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What Makes American Buddhism Special?

For the first time, Buddhists from virtually every tradition can be found in the same country — even the same city. We have an unprecedented opportunity to learn from one another.


For me, growing up Buddhist in Northern California in the early 1960s was sometimes difficult. There were very few Buddhists around, and many Americans looked at Buddhism as some kind of weird Asian cult.


Fortunately, things have changed enormously since then. Buddhism is today much better known and more widely practiced. As the Harvard professor Diana Eck, an expert on contemporary American religions, declared in 1993, “Buddhism is now an American religion.”


Professor Eck observed that Buddhists have been in America since around 1850, and their numbers have increased greatly over time.


Surveys indicate that today over 30 million people, or close to 10% of the U.S. population identify themselves as Buddhist; read and engage in Buddhist spirituality, but don’t identify themselves as members of a religion; or have been strongly influenced by Buddhism. Which, taken together, means that Buddhism is, whether in numbers or influence, one of the fastest-growing religions in America.


While the vast majority of the approximately 500 million Buddhists in the world live in Asia, one fascinating aspect of Buddhism in America is that, for the first time in nearly the entire 2,600 years of Buddhism’s history, all the major Buddhist denominations in the world today coexist in one country.


In many large U.S. and Canadian cities, there are more different kinds of Buddhism than are found anywhere in Asia, including Bangkok, Taipei, Seoul, and Kyoto.


In the Los Angeles area, for example, close to 100 different Buddhist traditions — representing virtually all the world’s main denominations — find a home.


Whereas in Asia, Buddhists from different countries have rarely known, or even known of, each other, in Los Angeles, you may find temples with roots in Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam located near each other, sometimes even on the same street.


For me, this trend provides a new and exciting opportunity for all Buddhists to learn from and better understand each other.


Despite the promising demographics, and despite Buddhism’s high level of cultural visibility and accessibility, few introductory books seem to address youths and young adults.


Having been myself an American Buddhist youth, and having raised three young Buddhists as well, I had long felt there was a need for easy-to-understand introductory books for this audience.


A few years ago, I set about writing one. The book, ”Jewels,” was published in the spring of 2020. After its release, a friend pointed out that because American Buddhism includes so many different communities, the book might also be of value to Buddhists who know a great deal about their particular corner of American Buddhism, but not much about its full range. It is with this in mind that I’ve adapted sections of the book for this article.


Rev. Dr. Kenneth Tanaka is a former Resident Minister of Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church and former Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies.


Next: What Are the Three Kinds of Jewels?


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