Theravada Buddhism
in America

by Wendy Cadge

An excerpt from Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America

The origin of Theravada Buddhism in America can be traced to a speech made by Anagarika Dharmapala at the World Parliament of Religions meeting in 1893. Born in 1864 in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Don David Hewavitharne became a celibate layman and adopted the title Anagarika Dharmapala, meaning “homeless one,” “guardian of the Dharma.” Heavily influenced by Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), Theosophists who first visited India and Ceylon from America in 1878 and 1880, Dharmapala spent his life spreading Buddhism around the world. At the Parliament, Dharmapala spoke about how Buddhism, Christianity, and scientific approaches to the world overlap, saying that the “Buddha inculcated the necessity of self-reliance and independent thought,” and “accepted the doctrine of evolution as the only true one.” Theosophists and others in the United States were influenced by elements of Theravada Buddhism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Groups of Burmese and Sri Lankan monks visited the United States before the first Theravada Buddhist organization was formed in Washington, D.C., in 1966.

The Washington Buddhist Vihara and the Buddhist Study Center in New York, the first two Theravada Buddhist organizations in the United States, were both founded and supported jointly by Asian and American-born people. The Washington Buddhist Vihara began in Washington, D.C., in 1966 following the 1964 visit of Sri Lankan monk Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera. Sent by the Asia Foundation on a tour, he happened to be in Washington on Vesak, the Buddhist holiday that commemorates the birth, death, and enlightenment of the Buddha. He celebrated in a park with a few people from the Sri Lankan Embassy and, after conversations with an officer from the embassy, decided to begin a temple in the United States. Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera returned to Sri Lanka and collected funds for the temple from the Sasana Sevaka Society, an organization of Sinhalese lay Buddhists, and from Sri Lankans and Americans living in the United States. Another Sri Lankan monk, Ven. Bope Vinitha, had recently returned to Sri Lanka after two years of study at Harvard University and was asked to return to the States to direct the temple in Washington. He arrived carrying a Buddha statue and relic of the Buddha, and in December 1966 the Vihara held its first meeting at the All Souls Unitarian Church on 16th Street NW. In 1967 the Vihara purchased a building at 5017 16th Street NW from the government of Thailand for a reduced price, where people continue to meet today. The Washington Buddhist Vihara has been an international temple from the beginning, where services are held in English and Buddhists and friends of Buddhism from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, Burma, and America are included among the temple’s regular members. Sri Lankans and other Asians tend to come for devotional services and ceremonies, while white Americans come for meditation sessions and sutta study classes. Monks from many countries have lived or stayed at the Vihara over the years. In January 2001 the Vihara housed four monks, two from Sri Lanka, one from Nepal, and one white American ordained in San Francisco according to the Burmese tradition. Also in the late 1960s, Thai and American Buddhists founded the Buddhist Study Center in New York, which led many years later to the founding of Wat Vajiradhammapadip, a Thai Buddhist temple in New York.

1970s: The Beginnings

In the early 1970s, Sri Lankan and Thai lay people and monastics began to organize temples, first in California. The group of white people who would form the first vipassana meditation retreat center in the United States met, and the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) was born. In 1972, Ven. Ananda Mangala Thera, a Sri Lankan monk who had been living in Singapore, visited Los Angeles and was asked by a handful of Sri Lankan families to start a Buddhist society. In 1973 this group of Sri Lankan immigrants began an informal committee and consulted again with two visiting Sri Lankan monks. They incorporated as the Sri Lankan–America Buddha Dhamma Society in 1975 and a few years later began to collect funds to support a temple. Ven. Walpola Piyananda, who would become the head monk at this temple, arrived in the United States on July 4, 1976, and was brought from the airport to the bicentennial parade in San Francisco, where he rode in an open-topped car with another monk and a Buddha statue. He went from there to Northwestern University and then returned to California, at the request of the Sri Lankan community, to be the head monk of the still developing temple. He was joined by another Sri Lankan monk, Ven. Pannila Ananda Nayake Maha Thera, and together they lived in a house purchased by the Sri Lankan–America Buddha Dhamma Society in Hollywood, California, that became the Los Angeles Buddhist Vihara. Like many early Sri Lankan and Thai temples, this temple was attended not just by Sri Lankans but by Laotians and Cambodians as well. A conflict developed in the late 1970s over who was in control of the temple, and Ven. Piyananda was expelled from the temple. He and his supporters started a new temple in 1980, Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, a name that means “victory of truth.”

Between 1970 and 1974 Thai immigrants also began to organize temples in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. In 1970 a Thai monk Ven. Phrakhru Vajirathammasophon of Wat Vajirathamsathit in Thailand was invited to Los Angeles to teach and perform Buddhist ceremonies. The Thai community formed the Thai-American Buddhist Association that year, and three additional monks visited the United States to plan the founding of a temple. In June 1971 a mission of Thai monks led by Ven. Phra Dhammakosacharn arrived in Los Angeles, and lay people began to raise funds to purchase land. In 1972, land was donated and construction began on a main hall, a two-story Thai-style building, that was completed and dedicated in 1979. Buddha images for the shrine hall and two sets of scriptures were carried to the United States by monks and lay people from Thailand, and in 1979 His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen of Thailand presided over the casting of the principal Buddha image for the temple at Wat Po (officially called Wat Phra Chetuphon, or the Monastery of the Reclining Buddha) in Thailand. Wat Thai L.A. has grown dramatically since 1971 and is currently the largest Thai temple in the United States, serving thousands of people per year. As in Los Angeles, a group of Thai lay people in Washington, D.C., began to raise funds for a temple of their own, and two Thai monks took up residence there in 1974. Vajiradhammapadip Temple in New York, Wat Buddhawararam in Denver, and Wat Dhammaram in Chicago were also started before 1979. These temples were attended largely by Thai people and also Lao people in the early years. The Council of Thai Bhikkhus, an umbrella organization designed to oversee all of the Thai temples in the United States, was started in 1977.

The Insight Meditation Society (IMS), the first Theravada Buddhist organization founded completely by non-Asians, also started in the mid-1970s. At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, largely white native-born Americans who would start this organization were returning from their travels in Asia. Jack Kornfield returned to the States as a monk in 1972 after spending several years in the Peace Corps and in various temples and monasteries in Asia. Joseph Goldstein returned as a lay person in the 1970s, also after spending time in the Peace Corps in Thailand and in monasteries and meditation centers throughout Southeast Asia. Sharon Salzberg, the third founding teacher of IMS, returned after studying Buddhism with teachers in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and Burma. In 1973, Jack Kornfield met Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa at a party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Trungpa invited him to come to Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 1974 to teach at a new school he was starting, the Naropa Institute. It was at the Naropa Institute in the summer of 1974 that Jack Kornfield met Joseph Goldstein and the two formed a relationship that shaped much of the way Theravada Buddhism was taught to white people in the United States for the next decade.

While the Thais and Sri Lankans forming temples were looking to import Theravada Buddhism as it was practiced in their home countries, Kornfield, Goldstein, Salzberg, and other early teachers were not interested in Theravada as practiced popularly in Thailand or Burma. Rather they were interested in vipassana, or insight, meditation. First popularized for lay people in Burma, this form of meditation emphasizes being aware and present with physical and mental experiences as they are happening so as to see things clearly as they are. Believing that most Asian Buddhists do not actually practice Buddhism, Kornfield explained that the early teachers “had to learn to simplify the practices we learned in an attempt to offer a clear straight forward form of Buddhist practice in the West. We left much of the Eastern culture, ritual, and ceremony also behind in Asia…we felt that for Americans it was an unnecessary barrier. It seemed to us that for our culture the simplicity and straightforwardness of mindful practice itself would speak best to the heart of those seeking practice.” Leaving behind what they often called the “cultural baggage,” the first white teachers sought to find the “original teachings” of the Buddha, which they believed were centered in vipassana meditation, and to pass them on through “a container provided by the west.” Psychedelics and other drugs brought many early practitioners to the meditation practice.

After meeting at the Naropa Institute in 1974, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein began to teach meditation retreats around the country, and with Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Schwartz they started a meditation center for teacher and self-led meditation retreats. Called the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), the center was incorporated on May 19, 1975, and aimed to “provide a secluded retreat environment for the practice of meditation in the Theravada Buddhism tradition.” A letter was sent to possible contributors in November describing the purpose of the center and requesting donations toward the purchase of a building. In January 1976, IMS purchased a building on seventy-five acres of rural farmland in Barre, Massachusetts, about two and a half hours outside Boston. The building, a mansion called the Father of the Blessed Sacrament, was sold by the Catholic novitiate and had single rooms plus dormitory space, a large chapel, and kitchen and dining facilities. Shortly after the building was purchased, someone climbed to the top of a twenty-foot extension ladder and rearranged the letters over the main entrance to read “Metta,” a Pali word meaning loving-kindness.

When they started IMS, the teachers made a conscious decision to keep the center grounded in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and that grounding, Joseph Goldstein argues now in retrospect, has been a source of institutional focus and strength. “It was a conscious choice to have it not become a center where even very enlightened teachers from a range of traditions would come,” Goldstein remembers. “We felt that it would really dilute the vision.” Several months after the building was purchased, the center offered teacher-led courses and self-retreats, primarily in the style of Burmese meditation masters Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin and in the Thai forest tradition of monk Ajahn Chah. Retreats typically ran for ten days during which participants maintained complete silence. A three-month retreat, modeled after the three-month rain retreat taken by monastics in Southeast Asia, also took place every fall from September through December. Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Ruth Denison (a German-born woman who studied in India and Burma, particularly under Burmese lay teacher U Ba Khin), and others taught many of the early courses. Most had little teaching experience and tried to transplant what they had learned in Asia to the United States with an emphasis on preserving the “dhamma,” or teachings of the Buddha. The questions the teachers concerned themselves with in the early years, Sharon Salzberg remembers, were about what it meant to take the Buddhist tradition, steeped in the imagery and metaphor of Asia, to try to find its unchanging essence, and then to express that essence in the imagery of a new time and place: “We are discovering new metaphors,” Salzberg has written, “that connect us to a reality and a teaching that is timeless and universal.” Connections between the teachers at IMS and their teachers in Asia were strong and lasting. Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah, Burmese monks Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, Ven. U Pandita, Ven. U Silananda, Indian lay teachers Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, and the Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama visited IMS in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the teachers at IMS returned to Asia to study with their teachers there.

While the first Theravada Buddhist organizations founded largely by Asians and white Americans had little contact with one another, they occasionally shared teachers and influenced each other in unexpected ways. Between 1979 and 1982, for example, famed Burmese meditation teacher Mahasi Sayadaw traveled around the United States and Europe spreading the Buddha’s teachings. Another Burmese monk, the Most Venerable Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Sayadaw, also came to the United States in 1978 at the invitation of Rina Sircar, a woman born to Indian parents in Burma who had come to the States to pursue graduate study. In 1979 Mahasi Sayadaw came to the United States with U Silananda and U Kelatha, in part in response to an invitation from IMS to lead a retreat there. During their time in the States, the three Burmese monks visited a Burmese community in the San Francisco Bay area. At the request of that Burmese community, Mahasi Sayadaw agreed to leave U Silananda and U Kelatha behind when he returned to Burma, and shortly thereafter (between October 1979 and February 1980), one of the early Burmese Buddhist organizations in the United States, the Theravada Buddhist Society of America, was formed. A lay association, the Theravada Buddhist Society of America then started a temple, Dhammananda Vihara. This temple joined a Burmese temple that already existed in Los Angeles and Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Vihara in Boulder Creek, California. Shortly after the founding of these temples, additional Burmese temples were started in Washington, D.C., and other cities.

Quite apart from white Theravada Buddhist practitioners, groups that eventually founded the first Laotian and Cambodian temples in the United States were also started between 1978 and 1980 in the Washington, D.C., area. Migration from Laos and Cambodia peaked in the early 1980s and these early groups slightly predated those peaks. The temple called Wat Buddhikarana that currently serves Cambodian Buddhists in the Washington, D.C., area was first organized in 1978 when people began worshiping together in converted houses. Before 1978, Cambodians in Washington, D.C., had attended the Washington Buddhist Vihara. In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge regime systematically killed Buddhist monks throughout their reign of terror in Cambodia, and a few of the surviving monks arrived in the United States and were involved in the construction of early temples. Before 1980, Lao people in the Washington, D.C., area attended Wat Thai D.C. or other centers. In 1979 they began to organize among themselves, and in 1980 Lao monks formed a small community in a rental property. The Lao Buddhist Association purchased a house and one-acre lot in 1980 where services were held, but problems with zoning regulations led the temple to relocate several years later.

Buddhist tradition states that the Buddha’s teachings have truly arrived in a new country when sons and daughters of good families in the country join the monastic order. By this logic, Buddhism is fully established in a new geographic area only when native-born people join the sangha, or order of monks. While numerous white American-born men had become monks in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, the first Theravada Buddhist higher ordination took place on United States soil in 1979 at Wat Thai Los Angeles. Scott Joseph DuPrez, a native Californian, had received his samanera, or first level of ordination into the monkhood, in Sri Lanka in 1975, taking the name Yogavacara Rahula. In May 1979 he received higher ordination at the Thai temple in Los Angeles. Sri Lankan monks Ven. Jinaratana (preceptor), Ven. Dhammaratana (teacher), Ven. Ananda, and Ven. Piyananda, who were living in the United States, presided at the ceremony.

By the end of the 1970s, Theravada Buddhist centers had been established or initiated by Sri Lankans, Thais, Burmese, Cambodians, Laotians, and native-born Americans in the United States, and a native-born American had received higher Buddhist ordination on American soil. While the temples started by each of the five Asian groups had their own connections to their home countries, IMS was not so formally linked and traced its lineage to the teachings of Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma and the Thai forest tradition in Thailand. While the Asian temples were formally led by Asian monks, lay people were integral to their founding and maintenance. IMS was founded and led by lay white people, though monastic and lay teachers from Asia visited and led retreats. In their day-to-day lives, lay Asians typically attended the temple of their home country, and if there was no temple, they attended other Asian temples despite the fact that they may not have understood some of the service. Much of the chanting and ritual at Asian temples is conducted in Pali, the scriptural language of Theravada Buddhism. While most lay people do not understand Pali, the language sounds familiar enough to many that if they attend a temple where they do not speak the vernacular language, the chanting and ceremony still often sound familiar. Monks also occasionally visited or stayed at temples led by monks from Asian countries. White people generally attended IMS. While white people attended the Washington Buddhist Vihara, there is little evidence that they attended other Theravada Buddhist organizations led by Asians or by monks in the 1970s.

1980s: Continued Growth

Immigration from Theravada Buddhist countries continued in the 1980s, particularly from Cambodia and Laos, and the number of temples in each of the five Asian groups continued to increase. Whereas there were five Thai temples in the United States in 1980 for example, there were more than forty at the end of the decade (fig. 6). These included temples associated with the Mahanikaya or Council of Thai Bhikkhus and the Dhammayut Order. Like immigrants from Thailand, temples started by Thai-born people were initially concentrated on the East and West Coasts, with the majority in California.

Number of Thai temples in the United States
 Figure 6. Number of Thai temples in the United States, 1970-2000

Most Thai temples followed similar patterns in their development. A group of lay people in a given city who were interested in building a temple first formed a committee to consider the issues involved. They often sought advice from the monks at Wat Thai L.A. or Wat Thai Washington, D.C., or from monks that they knew in Thailand. Often a monk came to the area to visit and meet with people, and then the committee started to collect donations from Thai people in the area. An apartment or single-family house was would be rented or purchased and monks would take up residence, normally from Thailand rather than from another temple in the United States. Many temples remain in these original buildings now, while others, particularly those that continued to accumulate financial resources, purchased new buildings or land and often began to build Thai-style buildings. Many took loans from banks to continue this construction and many remain in debt today. Some temples, like Wat Phrasriratanaram Buddhist Temple of St. Louis, moved into existing buildings, in this case a former Assemblies of God church. In many cases, the traditional rules regarding the construction of temples were amended slightly, for example, when portions of temples normally housed in separate buildings in Thailand were combined for reasons of cost or practicality. The distinctions between commercial and residential zoning were particularly challenging for many Thai and other Asian temples, and many had to relocate to areas zoned for religious gatherings.

The number of Cambodian temples on American soil particularly increased during the 1980s as the number of Cambodians in the United States increased from 16,044 in the 1980 U.S. Census to 147,411 in the 1990 census. The Cambodian monk Ven. Maha Ghosananda, a disciple of the former head of the Cambodian Buddhist Sangha, the late Samdech Phra Sangha Raja Chuon Noth, was living in Thailand when refugees from Cambodia began to flood into Thailand in the 1970s. In 1978 he began to establish Buddhist temples in refugee camps and in 1981 came to the United States to head the Cambodian Buddhist community in Rhode Island, which became the center for establishing Buddhist temples in the Cambodian refugee community around the world. Between 1983 and 1986, more than eighty monks came to Providence from Cambodia and were sent to the forty-one temples that had opened in the United States and Canada. Some of these monks came through centers that had been established in Thailand; in fact, many of the monks that currently lead Cambodian temples were born in Thailand and grew up speaking Khmer, but spoke Thai at school. Not surprisingly, many have strong friendships with monks serving Thai temples.

The number of Theravada meditation centers founded and attended largely by white people also increased during the 1980s, and the number of people attending existing centers rose. The number of sitting groups listed in Inquiring Mind, a newspaper-like journal started by Wes Nisker and Barbara Gates in California in 1983, for example, increased from sixteen in 1984 to ninety in 1989, as evident in figure 1. The reach of Theravada Buddhist meditation groups also widened in the 1980s. In 1984 these sixteen groups met in eight states, while in 1989 the ninety groups listed met in thirty-two states. New groups also began in the 1980s; Vipassana Hawaii, for example, currently led by white lay teachers Steven Smith and Michele McDonald-Smith, began with meditation retreats of varying durations. The numbers of retreats offered and practitioners sitting retreats at IMS increased throughout the 1980s, and IMS experienced some growing pains as tensions developed around how the center should institutionalize and plan for the future, financially and otherwise. In 1986, responsibility for administrative, policy, and fiscal matters related to IMS was placed in the hands of nine board members selected from the community. By the end of the decade, IMS was advertising for an executive director and associate director, in part to lead the organization through a master development plan in the 1990s. The leadership saw a master plan and new leadership going hand in hand and described IMS as an “adolescent approaching adulthood.” The future direction of IMS was also influenced in the 1980s by founding teacher Jack Kornfield’s decision to leave IMS for California in the fall of 1984.

Vipassana retreats had been taking place in California since the early 1970s, and they began to take a new direction in the 1980s when Jack Kornfield arrived and began to teach at Insight Meditation West, formerly the Dharma Foundation. The first board meeting of Insight Meditation West was held in 1984, and after 408 acres in Marin County, north of San Francisco, were purchased in 1987, a fundraising committee was formed to raise the money for construction. By the end of the decade, funds were being raised, programs were being held elsewhere around San Francisco, and the number of small meditation groups that had grown out of existing programs had skyrocketed.

Programs at Insight Meditation West tended to be more experimental than those at IMS and often drew on ideas and techniques outside of Theravada Buddhism and vipassana meditation. The line between vipassana meditation and psychotherapy has been blurry at some insight meditation centers, and the teachers at Insight Meditation West more openly incorporated ideas from psychotherapy into their teachings than did teachers at IMS. After returning from Asia and before helping to start IMS, Jack Kornfield completed a PhD in clinical psychology. His approach to teaching at Insight Meditation West combined insights from vipassana meditation, psychotherapy, and other spiritual and therapeutic practices.

Meditation centers in the tradition of S. N. Goenka, a layman born to Indian parents in Burma, also began to develop in the United States in the 1980s. Although people involved with these centers do not place themselves on the Theravada Buddhism spectrum, centers in this lineage are treated in this chapter because they developed directly from the teachings of Burmese lay teacher U Ba Khin. Goenka studied with U Ba Khin for fourteen years in Burma before moving to India in 1969 to teach vipassana meditation to Indians and later to travelers from America interested in his ten-day structured silent retreats. Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and other teachers involved with IMS spent time at Goenka centers in India in the 1970s. Goenka traces his teachings to the Buddha and describes vipassana meditation as “pure science,” saying that the “teacher…gives a path.…[E]ach individual has to walk on the path.” In the more than thirty years since he started teaching, Goenka has strictly avoided the words “Buddhism” and “religion.” “For me, Buddha never established a religion, Buddha never taught Buddhism. Buddha never made a single person a Buddhist.” The day “Buddhism” happened, “it devalued the teachings of the Buddha. It was a universal teaching and that made it sectarian,” Goenka has said. Since 1976, Goenka has been based in India, and in 1982 he began to appoint assistant teachers who were born and raised in the West.

While some people who studied in the Goenka tradition mixed the teachings with ideas from other traditions, others like Goenka himself wanted to keep the teachings pure and free from other influences. Unlike the teachers at IMS, who aimed to find the essence of the Buddha’s teachings and express that essence through “a container provided by the west,” practitioners in the lineage of Goenka believe that the teachings do not need to change or be adapted to the West. The Buddha was an enlightened person, Goenka and his followers argue, so nothing from him needs to be changed. In 1980, people who had attended retreats at the Goenka center in India began to rent sites for ten-day retreats in the United States and in 1982 they incorporated and established the Dhamma Dhara Vipassana Meditation center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, the first center in the Goenka lineage outside India. Eight students came to the first course, which, like all courses at Goenka centers around the world, was taught using videotapes of Goenka himself teaching. All of the ten-day courses taught around the world, therefore, have been identical. Assistant teachers are present at each course to guide students in their practice, but Goenka himself remains the teacher, and no other methods, techniques, or teachings are supported on retreats. “In this tradition we take a very conservative approach,” Luke Matthews, the current manager of the Dhamma Dhara Vipassana Meditation center explained, “feeling that what was already given was so good and has worked in so many cultures for so many centuries. Does everything really have to be adapted for the American culture? I would say let’s adapt the culture and keep this as we had it.” In addition to the center in Shelburne Falls, the California center called Dhamma Mahavana was started by students of Goenka in 1983. Both of these centers were initially attended largely by white people with an interest in vipassana meditation.

In addition to the growth of Asian temples and largely white meditation centers in the 1980s, the Bhavana Society, a monastery founded and attended both by Asian and by white American-born people, was started by Sri Lankan monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana and lay white American meditator Matthew Flickstein in 1983. Bhante Gunaratana came to the United States from Sri Lanka in 1968 to help lead the Washington Buddhist Vihara in Washington, D.C. In 1976 he met Flickstein at the Vihara when Flickstein came for meditation instructions. After several years, they began to speak about Bhante Gunaratana’s dream of beginning a meditation center. In May 1983 they formed the Bhavana Society and began to look for land where they could build their center. After one failed attempt at raising money, they purchased thirteen acres in West Virginia in May 1984, and a few months later chanted suttas on the land, made speeches, and expressed appreciation to the people whose donations enabled them to purchase the property. One year later they began to build, but ran into numerous practical problems. In May 1987, Ven. Rahula, the American-born monk who had received higher ordination at Wat Thai L.A. in 1979, contacted Bhante Gunaratana and came to stay for a few weeks on the land that the Bhavana Society had purchased. Bhante Gunaratana asked him to stay on, and in August 1987 Bhante Gunaratana led the first meditation course on the land, attended by seventeen people. Bhante Gunaratana was the head monk at the Washington Buddhist Vihara when he established the Bhavana Society, and in 1988 he left the Vihara to become the society’s president. Reflecting on the importance of a place like the Bhavana Society in an interview in Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, Bhante Gunaratana said, “If you do not preserve the form of Theravada Buddhism, the original form, eventually people won’t even know what it is.” Sri Lankans and Americans sit on the board of directors, and Asians and American-born people both support the center financially. American-born people generally attend the meditation retreats at the center, and Asians tend to come to make offerings to the monks and nuns.

When Asians and Americans are both at the Bhavana Society, a certain diplomacy is required to negotiate their activities. “We have dispensed with much cultural trappings and most of our daily visitors and retreatants are American,” Bhante Gunaratana explained. “However, because there are monks here, we do occasionally experience cultural flavor. People from Buddhist countries will come on full moon days or to offer lunch to dedicate the merit to someone who has died, and so forth. During silent retreats some visitors may show up who want to follow some particular custom from their home country. Occasionally during a silent retreat the dining hall is filled with completely silent American meditators who are eating slowly and mindfully while in the adjoining hall several families of people from an Asian country sit boisterously chatting with their children running around.” Asians and American youth mix most at youth retreats at the Bhavana Society that have taken place in the summer for many years.

While a higher Theravada ordination took place on American soil at Wat Thai L.A. in 1979, one of the early samanera ordinations occurred at the Bhavana Society in 1989. This ordination included the largest ever gathering of monastics from Theravada Buddhist countries in the United States, twenty-eight monks and nuns. In July, monks and nuns from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, and Laos who were living in the United States gathered at the Bhavana Society with the three men and one woman who would be ordained. Sri Lankan–born monk Ven. Havanpola Ratanasara of the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California officiated. The ceremony began with the establishment of a sima, a physical area, in this case in the woods, where monks could meet without the laity and an ordination could take place. Tom West, Matthew Flickstein, Shibaya, and Misha Cowman were ordained. Tom West, a Canadian, had been a permanent resident at the center for some time, and Matthew Flickstein had helped to start the center. Shibaya, a Japanese man, had previously ordained in the Mahayana school of Buddhism. He had been living at a Sri Lankan temple in Los Angeles and in this ceremony switched his vows to Theravada. Full Theravada ordination for women in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia ended in the eleventh century. Misha Cowman was ordained not by monks from one of these five countries but in the lineage of Ven. Dhammadeepa, a fully ordained nun from Vietnam. The ceremony lasted for two and a half hours, and these were the first of twelve or thirteen people that Bhante Gunaratana has ordained over the last twelve years in the United States.

By the end of the 1980s, the number of Asian temples in the United States had increased, as had interest in meditation centers founded and attended largely by white Theravada Buddhist practitioners. Insight Meditation West and the Goenka center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, were open, and Asians and Americans were both involved with the Bhavana Society in West Virginia. Some white American-born people had probably started to attend meditation classes at Asian temples across the country, although this is difficult to demonstrate empirically. With the ordination at the Bhavana Society, Theravada Buddhism was becoming even more established in the United States. Its largely Asian and largely white segments worked together to some extent in the 1980s, through Buddhist councils like the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California (1980), American Buddhist Congress (1987), and Buddhist Council of the Midwest (1987). Asian and American college-aged practitioners also sometimes worked together through Buddhist organizations on college campuses. Bhante Gunaratana was appointed as the Buddhist chaplain at American University in 1974 and Bhante Uparatana in 1989. The Sri Lankan-born monk, Ven. Piyananda, was appointed the first chaplain of the newly formed Buddhadharma Fellowship at the University of California-Los Angeles in 1988 that serves Asian and American Buddhists.

1990s: Growth and Mixing Demographics

The 1990s showed continued growth in Buddhist organizations founded and attended largely by Asian and by white practitioners, but also showed new growth in the number of organizations led and attended both by Asian and by white practitioners. Some of the mixing between Asians and Americans occurred in temples started by Sri Lankan, Thai, and Burmese immigrants to the United States, as opposed to those started by Lao and Cambodian refugees. This likely occurred because the monks and first-generation immigrants involved with Thai, Sri Lanka, and Burmese temples had a better command of English and were more assimilated to U.S. society than the monks and lay practitioners at Lao and Cambodian temples.

The mixing of Asian and native-born American Theravada Buddhist practitioners was first pointed out by Paul Numrich in his study of Wat Dhammaram, a temple started by Thais in Chicago, and Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, a temple started by Sri Lankans in Los Angeles. Numrich found that groups of white people were involved with each of these temples in addition to the Thai and Sri Lankans. While white people have often attended Asian temples, particularly Thai temples, as the spouses and family members of Asians, the white people involved in these two temples were involved without a familial connection. At Wat Dhammaram, for example, Thai people came to participate in ceremonies on weekends, while white people came to meditation classes and retreats often on weekday evenings. The two groups rarely interacted, though they met in the same spaces under the guidance of the same monks at different times during the week. A similar pattern was evident at Dharma Vijaya. Interestingly, the majority of non-Asians who attended these two parallel congregations were men, in comparison to IMS, where the majority of practitioners have been women. Many more Thais and Sri Lankans were involved in these two temples than white Americans, and there was little evidence that the white Americans had much say in the leadership of the temple. While researchers do not know when these parallel congregations began or how numerous they are across the country, Numrich’s research showed that in the 1990s the demographics of Theravada Buddhism in America were not simply a matter of groups of Asians and white Americans practicing at geographic, cultural, and social distances from one another.

Apart from these parallel congregations, several Theravada Buddhist centers led and attended by Asian and white people began in the 1990s. The late Ajahn Suwat Suvaco, a Thai monastic, started Metta Forest Monastery (also called Wat Metta), a temple in a sixty-acre avocado grove outside San Diego, California, in 1990. At the time, he had been a monk for more than fifty years, forty of which he had spent training in the forests of Thailand under some of the most respected Thai teachers. He had been in the United States for ten years before he started the center, largely through a donation from an American Buddhist practitioner. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a white American monk born as Geoffrey DeGraff, graduated from Oberlin College before going to Thailand in the 1970s, where he was ordained and practiced meditation for fourteen years, primarily under the guidance of Ajahn Fuang Jotiko, a teacher in the Thai forest tradition. Several years after his teacher’s death, Thanissaro Bhikkhu returned to the United States. In 1991 he began to help with the leadership of Metta Forest Monastery, and in 1993 he became the abbot or head monk of the temple. Financial and practical support from Thais, Laotians, and Americans has been central to the development of the temple. Preserving the monastic form, or monkhood, as at Wat Metta, is central to preserving the dhamma, Thanissaro Bhikkhu argues. He has described dhamma in the United States as something like the game of telephone: “Things get passed from one generation to the next until they are garbled beyond recognition.” In part to combat this tendency, he has translated many of the talks and teachings given by monks in the Thai forest tradition into English and distributed them for free across the country.

Ajahn Amaro, a British monastic, helped to start Abhayagiri Monastery in California, a monastery founded and led by white monastics and increasingly attended by both Americans and Asians. Ajahn Amaro was born as Jeremy Horner and after graduating from university went to Thailand, where he began to study at Wat Pah Nanachat, a forest monastery for Western students started by Thai forest teacher Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Amaro was ordained as a monk in 1979 and later returned to England, where he lived at temples in the Ajahn Chah lineage there. Between 1990 and 1995, Ajahn Amaro visited the United States several times to teach at various Buddhist organizations. A group of lay supporters in California organized themselves into the Sanghapala Foundation, and in 1995 Ajahn Amaro and three other monks spent the three-month rain retreats in tents at Bell Springs Hermitage north of San Francisco. Ajahn Sumedho, the most senior monk in the Ajahn Chah lineage in the West, had become friends with the Chinese Mahayana monk Ven. Hsuan Hua, the abbot of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California. Just before Ven. Hsuan Hua passed away, he gifted the sangha of Ajahn Sumedho with 120 acres of wooded land near the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The new monastery was named Abhayagiri, meaning “fearless mountain” after the ancient monastery in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, where Theravada and Mahayana monks once lived together. The monastery opened in June 1996 with Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno, a Canadian, as the co-abbots. Funds to support the monastery came from Americans as well as from people in Thailand. Maha Prasert, the Thai abbot of Wat Buddhanusorn in Freemont, California, has been a friend to the monastery. For the first few years, the temple was attended mainly by white people, and then later by Thai, Lao, and Cambodians. Word of the temple spread in an organic way, Ajahn Amaro says, and now there is “a lot of ease between the two groups [Asian and American]. It’s not like friction. They seem to delight in each other’s company.” The first full bhikkhu ordination at Abhayagiri took place on Vesak in 1998 with the ordination of Karunadhammo, a white man born in North Carolina.

Ajahn Amaro describes the Theravadin tradition as “very workable” and he works both with Asians and Americans in the United States. The monastic form is important, he thinks: “People have to understand that renunciation and celibacy are not some kind of weird quirks left over from a spiritual authoritarian.…Why was the Buddha a monk? Why did he live in the forest? And the answer, I feel, is that the simplicity of living is the most delightful way to be." By virtue of their unique experiences in Thailand and the United States, Ajahn Amaro and the first generation of other white monks are in many ways ideally suited for talking with the Thai second generation and helping first-generation parents understand their children’s experiences. A Thai college student born in the United States, for example, approached Ajahn Amaro to talk about whether or not to live with her boyfriend, an issue she said she could never bring up with her first-generation parents. Ajahn Amaro and other monks from Abhayagiri monastery have worked more formally in summer camps for Thai students at MIT and with Thai associations at the University of Washington and other universities. “There is an ease of communication between white monks and Thai kids,” Ajahn Amaro observes.

At temples led by white monastics, Asian and white monastics together, and Asian monastics alone across the country, boys and men of all ages were ordained for varying periods of time throughout the 1990s. In Thailand and some other Asian countries, young men are temporarily ordained for a few weeks or months as a rite of passage on their way to adulthood. This is a way young men thank their families, particularly their mothers, for raising them and show that they are prepared for marriage. Temporary ordinations took place at the Washington Buddhist Vihara and Thai temples in the United States from the time the temples started, and this continued through the 1990s. In addition to Karunadhammo, there have been eight men ordained as samaneras (initial order) and five as bhikkhus (higher ordination) at Abhayagiri Monastery. Thanissaro Bhikkhu ordained two Americans in the 1990s, and Bhante Gunaratana continued to ordain people in the 1990s. Also, in June 2002, Maha Prasert, the Thai-born founder and abbot of Wat Buddhanusorn, in Freemont, California, ordained a Thai immigrant and an American-born white man, Michael Lightfoot, who had grown up in a neighborhood not far from the temple.

Apart from the growth of organizations led and attended by Asian and American Buddhist practitioners, Asian temples and largely white meditation centers also continued to grow into the decade. The number of Thai temples in the United States, for example, increased from just over forty in 1989 to more than seventy-five by the end of 1999. The number of meditation groups across the country grew during the 1990s, as evident in the number of sitting groups listed in Inquiring Mind, the number of people attending retreats at IMS, and Don Morreale’s “unscientific study” of Buddhist America. At IMS, an executive director was appointed in 1990, and the center became more professionally organized and operated. The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, founded to try to “find a meaningful bridge between study and practice, between the communities of scholars and meditators, between the ancient orthodox tradition and the modern spirit of critical inquiry,” opened one mile down the road from IMS in 1989 and held its first conference in March 1990. While IMS is based around practice, Sharon Salzberg described the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies as helping people understand their connections to Asia. “When we started IMS,” she explains, “it was basically something we did [i.e., meditation practice]. We had no sense of history. We had very little sense of a connection to a tradition in Asia although we had all learned and benefited a tremendous amount from our time in Asia. And there was very much a sense of, well, we’re here today and may not be here tomorrow.…And things went on like that for many years. The times have changed a lot since then and our relationship to the teachings and the traditions have changed a lot. I think now as we start this place we have a greater sense of history and of planting seeds with this center that will be long enduring and have a very great impact on the transmission of those teachings to this country.” With the initial encouragement of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, John Bullitt started Access to Insight in the early 1990s, a Web site that houses more than seven hundred suttas and several hundred articles and books about Theravada Buddhism. This Web site complemented the Dharma Seed Archive, a collection of taped Theravada teachings given in the United States, started in the early 1980s.

Insight Meditation West, which changed its name to Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 1993, also became firmly established in California during the 1990s. They put the first trailers on the land in 1991, constructed their first building, and hired an executive director. Fundraising and building continued through the decade, and the first residential retreat took place on the land in 1998. The Kalyana Mitta program (which means “spiritual friends”) was started in the 1990s as a series of small study groups run by a pair of facilitators, and the Community Dharma Leaders program was started in 1997 by James Baraz, a teacher affiliated with Spirit Rock. “It became clear that there were a lot of Dharma students out there looking for guidance and there weren’t enough teachers to go around,” Baraz explained. “There were also a lot of very experienced practitioners who had touched some real wisdom and who were dedicated to serving the Dharma. It seemed like a good fit to train some of those people to help serve their communities.” Spirit Rock held retreats and programs for gay men and lesbians, people of color, families, and youth throughout the 1990s. At the end of the decade, Ajahn Sumedho, the highest-ranking monk in the lineage of Ajahn Chah in the West, brought some of Ajahn Chah’s ashes to Spirit Rock as a blessing for the center.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 24-43 of Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America by Wendy Cadge, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Wendy Cadge
Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America
©2005, 278 pages, 19 halftones, 3 figures, 3 tables
Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 0-226-08899-5
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