Buddhist congregations in North America come in an extremely wide variety, exactly as wide a variety as exists in the different peoples of Asian Buddhist extraction who have settled there. The New World is home to Chinese Buddhists, Japanese Buddhists, Korean Buddhists, Vietnamese Buddhists, Thai Buddhists, Cambodian Buddhists, and Buddhists with family backgrounds in nearly every Buddhist country and region in the world. The passage of the 1965 Immigration Act in the United States greatly increased the number of immigrants arriving from China, Vietnam, and the Theravada-practicing countries of southeast Asia.

It is common for Buddhist temples and societies to serve as foci for the social life of an immigrant community, helping to maintain a connection to Old World traditions in a foreign environment. However, as the passing of time produces congregations increasingly dominated by persons born in America, which is especially common among Japanese Buddhists, questions arise about how their religious customs should adapt The largest and most influential national immigrant Buddhist organization in the United States is the Buddhist Churches of America.

The BCA is an affiliate of Japans Nishi Hongwanji, a sect of Jodo Shinshu, which is in turn a form of Pure Land Buddhism. Tracing its roots to the Young Mens Buddhist Association founded in San Francisco at the end of the 19th century and the Buddhist Mission of North America founded in 1914, it took its current form in 1944. All of the Buddhist Missions leadership along with almost the entire Japanese American population, had been interned during the Second World War. The name Buddhist Churches of America was adopted at Topaz Relocation Center in Utah; the use of the word church, which normally implies a Christian house of worship, was significant. After internment ended, some members returned to the West Coast and revitalized churches there, while a number of others moved to the Midwest and built new churches. During the 1960s and 1970s, the BCA was in a growth phase and was very successful at fund-raising. It also began to publish two periodicals, one in Japanese and one in English. However, since 1980, BCA membership has declined seriously. It is interesting to note that while a very large majority of the Buddhist Churches of Americas membership are ethnically Japanese, it does have some members from non-Asian backgrounds.

Thus, it can be seen as having some, currently very limited, aspects of an export Buddhist institution. As declining involvement by its ethnic community creates questions about its future, there has been internal discussion as to whether it should devote more attention to attracting the broader public. Another institution with some appeal both to a specific ethnic group as well as to Americans generally is Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California. Hsi Lai is the American headquarters of Fo Guang Shan, an enormously successful modern Buddhist group in Taiwan. Hsi Lai was built in 1988 at a cost of $10 million and is is the largest Buddhist temple Western hemisphere.
It is the American headquarters of Fo Guang Shan, an enormously successful modern Buddhist group in Taiwan. Although it continues to cater primarily to Chinese Americans, it also has regular services and outreach programs in English. Hsi Lai was at the center of a bizarre incident in the history of American Buddhism, when a 1996 fund-raising event by Vice President Al Gore provoked a controversy; at the time Hsi Lai was often referred to in the media as simply "the Buddhist temple. Import BuddhistsSince Henry Steele Olcott travelled to Sri Lanka in 1880, interested Americans have sought out Buddhist teachers from a variety of countries in Asia, many of which have now established their teachings in America.

The three most notable trends of this type are Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Vipassana, which is an outgrowth of Theravada Buddhism. Because its membership tends strongly to be among educated, white, native English speakers, import Buddhism has come to enjoy a higher level of prominence and prestige than other types of Buddhism in America. ZenBeginning with Soyen Shakus invitation to San Francisco and then the ministries of Nyogen Senzaki and Sokei-an, Zen Buddhism was the first import Buddhist trend to put down roots in North America.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, writers associated with the Beat Movement, including Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Kenneth Rexroth, took a serious interest in Zen, which helped increase its visibility. In 1951, an octagenarian D. T. Suzuki returned to the United States to take a visiting proffessorship at Columbia University, where he began a long series of public lectures on Zen; Kerouac and Ginsberg were among the attendees. In 1956, the Zen Studies Society was formed to support his work. After moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1957, Suzuki was also involved in founding the Cambridge Buddhist Association, which was likely the first Buddhist group in America which was dedicated primarily to practicing zazen meditation. The Zen Studies Society, which had become completely dormant when D. T. Suzuki left Columbia, would be revived in 1965 by Eido Tai Shimano, a New York-based Rinzai Zen teacher. One of the most influential figures in 20th century American Zen was Shunryu Suzuki.

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