Prof.(Rev) Mahanuwara Seevali
Buddhism was introduced to the U.S.A. by the Asian immigrants in the 19th century.
There is no reliable data on the number of Buddhists in the United States but today it
is estimated to be a few millions. 1.25% of the total U.S. population is identified as
Buddhist followers. Prof.Dana Eck of the Harvard University talks about the presence
of three types of Buddhists such as , Buddhists, Nightstand Buddhists and Strongly
influenced Buddhists and they amount to be around thirty millions. Thus Buddhism of
all traditions becomes the third largest religion in the U.S., just behind Christianity
and Judaism. In 2006, there was a census showing 6-8 million Buddhists in the USA.
Since then, there hasn't been another serious census taken. It is, therefore, very
difficult to count the immigrant-group figures but, without any doubt, the immigrant-
groups make up the largest percentage.
History- the arrival of MTV;
This MTV is referring to the arrival of Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana schools of
Buddhism into the USA. To understand this more clearly, we need to look closely at how
Buddhism came into the United States.
There are Buddhist Glyphs found in parts of the Southwest of U.S. indicating that Buddhist
monks have reached the United States over a thousand years ago. The Native American people
in that region have remembered this in the stories of their Religions within the forest and plains
tribes. Core Buddhist teachings are echoed within the moral codes and ethics in the Indian religions. Most of the times this was missed by the ethnologists of the Smithsonian Institute who studied
the tribes. The chiefs of those tribes withheld much inner knowledge about the religions of tribes
from the ‘Ethnos’ as they called them. This contact had strong influence on the tribes but did not influence the Europeans who came into their lands later on. It had no impact on the ethics of the
US population today either, with the exception of those living in the forests to the Northern part
of the US near the borders of Canada who were exposed to the northern tribal reservations.
In 1875, Madame Helena Petrovana Blavatsky of Russia and Colonel Steel Olcott of the
U.S.A. formed the Theosophical Society in New York City . The motto of the Society was
“There is no higher religion than the Truth.” The society first touched the elite society
in New York City of that day and perked enough interest to follow their investigations
into Burma where they began collecting information about Spiritual development.
Later on having arrived in Chennai in India they opened the headquarters for the
Theosophical Society that still remains open for the service of the local people there.
Colonel Olcott then left India for Sri Lanka where he took on the project of supporting
the revival of Buddhism after it had diminished so severely under the British rule.
This was followed by tremendous development works of Anagarika Dhammapala who
started the Mahabodhi Society of India. Col.Olcott also devotedly strived for the total
revival of the community of the Sangha (Buddhist Monks & Nuns) and the Buddhist
structure in the island by establishing Buddhist schools in major cities for the then deprived
Arrival of Asian Immigrants
In the 1800s in the West coast of the US, for the railway transportation construction, a large
labor force of Chinese was brought into the country. Along with them, there came the Mahayana Buddhism to support their communities. Hawaii which was a center for Pineapple and Coconut plantation-development and for this, some Chinese labors were brought into the country in the
1920s and 1930s. With their arrival more information about Buddhism began to flow into the US.
In the year 1893, Anagarika Dhammapala of Sri Lanka represented the Buddhist community
at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago where he delivered a passionate
speech that was instrumental in laying the foundation for creating an unprecedented interest
in the minds of the people of the west. This event drew more than superficial interest in the
teaching of the Buddha and more studies of eastern religions began to trickle into the universities.
Zen Buddhism entered into the picture in the 1940s due to the exposure of the World
War II. In early 1950s there was a popular question in the west coast of the U.S. that was
“Where is your sitting group?” In San Francisco The Beatniks, Schneider, and the other poets
began to take hold on the West Coast and later on the East Coast and people then started
to get more into meditation. San Francisco sets up the first real sitting room in 1922, set up
by a Zen master Rev.Nyogen Senzaki of Japan, for the use of primarily by higher Society and Intellectual interests.
Tibetan Buddhism started arriving into the U.S. due to the efforts of His Holiness Dalai Lama
the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. First Tibetan temple was established in 1955, followed by the first Monastery in 1958. Both of these happen on the West Coast.
Although the Mahayana formally arrived on the west coast in the late 1800s, they really didn’t begin influencing the general population until the 1960s. Before that time, they were strictly there to support Asian immigrant communities. It is with the arrival of the Beatles Music group that curiosity becomes inflamed concerning Eastern religions which they brought into fashion when they began
to follow the Maharishi Guru of India who was gaining popularity at that time. Making popular music
music of that time was the predominate driving force in the propagation of Eastern thought
in the U.S.
What is unfortunate is that although the Buddhism begins to reach the population, at the same time rock and roll music became entwined with the South American Drug cartels whose drugs began to flow into the country. Thus, for many people there is the assumption made that Buddhism could not be a good thing. This was due to lack of understanding as a result of not having proper Buddhist centers
to cater to the need of the day.
The Mahayana built a headquarters near Carlyle, New York which became the Buddhist Association
of the United States (BAUS). On the west coast, Rev.Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese immigrant, became very popular amongst college students. Finally in 1968, the first Theravadian center appeared on the East Coast. The Washington Buddhist Vihara which was established on 16th Street in Washington, D.C. by the Sasana Sevaka Society of Sri Vajiranana Dharmayatanaya, Maharagama, Sri Lanka.
THE GROWTH OF MTV...
Very early on, the Mahayana took control of academic training and led the teaching of Buddhism
in the US. They were determined to stress Mahayana Buddhism above all other forms when they
took their positions in Universities across the country and in 2004, there were no Theravadian professors to be seen anywhere. There were no undergraduate majors for Buddhism and absolutely
no Theravadian teachings available for post graduate studies either. Undergraduate courses didn’t
show up until about 2010. At that time graduate courses begin to become more available too.
Although the Mahayana had split off in the beginning from the same main discourses the Buddha taught which were preserved by the Elder’s School, these teachings were not only abandoned but “discouraged" as well, and it openly spoke to its lay people putting down the elder’s school.
The various Tibetan traditions were primarily introduced to the U.S. via the life story of His Holiness
Dalai Lama during the post World War II era in the late 1940s. As his story unfolded, people took pity on the condition of his people and many Westerners wanted to help them. This tradition appeared to be quite different from the Mahayana and Theravada traditions which developed from the early teachings of Buddhism. One might even say they are marginally Buddhist because the Buddhism
we are taught from the original teachings is difficult to find any sign of as we enter a Tibetan temple. Inside the room a vastness of RED flooded with the remnants of prior religions, gods, dieties, and stories which they chose not to abandon when they set up the Buddhist places of worship.
Notes on the Theravada
The Theravada came in late, primarily through the angle of meditation in the 1970s.
Theravada got a shot in the arm, so to speak, to help them get going with the arrival of Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and the Indian teacher, Munindraji. This greatly promoted the level
of interest all over the country. These first string teachers, as some of us call them, brought about
the creation of the Insight Meditation Society on the East Coast in Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock Center on the West Coast in California. They were responsible for bringing about more interest
from the medical community, and, at first, they welcomed all people to investigate meditation,
and spearheaded programs around the world to get people more interested in Buddhism.
They did not however, follow through with the open-minded investigations into all avenues
of Buddhist studies in modern times like they had promised. But, they did introduce thousands
of people to the three main schools of Buddhism to practice meditation, as long as it went
along in agreement with what they believed was correct.
On the west coast perhaps the biggest initial impact was the coming of the Burmese Community
to Half Moon Bay Monastery in 1979, along with the arrival of two Burmese monks who were
domiciled there to teach Americans the Mahasi method of Meditation called Vipassana.
The late Ven.U Silinanda and Ven.U Sobhana were the two monks who headed this project up
that eventually was spreaded throughout the USA. For Guiding support they relied primarily
on the Vissudhimagga Commentary for an explanation of what the Buddha said and what he meant.
Today the Theravadians are much stronger than they were in their beginning. The Sri Lankans
are the most helpful for teaching Americans about Buddhist practice and meditation. They seem
to serve the Buddha first and the community second. While the Thais have set up more temples
perhaps, they do not serve as missionaries as much as they serve as community centers for
Traditions, Temples, Centers and Associations Today
The situation within this basically Christian Country is that Buddhism developed in a variety of
versions. There are well over 50 Schools/styles of Buddhism being taught in the US. After that
there are also a broad spectrum of new ideas called Buddhism, Meditation Centers, Buddhist studies within Universities, a variety of college level clubs and many different associations, societies etc.
this seems endless.
It’s like a free for all. One might find a person saying he is teaching Buddhism as we would
find in secular schools in California, Chicago, Houston Texas, and in New York that are very
well accredited . Illinois also has a University offering now an Undergraduate course and post-
graduate course as well. The University of the West in California offers full course programs.
But nothing stops any person from just choosing their own ways of running things. There are
no control mechanisms set up to unify the subject. Therefore, each new group that is born,
can run on their own if they so choose to be so.
There are a few organized Sangha structures in the country, but, the larger ones are generally
imported traditions. In practice, there is no government support whatsoever given toward
any religion because Church and State in the U.S. were set up to remain separate and religion
is to be a matter of personal choice.
In direct respect to Buddhism, what holds true in the nature of its development in the USA
most often revolves around the location of various immigrant group settlements. As an example,
a Thai temple would be constituted around neighborhoods of Thai people to serve as a community center, a temple, and a support system for Thai culture and teaching of the Thai language. It was
not expected to function in a missionary capacity.
The Burmese were far more accommodating and supportive in teaching someone on the west
coast and are still spreading out with some degree of acceptance within the borders of the country.
The Vietnamese catered to their own and large population who are a powerful force in maintaining
the noble Buddhist identity and they can be very helpful with the time to come with some patience.
Ven.Thich Nhat Hanh made a strong impression on the East Coast and in Europe developing his
base location in France. Progressively, one cannot deny that his work has touched Millions of
people around the world to calm their minds and become far more loving and kind to each other.
Present condition of Buddhism today
Perhaps one of the most damaging things today IMHO is that we have allowed the Suttas (discourses) to slip almost into obscurity in the shadows of time. They have fallen into the background so severely when it comes to explaining what the Buddha actually did, what he found, how he found it, and what his original intention was when he launched his original quest. Most of the traditions have moved away from the texts which preserved His original words. There are literally thousands of foreign temples on American soil operated by foreign monks . But there are only a few American temples on American Soil with American incumbent Abbots.
The last group that is interesting to talk about is the late arrival of the Ven.Vimalaramsi Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center in Annapolis, Missouri, Dr.Bhante H. Gunaratana of the Bhavana Society, West Virginia, Dr.Bhikkhu Bodhi of Chuang Yen Monastery, Carmel, NY and Dr.Bhante M.Punnaji of Canada who have dedicated themselves to research, practice, preservation, and teaching of the Buddha in a practical way. It is, with much gratitude,
that we need to observe the great contributions made by masters of all tradition and of
many different countries; just to mention some briefly ;
Ven.Narada, Ven.Piyadassi of Vajiraramaya ,Sri Lanka, Ven.Ajahn Chah of Thailand, Ven.Master Thich Nhu Dien of Vietnam and Satya Narayan Goenka of Burma and the likes.
Many teachers are being trained now and more and more people are tasting some of the results of
the Buddha's quest.
I encourage you to read up on the articles written by Bhikkhu Bodhi concerning the development of a Western Sangha for today’s world and his evaluation of the importance of having a Sangha for the future survival of Buddhism that can cooperate together for the good of the lay people.