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 Buddhism on the Rise in America

The American Religious Identity Survey reports a 170 percent rise in adherents among the various Buddhism schools from 1990 to 2000 and puts the 2004 total at 1.5 million adherents. Richard Seager, author of Buddhism in America, considers this & # 39; a low reasonable number. & # 39; He believes Asian immigrants account for two-thirds of this total and converts about one-third. This makes Buddhism the country & # 39; s fourth-largest religion after Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

It is safe to say a healthy American-style Buddhism is emerging sparked by teaching centers and sanghas (communities of people who practice together) led by Tibetan or American-born teachers. The most visible spokesperson, of course, is the Dalai Lama, who is touring US cities to talk with student peacemakers, academic faculty, executives, scientists and the American faithful.

The Dalai Lama & # 39; s compassionate message reaches well beyond the Buddhist community as Americans search for meaningful spiritual pathways through experiential practices. With Buddhism one needs not surrender the faith of one & # 39; s cultural upbringing.

Founded by Siddhartha Gautama in India 2,500 years ago, the Buddhist philosophy seems to naturally take new forms in each culture. While the Dalai Lama travels the world teaching the importance of building bridges between faiths and resolving differences through nonviolent means, American Buddhism is distinguishing itself from Eastern oriented, more democratic and egalitarian. Perhaps most noticeable, says Seager, "the role of women as leaders and teachers is very significant".

Myths about Buddhism:

o "Buddhism is a & # 39; pagan & # 39; religion"

"Paganism" refers to belief in a god or gods other than the traditional Christian God. However, Buddhists do not concern themselves about God or god (s). Buddhists concern themselves with the Dharma, which is not a god or gods. It is "truth" or "reality".

o "Buddhists welcome suffering"

This misconception is due due to the perception that a Buddhist is only true and sincere if he or she is somehow suffering, poor, etc. This might be true, but only partly so. The truth is that Buddhists do not in any way "look forward" to suffering; to do so would be masochistic. Instead, a Buddhist looks upon suffering not as something necessarily "bad," but as an opportunity to learn and grow. In that sense, it may be said that Buddhists look upon suffering and difficulties as something potentially positive, as a "teacher," rather than a way of life.

o "All Buddhists wear robes"

This myth came into being during the era when the "Hare Krishna" group was very visible. During the 70 & # 39; s and 80 & # 39; s when they seemed to be everywhere: on TV, at airports, etc., then many Americans may have thought they were Buddhists. Of course, Tibetan Buddhists and others, who are living the life of a monk or priest (following in the footsteps of the Buddha himself), do in fact wear religious robes. Shin Buddhist pilots do wear official robes during the service, the members of the temple simply wear casual clothes. This is no different than Priests or Ministers wearing robes.

o "Buddhists endure & # 39; grueling & # 39; meditations"

Some Buddhist sects, such as Zen, emphasize meditation. Whether it is "grueling" or not depends on one & # 39; s point of view (and one & # 39; s flexibility). In the Shin Buddhist sect, the meditation is that for about 10 minutes of the service, while housed in chairs, attendees collectively "chant" the sutras (which are the teachings of the Buddha).

o "All Buddhists believe in reincarnation"

This misconception is understandable, given that Tibetan Buddhists (such as the Dalai Lama), who do believe in a form of reincarnation, are perhaps the most "visible" of the many sects of Buddhism. Recent movies like Little Buddha, Seven Years in Tibet or Kundun, may lead one to believe that Tibetan Buddhism is "representative" of Buddhism in general. However, Shin Buddhists treat belief in reincarnation in the same way we treat belief in a god: We do not give it much thought. What & # 39; s important is not which Buddhists believe in reincarnation and which do not, but that all Buddhists strive to awaken to one central teaching.

o "When Buddhists & # 39; gassho & # 39; (put their hands together and bow their heads), they are & # 39; praying & # 39; for good fortune"

The belief that the Buddhist act of gassho is like a prayer is not only held by Christians, but probably by more than a few Buddhists as well! The act of gassho is not a prayer at all. It is best described as an expression of humility, of realizing with gratitude, how much one has to be thankful for. It is not a "wish" for anything for oneself.

o "Shin Buddhism in America is for Japanese or Japanese-Americans only"

In California and New York (the so-called "melting-pots of the world"), when you walk into the typical Shin Buddhist temple , you will see a predominately Japanese-American membership. The typical Shin Buddhist service, a few Japanese songs are sung in Japanese and the minister himself (it is rarely a "she" as it is in most Protestant religions) is more comfortable speaking Japanese than English. Many of the Shin Buddhist mysteries in America are in areas with reliably high concentrations of Japanese or Japanese-Americans. This is purely because historically, it was the Japanese immigrants who bought the Shin Buddhist teachings with them to America. The Buddha himself was not Japanese. Things are slowly changing in many American temples today. There is a move, particularly by the younger generations, to make the services less "ethnic" and more universal. If you are interested in Buddhism, the ultimate test of whether it is indeed universal or not, is to read the teachings of the Buddha, Shinran Shonin, and others for yourself.

Buddhism is a wonderful and precious teaching for everyone.

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