Buddhism in the United States (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Religious Records - Part 2  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Buddhism History, Beliefs, Practices and Records

Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, exceeded in numbers only by Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Buddhism’s founder was Siddhartha Gautama who was born a prince around 500 B.C.E. (before Common Era) in a small kingdom in what is now Nepal, on India’s northern border. He began a search for peace of mind at the age of 29 and six years later proclaimed to have discovered an ultimate consciousness of enlightenment, called Nirvana. From that time on, Siddhartha Gautama was known as the Buddha (“Enlightened One”).

Four Noble Truths

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:

  1. Life is unsatisfactory. Dukkha is the reality and universality of suffering which has many causes including loss, sickness, pain, failure, and the impermanence of pleasure.

  2. Samudaya. It is our desire to have and control things that cause life’s unsatisfactoriness.

  3. Nirodha: Suffering ceases with the final liberation of Nirvana. The mind experiences complete freedom, a liberation from life’s unsatisfactoriness...

  4. There is a path leading to Nirvana. This eight-fold path to the cessation of suffering is called Magga.

The Five Precepts

The five Precepts of Buddhism are behaviors to avoid. They are:

  • Do not kill.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not lie.
  • Do not be unchaste.
  • Do not consume alcohol or other drugs.

Absent from the Buddha’s teachings were two notions which we commonly find in Western religions—the existence of an eternal, individual human soul and the existence of an eternal unchanging, almighty God who created the universe.

Variations Between Sects

Representatives of all the major Buddhist sects are present in the United States. Whereas some maintain traditional Buddhist beliefs and practices from their original Asian setting, others seek a Buddhism adapted to the American context.

Established by Japanese Americans over a century ago, the Buddhist Churches of America is the oldest Buddhist association in the U.S.; it places the practice of Jodo-Shin-shu Buddhism into a uniquely American framework. In the 20th century, immigrants from all over Asia brought each of the major Buddhist schools to American soil, most notably Zen and Nichiren from Japan, Vajrayana from Tibet, Ch’an from China, and various forms of Theravada from Southeast Asia.

Not only in America but also in other parts of the world, religious practices among Buddhists vary greatly among the many branches and schools of Buddhism. They all share deep reverence for the Buddha as their guide and religious teacher, but in their local expressions of Buddhism, they draw from the unique cultures of different areas.

Americans not of Asian descent have had a long history of interest in Buddhism, starting with the transcendental movement and theosophy societies of the second half of the 19th century. When Buddhist immigrants began to arrive in the late 1840s, they were greeted first with a sense of fascination and secondly with considerable hostility.

Most converts in the 1960s were attracted to Zen Buddhism, largely through the efforts of Japanese teachers who set up meditation centers in New York City, Rochester, N.Y., Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hawaii. Zen centers emphasize sitting meditation taught by a master. Zen’s appeal is in its elegant simplicity, its humorous iconoclasm, its emphasis on both spontaneity and discipline, its nature-mysticism, and its affinity with the arts and the martial arts.

More recently, Tibetan Buddhism has entered mainstream American consciousness, fueled by the influence of the free Tibet movement, the charisma of the Dalai Lama, and the interest of Hollywood personalities. The movement is central to Tibet’s struggle for independence from China’s Communist regime and is a popular cause in North America.

Growth of Buddhist Groups

Following the Immigration Act of 1965 which allowed increased immigration, the first wave of Asian immigrants were usually professionals and well-educated people. Later waves brought some with lesser skills and education, including hundreds of thousands from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The Chinese-American population quadrupled between 1965 and 1990.

More than a third of all legal immigrants during the 1970s and 1980s came from Asia. New Asian Buddhist populations joined the Chinese and Japanese Buddhists already living in the U.S. Many new immigrant Buddhist temples opened representing several different ethnic Asian groups.

Schools from the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism gained popularity beginning the 1970s; also gaining attention for their practice of insight meditation has been the Theravada branch. Independent Buddhist groups have begun to appear as well in recent years.

Rapid growth of Buddhism in America has alarmed some religious traditionalists. In a poll reported in 1996, by the Los Angeles Times, 33 percent of the 1,000 randomly telephoned adults labeled Buddhism a negative influence on U.S. society.

Estimates run that from 1 to 4 million Americans, both immigrants and native-born, practice Buddhism in some form. An umbrella Buddhist organization lists 2,000 groups in its national database. There are approximately 1,000 Buddhist Centers in the United States.


There seems to be little uniformity between the various expressions of Buddhism in the United States. No one group speaks for all. Records tend to be family-oriented and kept by families rather than easily-obtained religious records. Buddhists with whom I have corresponded have been most polite and friendly, but they have been unable to point a direction to any standard records.

To determine what records might be held in religious collections, it is advised that genealogists make their contact with those temples and schools located in the geographical area of interest, noting the time frame of establishment as compared to family settlement patterns.


The Buddhist Churches of America national headquarters serves as a regional center of the World Fellowship of Buddhists and is a supporting member of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP).

Buddhist Churches of America
1710 Octavia St.
San Francisco, CA 94109

The group Nicheren Shoshu of America is associated with the Japanese Buddhist movement founded by Nicheren Daishonin, born 1222. Head Temple, Taisekiji, is at the foot of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The goal of NSA is world peace and harmony, to be achieved through the revolution of individual human lives transformed by Buddhism. Major worship practices center around the Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra. A list of American Temples with this connection is located on the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism website.

For the Northeast America region:

Myosetsuji Temple
143-63 Beech Ave.
Flushing, NY 11355

Dharma Drum Mountain is a Buddhist community in the tradition of Chan Master Sheng Yen (Shifu). The Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association was founded in 1996 by Ven Sheng-yen.

Dharma Drum Shen Yen Mountain
90-56 Corona Avenue,
Elmhurst, NY 11373.

Nyingma Institute
Sylvia Gretchen and Barr Rosenberg
1815 Highland Place
Berkeley, CA 94709

Tibetan Diamond Way Buddhist Centers: While there are many Buddhist centers of various lineages active in the West, this site pertains to Diamond Way Buddhist Centers, the three hundred lay Buddhist centers of the Karma Kagyu Lineage which have been founded by Lama Ole Nydahl. These groups developed through a grass roots movement of lay people, based on friendship and teamwork. They have a democratic structure; they function through unpaid, voluntary work on the basis of idealism and friendship. Members share responsibility for guiding meditations, giving teachings, and answering questions. Addresses for many of these centers in the United States are provided on the Diamond Way Buddhism website.

Zen Buddhism: The Mountains and Rivers Order, founded by Abbot, John Daido Loori is an organization of associated Zen Buddhist temples, practice centers and sitting groups in the United States and abroad.. The main house of the order is Zen Mountain Monastery, a residential retreat center in the Catskills of New York State.

Zen Mountain Monastery
PO Box 197
Mt. Tremper, NY 12457

Zen Center of Ashville
PO Box 17274
Asheville, NC 28816-7274

Zen Center of New York City
Fire Lotus Temple
500 State Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Buddhism Websites

Buddhist Association of the United States

Buddhist Churches of America

Chan Meditation Center

Diamond Way Buddhist Centers

Internet Sacred Text Archive - Tibetan Buddhist Archives

Religious Tolerance - Buddhism


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses US: Religious Records - Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.