Why Buddhism, Why Now? And why in America?
By Jan Nattier

In 1960 there were, at most, 200,000 Buddhists in the United States. Of
these, a few were "self-converts" who had begun to think of themselves as
Buddhists after reading a book, traveling to Asia, or having some other
chance encounter with this unfamiliar religion. But the vast majority --
more than half of them residents of Hawaii -- were the children and
grandchildren of immigrants from Asian Buddhist countries, primarily China
and Japan.

Estimates of the number of Buddhists in America today vary widely -- the
U.S. Census Bureau no longer records religious affiliation -- but most
observers put the figure at between two and three million adherents. Even
the more conservative figure represents a tenfold increase in only 40 years.
Some of this growth can be attributed to waves of immigrants from Buddhist
countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Taiwan. But Americans of
non-Asian ancestry are also becoming Buddhists. If we include those who
merely admire Buddhist ideas or use Buddhist texts for inspirational
reading -- people whom Tom Tweed, author of The American Encounter with
Buddhism, calls "night-stand Buddhists" -- the number of Buddhist
sympathizers might well exceed ten million.

What fuels this attraction to the Buddhist faith? How are we to account for
the fact that millions of Americans who were not raised as Buddhists are now
drawn to a religion that holds that ultimate reality can be attained not
through a relationship with a Supreme Being, but through a radical
transformation of our notion of the "self"?

No systematic survey has yet been made of why Americans are drawn to
Buddhism, though many mention difficulties with the idea of theism itself.
But the single factor most often credited by converts with leading them to
abandon their inherited traditions is an existential longing for a road map
for personal change. There are great differences among the various forms of
Buddhism now taking root in America, but virtually all of them offer clear-c
ut instructions for daily religious practice. These range from chanting to
meditating to receiving initiation from a guru, but they share one
common-ality: the promise that the conscientious observance of these
practices will result in a profound change in one's spiritual condition.

There are two major, and very different, strands of "new Buddhism" in
America: the chanting-centered practice of the Soka Gakkai International
(SGI) and the meditation-centered practice of the Zen, Tibetan, and
Vipassana traditions.

In the SGI, the promise that chanting the formula Nam-myoho-renge-kyo not
only will bring spiritual peace but also will enhance one's social,
economic, and professional circumstances has drawn large numbers of less-
than-affluent adherents. Meditative Bud-dhism, on the other hand -- favored
by the upper middle class -- critiques the concern with material well-being
as fundamentally un-Buddhist, focusing instead on understanding the ultimate
nature of oneself and the world.

The SGI is relatively homogeneous in its practice and teachings; all local
groups in the United States are linked directly to a single head
organization in Japan. Within meditative Buddhism, by contrast, there are
substantial differences in both content and style, due in part to the
different cultures from which they are derived. The aura of a Tibetan
Buddhist shrine room, with its riot of color and dizzying variety of images
of gods and goddesses, could not be more different from the black- and-white
austerity of a Japanese Zen meditation hall or the neutral decor favored by
practitioners of Vipassana -- a meditative tradition drawn mainly from the
Theravada Buddhism of Burma and Thailand.

Significant doctrinal differences exist as well. While most Tibetan
Buddhists tend to accept that enlightenment requires many lifetimes of
gradual practice, Zen Buddhists, like followers of SGI, believe that
enlightenment is available here and now. And while both Zen and Tibetan
Buddhism consider a relationship with a spiritual teacher to be vital,
Vipassana places far less importance on cultivating such a bond, thus
appealing to independent "non-joiners," many of whom do not call themselves
Buddhists at all. Commenting on the differences between Tibetan Buddhists
and her own Zen tradition, one longtime priest declared, "They're Catholics,
and we're Quakers." Following this logic, Vipassana practitioners are surely

All of these forms of Buddhism -- including both the SGI and the various
meditative traditions -- experienced their first phase of rapid growth in
this country during the 1960s, when they were embraced in substantial
numbers by baby boomers. But since then they have taken quite different
turns. Most Vipassana groups (and Zen groups, to a slightly lesser degree)
still consist overwhelmingly of aging baby boomers, while the SGI tends to
have a somewhat broader demographic appeal. But young people -- men and
women in their teens and early twenties -- today seem to find Tibetan
Buddhism the most attractive.

Surely the high profile of the Dalai Lama has been one factor in this
attraction, as has the popular perception of Tibet as a pristine Shangri- la
whose very real suffering under Chinese control has drawn condemnation even
from conservative Christians. Similarly, the recent spate of Tibet- centered
movies (Kundun, Seven Years in Tibet) and the patronage of a number of
celebrities (Richard Gere, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys) has placed
Tibetan Buddhism in the limelight. Yet famous names are associated with
other forms of Buddhism. So why do younger Americans choose Tibetan Buddhism
over the other brands of Buddhism available on the American market?

One item often mentioned by converts is what might be called the aesthetic
factor. Feeling comfortable with a religion means not only finding the
doctrines and practices appealing, but also feeling comfortable with its
iconography. It may well be that the austere aesthetics of Zen and Vipassana
are simply too minimalist for a generation raised on the nonstop visuals of
MTV. If more is better, the rich, multicolored imagery of Tibetan Buddhism
may give it a subliminal aesthetic edge.

Although the images and teachings of Tibetan Buddhism may seem wild and
chaotic on the surface, it is overall the most highly structured of all the
forms of "new Buddhism" in America today. And while the offspring of the
baby boom generation may share their parents' skepticism, they do not share
their 1960s-bred confidence in spontaneity. Indeed, this generation often
expresses a need for structure, and the fact that Tibetan Buddhism offers
the most elaborately structured map of the path to enlightenment - - and
demands the strongest commitment to the authority of the guru -- may
actually be not a weakness but a strength.

For the moment, then, we can expect the fascination with Tibetan Buddhism to
continue, and the other forms of "new Buddhism" to grow at a more moderate
pace. But whatever American Buddhism looks like today, we can be certain
that in 50 years it will have quite a different face. For what distinguishes
all forms of the "new Buddhism" from the more traditional Asian- American
temples is that these new organizations consist almost entirely of
first-generation converts. And a new convert to any religion is a very
atypical member. Consciously or unconsciously, converts reinterpret their
adoptive religion in ways that conform to their own needs and preferences,
often failing to see problematic elements in a new religion that they would
be quick to condemn in their own. Will the security of a detailed road map
to enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism, for example, eventually give way to
dissatisfaction with its strongly hierarchical system? Or will fascination
with images of tantric goddesses turn to disillusionment as followers
discover that Tibetan Buddhism -- like virtually all religions on our
planet -- accords a distinctly second-class status to women?

It has been argued that one of the distinctive features of American Buddhism
is the extent to which non-Asian converts insist on reconfiguring Buddhism
in accordance with their own values and preferences. Yet it is ironic that
Tibetan Buddhism, which has arguably made the fewest concessions -- and in
many circles is moving away from adaptation and farther toward the
maintenance of tradition -- is scoring the greatest success with the younger

As these newly transplanted forms of Buddhism enter their second and third
generations in America -- including the lukewarm practitioner as well as the
serious devotee -- we can expect that they will come to bear a far greater
resemblance to their more traditional Asian-American counterparts. And given
the fundamental Buddhist tenet that all conditioned things must change --
all things, that is, save nirvana -- one can expect that the future of
Buddhism in America will be as kaleidoscopic as its past.