Budddhism’s Challenge In America: Looking To Diversify

Buddhism’s Challenge In America: Looking To diversify
David Xi-Ken Astor

Almost 2,600 years ago the Buddha was very inclusive in developing a following among all social classes, race, and gender.  Rare among Hindu spiritual teachers, and especially for someone from a noble family.  Over the years his Sangha became very diverse, but after his death that diversity was challenged by social pressures of the day.  Over time those that identified themselves as Buddhist began to reflect the various social restrictions of their country as Buddhism moved East into China, Indo-China, and Japan.

Now Buddhism has moved West and begins yet another transformation that is resulting in a new look, both philosophically as well as visually.   This transformation has been going on now for over four decades in America.  There are many challenges to this transformation and one of the most pressing is the effort to make Buddhism more diverse and less divided.  The polls I read indicate that there are over two million Buddhists in America.  There are two groups among this number: two-thirds are the Asian-American Buddhist who are among the immigrant families some living here for many decades, and the  remaining one-third is made up mostly of white converts.

Studies that I have read indicate that most Asian-American Buddhists seldom meditate.  Their practice is mostly focused on ancestors, spiritual observance, specific holidays associated with their country of origin, and their belief in reincarnation and nirvana as “another” place.  They generally support temples that are dedicated to their specific nationality, and are not very open and welcoming to outside members.  Their clergy are also ethnic and brought over to support their unique needs.    The second group are mostly home-grown white Americans that are searching for an alternative spiritual experience different from what they grew up with. This group mostly focuses on meditation that has its origins in either Tibetan, Zen or Vipassana traditions.   While their teachers are often from these various nationalities, we are beginning to see a fast growing number of American trained teachers that are gaining prominence.  With a few exceptions, these two groups do not mix.  The main reason is that they have very different ideas of what a Buddhist practice is, although they both consider themselves as Buddhist.  Their Sangha activities are foreign to each other.

In the past decade many Buddhist leaders have recognized this growing difference and have tried to find ways to share what these groups have in common.  The 1967 World Buddhist Sangha Council identified a set of basic unifying points that the various Buddhist traditions could adopt to begin to narrow the gap of difference and to promote diversity.  A statement from this conference makes this effort very clear, “We consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom leading to the realization of ultimate truth.”  It went on to state that, “We admit that in different countries there are differences regarding Buddhist beliefs and practices.  These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.”

That was over four decades ago, and we are still struggling to find diversity among our Sanghas.  It takes time, but there is some progress beginning to immerge.  In the Buddhadharma Practitioner’s Quarterly, and in the magazine Tricycle there have been various articles highlighting the important role women, African-American, and the gay community is having on growing diversity in practice, this is beginning to be reflected in our community centers, and is a big start in the transformative cultural process.

While not much change has taken place in bringing the Asian and Western Buddhist groups together, there has been movement toward making the American Buddhist Sangha more diverse, at least making it less white, and more open and active in seeking a broader outreach in the communities we work to serve.  Let us hope that over time we can find meaningful ways to bring the more segregated Asian-American Buddhist communities together with the contemporary Western style of practice in order to redefine the face of American Buddhism, an outcome that is enviable in the long run.  It is important for us, though, not to confuse the essential teachings of the Buddha no matter what face it is presented in.

sangha diversity 2

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