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The Influence of Buddhism on America, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

America may seem to many people to be a country that is unsuited to the acceptance of Buddhism. The general opinion that many people have about America is that it is a nation founded on Christianity. Another aspect of this belief is the idea that religions from Asian countries might be a poor fit for American culture due to the American tendency to ignore or even devalue cultures outside of its own. That said, the truth remains that Buddhism is one of the most adaptable religions and philosophies in the world. As such, Buddhism has often flourished in cultures that had a preexisting tie to other religions. America is no exception to this rule. The following discussion will show that not only is Buddhism adaptable to American culture, but that it is rapidly expanding and drawing new converts among the American population. It is therefore very influential on American culture and thought. A recent Pew Forum Survey found that “Buddhism has recently climbed to the 3rd most practice religion in America, below only Christianity and Judaism” (Buddhism, 1). This means that there are nearly two-million  native-born Buddhists in America.

The reasons for this tremendous rate of growth and conversions to Buddhism among the American population are varied and range from issues of religious faith to issues of pure philosophy. There is also a connection between the growth of interest in Buddhist practices in America, and the interest, expressed by many Americans in meditation practices that are associated with Buddhism. One other factor to keep in mind is that America was founded with a viewpoint of being open to all religions. As such, many Americans are accepting of the idea that foreign religions and philosophies may have great merit.

Tweed and Prothero mention in their book Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (1999) that the American tradition of spirituality and religion often includes taking ideas and beliefs from religions besides Christianity. They write that “Americans celebrate truth outside the Judeo-Christian heritage, even incorporating scriptures and practices from other traditions into their religious life.” (Tweed and Prothero 4). This tradition of open-mindedness in America is part of the reason that Buddhism has gained so much traction in American culture. However, even though America has a tradition of being somewhat receptive to outside religions and philosophies, there must still be reasons for the fact that Buddhism can lay claim to a higher number of American converts than any other foreign religion.

One of the reasons that so many Americans are influenced by Buddhism is due to the innate power of its philosophical ideas. The ideas of morality and enlightenment that are offered by Buddhism are both elegant and honest. In fact, to many people, “The moral code of Buddhism is one of the most perfect the world has ever known.” (Tweed and Prothero 81). So one reason that many Americans may be attracted to Buddhism is because they are drawn to its moral principles. The fact is that many people all around the world, including in America feel the need for a moral structure of life and how they should behave. Buddhism offers a system or morality and behavior that has existed for centuries and which is easily translatable from culture to culture. The reliance on Buddhist philosophy for moral and ethical guidance must be considered as one of the leading factors for its growing popularity in America. Buddhism has influenced America in that it offers an alternative perspective on morality and ethics.

Another way that Buddhism has influenced Americans is due to its emphasis on the idea of attaining enlightenment. While many Judeo-Christian religions offer the idea of salvation from Hell as the end-result or reward for living a moral life according to Christian standards, Buddhism offers a set of guiding principles and philosophical ideals that are meant to help an individual reach a state of personal enlightenment. The fact that: “Buddhism is the religion of enlightenment, and enlightenment means a perfect comprehension of the significance of life” (Tweed and Prothero 81) is an important aspect of how Buddhism attracts so many Americans. While many Americans are consumed with the idea of material success as being the reason for living, a great many others are in search of a more meaningful and resonant purpose in life. Buddhism, in offering a guidepost toward enlightenment provides a deeper meaning for many of the people who convert to it.  The influence of Buddhism in American culture in this regard is that many Americans, even those who are not Buddhist, think about the concept of enlightenment.

Yet another very important factor in context with the American influence by Buddhism is that Buddhism offers an alternative vision of the afterlife. Though millions of Christians in America  belive in the idea of heaven and hell, Buddhism offers a completely different idea about the nature of death and the continuation of the human soul. The basic difference between the Christian belief in the afterlife and the Buddhist belief is that Buddhists embrace the idea of reincarnation, where a soul is reborn many times into various lives. For many Americans, it is an attractive quality that “Buddhism does not propose the doctrine of the annihilation of the soul in death, but teaches the continuance of the soul in reincarnations” (Tweed and Prothero 150). Many Americans feel that the concept of reincarnation is a more fully realized idea of the afterlife than the notion of heaven and hell. Buddhism has influenced America by introducing for many people, the ideas of karma and reincarnation.

The idea of reincarnation ties to another way that America has been influenced by Buddhism and that is the idea of individuality. It  is true that “Buddhism is a much more individual level religion […] It preaches how to find peace within yourself in the here and now” where, by contrast, “Christianity also has a lot of fear, mythology, and ancient dogma attached to it” (Buddhism, 1).  There is an obvious distinction between the idea of being judged by God and sent to an eternal punishment or reward, and the idea that karma acts as a method for instructing the individual to find a higher moral and ethical purpose throughout the course of many lifetimes. The idea of individual responsibility and individual growth are very powerful in the religion and philosophy of Buddhism and these concepts are also reasons why many Americans choose to convert to Buddhism.

Another important component of the Buddhist influence on America is historically based. The Buddhist tradition in America can be traced back for centuries. As Richard Hughes Seager observes in his book Buddhism in America (1999) even those Americans who have recently converted to Buddhism often feel themselves to be a part of a much longer tradition in American history. Seager writes that “Many convert Buddhists see themselves as part of an alternative religious or spiritual tradition in this country that can be traced back to the decades before the Civil War.” (Seager 34). Buddhism therefore can be thought of as occupying an important, if largely obscure, part of American history.

Part of this “hidden” history of America relates not only to the evolution of religious ideas connected with American Buddhism, but with the American literary tradition. As Seager points out, the influence of Buddhism in America is a factor in the written works of some of the most celebrated writers in American history. In fact, a very important literary movement in the nineteenth century, the Transcendentalist Movement was highly influenced by Buddhism. Seager writes that “The source of this lineage is often traced back to the Transcendentalists and America’s early romantics such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.” (Seager 34). Since these writers, in turn, held a powerful influence over many writers of future generations, the influence of Buddhism, through the Transcendentalist Movement must be considered to be an important part of the way Buddhism has influenced America.

The influence of the early Transcendentalists carried over into the twentieth century with the development of the Beat Generation. This was a literary movement that stressed individualism, creativity, and self-determination. It was also a literary movement that helped to change the way American culture evolved through the ate twentieth century and beyond. Seager reminds us that “the poets and writers of the Beat generation such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman […] played critical roles by drawing Americans’ attention to Buddhism” (Seager 34). When the Beat writers became part of the popular culture in the mid twentieth century many of their ideas brought with them an influence of Buddhist ideas. Therfore America was influenced  by Buddhism through two of its most important literary movements in two consecutive centuries.

The preceding examination of the ways that Buddhism has influenced America shows that the influence of Buddhism in America has taken place at many levels and across a long span of time. The influence of Buddhism in America includes the fact that it is one of the most rapidly growing religions and philosophies in the country. It also includes the fact that specific Buddhist ideals such as enlightenment, karma, and reincarnation have been influential in changing the way that common Americans, even those who are not converts to the Buddhist religion, view their lives and the world around them.

Buddhism has also influenced America by acting a strong source of inspiration for some of America’s most important writers. The influence of Buddhism in America also extends to the way that Buddhist Americans have shaped the course of traditional Buddhism to evolve over centuries into a particular brand of religious and philosophical belief. Buddhism has played an important and influential role in many aspects of American culture and promises to continue to do so, perhaps in an even more profound way, in the future.

Works Cited

Anonymous, “Buddhism: Growth and Influence in America” Buddhism in America Blogspot; accessed 11-15-12; http://buddhisminamerica227.blogspot.com/

Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Tweed, Thomas A., and Stephen A. Prothero, eds. Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

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