Celebrating Buddhism in America: 30 Great Years
Buddhism in America has changed dramatically in the three decades since the Shambhala Sun was founded. It’s been a fascinating time of growth, scandal, deepening practice, and ever-increasing impact on American society. The late Rick Fields, a former editor of the Sun, wrote the definite history of Buddhism’s early days in America. Now our senior editor, Barry Boyce, picks up the story.
In the mid-1970s, Rick Fields embarked on a little journey. It began simply enough, with a piece commissioned by Stewart Brand (the Whole Earth Catalog founder) for his Coevolution Quarterly. In “Beginning Buddhism,” Fields, who later became editor of the Vajradhatu Sun, set out to explain for “my father, my mother, and many other people” why Buddhism was important and relevant in the “rocky, concrete soil of America.” Working on the article sparked journalistic wanderlust in Fields, and as such pursuits are wont to do, the cataloging of Buddhism’s arrival on Western soil got out of control. He decided to track down all of the many paths Buddhism followed as it worked its way west. Eventually, his story would start with the Buddha and leave off in the late seventies. The resulting four-hundred-page book ended not with a stirring conclusion, however, but faded to black with an air of “to be continued…”
How the Swans Came to the Lake laid the foundation for future narrative histories of how Buddhism has taken root in the West. We find ourselves now, about thirty years on, with more of the story to tell. If Fields’ sprawling account was about how Buddhist ideas and teachers and practices first found their way to the West, the next part of the story is about how Buddhism is acculturating itself to America, and America to Buddhism. Many of the groundbreaking teachers he talked to or interviewed, the swans, have passed on, but the lake is still here. On the Sun’s thirtieth anniversary, it seems like a good time to ask ourselves what’s been happening since Fields wrote the first chapter of Buddhism’s history in the West.
To answer that question, I’ve been looking into the record contained in books and articles, talking to people who’ve been around for a while, and peering into my own memory of Buddhism’s last thirty years. It’s a complex picture. The people I’ve talked to have paused and sighed when asked to reach back three decades. That’s a long stretch in any human being’s lifetime. Things were very different then. There was no Google to google Buddhism, but if you could have, you wouldn’t have found articles on Buddhism and health, Buddhism and ecology, Buddhism and neuroscience, Buddhism and much of anything for that matter. You might, though, have come across an article in the Rocky Mountain News referring to Buddhists as “a blue-jeaned crowd of anti-war protestors who turned their back on their American heritage.” And if you were lucky, you might have found a handful of Buddhist books in a mainstream bookstore. Meditating grandmothers were unheard of in America.
Navigating the landscape of Buddhism’s last thirty years requires some signposts. Any good Buddhist is taught to distrust labels and narratives as a little too convenient—the slippery “generally characterized phenomena” that Buddhist philosophy warns against—but we also know that without them, it’s hard to talk about where you’ve been and where you’re going. I’ve found it helpful to use four major trends as a lens through which to view the last thirty years, and they follow a loose chronology. Each has origins in earlier periods and continuations in later periods, but for a while it seems, each was the “cover story” of the day.
The period began with the movement of Buddhism from the countercultural fringe toward the mainstream of American culture. That was followed by a period of upheavals in Buddhist communities about power, authority, and gender; a surge in the fame and celebrity of Buddhism, led particularly by the Dalai Lama; and most recently, a move toward Buddhism beyond Buddhism, as mindfulness and contemplative practices have started reaching into a wide variety of secular applications. These themes are just highlights. They can’t begin to encompass every trend, type of Buddhist, or manifestation of Buddhism. History is elusive. It’s like the ego. It’s composite. It doesn’t exist. But looking into it can be instructive just the same.
1. Out of the Counterculture
In September, 1980, Senator Claiborne Pell invited His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, the leader of Tibet’s Kagyu lineage, to lunch with senators and representatives in the U.S. Capitol building. As his entourage (including the young incarnation of one of Tibet’s most important teachers, Jamgon Kongtrul) made their way through the grand entrance and the halls of congress, they were escorted by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and a half-dozen of his students, attired in suits and ties. The events of that afternoon left a strong impression on those students, who could cast their minds back to a time seven or eight years earlier when they had started just “hanging out” with their newfound teacher, having arrived fresh from lives taken up with psychedelica, experiments in communal living, and protests outside of buildings like the Capitol. To be introducing themselves to members of congress as Buddhists in the company of their guru, explaining who the Karmapa was, jangled their reference points about who was the establishment and who was not.
In his own country, when it existed as a country, the Karmapa would not have been considered strange or exotic. He was the establishment. Neither Suzuki Roshi, Ajahn Chah, Thich Nhat Hanh, or any of the other teachers responsible for bringing Buddhism to the West would have been considered fringy or freaky in their homelands. But as Buddhism came westward, it took hold not with mainstream Americans, for the most part, but with people who rebelled against the culture—the Beats and then the hippies. These first adherents naturally colored Buddhism’s identity in America. While at the core of Buddhism lies a revolutionary spirit that subverts the conventional, making the dharma a part of ordinary life also means blending right in. But that takes a while.
Before the seventies, anything Asian in America was otherworldly, but in 1965 country-of-origin quotas for U.S. immigration were lifted, and by the late seventies, Asians accounted for almost forty percent of U.S. immigrants. It became possible for many Buddhists, including prominent teachers, to move to America.
For those first Americans who took up Buddhism, it was not primarily a means of dropping out. As Sojun Mel Weitsman, abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center, told me, “The bohemians and flower children were already dropped out. Buddhism offered them a way to drop in. It allowed them to create a culture out of the counterculture.” Weitsman has watched as Buddhism has gone from something “nobody paid attention to” to a noticeable element in American culture. “It’s the swing of the pendulum,” he says, “the counterculture becoming the next culture.”
According to David Rome, senior fellow at the Garrison Institute and long-time private secretary to the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Buddhist path provided a timely refuge for many. “The initial high from drugs and the rest of it was starting to wear off, and on the political-activism side, there was disillusionment about not really being able to affect the mainstream culture. The teachings offered a more serious way of carrying on explorations of consciousness and an opportunity to come together in a community bound by shared teachings and practices.”
By the late seventies, small islands of Buddhist culture existed in America. The scene had been dominated in the early years by the austere and simple Zen world, and then the outlandishly colorful Tibetan scene. These worlds were very much formed by their leaders as amalgams of West and East. Suzuki Roshi talked of his students establishing a “special practice that is not exactly priest’s practice and not exactly layman’s practice,” and Trungpa Rinpoche combined Tibetan, Zen, and Western forms to create a world, a mandala, that according to Rome “inspired and squeezed people to clean up their acts.”
By contrast, the Theravadan Buddhist culture in America, aside from the south Asian immigrant temples in major cities, developed in a form that in Jack Kornfield’s words, quoted in Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America, by Wendy Cadge, left “much of the Eastern culture, ritual, and ceremony… behind in Asia.” Western practitioners of Theravada felt, according to Kornfield, that “it was an unnecessary barrier. It seemed to us that for our culture the simplicity and straightforwardness of mindful practice itself would speak best to the heart of those seeking practice.” The form of practice molded by Kornfield and his fellow founders of the Insight Meditation Society, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, would indeed resonate with a large number of Americans for those very reasons. In the late seventies and early eighties, their community received a boost from visits by the prominent Theravadan teachers the IMS founders had studied with in Asia: Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah, Dipa Ma, and others.
Eventually, the internal cultures of the various Buddhist communities began to intermingle much more with the greater culture. As people needed livelihoods, businesses began to start, such as San Francisco Zen Center’s very popular Greens restaurant, and as Rome points out, the need to send children to school also contributed to “a very organic re-engaging of the mainstream culture.” As Kornfield told me, people slowly began to think, in a very nascent way, of a “greater mandala of hospice, healing, social engagement.”
It was a heady time for people who had found Buddhism and a life within a spiritual community. There was an exhilarating freedom, a sense that the cultural rebellion had paid off and that Buddhists had arrived in a promised land. But Kornfield says, “Along with tremendous idealism, there was a lot of power and glamour.” In Rome’s words, “a three-way culture clash” was brewing between Asian culture, American culture, and what was left from hippy culture. “These various cultures,” he said, “had been uncomfortable bedfellows.”
Something had to give.
2. Power, Scandal, and a Gender Revolution
By 1983, Richard Baker Roshi had led the San Francisco Zen Center for twelve years, since the Mountain Seat Ceremony in which Suzuki Roshi, ailing and soon to die, installed him as abbot. During Baker’s tenure, according to James William Coleman’s New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition, Zen Center increased its budget 600-fold, acquired property worth approximately $20 million, and established a suite of student-run businesses. Baker Roshi saw it as his role to finance a big future for Zen Center, and indeed for Buddhism in America. He made friends with wealthy patrons and influential political figures, including Governor Jerry Brown. They were considered part of a network of power and influence that would help to spread the dharma.
But in March of that year, following a Buddhist Peace Conference at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Baker was discovered having an extramarital affair with a close friend’s wife. The ensuing scandal rocked Zen Center and led to Baker’s ouster in 1984. It tore up the community. Many left. It would be only the first of many crises for Buddhism in America as, in Coleman’s words, “one center after another exploded in acrimonious disputes about the conduct of their teachers.”
There’s nothing hush-hush now about the scandal surrounding Baker Roshi. Much has been written about it, including a loosely put-together account, Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing, and those involved will talk freely about that time. It is the same with the other scandals of the period, now that much time has passed. People tend to look at them with a long lens, no longer intrigued by the blow-by-blow, but appreciative of what these upheavals told us about the obstacles that emerge when people take on the mantle of spreading the dharma. There is also lingering pain, a hangover from a huge loss of innocence. For a period, the upheavals were much aired and discussed, even across communities. For example, a Buddhist teachers’ gathering at Spirit Rock in September, 1993 (reported in the January, 1994, issue of this magazine) was dominated by discussions about power and sexuality.
By that time, the other prominent scandal of the period was just winding down. After Trungpa Rinpoche died in 1987, leadership of the community he had founded, Vajradhatu (now reorganized as Shambhala International), was passed to the Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin, whom he had appointed in 1976 to lead the community after his death. Unlike Baker Roshi, Osel Tendzin had spent many years teaching and leading while his teacher was still living. But like Baker Roshi, he was a larger than life figure who wanted to carry out a very big vision. As at Zen Center, rifts had been developing long before the events that precipitated his fall from leadership. Though it was never publicly expressed, factions had developed. Many bristled at what they saw as Osel Tendzin’s high-handed, authoritarian rule.
In late 1988, the Vajradhatu community learned that Osel Tendzin was HIV positive and had developed AIDS. A young man, son of a community member and a community member himself, had contracted AIDS that may have traceable to a liaison with Ösel Tendzin. It was also learned that members of the Vajradhatu leadership had know that the leader was HIV positive. Many members felt that Ösel Tendzin’s behavior had been reckless and that not enough had been done to protect the community. After a tortuous battle within the leadership, a senior Tibetan teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, intervened, and Tendzin was sent into retreat. He died of complications from AIDS in 1990, and leadership of the community was taken over by Trungpa Rinpoche’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
How did these and other, less-publicized crises in Buddhist communities of the day happen? Several people I spoke with noted that the first Westerners to take spiritual leadership had to skip many levels of progressive spiritual development, and learn while in the teaching seat. Blanche Hartman, a senior dharma teacher who was Zen Center’s first abbess, recalls that “it was Suzuki Roshi’s intention to give dharma transmission to about a dozen people he had ordained, and they would all be peers. But he was too sick, so he gave dharma transmission to the person he thought had the best chance of keeping it going. He was accurate about that. I don't think we'd be here today if it were not for Richard Baker. Unfortunately, he got put in that position before he had had enough time to finish his training.”
Hartman’s colleague Mel Weitsman feels sad that some have concluded that dharma leaders are not needed. “Dharma communities require spiritual leaders at the top of a pyramid,” he says, “but it is a shallow pyramid with people at all levels who are learning and leading.” Of the first period of organization-building, he says, “It was too much, too quick, too much dreaming, ambition. The bubble had to burst.”
Jeremy Hayward, a close student of Trungpa Rinpoche and author of a memoir about his teacher, Warrior King of Shambhala, suggests that teachers falling from grace offer a cautionary tale about the traps that dharma teachers can fall into: “The teachings are so true and loving, and freeing, that it’s very easy for students to project that onto the personality of the teacher. You have to be a really strong teacher to realize, ‘No! I'm just wearing the coat.’ Many teachers have corrupted their position, not maliciously, but by believing they had achieved something and that the students were falling in love with them and they were falling in love with the students, in a dangerous way.”
In the early years, the meeting ground between the students and the teachers, including Asian teachers, was often shaky, and a number of the teachers’ mores were called into question. Weitsman talks about how “Asians on the surface have strictness about sex, as Buddhists, but in actuality, in Japan for example, there were always women in the monasteries who were mistresses of the priests. It’s a surface show of propriety, but as long as you don't make waves, you can have various outlets.”
Many saw the crises of power and sex in the 1980s as manifestations of an imbalance of male and female energy in the leadership, and they were determined to do something about that. While the crises brought about a great deal of self-examination, the changing role of American women in the dharma represented a revolution in Buddhism itself. Most of the teachers coming west had broken with the way Buddhism traditionally regarded women. They took women on as serious students and empowered them as teachers. But by the eighties, it was becoming clear there still was a glass barrier in the dharma. Blanche Hartman remembers “sitting around a table at Zen Center with some women, and we were talking about male dominance. Someone mentioned that Yvonne Rand was the only woman on the board, and I remember saying passionately, ‘I don't care about the political power. I want dharma power.’ I wanted to be one of those who marched out of the zendo first, because in our tradition the leaders of the practice went out first, and they were all men.” Hartman is sheepish about the surge of ambition now, and feels she needed to work through it to truly become an abbess, but she recognizes how important it was for women to see other women in roles of spiritual authority. She consciously chose the term “abbess” because the title “Abbott Zenkei Hartman” would not have made clear that she was a woman.
The differing gender relations between traditional Asian models and Buddhism as it is evolving in the West deserves, and has been given, book-length treatment, several times. Rita Gross, author of Buddhism after Patriarchy, writing in a special issue of this magazine called Women of Wisdom (June, 2005), talked about the paradox of what women, most deeply committed to feminism, found when they initially encountered Buddhism. “On the one hand,” she wrote, “the basic teachings were gender-free and gender-neutral, and many found the practice of meditation not only gender-free but intensely liberating. … On the other hand, the forms through which these teachings and practices were delivered were as male-dominated as those of any other religion.” This recognition led many women to make a strong distinction between the cultural structures that carried the dharma and the dharma itself, and they forged new kinds of teachers and organizations as a result.
The testament to women’s “dharma power” in the West is the number of renowned women teachers and prominent senior students and leaders, including Pema Chödrön, Sharon Salzberg, and Charlotte Joko Beck, to name just one from each of the three major traditions. Hartman emphasizes that, “Nowadays, whether someone is male or female has nothing whatever to do with whether they're ordained or not in our tradition. That is a clear departure.” Weitsman mentions that when students go to Japan, they notice “how far we’ve come in our approach to women here. I call this the feminization of Zen. Zen has a kind of macho male attitude, and because of the absorption of women into a male practice, the practice has become more fluid, feminized.”
While Buddhist communities were remaking themselves during their adolescence, the outside world was about to take notice of Buddhism in a very big way. This time around the press would not be writing about “a blue-jeaned crowd” of drop outs or focusing on the internal scandals of a few dharma groups.
3. Hitting the Big Time
By 1989, it had been ten years since the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the United States. He had returned for regular visits, convened several meetings with prominent scientists, and had a few small books out. He was a moderately well-known political–spiritual leader who could draw a pretty sizeable crowd. But in December of that year, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, saying in his address, “As we enter the final decade of this century, I am optimistic that the ancient values that have sustained mankind are today reaffirming themselves to prepare us for a kinder, happier twenty-first century.”
During that “final decade” the Dalai Lama’s popularity and recognition would soar, and he would spearhead Buddhism’s entry into the popular culture. In 1991, the Dalai Lama’s appearance in Central Park drew 5,000 people. In 1999, 40,000 showed up.
Robert Thurman, Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and founder of Tibet House, believes that people began to notice the Dalai Lama after the Peace Prize, not at first as a Buddhist teacher, but as someone who could revive the Gandhian ethic.
“He was not promoting Buddhism. In fact, he made clear that rigid religious identities had been one of the great barriers to peace,” Thurman told me. “But people started to notice, ‘Oh wow! He's a Buddhist,’ and so they began to conclude that Buddhists must be ethical and nonviolent. He showed people the fruit of Buddhist practice. As his fame spread, it was the fame of the bodhisattva, fame that is used to spread the dharma. In fact, the word kirti, as in the famous Buddhist names Chandrakirti and Dharmakirti, means ‘fame.’” By 1991, other Buddhist teachers, most prominently Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön, had also begun to attract serious notice, because the teachings they presented were in plain and poetic language, with a lot of heart and warmth.
Previously, Buddhist books had sold well by the standards of the small, specialty publishers who put them out, but Buddhist books didn’t attract much attention from mainstream publishers. HarperCollins published a memoir of the Dalai Lama that came out just after the Peace Prize. It did not sell particularly well, but the trends indicated that a wider audience was ready to hear about Buddhism. The first real breakout book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, came into being after Amy Hertz, then an editor at HarperSanFrancisco and now a freelance writer and editor-at-large at the Penguin Group, told Sogyal Rinpoche that, as she recalls, “The audience buying Buddhist books is being well-served by Buddhist publishers. You need to write a book that people can buy in shopping malls. My mother buys her books in shopping malls and she needs to hear this.”
The book was carefully edited to ensure its message would be understood by a broad audience, and sales of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, published in 1994, exceeded all expectations. But, Hertz says, “As well as it did, it was still a very complicated book, and a lot of people weren’t getting access to these teachings.” Not long after, Hertz came across a manuscript of the Dalai Lama’s teachings being worked on by psychiatrist Howard Cutler, who was trying to put them into an easily understandable form. Hertz bought the book, which after reworking became The Art of Happiness. It came out in 1998, Cutler promoted it tirelessly, and it became a blockbuster. For a while, mainstream publishers thought Buddhism a very hot property.
Hertz recalls the buzz: “On Monday Night Football, the sportscasters were talking about Kurt Warner, the quarterback of the L.A. Rams, who had just won the Super Bowl, and mentioned that he’d told them that a book called The Art of Happiness was on his nightstand and that's what he reads for inspiration every night. Jennifer Aniston's character Rachel on Friends was sitting at a coffee bar reading it. Charlotte on Sex in the City was reading it in the opening shot of one of the episodes. It was all over the place.”
Eventually, both Lisa Simpson and Carl Carlson, Homer’s co-worker, would be revealed as Buddhists. By the end of the decade, the Dalai Lama’s next book, Ethics for a New Millennium, would join The Art of Happiness on the New York Times bestseller list. Around this time, Buddhist scholar Thomas Tweed coined the term “nightstand Buddhists.”
It was not only TV characters on the Buddhist bandwagon. Celebrities themselves, including Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Tina Turner, and k.d. lang, were openly known to be Buddhists and referring to it in public. Hollywood capitalized on the popularity of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama first with Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha in 1993, and then Kundun, directed by Martin Scorcese, and Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, both in 1997.
Around 2001, the wave of Buddhist popularity would start to tail off, but the surge of interest in Buddhism was “more than a phase,” Jack Kornfield says. “By the turn of the century, many of the central principles of Eastern dharma, both yogic and Buddhist, had penetrated the culture. You could find a yoga studio or meditation group in almost every community.” Celebrity and fame are not such a bad thing, he adds, since they “demystify that which seems foreign. What is a fad or fashionable turns into something that is simply more available to people.”
4. Beyond Buddhism
The phrase “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” is heard so often these days that, as the trademark lawyers would say, it’s gone generic, like Kleenex and Xerox. That doesn’t bother Jon Kabat-Zinn, its founder, one bit. That was what he was aiming for. At the end of training sessions for MBSR teachers, he tells them, “You can go back and teach and call your program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I don’t want to trademark this. I want you to take it, innovate with it, make it your own practice, so you can teach what you know.”
Kabat-Zinn was one of those people for whom Buddhism provided an opportunity in the late seventies, in Mel Weitsman’s terms, to “drop-in”—in a very big way. The son of an immunologist, Kabat-Zinn trained at MIT as a molecular biologist but also practiced yoga and meditation, starting in the mid-sixties. He had been inspired by a talk at MIT by Philip Kapleau Roshi and went on to become a student of Korean Zen master Seung Sahn. When he took some time off from his job in the gross anatomy lab at the UMass Memorial Medical Center to do a meditation retreat, it occurred to him that patients in a hospital could use some mindfulness.
The first MBSR program began in 1979. It worked. Combining simple mindfulness techniques, such as paying attention while eating a raisin, with yogic techniques, such as lying down and scanning the body mentally, reduced patients’ stress and thereby their overall pain. Kabat-Zinn avoided using explicit Buddhist terms; he felt they would be off-putting and carry baggage that already burdened people did not need to bear. “People are just suffering,” he told me, “They’re not looking for enlightenment or meditation or to become Buddhists or to give up their culture or any of that.”
The principle that buddhadharma—the discoveries attributed to the Buddha and propagated since by a wide variety of traditions—is inherent human wisdom that can be discovered and applied by anyone, free of a religious context, is at the heart of a movement that has been gaining strength for the last thirty years. In the view of Mirabai Bush, one of the founders of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, there has been a tipping point in the last few years in this movement. She’s reluctant to point to a “Berlin Wall moment,” but she feels that when “meditation” was emblazoned across that great barometer of popular culture, the cover of Time magazine, in August, 2003, it was clear that “demand for practices that originated in Buddhism, which you could say are simply basic human practices, has increased dramatically.”
In its signature breathless prose, the Time story confirms Kornfield’s thesis that fashionability gives birth to availability: “Meditation classes today are being filled by mainstream Americans who don’t own crystals, don’t subscribe to New Age magazines, and don’t even reside in Los Angeles. … It’s becoming increasingly hard to avoid meditation. It’s offered in schools, hospitals, law firms, government buildings, corporate offices and prisons. … Meditation was the subject of a course at West Point, the spring 2002 issue of the Harvard Law Review, and a few too many speeches by Lakers coach Phil Jackson.”
It’s no accident that about half the Time article was taken up by reporting on scientific research about meditation. It’s been a critical part of Kabat-Zinn’s MO to back up the mindfulness work with supporting research. And beginning in 1988, as is well known by now, the Dalai Lama has overseen a series of meeting with scientists under the auspices of the Mind & Life Institute. (The eighteenth meeting was held in Berlin in October.) Jeremy Hayward, who wrote several early books on the conjunction of Buddhism and science, feels the work surrounding these meetings has been invaluable. “What Richie Davidson and others have been doing,” he says, “is demonstrating to people in the healing professions and many other areas that what practitioners do is extremely valuable and helpful, for anyone. On the hard science side, people have begun to acknowledge that there is a genuine inner world of mind that needs to be examined.”
A deeper examination gets to the heart of what is meant by “contemplative,” a word that Mirabai Bush says was chosen advisedly as a watchword for a new movement, something broader than just an effort to “hone attention.” For now, Bush says, the integrity of the movement is assured because it is seasoned Buddhist practitioners who are doing a lot of the teaching. When Norman Fischer, a senior student of Suzuki Roshi and former abbot of Zen Center, teaches the bodhisattva path at Google by calling it “warm-hearted leadership,” Bush feels the depth is still there. As the inherited practices of Buddhism are secularized, she says, “They must also be framed by moral and ethical wisdom, an understanding of non-harming—or they will lose their sacred depths.”
The arc from countercultural rebellion to the emergence of the “abbot of Google” (as Fischer is called) charts the story of an amorphous, composite beast known as Buddhism in America. Alongside it has been the mundane reality of daily, weekly, monthly meditation practice in hundreds of centers and many thousand homes. Most of the communities formed in the wild old days survive. The ranks of the founding members are thinning, and many of that generation feel we are really hearing, poignantly, as if for the first time, a teaching—impermanence—we have been hearing about since we were young and glassy-eyed.
The ongoing transmission of Buddhism has always required a core of deep practice, the place where the pyramid of spiritual leaders Mel Weitsman talks about comes from. The generations after the baby boom are smaller, and many challenges will fall on their shoulders, not least how to train new teachers and make participation more inviting and affordable for a wider range of people. Most of those who pioneered Buddhism in America will not be around to see what it will be thirty years from now, but they care deeply about it. In a panel discussion I led for the current issue of Buddhadharma, a twenty-one-year-old new practitioner, Iris Brilliant, suggested that older Buddhists ought to “make younger friends and ask them questions.” Out of those conversations new shapes of Buddhism will certainly emerge.
To be continued.