1960’s approximately 200,000 people in the United States claimed to be of the Buddhists sect (Nattlier). Some of these began to think of themselves as Buddhist after a personal experience such as visiting Asia, reading in depth about the religion or talking with others who had experienced the religion firsthand. However, most of them were Hawaiian residents whose parents and grandparents had immigrated from China and Japan. Today these numbers are much greater. It is estimated that somewhere between two and three million followers live in the U.S. (Nattlier). A more conservative guess represents a tenfold increase since the ’60s. Some of this increase may be due to individuals coming to the United States from Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Taiwan. However, Americans of non-Asian ancestry are also becoming Buddhists. Overall, there have been two Buddhisms — Asian immigrant Buddhism and American con-vert Buddhism — and three lines of transmission from Asia — Elite Buddhism which is imported to America, Evangelical Buddhism which is exported to America, and Ethnic Buddhism which arrives in America with the ongoing Asian immigrant population.
INTERVIEW ON BUDDHISM
Q. What are the foundations of the religion?
A. The origins of Buddhism come from the experience of a man Siddhata Gotama, known as the Buddha, who was awakened at the age of 36. He was born over 2,500 years ago in Lumbini, present-day Nepal, into a wealthy family. Until he was 29, he lived a life of extravagance and contentment. He began to recognize, however, that such pleasure was short-lived and would never bring him lasting peace. Whatever happiness found in life would eventually be undermined by old age, illness and eventual death. So he left life and began to wonder, looking for a way that would lead him to perfect contentment (Zurcher 19).
For the next six years, he put himself through the most grueling life, including fasting until almost dying. Although reach some higher states, he knew that this approach would not lead to total enlightenment. Thus, he returned to a different, less extreme, method that he found almost by accident while young. At 35, he sat beneath the Bodhi tree and finally achieved perfect bliss and knowledge. For the next 45 years, Buddha spent his time as a humble monk, teaching others to realize what he had discovered.
The name Buddhism comes from the word budhi, which means “to wake up.” Buddhism is thus the philosophy of awakening (Zurcher 20).
Q. What are the basic tenets of Buddhism?
A. In his first sermon, “Turning the Wheel of Dharma,” Buddha spoke of the human condition of suffering that he called the Four Noble Truths: 1) Buddha instructed that all realms of existence are places of suffering and dissatisfaction dukkha. 2) The cause of this suffering is craving or tanha; 3) However, there is a state of perfect bliss called Nibbana or Nirvana; 4) Nibbana could be actualized, namely the noble eightfold path that includes eight factors — Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
By following the eightfold path, one can develop wisdom, morality and meditative concentration (Harris 42-44).
Q. Are there specific commandments to follow?
A.. In Buddhism, these are called the five precepts or basic moral guidelines: 1) Abstain from harming living beings; 2) Abstain from taking what is not given; 3) Abstain from sexual misconduct; 4) Abstain from false speech; 5) Abstain from intoxicating drugs or drink (Harris 51-53).
Q. How does a person reach Nibbana?
A. Nibbana is when both suffering and desire are extinguished forever. The noble eightfold path is designed to develop wisdom, morality and concentration that will lead to a good rebirth but not to Nibbana. Meditation allows an individual to look more deeply within him/herself and the nature of the world. There are two traditional methods of meditation, calm or samatha that calms the body and concentrates the mind, and insight or vipassana that leads to rapturous states known as jhanas. In vipassana meditation, the goal is seeing things as they really exist, or awareness. On one level, this means noting all that one does mentally and physically as the thought of jealousy or the feeling of cold air blowing in one’s face. Developing this practice involves seeing that suffering, impermanence and not-self are inherent in all things, and even in one’s own bodily and mental processes (Rahula 35-45).
Q. What happens when one dies?
A. During his enlightenment, Buddha saw that he, like everyone, had many earlier lives. Thus, Buddhism teaches that rebirth follows dying. This is not a soul that passes from one life to another but rather it is a continuum. People move from one life to the next, the new consciousness at rebirth not completely different or completely similar to the consciousness at death. The cycle of rebirth called samsara means that upon death a person can be born in one of six realms, depending on previous deeds. The hells, the world of the hungry ghosts, the animal kingdom, the human world, the world of the jealous gods and the heavens. Being born a human is very precious and rare because it offers the best opportunities for enlightenment (Harris 60-63).
Buddhism in the United States is frequently divided by class, culture, or ethnicity. Splinters often exist between Asians and whites, and as well as by different sects such as Chinese, Pure Land, Japanese Zen, Nichiren, Korean, Vietnamese, and Theravaada Buddhism. The first Buddhist temple was built in San Francisco in 1853 by Chinese working in America. It was not until the late 1960’s, when non-Chinese-Americans would begin to get involved in Chinese Buddhist temples (Urban Dharma).
For example, is the Thai Buddhist Temple Wat Buddhavas in Houston, Texas (see website). Buddhist temples are formed by a lay person in the Thai Buddhist community; neither the Thai government nor the Buddhist Thai associations conduct missionary activities in other countries. After a temple is established, the community invites one or monks to live there. The temple’s principal functions are to provide Buddhists with the opportunity to associate together, find solace in Buddha teachings, and practice their beliefs. Thai Buddhists in Houston and its surrounding communities created their temple on April 5, 1982.
All the monks currently residing at Wat Buddhavas were born in Thailand. The monks are ambassadors for three years from Thailand to the Thai people residing in the United States. They have the equivalent of a Bachelor’s Degree in Buddhism or achieved higher degrees in religious studies. In addition, some monks come with certain specialties such as insight meditation. Any man in the Buddhist community is welcome to join the monks in living at the temple as a monk by taking the priestly vows, donning the monk’s vestments, and agreeing to live an ascetic existence during the period he stays at the temple.
The Thai community in Houston organized themselves and created Wat Buddhavas to be a refuge for their cares and worries, as a place to practice their religion and to transmit their cultural heritage to their children. Every day, the monks get up before dawn, eat breakfast and engage in morning chanting. At 11 am they are invited to eat lunch, and may not eat solid food again until the next morning, and give a sermon. At night, the monks perform the evening chanting and meditation. Every Sunday, they lead a meditation class for the community.
The community observes a number of holidays during the year. The Magha Puja Day falls on the full moon of the third lunar month, about the last week of February or early March. In the evening, Lord Buddha gave his disciples a discourse, Ovada Patimokkha, laying down the principles of His Teaching, summarized into three acts — . not to do any evil, to do good and to purify the mind. The monks give sermons, the eight-fold precepts first taught by the Buddha, assist congregants in meditation, and have the candle procession. Visakha Puja Day, the first full moon day in May, is when Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and passed from this world. The ceremonies and activities, at Wat Buddhavas, are similar to Makha Puja day.
Asalha Puja Day and the beginning of the Buddhist Lenten season, on the first full moon of July, is the anniversary of Buddha’s first sermon to the world to the first five monks who followed his precepts. The Sart Ceremony, which falls in September of each year, is for paying respect to an individual’s departed ancestors. Oog Pansa marks the end of the three-month Lenten period during which monks must remain at their assigned temples and not venture out on overnight sojourns. On this day the temple holds the ancient and revered ceremony of Tak Baat Tevo, which symbolizes the fable that occurred in the seventh year after the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Buddha was said to journey to visit heaven to teach his mother, then an angel, about what he had learned. After his journey, he came down from heaven to Sangkassa City where his disciples waited to greet him and feast him. During the Kathina Ceremony, one month after the end of the Lenten period, monks can either make or gather their robes and vestments for the next year and preach their sermons to the populace.
There are also several national festivals. On New Year’s Day, the Buddhists believe they should do good deeds by providing food and money to monks at the temple. On Songkran Day, the traditional Thai New Year on April 13th, each adult and child pays respects to the older community members. Loi Krathong is one of Thailand’s most beloved ceremonies and festivals. It falls on the day of the new moon of the twelfth month November of the western calendar, at the end of the rainy season when rivers and streams are flooded. People prepare floats and small boats in the shape of lotus flowers with candles, flowers, and incense sticks and send them down rivers and streams.
King Bhumibol’s birthday is celebrated by Thai people all over the world; his is perhaps the most sovereign of the Chakri dynasty. Wat Buddhavas of Houston runs a Sunday School and summer classes in language, religion, culture and arts for the youth. The community has teaches the Thai language to Americans who are interested.
At one-month-old, babies have their hair shaving ceremony. Sometimes when boys become older, their parents will have them stay with the monks for a while. The boy is brought into the temple as a novice and participates in temple activities without the lifestyle restrictions observed by the monks. Although most Buddhists pray every day from their home, most do not attend the temple as frequently.
Twenty-year-old men commonly enter the monkshood for a period of one week to three months for solitude, meditation, and preparation for family life. Marriages are sometimes held at the temple and involve paying homage to the monks and bringing food for them and their guests. Other life cycle events, such as birthdays, commemorations of anniversaries, remembrance of departed ancestors, and funerals, involve the temple, its monks, and Buddhist rituals.
In recent years, Buddhists in Asia and the West have tackled a daunting array of issues such as war resistance, liberation movements, human rights, the environment, education, commerce, race, prison systems, ethnicity, and gender (Kraft). For example, the issue resistance to war is evident in the first Buddhist precept, “Do not kill,” and many Buddhists regard themselves as pacifists. However, others feel that some wars are just and others not.
Abortion is a major issue with the Buddhists, because many believe that consciousness begins at conception and the karmic incarnation of the self occurs at that point; terminating a pregnancy is thus considered killing, which is a violation of the First Precept of ethical conduct. The killing creates karma for the mother as well as the abortionist, so it is not to be done. However, if the woman is willing to accept the karmic burden, it is not the place of others to step in and force the pregnancy to occur; this would create suffering and karma as well, and therefore a “hard” outlawing of abortion would be seen as an unnecessary imposition. Also, this issue differs depending on the Buddhist sect.
Buddhism has a special affinity with environmental concerns and causes for several reasons. The basic Buddhist philosophy of karmic causality and dependent origination stresses the interdependence of all sentient beings who participate in transmigration throughout the six realms; the nonduality of humans and nature; and the moral retribution that awaits those who violate the sanctity of existence. Furthermore, in recent years some Buddhists have been among the leading voices trumpeting the need for ecological awareness and action.
At times, people question whether Buddhists in the West pose a challenge to society in the same way that some Buddhists in Asia seek to challenge consumerism and materialism. Once again, it is difficult to make generalizations, because of the diversity that exists between the sects (Harris 192). Naturally, Western Buddhists are involved with charitable work. Also, many are socially concerned and active in projects to benefit society. However, in many areas, Buddhists are more concerned about how they will change their own personal lives than that of society.
It is believed by many that Buddhism is not an intellectual inquiry. It is something that changes a person and the world. Compassion is at the root of the practice and Westerners look at Buddhism in order to start to practice ways to better themselves. Buddhism offers certain psychological tools for people to be more open in the way that they relate to others and handle their own concerns.
Buddhism can contribute meaning to the whole society. Materialism is the ultimate for many living in the Westernized societies, and it is not an ultimate that often satisfies. Buddhism wants to show that there is more to live than accumulating goods and material values. Spiritual values and higher human values offer other options to life to those who are searching for greater goals.
What is certain is that Buddhism is going through transformations all over the world, including the United States. The East is impacting the religion in the West, and visa versa. Asian teachers travel to the West, passing on traditions but also adapting to the Western context. Western Buddhists travel to Asia, and their presence can have an influence on those whom they meet. The result is a give and take and a constantly changing and dynamic movement that can adapt to the transformations that are occurring so rapidly around the world.
Buddha, himself, taught that different people need different teachings. He said he, himself, had taught 84,000 different kinds of teachings (Harris 197). That, in itself, eliminates intolerance. Taking all these things together, Buddhism is a practical and acceptable spiritual teaching for the world today and for the future to come.
Harris, Elizabeth. What Buddhists Believe. Oxford, England: 2000.
Kraft, Kenneth. “New Voices in Engaged Buddhist Studies.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics. 7-2000.
Nattlier, Jan. “Why Buddhism, Why Now?” 14, November 2005.
Urban Dharma “Buddhism in America.” 14, November 2005.
http://www.urbandharma.org / Bhuddism in America
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974.
Watbuddhavas. Houston, Texas. 14, November 2005. http://www.watbuddhavas.iirt.net/1about/history.html
Zurcher, E. Buddhism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962.
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