buddhism in america



The stresses and intensity of modern American society have influenced many people to adopt and adapt the principles of Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Some recent statistics from the US department of Health and Human Services show that 75% of the General Population experiences at least “some stress” every two weeks (National Health Interview Survey). Half of those experience moderate or high levels of stress during the same two-week period. It is common knowledge that stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and other illnesses in many individuals. Stress also contributes to the development of alcoholism, obesity, suicide, drug addiction, cigarette addiction, and other harmful behaviors. It was reported that tranquilizers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications account for one fourth of all prescriptions written in the US each year. With so many mental health problems, it is almost reassuring that Eastern religions are steadily growing.
Buddhism On The Move
Eastern religions have been practiced in Asia and the Subcontinent for thousands of years longer than Christianity. Buddhism, a main religion of Asia has been practiced in Tibet for Millennia. Buddhism, Zen and Hindu were first introduced to the western world in 1893 at the World Religions Conference in Chicago. The Dalai Lama represented Buddhism and D.T. Suzuki represented Zen. However, Eastern religions went relatively ignored until 1959, when the Chinese invasion of Tibet left 1.3 million Tibetans dead and 6,000 Buddhist monasteries destroyed. Tibetan refugees escaped to bordering countries and some fled farther to the US and Europe. Those who fled remembered how the Buddha taught his enlightened disciples to continue to spread his teachings. “With the Chinese Invasion of Tibet, it was as if a dam had burst; suddenly Tibetan wisdom began to flow freely down from the roof of the world and to the West…and there to fulfill the prophecy come Westerners looking for guidance and eager to develop their own spiritual lives and transplant the flowering tree of enlightenment to their own lives.”(Das, 29)
The first westerners to begin to adopt Eastern principles were often people on the fringes of society or in the avant-garde of the arts, literature, and philosophy. The beatniks in the 50’s, the Hippies in the 60’s and 70’s. Evidence of eastern thought in the writings of Jack Kerouac, Hippies – George Harrison and the Beatles studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga. Richard Albert turned his name to Baba Ram Das.
In our society today, it seems like everyone knows someone into Eastern religion. From businessmen to politicians to celebrities individuals are joining meditating groups while still maintaining ties to their traditional faiths to “wet their feet” in more satisfying and less materialistic lives. “At retreats you’re likely to find yourself sitting next to a stockbroker or a therapist or a retired social worker who may or may not claim to be Buddhist.”(Wood, 3) “Unlike the rush of mostly younger Americans to Buddhism that occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the new ranks include a larger percentage of seekers over 50”(Wood, 2). Now in the West we see many variations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen, such as Mahayana, Pali, and Vajpareena. Our new, multi-religious land that combines Eastern and Western religion can be described as “the scientific West arriving at something like the fusion of the Confucian cultivation of virtue through the bonds of family and community, Taoist laissez-faire and yearning for nature, and Buddhist compassion for man’s need for Nirvana.”(Layman, 80) We have adapted religions in many ways to fit our lives.
“Buddhism in America is characterized by great diversity, with both conservative and liberal trends within the same sect and denomination of course, differences in furnishings and hairstyles are superficial, and are either tangential or irrelevant to the Buddhist system of beliefs and basic way of life. But fundamental and widespread changes in American Buddhism are occurring. Its priests and adherents are recognizing that Buddhism must be shown to have relevant approaches to the problems which plague American Society. Accordingly, sermons and lectures delivered by the clergy are making less use of illustrations recounted by ancient Buddhist saints and are becoming more applicable to everyday living in modern American society.”(Layman, 32) As a result, “The ancient religion of Buddhism grows even stronger roots in a new world, with the help