While Buddhism is increasingly portrayed as a growing and celebrity-studded religion in the U.S., there are indications that this diverse faith may have serious problems surviving in the future.
In an in-depth article in the Wilson Quarterly (Spring), Jan Nattier writes that not only is American Buddhism divided between different expressions [see October `95 RW], but that these movements have weaknesses particular to their traditions. Ethnic Buddhists suffer less stigma for their faith than they did in the past, but evidence continues to show that many Buddhist immigrants tend to leave their faith behind as they become more Americanized — and move increasingly into evangelical churches.
Such outreach-oriented (or “evangelical”) Buddhists as Sokka Gakkai have built sturdy institutions and attracted a diverse membership, but they have had problems since its parent Japanese body, Nichiren Shoshu, excommunicated the group over financial and leadership issues. “While the American organization still seems viable, a serious decline in the number of subscribers to the organization’s weekly newspaper (which in recent years has dropped below 40,000) suggests that the schism may have dealt it a painful blow,” Nattier writes.
Judging by the publicity they have generated (through such publications as Tricycle), the “elite Buddhists,” who emphasize meditation, might be thought to be in better shape. Yet virtually all of their communities now in existence were formed by people who came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and members of succeeding age cohorts have joined in much smaller numbers. If such communities “do not succeed in attracting younger members (and in retaining the children of the first-generation converts), they will soon fade from the American religious scene.”
The elite Buddhists have also attracted the least diverse membership of all the Buddhist movements, and thus will face the greatest challenges for survival. A key concern for all Buddhist groups is that they “must move beyond the concept of Buddhism as an `individual religious preference,’ grounding it instead in the everyday practice of families and larger social networks. Secondly, they must create sturdy institutions to take the place of today’s informal associations.”
(Wilson Quarterly, 901 D Street, S.W., Suite 704, Washington, DC 20024)