The long-time divide between ethnic and convert based Buddhism in the U.S. is showing signs of giving way to a more fluid situation where Buddhist groups reach out beyond their traditional followings, according to a study in the Journal of Global Buddhism (Vol. 15, 2014).
In a survey of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), one of the largest ethnic Buddhist groups, Anne C. Spencer finds that the denomination is becoming increasingly diverse demographically, attracting converts to its services, and is now more likely to be held in English outside of immigrant neighborhoods rather than traditional Japanese. Although the BCA has not been oriented toward meditation, its temples are now offering this practice, as well as drawing non-Asians to its more traditional specialties of social activities (such as flower arranging) and chanting of sutras. Spencer concludes that the BCA is showing characteristics of both the ethnic and convert movements—a direction more Buddhist groups may move toward as they adapt to the religious marketplace.
A similar process may be taking place in South America, with one example being Soto Zen Buddhism now reaching and engaging people of other ethnic backgrounds in Peru after decades of seeking to preserve its Japanese cultural identity, according to Germain McKenzie-Gonzalez of Catholic University of America. In a paper presented at the June conference of the Center for Studies of New Religions (CESNUR) at Baylor University, which RW attended, Gonzalez traced the two waves of immigration from Japan (between 1888 to 1936) that led to the first Soto Zen presence in Peru in 1903.
Religious life connected immigrants with their original culture, allowed them to maintain their traditions and helped them find their place in a new cultural environment. Over time, however, for various practical reasons, more and more became Roman Catholic—to the extent that more than 90 percent of Peruvians of Japanese origins today belong to the Roman Catholic Church. But a second stage was initiated in 1997, with a group of Peruvians of other origins who desired to practice Zen meditation. They received support from a Soto Zen monastery in Brazil, a country that is now the stronghold of Soto Zen Buddhism in South America and has developed missionary work. In 2005, an Argentinian-born nun moved to Lima in order to take care of the new Soto Zen community, including a few people of Japanese descent.
Thus, Soto Zen in Peru has switched from an immigration-based to an affiliation-based model, with weekly lectures on Soto Zen, celebrations in public parks, etc. Other cities (e.g. Cuzco) are also visited by the group and sacred sutras have been translated into Spanish. Several participants would still like to see more adaptations to a non-Japanese environment, but ordained members seem reluctant to push adaptations too far. Soto Zen is able to attract attention because it offers something new for most Peruvians.
Meditation proves attractive, and there is a niche among middle-class, educated people, where it can find followers. Various channels of communication have been developed (including a presence in social media). While there are some 50 active participants in the core group at this point, there appears to be a potential for growth. However, the tension between the fidelity to Japanese real tradition, on the one hand, and adaptation to the South American environment, on the other hand, may present a hurdle.
(Journal of Global Buddhism, http://www.globalbuddhism.org/15/spencer14.pdf.)