What’s an American Buddhist?

In this Sunday, June 19, 2011 photo, Rev. Karen Do-on Weik and her husband Rev. Jay Rinsen Weik meditate at … Continued

In this Sunday, June 19, 2011 photo, Rev. Karen Do-on Weik and her husband Rev. Jay Rinsen Weik meditate at the Toledo Zen Center in Holland, Ohio. The two have created a Sunday school and other programs to be especially welcoming to families. Many U.S. Buddhists say that meditation centers aren’t especially welcoming of children, and some worry it will cost them the next generation of adherents.


American Buddhism’s numbers are booming. Published just over three years ago, an American Religious Identification Survey survey showed that from the years 1990 to 2000, Buddhism grew 170 percent in North America. By all indications that remarkable rate of growth continues unabated.

Why is a faith founded under a Bodhi tree in India 2,500 years ago enjoying a newfound popularity in America today?

There is no such thing as a historic North American Buddhist tradition, a fact that is crucial to understanding and facilitating Buddhism’s blossoming. This growth is all the more remarkable given that Buddhism was arguably the most recent import of a major religion to North America from the East. It’s important to note that Western practitioners meditating in Massachusetts or applying the Eight-fold Path in Portland often reach back to the established Buddhist traditions of Sri Lanka or Thailand, Tibet, or Vietnam, Myanmar or Korea, China, or Japan. But that’s not the only way to be Buddhist.

Some North American authors have suggested that North Americans might consider foregoing any such wholesale adoptions of Eastern traditions in deference to gradually developing their own. While not necessarily endorsing this view, even the Tibetan teacher Shamar Rinpoche posited that “Tibetans can benefit from being less sectarian, and certainly non-Tibetans [in context principally Europeans and North Americans] have no need for such distinctions.” The development of such a new North American sacred tradition is more possible with Buddhism than most other world religions owing to the relative simplicity and universal applicability of the dharma’s core principles and the Buddha’s teachings. That is partly because the dharma does not rely on faith in any deific being as conditions to one’s beliefs, as do other religions.

Still, some wonder: Does a practitioner born and raised in North America more easily adopt Buddhism if he takes it wholesale from the East?

One way to look at this question is through the example of practice. When done correctly, what Buddhist meditators refer to as “sitting”–whether following the vipassana or zazen (or other) approaches to sitting meditation–does not rely on ceremonial chanting and recitations and actions that typically surround collective meditation sessions. This is not to say such ceremonial activities normally performed in an ancient or modern Eastern language are not useful or helpful. This is only to say they are not a necessity for the gradual expansion of consciousness that is the result of regular meditation. If one accepts this basic premise, which can be supported by the sutras attributed to the Buddha, then the conclusion that North Americans could conceivably develop their own Buddhist tradition some day is perfectly rational, if not probable.

After all, none of the cultural accessories of Buddhist practices in the East came into being overnight; they themselves developed over time.

In Buddhism, that which does not differ from culture to culture or era to era is the state of a meditator’s mind and presence when that person is sitting in true mediation.

In association with other core teachings of the Buddha, such as compassion, non-violence, and loving-kindness all found within the Eight-fold Path, the attainment of the expanded states of consciousness almost always occurs only through regular and constant and diligent meditation practice, or sitting. This fact supersedes every associated ceremonial activity, whether Eastern in origin or some new (as yet unrealized) North American form. While such culture-based ceremony can be useful and helpful as a docent to meditation, if it becomes the practitioner’s focus, it becomes a distraction.

North American Buddhists are likely to create their own traditions and schools of thought, but they should do so with the awareness that they are forging a new Buddhist culture, not the ‘true’ Buddhist culture.

If they don’t recognize this fact, the same problem of adaptation would also apply, hypothetically, to any developed North American Buddhist tradition 900 years in the future either by its devout ecclesiastical adherents or when first introduced to the population of some other culture that had never been exposed to the teachings of the Buddha.


William Wilson Quinn is a scholar of Buddhism and brother of On Faith’s Sally Quinn.

William Quinn
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  • Darrin Tisdale

    Many of the cultural symbols and practices often interlaced with Buddhism do not have the same connections with Americans. While still borrowing from their own foreign teachers, these first generation Americans often search for replacements. This substitutions vary wildly, depending on the teacher. Sometimes the differences are just in language. At the San Francisco Zen Center, during morning service, we chanted the Heart Sutra in Japanese. At the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, nearly all the sutras are chanted in English. Sometimes, the differences are more profound, where some groups reject the robes and other vestments, while some embrace them. From my own practice, I do believe that over time, regardless of the substitutions made, you will find an American story solidifying, connected at its core to the cultural ethos but guided by the Truths. When we as Americans are raised as Buddhists and not just converts to Buddhism that the distinct American Buddhist practice will emerge in its own right. Until then, I will continue to work with koans featuring Joshu rather than Michael.

  • PoliticalPragmatist

    Over the past two years I’ve converted to Buddhism and found my home, a tradition that is developing. I do not belong to a sangha, yet feel my root teacher is Ajahn Brahm, of Western Australia, of the forest tradition. Brahm is the kind of teacher who would fit nicely anywhere in the US, as he does not teach dogma. While rituals are important in establishing the habit, only sitting gets us where we want to go. A sitting practice is very hard. Very. Not easy to begin and very difficult to continue. Those of us who do it every day find extraordinary results in our lives. If you want to change your life, change your mind. This will be the form American Buddhism takes, one mind at a time.

  • Gary Gach

    Alongside the census figures, there’s an interesting survey by Wuthnow & Cadge. When Americans were asked, “Have you heard teachings of the Buddha which you take as an important influence in your life?” … one in eight said yes.

    ¿And then, on the other hand, what about the centuries-old Jodo Shinshu tradition in America, ±113 years old here now?


  • karmadavid

    We, American Buddhists, should be careful not to create institutions out of whole cloth. Buddhism will evolve slowly over time here as it did everywhere else to fit the situation. Intellectualizing how much different approaches are useful risks interjecting unnecessary and unenlightened bias. It is completely likely that one can be in “true meditation” during a ceremony but uselessly sitting.

  • Michael Ayres

    To speak of a’true Buddhist Culture’ regarding Buddhism in America is to miss the point. Being an American Buddhist is not about “True Buddhist Culture”, it’s about Buddhist teaching and awakening. That the spread of Buddhism in American sometimes includes artifacts from Aisan Culture is like the boat that sailed across the Pacific bringing its cargo, Buddhism. We should not confuse the shipping boat with the cargo, or the wrapping or shipping crates with the contents. We have to un-package the shipping container (Asian artifacts/culture) to reveal the inner contents (the American Scientific/Corporate Buddhism).There probably will be an American Buddhism, with its own dimensions and uniqueness like Vispassna/Teravada, or Chan, or Zen, or Tibetian. But we need to wait at least a few hundred years to see what that will be. Seeds have been planted and there are ‘green sprouts’ but no “American” Buddhist Tree yet.