According to Professor Diana Eck, a specialist in contemporary American religions at Harvard University, “Buddhism is now an American religion.” That Buddhism is seen as an American religion reflects the status of Buddhism in the United States today.
Buddhists currently make up 3 percent of the American population, or about nine million, making it the third-largest religion in the United States and constituting a fifteenfold increase from the 1960s. Of course, the largest by far is Christianity, with about 79 percent of the population being Christian, followed by Judaism, with 2 percent who are Jewish. Other faiths such as Islam and Hinduism are less than 1 percent here in the States.
Beyond the three million Buddhists, there are also those who do not claim to “be Buddhists” but are keenly interested in Buddhism, especially its meditation. These people are called sympathizers or, somewhat humorously, nightstand Buddhists.3 They may not be members of any temples or centers but practice Buddhism in the privacy of their home by meditating and reading Buddhist books. While reading them, they often keep the books on their bedroom nightstand, hence the name. While there is no reliable data on the number of nightstand Buddhists, it is estimated to be a couple of million people. If we add up all three groups (Buddhists, nightstand Buddhists, and those strongly influenced by Buddhism), they amount to about thirty million people in America. Moreover, in a recent survey, 12 percent of the people replied that Buddhism has had “an important influence on their thinking about religion or spirituality.”4 This amounts to about twenty-five million people. So, if we add up all three groups (Buddhists, nightstand Buddhists, and those strongly influenced by Buddhism), they amount to about thirty million people in America.
Many Americans believe that Buddhist teachings help to alleviate the problems of the world, such as global warming, domestic violence, poverty, discrimination, and crime. Many feel that Buddhism should not only be concerned with one’s own happiness but should also care about others, especially those people who are suffering. While social engagement is, of course, not absent in Asia, it is perhaps emphasized to a greater degree in America. This “engaged Buddhism” has no doubt been strengthened by the Judeo-Christian tradition of social justice, by which many have been raised influenced by.
In the end this large growth since the 60’s can be seen as the awakening of the minds, spirits and attitudes of buddhists and buddhism across the board and that my friends is truly a beautiful energy.
Peace and Love, Jim