Can Buddhism become American?

I want to ask a question here and that is, “Can Buddhism become American?”

By this, I’m not asking about whether Buddhism can mesh with American values or whether American culture can or will grow to accept Buddhism. These are worthy questions but not for today, at least for me. What I am asking about is whether Buddhism can become American in the sense of its organizations, teachers, and adherents.

I’ll let you in on an open secret that I’ve heard spoken about in person but rarely discussed in books or in Buddhist media: Most Buddhist teachers, gurus, lamas, what-have-you are not Americans even when they practice in America and their followers are American. (This holds true in Europe and elsewhere outside of Asia.) Most Buddhist teachers were born in and trained in Asian nations where Buddhism is a longstanding tradition of some historic standing.

In and of itself, this is not an issue. I’m not speaking about this out of some form of xenophobia or racism. I’m simply pointing out the emperor’s clothes to some degree in that America isn’t producing its own Buddhist teachers. There are a few notable and visible exceptions to this. Zen Buddhism in America is largely populated with native teachers with a healthy mixing of teachers from Japan or elsewhere. The various Vipassana related groups, such as the Insight Meditation Society, seem to be largely populated by American teachers. The same is true of Chogyam Trungpa’s Shamabhala Tradition, deriving from Trungpa’s own Tibetan Buddhist background mixed with his appreciation of Zen and other ideas for an American audience.

This is the case in the convert community. The established ethnic Chinese and Japanese Buddhist institutions seem to have a fairly good mix of native-born and foreign-born leadership but, for better or worse, these communities are not growing in size even while Buddhism in America is growing quite a bit.

Leaving aside the fairly large numbers of Zen teachers or instructors in insight meditation, if you go to a Buddhist group, while you might find most of the adherents to be Americans,  you will find their teachers to be Tibetans, born in Tibet or India, or occasionally Japanese, Chinese, Thai, or (rarely) Burmese. This is even if they have a teacher resident, which seems to be far less often than one that visits seasonally or annually from their home nation.

I have the most background in Tibetan groups so I can speak most strongly from experience there. At the Sakya monastery, where I took refuge vows years ago, the abbot and other teachers are Tibetans, either born in Tibet or, if younger, born in India. There are no non-Tibetan teachers. The same was true of one of the Nyingma groups with whom I attended events. The other Nyingma group actually did have an American born teacher but my understanding was he is and was only allowed to teach within very circumscribed areas of the Tibetan tradition. Most groups that I have visited over the years have no teacher at all that lives there. Their teacher is actually the teacher for hundreds of people in many groups scattered in a variety of cities. Teachers travel between them and then return home overseas.

Now, some people will say, “But Buddhism hasn’t set root in America, it is to be expected that there are few American teachers.” That is true to some extent but that was really most true 40 or 50 years ago. We’ve had a couple of generations since then. What happened to the Americans that studied, even becoming monks, doing multi-year retreats, etc. from back then? Many of them either still practice but have never been given permission to teach or, more often it seems, they have returned their monastic vows and become professors of Buddhist Studies or something similar. Occasionally, they are translators working with other teachers.

This leads to a couple of problems. These are what really prompted this post. These are:

  1. There are not enough teachers for sincere students of Buddhism.
  2. Those who make it through the traditional requirements to be trained to teach are often never given permission to do so.

I’ll address these in reverse order. There are people (a number of whom I have met) who are trained and qualified to teach but have never been given permission by the leadership within their Buddhist organizations to teach. Some of these people have been quite happy about this since they are most interested in their own practice, not in teaching others. Others have felt stymied because it isn’t clear why they have never been given permission and it isn’t one of those things that many of them confront their teachers or traditions with directly. That isn’t the way of things.

This helps lead to the first problem, the lack of teachers.

If you sat down tomorrow and decided for any reason, “I want to be a Tibetan Buddhist!”, what would you do? Well, you’d probably read a few books, if you hadn’t already, and then look up a few Tibetan Buddhist groups in your area. If you’re in a mid-sized or larger city or on the coasts, you can probably find at least one if not many. (There are at least four or five within four miles of me in the Bay Area.) You could attend events and meet people. What you would find is either a small collection of people meeting in someone’s home or, if lucky, a larger group with their own leased or owned space. What you would probably not find is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. Asking about this, you might find out, “Oh, we’re students of XYZ Rinpoche. He comes through every Spring and sometimes in the Fall.” The group would have a lay leader, who could suggest readings, etc. but no teacher. Eventually, you will meet the teacher. In all likelyhood, if he’s older, his may not speak much English. If he does (or if he’s younger and educated in India), he also probably doesn’t understand a lot of American idiom or your day to day life. In any case, eventually you meet him and you may wind up taking refuge, becoming a Buddhist.

What then? Well, you hang out with the group. You may have assigned readings. You may have a course of study or lectures that have been recorded or transcribed. Eventually, for Tibetan Buddhism, you will receive the ritual empowerments that allow you to begin practicing more than simply studying a few simple texts. In most cases, you will be assigned ngondro, which takes a year or three to complete depending on your time. Once or twice a year, the teacher may or may not come through. He may teach for a week or even a month and then he’s gone again.

I don’t think I need to paint too much of a picture for people to figure out how difficult and frustrating this can be as a process for most people. I know in my experience, once I took refuge at the Sakya Monastery in a large room of people, there was not a single person willing to help me or tell me what I could or should do now. There was no teacher available to talk to me. Definitely nothing like the popular visions of the Buddhist master with his students. In my case, I bounced around through several groups of Buddhists, just simply trying to find a teacher. In time, I found one but he was one with literally thousands of students. I attended retreats with hundreds of people and, while I studied his writings, listened to his recorded lectures, and met the man, the connection was limited to that.

I speak to my friends and I hear this story over and over again. You have people with the fire to study and practice Buddhism. They have faith in the teachings. They devour every book they can find and they can NEVER find a teacher to work with, one of the things that all the Buddhist traditions agree is necessary and not optional to follow the path. I know people who have upturned their whole lives and found a teacher by going to India, Nepal, or other places or simply getting extremely lucky. Without fail, these have been young, 20-something, men or women with no family, no careers as such, and a willingness to leave their entire lives behind. This is the picture that gets painted of what is necessary. For those of us, like me, who have a wife, a daughter, or a mortgage or child support, are we told that we simply aren’t willing to give it up, to walk away? Am I really expected to walk away from my family, my wife or child, in order to practice Buddhism at all?

This returns back to the other point above, where are the American teachers? If you are Zen practitioner, you are probably in luck (at least Soto Zen). The Zen group in your area is probably actually led by an American teacher, trained here through many years of practice before recognition by their teacher. This local Zen teacher probably runs the local Zendo themselves. The same goes for an Insight Meditation group, such as Spirit Rock in the Bay Area. But if you practice some other tradition of Buddhism, especially one of the tantric varieties, what then?

This goes a long way to answering the questions that have come up for me of “Why do you practice with a teacher living in Ohio?” The answer is, “Because I found a teacher that I felt a connection with and the teacher is actually willing to teach me. He’s there for me and his students.” He’s an American, he understands us. He has a job, because Buddhism doesn’t pay his bills, and he has a family. Like some of the Zen teachers that I’ve met, he understands our lives, our culture, and, again, he’s actually there to teach us. This is something I never found with a Tibetan group and I’d be very surprised to find, simply because there are few teachers and almost none of them are Americans or even around at all.

So, I wonder what it will take for Buddhism to become American. Time? Well, that would be the case if I thought that Americans were being empowered to teach in all traditions but I don’t think that it is true. So, what will it take? Another couple of generations while those of us here today, trying to lead Buddhist lives while seeking enlightenment, stumble along, mostly alone or simply with each other?

I’m interested in your thoughts or experiences in this, especially from my fellow Buddhists.