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Buddhism In America Essay, Research Paper

The stresses and intensity of modern American society have influenced many

people to adopt and adapt the principles of Buddhism and other Eastern

religions. Some recent statistics from the US department of Health and Human

Services show that 75% of the General Population experiences at least ?some

stress? every two weeks (National Health Interview Survey). Half of those

experience moderate or high levels of stress during the same two-week period. It

is common knowledge that stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure,

strokes, and other illnesses in many individuals. Stress also contributes to the

development of alcoholism, obesity, suicide, drug addiction, cigarette

addiction, and other harmful behaviors. It was reported that tranquilizers,

antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications account for one fourth of all

prescriptions written in the US each year. With so many mental health problems,

it is almost reassuring that Eastern religions are steadily growing. Buddhism On

The Move Eastern religions have been practiced in Asia and the Subcontinent for

thousands of years longer than Christianity. Buddhism, a main religion of Asia

has been practiced in Tibet for Millennia. Buddhism, Zen and Hindu were first

introduced to the western world in 1893 at the World Religions Conference in

Chicago. The Dalai Lama represented Buddhism and D.T. Suzuki represented Zen.

However, Eastern religions went relatively ignored until 1959, when the Chinese

invasion of Tibet left 1.3 million Tibetans dead and 6,000 Buddhist monasteries

destroyed. Tibetan refugees escaped to bordering countries and some fled farther

to the US and Europe. Those who fled remembered how the Buddha taught his

enlightened disciples to continue to spread his teachings. ?With the Chinese

Invasion of Tibet, it was as if a dam had burst; suddenly Tibetan wisdom began

to flow freely down from the roof of the world and to the West?and there to

fulfill the prophecy come Westerners looking for guidance and eager to develop

their own spiritual lives and transplant the flowering tree of enlightenment to

their own lives.?(Das, 29) The first westerners to begin to adopt Eastern

principles were often people on the fringes of society or in the avant-garde of

the arts, literature, and philosophy. The beatniks in the 50?s, the Hippies in

the 60?s and 70?s. Evidence of eastern thought in the writings of Jack

Kerouac, Hippies ? George Harrison and the Beatles studying with the Maharishi

Mahesh Yoga. Richard Albert turned his name to Baba Ram Das. In our society

today, it seems like everyone knows someone into Eastern religion. From

businessmen to politicians to celebrities individuals are joining meditating

groups while still maintaining ties to their traditional faiths to ?wet their

feet? in more satisfying and less materialistic lives. ?At retreats you?re

likely to find yourself sitting next to a stockbroker or a therapist or a

retired social worker who may or may not claim to be Buddhist.?(Wood, 3)

?Unlike the rush of mostly younger Americans to Buddhism that occurred in the

1950?s and 1960?s, the new ranks include a larger percentage of seekers over

50?(Wood, 2). Now in the West we see many variations of Buddhism, Hinduism,

Taoism, and Zen, such as Mahayana, Pali, and Vajpareena. Our new,

multi-religious land that combines Eastern and Western religion can be described

as ?the scientific West arriving at something like the fusion of the Confucian

cultivation of virtue through the bonds of family and community, Taoist

laissez-faire and yearning for nature, and Buddhist compassion for man?s need

for Nirvana.?(Layman, 80) We have adapted religions in many ways to fit our

lives. ?Buddhism in America is characterized by great diversity, with both

conservative and liberal trends within the same sect and denomination of course,

differences in furnishings and hairstyles are superficial, and are either

tangential or irrelevant to the Buddhist system of beliefs and basic way of

life. But fundamental and widespread changes in American Buddhism are occurring.

Its priests and adherents are recognizing that Buddhism must be shown to have

relevant approaches to the problems which plague American Society. Accordingly,

sermons and lectures delivered by the clergy are making less use of

illustrations recounted by ancient Buddhist saints and are becoming more

applicable to everyday living in modern American society.?(Layman, 32) As a

result, ?The ancient religion of Buddhism grows even stronger roots in a new

world, with the help of the movies, pop culture, and the politics of repressed

Tibet.? (Van Biema, 1) Because of the inroads that eastern religions have made

in our country there is an increase in personal reform via retreats,

?sanghas? ? a circle of friends who regularly meditate together, and

self-help groups. We are also undergoing social reform, creating a more

accepting society, and building upon an ancient religion. ?The number of

English language Buddhist teaching centers coast to coast has grown from 429 to

almost 2,000?(Wood, 1). What makes Eastern Thought so different from Western

Thought. What we currently have in the West, ?which is a sort of

anti-religious, psychological way of thinking?these psychologies often work

against our spiritual side. Buddhism, on the other hand, can help by providing

psychological bridges that will reinforce the spiritual side.?(Toms, 143)

Unlike Western religions, Eastern religions do not teach commandments, rather,

natural ways of ordinary human practice. Nor do they teach right and wrong ?

correct and incorrect or wise and ignorant. The Buddha is different from a God

or Jesus in that Buddha became perfectly aware of the nature of reality and

nature of the self, and he was then able to remove limitations on manifestation

and could actually manifest whatever was most helpful to those around him. He

was known as Shasta, or teacher, and his objective was to remove the cause of

all suffering to find true happiness. The Buddha can be perceived as omnipotent,

he was enlightened and awakened, but he was not the creator. Hinduism, Brahma,

Buddhism, Zen, and other Eastern religions are consistent in the belief that

there are many gods and one creator, only, they are not sure of the true

creator. There are no set areas where one must practice, however, quiet, natural

places are encouraged and it can be practiced any time one feels necessary. It

can be a daily, weekly, yearly or once in a lifetime act, there are no rules as

to when a student must pray. The basic tenets and ideas of Eastern religions are

generally very different from those of Western religions. Mindfulness ? the

Zen practice of embracing the present, is being profoundly aware of each moment

so that people can better appreciate their own lives, and being more

compassionate about the suffering of others. Buddhism tries to make sense out of

life without fear and guilt that some other religions induce. You find the way

that you want to live, open up that way, and then pursue that way. The best way

to live the life you want is to ?actualize what you realize.? In other

words, make real your dreams. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in Zen that, ?The other

may be a beautiful sunrise. The other may be your friend, your husband, your

wife. The other is love. Mindfulness helps you recognize what is there that

makes life real, that makes life possible.?(Toms, 19). Buddhism doesn?t

believe in God, but believes in the nature of god. They are theistic, only not

sure of true creator. The Tibetan vision of reality is in a way, the most

super-positive vision of human evolution that one could imagine. The Buddha

regarded himself as an empiricist, only relying on that which is known and

testable in experience. What is new to Western thinking is the Buddhist idea

that ethics and spiritual development are also governed by universal laws. ?In

the West we have a clear sense of personal and group responsibility for the

government and welfare of everyone, set forth by Locke, Rousseau, and others in

the late 18th century and developed for the next 200 years in the democratic

societies in Eastern Europe and the Americas. As Western Buddhists, we are

building on one tradition of social responsibility that has been cultivated in

monastic settings? with such a synthesis of traditions, Buddhism in the West

is sure to apply the precepts in a new way.?(Aitken ? written by Tworkov,

53) The forms of introspection that have, to date, been available to Western

Philosophers as the raw materials of their craft, have been very limited in

their scope and have consequently produced limited world views. What has made

people turn to it. Eastern religions have become as accessible as Western

religions, because they have spread to every corner of earth. If all else fails,

the Internet is a wealth of information. ?One of the key elements in all of

spiritual life is making ourselves available to others. What young men need is

initiation, someone to whom they can show their stuff and prove it ? otherwise

they do it on the street.?(Toms, 849) The main ideas and themes appeal to

many, Buddhist belief in using the mind to change our lives provides practical

methods and exercises that we can use every day to change our perception of

reality. ?Rather than turning us away from what is best in Western Culture,

Buddhism can help us return to it, for the west today is in the grip of a major

cultural crisis of confidence.?(Kulananda, 210) Buddhism has become so popular

in the West, because it teaches one how to be happier and more aware by use of;

seeing things as they are, living a sacred life, speaking the truth, loving,

attention and focus on what is important to you, and meditation. These concepts

work with us, because they are easily adaptable and understandable to the

Western way of life. ?Zen can be adapted to be useful I modern times. Like

water it takes the form of the vessel that contains it without any change in its

nature: water remains water whether it is held in a rice bowl or a coffee mug.

Many who seek enlightenment in this day and age may not be able to fulfill their

destiny within a purely monastic lifestyle.?(Simpkins, p.61) Another aspect of

Eastern religions that attract Westerners is the ability to be independent in

the search of enlightenment. Jakusho Kwong, Soto Priest and abbot of the Soto

Zen Buddhist Temple in Genjoji, expresses, ?There?s a lot to read, and

there?s a lot to learn. But for me, the most important thing is what?s

yours. What can you call your own? And to know that. Not what Suzuki Roshi said,

or Maezumi Roshi said, or Katagari Roshi said. What you say. What it means to

you. That?s the only way.? (Tworkov, 103) ?In Zen terms, we are born

alone, we die alone, and we have realization alone.?(Toms, 131) Maintaining a

clear awareness of our feelings and sensations, we can open out the gap between

feeling and craving. This experience strengthens our intuition of how things

really are and a series of ever more intensely positive mental states therefore

follow. Hindu promotes the ability to listen when people need to be heard. When

asked ?What?s your road man?? Jack Kerouac answered, ?Holyboy road,

madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, it?s an anywhere road for anybody

anyhow.? By saying this, Kerouac means that his path in life is to follow his

Taoist religion, be free from others, seek happiness and peace, innocence of

youth, and that the path he is on can be universally reached. This just shows

how conclusive people can be with their words when they learn what the really

important things are. Eastern religions seek to fulfill self and understand the

nature of self. They teach the seeker to let ?body and mind fall away? and

look at the greater picture (Toms, 73). ?In going for refuge to the Buddha one

commits oneself to becoming more than one is now.?(Kulananda, 72) ?In

seeking happiness by clinging to a restricting, ego-identity, again and again we

cause ourselves and others to suffer.?(Kulananda, 87) More and more public

figures such as; Richard Gere, Michael Yauch, Steven Segal, Courtney Love,

Oliver Stone, and more, practice the eastern religions and praise their

effectiveness. ?Yauch is slight and soft-spoken, he says Buddhism, ?felt

real, not hokey.? Two generations ago, given his milieu he would have been a

curiosity, today he is something of a role model.?(Van Biema, 8-9) Eastern

religions can be a cheap alternative to psychotherapy because they are very

similar. ?Given the sophistication of the Buddhist analysis of the mind and

its preoccupation with the eradication of suffering, it is only natural that

strong similarities have come to be seen between Buddhism and the contemporary

Western Psychotherapy.?(Kulananda, 222) As Buddhism and psychotherapy become

closer acquainted with one another, there is an emerging trend towards a kind of

psychotherapeutic Buddhism, where the drive towards enlightenment is replaced

with the overriding impulse to simply come to terms with oneself and feel better

about oneself and the world. Why has it become important to our society.

?Anything infused into our world today about nonviolence can only

help.?(Scorsesce) Most people in our society struggle to find the right views.

?Right views bring us in touch with some of the most important concepts in

Buddhist philosophy. How do you perceive life, death, impermanence, suffering,

dissatisfaction, and cause and effect? Do we really believe, and know, that we

reap what we sow, or do we regard that as just another clich?? In the west, we

are typically conditioned to push these serious matters aside, and deal with

them later. Buddhism says deal with them now, and you?ll transform your

life.?(Das, 95) Maintaining a clear sense of our feelings and sensations, we

can open out the gap between feeling and craving. This experience strengthens

our intuition of how things are and a series of ever more intensely positive

mental states therefore follow. Two Buddhist ideas, that there is a natural

hierarchy of values and that reality is perceived in the imagination, contain

within them the seeds of Western Cultural renaissance. What Buddhism most has to

offer Western Philosophy is the notion that ways of conceptualizing are

intertwined with ways of being and although one can go about philosophy as if it

were a purely intellectual exercise, there is little value in that ? thought

alone cannot apprehend reality. ?Dharma is timeless not culture bound.?(Das,

378) Dharma, the cosmic law underlying all existence; combines with the Buddha

and the Sangha (the community of believers), to form the Three Treasures of the

faith. It is one of Buddhism?s great strengths that it has at its heart the

ideal of spiritual fellowship. ?Today, Buddhism is at a critical juncture as

it encounters the West. It is no surprise that there have been formidable

culture, linguistic, political, and material barriers to overcome in the

transmission of Buddha Dharma from the East to the West and from the past on to

the present and the future. This is a transition through time as well as through

space, spanning continents and oceans, from a traditional Oriental world to a

scientific postmodern Western Culture.?(Das, 378) ?Modern Western culture is

marked by an unprecedented degree of technological sophistication and material

abundance. It is highly complex and deeply fragmented.?(Kulananda, 25) All

over, people seem torn between a sincere desire to conquer ego and the drive to

be doing so. A great benefit to our society has been the increase in people who

maintain less interest in self and more for the benefit of others, as well as

the increase of knowledge of the effects. The majority of Eastern Religions

promote the ability to listen when people need to be heard. Everything that

lives is subject to decay. All conditioned things are impermanent. To be alive

is to change. Without change we would be absolutely inert, but the

un-enlightened human condition is to fight change every inch of the way. A

following of well known peoples (celebrities, business men, politicians, etc.)

has made Eastern Religion appealing to those who were originally skeptical. A

poem that appeared in New Yorker Magazine shows how Buddhism has practically

become a ?household term? ? ?The huge head of Richard Gere, a tsonga

blossom / in his hair, comes floating like a Macy?s / Parade balloon above

snowcapped summit / of sacred Kailas.? Some very outstanding people of the

Eastern religions have reached out to those in need, like Roshi Bernard Glassman,

founder of the ?Bakery Zendo? in Brooklyn, who uses what he learns and

teaches to benefit his community. He employs the local homeless and unemployed

in his bakery, garment company, and building-renovation services, and houses

them in his large suburban New York mansion where they are allowed to study Zen

with the great master. There has been much progression of Buddhism in the US

because, ?Americans have always been a do ? it ? yourself culture, and

this is a do ? it ? yourself philosophy.?(Van Biema, 8). But it is

definite that there will be much more progression. As Richard Gere said,

?There has not been enough time to ferment and intoxicate the culture in

America, but our approach, because were so new at it, has a certain eagerness

and excitement that you sometimes don?t see in Tibetans. Westerners ask

questions, they take notes.? Individuals join meditating groups while still

maintaining ties to their traditional faiths to ?wet their feet? in more

satisfying and less materialistic lives. The progression of Western views to

adapt Eastern ideas can be explained as, ?Combining monastic views with

secular lifestyle has nonetheless served two functions. It has introduced the

monastic dimension of the Japanese Zen tradition to the United States, where it

may someday figure prominently. It has also been a skillful means for

establishing the authority of Zen teachings both within and without the

communities.? (Glassman ? Tworkov, 153) Show major impacts on West Less

materialistic lifestyle People search to be ?better? Giving Concerned about

others People more in touch with reality People become more aware and accepting

Show impact on my life?

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