Zen Buddhism

Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Globalization has scrambled just about everything, for better AND worse.

Technology has compressed physical space and time, forcing the myriad human tribes to deal more directly with each other. Nor is there any going back — no matter how isolationist, anti-immigrant or simply anti-change some current political rhetoric may be.

This means that ethnic and religious groups many of our parents, and certainly our grandparents, had little chance of meeting in their neighborhoods can now be encountered in any large American city, and also in our nation’s rural heartland.

Buddhism is one such example.

But it's not just that Asian Buddhists — be they Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese or others — have come to North America, where their beliefs and practices have attracted considerable interest.

What’s also happened is that some Western Buddhists — formal converts and the larger number of individuals with no interest in converting but who have been influenced by Buddhist philosophy and meditative techniques (myself included) — have melded broad concerns for Western social justice issues with traditional, inner-oriented Buddhist beliefs.

These Western Buddhists certainly did not single-handily start this trend. Vietnamese Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest severe discrimination against their co-religionists by the Roman Catholic South Vietnam government in the early 1960s preceded them.

But these Westerners — many of them marinated in 1960s American liberal anti-war and anti-discrimination activism — pushed the envelope far enough to create a uniquely Western Buddhist path now generally referred to as Engaged Buddhism.

A key figure in this movement died earlier this month. His name was Bernie Glassman and he was 79.

The elite mainstream media, as near as I can ascertain via an online search, totally ignored his death. An error in editorial judgement, I think — certainly for the coverage of how American religion has and continues to change. His contribution to this change was monumental.

Western Buddhist publications reacted otherwise, as you would expect.

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Turn, turn, turn: What is Buddhism’s appeal for contemporary Americans?

Turn, turn, turn: What is Buddhism’s appeal for contemporary Americans?


What aspects attract the many religious Americans that convert to Buddhism?


Before discussing what “attracts” let’s consider how “many” Americans have adopted this venerable faith. The over-all U.S. context is a deep divide between native-born converts (presumably Daniel’s interest) and Asian immigrants, also American Buddhists but not new “converts.” Richard Hughes Seager of Hamilton College calls this split “the most prominent feature of American Buddhism” during recent decades.

Due to the 1965 liberalization of U.S. immigration law, Asian-Americans dominate U.S. Buddhism.

As with Islam, it’s hard to pin down the numbers. The religion has no U.S. umbrella organization to represent its myriad branches and issue headcounts. The American Religious Identity Survey in 2001 sampled 50,000 Americans and projected there were 1.1 million adult Buddhists, and later added children for an estimated 1.5 million. The “World Christian Encyclopedia” (second edition, 2001) listed 2.45 million U.S. Buddhists including children but didn’t count “new religions” like Japan’s Soka Gakkai that others consider Buddhist. Experts have said Asian-American immigrants are something like three-fourths of U.S. Buddhists, and by outdated guesses there may be as few as 100,000 non-immigrant converts or as many as 800,000.

What aspects attract?

Meditation is certainly the key.

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Westernized Zen and the art of hiding sexual abuse

So many details will sound terribly familiar. At the heart of the news story is a powerful religious patriarch, surrounded by disciples who view him with a reverence that helps support an iron-clad climate of silence and secrecy.

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