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Buddhadharma : Fall 2011
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 11 50 the brutal Chinese Communist crackdown of the 1950s. Since then, a steady stream of tal- ented and charismatic tibetan teachers have come to the West, bringing what used to be Buddhism’s most secret and esoteric teach- ings to an eager audience. Finally, there are the growing number of nondenominational Buddhist groups that are not affiliated with any particular lineage but draw their inspira- tion from the tradition as a whole. A Closer Look at American Buddhists Although Buddhism in America has spread far beyond its countercultural origins, its membership is still drawn disproportionally from the ranks of the politically progres- sive. the Pew study found that Buddhists are more likely to identify themselves as liberals and more likely to support gay and abortion rights than the members of any other religious denomination it surveyed. Western Buddhists are also likely to have a higher income and better education than the average American. on the other hand, it will come as no sur- prise to most Western Buddhists that African Americans and Latinos are significantly underrepresented among their ranks. When my book The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition first came out in 2001, journalists and scholars asked me one question over and over: “How many Buddhists are there in the West?” At that time, all i had to offer were a few educated guesses. But since then, several good national surveys have helped clear up the issue. the best of these was the 2007 Pew survey of more than 35,000 Americans, of whom 0.7 percent said they were Buddhists. if we multiply that by the adult population of the United States for that year, there were about 1.6 million American Buddhists at that time. if we multiply 0.7 percent by the total roughly three-quarters of American Buddhists are converts to the new Buddhism that has grown up in the West. north America’s initial encounter with Buddhism was with Japanese Zen. the countercultural rebels of the Beat Generation and their intellectual descendents developed a long-distance fascination with Zen phi- losophy and Zen stories, and a number of Japanese teachers who had come to the West to serve the needs of the Japanese American community found a receptive audience among the native-born population. it wasn’t long before Westernized Zen Centers were spreading throughout north America. Since Zen was the first Buddhism to put down roots in north America, it’s not surprising that it now has the largest number of adherents. According to the Pew survey, a little more than a third of the Americans who converted to Buddhism practice Zen. the second major stream of Buddhism in America, which came to be known as Vipassana, sprang from the theravadan tra- dition of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. the founders of this movement were not Asians, but Western pilgrims who studied in Asian monasteries and later established their own centers in the West to share what they had learned. Because they were founded and led by Westerners from the start, Vipassana cen- ters tend to be the most secular and the fre- est of the cultural overlays Buddhism gained from its various Asian hosts. the third stream of Western Buddhism had its roots in the tibetan Diaspora that followed James William Coleman, a sociology professor at California Polytechnic state University in san luis obispo, is the author of The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition, and editor of the forthcoming The Third Turning of the Wheel, by Tenshin Reb anderson. Immigrant Buddhists are now a distinct minority in American Buddhism. Roughly three-quarters of American Buddhists are converts to the new Buddhism that has grown up in the West.