Old Wisdom in the New World: Americanization in Two Immigrant

Theravada Buddhist Temples

Reviewd by Jan Nattier

Journal of American Ethnic History

Vol.17 No.4

Summer 1998


COPYRIGHT 1998 Immigration History Society

            By Paul David Numrich. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 
            1996. xxiv + 181 pp. Illustrations, diagrams, tables, notes, 
            bibliography and index. $22.50. 
            This book breaks new ground in a number of ways. Most previous 
            studies of the experience of Asian immigrants have ignored (or at 
            least minimized) the religious factor, due in large part to the 
            Marxist-oriented and socially activist context within which the 
            field of Asian American Studies was born. Previous publications on 
            Buddhism in North America, by contrast, have largely elided the 
            experience of Asian Americans, privileging instead the 
            meditation-centered Buddhism of first-generation, mostly Caucasian, 
            converts. Finally, there have been no studies at all of the 
            interactions between Asian and non-Asian Buddhists. In all of these 
            respects this book moves well beyond the bounds of previous 
            scholarship; it is a timely and welcome contribution. 
            Based on field studies carried out in 1987-1991, Numrich chronicles 
            the attempts of a Thai temple in Chicago (Wat Dhammaram) and a Sri 
            Lankan temple in Los Angeles (Dharma Vijaya) to put down roots in 
            North America. Both have been involved in schisms, resulting in part 
            from differences of opinion about the desirability of 
            "Americanization." An additional factor in both schisms was clearly 
            the presence of class differences among the membership, which 
            Numrich alludes to (but does not pursue) when he reports that 
            "medical doctors from the suburbs" were instrumental in founding 
            breakaway temples in both cities (p. 30). 
            Numrich offers a rich description of the history of these two 
            temples and the challenges they have faced in attempting to adapt 
            Theravada Buddhist traditions to the North American environment. 
            Students of other immigrant religions will find much that is 
            familiar, as these Thai and Sri Lankan Buddhists debate whether to 
            conduct services in English or an Asian vernacular, deal with 
            potentially hostile neighbors, and worry about whether the second 
            generation will carry on the traditions of its parents. Other 
            challenges, however, are specific to Buddhism. Above all, the fact 
            that a celibate monastic clergy plays a central role in all Buddhist 
            countries but Japan, while most North Americans - whether Asian or 
            non-Asian in ancestry - find little attraction in the celibate life, 
            poses a serious obstacle to the recruitment of an American-born 
            The most novel contribution in Numrich's study is his documentation 
            of the phenomenon of "parallel congregations." While many Buddhist 
            groups in the United States consist exclusively of Asian immigrants 
            or of non-Asian converts, both Dharma Vijaya and Wat Dhammaram have 
            drawn a dual clientele that includes members of both constituencies. 
            These two groups have not, however, merged to form a single 
            community; traditional rituals are attended almost exclusively by 
            Asian members, while non-Asians predominate at meditation sessions 
            and lectures on doctrine. The result is an anomalous situation in 
            which two distinct congregations meet at separate times, albeit 
            under the same roof. 
            In the complex religious landscape of post-1960s America, Numrich 
            suggests, such anomalies are simply to be expected. But the fact 
            remains that - with rare exceptions - such dual communities have 
            emerged only within Buddhist organizations. Numrich opines that the 
            presence of resident Asian monks willing and able to offer an 
            attractive alternative to non-Asian seekers "provides the 
            explanation for why the parallel congregations phenomenon has not 
            surfaced in other immigrant religious institutions" (p. 146). But, 
            surely, there are clergy in other immigrant religious groups who 
            would also welcome American converts. To explain why a potential 
            convert might drive past a mosque but stop to visit a Buddhist 
            temple, it is necessary to take into account the status of Buddhism 
            as a "prestige tradition" among many college-educated members of the 
            baby-boom generation. Indeed, one wonders if succeeding age cohorts 
            will take any interest in Theravada Buddhism at all, for Numrich 
            notes (but does not elaborate upon) the striking fact that virtually 
            all non-Asian members of both temples are over the age of 
            thirty-five (p. 109). 
            The implications of this skewed demographic profile for future 
            non-Asian participation, the possibility that shared socio-economic 
            status will bridge the ethnic gap between upper-middle class Asian 
            and non-Asian members, and the impact of class differences within 
            the Asian membership of the two temples are all issues that would 
            have benefited from more detailed analysis. But these minor 
            shortcomings aside, this an important and groundbreaking work that 
            offers much food for thought to students of immigration history, 
            Asian American Studies, and the history of Buddhism in North 
            Jan Nattier Indiana University 
            Jan Nattier is Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies in the 
            Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Her research 
            interests are wide-ranging, including all aspects of the 
            transmission of Buddhism across cultural boundaries. Particular 
            areas of specialization are the origins of the Mahayana or "Greater 
            Vehicle" tradition of Buddhism in India (c. 1st century BCE), the 
            transmission of Buddhism from India to China via the so-called Silk 
            Road (1st millennium CE), and the transmission of Buddhism to North 
            America (19th-20th centuries CE). Her major publications include 
            "Church Language and Vernacular Language in Central Asian Buddhism" 
            (Numen, 1990), "The Heart Sutra, A Chinese Apocryphal Text?" 
            (Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 
            (1992), "Visible and Invisible: The Politics of Representation in 
            Buddhist America