What is Buddhism’s appeal for Americans?

What is Buddhism’s appeal for Americans? December 30, 2014


What aspects attract the many religious Americans that convert to Buddhism?


Before discussing what “attracts” let’s consider how “many” Americans have adopted this venerable faith. The over-all U.S. context is a deep divide between native-born converts (presumably Daniel’s interest) and Asian immigrants, also American Buddhists but not new “converts.” Richard Hughes Seager of Hamilton College calls this split “the most prominent feature of American Buddhism” during recent decades.

Due to the 1965 liberalization of U.S. immigration law, Asian-Americans dominate U.S. Buddhism. As with Islam, it’s hard to pin down the numbers. The religion has no U.S. umbrella organization to represent its myriad branches and issue headcounts. The American Religious Identity Survey in 2001 sampled 50,000 Americans and projected there were 1.1 million adult Buddhists, and later added children for an estimated 1.5 million. The “World Christian Encyclopedia” (second edition, 2001) listed 2.45 million U.S. Buddhists including children but didn’t count “new religions” like Japan’s Soka Gakkai that others consider Buddhist. Experts have said Asian-American immigrants are something like three-fourths of U.S. Buddhists, and by outdated guesses there may be as few as 100,000 non-immigrant converts or as many as 800,000.

What aspects attract? Meditation is certainly the key. Many Americans who use aspects of meditation practices presumably identify as Buddhists but shun formal congregations or full-orbed belief. In particular, U.S. converts may reject the law of karma, in which deeds and thoughts determine a series of future rebirths into different life circumstances and life forms as “sentient beings,” with the goal of nirvana to extinguish desire and the self.

(Similarly, for some or many immigrants Buddhism is merely a nominal ethnic identity without active participation. For further information on Buddhist immigrants see the Pew Research Center’s 2012 survey on Asian-Americans’ religions: www.pewforum.org/2012/07/19/asian-americans-a-mosaic-of-faiths-overview).

Seager’s “Buddhism in America” (part of a useful Columbia University Press series) says in the early Buddhism chic of the 1960s and 1970s teachers from Asia began regular visits and new converts embraced “the revolutionary idealism of the counterculture” over against established U.S. religions and traditions. There was ample publicity as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others spread the message. Also fostering interest was the celibrityhood of poet-activist Allen Ginsberg or, later, actor Richard Gere or composer Philip Glass.

Looking back upon a half-century of conversions, San Francisco teacher Lewis Richmond says the early quest for enlightenment “came from three sources: books, psychedelics, and living teachers — probably in that order.” For many, faith “dovetailed nicely with peoples’ psychedelic drug experiences,” he remarks, but for the second generation of converts the counterculture’s “fascination with altered states is ancient history.”

Seager lists such appealing factors as “peace of mind, self-empowerment, the deepening of personal relations, building character, [and] social transformation.” No doubt some converts were drawn to a religion without the necessity to worship God or observe other Jewish and Christian expectations.

Scandals and controversies actually “hastened the Americanization of Buddhism,” Seager contends. In a December article for The American Interest, Protestant sociologist Peter Berger notes a current New York property lawsuit over two temples, with allegations of totalitarian control by Chinese teacher Mew Fund Chen. Berger comments, “Have Buddhists attained the status of an ordinary American denomination? Yes! They are suing each other. What could be more American than that?

Looking ahead, Richmond sees in the current generation a mature realization that meditation isn’t “a panacea for all our problems and questions…. Buddhism is about life; meditation is one of its tools (and only one).” Helen Tworkov, a pioneer in convert journalism, said “to pursue the unknowable state of enlightenment is now often regarded as an obstacle to practice.”

Seager thinks America’s individualism and diversity may be creating a new religious synthesis in which ageold teachings become metaphors and are “fused with a secular and humanistic outlook.” Some analysts wonder if authentic Buddhism can be preserved that way in the long term, especially without the indigenous monks and monasteries that stand at the center of Buddhism in Asia but not America. Others worry that convert appeal has plateaued and that the community is aging.


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