American Buddhism

One of the issues that seems to be gaining ground, at least as a point of discussion, within Buddhist circles is the question of the relationship of Buddhism to Americans and American culture. This is a question that centers on a number of points:

  1. What should the role of Buddhism in America be in the long term?
  2. What aspects of Buddhism as traditionally taught are essential to it and which aspects are culturally dependent? (This is the question of whether practice X or belief Y is actually an essential part of Buddhism or, for example, an aspect of Indian or Chinese culture.)
  3. What changes from the way that Buddhism is taught in Asia should occur as Buddhism becomes a part of American culture?

The longer that Buddhism and Buddhists are active in the U.S., the more that these will come into play. Buddhism has been in the United States for more than 100 years but for most of this time, it was largely limited to immigrant populations as the religion that they brought with them from their original counties and which was practiced within their communities. Since the 1950’s, and especially since the late 1960’s, Buddhism has drawn in more adherents of non-Asian ethnicity.

Zen was really the first to pave the way for this and followed a natural pattern that the initial teachers were Japanese and often taught in a very traditional manner, matching the way that they had learned. Sometimes this succeeded and sometimes this failed. Over time, Zen has adapted itself, to greater and less degrees, to American culture and attempted to work out some of these issues. Some of this came to a head as more and more teachers who were American born and of European ancestry became teachers and lineage holders.

Tibetan Buddhism has struggled with this issue and it is very unresolved in its communities. In some, such as Chogyam Trungpa’s, practices have been conducted in English since the 1970’s. Texts have been translated and teachers are often Americans. In others, the vast majority of recognized teachers or ones given permission to teach, are Tibetans who either fled Tibet or who grew up in India and Nepal. In my experience in the Tibetan Buddhist community, very few Americans were given permission to teach or made lineage holders. I can only think of a few out of dozens and dozens of Tibetan Buddhist teachers who are active in the U.S. outside of the Shambhala community of Trungpa. Practices and general liturgy are normally in Tibetan and in order to go on the three year retreats, which is a common requirement to become a teacher, a practitioner must become fluent in Tibetan, both modern and Classical (for reading). I have at least one good friend who is a very dedicated practitioner who has been trying for several years now to find a way to learn Tibetan to go on retreat. It has been made clear that he’d be allowed to attend but he has to master this language that is not commonly taught and often not by individuals trained to teach it professionally.

In the Tendai community here in the States, I know that there has been discussion at points about whether one needs to learn Japanese in order to be completely trained. This is a limitation based on the fact that much of the liturgical materials, commentaries, and other texts have not been translated into English. For myself, I’ve pretty much decided that I’m going to have to learn to at least read Japanese at some point given my scholastic bent and my involvement but I cannot say that it is something that I look completely forward to doing in my late 30’s and into my 40’s.

Some of these questions will be solved over time (decades or generations) as things develop but those of us active today need to think long and hard about our relationship to Buddhism, to the lineages that we are a part of and which come down to us, and about what aspects of the teachings we receive are an essential part of the tradition and which are cultural customs. I have heard Tibetan teachers, such as Namkhai Norbu, acknowledge this issue before. Some teachers who are not Americans are pondering this as well but this is an area where the decisions today will have a great impact. Buddhism in America is at its beginning but it will have a long future to come. We need to create the proper circumstances to midwife its birth into a full flowering of the Dharma.