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Korean Buddhism in American Buddhism and American Buddhist Scholarship
by Jin Y. Park(American University)
(Kwan Um Temple Symposium on Korean Buddhism in America
March 23, 2003 Kwan Um Temple, Los Angeles, CA)
(DRAFT)

In the past twenty five hundred years, Buddhism has spread all over the world. During its eventful journey, Buddhism's encounter with Chinese culture, and the subsequent birth of what we now know as East Asian Buddhism, has been regarded as one of the most influential events that changed the course of Buddhist history, Recently, something similar to such a grand scale encounter between two cultures has been expected by Buddhist scholars and those who are interested in Buddhism as they witness the development of Buddhism in America. Today's event, which marks the thirtieth anniversary of Kwan Um temple, proves that such an expectation was not wrong. In this temple,

Koreans and Korean Americans learn and practice Buddhism, continuing ther religious life in a society which is far different from the one they came from. By marking this anniversary, we are witnessing and participating the formation of a new direction in Buddhism in the twenty-first century.

When Buddhism was first introduced in China, it went through various and difficult situations : Buddhist scriptures needed be translated from Sanskrit to Chinese ; Buddhist teachings had to confront criticisms raised by Confucianism ; Buddhist teachings needed to compromise with existing religio-philosophical traditions. But eventually the amalgamation of the two cultures created a new form of Buddhism, which has had an influence on numerous people. Buddhism in America is still in its formative stage. There have been promises, criticisms, and hopes. How is Buddhism in America at this stage different from the Buddhism we know, and what will be the role of Korean Buddhism, the Korean Buddhist Community and Korean Buddhist scholarship in the making of Buddhism in America? I will briefly discuss the status of Buddhism in America by reviewing some characteristics of Buddhism in America. A review of research on Korean Buddhism in America will follow. I will close with a question about the responsibilities of Korean American Buddhism of Korean Buddhist scholarship.


1. Buddhism in America

Buddhism in America can be divided into two groups : the first is Buddhism which immigrants from Asian nations brought with them and continue to practice in America ; the second is Buddhism practiced by non-immigrant English speaking Americans. The former is usually referred to as ethnic Buddhism, or sometimes immigrant Buddhism, or Asian-American Buddhism, whereas the latter has various titles, such as elite Buddhism(Nattier), Missionary Buddhism convert Buddhism Euro-American Buddhism Western Buddhism, or white Buddhism(Fields 1988,197).

The beginning of Buddhism in America can be traced to the mid nineteenth century when the well known poet-thinker, Henry David Thoreau, published an English translation of the Lotus Sutra from its French version. It is not easy to imagine how the American audience responded to this translation, especially considering that Buddhist terms like annihilation, no-self were not familiar fo them. The most important event for the future of Buddhism in America in the nineteenth century took place in 1893, when religious leaders of the world gathered together in Chicago to participate in the World parliament of Religion. In that meeting, a Japanese Zen master, Shaku Seon attended, marking an official entry of Zen Buddhism into America. As important as that initial entry of Buddhism was works by D.T. Suzuki, who came to the United States with Shaku Seon as his interpreter. After that event, for the decades to come published translations of various Buddhist texts, preparing the foundation for American Buddhism.

However, the first half of the twentieth century was a relatively quiet period in American Buddhism. During the mid twentieth century, at least two events changed the fate of Buddhism in America ; the first is civil rights movement in 1960s ; the second, the change of the Immigration Acts of 1965. As the former prepared the road for American Buddhism among English speaking Americans, the latter opened a door for the emergency of various ethnic Buddhist groups with a dramatic increase of numbers of immigrants from Asia.

Superficially, the difference between ethnic Buddhism and English speaking American Buddhism lies in the language they speak. In ethnic Buddhist temples, dharma talks are given in their ethnic languages. However, differences between the two groups go beyond the linguistic barrier. If we compare images and major concerns of each group, we notice that these two groups differ from each other in their approach to Buddhism. Here are some images of American Buddhism. A couple of years ago, I asked my students in an Asian Religious course : who practice Buddhism in America? Students immediately responded : Yuppies. Their logic was that Yuppies go to a meditation center as they would go to a health club and become a vegetarian as a part of their cultural privilege. For my American students, to be a vegetarian and practice meditation is a fashionable thing to do, where as Asian immigrants, there is no cultural privilege in eating vegetables. Korean dished are usually naturally vegetarian, unless there is a special occasion in which we spend extra money to prepare pulgogi.(The situation obviously is somewhat different here in the States, where Kimchi is as expensive as pulgogi) My students also identified Buddhists with celebrities, knowing that a movie star like Richard Gere, or the rock group, The Beastie Boys, claim to be Buddhist. The impression my students had on Buddhist practitioners in America was not completely correct. However, it was not completely their fantasy either.

Actually, the association of Buddhism and cultural privilege my students expressed in my class tells us something significant in the development of Buddhism in this nation. In an article entitled Americans Need Something to Sit On, or Zen Meditation Materials and Buddhist Diversity in North America, the author, Douglas M. Padgett, explores how American Buddhism connected with consumption culture of capitalist materialism in the society (padgett,2000). According to the author, Buddhism industries, such as sales of zafu(cushions Buddhist practitioners use for meditation) and zafuton(a supporter for the zafu) and various items including incense and Buddha status which sometimes are imported from Asia are an inseparable part of development of Buddhism in America. In order to purchase these materials, one should have a certain financial capability. Also in order to get an exposure to Buddhism, which is still a foreign culture in the American society, one should be in position to appreciate such an exposure. Such a pre-condition to be a Buddhist partially explains my students association with Buddhism and social privilege. Thus Padgett claims : consumption is an integral aspect of Buddhism in America and that Buddhist Americans consumption practices (have) a profound influence on the various ways that Buddhism in America is developing, how ti is being perceived, imagined, and contested(Padgett.63)

The commercialism and social privilege, however, provides a only partial vision of American Buddhism. Significant differences between ethnic Buddhism and non-immigrant American Buddhism lies in that each group expects from their religious community. The ethnic Buddhist group is not only a religious but a cultural group that defends specific ethnic interests in American society. For immigrant ethnic Buddhists, as important as religious-spiritual life is the survival in a new land. The religious community is not only a place for spiritual comfort, but a place in which immigrants group can socialize, exchange information, and learn the new culture. Hence social and cultural function becomes an important aspect of one's participation in Buddhist temples. For that purpose, ethnic Buddhist temples have made intentional efforts to learn from the Christian church about providing various social services in conjunction with religious rituals. The irony of this situation is that for English speaking non-immigrant American Buddhists, the rituals and social bonds which play an important role at the ethnic Buddhist temples remind them of Christian churches in their childhood from which they wanted to stay away and find Buddhism(Fields 1998, 203). Because of such differences, even when the ethnic Buddhist temples speak English, non-immigrant America Buddhist practitioners more often than mot do not feel comfortable at the ethnic Buddhist meetings, Buddhism, to them, means among others, spirituality.

Once at Buddhist symposium held in one of the Buddhist temples in New York, I met a couple who drove all the way from Virginia Beach to New York just to attend a three hour conference. At the reception I asked the couple what drove them to make such a long journey for a three hour conference and they told me that it was the spirituality Buddhism provided them, which they could not find in traditional western religious because of its secularization. The wife added : for the spirituality she experienced by practicing Buddhism, driving four hundred miles was nothing. By the same token, my American students always claim that Asian people are more religious and spiritual. The ground of this logic, in many cases, comes from their understanding of Buddhism as a more spiritual religion compared to secularized western religious traditions. Hence, spirituality is the core of western Buddhist practitioners vision of Buddhism. We should be careful when defining Buddhism in this manner. The general identification of Buddhism with spirituality and western traditional religions with secularization in American society does not necessarily mean that a certain religious tradition, Buddhism in this case, is more religious than other religious, such as Christianity or Catholicism. Instead, it tells us the importance of context in which a religion is practiced. Perhaps because of the different contexts in which American Buddhists and Korean immigrants meet Buddhism, it is more for mutual benefit that these two groups communicate and learn from each other.

In the importance of immigration to American Buddhism cannot be overstated writes Richard Seager in his Buddhism in America(1999). The mutual fertilization between immigrant and convert Buddhisms does not always take place in a predicable manner. One example Seager cites gives us some idea about how this unexpectedness takes place in the cultural crossroad :

several years ago, in a Zen center in the mountains of Southern California, young students asked their American teachers to allow them to construct a weight room and fitness center, expressing their need for more strenuous activities than sitting zazen or doing t'ai chi,. After due consideration, the teachers turned down their request, thinking that StairMasters and Nautilus machines were not appropriate to a contemplative setting. Shortly thereafter however, the center was visited by a group of young Korean monks who had recently arrived in this country. They spent an hour or more each morning engaged in a rigorous practice regime that involved the repeated performance of full-body prostrations. Their prostration regime was soon incorporated by the Zen students into their daily practice as a way to vent energy and get physical stimulation while cultivating discipline.(Seager 1999, p45).

One might think that this is not exactly what is meant by Korean Buddhism's contribution to American Buddhism. And one might think that we want to transmit the traditional and authentic Korean Buddhism to American Buddhist practitioner. However, tradition is not something that is fixed but something that is always being made. Only when we are willing to open ourselves up to a new possibility, can we make a contribution to the formation of American Buddhism.


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