Monday, March 16, 2009


Buddhism is a popular religion around the world and has millions of followers worldwide. But what makes it different from other religions? The way Buddhism adapts and grows into cultures is unique to the other religions. Buddhism in America is growing quite rapidly. There is something unique and different about it that makes its convert rate so high. According to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Buddhism has recently climbed to the 3rd most practice religion in America, below only Christianity and Judaism. In a little more than a decade (1990-2001) Buddhism has grown 170%. Approximately 0.7% of Americans are Buddhist followed by 0.6% Islam and 0.4% Hindu. This growth to approximately two million Buddhist in the U.S. is due to the conversion of American citizens that are native-born to this nation. Many of these converts are white and have Christian or Jewish backgrounds. In fact, most Buddhist temples in America, although founded by mostly Asian Americans, attract fewer Asian-Americans than Caucasians.
These numbers aren’t typical of other religions so this website is hoping to answer the question: what makes Buddhism different and so popular to those not raised in the tradition of Buddhism? There must be something inherently attractive about Buddhism that makes so many people want to embrace it, especially Americans. This is an important question that should be answered. Perhaps Buddhism is doing something right that gives people the happiness and enlightenment they are looking for in their lives.
Religion is a touchy subject that many would prefer not to talk about but since it rules over countless hours of days of most of the world’s people’s lives it should be talked about. People should learn what else is out there and how the rest of the world understands and participates in religion. This is a job for the media, if done right. Here I will attempt to find out answers about Buddhism as objectively as possible. However, religion is not an objective thing. It is something personal and it is different for every individual. In a way there is no “Buddhism” or “Christianity” there are only Buddhist and Christians. I will focus on common themes within Buddhism to figure out exactly what makes it so attractive to those not raised with it.
Buddhism and America’s largest religion, Christianity, are very different. Buddhism is a much more individual level religion. This means that the focus is more on the individual. It preaches how to find peace within yourself in the here and now. Christianity focuses more on the afterlife and the eternal happiness you will be able to achieve later on. Christianity also has a lot of fear, mythology, and ancient dogma attached to it. Buddhism is a much looser religion that focuses on compassion, tolerance, and rationality. It emphasizes the growth of the self and how personal experiences all affect how one will develop. These types of ideals and messages seem to resonate within people. This is what some people have to say about Buddhism taken from the Speaking of Faith website by Krista Tippett: “I can remember having beliefs similar to Buddhism as a youngster (12-18 years old, I am now 29) before I had even read about Buddhism.” (Mallari Peace). “Even though I am not of the Buddhist faith, I found a lot of the ideas of Brother Thay to be very relevant and insightful” (Chelsea Tobin). “I feel very attached to the concepts present in mindfulness and the idea of compassionate understanding” (Michael Alvarez). These people are responding to an internet radio show that interviewed Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and peace activist. He is also one of the Interviewees on this website.
With Thich Nhat Hanh you will also find an interview with Philip Kapleau, the first American to create a Zen Buddhist training center. You will also learn about additional books and journals that will further your knowledge about Buddhism in America and Buddhism in general. There is information about Research Centers and organizations whose work, activities, and goals are relevant to Buddhism in America. There are also a few short movies that may give you a better understand about the topic and the rest of America’s opinions about it.
I hope that after exploring this website you have a better understanding of what Buddhism is and the ideals and messages it contains that make it so attractive to Americans across the country.

Expert Interviewees

Thich Nhat Hanh

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now” (Touching Peace)

“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. If we really know how to live, what better way to start the day than with a smile? Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.” (Peace in Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life)

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk. According to the Plum Village website he was born on October 11, 1926. He is often called Brother Thay, “thay” meaning teacher. He is an author and poet writing many books like The Miracle of Mindfulness, Peace Begins Here, True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, and many more. During the Vietnam War he founded the School of Youth for Social Services in Saigon. The SYSS helped resettle homeless families, rebuild villages as well as set up schools and medical centers throughout the country. He openly and actively opposed the Vietnam War and travelled to the U.S. many times in order to urge the U.S. government to withdraw. In 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize for his actions in the war (Hartford Web Publishing website). He was the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace talks and was also exiled from his native Vietnam and currently resides in France. He currently travels around the world preaching peace and mindfulness. He sponsors retreats for Israelis and Palestinians trying to get them to listen and understand each other through his practice of mindfulness. He is famous for his teaching or the art of mindfulness, a practice that lets you find peace in the moment. He is one of the chiefly credited individuals for spreading Buddhism and bringing it to the west.
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most revolutionary and famous Buddhist teachers of all times and should always be remembered for his ability to express Buddhist ideals in Western terms and expanding the teachings of Buddhism to a universal audience.

Philip Kapleau

“Although we all possess the seeds of great love and compassion, without the light of the enlightened one's wisdom and the waters of their compassion these seeds would never spout.”
Philip Kapleau was a Zen Buddhist teacher. He was born on August 20, 1 912 and died on May 6, 2004 ( He was born in Connecticut and studied law becoming a court reporter. He was exposed to Zen Buddhism which reporting on the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. While in Japan he attended several lectures by D.T. Suzuki, a famous Japanese author of books and essays on Buddhism. He later would return to Japan to train to become a teacher of Buddhism. In 1965 he was given permission to teach and in 1966 moved to Rochester, New York and created the Rochester Zen Center, the first Zen training center founded by an American. His most famous book is The Three Pillars of Zen and was published in 1965. It was one of the first English books that promoted Buddhism as a way of life. He is well-known for his views on peace, compassion, and vegetarianism. His books are still widely read and have had a great influence on Zen Buddhism in the West.
Philip Kapleau is one of the earliest American Buddhist and showed that not only those of Asian, or even Buddhist decent can find the teachings of Buddhism enlightening. His first American made Zen training center showed that Buddhism is a universal religion and can be accepted by all people, regardless of origin.

Resouces for Further Inquiry: Recommended Readings

Arnold, Edwin. Light of Asia. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891.
Here is an online version of this book: (,M1)

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Peace Begins Here Palestinians and Israelis Listening to Each Other. New York: Parallax P, 2004.

Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.

Resouces for Further Inquiry: Research Articles

Cadge, Wendy. "Refelctions of Habits, Buddhism in America, and religious individualism." Sociology of Religion 68 (2007): 201-05.

This research article, taken from the Sociology of Religion Journal written by Wendy Cage, describes the changes she has seen in Buddhism over the years as a sociologist. Cadge describes how Buddhism has “put down deep roots” in America. She explains how Buddhist organizations, teachers, meditation are being taught everywhere, from gyms to churches. She provides some statistics that show how far reached Buddhism is. She centers her research and observation on the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center (CIMC) a Buddhist center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She talks about her book entitles Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America and relates it to another book called Habits of the Heart a book that she says has had a great impact on the sociology of religion. She introduces a concept called “communities of memory” and explains that this is what religious organizations really are, communities of memory. Wendy Cadge’s insight on the development and impact of Buddhism in America is extremely valuable to this topic. She combines a perfect balance of scholarly observation and personal passion and experience to explain some of the more complex ideals behind the evolution of Buddhism in America.

Peter, Gregory N. "Describing the elephant: Buddhism in America." Religion and American Culture 11 (2001): 233-63.

This research article taken from the Religion and American Culture Journal describe the changes of Buddhism in America. It explains both how American culture has changed to better suit Buddhism and how Buddhism has changed to better suit the American people. It then gives a brief history on the evolution of religion in America and this helps explain why Buddhism is growing so rapidly in the modern era. The journal also attempts to explain who “Buddhists” are and shows how complex this label can be. The journal points out the growth of books and literature related to Buddhism in America and describe many of the more popular ones. The author describes a concept called Americanization and explains how this phenomenon is changing Buddhism. This article is attempting to show the difference between the two types of Buddhism the author sees in America. The first is the Asian-American and immigrant Buddhism who were raised in the tradition and the second are the white convert Buddhism that is growing rapidly throughout America. This is one of the only articles I found that separates and analyzes the two as different types of Buddhism. I found these concepts very important and significant to this topic.

Resouces for Further Inquiry: Research Center

Buddhist Churches of America

The Buddhist Churches of America is America’s branch of a type of Buddhism called Honpa Hongan-ji more popularly known as Shin Buddhism. They are located in San Francisco, California. The Buddhist Churches of America is the oldest Buddhist organization in the United States. It began with Japanese immigrants coming to America in the late 1800s. Shin Buddhist saw the lack of religious practice in the United States and requested priest from Japan to come and establish a temple. In the beginning this organization was responsible only for Japanese-Americans Buddhist practice, weddings and funerals but the modern Buddhist Churches of America a massive organization with over 50 temples and churches around the country. Most of their priests are educated at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. Buddhist Churches of America, being the first Buddhist center in America had to go through many hardships to survive and grow throughout the years. World War II was devastating to the Shin Buddhism effort and people. Many people were forced to destroy their religious items and were afraid to practice Buddhism throughout the years of the war. At the time Buddhism was not recognized as a religion and even those Japanese-Americans fighting in the war were not allowed to have a military chaplain. They are currently the only organization that can send Buddhist chaplains to the U.S. Armed Forces. The Buddhist Churches of America is the foundation of Buddhism in America and is the most significant center in American Buddhism today.

Religion in the Media

Atheists Send a Message, on 800 British Buses

The New Atheism, and Something More

For the Muslim Prom Queen, There Are No Kings Allowed

In Quest for Equal Rights, Muslim Women’s Meeting Turns to Islam’s Tenets

Hurdles for a Plan to Turn Catholic Classrooms Into Charter Schools

Resouces for Further Inquiry: Organization

The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism is an organization that promotes the benefits and practices of Zen Buddhism to the modern American Society. Their mission is to bring the Buddhist practices of meditation and yoga as a way to gain “self-realization and the harmonious blending of the material and spiritual in contemporary American society.” They try to bring these Eastern ideals and thoughts and “translate” them so the Western mind can learn and appreciate them. They want Americans to take these ideals and use them to improve and develop American culture and values. They also make books, talk CDs, music and videos that they hope will further spread the influence of Buddhist practices throughout America. Their founder, Dr. Frederic P. Lenz, believed that Americans can achieve enlightenment by embracing and practicing Buddhism. He says Buddhism as a way to better enjoy the American lifestyle.

Born in 1950 in San Diego, California Frederick P. Lenz is known for his many popular books on Buddhist teachings including Lifetimes, True Accounts of Reincarnation (1979); Total Relaxation: The Complete Program for Overcoming Worry, Stress, Tension and Fatigue (1980) and many more.

This is a preview of a documentary film about Zen Buddhism in America.