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"American Buddhism" and cultural distancing of the "new immigrants"

by Linda Merle, Arnold, PA USA, The Buddhist Channel, Aug 24, 2006

I refer to the article "Local traditions reflect distinctions in American Buddhism". When I lived in Massachusetts I attended both types of organizations. The Vietnamese temple was one of two in town.

While they had many 'new' immigrants, the core had arrived 30 plus years before. They were amazing to watch (during services in Vietnamese, a language I do not speak). Their children did not look Vietnamese: they are tall. They look American Indian or Hispanic. Friends mentioned the same thing to me -- their children were very different. Their grandchildren even more so.

They sponsored the Relic Tour (http://www.maitreyaproject.org/en/relic.html). This involved press releases and the descent of thousands of local people. On day one I was just kind of occupying space. However by day 2 they realized they needed me and any other English speaking Buddhists they could find. The problem wasn't so much Caucasian Americans.

They came: they saw, and then they took away some literature, all of it provided by the Relic's Tour parent organization, FPMT, the largest Tibetan Buddhist group in the world (www.fpmt.org). The problem was the younger Vietnamese who came. They could not speak Vietnamese. And the monks and nuns at the temple could not teach them the Dharma. They were a little frantic. I had a busy couple of days.

After that they realized that they had to do outreach, not to Caucasians, but to reach their own children and grandchildren. Unless they can translate their own culture and religion into English, they will be gone in another 30 years.

This is also not unique. Every immigrant group before them has walked the same road. It's one of the reason for the many "Union" churches here in Pennsylvania: Unions between churches founded by Presbyterians from Scotland and Ireland and Germans. The German churches eventually had to either offer services in English or become defunct. Many joined with other similar churches. If the congregation split over the decision, the German speaking rump survived for a few years. But they are now all gone. The inner city ethnic groups who built large churches in the early 1900s are largely gone too. Their congregations moved to the suburbs and attend American oriented churches. Even the survivers rarely offer services in the native tongue.

Whether or not ethnic Buddhist communities in diaspora choose to reach out to others, they must translate their core values into the new environment or they will perish.

The Vietnamese community near where I lived tried using ibetan teachers who did speak English and had learned to 'appeal' to Westerners. This also didn't work as the attendees were still segregated from the congregation, linguistically and culturally.

They left and are practicing with the Tibetan lama in a Unitarian church. Less cultural distance. In Tibetan Buddhist American circles, you find plenty of Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists. Why?  While some maintain connections in their ethnic Buddhist communities, they say they feel a need to integrate their religion with modern day American life.

But there is another reason. One Vietnamese lady told me that all the Vietnamese did was gather to celebrate holidays and perform rituals. She wanted to study Dharma and practice it. This she can do as a layperson in Tibetan - American groups but not in the Vietnamese where she would have to take vows to be taken seriously.

In America men and women are taught together and while the ordained may sit in the front row, without the rest of the rows filled with lay people the event would not be occuring due to lack of cultural support for monks and nuns. Suddenly many practices are provided to all including some that I have had that in Tibet of old, no lay woman would be given.

As the children and grandchildren of ethnic Buddhists in the west  become westerners, they will require Buddhist teachings in English that address modern day problems in a western setting.

Food for thought.

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