There is no such thing as Buddhism. There is such a thing as Zen Buddhism or Theradva Buddhism and, possibly the most famous of them all, Tibetan Buddhism. Increasingly there is something we might recognize as American Buddhism, although most would agree it is not there yet.
There are subtle differences between the various schools of Buddhist thought. Tibetan Buddhism gives death a significance not present in the Zen forms but the ideas of the Tibetans are appealing to Westerners who like to feel they have some control over their own destinies.
American Buddhism is becoming something almost recognizable as being of itself; a creed for want of a better word, which suits American culture but also allows external beliefs to be imported.
America is spectacularly adept at this. Here we talk about being a melting pot, but what it means is taking aspects from wherever we choose and melding them into life. It would neither shock nor surprise to meet an American who celebrated Irish roots on St. Patrick’s Day and then the following morning went to the Shambala center to meditate. The two would not seem in the least bit incompatible. In fact, quite the opposite – it would seem rather more American than less.
American lay tradition
Initially, American Buddhism was founded in a more lay-oriented tradition. Few were called to the strict religious life. It was more a calling toward personal improvement and social consciousness than a structured life.
In some ways, the Buddhist tradition of patience and time did not align well with the American way of life. It was a conscious decision for the American Buddhist to reject or at least to question the materialism pervasive in US culture. Stepping aside from the mainstream, yet calling attention to it was a task that was readily assumed.
Tradition has begun to develop
However, this initial secular Buddhism has begun to change. More Americans are beginning to look for a deeper education and practice of the teachings. Since the 1970s there has been a slow but solid growth in the establishment of monasteries which are dedicated to the sincere pursuit of Buddhist teaching and growth in a more religious sense than self-improvement.
Now in 2018, there are 27 monasteries of various types in the US. These monasteries are sometimes nondenominational allowing any Buddhist practice while at other times they are aligned with a specific type of Buddhism, Zen and Tibetan being the most well represented.
Quite what American Buddhism will end up being is still open to conjecture. In 2018 one of the Tibetan monasteries created 13 Lamas here in the US. The idea of a home-grown Lama is still relatively new. But, inevitably their thinking has to be different. Talking about pragmatic Buddhism for example, perhaps one of this year’s graduates might suit – a concept which many in the east would find odd.
It would be typical of American Buddhism if it turned out to be intensely practical. It is another thing Americans are really good at.