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Buddhism. Part 24, “Buddhism in America”

By Frank Simons

Buddhism is an extraordinarily malleable and adaptable tradition. From India, it spread into just about every corner of Asia. It transformed the civilizations it encountered and has itself been transformed in ways unimaginable to its earliest adherents. It should come as no surprise that Buddhism is an influential part of cultures throughout Europe and the Americas. In this final lecture we will consider some of the ways Buddhism entered Western culture and some of the ways  its encounter has changed Buddhist tradition.

Video Presentation
Buddhism. Part 24, Buddhism in America
Thu, May 26, 5:30pm
Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

The first serious scholarly contacts between Europeans and Buddhists took place during the 19th century. An early precursor of this movement was the brilliant scholar and jurist Sir William Jones, who helped institutionalize the study of Sanskrit and classical Indian civilization in 1794 when he founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Colonel Henry Olcott traveled to Ceylon in 1880 and converted to Buddhism. The son of a Protestant preacher, he brought that vision to what he believed religion to be, producing a “Buddhist catechism,” a statement of Buddhist principles, which had a powerful effect on the way Buddhism was modernized. The World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 brought a number of charismatic religious leaders from Asia. Soyen Shaku, a Rinzai Zen master from Japan, met author Paul Carus, who helped him bring DT Suzuki to North America to help propagate Zen. Suzuki’s work has been the avenue into Zen for generations of Americans. After the Parliament, Asian Buddhists took steps to organize their own religious communities. Chinese and Japanese Buddhist communities on the west coast and Hawaii have created new and fascinating Americanized movements. Particularly venerable and successful is the organization of Jodo Shinshu, known as the Buddhist Churches of America.




Zen centers were established in several places, making it possible for American converts to receive training and assume positions of leadership. A roshi by the name of Shunryu Suzuki established the San Francisco Zen Center and trained a number of important disciples, including Richard Baker Roshi. Yasutani Roshi traveled widely in America and trained several disciples who went on to organize major Zen centers of their own.

The movement known as Sokai Gakkai has brought Nichiren’s teaching of devotion to the Lotus Sutra to a broad and diverse American audience, and is particularly influential in the African-American community. Tibetan Buddhism has been represented by all four major schools and many sub-varieties. Among some of the most important have been Chogyam Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and the Geshe Wangyal’s Gelukpa meditation center in Washington, New Jersey.

Many people first came into contact with Buddhism through the novels of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Poets, especially Gary Snyder. Another important text is Siddhartha, the novel by Hermann Hesse. Part of the strength of the Buddhist tradition has been its malleability. In principle it is impermanent and adapts easily to new situations. You could say the appeal of Buddhism lies somewhere in the structure of the Four Noble Truths, between the conviction that everyone suffers and the conviction there is a way to bring suffering to an end. The appeal of Buddhism lies in the story of the Buddha himself, as repeated and given new life in the stories of the Buddhists who have attempted to follow his example and seek Buddhahood in their own experience.


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