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What Are the Four Groups of Buddhism?

All Buddhist schools teach the path to awakening, seeing that we are all jewels. But different traditions present the teachings differently.


In America, where there are so many denominations, it can be hard to gain a full picture of what American Buddhism even looks like. To help understand this, I find it useful to categorize the various kinds of Buddhism into four main groups.

The first group consists of older Asian American Buddhist communities. They started their temples in the mid- to late 1800s and are mostly of Chinese and Japanese origin. Today, because they are mostly third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Americans, their temple activities and services are held in English.


Since the mid-1960s, newer Asian American Buddhist communities have formed in the United States as more people have immigrated from Cambodia, Korea, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Because these communities still have a large percentage of first-generation members, temple activities and services are often held in their respective native languages. However, English is being used with increasing frequency as the second- and third-generations come of age.


For newer and older Asian American Buddhist communities alike, temples serve as hubs for both religious and cultural life.


The next group consists of those who were for the most part not born into Buddhist families, but converted to Buddhism as adults and whose main practice is sitting meditation. They are predominately of European descent, though there is a substantial and increasing membership of people of color.


In general terms, members of this third group belong to Zen, Theravada (particularly vipassana, or insight lineages), or Tibetan traditions, which are centered on meditation practices. The immense popularity over the past decade or so of mindfulness practices has definitely increased the numbers belonging to this group.


The fourth group is made up of convert Buddhists whose main practice is chanting. The majority of this group are affiliated with Soka Gakkai International, or SGI, which is a denomination of Nichiren Buddhism. Like that of other Nichiren Buddhists, the main practice is reciting the Odaimoku, “the great sacred title” of the Lotus Sutra, which in SGI is pronounced “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.”


One of the largest Buddhist organizations in America today, SGI is also the most racially diverse organization, with a membership that includes large numbers of Asian American, Latino, African American, and white participants.


Next: Why Is Buddhism Growing in America?


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