Asian religion gains popularity in the New World


Chris Nyambura was raised in the Catholic religion, but in the last six months he has started to call himself a Buddhist. Aged 23, he is a graduate student in chemical engineering. Like many of his generation, especially on the American West Coast, he appreciates the emphasis on mental development and self-help in the spiritual practice he has chosen.

He belongs to a group of people who show up every Sunday night for guided meditation sessions in a small, brightly-lit studio in downtown Seattle. It is one of 38 centers in the United States (and 679 around the world) affiliated with the Diamond Way movement, which has popularized a modern form of Tibetan Buddhist practice, which emphasizes the practice rather than the arcane. Their teacher trains them in techniques such as visualization and chanting, as well as explaining some basics of religion to all newcomers.

Mr. Nyambura eagerly lists the ways in which he believes this practice benefits him. First, to train the mental faculties. “A lot of people take refuge in relationships, food, material things. Part of Buddhism tries to teach me how to take refuge in my own mind. Second, a stronger sense of cause, effect and responsibility. “One of the things when we meditate is to remind ourselves of how past thoughts and actions bring you to your present state and what you do now will ultimately shape your future.” Third, learn to live in the moment. “When you meditate, one of the first things is to calm your mind and rest in the present …”

Buddhism in the United States can be a large and prolific phenomenon, ranging from ethnically defined groups that favor community and ritual, to the more individualistic approach embodied by these Seattle classes. But almost everyone who studies the subject agrees that religion is growing. Pew, an independent research organization based in Washington, DC, estimates that by 2020 the number of American Buddhists may have reached at least 4.2 million from 3.6 million in 2010. It is also growing in popularity. public ; Last year, when Pew surveyed Americans’ feelings towards various religious groups, the youngest cohort of respondents (aged 18 to 29) gave Buddhism top marks.

Today you can find outposts of virtually every form of Buddhism practiced in Asia in the United States, says Scott A. Mitchell of the California Institute for Buddhist Studies. The first significant presence of the faith on American soil came from Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th century; newcomers from Japan arrived decades later. Over time, non-Asians have been drawn. After 1945, a Japanese movement known as Soka Gakkai International, emphasizing chanting over meditation, gained followers in the United States, including African Americans and Latinos. (This goes against a stereotype that most converts to Buddhism are liberal whites.)

Charles Prebish, a professor emeritus at Penn State University and a Buddhist scholar, believes Pew’s estimates are rather low. He also believes converts are gaining numerical dominance as some Asian Americans move away from their family traditions and beliefs. In any case, there are people who transcend the sociologists’ distinction between convert and “cradle” Buddhist: for example, young Americans who grew up in deeply committed converted families. There are prominent teachers of Buddhism who fit this description.

At its liberal limit, the boundaries of religion, as practiced in America, can be very blurry. For example, most Buddhists would agree that the basic axioms of their faith include five moral precepts: do not harm living beings, do not take what is not given, do not commit sexual misconduct, lie or consume intoxicants. But not all Americans who call themselves Buddhists really know these precepts, let alone practice them.

Then there’s the fact that American culture, including corporate culture, has handpicked aspects of Buddhist life, such as practicing mindfulness. Large companies may employ full-time meditation trainers who rely on Buddhist techniques. But that does not make users of these practices followers of Buddhism.

Yet Mr Prebish insists that the most accurate way to determine whether people adhere to this religion is to simply ask them. According to him, an adherent is someone who says, “I am a Buddhist” and who speaks clearly about the most important part of his religious life.

In Mr. Mitchell’s view, issues of politics and social justice are becoming a focal point for the large and disconnected Buddhist scene, prompting followers to come together and connect more often. “There certainly makes sense in what I should do as a Buddhist about this or that problem,” he says. There have been Buddhist initiatives in favor of the environment and against racism. Last year, a dozen prominent American Buddhist leaders signed a declaration protesting the effects on vulnerable people of the policies of the current administration; dozens more added their names. The authors explained that although Buddhism can take many different forms, “our commitment is to alleviate the suffering of all living beings…”.


Lyle L. Maltby

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