Yet the number of indigenous Theravada monks in the U.S. has increased, from only ten in the late 1990s to more than two dozen today. This is an admittedly small gain when compared to the total number of Theravada monks, and the increase includes no North American-born offspring of Asian immigrants or refugees. But the direction is clearly upward -- and unexpected. Moreover, the number of fully ordained Theravada nuns in North America has increased from zero in the mid-1990s (when higher ordination was not available to women) to as many as twenty-five today, perhaps one-third of them indigenous.

Even more importantly -- and also unexpectedly -- a renewed interest in monasticism has emerged in the West. I suspect that the following quote from an official of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2002 took many by surprise: "The monastic impulse is loose in the world. The number of people who hear this deeply contemplative call has skyrocketed."

The 2009 Georgetown University study, "Recent Vocations to Religious Life," revealed that more than 70 percent of all Catholic religious communities now have new members in formation and that "an increasing number of younger people are looking at religious life as a possible life option." This is the kind of religious life in which Catholic women and men take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The numbers do not approach the halcyon days of the 1950s and '60s, but who knew that such a lifestyle could experience even a modest comeback?

Just as surprising, monastic numbers are also on the rise in Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, and Protestant Christian circles according to religion scholar Nancy Falk in her entry on "Monasticism" in the 2010 edition of World Book Advanced.

A novice Theravada nun made the following anxious plea at the 1987 Conference on World Buddhism in North America: "Make Theravada monasticism workable in this country. Please. We need it for the purity of the teachings. If you don't, the teachings will turn into something else. They will turn into Ram Dass. They will turn into therapy. I'm seeing it happen."

Setting aside the question of the purity of the teachings in that statement, Theravada monasticism may become more workable in North America, rather than less, as time goes on. The well-known American Theravada monk Bhikkhu Bodhi is optimistic on this score, although he thinks North American Theravada monasticism cannot merely replicate Asian patterns.

"My personal belief is that for Buddhism to successfully flourish in the West, a monastic Sangha is necessary," Bhikkhu Bodhi writes in an internet essay, "The Challenge of the Future: How Will the Sangha Fare in North American Buddhism?"  "At the same time," he continues, "I think it almost inevitable that as Buddhism evolves here, monasticism will change in many ways, that it will adapt to the peculiar environment impressed upon it by Western culture and modes of understanding, which differ so much from the culture and worldview of traditional Asian Buddhism."

Such a cultural adaptation would come as no surprise to those familiar with Buddhist history.

 

Paul David Numrich is Professor in the Snowden Chair for the Study of Religion and Interreligious Relations, Methodist Theological School in Ohio, and Professor of World Religions and Interreligious Relations, Trinity Lutheran Seminary. His publications include Old Wisdom in the New World: Americanization in Two Immigrant Theravada Buddhist Temples and "Theravada Buddhism in America: Prospects for the Sangha" in The Faces of Buddhism in America.