Buddhism is an Eastern Way of Life Appealing to Westerners

By Jessica Porter, Ground Report, January 27, 2010

Richmond, VA (USA) -- Scarlett Sams works in a Presbyterian Church during the day, but on Thursday nights she attends a meeting of Tibetan Buddhist’s at Ekoji Buddhist Sangha in Richmond, Va. She is a part of a growing Buddhist movement in the United States of every day Americans finding comfort in this Eastern tradition.

“It’s a great community and they are my friends. They are genuine and if I need something, they are there for me. If I’m going through a crisis they are there for me. That is why I am a Buddhist,” Sams said. Although there are no exact statistics, the 2004 World Almanac estimates there are two to three million Buddhists in the United States.  But that number includes not only converted Buddhists such as Sams, but Buddhist immigrants who have brought their religion from Eastern countries.

“Buddhism in American is two camps. One is the Ethnic communities that have centers practicing their own variety of Buddhism. At those places they speak in Vietnamese, or whatever language,” Virginia Commonwealth University Religious Studies Professor Daniel Perdue said. “But by and large it is middle class to wealthy white folks who have adopted Buddhism in all varieties.”

Buddhism in America is very different from Buddhism in Eastern countries and there the reasons are two-fold. It is a lay person religion, meaning anyone can participate. There is not the same emphasis on monks and monasteries as there is in other parts of the world.

“[In Tibet] major monasteries had more than 10,000 monks in a country with only six million people. By the time of the fall of Tibet, about one out of three males was a monk. And about 1 out of 4 females was a nun,” Perdue said, emphasizing the monastic importance in the East.

Also, many Americans do not view Buddhism as a religion or as strictly as it is practiced in the East. It is more often viewed as a philosophy or lifestyle.

“Some very famous Buddhist masters made a statement that ‘Buddhism in the East is like an old tree and has no more capability of producing good fruit. Buddhism in the West, even though still young, is very capable of making good fruit,” Huang Tran said. He believes the open-mindedness of Americans and their constant need to question things has allowed Buddhism to take root, unlike people in the East who just accept the religion and don’t question, not allowing any room for change.

Tran grew up in a Buddhist family in Vietnam, but never found comfort in the religion as a child. Due to economic and political hardships he left Vietnam and came to Virginia, where he has lived the past 24 years. Since then, he has become a mixture of Vipassana and Zen Buddhism. He often goes to Saddhama Vipassana Meditation Center, a monastery in Louisa County, and Hue Quang Temple, a Pure Land Temple, in Richmond.

Buddhism can be divided into two types, Mahayana and Theravada. Theravada is more monastic and emphasizes study and meditation while Mahayana is more ritualistic and holds the belief that any person can become enlightened at any time. Mahayana forms of Buddhism are Tibetan, Zen and Pure Land. The Theravada form of Buddhism is Vipassana.

Unlike Buddhism in Asia, where it is most prevalent, there are very few statistics about the amounts of people celebrating types of Buddhism in the United States. There is disagreement in the Buddhist community about which form is most popular in America.

“Tibetan is exploding in the U.S. right now. There’s a combination in Tibetan teaching of the concept of Zen and Vipassana, some practitioners prefer Zen and some prefer Vipassana, but in Tibetan they have both, it’s cool,” Tran said.

But others believe Zen is the most popular. Zen is considered a more intellectual type of Buddhism that goes beyond words and concepts, Kevin Heffernan, leader of the Zen group at Ekoji and Zen Buddhism professor at V.C.U., said.

Ekoji is a row house in Richmond’s Museum District that is home to Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan, Vipassana and a Meditative Inquiry group. Most members are people in the community, like teachers and hospice volunteers, who are not ethnic Buddhists but have found comfort in Buddhism, said Sams.

Zen also emphasizes the arts like haiku and calligraphy which is appealing to many people. But others have a different idea about why Zen has found such popularity.

“My honest answer is that it has such a nice catchy name. You can market Zen a lot better than you can some of the others because it sounds so cool … nothing quite so sexy in Theravada,” Vipassana Leader at Ekoji Andy Wichorek said.

Wichorek turned to Buddhism after facing hardships in his life. After choosing Vipassana he has been able to see life more clearly. He is now able to make better decisions and holds a higher degree of calm and collectedness. Although Buddhism is not as prevalent as other religions, others like Wichorek are turning to its teachings.

“Buddhism is sort of unique among the seven world religions for its slow spread, it take s a while for the ideas to sink into a culture. Often it is popular among the wealthy before it is popular among the entire population,” Perdue said.

Although changing slowly, American society is certainly seeing more Buddhist influence. For example, Hollywood has made Buddhism trendy. In many movies Buddhist symbols or references can be seen in the background and many celebrities are openly Buddhist. It is almost as if they are promoting Buddhism, Perdue said.

Examples of this are Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt about the fall of Tibet and the Dalai Lama and actors such as Richard Gere and Orlando Bloom who have converted to Buddhism.

Buddhism will only continue on its path to change and grow to become a greater part of American society. According to Tran it is becoming so accepted because it promotes ideas such as harmony, peace, love and kindness that is knitted among all people. But like many aspects of Buddhism, opinions of the future of Buddhism in America are very diverse.

 “[Buddhism] is probably going to continue to get more popular, I don’t know what the ceiling is. Certainly it’s going to remain fairly obscure but there is so much room for growth … but there’s a lot more to go before it really hits the mainstream,” Wichorek said.

One idea is Buddhism will simply continue to change. People will be drawn to meditation and practice at home and occasionally at a center. A few of them will become more serious and actually go to temple, and then a few of those will go on retreats and seek harder practices. They will become the leaders at places like Ekoji for the people who want to come to a center once in a while, Heffernan said. Cliff Edwards, Religious Studies Professor at V.C.U. has a similar opinion.

“It’s going to splinter considerably. It doesn’t want to be called Zen, just Buddhism. And if meditation is the special interest just call it meditation. That is what America needs and wants,” Edwards said.

But everyone agrees that it will gain more popularity. It has grown a lot in the past 30 years and will remain obscure, but will become more popular, Wichorek said. Tran believes that everyone would become Buddhist, if they only had the knowledge.

“I can see that people offend Buddhism, but Buddhism doesn’t offend anyone, so if one recognizes and they can see, they would know and they would come,” Tran said.

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