Kosei Books
Dharma World Magazine homeCurrent Issueback issues of Dharma World MagazineKosei Publishing Co.Dharma World buddhist magazineKosei BooksRissho Kosei-kai English web site
Dharma World Buddhist magazine

Dramatic Growth of American Buddhism: An Overview

by Kenneth K. Tanaka


If we add up all three groups (Buddhists, nightstand Buddhists, and those strongly influenced by Buddhism), they amount to about thirty million people in America.

According to Professor Diana Eck, a specialist in contemporary American religions at Harvard University, "Buddhism is now an American religion."1 That Buddhism is seen as an American religion reflects the status of Buddhism in the United States today.

Buddhists currently make up 1 percent of the American population, or about three million, making it the third-largest religion in the United States and constituting a fifteenfold increase from the 1960s. Of course, the largest by far is Christianity, with about 79 percent of the population being Christian, followed by Judaism, with 2 percent who are Jewish. Other faiths such as Islam and Hinduism are less than 1 percent.2

Beyond the three million Buddhists, there are also those who do not claim to "be Buddhists" but are keenly interested in Buddhism, especially its meditation. These people are called sympathizers or, somewhat humorously, nightstand Buddhists.3 They may not be members of any temples or centers but practice Buddhism in the privacy of their home by meditating and reading Buddhist books. While reading them, they often keep the books on their bedroom nightstand, hence the name. While there is no reliable data on the number of nightstand Buddhists, it is estimated to be a couple of million people.

Moreover, in a recent survey, 12 percent of the people replied that Buddhism has had "an important influence on their thinking about religion or spirituality."4 This amounts to about twenty-five million people. So, if we add up all three groups (Buddhists, nightstand Buddhists, and those strongly influenced by Buddhism), they amount to about thirty million people in America.

Kaleidoscope of Buddhists

Focusing now on the kinds of Buddhists, which city in the world do you think has the largest number of Buddhist schools? You might think Bangkok, Taipei, or Kyoto, but the answer is Los Angeles, where there are at least eighty different schools of Buddhism present. In other words, virtually all the main schools of Buddhism in Asia are now represented in Los Angeles.

In Asia, Buddhists from different countries have rarely known each other, let alone lived in the same community. However, in Los Angeles, a Thai, a Korean, and a Japanese temple are located in the same neighborhood. The same thing can be said of other major metropolitan areas such as Honolulu, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle-Tacoma, Chicago, and New York.

In order to better understand all the various kinds of Buddhist schools, I have categorized them into four groups:

1. Old-line Asian-American Buddhists (approximately 250,000): They started their temples in the mid- to late 1800s and are mostly of Chinese and Japanese origin. Today, because they are third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Americans, their temple activities are virtually all held in English.
2. New Asian-American Buddhists (approximately 1,350,000): They arrived in the United States primarily from the mid-1960s and onward, and are mostly of Cambodian, Laotian, Myanmar, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese origin. With the large percentage of first-generation members, the temple activities and services are often held in the respective native language. As time passes, however, English is being used with increasing frequency.
3. Convert Buddhists whose main practice is meditation (approximately 1,300,000): Unlike the first two groups, they were not born into Buddhist families but converted to Buddhism. They are predominately Euro-Americans and belong to one of the three traditions, Zen, Vipassana, or Tibetan, whose main practice is sitting meditation.
4. Convert Buddhists whose main practice is chanting (approximately 100,000): Like the third group, they also converted to Buddhism, but in their case they all belong to one school, Soka Gakkai International-USA. They are racially the most diverse group, for they include not only Asian-Americans and Euro-Americans but also a good percentage of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. Their main practice is the repeated chanting of the name of the Lotus Sutra, or the daimoku (pronounced "Namu-myoho-renge-kyo").

Among these four groups, what draws the most attention of the media and the scholars are the convert Buddhists, especially the famous ones such as the actor Richard Gere, actor Richard Segal, singer Tina Turner, golf player Tiger Woods, and rap singer Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Phil Jackson, a well-known NBA basketball coach, definitely qualifies as a nightstand Buddhist.

There are plenty more convert Buddhists, which is why a 1997 issue of Time magazine featured on its cover actor Brad Pitt, who starred in the popular movie Seven Years in Tibet, with the heading "The American Fascination with Buddhism." The article dedicated ten pages to how and why many Americans are attracted to Buddhism.

Well, it has been said that there is a Chinese restaurant in virtually every city in America, but perhaps the same is now becoming true of Buddhist temples and meditation centers.

Three Periods in History

Let me now paint a quick picture of Buddhist development in the United States, which can be divided into three periods.

First period. The first period began in 1844 when a chapter from the Lotus Sutra was translated from French into English, and in the same year Professor Edward Salisbury of Yale University delivered the first comprehensive paper on Buddhism at the annual conference of the American Oriental Society. In the world of American literature, such eminent figures as Ralph Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry Thoreau were attracted to and made positive references to Asian religions and Buddhism.

Soon more Americans became interested in Buddhism, such as Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and Paul Carus (1852-1919). Both of them devoted their lives to propagating Buddhism. Carus produced numerous publications through his Open Court publishing house, while Olcott, a Theosophist, traveled to Sri Lanka and became a Buddhist in 1880. He later contributed to the revival of Buddhism in that country.

An epoch-making event was the World's Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It was an eye-opening encounter for many Americans, who for the first time came face-to-face with the living representatives of Buddhist and other Asian religions, which they had largely imagined to be relics of the past. Instead, Soen Shaku from Japan, Anagarika Dharmapala of Sri Lanka, and others were not only impressive figures but presented Buddhism as a modern religion more in keeping with science than Christianity. After the parliament Dharmapala made more trips to the United States over the years to lecture on Buddhism, and Shaku sent his disciple D. T. Suzuki to reside in the United States, who went on to make enormous contributions to the understanding of Buddhism, Zen in particular.

Second period. Though it overlaps in time with the first period to some extent, the second period refers to Buddhism brought over by Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. They established numerous temples, mostly on the West Coast, serving as important centers of their religious and community life. The Chinese built the first Buddhist temple in 1853 in San Francisco, and more were built throughout the western United States wherever large Chinese communities existed.

By the closing years of the nineteenth century, Chinese Buddhist temples began to dwindle in numbers. This was due to the decline in the Chinese population stemming from discriminatory laws that prevented further Chinese immigration, particularly of women. Also, there were very few priests associated with these temples to provide the professional leadership necessary to endure and prosper in the new environment.

The group that resuscitated Asian Buddhism was the Japanese, who began to establish temples in large numbers, first in Hawaii and the West Coast states. The Japanese differed from the Chinese in that the headquarters of the various Buddhist denominations sent professional priests as missionaries to the new land. Further, more Japanese women were able to accompany the men, enabling them to start families, which soon led to the need for religious institutions for their American-born children.

These sets of dynamics allowed the Japanese Buddhists to grow in numbers through the first half of the twentieth century and even into the war years. Ironically, the hostile environment of the larger society contributed to making the temples even more of an important emotional and social center for the immigrants and their children. In fact, the Japanese Buddhists were the only group that managed to prosper and actively keep the torch of Dharma lit throughout the first half of the century in the face of the decline in the number of Chinese Buddhists (for reasons previously mentioned) and Caucasian Buddhists, whose interest in Buddhism waned because it came to be perceived as being too pessimistic and not socially active enough for the American mentality.

Third period. The third period began soon after the Second World War and continues to the present and is characterized most prominently by its dramatic growth. This period encompasses two movements, that of the converts and that of the new Asian-American Buddhists. And it was in this period, especially among the converts, that the earlier perception of Buddhism as pessimistic and inactive was dramatically changed to one of optimism and activism. It is thought that this was, in large part, the outcome of greater emphasis on practice, such as meditation, which spiritually empowered the practitioners to a greater degree than the mere intellectual understanding of Buddhism that was dominant in the first period.

The convert Buddhists are those associated with the so-called Beat Buddhism of the 1950s, represented by such famous poets as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. They paved the way for the more full-fledged groups of the 1960s and 1970s. These groups include Tibetan institutions such as the Nyingma Institute, founded by Thartang Tulku; Shambhala International, founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche; the San Francisco Zen Center, founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi; and the Insight Meditation Society, founded by Americans Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jacqueline Schwartz. These institutions refer to the "convert Buddhists whose main practice is meditation" mentioned earlier.

This convert group also includes Soka Gakkai International-USA, which makes up the "convert Buddhists whose main practice is chanting" discussed above. With its beginnings in 1960, this group was often criticized in the early stages for its aggressive proselytizing style and its exclusivistic attitude of not associating with other Buddhist groups. But with these features now attenuated, Soka Gakkai has succeeded in creating an organization that probably claims the largest number of members for a single organization and is ethnically the most diverse among the four Buddhist groups.

The other dimension of the third period is the enormous growth of the second of the four Buddhist groups, the "new Asian-American Buddhists." Their numbers surged with the change in the immigration law in 1965 that allowed much larger Asian immigration from Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the other Southeast Asian countries.

Characteristics of American Buddhism

Buddhism in America has produced characteristics, especially in the convert groups, that are not prominently seen in traditional Asian Buddhist countries.

Democratization. There are definitely more women leaders than in Asian Buddhist countries. Women make up half of the teachers in some of the convert groups, such as the Insight Meditation Society. And women have held top leadership positions at the San Francisco Zen Center and elsewhere. Second, monks and nuns are the norm in the Buddhist world in Asia, but American Buddhists have largely rejected the monastic lifestyle. Most priests are married with families. These democratic developments differ from the more traditional hierarchical relationships, where the monks and nuns are considered superior to the laypeople, and men superior to women.

Rationalization. Psychology (which includes psychotherapy) has become one of the main frameworks for Americans to understand Buddhism, since they both focus on the mind and seek to alleviate suffering. Consequently many counselors and therapists have converted to Buddhism or adopted Buddhist elements such as meditation into their professional practices. Another reason for the popularity of Buddhism is that it does not conflict with natural science. This view has contributed to the popularity of Fritjof Capra's landmark book The Tao of Physics. The Dalai Lama, too, has been at the forefront of dialogue between Buddhists and scientists and has gone so far as to announce that in the domain of the natural realm, Buddhists should adjust any traditional Buddhist understanding if it is refuted by science. Thus, the Buddhist interaction with psychology and the natural sciences represents an attempt to enhance the rational element of Buddhism to interact with the modern world.

Engagement. Many Americans believe that Buddhist teachings must help to alleviate the problems of the world, such as global warming, domestic violence, poverty, discrimination, and crime. They say that Buddhism should not only be concerned with one's own happiness but should also care about others, especially those people who are suffering. While social engagement is, of course, not absent in Asia, it is perhaps emphasized to a greater degree in America. This "engaged Buddhism" has no doubt been strengthened by the Judeo-Christian tradition of social justice, by which many of the converts had been influenced.

Privatization. Buddhism in America is in keeping with a sociological trend toward religion becoming more privatized or individualized. Rather than attending temples and meditation centers, more people practice Buddhism, particularly meditation and chanting, in the privacy of their homes. This feature is especially prominent among the so-called nightstand Buddhists, who are motivated primarily by a desire for mental and spiritual freedom and not by social and cultural needs, family obligation, or ancestral veneration.

Present life. In Asia, the traditional teachings regard our existence as lying within the cycle of birth and death (samsara), from which the Buddhists seek liberation (nirvana). Hence, the present life is seen to be inherently unsatisfactory and not worthy of attachment, but American Buddhists actively seek liberation in this present life and even in this very body. The teaching of impermanence (anitya) is not taken as the reason for not getting attached but as an encouragement to live fully in the moment, which is reflected in a popular saying quoted by Buddhists, "Yesterday is history and tomorrow is a mystery. However, this moment is a gift, which is why we call it the present!"

Humor. The American love of religious humor has led to the creation of a robust Buddhist humor, which some American Buddhists see as a way of fostering levity and spontaneity and not getting attached to self-centered things and ideas. Perhaps the most well-known Buddhist joke is one that has been aired even on regular radio programs: "Why couldn't the Buddha vacuum the very narrow space under his sofa?" Well, the answer is . . . "because he had no attachments!"

Factors for Growth

The growth of American Buddhism can be attributed to four factors.

The importance of religion. America values religion to a much higher degree than most other developed countries. Ordinary people generally respect religious professionals, who also play vital leadership roles in the community. And parents make a concerted effort to provide religious education for their children, for religion is seen to be "a good thing," providing a spiritual and ethical foundation. If religion were not important, far fewer people would take an interest in Buddhism, an Asian religion at that.

Societal openness. The second reason for the growth of American Buddhism lies in the fundamental societal shift that took place in the 1960s, with greater openness toward religions other than Protestantism. For example, John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was elected president, and the Catholic Church itself underwent the liberalization process of the Second Vatican Council. A new immigration law also helped to foster greater diversity with the arrival of more people from non-Western countries.

Within this greater openness, Buddhism was no longer seen as an exotic religion of the Orient. In fact, many people interested in spiritual matters regarded Asia to be superior to the materialistic West. Consequently, the appeal of Buddhism lay in the fact that it was one of the superior Asian religions that could more effectively respond to the spiritual decadence of the industrialized West.

Spirituality. The third factor in this growth has to do with the change in the very nature of American religiosity, wherein people are more attracted to spirituality than to organizational religion. More people are heard saying, "I am not religious, but I am spiritual." A noted scholar of religion defined spirituality as "personal experience tailored to the individual's own quests," and he went on to define spirituality in five key terms, connectedness, unity, peace, harmony, and centeredness. This differs from the five terms that characterize traditional religion, which are God, sin, faith, repentance, and morals.5

Buddhism, as presented in America, is characterized more by the former set of terms than the latter, which makes it more in accord with the changing trend. As part of this attraction to spirituality that stresses personal experience, Buddhism has been particularly effective in the following three areas.

The first is the healthy attitude of Buddhism when dealing with the suffering in life, such as old age, death, and "losing." Buddhism sees suffering as a natural part of life that needs to be understood, accepted, and turned into a springboard for living a more full and meaningful life.

Second, Buddhism gives much value to the personal understanding of the individual, for the teaching cannot make sense if it fails to speak directly to the experience of the unique individual. This is the reason why many American Buddhists are particularly fond of these famous words of the Buddha: "Do not accept a statement on the grounds that it is found in our books . . . or because the teacher said so."

The third area of spirituality lies in people's attraction to meditation. This is probably the number one reason for the growth of American Buddhism. Many find Buddhist meditation easy to do, mentally therapeutic, and spiritually empowering and liberating. Sitting meditation, in particular, is the main practice in Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan schools, which have attracted the largest number of converts.

The Dalai Lama's influence. The fourth reason for the growth lies in the positive image of one single individual, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. He is well known as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and an exiled leader of Tibet, but his impact in the West has been enormous. He is highly loved and esteemed by the thousands who flock to hear his talks during his numerous American visits. The popularity of the Dalai Lama lies in the fact that he is regarded as a spiritual leader who is peaceful, tolerant, and accessible, thus helping to foster a new and refreshing form of American religiosity.


1. Becoming the Buddha in L.A. (Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, 1993) video.
2. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (2007), http://religions.pewforum.org/maps. A more recent 2009 Pew survey found the Muslim population to be 0.8 percent, which is less than the Buddhist population. The details on the population numbers are found in my recent book in Japanese, Amerika Bukkyo (Tokyo: Musashino University Press, 2010).
3. This term was coined by Professor Thomas A. Tweed.
4. Robert Wuthnow and Wendy Cage, "Buddhists and Buddhism in the United States: The Scope of Influence," Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 43, no. 3 (September 2004): 371.
5. Wade Clark Roof, "Religious Kaleidoscope," Temenos 32 (1996): 183-93.

Kenneth K. Tanaka is a professor at Musashino University, Tokyo. He received his PhD in Buddhist studies from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1978 he was ordained a Jodo Shinshu priest and currently serves as president of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies. Educated both in Japan and the United States, Dr. Tanaka is one of the rare bicultural specialists writing prolifically on modern Buddhism.

This article was originally published in the July-September 2011 issue of Dharma World.
Kosei Publishing

Copyright (C) 1997-2019 by Kosei Publishing Co. All rights reserved.