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History of Buddhism in the West

Shakyamuni Buddha lived in India more than 2, 500 years ago. Yet the influence of his life and his teachings continues today in multitudes of ways. There are an estimated 1.2 billion Buddhists worldwide, and perhaps 6 million in the U.S. alone. Over the past two decades, interest in Buddhism and meditation has grown tremendously in the United States—in 2003, Time magazine estimated that 10 million people meditate regularly.

This increased interest in Buddhism in the West is happening at a time when many people are experiencing the strain of living with the fear and anxiety generated by an unstable economy, terrorist threats, social unrest, and environmental peril.

The simple practice of becoming aware of one’s breath and thoughts, as taught by the Buddha, has yielded benefits in health care, psychology, education, and many other fields. But the Buddha’s teachings are also a path of liberation. In fact, he called suffering a “Holy Truth, ” because suffering has the capacity to show us the path to liberation (from Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings). Buddhists who practice to transform suffering have made an impact on the arts, on the way we view death and dying, and even on the way we engage in politics.

This website explores the Buddha’s influence on all these areas, and more.

HOW DID BUDDHISM COME TO THE WEST?

Buddhism first came to North America through Chinese immigrants who settled in the western parts of the United States beginning in the 1840s, as well as by North Americans and Europeans who visited Asia and brought back with them Buddhist texts. In the latter part of the 1800s, the influence of Buddhist thought began showing up in the literary works of Walt Whitman, Henry Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The World Parliament of Religions, held in 1893 in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair, was a key event in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. Japanese Zen master Shaku Soen was one of the participants; he returned to the U.S. several years later to travel around the country and give lectures on Buddhism. Three of his students went on to help establish Buddhism in the U.S., including Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, author of and many other books.

Another participant of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions was Sri Lankan Buddhist teacher Anagarika Dharmapala, who would also travel extensively across the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century to lecture about Buddhism.

In 1898, the Buddhist Mission of America was established by members of the Pure Land school (also called Shin Buddhism) of Japanese Buddhism. The internment of more than 100, 000 Japanese American citizens during World War II was a serious impediment to the development of this institution, but it eventually became the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). The BCA continues today as one of the largest and most stable Buddhist communities in the country.

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