Buddhist Development in North America
By Ven. Dr. Walpola Piyananda, Chief Sangha Nayake of America
told us, “O Bhikkhus, go and wander forth for the gain of
the many, for the welfare of the many, in compassion for the
world. Proclaim, O Bhikkhus, the Teaching glorious; preach
a life of holiness, perfect and pure.” As members of the
Buddhist Sangha we have taken this directive very seriously.
of Buddhism in the New World is very interesting, and its
study is full of many surprises – the first one being the
discovery of America, which has long been accredited to
Christopher Columbus. According to some scholars, it was
actually Chinese Buddhist monks who discovered America
during their missionary tour in 1421 – 70 years before
Columbus made his fateful voyage in 1492.
interesting fact is that Thomas Jefferson’s co-drafter of
the US Constitution Thomas Paine, from England, was a
student of Buddhism. This may be why the constitution has
the liberal, humanitarian slant that it has.
Francis Adams, the son of America’s fourth president, John
Quincy Adams, was a poet and also a Buddhist. One of his
little known accomplishments is that he translated the
Sutta Nipata into the English language.
Ingersoll (1833-1899), was the attorney general of the State
of Illinois. He studied Buddhism and appreciated the
Teaching. He is called by most historians an agnostic
because he criticized the Bible and the concept of God. He
also gave credit to Buddhism for its contribution to
In 1880 Col.
Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of the Theosophical Society
with Madame H. P. Blavatsky, went to Sri Lanka and helped
revive Buddhism, which was then in a state of decline. They
were the first two Westerners to formally take the pancha
sila and publicly declare themselves Buddhists in Sri
Dharmapala went to Chicago in 1883 for the World Parliament
of Religions. He was the first person to speak about
Theravada Buddhism in America. It is interesting to note
that there were five American Buddhists in the audience.
came to America in the 19th century to build the
railroads, and in the process they founded their own
Buddhist temples all across the country.
also came to America in the 19th century, and
founded their Buddhist temples, mainly in Hawaii and
California. The Jodo Shinshu sect started the Institute of
Buddhist Studies for training Judo Shinshu priests in
Berkeley, California during the 1970’s. In 1976 Ven.
Madawala Seelawimala joined the teaching staff of this
institution, and taught courses in the Theravada Buddhist
tradition for the first time; he still teaches there to this
day. Ven. Seelawimala also started Theravada temples in
Sacramento, California, and in Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Korean War in the 1950’s, many Koreans immigrated to
America. The American involvement in the war allowed
Christian missionaries who worked aggressively to convert
the Buddhist population. Buddhist immigrants founded many
temples throughout the US and Canada.
Vietnamese War brought immigrants to the US and Canada from
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. They brought with them their
Buddhist religion, and founded Buddhist temples in their
Free-thinkers and scholars from the 1960’s like Father
Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, and Robert Thurman introduced
various forms of Buddhism to the West.
such as Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Fritjof Capra, J.
Robert Oppenheimer and others have written about the
convergence of science and Buddhism.
Holiness, the Dalai Lama has contributed greatly to bringing
Buddhism into the forefront of Western consciousness. His
charisma captured the imagination of the Hollywood film
industry, and many celebrities embraced Buddhism and became
his followers. Several films, including “Seven Years in
Tibet,” “Kundun,” “Siddhartha,” and “The Little Buddha”
brought Buddhism into the public view.
Herman Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha, isn’t the true
story of Buddha’s life, many Westerners were introduced to
Buddhism through its pages.
three decades have seen many Baby Boomers discovering
Buddhism for the first time. Authors such as Ram Dass, Jack
Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sylvia Boorstein, and others
introduced Buddhist principles and philosophy to this
many Jewish people in America who have discovered Buddhism,
and are now called “Jew-Bud” or “Bud-Jews.” One such
American of Jewish descent is Theravada monk, Ven. Bhikkhu
Bodhi. He was trained in Sri Lanka and has been
instrumental in the translation of great portions of the
Pali Canon into present day English thus making it
accessible to the English speaking population. He is an
imminent scholar to whom we are indebted for his great
service to the Buddha sasana.
most universities throughout North America there are many
courses of study that include Buddhist literature and art –
both in depth and in comparative curriculum contexts. The
first professor of Theravada Buddhism in America was Dr.
Ananda Koomarassamy. He taught Buddhism at Harvard
University in the late 1930’s.
Rahula taught Buddhist Studies at Northwestern University
from 1964 to 1969, and then at UCLA as visiting lecturer.
He also taught at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. His
book “What the Buddha Taught,” is a very popular
introduction to Buddhism for Americans. This academic
contact with Buddhism has enabled the development of
Buddhist scholars such as Dr. George Bond of Northwestern
University, author of many books and articles. Others are
Dr. James W. Boyd, who taught at Colorado State University,
and Dr. Shanta Ratnayaka of the University of Georgia.
Ariyadhamma Thera taught Buddhist Studies for over four
decades in a center he founded in Los Angeles. He arrived
in America in the mid 1940’s, having been born in Burma to a
Dutch family, and educated at Calcutta University.
Bhikkhuni Order in the Chinese Mahayana tradition has a long
history dating from its first ordinations in the 5th
century C.E, and they continue to do great service wherever
they are based. Unfortunately in the Theravada tradition
the Bhikkhuni Order died out several centuries ago, and has
only been revived in the last decade. In 1996 the first
high ordination of Theravada Bhikkhunis was held at Saranath,
and it was organized by the late Ven. Mapalagama Wipulasara
Maha Thera, General Secretary of the Indian Maha Bodhi
Society, with the help Ven. Walpola Piyananda Maha Thera of
Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, and other Sangha members.
Presently in America there are many Mahayana Bhikkhunis and
some Theravada Bhikkhunis scattered in various places
throughout the world. American born Bhikkhuni, Ven. Dr.
Karuna Dharma, has been a Mahayana Vietnamese bhikkhuni for
three decades, and has dedicated her life to the propagation
of Buddhism. A few years ago two Theravada bhikkunis,
formerly physicians, were ordained at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist
Vihara by Ven. Walpola Piyananda, and they continue to work
in the US.
was perhaps the most influential motivator of the spread of
Buddhism in North America. With the advent of the Boeing
707, young people went in droves to Asia for the first
time. Prior to the 1960’s, travel of this kind was reserved
for the rich and the idle – those who could afford the time
and expense of long ocean voyages. For the first time,
masses of people – most of them young college students –
were able to hop a plane and visit Thailand, Sri Lanka,
India, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and other exotic lands. These
students brought Buddhism home with them to North America,
and many still practice it to this day.
churches in North America, such as the Bahai Faith, Unity,
Unitarianism, and the Church of Religious Science have
adopted some Buddhist Principles as part of their doctrine.
Society and the Self Realization Fellowship helped open the
door for Indian-inspired philosophy, Buddhism, and
spirituality to enter the consciousness of North Americans.
Both organizations have prominent facilities in the Greater
Los Angeles area and elsewhere.
non-violent movement, originating with Gandhi, spread to
North America and was embraced by such politically-motivated
individuals as Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator George
McGovern, Former President Jimmy Carter and former
California Governor Jerry Brown. This movement is not
specifically Buddhist because it is political, and it is
also not religious. It merely embodies the Buddhist
philosophy of non-violence.
Theravada Buddhist tradition was originally brought to
America by Sri Lankan monks. Ven. Dr. Paravahera Vajiranana
Mahathera lived for some time in Los Angeles in the early
1930’s while he studied English. He was the first Theravada
Buddhist monk to come to this continent.
Secretary-General of the United Nations was U Thant from
Burma, and he was a Buddhist.
Gunawardena was the first Sri Lankan Ambassador to the
United Nations, and he also promoted Buddhism in the United
Dr. G. P.
Malalasekera, Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN in the late
1960’s, gave lectures on Theravada Buddhism throughout his
career in America.
Vihara was the first Sri Lankan temple in the US. It was
founded in 1965 in Washington D.C. by the most Ven. Madehe
Pannasiha Maha Nayaka Thera of Sri Lanka. He received
support from the Government of Sri Lanka, some Sri Lankan
friends, and several American devotees as well.
Angeles Buddhist Vihara was the second Sri Lanka temple in
the US, and it was founded in Los Angeles in 1978 by Ven.
Walpola Piyananda and Ven. Pannila Ananda. Then in 1980,
along with Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara, these same two
Venerables founded Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, also in
present moment there are forty-seven Sri Lankan Buddhist
temples in North America, all of which were established with
the help of Sri Lankan expatriates. Many of these US
temples were established under the leadership of Ven.
Walpola Piyananda. Some of the monks that started these
temples were trained at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, and
many others were sponsored by his temple. The purchase of
the lands and buildings for seven of these temples was made
possible by the generosity of Shantini Wijay. She continues
to be involved in the organization of new temples, under the
guidance of Ven. Walpola Piyananda.
late 1980’s Ven. Galaboda Nanissara started the New York
Buddhist Vihara and appointed Ven. Dr. Kurunagoda Piyatissa
to be the abbot. Later Ven. Henbunne Kondanna came to help
the abbot with his work, and they have since opened
satellite branches in New Jersey, Staten Island, Chicago,
there are nine Sri Lankan Theravada temples. The first one
was founded in Toronto in 1978 by Ven. Dikwala Piyananda
Maha Thera who, at the time, was president of the Washington
Theravada forest meditation tradition is also expanding in
the North America. The Ven. Dr. Henepola Gunaratana Maha
Thera, former president of the Washington Vihara,
established the Bhavana Society in West Virginia.
Thailand’s Ajahn Chah’s disciples, Ven. Ajahn Amaro from
London and Ven. Ajahn Passano from Canada, started a forest
monastery, Abhayagiri, in Northern California. In Southern
California, American born monk Thanissano Bhikkhu (Geoffrey
DeGraff), started the Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego.
monks, especially Mahasi Sayadaw’s Vipassanna group, started
many temples in America. Lay teachers, like Joseph
Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, started meditation centers
that taught the Burmese tradition. Mr. S. N. Goenka,
originally from Burma, but now living in India, comes to
North America often to teach Vipassanna students in several
currently hundreds of Buddhist temples and meditation
centers in the United States and Canada. In the Thai
Theravada tradition alone there are over one hundred
temples. Wat Thai in Los Angeles was the first of the Thai
temples, and it was founded in 1967. There are also
approximately 200 Laotian and Cambodian Theravada temples
scattered throughout the US and Canada, and a few Vietnamese
Theravada temples as well.
numerous Mahayana temples in North America, the Chinese
tradition being the most active. They have beautiful
centers throughout America, a good example of which is Hsi
Lai Temple in Los Angeles County. The City of Ten Thousand
Buddhas north of San Francisco is a Buddhist community for
both the Sangha and the laity, and it also has schools for
children. Every state and province has active Buddhist
temples from this tradition. It is interesting to note that
a Sri Lankan monk named Ven. Gunaratana converted to the
Chinese tradition and became Ven. Chao Chu. He wound up
learning three dialects of the Chinese language. He
established the Los Angeles Buddhist Union, and combined the
Chinese and Theravada systems into a hybrid form of
numerous Tibetan Buddhist centers in the U. S. and Canada,
the most prominent one being Tibet House in New York City,
founded by Robert Thurman, and containing one of the
greatest collections of Tibetan art in the world.
Japanese tradition there are many different sects, the most
popular in American being Zen. The Zen centers are now
mostly run by Americans. In California the largest
representation is from the Jodo Shinshu sect, which is
organized as the Buddhist Churches of America, and has its
headquarters in San Francisco. Other groups are Jodo Shu,
Nichiren and Sokka Ga Kai, which has a university in
regards to higher education, the Naropa Institute was
founded in Boulder, Colorado, in the early 1980’s. In the
late 90’s the University of the West in Los Angeles County
was founded by Master Hsing Yun of the Fo Kuang Shan temple
in Taiwan, along with the imminent Buddhist scholar, Dr.
Ananda Guruge, former Ambassador from Sri Lanka to the US.
America, as a result of Buddhism being primarily practiced
by the immigrant population of different Asian cultures and
their descendents, confusion between Buddhist Dhamma
or teaching and Asian cultural traditions has come to light.
This is not the fault of the monks coming from Asia, where
there is complete integration between culture and religion
due to long, intertwined histories in those countries. It
is also not the fault of the students who, having been
exposed to a particular form of Buddhism, believe that what
they have learned is Dhamma, and not the cultural traditions
that developed in the specific country of origin. They are
unaware that there are distinct differences in the customs
and cultures in terms of rites and rituals, which are the
ethnic “dressing” of the Dhamma. A good example of this is
the removal of shoes before entering all Theravada temples.
In a Chinese temple, however, if you remove your shoes you
are not allowed to enter the temple. The student typically
thinks that the cultural custom is part of the religion, and
they have no idea that they are really separate.
As a result, I have noticed a
trend in North America of the “Asian-ness” being removed
from the presentation of the Buddha’s Teaching; a teaching
which is for all people and for all times. The
Buddha’s Teaching can be taught to anyone, anywhere for its
relevance to the human condition, no matter the time or
Buddhist monks come directly from Asian countries such as
Sri Lanka or Thailand, they usually do not understand the
basic customs and religious traditions of the North
Americans they hope to teach. A good example is the concept
of “god,” which is introduced to the minds of Americans at a
very young age. When the monks talk to Americans about
Buddhism having no god, the Americans may misunderstand such
statements, and react negatively to the teaching. The monks
should be trained before leaving Asia in the ways and
beliefs of the people in the New World if their activities
to share the Teachings are to be successful.
addition, before Buddhist monks and teachers come to North
America they should learn American or Canadian English – or
at least learn it as soon as they can after they arrive.
This will help them avoid the inevitable misunderstandings
that arise when the vernacular is not understood. While
their fellow countrymen may understand perfectly the mother
tongue, the children growing up in North America will not.
They will speak American or Canadian English with only a
basic understanding of the language of their parents.
founding monks at Dharma Vijaya were foresighted in that
they initiated a Buddhist training ministry whose ordained
ministers are called “Bodhicari.” It is not easy to be a
Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni in Western society, and our temples in
America do not have the resources to properly train monks or
nuns. These Bodhicari follow the Buddha’s teachings, keep
twelve precepts, and learn the Dhamma in order to share it
with others. They are the equivalent of the ministers of
Japanese Buddhist Jodo Shinshu or ministers in the
Protestant Methodist church. These Bodhicari have been
practicing and working in their ministry for over two
conclusion, I feel that Buddhism has been successfully
transplanted in North America, and its roots have already
deeply taken hold. In the coming decades I am quite sure
that we will witness the integration of the benefits that
the Buddha’s Teaching offers to everyone: the hope for
peace in one’s life, and freedom from suffering. The most
wonderful aspect of Buddha sasana is that whether or
not individuals in North America choose to become Buddhists,
they can still partake of the benefits of the Buddha’s
Teaching, which will surely enrich their lives.
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