'The State and Future of American Buddhism'
Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara and Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma.
by Chrys Thorsen
The United State is being called <the Future of Buddhism> by Buddhist scholars, in both Asia and the West. This may seem a strange idea, but when one looks closely, it may well be the case. The U.S. is the one country that can boast having every ethnic Buddhist tradition within its borders. Since the work of D.T. Suzuki fifty years ago, Buddhism has grown steadily in popularity among Americans. American pluralism fosters some of the most visionary Buddhist leaders and gifted Buddhist scholars.
In a world where Buddhism has left other countries, many groups are now looking to the U.S. to supply much-needed Sangha members or scholastic training. Certain countries in particular look to the west. Hong Kong is in grave need, with monks fleeing before the approaching takeover by mainland China. Russia has many pockets of Vajrayana Buddhists with no Sangha. India has always needed monks since the mass conversion of the six million so-called ;untouchables; forty years ago. Certain Asian Buddhist leaders, such ad Hsin-Yun of Fo Kwang Shin in Taiwan, are establishing satellite temples around the world, but these tend to cater mostly to their particular ethnic groups and specific traditions, rather than become a part of the mainstream culture serving the general population. American pluralism, on the other hand, has helped to develop some cosmopolitan Buddhist leaders who are cutting across cultural barriers to serve Buddhists in a non-sectarian way. These forward-looking pioneers may well hold the future of Buddhism, with their approach of single Buddhism for a global village.
Two very notable people in this group are Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara and Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma. Both have devoted their lives to Lord Buddha's work, impacting thousands of people with their temples and programs, and helping to steer the course of both American and world Buddhism.
Dr. Ratanasara, a native of Sri Lanka, came to the U.S. over ten years ago. It was here that he saw the chance to fulfill a lifetime dream. In it's 2500 years old history, Buddhism has seen its many traditions divided by geography, culture and language.
America has all three major schools of Buddhism, with the ten basic ethnic traditions, together in one place. For the first time, Buddhist leaders have had the opportunity to meet, dialogue, and work cooperatively, not only among themselves, but with leaders from other religions. They have found out, to their mild surprise, that there is far less difference between the Buddhist traditions than they initially thought.
To promote pluralism and address issues among American Buddhists, Dr. Ratanasara founded the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, the College of Buddhist Studies, and co-founded the American Buddhist Congress. The Sangha Council has representatives from nine ethnic traditions, and sponsors inter-Buddhist activities such as Vesak Day and other events. Each year it co-sponsors events with other Buddhist organizations. The most exciting group it will work with this year is the Japanese Buddhist Federation of Churches. jointly celebrating O-Hanamatsuri(Buddha's birthday). The Sangha Council is a driving force behind the interreligious Council of Southern California and the Interfaith Coalition to Heal L.A. It has had dialogue with the Dalai Lama and the Pope, and is occasionally called upon to protect the rights of new Buddhist groups in the Southern California area, such as when Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights was facing serious local prejudice that threatened to stop its construction plans.
Similarly, the American Buddhist Congress seeks to unite Buddhists nationwide. Logistically, this is a difficult process. There are 5-8 million Buddhists, and over fifteen hundred Buddhist temples and organization in the U.S. Most of the temples are small, serving only their immediate ethnic constituency. As immigrant groups slowly acculturate into the new country, the Buddhist Congress seeks to ease their transition, providing access in both directions between ethnic Buddhist groups and the American mainstream.
With Dr. Ratanasara concentrating on coordinating ethnic Buddhists in the U.S. Dr. Karuna has devoted her work to bringing Buddadharma to western-born Americans. With the death of Dr. Thic Thien-An, the Supreme Patriarch of the American Vietnamese Buddhist community, Dr. Karuna became abbess of the International Buddhist Meditation Center. one of the oldest American Buddhist temples.
The IBMC was founded twenty-two years ago as a uniquely American Buddhist Center. Employing teachers from all three major traditions, it provides "Eclectic Buddhism, American Style; specifically for the needs of Westerners. In its residency program, people escape the high-pressure pace of modern society, working on individual spiritual goals while learning to live in harmony in a semi-monastic community. The Center's broad array of programming provides opportunity for concerned citizens to contribute to society on a local, national and international level. Being one of the oldest; For-Westerners; Buddhist temples in the U.S., it has played a key role in the development of Buddhism in modern American history, being the first to ordain western Bikkhus and Bikkhunis(fully ordained male and female senior monks) and has been the springboard for ten other temples. It provided the Buddhist chaplains and translators for the United States government as it processed Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon.
IBMC is recognized as the primary contact point into the Asian ethnic community for business, government, media, academic, religious and community groups.
The current state of Buddhism in the U.S. is interesting. The American Buddhist Congress and the Buddhist Sangha Council strive to help new groups adjust to the American lifestyle. Yet Americans born in this country are practicing with little guidance. These people are developing their own style of Buddhism, de-emphasizing traditional roots. Despite the strong growth of Buddhism among Americans, there is not nearly enough western-born Sangha whose teaching style appeals to the western mind. With the exception of Japanese Zen, Tibetan Vajrayana, and some Sri Lankan Theravada, Americans cannot relate to ethnic traditions, and most Asian-born monks do not understand the western psyche. Many American Buddhists are laypeople with no monks to guide them. Most monks serve only their own ethnic group. Especially in the Midwest and South, Americans must rely upon books for teachings.
In response to this situation, the College of Buddhist Studies and the International Buddhist Meditation Center are now embarking on a bold new plan that will not only attempt to address the need at home, but will also help make the United States the center of international Buddhism. The two organizations are jointly working with the Buddhist Studies International, an educational institution in Sri Lanka founded by Dr. Ratanasara. Between them, post-graduate students will study in both the East and West, receiving in-depth and comprehensive academic education in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Also, both Asian and Western candidates will receive intensive, high-quality ministerial training, leading to full ordination. These Bhikkus and Bhikkunis will then be assigned on tours of duty around the world and the U.S. to fill the gap in Sangha. IBMC and the Sangha Council are also hoping to develop a Theravadan Bhikkuni order.
The order is a tall one, and will require considerable coordination between various countries, groups, and funding sources. It is a long range plan for the next several decades. Drs. Ratanasara and Karuna feel that this program will be a crucial part of the future of Buddhism. The premise is that Buddhism must be viewed as one Buddhism for a global village. Training for monks and scholars must be intensive, indepth, complete, and cut across ethnic lines. There is no room for sectarianism. Monks will be trained and work around the world. Likewise, as Asian American Buddhists settle in, they need to see beyond their own ethnicity and support American Buddhism in general. This is the direction and future of Buddhism in the U.S.
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