Progress & Pitfalls: An Historic 20 Years

For Buddhadharma’s 20th-anniversary issue, Barbara O’Brien takes a look back at the last two decades of losses, challenges, and opportunities in Western Buddhism.

By Barbara O’Brien

Illustration from Kodo mo no kuni magazine, 1927. By Okamoto Kiichi.

Building the great temple had been a long, challenging project, but in the summer of 2002, it was nearing completion, and the temple’s striking East Asian xieshan roof became visible to motorists on the nearby freeway. Commuters sometimes stopped to inquire if the restaurant was open.

Pao Fa Buddhist Temple was Orange County, California’s first mega-temple, with a prayer hall, classrooms, a library, a dining hall, and rooms for resident monastics housed in its 41,000 square feet. Building the temple had been the work of Master Jen Yi and the American Lotus Buddhist Association of Irvine, and it became a spiritual home and community center for the area’s Taiwanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese American Buddhists.

Memory and news stories tell us 2002 was a hopeful and idealistic time for Buddhism in the West, with the tradition becoming more visible and more accepted within the wider culture.

The same year Pao Fa Temple opened, the New York Times ran a couple of breezy travel articles about the “Buddhist weekend,” which had become trendy among overworked urbanites. City folks were encouraged to put away their cell phones and de-stress at one of the inexpensive weekend retreats offered at Vipassana, Zen, Tibetan, and other Buddhist centers around the US.

Writing for Lion’s Roar (“Surveying the Buddhist Landscape”) in March 2002, author and professor of religion Charles Prebish described driving by his old high school in Chicago. He was surprised to see a new Korean Zen center across the street. “Not far away were the Chicago Zen Center, the Kubose Dharma Legacy, the Lakeside Buddhist Sangha, the Dhammaka Meditation Center of Chicago, the Chicago Shambhala Center, and the Buddhist Council of the Midwest,” he wrote. He compared this survey of Chicago Buddhism against the 1970s. “Then I was always very careful to telephone groups before I visited to make sure they were still there. As often as not, I got the ‘Sorry, this number has been disconnected’ message,” he wrote. “The challenge now is not to count how few centers and teachers there are, but how many.”

In fall 2002, the first issue of Buddhadharma appeared on newsstands, describing itself as “an in-depth, practice-oriented journal for Buddhists of all traditions.” Articles included “The Practice of Jodo-Shinshu” by Taitetsu Unno (1929–2014) and a forum on “The Law of Karma” featuring Bhikkhu Bodhi, Jeffrey Hopkins, and Jan Chozen Bays (in both cases, topics that remain, twenty years later, not only relevant but still widely misunderstood in Western Buddhist circles). Buddhism in the West had entered a new phase—people were discovering it for the first time in record numbers, but now there was also a generation of mature practitioners in place, ready for more.

It would be lovely to report that, in the intervening two decades, Buddhism has done nothing but build on that hopeful moment. But, in truth, the past twenty years have been a messy time of both construction and deconstruction, of inspiration and disillusionment. Buddhist institutions around the globe have faced, and continue to face, serious challenges, and have not always handled them skillfully.

Even so, the integration of Buddhism into Western life has continued, sometimes in ways that were unimaginable twenty years ago.

Connect the Many Beings

One of the most obvious catalysts for change in the last two decades has been the World Wide Web.
By 2002, the Web was pervasive enough that nearly half of all adults in America were spending time on it, and many, if not most, temples and dharma centers in the West had their own websites. These became great resources for the sangha and tools for community outreach, making retreat schedules, teacher talks, and other sangha information easily accessible online. Buddhism was no longer hidden behind temple walls.

The term “social media” entered English vocabulary in the late 1990s. But it was only twenty years ago, when the social media sites MySpace and Friendster launched in 2002 and 2003, that social media became more broadly accessible. Today, by my count, there are 108 (seriously) Buddhism groups on Facebook alone, a number that only hints at the presence of Buddhist teachers and communities on Twitter, YouTube, podcasts, online courses, and more.

While the importance of online community among Western Buddhists had already been expanding for years preceding, the Covid-19 pandemic prompted even more dramatic shifts. From January through March of 2020, the virus spread around the globe, and temples and dharma centers closed to the public. By early March, as reported on the Lion’s Roar website, temple activity already was moving online (Lilly Greenblatt, “How Buddhist Centers are Responding to Coronavirus,” March 9, 2020).

For example, the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra website of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa announced it would offer videos of online talks and services so that students could “practice along with the KTD lamas.” Tibet House in New York City began offering free streaming programs. The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies continued its schedule of courses via video conferencing.

Within a few weeks, dharma centers around the globe were making use of Zoom and other digital technologies to allow people to virtually attend chanting and meditation services and listen to talks. Today, many sanghas even list Zoom temple protocols (video on, microphone muted, keep your phone or tablet still).

A random sampling of dharma centers suggests that Zoom Buddhism may be here to stay. At the moment, at least, hybrid in-person and virtual services and other events have become the new normal. Though a scattering of online practice offerings had existed prior to the pandemic, the increased availability of virtual services has made it possible for people living some distance from dharma centers to be regular participants.

This improved access does come at a cost, though—or at least it introduces new challenges. One monastic complained that Zoom attendees listening to dharma talks in their homes sometimes forget they are in a virtual temple. Students have been seen changing their socks, trimming their nails, and otherwise abandoning decorum.

The greater transparency and ease of communication enabled by the Web was also partly responsible for bringing to light aspects of contemporary practice that had long been hidden.

Painful Revelations

As Buddhists around the country became increasingly connected thanks to the Web, revelations of sexual predation by prominent senior teachers flamed into the news, again and again. In many cases, the abuse had been going on for years.

Between 2008 and 2012, credible accusations surfaced that the founders of the two largest Rinzai Zen lineages in the United States—Eido Shimano, the longtime director of the Zen Studies Society in New York and founding abbot of Zendo Shobo-Ji in Manhattan and Dai Bosatsu monastery in the Catskills, and Joshu Sasaki, founder of Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles and Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains—had each been sexually exploiting female students for decades.

In light of these allegations, Shimano resigned from the ZSS board in 2010 and, after a story about the scandal appeared in the New York Times later that same year, as abbot of the monastery and zendo. He died in Japan in 2018 at the age of 85. An independent council of Buddhist teachers investigated the allegations against Sasaki, who had, by then, already retired as abbot.

He died in 2014 at the age of 107, having never spoken publicly about the charges against him.

Such scandals weren’t isolated to Zen communities. Prominent Vajrayana and Vipassana teachers have also been implicated in recent years, perhaps most notably Sogyal Rinpoche, a lama in the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition; Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of Shambhala International; and Noah Levine, author of the popular countercultural spiritual biography Dharma Punx and a teacher in the lineage of Jack Kornfield’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

In 2017, eight long-term students of Sogyal Rinpoche posted a letter on the internet documenting “emotional and psychological abuse of students,” including punches and kicks, sexual assault, and misuse of donated money to fund a “lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle.” In response to the allegations, he retired as director of Rigpa. Not long after, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and died in 2019.

In 2018, the board of directors of Against the Stream, a network of practice communities founded by Levine, announced there was an investigation into alleged sexual impropriety by the teacher. The investigation concluded that Levine had violated both the third precept and the organization’s code of conduct by engaging in sexual relations with a number of women. In the aftermath, meditation centers closed, and the network collapsed. Spirit Rock responded by rescinding Levine’s teaching authority in 2019, though he continues to teach and to promote Against the Stream as his own independent American meditation lineage.

Also in 2019, Sakyong Mipham stepped down from teaching and administrative duties in Shambhala after an independent investigation found he had most likely engaged in sexual misconduct, including assault. Shambhala International has reorganized, with a new charter and board of directors. A mediation agreement reached in December 2021 removed the Sakyong from any governance of the organization, and he now teaches through his own community.

These may have received the most attention, but there are, unfortunately, other examples of sexual and other misconduct by Buddhist teachers and monastics, across traditions, these past twenty years.

At the root of this issue lies the centrality of the student–teacher relationship to many practice communities. An element of surrender is understood to be a critical part of both the Zen and Tibetan traditions. Students are expected to surrender their egos to wisdom and their lives to the dharma. And much of this is enacted in the form of surrendering to the guidance of one’s teacher.

Zen teacher Barry Magid wrote in his book Nothing Is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans (Wisdom, 2013) that there is a subtle, but important, difference between surrender and submission. Although the process of spiritual surrender may be guided by another, spiritual surrender is not to another. Surrender is an act of liberation; submission is allowing oneself to be dominated. If a teacher is exploitative, dominated students wall up the parts of themselves that are uncomfortable with it. This, wrote Magid, is the opposite of liberation.

While honest criticism of one’s teacher is—in the West, at least—usually considered allowable in Zen, in the Tibetan Vajrayana traditions, such criticism can be thought of as a sign of impurity in the disciple.

Responding to Sogyal Rinpoche’s misconduct, the Dalai Lama said in 2017 that such misconduct must not be kept hidden. “These people do not follow Buddhist advice, Buddhist teachings. Only thing you can do is make public—through newspaper, through radio. Make public.”

Some other lamas, though, had harsh words for disciples who publicly criticized their gurus. If a disciple has properly received empowerment in Vajrayana, they said, then criticism of the guru is a breach of samaya, the vows that bind guru and disciple. This attitude can be a hindrance to disciples coming forward to testify to abuse, which is difficult enough under the most ideal circumstances.

Put together a teacher who encourages submission with students who approach teachers with worshipful adulation, and exploitation will follow. And many dharma centers still do not have anyone in authority independent of the teacher who will act on complaints. Given this, we may be only at the beginning of long, painful process of reckoning.

Buddhist Activism, Skillful and Unskillful

Buddhism is often represented in Western popular culture as a quiescent tradition that calls for escape from worldly concerns. Such depictions may offer a two-dimensional perspective, at best, but it is true that organized, large-scale social or political movements are largely absent in Buddhist history before the nineteenth century.

There is, however, a rich tradition of philanthropy in Buddhism. For centuries, Buddhist monastics responded to war or natural disaster by providing food, shelter, and other relief to laypeople in their communities. There are countless examples of Buddhist monastics in Asia organizing orphanages and hospices and providing services to the poor, and the last two decades were no different.

After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, Buddhist institutions around the world stepped up to provide relief to survivors. These included the Tzu Chi (“Buddhist Compassionate Relief”) Foundation, headquartered in Taiwan, which distributed a small army of volunteers, including medical doctors, to provide care, food, and shelter. Countless individual temples collected and sent donations. Also following the 2004 tsunami, Bhikkhu Bodhi founded Buddhist Global Relief, which now focuses its efforts on malnutrition and hunger worldwide.

Some of the best and some of the worst examples of Buddhist activism in the past twenty years can be found in Myanmar. In 2007, when policies by the government of Myanmar were causing widespread deprivation, a coalition of activists and Buddhist monks organized a nonviolent resistance movement. In a movement that came to be called the Saffron Revolution, monks led vast crowds through the streets of Yangon, sometimes chanting the Metta Sutta. Eventually, the military government ended the demonstrations and detained many of the monks, but it was an inspiration while it lasted.

In 2010, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, democracy activist, and Buddhist cause célèbre Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar was released from her final house arrest. Military rule ended in 2011, and in 2012 Suu Kyi became a member of parliament. That same year, clashes between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Myanmar became violent, and by 2013, news stories of Buddhist monks taking part in massacres of Muslims began to emerge. The face of a monk named Ashin Wirathu appeared on the cover of the July 1, 2013 issue of Time magazine with the headline, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

In the midst of this mounting conflict, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a majority in the 2015 elections. Now in a position to protect the Muslims in her country, she did not act—and still has not acted. Organizations such as Amnesty International took back awards she had been given in the past. The world’s disappointment with her was profound; a 2018 profile of her in the Guardian began, “There are falls from grace, and then there is Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Elsewhere during this period, the decades-long movement for a free and independent Tibet came to a head with massive demonstrations beginning in Lhasa, Tibet, in March of 2008, after Chinese police detained monks of the Drepung Monastery. Monastics and laypeople took to the streets, and soon riots broke out, spreading far beyond Lhasa, as Tibetans vented anger about Chinese rule. The response from Chinese security was swift and relentless. Human rights groups estimate that more than 140 Tibetans were killed in the crackdown.

The following month, protesters around the world made the Olympic torch relay an obstacle course. Runners carrying the torch to Beijing were met with large crowds in London, Paris, San Francisco, and elsewhere, all calling for a free Tibet. There were reports that the monasteries of Lhasa had been nearly emptied, with the monks held in detention elsewhere until the Beijing Olympics ended.

In March 2009, a monk of Kirti Monastery in Sichuan province named Tapey set himself on fire. He was carrying a homemade Tibetan flag and a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Two years later, another Kirti monk, Phuntsog, self-immolated on the third anniversary of a demonstration in which ten demonstrators were shot and killed.

Another self-immolation followed, then another. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, as of this writing, 159 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009. These include laypeople and monastics, women and men, teenagers and adults. Although these sacrifices no longer make the news, they haven’t entirely stopped. Neither have they effected any noticeable change.

The Dalai Lama has come under intense criticism for not issuing an unambiguous statement calling for the self-sacrifices to stop. But the sacrifices put him in a difficult position. China was claiming he had ordered the self-immolations and was offering money for them. If they stopped on his order, it could be interpreted as proof of China’s claim. Further, some commenters speculated that if His Holiness could not offer another channel for Tibetans’ anger and frustration, protesters might instead begin to attack Chinese, which would result in more violence. In time, he let it be known that the deaths made him very sad, and he did not encourage them.

Buddhist activism wasn’t limited to Myanmar and Tibet. It was also happening right in North America. When Thich Nhat Hanh toured the United States in September 2003, he did not hesitate to criticize the US invasion of Iraq, just as he had spoken out against the war in Vietnam decades earlier. “Using violence to suppress violence is not the correct way. America has to wake up to that reality,” he told a PBS interviewer.

Being the Medicine

As the Covid-19 pandemic spread, Human Rights Watch reported a rise in hate crimes against Asians around the globe, fueled by xenophobia and misinformation about the virus. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that in the US, anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339 percent in 2021 from 2020, with record numbers of such crimes in 2020.

Some of this violence was directed at Buddhist temples. This is not entirely new—in the nineteenth century, cowboys in the American West thought it great sport to ride their horses into Chinese “joss houses” and shoot bullets into the altar. And since 2020, new waves of vandalism have struck Buddhist temples in the West.

On February 26, 2021, a vandal struck the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, a Jodo Shinshu temple in Los Angeles. Temple security cameras showed a single man shattering a twelve-foot glass window and ripping lanterns off their concrete bases. Large wooden lantern stands were set on fire, which caused the electrical lamps above them to melt. Immediately the Los Angeles community went to work to restore the temple.

Days later, on March 15, a lone gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian women, in Atlanta. This atrocity was a breaking point for many Asian American communities, already under stress.

Butterfly Tony Pham expressed their grief and frustration in Lion’s Roar (“Why Did Six Asian Women Have to Die in Order to be Seen?”). Pham wrote, “With a bow to my ancestors and the six Asian women that were killed, I choose to (re)commit myself to the work of collective liberation and welcome others to join. If you’re not practicing engaged Buddhism, what are you waiting for?”

On May 4, the forty-ninth day after the Atlanta shootings, the restored Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple held a ceremony of commemoration and healing, both for Asian victims of hate crimes and all beings who have lost their lives through racial and religious hatred. Followers of every major Buddhist school came together, and in this sangha were Asian Americans of many ethnicities as well as African Americans, Mexican Americans, and white Americans. May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors was livestreamed on YouTube, and dharma centers in several countries held watch parties. One of the organizers, the Rev. Duncan Ryuken Williams, spoke of repairing the nation’s “racial karma,” adding that the destinies and freedoms of all are intertwined. “Though the mountain of suffering is high and the tears of pain fill the deepest oceans,” he said, “our path compels us to rise up like a lotus flower above muddy waters.”

In 2020, the rise of the pandemic coincided with a resurgence of Black American activism, caused by the many senseless and unjust deaths—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more. In light of this ongoing crisis, at least some of the mostly white “convert” Buddhist communities have engaged in self-examination of their own culpability in maintaining white hegemony. “Inclusivity” has become the challenge of the hour.

Even prior to this wider cultural reckoning, a growing movement toward racial justice within Western Buddhist sanghas had been taking shape. In “Your Liberation Is on the Line” from the Spring 2019 issue of Buddhadharma, Rev. angel Kyodo williams wrote of the white-centric, patriarchal perspective that permeates Western culture. White supremacy, she said, is a disease that sickens us all. To heal, “people need to hear testimony that reveals how patriarchy has limited them in their white male bodies, how it has limited their ability to feel and express love. Something got stolen from them. Something got stolen from all of us.”

Sanghas are beginning to address inclusivity in other ways, too. Western Buddhism has—for the most part—moved toward greater inclusivity of LGBTQIA+ people since the world’s first known Buddhist same-sex marriage was conducted in a San Francisco Jodo Shinshu temple in the early 1970s. Yet there is always more that can be done, just as there is more that can be done about the climate crisis and more that can be done to bring about racial justice.

During a 2003 US tour, Thich Nhat Hanh offered the following teaching in the Library of Congress to members of Congress and congressional staff:

We have to wake up to the fact that everything is connected to everything else. Our safety and well-being cannot be individual matters anymore. If they are not safe, there is no way that we can be safe. Taking care of other people’s safety is taking care of our own safety. To take care of their well-being is to take care of our own well-being. It is the mind of discrimination and separation that is at the foundation of all violence and hate.

We can be the medicine, even though we might feel like a very small tube of over-the-counter antibiotics being asked to cure every wound in the world. Truly, when the sickness spreads everywhere, we have no choice but to treat it. But how?

Great Responsibility

In 2006, Robert Aitken addressed a meeting of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an organization he’d helped to found in the 1970s. Included among his remarks was this observation: “Buddhist founders in the West are either dead or on the point of dying, and their successors seem just to be finding themselves.”

Aitken may have been thinking of his friend Philip Kapleau, founder of the Rochester Zen Center and author of the seminal Three Pillars of Zen, who had died in 2004 at the age of ninety-one. Or he might have been thinking of the Korean Zen (Seon) teacher Seung Sahn, who had died in 2005 at the age of seventy-seven after founding a hundred Kwan Um Zen Centers in thirty countries.

Three years after Aitken’s talk, Taiwanese Chan Master Sheng Yen would die in 2009 at the age of seventy-eight. He was the founder of the Buddhist educational foundation Dharma Drum Mountain, based in Taiwan but with a worldwide network of monasteries and retreat centers.

Aitken himself, who died in 2010 at the age of ninety-three, was instrumental in the flowering of Buddhism in the West, founding the Diamond Sangha in his home state of Hawaii, writing Taking the Path of Zen and The Mind of Clover, and, for many, drawing the connection between Buddhist practice and social justice activism.

The past twenty years also marked the passing of a generation of Vajrayana teachers who trained in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. One of these was Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, who died in 2009 at the age of eighty-five. Born in 1923 in eastern Tibet and ordained as a Gelugpa monk at the age of seven, he followed the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959 and was founder of the Thubten Dhargye Ling center in Long Beach, California, and other dharma centers in North America and Europe. The passing of the esteemed teachers Thinley Norbu Rinpoche (2011), Khenpo Kathar Rinpoche (2019), and Khyongla Rato Rinpoche (2022) marked profound losses for the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Gelugpa schools, respectively.

S. N. (Satya Narayan) Goenka died in 2013 at the age of eighty-nine after forty years of working tirelessly to bring Vipassana meditation to the world. He established a global network of more than one hundred meditation centers, and many thousands of Westerners have attended his ten-day retreats.

Sayadaw U Pandita taught Vipassana in Myanmar for most of his life, but through his books, teachings given at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and through his students (which included Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein), he guided Vipassana training in the West as well. He died in 2016 at the age of ninety-four.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s health began failing in 2014 following a stroke. In 2018, the government of Vietnam, which had exiled him years earlier, finally relented and allowed him to live out his days at the Tu Hieu temple in central Vietnam, where he was closely monitored by police. He died peacefully in January at the age of ninety-five.

These last two decades brought the passing of many others who played indispensable roles in the ongoing transmission of the dharma in the West. These included Gene Smith and Thomas Cleary, both prolific translators; trailblazing women in Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck and Zenkei Blanche Hartman; John Daido Loori, founder of Zen Mountain Monastery; the controversial founder of the Triratna Order, Sangarakshita; and influential scholars such as Taitetsu Unno and Alfred Bloom.

This list could go on at great length, and with each name there is a deep sense of loss. But here we are, the breathing. We have been given a great legacy; may we not squander it. As my teacher Jion Susan Postal (who entered great silence in 2014) used to say, “Infinite kindness to the past, infinite service to the present, infinite responsibility to the future.”

Barbara O Brien

Barbara O’Brien

Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien is a longtime student of Soto Zen and author of The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World and Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-Affirming World. She is also a volunteer editor for Treasure the Road, a new online magazine devoted to formal Zen practice and Buddhist study.