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Buddha in America
prison inmates meditating


Though the Dalai Lama was snubbed by the Obama administration when the president refused to meet with him, there was an open door policy everywhere else in our nation’s capital – from congressional receptions to Synagogues to schools.


One footage in particular is striking: the most famous monk of the 20th century sits on the dais and lectures on wisdom in the modern world while below him sit enthralled monks and laymen in the hundreds. The scene harks back to the golden era of Tibet, with the hall brightened by hundreds of strings of colorful Tibetan prayer flags— except the event took place at American University.  


In the last half of the 20th century America cunningly exported itself overseas, marketing its images, ideologies, products and religions with ingenuity and zeal, but what it has not been able to fully assess nor prepare for are the effects in the reverse. For if Americanization is a large part of globalization, the Easternization of the West, too, is a major contribution to that phenomenon.


I take it as some cosmic law of exchange that if Hong Kong and Tokyo are to have their Disneyland, Los Angeles, where Disneyland started, should be graced by Buddhist temples. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to many Californians that scholars have agreed that the most complex Buddhist city in the world is nowhere in Asia but Los Angeles itself, where there are more than 300 Buddhist temples and centers representing nearly all of Buddhist practices around the world. 


Over the past 25 years, Buddhism has become the third most popular religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to the 2008 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evidence of it taking deep roots in America is abundant.


Last week CNN reported that, “programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country.” There are over 75 organizations working with over 2,500 people, most of them prisoners, and they inspired a documentary called The Dhamma Brothers. 


This December Thomas Dyer, will head to Afghanistan. The former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor will have the distinction of being the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army.


The Supreme Court is currently deciding on the Salazar vs. Buono. At issue is whether a cross that stood in the Mojave National Preserve is a religious symbol or not. The National Park Service had turned down request to have a Buddhist stupa erected a few years back. The question to ask then: why should the Christian cross be accepted in a national park as an icon that transcends religion but not a Buddhist symbol?  And what would the highest court of the land say about religious plurality if it decides that one religion is to take precedent over another in public land?


Yet despite its message of inner peace and compassion, Buddhism, in its own way, is a very radical spiritual practice for it refutation of the existence of a creator. In essence, the serious practitioner aims to extinguish the self by defeating his own ego and thereby see beyond the illusion spun by the ignorant mind. The ultimate Buddhist experience entails neither god nor self, neither “out there” nor “in here,” for that membrane that separates the practitioner’s being and that of the world, upon awakening, has been lifted. All that remains is - Ohm – absolute awe and bliss. Imagine, if you will, Moses not turning his face away from the burning bush that is god but approaching it then fully merging with that terrifying fire.


As ties deepened between the two continents, as immigration from Asia continues, and as the Dhamma [Buddha’s teachings] spreads beyond all borders, we are entering what many thinkers and philosophers call the second axial age, an age of pluralism where the various spiritual traditions co-exist. 


In these global days, no single system can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change, all exist to a various degree of openness and exchange. And the old Silk Road along which so many religious ideas traveled had been replaced by a far more potent thoroughfare: unprecedented global migration, mass communications, and the information highway, which transcends geography. 


I once kept on the wall in my study two very different pictures to remind me of the way East and West have changed. One is an issue from a Time magazine on Buddhism in America. In it, a group of American Buddhists sits serenely in lotus position on a wooden veranda in Malibu overlooking a calm Pacific Ocean. The other is of a Vietnamese-American astronaut named Eugene Trinh, who made a flight on the space shuttle. The pictures tell me that East and West have not only met but also commingled and fused. When a Vietnamese man who left his impoverished homeland can come very close to reaching the moon while Americans are turning inward, trying to reach nirvana with each mindful breath, I think that East-West dialogue has come a long way.