Lifestyle & Belief

Uniting 'American Buddhism' with global citizenship


Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers a talk for world peace in front of the US Capitol in Washington on July 9, 2011.


Nicholas Kamm

Can someone be an American Buddhist?

Is there an American Catholicism compared to what Catholics practice the world over? An American Judaism? Perhaps, but only from a demographic or political perspective.

Buddhism in the US, however, has developed a distinct American flavor. The very philosophical tenets of Buddhism have been adapted since the religion reached the United States in the 1960s. How, then, do “American Buddhists,” if they indeed exist, relate to the rest of the world?

American Buddhists are clearly part of a global Buddhist community. For one, the Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai International (SGI) – with hundreds of facilities and thousands of diverse members throughout the United States – is also found in more than 180 nations and territories worldwide.

An NGO with consultative status with the United Nations, SGI has for many years devoted enormous resources to humanitarian relief efforts around the world. The organization’s universities outside of Tokyo and Los Angeles enroll a diverse student body hailing from dozens of countries.

The Dalai Lama, a Nobel laureate, conspicuously represents Tibetan Buddhism, which is now practiced outside of Tibet at least in all developed nations. A great many American Tibetan Buddhists are inspired to support the ongoing, pacifist struggle of the Tibetan people to free themselves from Chinese military and cultural oppression.

The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh many years ago coined the term “engaged Buddhism” to herald the shift of Zen from that of a contemplative, mountaintop practice to an ethical, globally engaged force. Zen Buddhism is an especially peculiar case. It was for centuries a practice of meditative training that eschewed the world and was hostile to logic. Since it arrived on the shores of the United States from Japan, however, Zen has embraced a more ethical system of thought grounded in engagement with others. The Greyston Foundation and Zen Peacemakers, established by the former Zen roshi Bernie Glassman, are, for example, pioneers in Zen-inspired social enterprise.

If anything, Buddhism is the most adaptable major world faith. It spread some two thousand years ago from India throughout Asia, and in contemporary times it has flowered in every country upholding religious freedom. Notably, as a core principle, a sincerely practicing Buddhist develops the wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life. Buddhism instills one with the courage to not fear or deny differences, but to respect and appreciate people of different cultures.

In the words of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, Buddhism nurtures the “compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.” What could be a better description of global citizenship?

Notwithstanding events like the violence in Burma attributed to so-called Buddhist gangs, Buddhism is a religion of global nonviolence. This fundamental emphasis derives from the notion shared by all of the American Buddhist schools that every person has within an enlightened Buddha nature. Essentially this means that each human being, without exception, already has the potential to manifest a condition of life free from delusion, ego and fear.

Ikeda talks of cracking the hard shell of the “lesser self.” As opposed to the Buddha nature, the lesser self is the small ego that tends to attach to transient identities such as race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or even physical appearance. In reality, our true identities as Buddhas are beyond all borders and beyond all matters of race or gender.

If we truly extend beyond all borders, I guess there’s no such thing as an American Buddhist after all.

Jeff Ourvan is a practicing Buddhist and the author of The Star Spangled Buddhist: Zen, Tibetan and Soka Gakkai Buddhism and the Quest for Enlightenment in America (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013).