Diana Eck, the Harvard religion scholar, has called America the most religiously pluralist country in the world. (Eck, whose original field was the study of Hinduism, heads something called the Pluralist Project at Harvard. Its purpose is to map this diversity, and presumably to celebrate it.) Buddhists (or people who were identified as such, perhaps as a matter of convenience—multiple religious affiliations are typical of traditional Chinese culture) first came to this country in the first half of the nineteenth century, when many Chinese came as laborers on the spreading network of transcontinental railways. This development was noticeable in California, but had little effect on the larger religious scene. An important event that was much noticed in the press and in elite culture, was the World Parliament of Religions which met at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. Eastern religions were prominently featured there. Some Buddhist representatives were present, but the Hindu Swami Vivekananda was the star (he founded the very intellectual Vedanta Society, which is still active today). Throughout the twentieth century, as the immigration laws were liberalized, large numbers of Asian immigrants with varying degrees of Buddhist identity came to America. There also occurred a good number of converts. Some of them, somewhat optimistically, announced that “The Dharma is going west!” (Dharma is a term designating Buddhist teaching and practice), implying that, as centuries ago Buddhism went east from India and transformed the cultures of China, Japan and adjoining countries, Buddhism was now starting to transform Western civilization.
Buddhism (or what passed for it) became fashionable in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. I think it is fair to call this Buddhism-lite, an amalgam of miscellaneous ideas and practices of Asian provenance, morphed into a very American cult of a re-invention of self (in Californian vernacular, “I used to be into revolution, I’m now into meditation”). An icon of this Orientalist syncretism was the “Beat” poet Allen Ginsberg. I’m indebted to him for a memorable television experience in 1968. I was watching him when he was a guest on Bill Buckley’s program “Firing Line”. Buckley was trying on him his proverbial putdown technique, patronizing and sardonic. The attempt failed. Ginsberg stopped replying, instead gave Buckley a loving look and started to chant some sort of mantra (Ginsberg called himself a “practicing Buddhist”, but he was also close to the Hare Krishna movement). His interviewer clearly did not know how to deal with this quasi-Buddhist love-bombing. It is the only time that I saw Bill Buckley completely at a loss. By all accounts the Dalai Lama is a serious and learned representative of the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, but the people who flock to his appearances in America sometimes remind me of the “Beats” of an earlier generation.
Just how many Buddhists are there in America? The Pew Research Center, which monitors religion very carefully, in 2010 estimated a total of 3,860,000 (which would be about 1.1% of the total population). Robert Thurman, a Buddhism scholar at Columbia University, also in 2010, came up with a much larger estimate of 5 to 6 million. All American religious statistics are iffy—the U.S. Census may not ask questions about religion and researchers have to somehow put together self-reporting figures, survey data and informed guesses. Buddhist nose-counting is particularly difficult, as there are a bewildering number of different schools and sects, temples not associated with larger bodies, ethnic groups that practice Buddhism along with other religions, and the broad diffusion of Buddhist or quasi-Buddhist ideas and practices in the general population. Experts agree that the great majority of self-identified Buddhists come from ethnic groups that are traditionally Buddhist. There is a much smaller but vocal and intellectually active group of converts.
A paradoxical event that fostered the indigenization of Buddhism was the mass internment of Japanese-Americans (Nisei) during World War II. As is the case in Japan and had been among Japanese immigrants in America, Buddhist temples were differentiated in terms of different schools or sects—Nichiren, Shingon, Zen and so on, all using Japanese-language worship materials. While the mass internment of American citizens was unconstitutional and reprehensible, the treatment of the residents was humane; there certainly was no intention to prohibit Buddhist worship. But it was obviously not feasible to organize services separately for each sect, and some of the younger people barely understood Japanese. Help came from an unexpected source: A young Jewish man from California was outraged by the fate of his Nisei friends and neighbors. He raised funds (I believe, mainly from Jewish donors) to produce hymnals and other worship materials that could be used by all sects worshipping together, and in English! I don’t know how the content of these materials was decided upon. Protestant hymnody was apparently used as a model. For example, the well-known Protestant hymn “Jesus loves me, this I know/for the Bible tells me so” became “Buddha loves me, this I know/for the sutras tell me so”. Beginning with a camp in Utah, the Buddhist associations began to call themselves “churches”.
The constitution guarantees the free expression of Buddhist faith. The question persists whether the Dharma has really come to America, the way it came to Japan or China or Korea. America started out as a self-consciously Protestant nation. Catholicism and Judaism have become thoroughly Americanized, not just in terms of religious freedom but as active ingredients of the culture. Has Buddhism achieved this status? Or is it headed this way? – I think that I have found an answer in an obscure news item I stumbled upon the other day.
On November 16, 2014 Reuters online reported on the following case in the legal system of New York state (I can’t imagine why this venerable news agency found it necessary to print this item): A New York appeals court refused to take a case involving a Buddhist temple. In 2012 a lower court had ruled in favor of a Buddhist master named Mew Fung Chen, founder and head of something called the China Buddhist association, which owned two temples in New York City: one in Manhattan and one in Queens. In 2011 Master Chen excommunicated more than 500 members of the Manhattan temple and ordered that sanctuary closed. He accused the congregation of “spiritual pollution”.
Among the expelled group was a monk by the name Ming Tung, who sued the Master’s organization on behalf of the expelled group. Thus the case is listed as Ming Tung v. China Buddhist Association (New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Division, No.11572. For some reason the term “supreme court” refers to a lower court in the New York system). The plaintiff claimed that his First Amendment rights were violated. But the court apparently evaded the religious issue and simply ruled on the basis of the Association’s bylaws. The next appeals court reversed that decision. Its Justice Judith Gische wrote: “To consider whether a spiritual leader wields too much power or authority over congregants… places the court in the position of evaluating ecclesiastical doctrine, law, and practices.” In other words, Justice Gische was not going to delve into Buddhist esoterica and, such matters left aside, instead affirmed Ming Tung’s constitutional right to religious freedom. A dissenting judge disagreed with Gische’s reasoning: “The First Amendment is not a sword to permit a religious leader to exercise totalitarian control over denominational assets in contravention of the system of corporate democracy.” I suppose that clarifies the issue: It is not primarily about Buddhist spirituality, but about Manhattan real estate! The Association will appeal further.
A relevant footnote: This case is very similar to a number of cases in which the Episcopal Church claims the property of a local congregation which seceded because of the national denomination’s position on homosexuality. This issue is also making its laborious course through the legal system. Here too real estate is much involved (all those faux English country churches), apart from the legitimacy of gay bishops and same-sex marriage.
Have Buddhists attained the status of an ordinary American denomination? Yes! They are suing each other. What could be more American than that?