By Sumi Loundon
The story of Buddhism’s journey in America is not only a chronicle of teachers and lineages; it is also the story of those who actually walked the Buddha’s path. Here’s the story of one such family, whose three successive generations were drawn to the wisdom of the dharma
Before I had the opportunity to travel to Korea and other countries of Asia, I assumed that Buddhism meant pretty much the same thing for everyone. Buddhism, I thought, is about the Four Noble Truths, breathing meditation practice, wisdom and compassion, and nirvana. Today, I understand that there are myriad manifestations in the Buddhist tradition—philosophically, practically, and culturally. Buddhism in America has a distinctive history and is developing in its own unique way. Here’s my own story.
The First Generation
The story begins with my great-grandfather, my father’s mother’s father, who was born in 1901 in America. Charlie Smith was a railroad worker and merchant sailor. He fought in both the World Wars and eventually settled in California, where he did organic farming long before anyone thought it was cool. He was an atheist most of his life, and by the 1950s, found himself living in an America that had become quite conservative and Christian as it recovered from the horrors of war.
Searching for a way to cultivate his spiritual side without having to go to church, he discovered the writings of D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese lay scholar who was publishing influential books on Zen since the late 1800s. My father, who was being raised by his grandfather, remembers neighbors coming over to Charlie’s house to have secret discussion groups of this new philosophy called Zen. My great-grandfather and his friends loved the Japanese Zen of Suzuki because it was presented as a way of finding the meaning of life without having to worship Jesus and God or believe in Christianity.
Although today many of us long-time Western Buddhists know that much of Buddhism is a religion and that there certainly are gods, many Westerners still think of Buddhism as a philosophy and a science of the mind. Even though it has been more than 50 years since Buddhism took hold of the American imagination, a majority of young people today are drawn to Buddhism because it offers a non-institutional form of spirituality.
The Second Generation
Born in 1955, my father was raised by his grandfather in California. By the 1960s, California was at the lead of a counter-culture movement that swept through America. Young people wanted to explode traditional boundaries. The war in Vietnam pushed them to question whether the US government really expressed the will of the people.
Three other movements radically changed society—civil rights (especially for black people), women’s rights, and (a little later) gay rights. Business suits were traded in for torn, dirty blue jeans and T-shirts. Professions in business, law and medicine were traded for explorations in psychotherapy, environmentalism, and social justice work. A house with two cars, a spouse and two children were traded for communal-style living that advocated a simple, back-to-the-earth creed. And, for many, Judaism and Catholicism were traded for yoga, tai chi chuan, and meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. My father was swept up into the counter-culture of the hippies by his late teens; by the 1970s he found himself living in a small Zen commune in rural Vermont.
For my dad, yoga and tai chi offered a way to exercise the body while disciplining the mind. Meditation offered a way to understand the mind and to manage difficult emotional states. My dad felt that Zen practices would lead to full enlightenment, and there was nothing more important one could do with one’s life than strive for nirvana. However, my dad would not call himself a Buddhist. Like his grandfather, the Buddha’s teachings were not so much a religion as they were a science, a practice, and something to be experienced. But, unlike his grandfather, Buddhist teachings were not merely read and discussed in small group meetings, the dharma was to be lived in every aspect of one’s life, livelihood and lifestyle. It was moment-to-moment. My father’s generation saw a fuller embrace and examination of Buddhism and Asian religions. For example, we chanted in Japanese and there was a large Buddha statue in the meditation hall.
My mother grew up on the East Coast in a typical middle-class home. When she was in college, the head of the Zen community and his wife came to do a tai chi chuan performance for the students. When she saw the slow, peaceful movements, she was enchanted. She began going to the Zen community nearby, and there she met my father. My mother moved into the community and my parents married soon after. I was born into this community in 1975.
Both my mother’s parents and my father’s parents were concerned that their children, now entering their 20s, were choosing radically different lifestyles. Neither had a profession nor was receiving a college education. Instead, they were working in the garden and kitchen of the commune in trade for room and board. Their entire day was spent doing spiritual practices in pursuit of some kind of enlightenment. While this seemed noble to my liberal-minded grandparents, they wondered who would provide for my college education, how my parents would afford a car if the old one broke down, and were my parents saving for retirement?
Buddhism had fascinated two generations in my family. However, family heritage is no reason that any of my parents’ children might themselves take up a Buddhist path. My parents, like their parents, were very liberal-minded, and the same permission they had to experiment with religion was given to me. My parents never told me that I had to be Buddhist because they were. As a result, my sister is somewhat Christian, one brother is agnostic, and the other prefers Hinduism.
It may be that I am the most consciously Buddhist because I spent the most time, as the oldest child, growing up in the Zen community where my parents lived and worked. We lived with four other families, college students and some others in an old stagecoach inn of about one hundred rooms in rural New Hampshire (northeast US). Forty acres of fields, a big garden, and an apple orchard stretched down to a small, clear lake.
No one in the group had much money, so the ascetic lifestyle easily matched the Zen call for simplicity. Meals were basic, clothes were handed from older kids down to the younger, and toys were shared. I learned to be happy with very little: indeed, the fewer material possessions one had, the more one had room to enjoy the bounties of the mind and spirit. From an early age, I was not allowed to define myself by the clothes I wore, a hairstyle, or any personal preference. Instead, I was asked to define myself by how I contributed to the community through service, kindness, and generosity.
The community, though composed of laypeople, ran very much like a monastery. Everyone followed the same schedule, rising at five in the morning for an hour of meditation and chanting. As a little girl, I rested in my mother’s lap while she sat facing the wall watching her breath. Meditating in candlelight, the silence of the warm Buddha hall was broken by the deep ringing of the bell. Everyone stood up, bowed to their seat, and then turned to the Buddha altar. We did full prostrations, followed by chanting sutras in Japanese. I loved the rapid, energetic chanting style and I can feel the rhythm in my chest even today. Chanting was followed by deep, long singing of ‘Om’ for several minutes. The whole hall and my mind were filled with ‘Om’. Then we practiced tai chi.
While this community identified with Japanese Soto Zen—the Zen of Dogen—we actually practiced a mishmash of Eastern, and sometimes Western, religions. I do not think Japanese Zen monks do Hindu ‘Om’-ing or Chinese tai chi or sing hymns on Christmas. While we were trying to be as traditional as possible, we were actually creating something new. Some of these creative endeavors anticipated Western Buddhist developments decades in advance. For example, meditators in the West have come to understand that in spiritual practice the body cannot, should not, be ignored. As a result, many meditators—aging, with creaking joints and less energy—now do yoga and tai chi, even though these are not part of traditional Zen.
The students of my community recognized early on that spiritual practice included physical fitness; indeed, the two were enhanced by each other. As a kid, I watched my parents take practice from the zendo to basketball. ‘Zen basketball’ was an effort at being totally spontaneous, connecting non-verbally with the other teammates, striving energetically and still letting go into the flow. Unknowingly, my parents were anticipating Michael Jordan’s Zen of basketball a good 20 years earlier!
Twenty years later, while a student in university, this unusual childhood in the Zen community became the springboard by which I more consciously embraced a Buddhist life. I went through a period of asking the profound questions that many young adults seek answers to: who am I, what is the ultimate truth, what is the most important thing I can do with my life? I was able to learn about advaita Vedanta teachings, yoga, Hinduism, Christianity, alternative spiritualities, and secular humanism. It was a wonderful exploration that has enriched my thinking today. Yet I found myself returning again and again to the Buddha’s dharma. It was my home.
Today, unlike my parents, I would call myself a Buddhist without hesitation. Much of my generation is returning to religion, whereas my parents’ generation rejected conventional religions of the West and sought Asian wisdom paths that were presented to them as non-religious. Thus, many of my peers also identify themselves more clearly as Buddhist, while others continue to think of Buddhism as a philosophy, science, or psychology.
It is not clear whether Buddhism will continue among the non-Asian citizens after my generation, here in America. I will raise my children with dharma teachings but once they become teenagers, it will be up to them to choose their own faith tradition or have none at all. I am almost certain that meditation has established a permanent residence here in the US, but whether that remains associated with other teachings in Buddhism is another question. I hope that with three generations of Buddhists in America, a fourth will come of age.
A masters in Buddhist Studies from Harvard Divinity School, Sumi Loundon is the editor of the book Blue Jean Buddha (Wisdom, 2001). She is assistant director at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and is working on her second book
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