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Asian Religions and Sects


ASIAN RELIGIONS AND SECTS. Asian religions, originating in India or the Far East, began flourishing in the United States after 1965, when earlier U.S. immigration quota laws were superseded by a single allocation of immigrants from all countries outside the western hemisphere. Of all religions originating in Asia, Buddhism is the most widespread in the United States, with over a thousand Buddhist centers and practice groups established since the mid-1970s. Forty percent of the Buddhist community lives in southern California, making Los Angeles the most diverse urban Buddhist community in the world.

In the United States, Japanese forms of Buddhism have the largest following among the various Buddhist groups. In 1889 Soryu Kagahi of the Jodo Shinshu lineage arrived in Honolulu to minister to Buddhists on the plantations. By the end of the nineteenth century three more Japanese lineages had arrived in Hawaii: Soto, Nichiren, and Shingon. The first Japanese Buddhist to come to the mainland United States was a Rinzai Zen monk, Soyen Shaku, who addressed the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. Thirty-five years later Sokeian established Rinzai practice in New York City. In the 1960s and 1970s, after Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's writings popularized Zen, Buddhist communities established monasteries in California, Hawaii, and New York State for intensive Zen meditation. Hosen Isobe began Soto Zen in Hawaii in 1916, and organized the Zenshuji Mission (now called the Soto Mission) in Los Angeles in 1922. Wealthy benefactors facilitated the spread of Zen Buddhism in the United States, for example, Chester F. Carlson, who founded the Zen Mountain Center in Tassajara Springs, California.

The two largest Japanese Buddhist groups in the United States originally branched from (1) Nichirenshu, whose members follow the teachings of Nichiren, a thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist leader, and who believe that salvation results from chanting portions of the Lotus Sutra, and (2) Pure Land (Jodo Shinshu), whose adherents believe that individual rebirth in the Western Paradise occurs through faith in Amida Buddha. The fastest-growing branch of Buddhism in the United States is Soka Gakkai International (which claimed 500,000 members in 1994, although actual membership was closer to 100,000–200,000). Soka Gakkai was formerly the lay branch of Nichiren, whose members regard Nichiren as the Buddha of the age. One of the more popular Pure Land groups is the Buddhist Churches of America, with approximately fifty thousand members in 1994. There are over 375 Zen and other Mahayana Buddhist Centers in the United States.

In 1878 a Chinese monk brought both a Kuan Yin (the Chinese version of the Indian Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara) and a Kuan Ti (a military hero of the third century b.c. who became a popular saint) statue to Honolulu and built a temple (joss house) to Kuan Yin. Chinese joss houses appeared in California by 1900 and are now concentrated mainly in New York City, large cities of California, and Hawaii. Hsuan-hua, a Chinese Zen Buddhist, founded the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association in 1962. Eleven years later this organization, located in Talmage, California, established the first Buddhist university in the West.

Theravada Buddhism, a form of Buddhism recognizing only the earliest Buddhist scriptures, predominates in southeast Asia, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Theravadans constructed the first American Buddhist temple. During the 1970s many adherents arrived from southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. In 1976 the Insight Meditation Society established its first lay center, in western Massachusetts. There are more than 500,000 Theravada Buddhists throughout the United States in 128 centers.

Tibetan Buddhism came to the United States in 1945 under the auspices of the American Buddhist Society and Fellowship, set up by Robert Ernest Dickhoff. The first Tibetans arriving in Howell, New Jersey, founded the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center. Although all four Tibetan Buddhist lineages are represented in the United States, the largest group is Vajradhatu, representing the Kagyupa lineage. Their center, which was opened in Boulder, Colorado, in 1973 by Rinpoche Chogyam Trugpa, includes the Naropa Institute, an accredited college (at present this institution is nonsectarian). By the mid-1980s Caucasian practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism outnumbered their Tibetan counterparts, making Tibetan Buddhism one of the fastest growing segments of the American Buddhist community. There are 279 Tibetan centers scattered throughout the United States.

The Association of American Buddhists, founded in 1980 by Kevin R. O'Neill, stresses an American form of Buddhism integrating the universal principles of all Buddhist lineages without the divisive cultural issues that have kept Buddhist lineages apart for millennia. Many predict that this form of Buddhism will be the future of American Buddhism. In contrast to Buddhism in Asia, where the major focus is on monastic Buddhism, the majority of American Buddhists want to apply Buddhist contemplative practice in their noncelibate lives and insist on participation by the whole community, both women and men. There are 129 nonsectarian Buddhist centers in the United States.

The first Hindu guru to arrive in the United States, Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, was a guest of Ralph Waldo Emerson's widow in 1883. Twelve years later the charismatic Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, brought Hinduism to prominence by founding the Vedanta Society, which emphasizes universal philosophical principles. In New York City, Pandit Acharya founded the Temple of Yoga, the Yoga Institute, and Prana Press in the early decades of the twentieth century. The most successful of these early Hindu gurus was Paramahansa Yogananda, who arrived in 1922 and founded the Yogoda Satsang, known today as the Self-Realization Fellowship. His Autobiography of a Yogi, published in 1946, continues to be popular.

The Indian Hindu community in the United States is remarkably diverse, although most worship one of three popular deities—Shiva, the Goddess, or Vishnu. The vast majority of Indian lay Hindus (the wealthiest religious community per capita in the United States) have been concentrating on building temples and bringing officiating priests from India to conserve their traditions for the benefit of their American-born children. It is only individual Hindu gurus who have been interested in cultivating an American following. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist political group, serves the Indian American community to bridge these manifold sectarian and linguistic Hindu communities. Swami Prabhupada established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as Hare Krishna, in New York City in 1966, stressing a chanting exercise as an expression of devotion to Krishna, a manifestation (avatar) of Vishnu. In 1997 there were two thousand monastic members in the United States, living in twelve centers with thirty teachers (swamis). Another significant Vaishnava group, the Swami Narayan movement (sixty thousand members in 1991), started in the late 1960s and is composed largely of Gujarati Indian Americans.

Sikhism, founded in India as a unique synthesis of Hindu and Islamic ideas and practices, began to grow in the United States from 1905 to 1913, with the arrival of thousands of Sikhs. They opened their first gurdwara (house of worship) in Stockton, California, in 1912. The Sikhs were one of the few major religious groups not represented in the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. By 1915 the vast majority of the seven thousand Indians in the United States were Sikhs. In 1969 Sikhs constructed the largest gurdwara in the world in Yuba City, California, one of the central places of worship for the roughly 250,000 Sikhs in the United States. During the 1970s Yogi Bhajan began converting non-Indian Americans and established a national organization, the Sikh Dharma, which had ten thousand members in 1992 and is headquartered in Los Angeles. In 1995 there were 139 ashrams/teaching centers scattered throughout the United States.

Taoism, based on the Chinese principles of yin-yang and chi (the flow of energy through the body), has spread considerably in the United States through tai chi (a meditation/martial arts form), chi gong (exercises to circulate chi), and feng shui (Chinese geomancy). Dozens of books beginning with "The Tao of" have been published in English. Much of the interest in these practices is the interconnectedness of the experience of the embodied physical practice with spiritual and emotional aspects of life. Translations of Taoist texts appeal to those who desire a nontheistic philosophy that is harmoniously anchored in the natural world. In contrast to Buddhism, there is no Taoist sangha (community), monastic tradition, or unified set of ritual practices that facilitate institutionalization in the West. The Chinese government has allowed a few Taoist monks to visit the United States, and there are Taoist Chinese masters in the United States, but this cannot compare to the extensive East-West activities in the Buddhist community. Up to the beginning of the twenty-first century, the message of Taoism has been transmitted to the American public largely through translations of Taoist texts, particularly the Tao Te Ching.

Many other religions originating in Asia are represented in the United States. Jainism, which stresses austere practices that avoid hurting any living creatures, has communities in Chicago and New York City. In 1893 Virchand Gandhi addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He took the minority Jain position (at that time) by insisting that it was not morally incumbent to travel only by foot. There are two hundred Jains in the Chicago area, and others are scattered in urban areas around the United States. Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, has many temples in Hawaii. Two Japanese new religions, Tenrikyo (in 1987 there were fifty-four churches and three thousand members) and Konko Kyo, based upon Shintoism, have spread in the United States. Seicho-No-Le, another Japanese new religion, is popular with people attracted to psychic and New Age groups.


Clark, J. J. The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. 3d ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia of American Religions. 6th ed. Detroit: Gale, 1999.

Morreale, Don, ed. The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Richardson, E. Allen. East Comes West: Asian Religions and Cultures in North America. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1985.

Arthur F.Buehler

See alsoBuddhism ; Hinduism .

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