In East Asia, Buddhists celebrate the death of the Buddha and his entry into final enlightenment in February. But at my local Zen temple in North Carolina, the Buddha’s enlightenment is commemorated during the December holiday season, with a short children’s talk, candlelight service, and potluck after the celebration.
Welcome to American Buddhism.
Buddhism entered the American cultural consciousness at the end of the 19th century. It was a time when romantic notions of the exotic Oriental mysticism fueled the imagination of American philosopher-poets, connoisseurs of art, and early scholars of world religions.
Transcendent Poets as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson read Hindu and Buddhist philosophy deeply, so did Henry Steel Olcott, who traveled to Sri Lanka in 1880, converted to Buddhism, and founded the popular strain of mystical philosophy called Theosophy.
Meanwhile, connoisseurs of Buddhist art introduced America to the beauty of the tradition. The art historian and professor of philosophy Ernest Fenellosaas well as fellow Bostonian William Sturgis Bigelow, were among the first Americans to travel to Japan, convert to Buddhism, and avidly collect Buddhist art. When they returned home, their collections formed the nucleus of the first Arts of Asia collection in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
At the same time, early scholars of world religions such as Paul Carus made Buddhist teachings readily available to Americans. He published The Gospel of Buddhaa bestseller of Buddhist parables, a year after attending the world parliament of religions in Chicago in 1893. It was the first time in modern history that representatives of the world‘s major religions came together to learn about each other’s spiritual traditions.
The Buddhist delegation to Chicago included the Japanese Zen master Shaku Soen and the Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala, who had himself studied Western science and philosophy to modernize his own tradition. These Western-influenced Buddhists presented their tradition to their modern Western audience as a “non-theistic” and “rational” tradition who had no competing gods, irrational beliefs, or supposedly meaningless rituals.
Traditional Buddhism actually has many deities, doctrines, and rituals, as well as scriptures, ordained priests, ethics, sectarian developments, and other elements that one would typically associate with any organized religion. But at the World Parliament of 1893, the Buddhist masters favorably presented their meditative tradition to modern America only as a practical philosophy, not a religion. This perception of Buddhism persists in America to this day.
Buddhists did not deliberately distort their tradition or simply tell Americans what they wanted to hear. They were genuine in their attempt to make a 2,500 year old tradition relevant to the late 19th century.
But in the end, they only transplanted a few branches of the much bigger tree of Buddhism onto American soil. Only a few cuttings of Buddhist philosophy, art, and meditation made it to America, while many other traditional elements of the Buddhist religion remained in Asia.
Buddhism in America
Once it was planted here, Americans became especially fascinated by the mystical appeal of Buddhist meditation.
Environmental and social justice initiatives have embraced a movement known as “Engaged Buddhism” since Martin Luther King Jr. named its founder, the Vietnamese monk and anti-war activist Thich Nhat Hanhfor the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. His Buddhism Order of interbeing continues to offer conscious, nonviolent solutions to the world’s most pressing moral concerns. The lay Zen teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, who was the student and translator of Japanese Zen master Shaku Sōen in the World Parliament, influenced many leading artists and intellectuals in the post-war period. Through its popular writings and subsequent waves of Asian and American Buddhist teachers, Buddhism has impacted almost every aspect of American culture.
The American education system was also enriched with its first Buddhist-affiliated university in Naropa in Colorado, which paved the way for other Buddhist institutions of higher learning such as Soka University and Western University in California, as well as Maitripa College in Oregon.
The medical profession has also integrated mindfulness-based stress reduction in traditional therapies, and many prison anger management programs are based on Buddhist contemplative techniques such as Vipassana insightful meditation.
The same goes for the entertainment industry which has incorporated Buddhist themes into Hollywood blockbusters, such as The matrix. Even professional athletics have used Zen Coaching Strategies and advanced the American understanding of Buddhism not as a “religion” but as a secular philosophy with broad applications.
The exotic charm
But American Secular Buddhism also produced unintended consequences. Suzuki’s writings greatly influenced Jack Kerouac, the popular Beat Generation author of On the road and The tramps of Dharma. But Suzuki viewed Kerouac as a “monstrous impostor” because he only sought the freedom of Buddhist enlightenment without the discipline of practice.
Other Beat poets, hippies and, later, New Age tinkerers also paradoxically confused Buddhism with a kind of self-indulgent narcissism, despite its teachings of selflessness and compassion. Still others have commercially exploited its exotic appeal to sell everything from “Zen tea” to “Lucky Buddha Beer,” which is particularly ironic given Buddhism’s traditional prohibition against alcohol and other intoxicants.
As a result, the popular construction of non-religious Buddhism has greatly contributed to the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon, as well as to the secularized and commodified phenomenon mindfulness movement in America.
We may only have transplanted a fraction of the largest bodhi tree of religious Buddhism in America, but our cutting has adapted and taken root in our secular, scientific, and highly commercialized age. For better or for worse, it’s American Buddhism.