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Buddhism in the West

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on February 8, 2012

By Kishore Sherchand (

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism. ~Albert Einstein


Many in Nepal, my country of birth, have basic understanding of Buddhism.  I came to the US in 1979 and then again in 2006. I have tried to study how Buddhism is practiced in the US. I found people practicing Buddhism with great enthusiasm as compared to my fellow Nepalese back home. I have been more than a little disappointed with this observation in the past. Also, I put some sort of uncomfortable questions when we don’t dare to adore some of Buddha’s teachings.  The major reason for this subdued approach toward Buddhism has been the action of erstwhile rulers of Nepal, who tried to effectively banish Buddhism by expelling everyone who practiced Buddhism; and who threatened Buddhist monks and nuns with the choice of disrobing or leave the country.

Buddha’s ideas were based on his observation of human behavior starting with his experience when he ventured outside his palace and saw an old man, a sick man, and a dead man. Buddha taught that any human being can attain Buddhahood provided he or she follows the Eightfold Paths which are included in the Four Noble Truths. His teachings of the Four Noble Truths which included the Eight Fold Path are:

1.     There is suffering in the world.

2.     Suffering occurs because of too great an attachment to one’s desires.

3.     By eliminating the cause-attachment-you can eliminate suffering.

4.     There is a method to eliminating the cause, called the Eightfold Path, a guide to “right” behavior and thoughts. The Eightfold Path is a moral compass leading to a life of wisdom (right views, right intent), virtue (right speech, conduct, livelihood), and mental discipline (effort, mindfulness, concentration).

When I landed in the United States, my wish was to find a place where my family and I could go for pray and meditate. My wife Shova met a Tibetan friend who suggested that we visit TseChenLingBuddhistCenternear San Francisco Downtown. For the first time in the US we saw a Buddhist center run by American monks and nuns. Tibetan Lama Gheshe Knawang Dakpa was the main teacher at the centre at that time. The center is affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation on Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) and the center’s students often visit Nepal. For almost one and half years we attended his great teaching every Sunday. We also performed Puja including the one to commemorate the death anniversary of my sister’s and her husband who were victims of a cold blooded killing at Sauru Mustang.

Later we started visiting Shambhala Buddhist Centre in Sunset district that was closer to our house. Shambhala offers open house meditation session every Sunday followed by teaching. We found mostly Americans attending the sessions. Unlike Tse Chen Ling Buddhist Centre where monks and nuns lead the teachings, there were regular folks teaching. Shambhala way of teaching, meditating and studying philosophy is to purify one’s mind and body. The practices were a combination of sitting and walking meditation which was a new thing for me.

In Nepal, we practice by sitting in lotus and by prostrating before a Buddha’s statue.  In the US we saw that you could sit on the floor or a chair or walk or lie down to according your convenience.  I liked the fact it was possible to adjust the physical posture according one’s level of comfort.

Later once I moved to Sacramento I had to find a place where I could do what I did in San Francisco. I met on my own a Thai Buddhist Temple Wat Sacramento Buddhavanaram and planned to visit. Mostly Sunday was when most of Thai followers used to gather and pray mostly on special occasions. The temple was run by 5 Thai monks. Since, most prayers and worships are performed in the Thai language, so it was not so understandable. Our visits were more of a ritual prayer than meditation. I also started visiting another Buddhist Center named Lion’s Roar Buddhist Center in Sacramento. The centre is directed by Native born Lama Yeshe Jinpa, Director and Resident Teacher and a Mongolian Lama Venerable Damchaabazar Gurjav, Associate Teacher. The Center offers variety of programs but my visits were mostly confined to occasional meditation and attending lectures by invited Lamas known in the US. I also came to know another Buddhist Center by the name “One Bodhi Tree”. My first visit was to see a documentary on Dalai Lama’s Renaissance, which was really appreciable. The Center’s teaching is run by Mr. Ravi Verma, a computer scientist, a Buddhist Practitioner and a Teacher. In one meeting, he taught “Tongle” (taking and giving) meditation and led meditation in the memory of recent tragedy in Japan. My visit also experienced a 2600th Centennial Celebration of Buddhism at Sacramento organized by a group of Buddhist communities of Sacramento and Bay area. The celebration gave me a profound opportunity of knowing how this religion is adored by the American people. Till now I was also highly fortunate enough to visit the exhibition on Relics of Buddha and Buddhist Masters in Sacramento organized by The Maitreya Project touring 50 different countries and several states of USA.

Buddhism in the US

According to several studies, Buddhism was almost unknown toUSA150 years ago. Large scale Chinese immigrants in 1850s and Japanese in late 1880s began to arrive, and from Korea around 1903. Immigration was at first primarily toHawaii. Populations from other Asian Buddhist countries followed, and in each case, the new communities established Buddhist temples and organizations. For instance, the first Japanese temple inHawaiiwas built in 1896 near Paauhau by the Honpa Hongwanji branch of Jodo Shinshu. The first Japanese Buddhist temple in the continentalU.S.was built inSan Franciscoin 1899. The first Buddhist clergy to take up residence in the continentalU.S.were Shuye Sonoda and Kakuryo Nishimjima, missionaries fromJapanwho arrived in 1899.

The first Theravada monastic community established in theUnited Stateswas the Washington Buddhist Vihara inWashingtonin 1965 by the monks fromSri Lanka. The Vihara was accessible to English-speakers with Vipassana meditation part of it activities. However, the direct influence of the Vipassana movement was not established until a group of Americans returned there in the early 1970s after studying with Vipassana Masters in Asia.

After 1970s, many Tibetans immigrated to the West from Nepal and India. The exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan people Dalai Lama made a rousing call through the message of peace and non-violence to the Western world. Universities started to teach Buddhism. Many centers existed devoted to the teaching of Buddha. Many retreat centers were established all over the United States and beyond. Noteworthy, for the first time, nuns fromNepalalso came toUSAto be ordained.

Basically there are three groups of Buddhism flourishing in theUnited States(Ryuei Michael McCormick, 2002). The first groups are the “Ethnic Buddhists” who practice Buddhism because it is a part of their ethnic heritage. We can see many monasteries established and run by different Asian populations. The second groups are the “Evangelical Buddhists” who are comprised of groups fromAsiawho actively seek out converts from the general population. Finally, the third are the “Elite Buddhists” who are comprised of those native born Americans who have actively sought out Buddhism. The Elite Buddhists form the third and most visible group of Buddhists in theUSA. By one estimate, their numbers in the mid-‘90s were 800,000 but they could easily be more than a million now that the 21st century has dawned. These are the middle class, upper-middle class, and celebrity patrons of Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, and the Theravada-derived Vipassana meditation practices.

Thousands Buddhists temples and practice centers are estimated to have been established. The first Buddhist temple in America was built in 1853 in San Francisco by the Sze Yap Company, a Chinese American fraternal society. California’s Hsi Lai Temple is one of the largest Buddhist temples covering 15 acres (61,000 m²). The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is geographically the largest Buddhist community in the US located in Talmage, California covering over 480 acres (1.9 km2) of land.

Monastery to Living Room

We in the East follow Buddhism as a way of ritual during birth, marriage, death for peace and harmony. We have a monastic way of practicing Buddhism, especially the Lamaism which has remained more of a passive way not letting the ordinary followers to know much of what it meant Buddhism. Our Lamas and Nuns were not trained in a way that could make them more approaching for teaching in public. However, the situation is gradually changing now. On the contrary, Hindu priests became more capable mainly due to language supremacy and state patronage in Nepal. In my opinion, comparatively, the teaching in Theravada (Newar Buddhism) remained more appealing to its followers.

I have read the article published in National Geography 2005 by Perry Garfinkel through the Shambhala Center Boulder where he states,

“Around the globe today there is a new Buddhism. Its philosophies are being applied to mental and physical health therapies and to political and environmental reforms. Athletes use it to sharpen their game. It helps corporate executives handle stress better. Police arm themselves with it to defuse volatile situations. Chronic pain sufferers apply it as a coping salve. Prisoners practice for self-reflection and rehabilitation.”

It did not mean much in the East where we have rituals of worships and prayer. We offer alms to Bikshhus and Bikshhunies allowing them to continue their livelihood and devoting to Monastery and Vihara. To sustain livelihood in a monastic life, those who wish, do so either by regular donation through membership when one is physically present at visit. On the contrary, the Western society, by their culture roots does not impart this way of giving donations. Raising funds or donations is a normal practice.

Shambhala Way of Practicing Buddhism (

Probably the best-known Tibetan Buddhist Lama to spread Buddhism in a more secular way in the United Stateswas Chögyam Trungpa, part of the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. He first moved to Englandin 1963, founded a temple in Scotland, and then relocated to Barnet, Vermont, and then Boulder, Coloradoby 1970. He established what he named Dharmadhatu meditation centers, eventually organized under a national umbrella group called Vajradhatu (later to become Shambhala International). He developed a series of secular techniques he called Shambhala Training. Following Trungpa’s death, his followers at theShambhalaMountainCenter built the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, a traditional reliquary monument, nearRed Feather Lakes,Colorado consecrated in 2001.

Buddha’s teaching spells out that nothing is static and time makes you to change. Do what you conceive the best. Probably this way of accepting the philosophy and principles of Buddhism in a completely different culture can better fit you. Shambhala master advocates that one does not have to change his original faith and can still practice Buddhism. The credit certainly goes to Rimpochhe Trungpa who founded Shambhala to make more acceptable to the Western society. Trungpa Developed a Shambhala model in the West beyond Buddhist canon attracting thousands of students that include Japanese archery, calligraphy, flower arranging, tea ceremony, health care, dance, theatre, and psychotherapy, among others. He, in 1974 established Buddhist-inspired Naropa University in North America, the first of its kind,  that integrates ancient traditions of wisdom into the curriculum of modern education.

Buddhism is taking a turning point when great Masters speak to Westerners how one can practice Buddhism without sacrificing one’s own faith. The fundamental guiding principles come right from Siddhartha Gautama that all human beings are welcome to join, practice and preach irrespective of original faith, race, nationality, caste, color and creed.

Is Buddhism is on the Rise?

Prophecy of Eight Century Indian Sage and founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Padmasambhava (The Lotus Born; Guru Rimpoche;Lopon Rimpoche) may be worthy to cite here,

“when the iron bird flies, horses run on wheels,

the Tibetan people will scatter like ants across the world,

and the Dharma will come to the land of red-faced people.”

The red-faced people could have been called Europeans including those who spread over toAmerica,Australia, and other parts of the world.

The greatest Man of the Century, Albert Einstein, although he comes from a Jewish family, labeled Buddhism in his quote as the “Religion of the Future.” His prophecy could also be judged as a growing acceptance by Western intellectuals linked to meditational practice and experimental or observational verification.

I see, those looking for Buddhism in the West have deeper depth of quest for keeping the body and mind in the most respectful form. They search and develop curiosity of one’s act by meaning and its implication on their life style. Meditation has helped them to discipline their body and mind, finding a way out of dogmatism, and finding a disciplined life action, peace of mind, closer to nature and scientific verification. Buddhism perhaps tries to answer in three ways: The philosophy of action, karma, philosophy of compassion and greatness, karuna, and philosophy of wisdom and intellectualism, prajna, which we in the East would not pay attention much.

Many University professors, writers, thinkers,Hollywoodcelebrities, sports men and women, executives have embraced Buddhism in a way of understanding and practicing. Meditation and chanting have become a way for many of them. One of the first Americans who followed and ordained as a monk of Buddhism, was Robert Thurman. In addition there are Richard Gere, Steven Seagal, Tina Turner, Tiger Woods, Roberto Baggio, Jennifer Lopez and many others. Probably the most well known is Richard Gere who also supported freedom forTibetand human rights.

The one major event that helped Buddhism gain a breakthrough in the United States was the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, a highly publicized Interfaith event attended by such personalities as the Japanese Zen-Master Shaku Soen (1859-1919) from Japan and Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) from Sri Lanka, who traveled across the US and founded the first Buddhist centers there.  One of the greatest popularisers of Buddhism was Shaku Soen`s disciple Suzuki Daisetzu (1870-1966), who was the first to give Westerners a systematic account of the enlightenment experience (Satori) in Zen.

When China became a communist country, it suppressed Buddhism – most visibly in Tibet. According to the International Campaign forTibet, since 1949 more than 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, nunneries, and temples have been destroyed. But today Buddhism inChinais resurfacing. With more than 170 million practitioners, it’s the country’s fastest growing religion. Some estimates now over 400 millions to as much as 50 percent of the national population.

In the 1990s, Robert A. F. Thurman estimated there were 5 to 6 million Buddhists in America. In a 2007 PewResearchCentersurvey, at 0.7% Buddhism was the fourth largest religion in the USafter Christianity (78.4%), no religion (10.3%) and Judaism (1.7%). Another estimate of the number of Buddhists in America ranges from just over one million to as high as four million. And according to a 2004 study, more than 25 million Americans believe that Buddhist teachings have had an important influence on their spirituality.


Buddhism is no longer just for monks and Asians in the West. Christians and Jews practice it. African Americans meditate alongside Japanese Americans. Accurate counts of Buddhists in the United Statesare difficult.  Because Buddhism is often a cultural concept, individuals who self-describe as Buddhists may have little knowledge nor commitment to Buddhism as a religion or practice; on the other hand, others may be deeply involved in meditation and committed to the Dharma, but may refuse the label “Buddhist”.

Fourth Form of Buddhism: Engaged Buddhism

Buddhism so far in the lands of Buddha are basically divided into three categories or sects: Therabad (Way of the elders), original form of Buddhism mostly popular in Sri Lanka, plain India and other South East Asia; Mahayana (great vehicle) popular in East Asia China, Korea, Japan and part of Vietnam and Vajrayana form of Mahayana popular in Tibet, Himalayan region of Nepal, India, Bhutan, Mongolia, part of Eastern Russia. The fourth one coming up as the Western Form of practice composed with socially engaged, may be livingroom-based, more secular, may be non-monastic, more philosophically approached than the traditional lands of Buddhism. This is termed like Engaged, Socially Engaged, Humanistic or Navayana. In the Western context, I would also prefer to call it Dhyanayana (meditational).

The word Engaged Buddhism was not familiar to me until I attended a three day orientation meeting at Bhaktapur, organized by one Youth Bouddha Shangha of Nepal supported by International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). The main teacher was an American lady. I thought, in the beginning, this notion was coined by Westerner to practically apply in social uplifting like education, health and development as we observe in Christianity way of doing. I felt, this is a good way of serving the needy society – refers to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights from meditation practice and Dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice.

The term was first coined by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, inspired by the Humanistic Buddhism reform movement in Chinaby Taixu and Yinshun. Finding its roots in Vietnamthrough the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Engaged Buddhism has grown in popularity in the West. During the Vietnam War, he and his Shangha (spiritual community) made efforts to respond to the suffering they saw around them. They saw this work as part of their meditation and mindfulness practice, not apart from it. Thich Nhat Hanh outlined fourteen precepts of Engaged Buddhism, which explained his philosophy.

One of the best known figures who followed the path of Buddhism in a socially and politically way that pertains very much to the concept and practices of Engaged Buddhism was Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Baba Sahib Dr. Ambedkar, the founding father of modern Indian constitution, in defiance of hierarchical Hindu caste system that existed in India and Nepal, with his  announcement in public, followed Buddhism and converted at one time almost half a million Indians of lower Hindu caste. He is widely considered as the main figure who brought back Buddhism in India that was kept exiled for over 800 years. In his words, while accepting Buddhism as his religion, “I will accept and follow the teachings of Buddha. I will keep my people away from the different opinions of Hinayana and Mahayana, two religious orders. Our Buddha Dharma is a new Bouddha Dhamma, Navayana (Neo Buddhism).” (Navayana, 1956). Many Buddhist scholars like George Boeree (2002) and founder of the Buddhist Society in England (1906-1967) Christmas Humphreys, have favorably commented on Navayana coined by Dr. Ambedkar, another synonym for Engaged or Humanistic Buddhism.

Engaged Buddhism has found its way of attempting to link authentic Buddhist meditation with social actions. Organizations such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and the Zen Peacemakers, led by Roshi Bernard Glassman are devoted to building the movement of Engaged Buddhists. Other Engaged Buddhist groups include the Benevolent Organization for Development, Health and Insight, Gaden Relief Projects, the UK’s Network of Buddhist Organizations, Fo Guang Shan and Tzu Chi. Other prominent figures in the movement include Robert Aitken Roshi, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Alan Senauke, Sulak Sivaraksa, Maha Ghosananda, Sylvia Wetzel, Anthony Stultz, Diana Winston, Fleet Maull, Joan Halifax, Tara Brach, and Ken Jones.

Buddhism viewed from Faith and Wisdom as unity of Religion

Buddhism advocates the unification of faith and wisdom. Faith is characterized by the sentiments of respect and of inspiration by an ideal. Faith in Buddhism is developed through contemplation and investigation so that the characteristics of truthfulness, righteousness, and efficacy of the ideal in which one develops faith, can be understood and revealed. Cultivation of faith and wisdom as a unity in Buddhism, unlike other religions, involves several stages, 1. Faith without prejudice 2. Faith with profound understanding 3. Faith with endeavor 4. Faith with realization. Otherwise, faith without wisdom will develop ignorance and wisdom without faith will develop a perverted view. And the most outstanding characteristic of wisdom is free thought and its operative functions include understanding and cognition.”

Buddhism in the West has taken a turning point making more appealing to the western people in pursuit of practicing Buddhism. The West has developed it into a system that leads to finding a way of understanding cause and relationship.  Many American youths question whether Buddhism is a Religion or a Philosophy. Because Siddhartha Gautama did not say himself Son of God (Jesus Christ), Prophet of God (Muhammad) or God of God (Shiva). Buddhism does not preach the existence of God. Many of the Westerns youths view and reject their own religious beliefs in God as the supreme power. They perhaps try to think in the line of what Buddha said twenty five hundred years ago or Buddhism says, “Anybody can be Buddha (Enlightened one) if one follows those Four Noble Truths and Eightfold paths.”


More than that, the practice of meditation has become so powerful and fascinating that no other religion has made this in pursuit of self realization. Western quest to understanding the true meaning of Buddhism in a daily life may have imparted an added value more than just a ritual practice that we perform in the East.

The West may also have understood better the future implication of Buddhism, a message of peace, compassion, tolerance in the midst of growing global unrest and war crisis. Most Americans want to see the realm of peace; Buddhism could give this, because in its history it has been least inimical against other religions. Its approaches have always been peaceful and respectful to others religions. Ironically, during the history of it’s up and down, others especially the rulers defied its literatures, statues, teachers in violence, expulsion and extermination.

Lama Surya Das, the most highly trained Native born American Lama in the Tibetan tradition presents his definitive views in his book, “Awakening the Buddha Within” – “We are all Buddhists. The problem is that most of us are sleeping Buddhas. Buddhism is less a theology or a religion than a promise that contains meditational practices and mind trainings can effectively show us how to awaken Buddha nature and liberate us from suffering and confusion.”

UC Berkeley Professor Lewis Lancaster, a devotee and a distinguished scholar of Buddhism and founder of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative to use the latest computer technology to map the spread of various strands of Buddhism says,

“Born and raised Catholic, I embraced Buddhism having listened to a talk by a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk in Kandy, Sri Lanka where I had a Fulbright scholarship. Thanks to Buddhism I’ve found peace.”

Prof. Lewis labels Buddhism as the World religion because, “Buddhism spread through merchants and trade; Buddhism gave portable sanctity to the world; Buddhism gave relics to the Western society; Buddhism connected its land of origin to Central Asia, China and other parts of the ancient world, taught monastic living to other religions; and it is the most digitally published and gets hits more than any other religion and scientifically verifiable.”

Buddhism turned into a World religion without missionary convert and without forceful action, rather through perfect self-realization in the most secular way.

At the end, in the face of my hard understanding that not much published and discoursed in the media on the Western Buddhism by Nepalese scholars, I am prompted to write something from what I observed and learned in theUnited States. I hope to offer some insight why Buddhism is so fascinating to the Western world.


Beng Tiong Tan, 1996. Teaching in Chinese Buddhism, Buddhanet, Buddha Dharma Education Association, Inc: The Two Distinctive Characteristics of Buddhism, Newcastle, Australia, 10.

Lama Surya Das, 1997. Awakening of The Buddha Within. Eight Steps to Enlightment. Tibetan Buddhism for the Western World. Broadway Books,New York.

Lewis Lancaster, 2010. Burke Lecture: Buddhism in a Global Age of Technology,UniversityofCalifornia,Berkeley.

Mark Vernon, March 2011. Meditation News: Buddhism is the new opium of the people.

Nishikanta Waghmare, 2007. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Contribution to Buddhist Education inIndia.

Perry Garfinkel, Buddha Rising: Out of the Monastery, Into the Living Room, National Geographic – December 1, 2005.

Ryuei Michael McCormick, Buddhism inAmerica.

The Berzin Archives. The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin.

Timothy Miller, 1995. Buddhism in America: The Dharma in the Land of Red Man. America’s Alternative Religion.StateUniversityofNew YorkPress.

One Response to “Buddhism in the West”

  1. ksherchand said

    Reblogged this on Yak&YetiRealty.

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