By Rev. Jon Turner
On Tuesday, March 16, 1999, at 11:51 AM PST – I bought my first book on Buddhism. It was Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das. This is how I first encountered the Buddhist teachings. I really didn’t know much about Buddhism but I liked the cover of the book, a beautiful picture of the Buddha with a radiating wisdom eye on his forehead. I was struggling with life and I think I was hoping to also awaken a Buddha within me.
The book is organized around the Eight Fold Noble Path, giving the book a very linear and logical structure. Each chapter covers a different practice along the path: View, Thought, Speech, Conduct, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Meditation. He gives concrete examples, demonstrating how each could and should be applied in everyday life.
I didn’t know it at the time but Lama Surya Das, like me, is also a Modern Convert Buddhist. His given name is Jeffery Miller. He is a Jewish man from New York who played high school football. He began practicing Buddhism after college and studied in Nepal. His Jewish mother lovingly calls him the Deli Lama.
At the end of the book is an Epilogue called Towards a Western Buddhism and Contemporary Dharma. This section really resonated with me. It was one seasoned convert explaining Buddhism to a novice convert. I think Lama Surya Das is uniquely qualified in this area.
He lists Ten Emerging Trends in Western Buddhism. He is not stating whether these are good or bad – it is just an “is” thing. Buddhism is organically becoming Americanized from the bottom up. Lama Surya Das is just documenting these general trends. Here are the ten trends:
Trend #1: Meditation-based and Experientially Oriented – Americans want to experience Buddhism. They want to do it. They are very interested in personal transformation. I have noticed that they enjoy the Dharma talks but are struggling to find a take away that they can use when it is not Sunday. It is difficult for new people to say Namuamidabutsu.
Trend #2: Lay-Oriented – I think Jodo Shinshu excels in this area. We are a lay-oriented school of Buddhism. The focus of our school is the Sangha. I often think the goal is for each of us to have the same insight as the Dalai Lama.
Trend #3: Gender Equal – We excel here as well. The OCBC ministerial staff and board are both very diverse and this trend is continuing.
Trend #4: Democratic and Egalitarian – I had assumed that ministers ran churches but was it is actually the Sangha. The ministers are the guides while the Sangha is the doing the heavy lifting.
Trend #5: Essentialized, Simplified and Demystified – This may be what Americans want but we have to be very careful that we don’t throw away too much. Myth is a very powerful means for transmitting truth and emotion. Making the teachings more accessible is a good thing but we do not want a People magazine form of Buddhism.
Trend #6: Nonsectarian – This is likely due to the disputes between the various Christian denominations. Most new people also think of Buddhism as a monolith. It is surprising to them when they find out how many different schools there are. I am not sure if explaining the superiority of one school over another is helpful.
Trend #7: Psychologically Astute – Psychology is the way many first come in contact with Buddhism. The Mindfulness Center at OCBC is such an entry way.
Trend #8: Exploratory – Western people seek a practice that does not conflict with what they know about science. Buddhism and science coexist very nicely.
Trend #9: Community Oriented – Buddhism is community oriented but it is usually inspired bottom up rather than defined top down. Our Sangha is very active in the community. However, there is a desire for Buddhist institutions to be more proactive. This may be a Christian orientation.
Trend #10: Socially and Ecologically Conscious – OCBC is in the process of Going Green by reducing consumption and the use of Styrofoam.
I tend to view lists like this pragmatically. It just reflects the way in which Americans engage spiritual practice. We do have to be careful not to pander but we also have to try to reach people where they are. Buddhism has a very bright future in America and Jodo Shinshu is uniquely positioned to share in this growth.
Rev. Jon Turner