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Buddhism In America: What Is The Future?

First Posted: 06/14/2011 10:30 am Updated: 09/20/2012 5:47 pm

GARRISON, N.Y. -- Backed by the nation’s largest Buddhist magazines and meditation centers, a recent invite-only gathering at an old monastery in this riverside hamlet north of New York City included a guest list of crimson-robed monks of Buddhism’s Tibetan line, tattooed “Dharma Punx,” professors and Japanese-influenced Zen Buddhists that read as a "who’s who" of Buddhism in America.

But the "Maha Council" (maha means “great” in Sanskrit) has created buzz and sparked soul-searching among members of the growing Buddhist religion in the United States for different reasons.

Who speaks for "western Buddhism," many attendees and observers of last weekend's event have asked, and how accurately and honestly are elder Buddhists passing on their knowledge to new generations?

What is the relation of U.S. Buddhists to those in India and other parts of Asia, where the spiritual practice was born from Hindu roots in the 5th century B.C.?

And in a society where traditional Buddhist concepts such as "mindfulness," mental wellness and spiritual health are now a common part of corporate health programs, what role is left for Buddhism to play?

The questions highlight the growing pains of a religion that has gone from being a native practice of relatively small Asian immigrant populations who came to the U.S. in the 19th century to one that has been increasingly adapted by non-Asians since the 1950s to become one of the largest largest religions in the country. By low estimates that don’t count non-English speakers, Buddhism has more than 2 million adherents in the U.S. Hundreds of Buddhist meditation centers dot urban and rural American landscapes.

"A few decades ago, people would look at me with a weird face when I said I taught people about meditation for a living," said conference organizer Jack Kornfield, who is known in the Buddhist community as a leader in the vipassana movement (named after a method of meditation that traces itself to Buddha). “Now, at the gas station or supermarket, people say, 'oh yeah, I could really use that.' "

Kornfield, a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, Calif., and other big names in American Buddhism -- many who came of age during the 1960s and encountered the religion through the hippie subculture before receiving formal training in India and East Asia -- put together the council with an aim to unite and organize American Buddhists in similar ways to how Jewish, Muslim and other minority groups have coalesced around issues outside the theological. A similar gathering, which the Dalai Lama attended, happened 11 years ago at Spirit Rock, but large-scale meetings have since been sparse.

"The Buddhists in Thailand and Burma and the ones in China and the ones in Japan and Tibet, they develop within those cultures very independently. Here, we have all these different styles," said Kornfield. "We want people across lineages meeting and learning with mutual respect."

The four-day retreat also discussed strategies for growth and more inclusion in American society.

That included a panel on the influence among non-Buddhists of "mindfulness," a traditional practice of trying to maintain a day-to-day "calm awareness" of one’s body, sensations, thoughts and existence as one of several paths that Buddhists believe will together bring enlightenment.

Most attendees at the Maha Council were white, many were men, and the average age skewed toward the 50s. In addition to well-known American Buddhists such as Western Buddhist Teachers Network founder Lama Surya Das, Shambhala Sun Buddhist magazine publisher James Gimian and Calif.-based Everyday Zen Foundation founder Zoketsu Norman Fischer, lesser-known Buddhists were also among the crowd.

"I don’t always have a lot of interaction with other Buddhists outside my practice," said Ari Goldfield, a 42-year-old meditation teacher from San Francisco who follows Tibetan Buddhism and attended with his wife. "But here, we got to talk to people from lots of paths and learn about their suffering as a way to experience unity."

"I came to meet younger people, who you don’t always come across," said Anuska Fernandopulle, a 41-year-old vipassana meditation teacher from San Francisco. "I think among younger people, there’s a larger awareness of social issues like gender, race and sexuality that may have been overlooked by older generations."

But among attendees and outside observers, the event has also attracted criticism.

"Although this was a conference of Buddhist teachers there was little if any consideration in the formal sessions of the teaching of Buddhism or of the nature of the teacher role and task. This was surprising," wrote David Brazier, a British psychotherapist and follower of Pure Land Buddhism who blogged the event.

"There is a sense here that this is something already so well known that it can be taken for granted. Being a Buddhist teacher is here pretty much taken to equate to being an instructor in mindfulness and meditation technique. There was no real scope to challenge this assumption," he later added.

Brad Warner, a Soto Zen priest and author who writes on Buddhism and punk rock, also blogged to criticize what he called was “an accepted group of tastemakers and trendsetters within American Buddhism” who he saw as wanting to "reify their positions and to expand their influence."

Warner, who did not attend the conference, continued: "It’s not that these people can enact any sort of legislation that is in any way binding. But they do have the power of their magazines and their institutes to push their version of the American Buddhist status quo."

Kornfield admitted disappointment that the gathering had no representatives of Asian Buddhist temples, which are some of the oldest and largest in the U.S. and largely serve immigrant communities.

"There is still a pretty big divide between temples and teachers whose communities are of immigrants and those who are called convert Buddhists. I don’t know how to address this," he said.

But in an attempt to ease any friction during an address during the retreat's last full day, Gelek Rimpoche, a 72-year-old high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist lama who is the nephew of the 13th Dalai Lama (the current Dalai Lama is the 14th incarnation) and was one of the few non-converts to attend the gathering, told attendees "there is one teacher -- that is Buddha -- and there is one sangha" -- the Sanskrit word for "community."

"Individual people, individual teachings,” he said. “All Buddha’s teachings, all are Buddhists to me."

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