Buddhism is practiced in many countries by many different peoples. How do Buddhists in America differ in their beliefs, values, rituals, practices etc? Or, is Buddhism fairly uniform wherever it is practiced?
The transmission of Buddhist teachings to the United States (and the West in general) can be described in three general categories: migration, appropriation, and adoption. The last category is, in my opinion, the most interesting to explore, but for sake of completeness, let's discuss the other two first.
The most direct and obvious transmission of Buddhism to the US is through the immigration of practitioners from Buddhist majority countries. As these communities grew, they established temples. These temples are largely a direct continuation of whatever tradition the immigrants adhered to. As a result, a wide variety of Buddhist traditions have some representation in the US.
I acknowledge that "appropriation" is a loaded term. I have no intent to demean or antagonize anyone, but I do feel the word adequately describes how some Americans have borrowed specific Buddhist practices while ignoring the rest.
In particular, mindfulness meditation is following a path similar to yoga. When Western psychologists studied meditation extensively, they discovered genuine, tangible, scientifically verifiable benefits for practitioners. Mindfulness meditation is now being promoted and even prescribed as means of improving mental and emotional health, much in the same way that a doctor might recommend yoga as a form of exercise.
The beliefs of such practitioners would be difficult to summarize as there is presumably little that ties them together. It would be like asking about the personal beliefs of weight lifters or tennis players; the only common thread is an appreciation for a shared activity.
The third category of American Buddhists are those who've adopted the teachings as a supplement or (more likely) an alternative to predominant Judeo-Christian traditions. Though these individuals are often white and educated liberals, the truly unifying factor is their shared appreciation of what makes Buddhism distinct from other major world religions and a desire for spiritual enrichment. These distinct elements tend to be emphasized in the beliefs and practices of what I refer to as "American Buddhists."
It's worth noting that the communities of American Buddhist practitioners vary considerably. I have personally seen everything ranging from a small group of college kids with little knowledge or connection to the large Sangha to temples with clear, official ties to existing Asian schools. (An example of the later is the Rochester Zen Center in Upstate New York.)
Some of the beliefs and practices that are more unique to American Buddhists include:
- Personal Practice: Americans generally adopt Buddhism as a means to personal moral and spiritual growth. Many are isolated or in small communities and have limited knowledge of the varied traditions within Buddhism. As a result, many practitioners are apt to emphasizes practices aimed towards individual growth - particularly those suited for novice, lay practitioners. There is a general belief that the true value of the practice is the tangible effects it has on practitioners.
- Secularism: Mainstream religious traditions in the US tend to promote literal interpretations of the bible quite vigorously, even when in direct confrontation of established science. Buddhism is seen as a more "science friendly" religion and thus attracts those who are skeptical of or completely reject the existence of the supernatural. As a result, American Buddhism handles concepts such as reincarnation, karma, and merit as metaphors.
- Egalitarian Communities: The ratio of ordained to laity among American Buddhists is significantly skewed towards laity when compared to Asian countries. It's no surprise, then, that communities often rely on lay people to operate. However, this is also in part a reaction to how heavy-handed mainstream religious communities can be with authority. American Buddhists value ordained members for their wisdom, experience, and dedication, but won't necessarily expect them to assume all leadership responsibilities.
- Engaged Buddhism: American Buddhists are quite likely to adopt Engaged Buddhism where they are actively involved in charity, politics, and society at large. There are numerous reasons for this. First, anyone who choose to adopt a "foreign" religion are apt to be free thinkers willing to challenge societal norms that they disagree with. Second, Americans generally believe that one's values should be expressed through action; someone who chooses to withdraw from the world is likely to be seen as apathetic, cowardly, or insincere. Third, American Buddhists don't have the advantage of being part of an established majority; they are more likely to find themselves at odds with majority opinion and may feel compelled to act in order to protect and preserve their values. Forth, values such as empathy and compassion are arguably lacking in American culture so there are many instances of personal or institutional greed, intolerance, and apathy to address.
Naturally, these are all generalizations based on personal experience. I am not aware of any research to understand how the beliefs of those who adopted Buddhism compares to those of Asian Buddhists.
For more on this subject, see my answer on Quora to: How is American Buddhism different from the different versions of Buddhism in Asia?
This Wikipedia article -- Buddhism in the United States -- says that Buddhism migrated into America via different people[s] and different schools.
If you look at the World Buddhist Directory for the USA, you'll see that each entry has a "Tradition" listed, e.g.
- "Mahayana, Zen/Pureland"
- "Theravada, Forest Sangha"
- "Mahayana, Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hahn"
- "Vajrayana, Tibetan, Gelugpa"
So to the extent that there is any difference -- between schools, and/or the various national forms of Buddhism -- so Buddhists within America differ (in their doctrine, practice, and ritual, as you said).
But perhaps see also the topic, What teachings do all schools of Buddhism share?
There's also something called Secular Buddhism.
I think that some people and/or organisations call themselves "secular" -- which might mean somethng more-or-less as described in that Wikipedia article -- that article says that it is "Part of a series on Western Buddhism", so maybe it is peculiarly Western.
Not all "Western" Buddhists would be "secular" though -- e.g. there are bhikkhus who were born in the West (I imagine it's they who helped write many of the English-language translations), and so on.
The following answer is of strong examples of how do Buddhists in America differ in their beliefs, values, rituals, practices etc.
Often American Buddhism is Cultural Marxism. American Buddhism is often the hijacking of 'Buddhism' by the political and cultural left, including it early domination by Jewish individuals (also here), Sexual Liberals (such as Noah Levine), Sexual Deviants (such as Chögyam Trungpa), Hippies, Druggies, Feminists & Identitarians. For example, simply browsing the website called 'North American Buddhist Alliance' will show it is largely a left-wing political site engaged in racial & sexual politics (rather than related to Buddhism).
Another phenomena that appears unique to American-Jewish Buddhism is introducing psychotherapy into Buddhist practise; which possibly contributed to mass-market Buddhism, such as McMindfulness. "McMindfulness" (often the suspension of moral judgment) is actually not Buddhist mindfulness (which is the gatekeeper of allowing & prohibiting various thoughts).
Many of the leading Buddhist teachers in America come from Jewish families, including Bernard Glassman, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Natalie Goldberg, Thubten Chodron (Cherry Greene), Sylvia Boorstein, Alan Ginsberg, and Lama Surya Das (Jeffrey Miller), to name just a few.
I feel any comment underscoring the need to keep partisan politics out of Buddhism is "apt". Mostly in the USA/West, we see liberal/progressive/activist politics being melded with "Buddhism". This has nothing to do with the dhamma. The dhamma is there to liberate being from suffering, including the suffering from clinging to views and opinions found in politics as a whole. Which yes, is even present in whatever your preferred political view is.
If you've been in Buddhist circles in the west for a while, you really shouldn't need examples to see partisan/left wing political bias among practitioners. If you don't see it then there probably isn't much use me giving you examples because it would be like explaining water to a fish.
For example, in the 2016 American Presidential election, many prominent American affiliated Buddhists, particularly monks & nuns, conducted political campaigns against Donald Trump merely due to Trump's apparent 'racist', 'aggressive' & 'anti-abortion' comments; even though Trump promised to stop the Obama created wars in the Middle-East (which Trump has partially but not fully done as President). Here, the American Buddhists completely ignored the horrendous war crimes (in Iraq. Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan & elsewhere) of the Obama regime (one hour video) in favour of left-wing abortion feminist racial politics. The fact that the leading Buddhist translator named Bhikkhu Bodhi spoke against Trump because Trump threatened to stop abortion shows how dominated American Buddhism is by the political left-wing (since monks are forbidden from promoting abortion; which is an unforgivable disrobing offense). Bhikkhu Bodhi's comments & criticism of him can be read here, on his own website.
Trump’s presidential campaign challenged each of the ethical ideals I cherish, and if he acts upon his campaign pledges, his policies may entail misery for people in the United States and all across the world. His campaign repeatedly demeaned people because of their ethnicity, religion, and national origins. He threatened to deny women their reproductive rights...
Bhikkhu Bodhi - American-Jewish monk
Although Bhikkhu Bodhi lost all credibility as a Dhamma teacher for me with his advocacy for a doctrine of Just War, here, though he couches it as "defending women's reproductive rights," he's advocating for women's right to have an abortion. No matter how much I'd like to sugarcoat it, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that once again Bhikkhu Bodhi is encouraging people to violate the first precept. I take it as further evidence of a fundamental failure by Bhikkhu Bodhi to understand the Dhamma at even a basic level despite his deep familiarity with the suttas. Shocking, I know. But his statements are absolutely irreconcilable with the Dhamma unless you are willing to throw out the teachings of all the Ajahns and the Pali Canon itself. Myself, the only way to reconcile the irreconcilable is to reluctantly admit that despite his admirable efforts in translating the Canon, I cannot hold him up as any sort of Dhamma teacher.
At least on the internet, a serious division arose among internet Buddhists as a result of the behaviour of certain American Buddhists during the American Presidential election. In short, they (who publicly campaigned for Obama because he was black and Clinton because she was a woman; completely ignoring their kamma of crimes against humanity) don't represent us or Buddhism.