Sep 302018
Buddhism in America

If like me, you find the current religious culture in America to be fascinating and even a little worrisome, you will be interested in how the religious map is changing in the US.

You might further be surprised to know that only Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism are the only bigger -isms than Buddhism. Fully 1.2% of the population identified themselves as Buddhist in 2014 and this was more than the people who identified as Muslim, although this is sure to grow over time.


Though yoga is in no way a religion, nor do you have to practice yoga to be a Buddhist, the two have a connection in how they came to America. Both arrived at a similar time in US history and it was in the 1890s. The roots reach back to the first World’s Parliament of Religions and the establishment of the first temple in San Francisco.

American Buddhists

Practicing Buddhism in America is different from the eastern flavors. The initial appeal of Buddhism was more of a philosophical concept than a religious one. Though we see Buddhist monks in our streets anyone who has seen any even rudimentary documentary on Eastern Buddhism will immediately be aware of the differences.

This secular intellectual flavor in the US makes it very loose organizationally in the US. In eastern traditions, look at Tibet for example, the hierarchy is both obvious and does control the religion. The Dalai Lama is the head of the entire organization.

American Buddhists have largely escaped the shackles of dogma and religious inflexibility that other religions attempt to impose. Not surprisingly with the scandals which rock other churches especially the Catholic Church in America, many are keen to keep it that way.

Buddhism in America rather reflects how Americans would like to see themselves

Pema Chödrön abbot of the Gampo Monastery in Nova Scotia, Canada is probably one of the more influential Buddhists in the U.S. Her ability to become a leader and inspiration reflects how American’s believe it should be; an actual meritocracy, a person being in the correct position because of actions rather than any other reason.

A secular philosophy attached to a religious practice

In America, Buddhism tends to align with a process of self-improvement as well as being a responsible member of the community. Members of the community are left-leaning politically and are likely to steer away from the more aggressive of the religious right’s hardline policies.


While there is a preponderance of lay members, certainly the ratio of lay: ordained in the US is lower than elsewhere, the aim of many here is to keep things that way. Meditation sessions, for example, will be led by no one or by a layperson. The more esoteric texts are also left out of teaching here.

It could be said that Americans have done what they do best, to assume the positives of an immigrant population and to bring it into American life. Who can argue? A philosophy of live and let live is sorely needed in the US.