In the current issue of the quarterly American Buddhist magazine Tricycle, contributing editor and former Zen monk Clark Strand makes a provocative claim: that American Buddhism must “change or die.”

American converts to Buddhism have focused on spiritual practice to the exclusion of concerns like creating rituals and passing along the tradition to the next generation. “With few exceptions, Buddhism is not being passed down in families by members of the convert community,” he writes in his article, “Dharma Family Values.”

Although Strand praises the American Buddhist group Soka Gakkai International for better incorporating children and families into their practice of Buddhism, he writes that even that group “still hasn’t solved the koan of how to get born, married and buried as a Buddhist.”

ReligionWriter called Strand at his home office in Woodstock, NY, to find out why he thinks American Buddhists have failed to develop their own religious culture, and how this gap might be filled.

RW: When you write that American Buddhism faces the possibility of extinction, are you exaggerating?

Strand: It’s not an exaggeration, though by “death” I mean that American Buddhism becomes so completely marginalized as to not exert any significant impact on society. Buddhism in this country has a good start, and it has developed a fair amount of vitality and visibility; words like karma and nirvana are part of the popular lexicon now.

But if American Buddhism doesn’t come to see itself as a religion, or at least as addressing religious needs, sometime over the next generation or two, it’s going to run afoul of the generational bias of Baby Boomers, who tend to think that anything they embrace in numbers is here to stay. In fact their large numbers create an illusion, and as they begin to die off, what seemed like a significant movement may go back to a baseline number. I think that’s what’s going to happen, unless American Buddhist wake up and approach Buddhism as a whole life enterprise.

RW: One often hears American Buddhists say things like, “You can be a Christian or Jew and be a Buddhist. It’s not a religion.” Do you think that idea, appealing to many, that Buddhism is not a religion has also caused these problems you’re outlining?

Strand: When you hear statements like that, keep in mind that Buddhism entered the American scene when the traditional moral and spiritual authority of the Christian and Jewish communities were being called into question. Buddhism came to this country through the Academy, through people like [Buddhist author] D.T. Suzuki and [philosophy professor] Paul Carus, so from the word go, Buddhism was in slightly disembodied state. Ethnic Buddhism had been here for a while, of course; Chinese railroad workers, Japanese sugar cane cutters and others brought the religion with them but they didn’t proselytize. Americans were interested in meditation or philosophy or other aspects of the Buddhist experience, but they didn’t get the whole cloth.

This happened right about the time modern life was going ballistic, becoming very stressful. People were starting to think about the relaxation response and meditation and how to slow down. Buddhism fed into the craze for self actualization and self help. Now American Buddhists have to figure out a way of appropriating it on a more significant level. They can’t call it a religion because it doesn’t feel like a religion to them. As an alternative, American Buddhists tend to say they are “spiritual:” That seems to express the middle ground between religion and self-help.

RW: How many Buddhists are there in the U.S., and what percentage of that number are converts like yourself?

Strand: The numbers are notoriously unreliable. The numbers tossed out there over the last few years range from six million to 600,000. The percentage of converts is hard to judge. Is a convert a person who has a few books by the Dalai Lama on his or her night stand? If you ask them what religion they are, they might say, “I’m more Buddhist than anything.” Buddhism has become a kind of default religion for American seekers.

RW: Do those people with a casual involvement in Buddhism matter in the larger scope of American Buddhism?

Strand: A lot of people will deemphasize that as a trend, but I don’t. [Academic] Thomas Tweed used the term nightstand Buddhists to describe people he felt weren’t Buddhist at all but liked to keep Buddhist books as an inoculation against anxiety, or to have some contact with spiritual tradition in their lives. Tweed didn’t take such people seriously as Buddhists, and his term reflects that. But I think when people say, “If you held a gun to my head, I’d say I’m Buddhist,” they are expressing their dissatisfaction with existing religious models. They know enough about Buddhism to know it doesn’t have the congenital defects of their own religious traditions, but they don’t know enough about it to see that Buddhism has its own congenital defects. Embracing Buddhism becomes a way for people to project their hopes for a sane, global religion for 21st century.

RW: It seems like there’s a conflict here. You want American Buddhism to be more like a religion, with child care on Sunday mornings. But one of the main attractions to Buddhism for many Americans is that it is not a religion. Can you explain?

Strand: That conflict has been there before. The oldest Buddhist organization in the U.S. is the Buddhist Churches of America. It was formed mostly by Japanese field workers who first came to California and Hawaii almost 100 years ago. It is faith-based, rather than meditation-based. When the group started in the U.S., it still had many earmarks of being culturally Japanese or Asian. But after Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II, they tried to assimilate more quickly; they adopted American customs like having pews and wearing suits and calling their priests “ministers.” When a lot of Americans were looking for alternative religious experiences in the 1960s and 70s, the Buddhist Churches of America had the best infrastructure and the most feet on the ground, but nobody was interested in them because “they look too much like us.” And they were — the religion was very Americanized.

One of the big questions for converts to American Buddhism is: What happens when the exoticism wears off? When you’re like I am, and you’ve been at it for a while, and you’re married and you have kids, you are no longer going off for week-long or month-long meditation retreats. How do you work with that? How do you pass along your practice? If there is not some weekly gathering you can go to with your whole family, the chances you’re going to pass along Buddhism to your children is almost nil. If all you have to work with is a monastery and retreat system, and a leadership of celibate or semi-celibate monks and nuns, not much is going to happen with the next generation.

RW: Why are ethnic Buddhist and convert Buddhist communities so separate?

Strand: The communities have different needs and different values. Ethnic religious communities are hugely interested in two things: They want the rights and opportunities and protections of being members of American society — assimilation — and at the same time, they want to conserve their religious tradition and density. American converts are interested in appropriating religious teaching and fashion and ideas, but they’re usually not so interested in conserving traditional ethnicity and ritual. There is a fair amount of incompatibility there.

RW: Given that many Americans came to Buddhism as young people in the 1960s and 70s, why wasn’t there a gradual, organic growth of American Buddhist culture as those people, like yourself, matured and had families?

Strand: My most honest response is that you cannot import a religion the way you import a product. Religion purports to connect us to the deepest level of our beings. You can’t just go to another country, meet a teacher, go on a retreat, buy some cushions, bring it all back and suddenly the religion is here. It takes a long time to transmit teachings and adapt rituals. It takes a long time to develop a culture to support a religion. That’s the big problem: When you import a religious teaching to a country, you get the teaching but not the culture, and a lot of Asian culture doesn’t work in the U.S. without being adapted.

RW: What would you like to see American Buddhists doing more of?

Strand: I think Buddhists need to hold weekly or, at the very least, monthly discussion groups. They need to get together and talk to one another, not just practice together or listen to a teacher, but just talk to one another about their lives. Buddhists need to ask honestly: “What kind of Buddhism addresses the questions and needs of my life?” If I’m a Zen Buddhist, and therefore spend long periods in meditation, I should ask myself: “Is this meditation really helping me? Is it addressing the issues of my whole life? Or only part of my life?” If you have kids or a stressful job or a difficult marriage or financial problems, Buddhism should be able to address those issues. If it can’t, then it’s not functioning.

The second thing Buddhists have to ask themselves is: “Do I compartmentalize Buddhism in my life?” Very few observant, devout Catholics would dream, for example, of being married in a secular service. Yet Buddhists routinely get married by justices of the peace, because the culture is not there to support them in being Buddhist; it has not yet evolved. I wrote my article to point out that Buddhists in this country aren’t as concerned about developing this culture as they should be. I’m afraid they won’t see the need until the numbers go way down.

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Question: What does the current field of presidential contenders have in common with the Supreme Court bench? Answer: It is disproportionately Catholic.

Using the handily compiled religious biographies of the presidential candidates (which number 16, if undeclared Fred Thompson is included) from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, ReligionWriter discovered these interesting tidbits.

Six out of 16 presidential candidates, or 38%, are Catholic (and five out of nine, or 56%, Supreme Court justices are Catholic.) Nationwide, Catholics make up an estimated 24.5% of the U.S. population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. (That percentage may be lower now, since it declined by 2.3% between 1990 and 2001, and because an increasing number of American Hispanics are leaving Catholicism for other — or no- religions, according to a recent Pew Forum study.)

The six Catholic candidates are: Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Christopher Dodd, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson.

The candidate roster also reflects what scholars call the vibrancy of the American “religious marketplace,” in which individuals often choose new religious identities. (ReligionWriter covered this trend in her Feb. 2007 Religion News Service article, “For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given.”) Five Six candidates now practice faiths different from the ones they grew up with:

  • Democrat Mike Gravel grew up as a Roman Catholic, attending Catholic schools, and now belongs to the Unitarian Church. (Gravel’s profile is not yet posted on the Pew Forum’s website.)
  • Republican Ron Paul grew up it the Lutheran faith, married and baptized his five children in the Episcopal Church, and now describes himself as a Baptist. (Paul’s profile is not yet posted at the Pew Forum.)
  • Republican Sam Brownback grew up attending United Methodist and other mainline Protestant churches. He later attended a nondenominational evangelical church and, in 2002, converted to Catholicism.
  • Democrat John Edwards was raised a Southern Baptist, “drifted away” from his faith as a young man. After the tragic death of his son in 1996, he became more religious, and he is now a United Methodist.
  • Democrat Barack Obama grew up in a largely non-religious environment, the son of an absentee Muslim-turned-atheist father and a non-practicing Protestant mother. He now belongs to the United Church of Christ.
  • Winning honorable mention in this category is Democrat Christopher Dodd, who, while adhering the Catholicism of his childhood, is married to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church.) The couple’s children are being raised in both faiths.
  • UPDATE 8/21: Tom Tancredo is also a convert. Born a Roman Catholic of Italian heritage, Tancredo converted to evangelical Presbyterianism.

For those interested crunching their own numbers, here are the religious affiliations of the remaining candidates:

Hillary Clinton: United Methodist

Mike Huckabee: Southern Baptist

Duncan Hunter: Southern Baptist

John McCain: Episcopal

Mitt Romney: Mormon

Fred Thompson: Church of Christ

Re: Fred Thompson, here’s a question best answered by the citizen journalists of McLean, Va., where Fred Thompson now lives: Is the former Senator from Tennessee currently a member of a local Church of Christ? Although Thompson grew up in this largely conservative denomination, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, in a United Church of Christ, a more liberal denomination. If Thompson belongs to a church, of any denomination, in Northern Virginia, that has not yet been reported.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, ReligionWriter notes that she regularly contributes to the Pew Forum and compiled several of the candidate profiles mentioned here.)

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A new study out this morning from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the

Pew Hispanic Center includes a chapter on religious conversion among Hispanics in


Basic Data on Latino Conversion:

The vast majority of Latinos (82%) give no indication of ever having changed their religious affiliation. However, almost one-in-five (18%) Latinos say they have either converted from one religion to another or to no religion at all,” study authors write. Most Hispanics are Catholic, and most of those who convert join evangelical churches, study data reveals.

Notable Findings on Conversion:

Second-generation immigrants are eight percent more likely to convert than first-generation immigrants. “Though it is impossible to determine the precise extent to which conversion is a product of assimilation, it does appear that migrating to the

United States, learning English and undergoing the other changes that occur with exposure to American ways do seem to be somewhat associated with changes in religious affiliation,” study authors write. Of those Latinos who convert, nearly one in four leave religion in favor of secularism – and men are twice as women to make this move.In spite of extensive media coverage of Latino conversion to Islam in America, the study found that less than 0.9% of Hispanics are Muslims. (See examples of media coverage here and here and here.)

Questions The Data Raise:

Does conversion happen simply because Hispanics who leave Catholic-dominated countries are now exposed to Protestantism, and evangelicalism in particular, in the Protestant-dominated

United States? In other words, is conversion simply about exposure to new religions? Or is there something about “becoming American” that is associated with religious seeking and conversion?

Related Content:

“For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given,” by Andrea Useem, Religion News Service, Feb. 12, 2007. This article begins with the story of a Mexican-born Catholic woman who now practices a Hindu-influenced New Age faith with her Jewish American husband .

“Religion in a Globalizing World,” transcript of a talk by religion scholar Peter Berger at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Dec. 4, 2006, in which he argues that modernity and globalization inherently destabilizes religious identification.American Religious Identification Survey 2001, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). This survey is one of the most comprehensive studies to date on American religious identification. Interestingly, one of the fastest growing categories was “no religious identification.” According to this morning’s study from Pew, 7.8% of American Latinos identified as secular: Will this number continue to grow with assimilation?

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