News at Tipitaka Network
American Buddhism: Eastern faith seeing Western growth
By Ryan Holeywell, The Monitor, Saturday, September 29, 2007
EDINBURG, Hidalgo (Texas) Government security forces in Myanmar have reportedly killed at least three Buddhist monks who were peacefully participating in massive, ongoing protests against that country’s military government.
Tensions started to rise last month, when the government drastically raised fuel prices in the impoverished country.
Persecution of Buddhists in Myanmar and Tibet have consistently garnered media attention and cries for justice from activist groups in the United States.
“I’m surprised they’re involved in politics,” said Noe Reyes of Edinburg, who considers himself a student of Buddhism. “But it’s peaceful demonstrating. They’re not inciting riots.”
Experts say the number of Americans who actually identify themselves as Buddhists — as opposed to just sympathizing with them — continues to steadily grow.
There are a handful of small communities of Buddhists who informally congregate in Harlingen and Brownsville, taking in followers from around the area.
Appeal to Westerners
Suzie Lovegren of San Benito said she became interested in Buddhism when her husband gave her a book on the subject 30 years ago. Like many Rio Grande Valley residents who study Buddhism, Lovegren grew up Catholic.
“I would just feel anxiety over events that would happen, or horrible guilt about some way I chose to react to a situation,” she said of her past. “I just really didn’t have much peace of mind and thought ‘Wait a minute — isn’t religion supposed to give you peace of mind?’”
About 401,000 Buddhists lived in America in 1990, but by 2001 that number had climbed to more than 1 million, according to a City University of New York survey. There are an estimated 6 million Buddhists living in America today, said Charles Prebish, a professor at Utah State University.
Experts attribute the growth of Buddhism in America to the increased volume of literature on the subject available in books and online, as well as the growing number of university courses about the religion.
“Buddhism tends to appeal to Westerners because it’s very rational,” Kojin Dinsmore, a priest at the Austin Zen Center.
He said the religion especially appeals to people who don’t have a religious affiliation or are rebelling against Western religions with which they were brought up.
“(Buddhism) doesn’t ask you to believe in anything. It is mostly psychological.”
Those in the Valley drawn to Buddhism say one of its aspects that they find particularly attractive is meditation, a central component of the religion.
“When you meditate you have to clear your mind and think only of the present moment,” said Jen Klement, who lives near La Feria. “That’s not easy to do because these thoughts keep coming in. You mainly focus on your breathing. If you’re thinking about your breathing you can’t be thinking about much else.”
Thirteen years ago, Reyes, who owns a nursery, started researching bamboo — a plant with ties to Asian culture — and his study led him to find Buddhism. Since then he’s built a Japanese-style garden complete with sand, rocks and bamboo in the corner of his nursery.
“I started seeing how some people used bamboo for all sorts of things,” said Reyes, adding that his study of Buddhism has helped him manage his anger and become more mindful of his actions.
“I started coming across Zen gardens, seeing how people meditate in these gardens. One thing led to another.”
Growth in America
Prebish said Buddhism began to really flourish in the United States in the 1970s in the wake of the “hippie” and “beatnik” movements, as some Christians felt their religion was not meeting their spiritual needs.
During that period, some Americans may have actually turned to Buddhism and meditation as a safe alterative to drugs.
“Some of them had had bad experiences, yet still wanted to do something that fulfilled their spiritual quest,” Prebish said. “To some degree, they saw it as cool.”
Buddhism first found its way onto the U.S. religious scene with Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. It resurged during the Vietnam War era as Asian immigrants came to the United States.
Prebish said it’s hard to know exactly how many Buddhists live in this country, since there are so many different types of Buddhists, including those born into it, those who converted, and those who simply identify with Buddhism, such as Reyes.
But about 20 percent of Buddhists in the United States are not of Asian descent, which means there are more than 1 million American converts by Prebish’s estimates.
Abner Burnett, a Mission lawyer, has taken his commitment to Buddhism further than some, actually studying at a Buddhist school in Colorado and going through a process called “taking refuge,” or asserting a religious vow.
In large, metropolitan areas, Buddhism is more widespread than here on the border.
In Austin, for example, there are 24 Buddhist organizations and at least six temples, Dinsmore said.
While small groups of American Buddhists meet regularly in Brownsville and Harlingen, there are seemingly no such organizations or temples in the Upper Valley, though.
“It’s a challenge,” Burnett said of living in area with few Buddhists. “I’d like to be closer to a group with similar ties.”
Since there is a dearth of Buddhist groups in the Valley, he keeps in touch with an instructor via phone, e-mail and the occasional meeting.
Burnett said his choice of religions has raised some questions among friends and acquaintances in the Valley, a predominantly Catholic area where Buddhists are far from the norm.
“If I go to trial, I think twice before I’d say I’m a Buddhist, because it involves too much explanation,” said Burnett, a lawyer. He recalled applying for a travel visa to visit Mexico. “The customs people were a little surprised when I announced I was a Buddhist.”
Reyes said friends have confused Buddhism with Islam.
And he’s found hostility in some family members, who have tried to avoid looking at a Buddha statue he owns.
“I realize it’s something a little different from what they’ve been brought up with,” Reyes said.
“I get a lot of snickering, a lot of jokes. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
For more information about Buddhist meetings in Brownsville, visit http://ordinarymindbrownsville.blogspot.com.
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