We might understand the rapid growth of American Buddhism by borrowing the concept of supply and demand from economics.
“Demand” refers to those factors that “pulled” or “welcomed” Buddhism. Several stand out: First, Americans value religion to a much greater degree than do people in most other developed countries. Religion tends to be seen as a “good thing,” providing a spiritual and ethical foundation for living. This is especially apparent in the raising of children. Also, Americans tend to hold pastors, priests, rabbis, and other religious professionals in high regard. Religious leaders often serve as leaders in the general community beyond their particular churches, mosques, temples, or synagogues. The value we place on religion is so much a part of American society that we often take it for granted and scarcely notice it.
A second “demand” factor is societal openness. In the 1960s, American society’s attitude began to shift toward greater openness toward religions other than Protestantism. For example, when John F. Kennedy campaigned for president in 1960, suspicion about his being Catholic was the cause of significant opposition. But in 2020, President Joe Biden’s Catholicism was most often seen as a strength because it signaled that he is a person of sincere religious conviction, regardless of sect.
Changes in immigration laws in 1965 further fostered religious diversity, and thus openness, because of the arrival of more people from non-Western countries, including Buddhist immigrants from Asia.
Within this atmosphere of openness, Buddhism has come to be seen less as a weird “Oriental” cult, as it was when I was growing up. In fact, as the number of people interested in spiritual matters increased, it was often thought, however naively, that “spiritual Asia” was superior to the “materialistic West.” Many such people were attracted to Buddhism because they found in it a response to the spiritual needs of an industrialized culture.
The third factor follows on this, and it has to do with change in the very nature of religion in America. Surveys have shown that Americans have in increasing numbers become more attracted to spirituality than to what is often called “organized religion,” meaning religion as centered on membership in institutions such as synagogues, temples, and mosques. The phrase “spiritual but not religious” is often used to describe such people.
Turning to the supply side of Buddhism, we can identify certain qualities that have appealed to the spiritual and religious needs of Americans. In particular, Buddhism fits in with the trend of valuing a spirituality that stresses personal experience. That is, you could say, Buddhist teachings show us that we have been carrying around a precious jewel all along.
One such quality that Buddhism offers is its attitude toward the suffering we all deal with in facing life’s difficulties. Buddhism sees difficulties such as sickness, loss, disappointment, and death as a natural part of life and not something to try to deny. Suffering is something that needs to be understood, accepted, and turned into a springboard for living a fuller and more meaningful life.
Second, Buddhism seeks to speak to the unique experience of each individual. (After all, no two jewels are the same.) Because of this, it can be a valuable path to self-understanding. Many Americans like to feel that they are free to question religious teachings and to make up their own minds about them, and Buddhism not only allows for this but even encourages it.
This is the reason for the popularity of the Kalama Sutta, in which the
Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness” — then you should enter and remain in them.
– Anguttara Nikaya 3.66, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Probably the No. 1 reason for the growth of American Buddhism is found in the popularity of meditation. This third aspect offered by Buddhism includes practices that many find easy to learn, mentally therapeutic, and spiritually empowering and liberating. Sitting meditation as taught in the Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan schools has been especially attractive to converts.
The American sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof describes spirituality as “personal experience tailored to the individual’s own quests.” Spirituality, he writes, is associated with five key terms: connectedness, unity, peace, harmony, and centeredness. Buddhism as presented in America attracts people looking to experience these qualities in their lives. In addressing the spiritual needs of so many, Buddhism has become a demographically diverse and multifaceted part of the American religious landscape. To me, this is very exciting.
Like the jewels in Indra’s net, each community, each lineage shines a light on the rest, each helping and being helped by the others to glow brighter.