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Korean Buddhism : The American Experience (2)
Lewis lancaster

When the first Korean communities came to Hawaii and the West Coast of North American in the 20th century, there were few Buddhist monastic who ever visited them or attempted to establish centers. Buddhism at that time was a fixed tradition and the monastic community was limited to the confines of Asia with no thought for missionary activity. This was true for the Chinese As well and the Koreans. It was only among the Japanese emigrants that Buddhist priests practiced and set up sites abroad that carried on the rituals And cultural features of Japan. As Korea developed economically and found a Place in the international community as a partner of manufacturing and commerce, it was natural that the religious of Korea should also become more global. One of the signs of this international activity has been arrived of Buddhist teachers in Europe and North America.

The impact of Buddhism in America was apparent during the turbulent years of The late 1960s and early 1970s. Because of the discontent of the younger Generation, who acquired the name of hippies, it was assumed that Buddhism Was finding a home in America because of a spiritual vacuum. It is true that Many of the Americans, who found Buddhism of interest, were seeking for social And spiritual alternatives to their own traditional institutions. However, The power that drove the international outreach of Asian Buddhist groups was Not fully recognized. It was not the situation in America which has changed, As much as it was the developments in Asia which were now allowing the International sphere of activity. The Asian economy and the recovery from World WarⅡ, the Korean War, and more recently the Vietnamese War created new Wealth and an economic program that included involvement with the markets of The whole world. In order to wage the so called Cold War, America and parts Of western Europe opened their trade doors to Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. This spread of mercantile and commercial activity has often been called globalization and it has been attacked by many for causing displacement of jobs. Whatever its flaws, globalization has given nations like South Korea an economic power and productivity that is far beyond what it possessed even five or six decades ago. As business went out around the world cultural and religious ideas followed in its wake. Buddhists from Asia began to travel and to set up centers in the population centers of North America and Western Europe. This has been the economic environment that has allowed Korean Buddhists to send hundreds of monks and nuns around the world to teach and train. It is unprecedented in Korean history, except for the period when the power of Korea in the early centuries of the Common Era, permitted monks to go to Japan to establish Buddhism with the rulers of the emerging central in Nara. All of this is to refute the claim that the reason for the growth of Buddhism in America and Europe is due to some religious vacuum that has been An irresistible magnet that drew to itself the traditions of Asia. Instead, we are witnessing the power of Asian commerce and culture that is expanding around the world, supported by internationally minded groups at home. It is time for Asia to claim for itself the power behind the spread of Buddhism. The power shift from Europe and North America toward the Asian markets is matched step by step with the growth of culture and religious influences Outside of Asia.

Among many of the groups that funded the establishment of centers in the International projects, the main intent was to serve the white American and European populations. The conversion of these westerners to Buddhism was seen as proof of the value of the religion and people in Asia eagerly awaited news of the success of this missionary effort. This view of the reason for having Buddhist centers in America does not fully take into account the nature of this country. America and especially California is made up of many different racial and cultural communities. It is not all Anglo Saxon protestant in either history or practice. We have recently passed a major milestone in the demography of the U.S. No longer are we a nation dominated by a while majority an African American minority. Today, the white majority still stands although with a similar percentage a year by year. The Hispanic populations now exceeds that of African Americans. The Asian population in California now approaches 12% of the population but dominates far beyond its numbers in educational institutions. The student body of the incoming class of freshman at the University of California at Berkley ha 45% Asian background and 30% Caucasian. I am very pleased to say that my grand daughter who is Japanese and American is representative of our nation and its mixtures. She is an example of how we are developing a strength in our nation that relies on the contributions from all over the world.

From this, I think it is important for a group such as this one in Los Angeles to recognize that serving the Korean American community is a vital and important task. If Buddhism is to survive and thrive in this country it will be, in part, because the emigrants communities from Buddhist nations have been able to pass along the religion to the second and third generations. The Japanese American Buddhists deserve much credit for the fact that they have been able to maintain Buddhism among their community for more than a century. While some have wished to have more Americans among the membership, it is a success story that the Japanese Americans have remained Buddhists even as they lived and worked in a minority position. The Los Angeles basis is now filled with Thai, laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Sri lankan, Burmese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist centers. Education is also playing a role in the life of these communities, language schools during the weekend for the children, universities such as Soka University and Hsilai University, and social service units such as hospices and prison visitation programs, and all indications of the deep involvement of Buddhism in the life of Los Angeles County. The maintenance of the religious training practices, rituals, and teachings among this vast community of Buddhists is a major task. Here in this monastery supported by the Korean community, we can find the social support needed by people who have grown up with Korean language, culture and values. If in another 70 years when the group celebrates the 100th anniversary, success will be measured in how well the Korean community was served, how well the Korean culture was preserved and shared with the local society, how well Buddhist ideas and practices were kept alive and developed. If the great, great, great, grandchildren of the founders of this monastery are still here and still finding a source of inspiration and solice in the teachings that are represented by Korean Buddhism, that will be success indeed. The inclusion of a wider ethnic group within the activities of this monastery may occur but only if the structure remains in place supported by Koreans who receive benefit in return for the support.

I salute all who have made this a major religious center. We are endebted to those whose vision moved them to create this institution for the benefit of the Korean Americans and all others who are interested in Buddhism. May this monastery continue to serve the people of Los Angeles and enrich the life of this country.

---------
(Kwan Um Temple Symposium on Korean Buddhism in America
March 23, 2003 Kwan Um Temple, Los Angeles, CA)


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