Be There Now

Is This the New Age of Buddhism?

According to Buddhist sages of another millennium, the age of Buddha would end 1500 years after his death. That was probably never meant to be taken literally, as Buddhists are given to sliding ages inside seconds and worlds within grains of sand. But the historical Buddha died in about 486 B.C.E., so I wonder what the wise ones would have made of Internet directories listing hundreds of dharma centers teaching various streams of Buddhism all over the world, the great fame of the Dalai Lama, or the hundreds of books on Buddhism published in recent years for an eager audience. No doubt they'd welcome another sign of the growth of enlightenment teaching—the eighth annual "Change Your Mind Day," scheduled for June 8 in Central Park.

Tricycle magazine has been presenting a day of meditation in the park since 1994, when the magazine's board thought of it as putting some cushions for zazen (seated meditation) out on the lawn and passing out flyers. Three hundred people showed up that afternoon; last year there were 2000. This year CYMD will take place in 40 cities from Anchorage to Dublin.

For those curious about Buddhist practice or the wide range of Buddhist teaching available in New York, CYMD is a pleasant introduction. The expression "change your mind" is a reflection both of the possibilities of "letting go" of the routine concerns of the mind through meditation and a reminder of the larger change possible through Buddhism's emphasis on examining the self. For me, it also implies the possibility of simply allowing a change of mind to suddenly unburden the soul of baggage.

Buddha Park: Venerable Piyatissa greets the crowds at "Change Your Mind Day 2000."
photo: Chris Dinerman
Buddha Park: Venerable Piyatissa greets the crowds at "Change Your Mind Day 2000."

It's hard not to notice something going on with the popularization of these ideas across the globe. Necessity has created a kind of pan-Buddhist community outside of Asia and particularly in the United States. In this immigrant country, perhaps the most diverse and polyglot society on the planet, many small Buddhist sects developed and have over time formed a virtual bazaar of Eastern teachings, and, of course, of marketable goods. In fact, Buddhism has been more successfully marketed here than anywhere, resulting in everything from expanded classes to Buddha-chic restaurants.

Yet one often passes storefront Buddhist temples in Chinatown, Brooklyn, and Queens, with handwritten signs in Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai, and they seem remote from this new age of Buddhism. These community-based temples have sprung up for 200 years, sometimes fragile and mobile, to serve Asian immigrants, and are the traditional base of Buddhism in America. The temples have often continued to function in Chinese or Japanese and have not necessarily tried to proselytize other Americans. Though long present, they are not the reason so many Americans might now recognize an image of Gautama Buddha.

While most of the Buddhists in New York and other major cities are still Asian Americans, the American Buddhist establishment, of which Tricycle is a pillar, has other roots—in Zen and in the Beat movement of the 1950s. What is now the power center of American Buddhism has, during its development, consistently attracted a body of well-heeled, well-educated white practitioners, and ignored the traditional Buddhist communities. Language barriers play a role, but so does the inertia of American apartheid.

American Buddhists, owing to their relatively small numbers in various groups, have for some time put on teaching events that bring together different Buddhist teaching streams. What is new now is a greater effort to actually invite Buddhists of diverse cultures and languages. This is due to hard grassroots work and lobbying by people of color involved in various Buddhist sects; a few important critical articles, particularly in Tricycle; and maybe to some mysterious forces best described by the sages.

For instance, Reverend T.K. Nakagaki, of the New York Buddhist Temple on Riverside Drive, several years ago organized a series of public lectures at Columbia University, inviting teachers from local Buddhist communities to teach on basics shared by all Buddhists. The Higashi Honganji (Jodoshinshu) Buddhist Church, of which I am a minister, decided on a multi-year mission to explore diversity in its temples worldwide starting in 1998. Last summer Tricycle's national conference in New York invited several African American teachers for the first time.

In the days following 9-11, Nakagaki pulled together a number of Buddhist ministers, invisible in most of the official religious observances, to lead a prayer vigil at Union Square. The gathering of monks present, wearing knit hats, shawls, and thick socks with thin monastic robes, came from several different language groups, but many shared recitations of thousand-year-old texts that are still taught in Pali or Sanskrit. Understanding was not a problem.

Buddhist priests suddenly began to appear in small groups at ground zero and at splashy events at Lincoln Center and Riverside Church. This spring, I was happy to participate in the "New Dharma Series" presented at Dixon Place by dharma teacher Angel Kyodo Williams and writer Carol Cooper, which showcases some of the African American teachers. This summer the Spirit Rock center in Marin County, California, one of the leading dharma centers in the U.S., is hosting a very sizable retreat for African American practitioners. So some are definitely changing.

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