In an auspicious moment for American Buddhism, the 38-year-old World Fellowship of Buddhists will meet for the first time outside of Asia--convening today on a hillside in Hacienda Heights at the $25-million Hsi Lai Temple.
Delegates from Asia may feel at home in the magnificent complex patterned after and financed mainly by Taiwan's Fo Kuang Shan temple.
But they may have trouble otherwise recognizing the transplanted, 2,500-year-old religion in its Americanized version.
Ethnic and sectarian rivalries are being put aside for cooperative efforts such as the nine-nationality Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, headed by the Venerable Havanpola Ratanasara, a leading exponent for a "united Buddhism in America."
American-born converts are increasingly accepted in leadership ranks. A notable example is the Venerable Karuna Dharma, a Caucasian woman who only two decades ago taught high school in Downey. She studied under a Vietnamese master and now directs Los Angeles' International Buddhist Meditation Center.
Women monks, rarely prominent in Asia even where permitted, are credited with pushing through the temple project in Hacienda Heights. Despite strong initial neighborhood objections and escalating costs, nearly a dozen female monks led by the Venerable Hsin Kuang, the abbess, and the Rev. I Han, the project director, are being praised for completing what many call the largest and finest Buddhist monastery to rise on U.S. soil.
Asians have lately looked with hope to the growing Western interest in Buddhism--both in North America and Europe--because of the religion's decline in Marxist-ruled countries and in population centers affected by Western modernity.
Yet, undeniably, the pace of new visibility and innovation in the United States has been startling for a religion in which patience is a virtue in meditation, chanting and acquiring inner wisdom and compassion. In the last two years alone:
The U.S. Defense Department announced that it will allow Buddhist chaplains to serve in the U.S. armed forces--a first time for a religious body other than Christianity or Judaism. The right to certify military chaplains was granted to the Japanese-heritage Buddhist Churches of America, which this fall made the first appointment--the Rev. Hiroshi Abiko of Palo Alto as a part-time chaplain at a large Veterans Administration hospital.
An ongoing Buddhist-Christian dialogue, popular among religious intellectuals, attracted more than 600 people to Berkeley last year, including ex-California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., a self-described "mellowed Roman Catholic" who has intermittently studied with Buddhist teachers. The dialogue has involved Catholic theologians Hans Kung and Rosemary Ruether and Protestant thinker John Cobb of Claremont.
* To enhance Buddhism's presence nationally and further propagate its teachings, the American Buddhist Congress was officially organized last November. It now has about 60 member organizations among a wide range of ethnic and sectarian groups. Two key leaders are Los Angeles' Ratanasara and the Rev. Karl Springer, an American-born practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism.
* In a bold step taken in Los Angeles by Ratanasara and colleagues, Dhammamitta, a Thai woman following the Theravadan Buddhist tradition (practiced principally in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia) was ordained May 29 in a rite that started her on a one- or two-year path toward ordination as a bikkhuni (female monk). The order of fully ordained bikkhunis had been maintained through the centuries in the Mahayana Buddhist countries ranging from Japan to the north and Vietnam to the south, but in Theravadan circles the practice of ordaining women inexplicably died out several centuries ago. Theravadans, often the conservative traditionalists of Buddhism, have been reluctant to reinstate the order.
Calls for Fresh Look
"The state of women in Buddhism must be viewed afresh," said Ratanasara, 68, a Sri Lankan native who became a U.S. citizen last summer. Having sought and gained the blessings and participation of many Thai and fellow Sri Lankan monks living in this country, Ratanasara said it was decided that since the Buddha himself approved of ordaining women, it could be done again.
Despite some objections raised in Sri Lanka, Ratanasara said he did not expect that the action would be an issue at the conference of the World Fellowship, which is a non-legislative body bearing no doctrinal authority.
With its stated purpose of fostering harmony among world Buddhists and peace in the world, the fellowship has emphasized that "Buddhism remains unique in that it does not attempt to eliminate plurality and diversity . . . whereby one ideology is imposed on another."
That kind of spiritual freedom has helped make Buddhism popular with native-born Americans unsatisfied with their Christian or Jewish heritages.