>Stephen Prothero (Salon.com, 2001)
American converts are taking a 2,600-year-old faith and making it over in their own image — self-absorbed.
As anyone who hasn’t spent the last few years meditating in a cave in Asia knows, American Buddhism is booming. The 1990s saw three Buddhist movies and a gaggle of celebrity Buddhist pitchmen, including Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and actor Richard Gere.
The United States is now home to at least a million not-so-famous Buddhists as well, most of them new immigrants from Asia. But Buddhism is also popular among hip Americans who have never attended a Zen center or visualized a Tibetan mandala.
Typically these sympathizers get their Buddhism, as beat author Jack Kerouac did, from books. Buddhist bestsellers used to come along once a decade: Kerouac’s Dharma Bums in the ’50s, Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen in the ’60s, and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in the ’70s.
American Buddhism is far more practical (meditative) and cerebral (study) than Asia’s devotional and ceremonial customs. But even Asia has seen a great upsurge in lay meditation practice (Wisdom Quarterly).
Today they materialize monthly, along with more evanescent titles like Zen and the Art of Screenwriting (really). Demand for Buddhist books has turned many teachers into stand-alone brands with remarkable marketing muscle.
The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are the Coke and Pepsi of this Buddhist generation. But homegrown brands such as Jack Kornfield and Lama Surya Das can also move 100,000 tomes without getting off their zafus
James William Coleman is not a major brand, and his The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition is not destined for the bestseller list. It does shed light, however, on today’s oddly bookish Buddhist vogue.
Coleman is a sociologist and a Buddhist, so it’s not surprising that he supports his sympathy for American Buddhism with a survey. His book focuses on a small minority of American-born converts and sympathizers rather than the immigrants and their children who make up three-quarters of American Buddhists.
These “new Buddhists,” as he calls them, patronize four types of Buddhist groups:
Zen centers [Japanese Mahayana]
Tibetan Buddhist centers [Vajrayana]
Vipassana (“insight meditation”) centers [Theravada]
unaffiliated, nonsectarian centers
Most are baby boomers, almost all are white, and all practice meditation, which sets them apart from the members of Sokka Gakkai International-USA (a group that prefers chanting [Nam-myoho-renge-kyo
] to meditation), the largest Buddhist organization in the United States and the only Buddhist group that attracts significant numbers of blacks and Hispanics. More>>
Boomer Buddhism NowDhr. Seven (Wisdom Quarterly, 2011)
A decade later, Buddhism in America continues to grow. Even if many Western practitioners are reluctant to label themselves “Buddhist” (or much of anything else), they have adopted the Dharma and tried to make the Buddha’s teachings their own.
Meditation is on everyone’s mind (although not necessarily on everyone’s Day Planner). Brain research, yoga regimens, breathing lessons, workshops, CDs, and the “Zen” of everything motivates us to undertake The Quest in earnest.
What do we hope to achieve in our quest? Enlightenment, of course! But not so fast. The largest Buddhist movements are Mahayana
(devotional Chinese, stripped down Japanese, ceremonial Tibetan). And their messianic message, awaiting the Maitreya, often discourage enlightenment and stress salvation — saving others
that is. We have socially engaged Buddhism, the cultivation of perfections
This is most poignantly seen in the Heart Sutra (“Perfection of Wisdom”) and its continuing popularity. Next to no one studies the profound Doctrine of Anatta
and the Five Aggregates
to understand the meaning of the words most regard as just a mantra to chant).
That is not the self-sufficiency the historical Buddha emphasized (being a lamp unto oneself and seeking guidance not from teachers but from the Dharma directly). Even these oldest existing Buddhist school, Theravada
, does little to promote lay meditation, presumably reserving it for monastics and retreatants.
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