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.
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.
Eastern teachings have also hit mainstream America in the form of books about sports ("Sacred Hoops," by Chicago Bulls' coach Phil Jackson) and the American workplace ("Zen at Work: A Zen Teacher's 30-year Journey in Corporate America," by Les Kaye). An increasing number of magazines and the Internet offer information on meditative techniques, ways to find teachers, go on extended retreats, and form sitting groups.
"Everything has changed in Buddhist America," writes sociologist Don Morreale on a Buddhism-related Web site. "At retreats, you're likely to find yourself sitting next to a stockbroker or a therapist or a retired social worker who may or may not claim to be a Buddhist."
Such is the case at Ann Buck's Tuesday night sangha. Ninety minutes after her first three chimes, Buck repeats the gesture and her sitting-porch contingent circles informally in her candlelit living room. Representing a wide range of ages, job descriptions, and spiritual faiths - some lapsed, some not - each will speak in turn about personal experiences and concerns.
"I have learned a process that helps me keep from getting caught up in daily frustrations, depressions, and anger," says Shera Raisen, a young doctor who grew up Jewish and still attends synagogue regularly. Like many Americans experimenting with Buddhist practices, Ms. Raisen has not abandoned her faith, but rather supplements it with techniques she learned.
Those who investigate Buddhism further encounter a choice of paths with exotic-sounding names: Mahayana (including Zen), Theravada (a school which includes the technique of vipassana), and Vajrayana (Tibetan).
In Zen Buddhism, one of the most austere branches, adherents employ the primary tools of sitting meditation, "following the breath" and stilling the mind. Practiced mostly in Japan and China, a subsect uses riddles known as koans ("What is the sound of one hand clapping?") to steer practitioners into new modes of awareness. Theravadan vipassana meditation asks students to be aware of thoughts and bodily sensations as a way of showing their impermanent nature, and to free adherents from too closely identifying with them.
Tibetan Buddhism is most often characterized as employing colorful ceremony, chanting, and visualizations. In keeping with a trend that is cutting across all religions, in which religious seekers pursue the more affective side of spiritual practice, Tibetan Buddhism is currently attracting more attention than the others.
One reason many from Christian and Jewish faiths augment their spiritual life with Buddhist practices, say scholars, is that Buddhism, while not monotheistic, accepts the idea of a divine force.
"Buddhism properly understood doesn't really rule God out," says Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan-Buddhist studies at Columbia University in New York. "The idea of a God force or a divine force is perfectly compatible with most types of Buddhism."
Sociologists also note that, partly because of firsthand experiences as well as books and other publications, the concerns that associated Buddhism with escapist philosophies in the hippie 1960s seem to have subsided.
"I am now teaching the sons and daughters of practicing American Buddhists and teachers," says Lisa Hallstrom, who teaches a course on Buddhism in America at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. "That has created a huge level of acceptance and exposure."
That acceptance may also stem from increased scrutiny by adherents in the wake of scandals concerning alcoholism and seduction of students that surfaced after Buddhism's first big wave in America. More information now exists about the pitfalls of choosing teachers, as well as exploring uncharted mental territories.
The incidents may also accelerate the relaxation of hierarchical, monastic structure - typical of many Asian forms of Buddhism - that could make the American brand of Buddhism unique. "That means it will become more democratized, and individualized and less open to corruption from above," says Ann Robbins, a historian in Santa Monica, Calif.
Another sign of strengthening American roots may lie in "engaged Buddhism," which, adherents say, tries to translate Buddhist principles into social action. Participants such as Roshi Bernie Glassman have opened Zen centers for the homeless in New York City. Others are working with the elderly and in hospices, as well such issues as nuclear armaments.