Friday, April 25, 2008

The movement of Buddhism to the U.S.A.

The idea to establish a temple for the Buddhist residents in the United States began when several Thai communities in the big cities such as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and neighboring states recognized that although their material needs were being met in this country, there was a spiritual void that only a Buddhist temple could fill. A temple for the Thai people would provide a place for the people to come to cultivate themselves by listening to the teachings of Lord Buddha in a familiar spiritual environment and language.

I. The First Thai Theravada Temples in the United States
The early Thai temples in the United States were all Mahānikāya. The
first Dhammayuttika Thai temples opened in the 1980s.
A. Wat Thai of Los Angeles, was the first Thai Theravada temple to be established in the United States. On December 22, 1971, the temple was set up as a nonprofit organization under the law of the state of California. Wat Thai Los Angeles was designed to be a full-fledged monastery according to Thai tradition (monk’s living area, temple court, main ordination hall, etc.) The Thai-style ordination hall was completed and dedicated in 1979. The Wat Thai of Los Angeles publishes a Dhamma magazine, offers Sunday School and meditation classes, features a vocational school for Thai crafts, and has done a research project in conjunction with the Faculty of Education of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

B. Wat Thai Washington, D.C. (1974). The Wat Thai of Washington, D.C., began in July of 1974 when two Thai monks moved into a house in Silver Spring, Maryland The Buddhist Association of Washington, D.C., had been in existence since 1971. On February 11, 1975, Phra Maha Surasak Jivanando (Luang Ta Chi) of Wat Vajiradhammasadhit, Prakanong, Bangkok, became abbot of the Wat Thai. A beloved and important teacher and writer, he has served as abbot ever since.

In 1986 the Wat Thai moved to its current location, 13440 Lay hill Road, Silver Spring, Maryland 20906. In 1995 an ordination hall was constructed at the location. In June of 2005, the eightieth birthday celebration for Luang Ta Chi was held at the Wat Thai. During this celebration the twenty-ninth annual meeting of the Council of the Thai monks in the United States also took place at the temple. The Wat Thai has close ties with the diplomatic corps at the Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C.

C. Vajiradhammapadip Temple, the Bronx, New York City (1975).
The Vajiradhammapadip Temple originated with the Buddhist Study Center, started by a group of Thai and American Buddhists in New York and given legal status in
1975. The temple was originally located in the Bronx on 179th Street. However,
on July 17, 1983, because of space limitations, it was relocated to the existing site
on two acres in Mount Vernon, a city in
Westchester County, New York, bordering
the northern side of the Bronx. Buddhist Sunday School classes have played an
important role at the temple. In November of 2006, the construction of another
Vajiradhammapadip Temple was completed on Rustic Road in Centerreach in the
middle of Long Island. The same abbot is in charge of both temples.

D. Wat Buddhawararam, Denver, Colorado (1976). Compared to the other Thai
temples already mentioned, the Wat Buddhawararam came into existence rather
quickly. (Trips of Thai monks to the United States were no longer rare; and
founders of temples could learn from the experiences of monks in temples already
established.) On March 25, 1976, the temple was incorporated, and on April 13
(Thai New Year’s) the monks began to reside at a previous Salvation Army
church. Because of the relatively small population involved in the temple, the
place is a rather quiet one, and the monks focus on meditation training and
propagating the Buddha’s teachings to native Americans.

E. Wat Dhammaram, Chicago, Illinois (1976). The Wat Dhammaram (The Thai
Buddhist Temple) takes its origins in the middle of 1972 from Thai monks using
Chicago as a stopping point while traveling across the United States. In
September of 1974 the Thai Buddhist Center was incorporated to manage and fund
Buddhist activities in Chicago. The Thai Buddhist Center became the Thai
Buddhist Temple in 1976. At the end of 1976, the Apostolic Assembly Church
building was purchased, and this became the main hall of the temple. The Wat
Dhammaram is similar to the Vajiradhammapadip Temple in New York. Both are
in a big city with a large Thai population. Sunday school classes were begun at the
Wat Dhammaram, as were Thai language and culture classes. At the end of 1977
the Temple Library was established (emphasis on Buddhist and Thai studies), and
Dhamma classes and meditation retreats began for any adults who were interested.
At the end of 1983, the Wat Dahmmaram moved to a former public school building on 75th Street, its present location.

II. The Council of Thai Bhikkhus in the U. S. A.
In June, 1976, monks from the five existing Thai temples in the United States
gathered in Denver at the Wat Buddhawararam. At their meeting the establishment
of The Council of Thai Bhikkhus in the U. S. A., Inc., was approved. The
organization was incorporated in Colorado in October of the same year. The
purpose of the organization is to keep the monastic practices of the members unified
and uniform, to promote the exchange of information, and to promote cooperation in
in the United States and between monks in the U.S. and the Buddhist Order of
Thailand, to establish policy, and to support the propagation of Buddhism in
America. The organization meets yearly in June.
A. The Dhammayutti Order in the USA, which oversees the Dhammayutti sect, did
not get registered until 1993.

VIII. The Role of the Thai Theravada Temple in the Community

A. The Traditional Role of the Temple in Promoting Thai Religion and Culture.
B. Parallel Congregations. “The mixing of Asian and native-born American
Theravada Buddhist practioners was first pointed out by Paul Numrich in his
study of Wat Dhammaram . . . and Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, a temple
started by Sri Lankans in Los Angeles [Old Wisdom in the New World].
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 most
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 . . . Interestingly, the majority of non-Asians who attended these two
parallel congregations were men, in comparison to IMS [Insight Meditation
Society], 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” (Cadge, Heartwood, pp. 40-41).

1. The Demographics of the Wat Thai Washington, D.C. Traditional merit making, rituals, and holy days. Involvement of white Americans. The Wat Thai Washington, D.C., offers numerous services to the people of the metropolitan area. 1) The most important thing the temple does is provide instruction in the Buddhist religion. This might take the form of one-on-one teaching; talks on Buddhism to groups of people; or information in the monthly publication, the Saeng Dhamma, which includes the writings of Luang Ta Chi, actually a well known author. 2) The temple also offers meditation training and three-day retreats. Instruction is given in sitting meditation (both concentration and insight meditation) as well as in walking meditation. Classes are held in Thai and in English every week. (Along similar lines, there is also a yoga class on Wednesday evenings.) 3) The Wat Thai is a center for religious ceremonies: all the important religious events relating to the life of the Buddha are celebrated. Furthermore, all the customary Buddhist rituals are performed (blessings of homes and businesses, commemorations of the passing away of loved ones, marriage and funeral ceremonies, and so on). 4) Our temple has celebrations and festivals on national and Buddhist holidays. The biggest festival of the year, one that draws large crowds, is the Thai New Year’s celebration every April. 5) The Wat Thai is a place to share and preserve Thai culture, traditions, and language. Thai music and dance events are held frequently. Classes are given in traditional dancing and in playing native musical instruments. Thai language classes take place every Thursday. Sunday school classes are held regularly, and every summer teachers come from Thailand to conduct summer school. 6) The temple is an information center for Thais, Asians, and Americans in general both locally and nationally. Missionary monks from Thailand learn English-language skills, for example, and computer skills. Thai lay people can take English classes if they desire. There is even a weekly class in Mandarin Chinese. Books and other information on Buddhism in Thai, Chinese, and English are available to people who are interested. The temple is a kind of communication center for Buddhist monks throughout the United States and for that matter, across the globe.

IX. Conclusions.
A. Overview. (Cf. Cadge, Heartwood, pp. 44-48.) Ways of Describing Theravada
Buddhist America.
1. Where the founders came from.
2. Where the people who attend were born.
3. Where the teachings come from.
B. The Challenge for the Future.
1. The Role of Thai Theravada Buddhism in the Future of American Buddhism.
a. The possibility/impossibility, e.g., for a “new and modern ethical literature”
(adapting the Vinaya, etc.) (cf. Prebish, Luminous Passage, pp. 68-69).

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