American Buddhism Needs to Get Real

American Buddhism Needs to Get Real January 28, 2015

By Ty Phillips.

In 2014, Lama Surya Das called for the need to have a solidified American Buddhism; I agree. What I worry about is that this voice will be gentrified. It will be a voice on how to sell the dharma. It will be a monastic caste that is unfamiliar to the American psyche. In order for there to be a useful American Buddhism, it must start from the home.

As we all know, historically, Buddhism was a monastic practice. It was a model for what the Buddha thought needed to happen in larger society. Because of this, almost everything that has been saved and passed down to us over the last 2,500 years is focused solely on the monastic tradition. It seems inaccessible to the modern person, especially to Americans who have no historical ties with a monastic tradition.

There are however, pieces that have been saved, from the Pali sutra tradition, that deal with society and the family. Although they have been put into book form, they are largely unknown. It is this voice that needs to be in the forefront of American Buddhism.

We need to see the strength of the laity as practitioners of the dharma. The strongest voices in Buddhism in America, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Shunryu Suzuki, were both married. Both established Buddhism within the context of family and community without a drive for monastic only traditions and teachings.

This American Buddhism needs to be scientifically literate, which is not a problem for the majority of Buddhists, and it also needs to evolve into something that offers something like a church structure—a place of central community—in every community, in order to reach those who would otherwise, probably never come into contact with the teachings of the Buddha.

This voice needs to be simple and humble, devoid of the drive for credentials and celebrity. It needs to be taught from the stance of the everyday man and woman. A place where it is relatable, not a distant celebrity voice where the flaws of you and I are seen to be non-existent within the gleam of fame.

This Buddhism needs strong ties to its roots—roots that were clearly capable of making a stand on issues of black and white, not ones that consent the stance of ‘whatever happens behind closed doors.’ The practice needs to be lived and that living needs to be the foundation of the teaching.

It must be removed from notions of war and profiteering. It must stand firmly on the ground of non-violence and compassion. It must shine as a beacon of the eightfold path within the family and thus growing into the community. Unfortunately, so much of current American Buddhism is profit-driven drivel that accommodates everything from pornography to enlightenment weekends, yet remains vacuous of all things that could be seen as taking a clear stand on what is morally okay within the context of the Buddhist cannon.

Our voices of modern Buddhism need to be the practitioners helping behind prison walls, in patient wards of the terminally ill, in group homes for abused and neglected teens, and the stay-at-home parents who raise their children to walk under the influence of wisdom and compassion.

Now, all this said, I am not saying that the monastic tradition should go away. I feel that the monastic tradition has its place and is needed, but in an ever evolving world, the voice needs to come from within the people. So where does this leave us?

A great foundation can be seen in the rabbinical tradition—married men (and women) who study and protect the dharma for future generations, taking it into the community to help uplift the lost, the downtrodden, the neglected and abused. But it needs to be more than just words. We need to be engaged. It needs to be more than prayers, but rather hands held out in service. Without this interaction for the masses of hurting, it will hold little value.

We need to see the historical teachings for all that they hold and all that they were, while realizing their context for place and time. This should not dilute the teaching, but enrich them. It should allow us to enable ourselves to create a rich and diverse dharma for an American populace so lost and hurting for truth while drowning in myth.

I think the perfect place to start this is with each other—not by selling it, but by offering it to each other selflessly; taking each other hand in hand in a sense of real sister and brotherhood. Taking it home and living it in front of our kids as an example not as a talking point. The real voice of American Buddhism will shine when it is no longer a commodity for sale. This is a call I am willing to accept. One that I hope you are willing to accept with me.

tyandbrynnFormer bouncer turned pacifist and Buddhist, Ty Phillips is the co-founder of The Tattooed Buddha and a freelance author who writes for The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal, Rebelle, BeliefNet, and The Petoskey News. He is a long term Buddhist and a lineage holder, as well as a father to three amazing girls and a tiny dog named Fuzz.

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18 responses to “American Buddhism Needs to Get Real”

  1. Does not have to be a big thing, or on a wide scale, a few people committed for a long time can accomplish this. Great thoughts.

  2. There are hundreds of Vietnamese Buddhist temples in the US that are all watched over by monks and [mostly] nuns that would love to have anyone join them especially non-Vietnamese followers of the Buddha. They meditate for the public six days a week, practice compassion, teach the Dharma in both Vietnamese and English, chant for the public the Great Compassion Mantra twice a day, feed the sangha, run youth activities like homework clubs and console those families that have lost a loved one. Many times they also prepare the body in a traditional Vietnamese Buddhist fashion and hold their ashes in the temple. Funerals take 45 days with multiple meals for the entire sangha which are paid for by the temple. They welcome everyone like the Buddha wanted. All practice celibacy and austerity also just like the Buddha wanted. “Bhikkhu” means “begger” and a husband and father can’t do that to his family. The Buddha wanted monks and nuns to be celibate so they could practice true unattachment. There is no shortage of them either. Build a temple and I’ll give you a list of Vietnamese-American nuns and monks ready to interview and move in a week. All know the sutras and chant them so well.

    Your example of Chögyam Trungpa is not without controversy1 including him renouncing his monastic vows in 1970.2

    The Buddha welcomed Upāsaka and Upāsikā, asked them to follow the five precepts and support monastics like I do. Monastics already have a family to worry about: the sangha. Adding in a sick spouse or child is too much.

    What you want is here and being done so very well. Go check it out for yourself. They will welcome you like they did me.

    Nam Mô Đại Bi Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát


  3. Buddhists have not been successful in defending freedom or secularism. In fact, most Buddhist countries today are being over run by a more powerful Islamic force…which hates the idea of individual rights and freedom. In many ways Buddhists have basically given up on life, and have turned inward as a form of escapism. Religion is the paragon of escapism…. and serves no purpose other than to help the believer “hide” from reality.

    Nothing replaces the beauty of reality to solve real problems using real solutions. However, no religion has any solutions grounded in reality. Atheists however, are promoting a book that explains where the fantasy of religions came from and why. To wit:

    Millions of The Belief Book need to be printed, and handed out to every elementary school child in America. “The Belief Book” explains where all the imaginary gods and religions came from….and why they don’t exist.

    I am also advocating that Ayn Rand Kindergartens be set up to teach the simplistic beauty, and wonderful thought process of reality, logic, and objectivism.

    The ONLY way to secure our future is to begin with the young…plant the seeds of the value of reality and logic in their minds before they are over taken with religious fantasies.

    Once a child believes in religious fantasies they begin to think that all is a fantasy and that they can call upon imaginary gods to solve their problems, or that life is like a video game…making them completely unprepared for adult life, voting, and citizenship.

    Yes, it will piss the Christians, Jews, and Moslems off to no end…but so what? The religious have been attempting to “MIND RAPE” our children with religion for millenia. It is OUR turn to save their souls (elementary energy and intelligence) from making the same mistakes as our forebearers…who de-evolved into war, hate, intolerance, and today…a return by the Christians to a Christian police state…where women no longer have any rights over their own bodies…when pregnant.

    We have to step up our game…because 2016 if fast coming upon us in which it is likely a religious GOP president will be elected…who will no doubt… write executive orders, and get the GOP dominated house and senate to pass proreligion laws….which would surely create a Christian police state.

  4. Ty, you might start by travelling around the country a bit to see how many thriving Sangha’s in places you wouldnt expect, there are. I’d also not that Lama Surya Das is from Portland or Cleveland so he’s not exactly unfamiliar with the american voice of Buddhism. Perhaps you and I have found different people, with different intentions and love of the Dharma who have some how managed to find a unique way of teaching the dharama specifically too the American psyche and by the way while retreats are still encouraged American Buddhism is anything but monastic.

  5. While this is true, Americans do not have a monastic tradition, there are two misconceptions in this article which explains a lot. First, the Buddhist monastic tradition is not clergy. I know. I was an ordained Thai monk. I was called a “study monk.” There are worker monks and teacher monks, and lazy monks. All are given their daily meal and are respected.

    The second misconception here is Buddhism as a religion. In Thailand, lay people are not expected to achieve enlightenment. That would be for another rebirth. To ensure a better rebirth, giving to the temple will bring merit. See the religion/capitalism at work? Neither of these will be the way Buddhism goes in America, I predict.

    The problem is Buddhism is an excellent way to live, but does not appeal to those who cannot separate spiritual and mythological. The gods haven’t changed, only the names.

    The way Buddhism will grow in America is through programs like MBSR and when our schools see the benefit of teaching mindfulness to the children, who will grow up to be mindful parents teaching mindfulness to their children. One breath at a time; one mind at a time.


  6. This is well stated. But one component as always is missing. How will you raise your children to be Buddhist?

    Now I will take a slight detour from this question. Monasticism is central to the dharma. What provisions are you making for establishing the institution of the oblate — helpers along the way who are not under the full obligations of the vinaya (Buddhism’s cenobitic code)? What support network can be maintained to channel this desire for compassion? What succor can you provide for you fellow oblates, nuns and monks? Are you building a support network for sustaining the sangha itself?

    And now back to the quintessential question. The future of Buddhism here in America rests on future generations. How are you raising your children? Are you building affordable schools to teach the dharma to your offspring? Are you providing scholarships and fellowships for further Buddhist study for your offspring?

    Without including your children into your concerns this nascent western Buddhism is doomed to perish.

  7. Another Buddhist who misses the point! How will you raise you children in the way of the Dharma? Will you teach them enough Pali so that they recite suttas with some fluidity? Will you tutor them in the grammar and in the melodies and the order of the service? This has nothing to do with enlightenment which is undefinable and illusive. It has to do with establishing the sangha on these shores.

    As you are no longer a monk the reason is why? Because maybe your reason provides a clue on how monasticism can set foot here without which who will educate your children?

  8. Fine! Tell me where are the Buddhist schools for children? Who is providing them with religious instruction? Who is providing scholarships for hard working families so that their children can truly grow up in the dharma?.

  9. That is great news. Are these Pure Land or Zen or does it matter? I am just curious. Will they teach the children? If this is so then there is hope. I am speaking as a non-Buddhist who would like the dharma to flourish here.

  10. They do a traditional Vietnamese mix of mostly Pure Land with some Zen. The Vietnamese are great at adapting to the needs of the community. They enjoy working with children the most. Build a temple and they will come. There are so many very high quality Vietnamese Buddhist nuns and monks wanting a chance run a temple and care for those that wish for care.

    As for a person being or not being a Buddhist IMO and speaking from a Mahayana perspective I see myself as a Buddhist only for this day. If I choose to continue on the path a bodhisattva the next day that would be good but nothing can be promised. I’d suggest trying to be a bodhisattva for a day.

    Nam Mô Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát.

  11. Thank you. Now I can stop finger wagging and have hope. What you suggest is a powerful resource to help Buddhism take root in North America for those non Asian converts. Alas, day by day, I still remain a theist.

  12. Yonatan. Do you teach your children Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit? If not how will your children be able to recite the Bible or the Koran or the Torah? How wll your children know which foods are clean and which are not? How will your children know which god to worship and which ones to not?

  13. My daughters went to Hebrew school. While their education was insufficient in my opinion, it was enough for the younger one to start to bring up my grandchildren with some sense of their Jewish identity. Also they both had b’tei mitzvot where they recited from the Torah and Haftorah. A huge problem in the Jewish community is the affordability of Hebrew Day schools and Yeshivot. We will see how this plays out. BTW, my niece also had a similar education in Judaism and had her Bat Mitzvah. She also pursued a classics degree in college studying both Latin and Greek.

    My experience with American converts to Buddhism is nearly a complete lack of concern in raising their children in a Buddhist tradition. However James Pherris had pointed out that Asian immigrants have the resources to assist in this dilemma. There are Vietnamese monks and nuns, immigrants to North America, who are willing and able to help if a temple can be provided for their services. I also forgot about the Chuang Yen Monastery near Carmel NY founded by a member of the Chinese-American community which has a school for children and adults focused on Chinese culture. As I mentioned to James Pherris, I will stop finger wagging and trolling about this issue. Although as a non-Buddhist, I want to see the Dharma take root here.

    Thank you for replying. You raised a poignant and important question about minding one’s own backyard. 🙂

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