History of Buddhism in America
RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY invited several scholars to comment on the divisions and direction of Buddhism in America today:
Carl Bielefeldt is professor of religious studies and co-director of the Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University:
For more than a century, Buddhism has been on a remarkable ride in America. It has gone from the marginal religion of Chinese and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast (plus a few eccentric Euro-Americans who dabbled in Theosophy and spiritualism) to a religion practiced by millions of Americans throughout the country and known, at some level at least, to millions more through books, magazines, television, and movies.
American bookstores are filled with volumes on “Zen and the art of” this or that; Hollywood makes movies on the Dalai Lama and a Nazi’s conversion to Tibetan Buddhism; and TIME magazine runs cover stories on America’s fascination with Buddhism. Buddhist ideas appear in New Age religions, psychology, medicine, and even sports and business. Buddhist values are cited in social movements for feminism, peace, ecology, and animal rights. Buddhist temples pop up in unlikely places, from Hacienda Heights, California to the cornfields of Iowa. Buddhist studies flourish in colleges and universities from Smith to Stanford. We even have a new facial lotion called “Hydra-Zen, ” advertised as relieving skin stress, and a snack called “Zen Party Mix.”
Clearly the “Zen” in the face cream and snack food has nothing to do with religion as we ordinarily understand it. We’re dealing here with something else. An aura surrounds words like “Buddhism” and “Zen.” There is a set of associations with familiar American values, such as simplicity, naturalness, peace, and harmony. There are the favorite values of the health and food industries, such as wholesomeness, well-being, and natural goodness; and there are the aesthetic values of the young urban sushi culture, such as tasteful understatement, sophisticated minimalism, and multicultural cosmopolitanism.
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