In the drizzling rain of a predawn morning, a dozen practitioners inside the Zen Center of Los Angeles light a candle, burn incense, gently strike a bell and begin a silent sitting meditation on traditional Japanese tatami mats. Across town at the colorful Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood, monks in bright orange robes begin their morning chants.
Over at the biggest temple compound outside Asia--the 15-acre Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights--the mostly Chinese devotees offer fruits and vegetables in a service honoring the Amitabha Buddha's birthday. And in hundreds of temples and private homes across Southern California, the sound of Buddhist chanting can be heard in the languages of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Korea, Tibet--and America.
The sounds represent a diverse chorus of practitioners who make Buddhism one of the fastest-growing religions in America today--and Southern California a singularly unique home for it.
A Singular Distinction
Buddhism has wielded a more dominant influence across more disparate cultures for a longer period of time than any other religion. But Southern California is the only place in the world where all of the more than 100 types of Buddhism are actively represented, according to J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of Religion at UC Santa Barbara.
"Over the past 10 years, we've had a fairly high level of immigration from Buddhist countries to the Southern California area," Melton said. "What this means is that 40% of all Buddhists in the U.S. live in Southern California."
The number of Buddhists nationwide has grown to an estimated 1.5 million from a broad range of ethnic backgrounds, compared with only about 100,000, mostly Japanese, in 1965, Melton said. The number of Buddhist meditation centers has exploded as well, from 428 in 1986 to 1,100 in 1996, according to Don Morreale, author of the "Complete Guide to Buddhist America."
Both a religion and a philosophy, Buddhism was founded more than 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama, a rich Indian prince who walked away from his worldly wealth in search of the cause of human suffering. The practice he founded on Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path--basically, a road to compassion, wisdom and liberation from suffering by cultivating detachment in an ever-changing world--is centered on chanting, meditation, visualization, study and rituals that vary depending on the type of Buddhism.
In the United States, many adherents are immigrants who flock to temples not only for spiritual sustenance, but for comfort and companionship in a strange land.
Wat Thai attracts more than 1,000 people every weekend for religious services and lessons as well as classes in English, U.S. citizenship, the Thai language, classical dance and even decorative fruit-and-vegetable carving. The temple also offers free medical checkups and Thai food booths; it serves as a social meeting place, polling place and, in a highly publicized case a few years ago, as a refuge for Thai workers who escaped from virtual slavery in a local sweatshop.
Wat Thai was the first Thai temple in the United States when it was established in 1979. Today, Southern California is home to as many as 15 other temples, said the Rev. Samana Barua of Wat Thai.
"The temple helps preserve our traditions, beliefs, unity and cooperation in the community," Barua said. "That has been the inspiration from the beginning."
But Buddhism is also blossoming among home-grown Americans.
A New Generation
Many of the Buddhist masters who brought the teachings from Asia have died, leaving their American successors to reshape the religion here, Morreale said. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, now led by an American of Japanese and Portuguese descent, Wendy Egyoku Nakao.
Nakao studied with the center's founding master, the late Maezumi Roshi, who brought Zen out of Little Tokyo's Japanese immigrant community in 1967 in a deliberate attempt to reach out to non-immigrant Americans.
Since taking over the leadership in 1996, Nakao has worked to flatten the hierarchy, soften the patriarchy and encourage greater interaction with the community.
She has introduced discussion circles, where the sangha, or Buddhist community, can openly chew on whatever issues are of concern. She has added a line in the liturgical recitation of the male lineage of her Soto sect to remember "all women whose names have been forgotten or left unsaid." In January, she plans to introduce a regular memorial service for "our Buddhist women ancestors."
Last year, Nakao took a small group of her members to live on skid row for three days. The center has stepped up its community service and interfaith gatherings, where she regularly invites a Jewish rabbi and Catholic priest--both Zen practitioners--to the center to discuss religious issues.