American Buddhists: who are they?

by Jan Nattier


No.395( Sep 1997)


COPYRIGHT 1997 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation

            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 Is 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 
            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 
            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. That the majority of "hereditary Buddhists" are Asian 
            Americans is hardly surprising. Some observers have even argued that 
            the fundamental divide within American Buddhism is a racial one, 
            separating "white" and "Asian" practitioners. 
            The distinction is real, reflecting the perennial gap between the 
            enthusiasm of the recent convert and the calm assurance of the 
            hereditary believer as well as differences in cultural heritage. Yet 
            recent converts to Buddhism are by no means all Caucasians. The 
            membership rolls include African Americans and Latinos, as well as a 
            few Asian-American "re-converts" who were raised in Christian or in 
            nonreligious homes. To make sense of the landscape of Buddhist 
            America, one must go beyond race and ethnicity to consider an 
            entirely different factor: the ways in which these various forms of 
            American Buddhism were transmitted to the United States. 
            Religions--not just Buddhism--travel in three major ways: as import, 
            as export, and as "baggage." (They may also be imposed by conquest, 
            which, happily, is not a factor in this case.) Religions transmitted 
            according to the "import" model are, so to speak, demand driven: the 
            consumer (i.e., the potential convert) actively seeks out the faith. 
            "Export" religions are disseminated through missionary activity, 
            while "baggage" religions are transmitted whenever individuals or 
            families bring their beliefs along when they move to a new place. It 
            is these divergent styles of transmission, not matters of doctrine, 
            practice, or national origin, that have shaped the most crucial 
            differences within American Buddhism. 
            To begin with the import type, consider a hypothetical example: a 
            college student living in the Midwest in the 1950s finds a book on 
            Zen Buddhism in the public library and thinks it's the greatest 
            thing he's ever heard of. So he buys a plane ticket, heads off to 
            Japan, and begins to study meditation in a Zen temple. After several 
            years of practice and some firsthand experience of Buddhist 
            "awakening," he returns to the United States and establishes a Zen 
            center, where he begins to teach this form of Buddhism to other 
            The important point to note here is that the importer (in this case, 
            the college student) deliberately seeks out the product and takes 
            the initiative to bring it home. But for this to happen, two crucial 
            resources are required: money and leisure time. Buddhist groups of 
            the import variety, in other words, can be launched only by those 
            who have a certain degree of economic privilege. And not 
            surprisingly, in these groups (as in other voluntary associations), 
            like attracts like. Thus, the upper-middle-class status of the 
            founders tends to be reflected in their followers, with such 
            communities drawing a mostly well-educated, financially comfortable, 
            and overwhelmingly European-American constituency. 
            A convenient label for the groups formed by the import process, 
            then, would be "Elite Buddhism." But this kind of Buddhism is more 
            than a matter of socioeconomic background. At first glance, the 
            groups belonging to this category would seem to span the full 
            spectrum of Buddhist traditions: there are a number of schools of 
            Tibetan Buddhism, various centers teaching meditation practices 
            known as Vipassana (drawn primarily from Southeast Asia), and 
            Japanese, Korean, and Chinese varieties of Zen. Yet a closer look 
            reveals that what these groups all have in common is far more 
            significant than the divergence in the sources of their inspiration. 
            For the very names of two of these three types (Vipassana and Zen) 
            mean "meditation." On the level of practice, then, the most striking 
            feature of Elite Buddhism in America is its emphasis on meditation. 
            Meditation is, of course, part of the traditional repertoire of most 
            (though not all) Asian Buddhist schools, at least for those who have 
            undertaken a full-time monastic practice. What is distinctive about 
            Elite Buddhism, however, is not its heavy emphasis on meditation but 
            its scanting of other aspects of traditional Buddhism. For example, 
            though monasticism has been the central Buddhist institution (and 
            monastic life considered an essential prerequisite to enlightenment) 
            in the vast majority of Buddhist countries, Elite Buddhists have 
            been largely uninterested in becoming monks or nuns, preferring to 
            see their Buddhist practice as a way of enhancing the quality of 
            their lives as laypeople. While traditional Buddhists have spent a 
            great deal of energy on activities that are best described as 
            "devotional," Elite Buddhists, many of them still fleeing the 
            theistic traditions of their youth, have little patience with such 
            practices. And while codes of ethics have played a central role in 
            traditional Buddhist societies, they have had little appeal for 
            Elite Buddhists, many of whom were drawn to Buddhism by what they 
            saw as its promise of a more spontaneous life. Indeed, until fairly 
            recently, when scandals involving sexual affairs and financial 
            mismanagement in several American Tibetan and Zen communities forced 
            some serious rethinking, ethical codes were given almost no 
            attention in Elite Buddhist circles. 
            Elite Buddhism thus represents not simply an Asian religion 
            transplanted to a new environment but a curious amalgamation of 
            traditional Buddhist ideas and certain upper-middle-class American 
            values--above all individualism, freedom of choice, and personal 
            fulfillment. These "nonnegotiable cultural demands" have reshaped 
            Buddhist ideas and practices in significant ways, yielding a 
            genuinely new religious "product" uniquely adapted to certain 
            segments of the American "market." 
            The "export" process of transmission has produced American Buddhist 
            groups of a strikingly different type. Because the transmission 
            itself is underwritten by the home church, the potential convert 
            does not need money, power, or time to come into contact with 
            Buddhism of this sort, only a willingness to listen. Encounters with 
            a missionary may take place on a street corner, in the subway, or 
            even in one's home. Export religion is thus something of a wild 
            card: it can attract a wide range of adherents, or it may appeal to 
            no one at all. 
            Since what fuels the formation of Buddhist groups of this type is 
            energetic proselytizing, an appropriate label for such groups is 
            "Evangelical Buddhism." And one Buddhist organization in America, 
            above all, fits this category: the Soka Gakkai International. This 
            group (whose name means Value-Creating Study Association) began its 
            life in Japan in the 1930s as a lay association devoted to spreading 
            the teachings of the Nichiren Shoshu school. According to this 
            school (one of the many strands of Mahayana Buddhism), all beings 
            have the potential for Buddhahood, but this inherent Buddha-nature 
            can only be made manifest through chanting of the mantra "namu myoho 
            renge kyo." These words--which literally mean "homage to the Lotus 
            Sutra," one of the most popular Buddhist scriptures in Japan--are 
            believed to be powerful enough not just to change the practitioner's 
            spiritual state but to improve his or her material circumstances as 
            well. The Soka Gakkai, in other words, teaches a form of Buddhism in 
            which both material and spiritual happiness can be attained not 
            through many lifetimes of strenuous practice, or even weeks or 
            months of meditation retreats, but through the daily recitation of a 
            simple phrase. 
            Both the simplicity of the practice and the fact that this form of 
            Buddhism addresses economic as well as spiritual needs has meant 
            that the Soka Gakkai, from the time of its arrival in the United 
            States during the 1950s, has had the potential to appeal to a very 
            different, and far less privileged, audience than the Elite Buddhist 
            traditions. Unlike the latter--most of whose members are college 
            educated, with many holding graduate degrees--only about half of 
            Soka Gakkai members have attended college, and barely a quarter hold 
            bachelor's degrees. Statistics compiled by the Soka Gakkai itself 
            show a wide range of educational levels and occupations; my own 
            observations suggest a center of gravity in the lower-middle class. 
            But it is in the ethnicity of its members that the distinctiveness 
            of the Soka Gakkai is most obvious, for it has attracted a following 
            that includes large numbers of Latinos, African Americans, and Asian 
            Americans (not all of Japanese ancestry). According to a 1983 survey 
            compiled by the organization itself, fully 55 percent of its members 
            had non-European ethnic backgrounds. 
            The fact that Evangelical Buddhism has undergone fewer changes in 
            America than Elite Buddhism is the direct result of its mode of 
            transmission. Because the Soka Gakkai was established by 
            missionaries accountable to the home organization, its Japanese 
            leadership has been able to limit the extent of its adaptation to 
            American values. Indeed, one former member remarked that the only 
            real difference between the American and the Japanese Soka Gakkai is 
            that members in America usually sit on chairs. 
            Yet the remarkable success of the Soka Gakkai in the United 
            States--at one point the organization claimed a membership of 
            500,000, though even Soka Gakkai officials now admit this figure was 
            far too high--would not have been possible if its values had not 
            harmonized with the aspirations of the audience it addressed. In 
            particular, the Soka Gakkai has been able to tap into the "American 
            dream" of upward mobility, a dream that has often been difficult to 
            realize for those who find the obstacles of racism and exclusion in 
            their path. 
            Finally we come to the category of "Baggage Buddhism"--though 
            perhaps we should have begun with this type, for here at last we 
            meet with Buddhists who were simply born into the faith of their 
            ancestors. Like Export Buddhism, this type involves travel to 
            America by Buddhists from Asian countries, but the migration is not 
            for religious purposes. Instead, these Buddhists (or their 
            ancestors) came as immigrants to the United States to pursue 
            economic opportunity, or, especially in the case of recent refugees 
            from Southeast Asia, to escape persecution at home. 
            Baggage Buddhists span the full range of schools and national 
            origins, ranging from Theravadins from Cambodia to Mahayanists from 
            Korea to Kalmyck Mongols of the Vajrayana school. But to the 
            outsider, these organizations display remarkable similarities. Above 
            all, they tend to be deliberately monoethnic in membership at the 
            outset, for they serve not only religious purposes but operate as 
            supportive community centers as well. Such temples may provide 
            language lessons, a place to network for jobs, and above all a place 
            to relax with others who share one's own cultural assumptions and to 
            whom nothing needs to be explained. Though all Buddhists (of course) 
            have their own ethnicity, it Is only in Buddhist groups of this type 
            that ethnicity serves as the primary defining feature. This type can 
            therefore be labeled "Ethnic Buddhism." 
            Buddhism in America, at this stage in its history, thus includes 
            participants of three quite different sorts. But though all would 
            call themselves Buddhists, communication across (or even with in) 
            these three categories is often difficult, even nonexistent. Within 
            the Elite category we do find considerable exchange; it is not at 
            all unusual for participants to move easily from Vipassana practice 
            to Tibetan Buddhism to Zen. Yet Elite Buddhists do not accord the 
            same acceptance to members of Evangelical and Ethnic Buddhist 
            groups. Since they do not practice meditation--so the reasoning 
            goes--members of these two latter groups cannot be considered 
            "genuine" Buddhists. 
            Such exclusion-by-definition has not, needless to say, been viewed 
            kindly by those who are excluded--especially the Ethnic Buddhists, 
            whose roots in the faith usually are many generations deep. But it 
            is not only Elite Buddhists whose map of the Buddhist world renders 
            other practitioners invisible. Evangelical Buddhists, too, operate 
            on the basis of a narrow definition of "true Buddhism" (their 
            expression), considering both Elite and Ethnic Buddhists to have 
            missed something essential since they do not practice the chant 
            taught by the Soka Gakkai. Ethnic Buddhists tend, in general, to be 
            less critical of their coreligionists, in large part because they 
            have not abbreviated the spectrum of "real" Buddhism so severely, 
            retaining as they do a broad range of the moral, meditative, and 
            ritual practices that have little incentive to communicate with 
            other Ethnic Buddhist groups, precisely because part of their 
            mission is to preserve their own distinctive culture. 
            Even when attempts to cross the boundaries dividing these groups are 
            made, the results can be discouraging. When Americans of non-Asian 
            descent are drawn to Ethnic Buddhist temples, for example, the 
            result is often what Paul Numrich of the University of Illinois 
            calls, in Old Wisdom in the New World (1996), "parallel 
            congregations": rather than merging to form a single organization, 
            Asian and non-Asian American Buddhists have often found their 
            visions of Buddhism to be so incompatible that they simply meet at 
            separate times in the same building. 
            Given these deep rifts within American Buddhism, we might well ask 
            whether any of these subgroups will succeed in becoming a permanent 
            part of the American religious landscape. For Ethnic Buddhists, the 
            question is the one faced by all immigrants: will our children 
            follow in our footsteps? For earlier generations of Asian 
            immigrants, the value of remaining members of a religion viewed as 
            "deviant" by mainstream society was not at all self-evident. Of the 
            roughly 500,000 Japanese Americans in the United States today, for 
            example, fewer than 20,000 are registered as members of the Buddhist 
            Churches of America, the largest Japanese-American Buddhist 
            organization in the country. The vast majority of Japanese Americans 
            have either become Christians (virtually all of them Protestant) or 
            claim no religious affiliation at all. 
            Things may be different today. Though Buddhists, especially 
            Asian-American Buddhists, still encounter hostility and even 
            violence in some parts of the country, the very fact that Buddhism 
            is now relatively well known in the United States--and even carries, 
            in some circles, significant prestige--may mean that more recent 
            Asian Buddhist immigrants will view their ancestral religion as an 
            asset, not a liability. So far, though, the evidence suggests that 
            this may not be enough to stem the tide of religious assimilation. 
            Ironically, recent Asian immigrants seem to be converting to 
            Christianity (and increasingly its evangelical forms, as Stanford 
            University religion professor Rudy Busto observed in Amerasia 
            Journal last year) as rapidly as European Americans are becoming 
            For Evangelical Buddhists, the greatest challenge may arise not from 
            circumstances in the United States but from events in Japan. In 
            1991, after years of wrangling between the Soka Gakkai and the 
            Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, the Soka Gakkai was formally 
            excommunicated by its parent organization. The real sources of the 
            conflict appear to lie in a struggle between the priesthood and the 
            lay organization for financial and political control, but each side 
            has portrayed the dispute as resulting from the religious heresy and 
            moral corruption of the other. The Soka Gakkai has attempted to take 
            the rhetorical high road, likening its separation from the 
            priesthood to the Protestant Reformation, but it remains to be seen 
            whether its membership will find this representation convincing. 
            While the American organization still seems viable, a serious 
            decline in the number of subscribers to the organization's weekly 
            newspaper (which in recent years has dipped below 40,000) suggests 
            that the schism may have dealt it a painful blow. 
            The Elite Buddhist groups, by contrast, would seem at first glance 
            to be in good health: major bookstores offer entire shelves of 
            publications on Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana, and Zen, and mainstream 
            newspapers and magazines frequently carry articles on the subject. 
            So thoroughly do Elite Buddhist concerns (such as "engaged 
            Buddhism," much of it the result of Western social activism exported 
            to Asia and subsequently re-exported to the West) dominate the 
            media's picture of Buddhism that these groups often appear to be the 
            only game in town. 
            Yet Elite Buddhist groups have one striking demographic peculiarity: 
            virtually all of the communities now in existence were formed by 
            people who came of age during the late 1960s and early '70s, and 
            members of succeeding age cohorts have joined in much smaller 
            numbers. If such communities do not succeed in attracting younger 
            members (and in retaining the children of the first-generation 
            converts), they will soon fade from the American religious scene. 
            History offers American Buddhists a chastening lesson. During the 
            1890s, the United States experienced a "Buddhism boom" not unlike 
            that of today. The New York Journal reported that "it is no uncommon 
            thing to hear a New Yorker say he is a Buddhist nowadays," the 
            historian Thomas Tweed writes in The American Encounter with 
            Buddhism (1992). A number of Protestant ministers worried in print 
            that their congregations might be attracted to this strange faith. 
            Public interest was strong enough to provoke the Atlantic Monthly to 
            run a feature article titled "The Religion of Gotama Buddha." Yet by 
            the early 1920s the boom was over, and Buddhism became all but 
            invisible in American life save for a handful of Asian-American 
            If today's American Buddhists are to avoid the fate of their 
            predecessors of a century ago, they must accomplish two things. 
            First, they must move beyond the concept of Buddhism as a matter of 
            individual "religious preference," grounding it instead in the 
            everyday practice of families and larger social networks. Second, 
            they must create sturdy institutions to take the place of today's 
            informal associations of like-minded practitioners. In dealing with 
            the first necessity, Ethnic Buddhists, who have always seen their 
            religion as a family affair, are clearly in the lead. The 
            Evangelical Buddhists, with their ready-made organizational 
            structures imported from Japan, may well have the edge in 
            establishing institutions. 
            Ironically, it is the Buddhists we hear the most about in the 
            American media--the Elite Buddhists--who have so far attracted the 
            least diverse membership, and thus have the greatest challenges to 
            overcome if they are to survive into the next generation. Yet each 
            of the main branches of American Buddhism clearly has much to learn 
            from the others if all three hope to continue to flourish on 
            American soil. 
            Ms. Nattier is an associate professor of Buddhist studies at Indiana 
            University. From "Buddhism Comes To Main Street," by Jan Nattier, 
            The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1997.