Buddhist Practices Make Inroads in the US
Many individuals join meditating groups while still maintaining ties to their traditional faiths.
At 7 p.m. every Tuesday, Ann Buck strides to the center of her beachside Malibu porch deck, cradling a small brass bowl in her left hand.Skip to next paragraph
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At her feet, anywhere from 15 to 30 men and women sit upright on round cushions and miniature benches, facing the crashing waves. Buck raises a tiny wooden mallet with her right hand and chimes the bowl once, twice, three times: group meditation has begun.
Known as "sanghas," or small communities of spiritual seekers who meditate together regularly, informal groups like this are where increasing numbers of Americans are experiencing their first brush with Buddhism.
"Americans who want a comfortable setting to try Buddhist practices without abandoning their own religion or buying into a whole new set of beliefs are getting their feet wet in sitting groups," says Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts. "They want to experience something that might be practical ... without feeling like they have to shave their head or wear a saffron robe into a temple," she says.
These individuals are part of a larger trend being reported by observers of all faiths. Fed by a desire for more satisfying and less materialistic lives, many are pursuing individual spirituality beyond conventional notions of religiosity and churchgoing.
"If the focus of the 20th century has been on outer space, the focus of the 21st century may well be on inner space," says pollster George Gallup, whose firm has been tracking the rise of interest in spirituality in American society.
Within the past decade, the number of English language Buddhist teaching centers coast to coast has grown from 429 to more than 1,166. Sociologists estimate that the number of informal sitting groups has grown to three to five times that.
The overall statistics are still small compared with mainstream American religions. Sociologists estimate that from 600,000 to 1 million Americans of Jewish and Christian background utilize Buddhist practices. This does not include the large percentage of Asian immigrants and their children who practice Buddhism.
Dealing with busy lives
The participants in sanghas range from those struggling with busy lives to members of 12-step groups for drug, alcohol, and other addictions. They may include disaffected members of other faiths, as well as those who want to supplement traditional American religious upbringings with other meditative tools.
"People feel Buddhist practices offer them a credible alternative to mainstream churches because they focus on particular spiritual methodologies which they feel can help them in their daily lives," says Mark Muesse, a professor of religion at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. In contrast to some Buddhist practice in Asia, he says, Americans focus more on techniques that help concentration and stillness than they do on the esoteric theologies that surround these practices.
Unlike the rush of mostly younger Americans to Buddhism that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, the new ranks include a large percentage of seekers over 50. The current interest also appears less faddish, according to some observers.
"We have seen a steady increase across all areas of about 20 percent per year for 12 years," says Jeff Cox, president of Snow Lion Publications, which produces Tibetan Buddhist titles that include history, women, and travel in addition to meditation. To him, he says, "that signals a continued interest that is here to stay."
The globalization of world culture and a cross-fertilization of Eastern and Western spiritual disciplines have also contributed to interest in Buddhism. That is reflected in popular books that range from "The Good Heart, A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus," to "The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India."
Meanwhile, the practice of meditation has been a factor in the rise of mind/body medicine. Studies with meditators in the 1960s showed that positive physiological responses resulted directly from meditation and prayer. Study of the developing mind/body discipline is increasingly finding a place in medical schools and hospital wards.