Buddhism Finds New Home in United States

by Porterjl, Ground Report, February 7, 2010

Washington, USA -- It’s a beautiful Sunday morning and while many people in are on their way to the local Christian church, members of the Saddhama Vipassana Meditation Center are venturing 45 minutes outside Richmond city limits to Louisa County. The center is a new Buddhist monastery and the members, mostly Vietnamese-American families, sit cross-legged on the floor awaiting the morning sermon.

It’s not only Asian Americans celebrating Buddhism. Despite popular western religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism, many people from all nationalities in the United States are finding comfort in Eastern religions, specifically Buddhism. These people have various stories and reasons for the unfamiliar lifestyle, but most of the reasons come down to one basic answer.

“Buddhism is a way of living, by a way of living I mean that you don’t have to become anything, you could be a Christian practicing Buddhism because it’s just a way of living. That’s it, there’s no title, there’s no name for it,” Huang Tran said. Tran grew up in Vietnam where Buddhism is the primary religion, although he did not convert until he came to America, escaping political and economic hardships.

“Because of the open mindedness [in the U.S.] … we don’t get locked into some certain pattern because we are exposed to all kinds of things here and we have a choice, back home we don’t have choice,” Tran, who has now lived in Virginia for 24 years, said.

Many native born Americans are also converting to Buddhism. One reason is people are unhappy in the religion in which they were raised. They are left with a lot of unanswerable questions. Western religion stresses the afterlife, sin and other themes that may seem confining. And the controversy between the religion and science can feel frustrating, Kevin Heffernan, leader of the Zen group at Ekoji Buddhist Sangha – a Buddhist Center in Richmond – and Zen Buddhism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said

            “In Buddhism those questions are so important. It’s not so important how the universe was created, it’s more important to say ‘well what do we do now, you’re here and you’re going to die, what are you going to do?’ I think that’s kind of a pragmatic and empirical approach,” Heffernan said.

            Heffernan grew up in an Episcopal Church and thinks questions about death, murder and war, along with growing up in the 1960s, all led him to study philosophy and eventually to Buddhism. He felt as though Christianity was not able to answer important questions he had and that the religion was being misused.

            Another reason felt by many American’s is a need for an outlet for someone who has never quite fit in to society. Andy Wichorek, leader of the Vipassana Buddhist group at Ekoji, confides in Buddhism as a way of staying calm and collected and making good decisions. After going through a difficult time in his life, he turned to meditation and Buddhism to help him get off medication, out of depression and back on the right track.

            “I have always felt a little on the outside and more comfortable looking beyond what’s the norm for answers. Buddhism certainly fits that bill because it’s not anything like Christianity or the Abrahamic religions. So I think that appeals to a lot of folks who are kind of independent thinkers,” Wichorek said.

Although there are no exact numbers, the World Almanac of 2004 suggests there are two to three million Buddhists in America. The reasons millions of Americans are attracted to Buddhism varies almost as much as the reasons people choose certain sects of Buddhism.

Every sect is similar in its core; they are all a path to follow in the first Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama’s – footsteps towards enlightenment. Enlightenment happens when a person is able to leave the realm of reincarnation to reach Nirvana, a place where they can mentally and physically be free without worrying about being reborn into the next life.

Buddhism is divided into two types, Mahayana and Theravada. Mahayana is more prevalent in Eastern countries partly because it does not stress study and education making it more attainable for the everyday or impoverished person, unlike Theravada. Mahayana is known as the Great Raft and Theravada is known as the Way of the Elders, according to Buddhism by Houston Smith and Philip Novack.

Mahayana is more ritualistic and includes sects like Tibetan, Zen and Pure Land. Pure Land is said to be the type of Buddhism closest to Christianity due to the belief in Amida Buddha.

            “First you have to have a strong faith and after you pass away you go to the pure land where Amida Buddha gives you a teaching until you attain enlightenment. Some would say that because the concept of the ultimate [enlightenment] is so hard to grasp Pure Land was born. It is like a transition, you will not be completely enlightened so you go there and with some more help and more practice you become enlightened completely,” Tran said. In addition to visiting the monastery, Tran often visits a Pure Land temple called the Hue Quang Temple in Richmond.

            Although the Temple is primarily Pure Land, any Buddhist can go there to meditate or participate in sermons. This is true for every temple or monastery and not familiar to Western traditions, Tran said.

            Tibetan is the most ritualistic and ornate of all forms of Mahayana Buddhism and one of the most popular in the area. A large reason people have become so interested is because of the political hardships the country has endured. Despite the hardships, the Tibetans have not let the religion reflect the country’s troubles and therefore sparked many American’s curiosity, Daniel Perdue, Religious Studies Professor at V.C.U., said.

“The heart of Tibetan Buddhism is the teachings on love and compassion, developing the … mind of enlightenment. That is the thought to become a Buddha, for the sake of all suffering beings,” Perdue said. A suffering being is one still in the realm of rebirth who has not yet reached Nirvana, or enlightenment.

Zen has also found a huge following in the United States, mostly in the intellectual community. It takes a more simplistic but intellectual approach than many other Mahayana traditions that may be more appealing, Heffernan said.

            “It seems on first blush a little less foreboding than Tibetan Buddhism. You walk into a Tibetan Buddhist center and you might easily have your Catholic background go ‘oh no! I don’t want any part of that, too much going on.’ Where in Zen the aesthetic is more stripped down, that simplicity speaks to people,” Heffernan said.

            Although aesthetically simple, other aspects of Zen are much more complex.

“Zen is for the people who have a really sharp mind and a lot of wisdom, it’s really hard to understand Zen. Overall, Zen is a pathless land because it’s so hard,” Tran said. He considers himself both a Vipassana and Zen Buddhist, despite regularly going to the Pure Land Temple.

            Vipassana stresses the importance of meditation and study. It relies heavily on the Poli Cannon, the first written account of the Buddha written about 350 years after his death. There are no later patriarchs that are studied like in other forms of Buddhism, Wichorek said. A patriarch is any successor to Gautama. Many took the teachings of Gautama in various ways, creating the sects like Tibetan, Pure Land or Zen.

            “Vipassana is booming, it’s booming everywhere. They learn a lot about the analogy of the mind, the process of the mind and how the mind works. It is based upon the understanding of the process of the mind to get themselves free. It’s really, really incredible,” Tran said.

All types of Buddhism, along with most other religions, can be found in California. This is due to many things including the California Gold Rush, Japanese camps during World War II and even the climate – which is more similar to Eastern parts of the world, Heffernan and Tran said.

“All these traditions that came out of India and went their separate ways are now neighbors, maybe for the first time, in Los Angeles … the United States has such an open border and is being looked at as the promise land in a way that many other places aren’t,” Heffernan said.

However, Buddhism can be found in every area of the country, including Virginia. But they might be difficult to find because Buddhists keep a low profile and don’t like to advertise themselves, Tran said.

“Vietnamese [Buddhists are the most prevalent in Virginia]. In Northern Virginia there’s a huge Vietnamese community. But Cambodian is pretty big too because of refugees,” Cliff Edwards, Religious Studies Professor at V.C.U., said. There is a Cambodian Monastery and a Vietnamese Temple and monastery in the Richmond area.

One of the most popular Buddhist centers in Richmond, consisting primarily of native born Americans, is Ekoji. An unassuming row house in the Museum District, it is home to Vipassana, Pure Land, Zen and Tibetan groups. No monks regularly attend meetings; they are led by everyday people like teachers and volunteers at Hospice. They also offer a Meditative Inquiry class for those interested in meditation and other Eastern activities but not interested in religion. One of the most popular at Ekoji is the Tibetan group.

Although there are no statistics, Tibetan seems to be the most prevalent type of Buddhism in the area. University of Virginia has a large Tibetan program to study the culture and religion. The art galleries and museums showcasing Tibetan artifacts in Washington, D.C., Richmond and Virginia Beach also attract a lot of Tibetans because it creates a feeling of a greater chance for communication, Heffernan said.

“It used to be Zen, clearly. Zen takes a foothold after WWII. But by the time we get to the 80s, Tibetan is becoming dominant because many books were being translated into English,” Perdue said. Also, the Dalai Lama and other lamas were traveling around the area at that time.

Most Temples all over the country are composed predominantly of women and older people because of their fear of death, Tran said.

“When they come close to the grave they want to have some kind of security in life after so they go to temple and try to build up some sort of merit so after life they use that merit or at least they have something to go to a better life,” Tran said seriously, but jokingly.

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