The Shifting Landscape of Buddhism in America

Ann Gleig takes a far-reaching look at how Buddhism and the conversations within it are changing in the twenty-first century.

By Ann Gleig

In 2011, more than 200 Buddhist teachers, mostly American, gathered at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York to discuss the state of Buddhism in the West. Organized by first-generation American baby boomer teachers such as Lama Surya Das and Jack Kornfield, as well as popular Generation X teachers such as Noah Levine and Sumi Loundon Kim, the Maha Teacher Council focused on three main themes: “the promise and the pitfalls” of the secularization of the dharma, the challenges of adapting the dharma to new contexts “without losing depth,” and passing the teaching torch “from elders to the next generation.”

This invitation-only event was the subject of much commentary on Buddhist media and in the blogosphere. Some participants raised questions about the invitation process, probing the issue of which teachers had the authority to represent Buddhism in the West. Concern was expressed regarding the underrepresentation of Asian and Asian American teachers and lineages; closely related were critiques about the lack of racial, gender, and sexual orientation diversity within the predominantly white, straight, male American teacher body. While many teachers enthused that such conversations were long overdue, others decried what they characterized as the conflation of Buddhism and progressive politics. Further disagreements centered around the conference’s emphasis on mindfulness. One attendee asked why the organizers had chosen “The Mindful Society” as one of the main themes rather than, for example, “The Compassionate Society” or “The Enlightened Society,” titles the questioner said would have highlighted the ethical and less secular dimensions of Buddhism.

Both the 2011 Maha Teachers Council and the subsequent critiques of it reflect significant shifts in the landscape of Buddhism in America. In my forthcoming book, which will be published by Yale University Press in 2018, I examine new developments and debates in one corner of that landscape: meditation-based “convert” American Buddhist communities. These lineages represent what some scholars call “Protestant Buddhism” or “Buddhist modernism,” new forms that have emerged from the encounter between traditional Buddhism and modern Western discourses and practice. That encounter took seed in Asia in the context of nineteenth-century colonialism but flowered beginning in the 1960s, in an atmosphere of heightened cross-cultural exchange between Asia and the West. It was during this period that both Asian Buddhists and Americans who had trained with Buddhist monastic and lay teachers in Asia established some of the most prominent meditation-based centers and organizations in existence today.

What is the impact of mindfulness transitioning from a countercultural religious practice to a mainstream secular one?

The first wave of academic scholarship on these communities was published around the turn of the millennium, as the study of Buddhism in America emerged as a distinct academic subfield. Influential books included Charles S. Prebish’s Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America (1999), Richard Hughes Seager’s Buddhism in America (1999), and James Coleman’s The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Religion (2002). One common distinction made in this early research was between the so-called “two Buddhisms” in America: “ethnic” and “convert.” According to the researchers, the ethnic or “immigrant” Buddhism of Asian Americans (what scholars now commonly refer to as heritage Buddhism) focused on communal, devotional, and merit-making activities within a traditional cosmological context, whereas the convert Buddhism of overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class practitioners was individualistic, primarily focused on meditation practice and psychological in its approach.

An early challenge to the “two Buddhisms” typology came from scholar Jan Nattier, who observed that not all converts are white, and that some convert-populated communities, such as Soka Gakkai, do not privilege meditation. She proposed an alternative “three Buddhisms” typology—import, export, and baggage—that moved away from ethnicity and race and focused on the mode by which various forms of Buddhism were brought to the U.S.

As Scott Mitchell and Natalie Quli note in their coedited collection Buddhism Beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States (2015), and as Mitchell unpacks in his Buddhism in America: Global Religions, Local Contexts (2016), there have been numerous dramatic changes in the social and cultural landscape of America since those studies were published over a decade ago. These changes, as evidenced by the Maha Teacher Council, have brought new questions and concerns to meditation-based convert communities: Who has the authority to define and represent “American” Buddhism? What is the impact of mindfulness transitioning from a countercultural religious practice to a mainstream secular one? How have technology and the digital age affected Buddhist practice? In what ways are generational and demographic shifts changing meditation-based convert communities?

My research explores these questions through a series of case studies, highlighting four areas in which major changes are occurring, pushing these communities beyond their first-generation expressions.

Addressing the Exclusion of Asian Americans

Central to the shifting landscape of contemporary American Buddhism is a rethinking of the distinction between “convert” and “heritage” Buddhisms as practitioners and scholars have become increasingly aware of the problematic nature of both the “two Buddhisms” and “three Buddhisms” typologies. An early challenge came from Rev. Ryo Imamura, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist priest, in a letter to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review in 1992. That winter, magazine founder and editor Helen Tworkov had written that “The spokespeople for Buddhism in America have been, almost exclusively, educated members of the white middle class. Asian American Buddhist so far have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.” Rev. Imamuru correctly pointed out that this statement disregarded the contributions of Asian American immigrants who had nurtured Buddhism in the U.S. since the eighteenth century and implied that Buddhism only became truly American when white Americans practiced it. Although written twenty-five years ago, Rev. Imamura’s letter was only recently published in its entirety with a commentary by Funie Hsu on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s website. Hsu and Arunlikhati, who has curated the blog Angry Asian Buddhist since 2011, have emerged as powerful voices in bringing long-overdue attention to the erasure of Asian Americans from Buddhism in the U.S and challenging white privilege in American meditation-based convert communities.

In challenging white privilege, Asian Americans and other practitioners of color have been instrumental in recovering and building the neglected third refuge — sangha — in meditation-based convert Buddhism.

Another shortcoming of the heritage/convert distinction is that it does not account for practitioners who bridge or disrupt this boundary. Where, for example, do we place second- and third-generation Asian Americans who have grown up in Asian American Buddhist communities but now practice in meditation-based lineages? What about Asian Americans who have converted to Buddhism from other religions, or from non-religious backgrounds? Chenxing Han’s promising research, featured in Buddhadharma’s Summer 2016 edition, brings the many different voices of these marginalized practitioners to the forefront. Similarly, how do we categorize “cradle Buddhists,” sometimes jokingly referred to as “dharma brats,” who were born into Buddhist “convert” communities? Millennials Lodro Rinzler and Ethan Nichtern—two of the most popular young American Buddhist teachers—fall into this category, having grown up in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. How do such new voices affect meditation-based convert lineages?

Rev. Imamura’s letter echoes the early characterization of primarily white, meditation-based convert communities, observing that “White practitioners practice intensive psychotherapy on their cushions in a life-or-death struggle with the individual ego, whereas Asian Buddhists seem to just smile and eat together.” It is of little surprise then that the theme of community appears strongly in the work of Arunlikhati, Hsu, and Han. Arunlikhati has most recently written about the need to create refuges for Buddhists of color—”spaces where people can find true comfort and well-being”—and shares that his dream “is for Western Buddhism to be like a family that accepts all of its members openly.” In challenging white privilege, Asian Americans and other practitioners of color have been instrumental in recovering and building the neglected third refuge—sangha—in meditation-based convert Buddhism.

Building the Beloved Community

On July 1, 2015, a website called Buddhists for Racial Justice started circulating among Buddhists on social media. It included an open letter that spoke of the deep sadness at the murders of the nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Carolina, a few weeks prior. These murders, it stated, were not only the result of an individual deluded by racial hatred and a desire to start a race war but also an outgrowth of the legacy of slavery and white supremacy that persisted in the American collective consciousness and institutional structures. Buddhists, it continued, are obliged to realize the interconnectedness of experience, to recognize the causes and conditions that perpetuate this collective suffering, and to respond compassionately by embodying the precept of non-harm through tangible actions. Alongside this open letter were two “Calls to Engage”: one for white practitioners to awaken to white privilege and the other for practitioners of color to “investigate their own unconscious patterning that perpetuates the suffering of racism.” By the following day, more than five hundred people from a wide variety of Buddhist lineages had endorsed the letter, and within two weeks that number had risen to 1,400.

The immediate origins for Buddhist for Racial Justice can be traced to May 14, 2015, when a delegation of 125 Buddhists from sixty-three different organizations gathered for the first White House­–U.S. Buddhist Leadership Conference. Here they presented two letters: one on climate change and one titled “Buddhist Statement on Racial Justice.” The latter opened with the declaration that the undersigned Buddhist teachers were distressed by the killings of unarmed African Americans brought to attention by the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City. As with the open letter, it intertwined the language of Buddhism—suffering, interdependence, non-harm, and compassion—with that of racial justice movements. Both letters were products of work to challenge racism and white privilege in American Buddhist convert communities spanning over two decades. Many of the themes expressed on the Buddhists for Racial Justice website, for instance, were first articulated in Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities, a booklet compiled by a small group of Buddhist practitioners of color and their white allies and distributed to the Buddhist Teachers in the West conference at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in June of 2000. This compilation declared that, for many years, Euro-American middle-class sanghas had been resistant to the efforts of people of color to raise awareness around the reproduction, in those sanghas, of oppressive racial and socioeconomic structures. Interweaving personal experiences of racism with Buddhist teachings and critical race theory, this landmark collection offered a number of resources to combat racism, ranging from institutional diversity trainings to dharma talks addressing racism.

Until recently, such efforts were largely marginalized and ignored within mainstream meditation-based communities. Due not only to the efforts of the small deeply committed network of American Buddhists of Color but also to the wider cultural critical mass around racial justice, such efforts are now finally getting the attention they deserve. This is reflected in the increased coverage of diversity and inclusion issues in the Buddhist press—the cover of Buddhadharma’s Summer 2016 edition, for instance, read “Free the Dharma: Race, Power, and White Privilege in American Buddhism.”

Work in diversity, inclusion, and racial justice is a phenomenon occurring across Buddhist lineages, but a few communities and individuals have been particularly active. The East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, has been at the forefront of such work; founding teachers Larry Yang, Spring Washam, and Mushim Patricia Ikeda have been instrumental in Buddhist racial diversity and justice initiatives. Two other Insight communities—New York Insight, under the guidance of Gina Sharpe, and the Insight Meditation Community of Washington—have also prioritized diversity and inclusion work. In Zen Buddhism, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and Rev. angel Kyodo williams have been pioneers, and the Brooklyn Zen Center has established itself as an important hub. From the Tibetan Buddhist community, Lama Rod Owens has emerged as a leader, working alongside Rev. williams and Jasmine Syedullah to promote what they call “radical dharma,” bringing together Buddhism and the Black prophetic tradition.

These voices, and others, have pointed out that meditation-based convert communities have been marked by white privilege and racial discrimination; they have also offered ways to move forward, promoting the development of truly inclusive sanghas or the adoption of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of “beloved communities.” One such effort has been to offer spaces of support and safety for practitioners of color, such as exclusive meditation groups or retreats. Another has been to support practitioners of color in moving into positions of teaching and leadership. For instance, one of the main aims of the 2017 Spirit Rock Teaching Training program, which will run for four years under the leadership of Larry Yang, Gina Sharpe, and Kate Lila Wheeler, is to increase the number of teachers of color within the Insight community. Ninety percent of their trainees identify as POC, and combined with the seventy-five percent of POC trainees in the 2017 IMS Teacher Training program, this will produce thirty-three teachers of color. At present, Yang estimates that there are currently between 350 and 375 certified Western Insight teachers and of these only ten or so self-identify as teachers of color, so this will mean an extraordinary increase.

Buddhist advocates for diversity and inclusion say such work should not be seen as a supplement to Buddhist practice but rather as an embodied, communal expression of foundational Buddhist principles and practices. In her book, The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality and Gender (2015), Zenju Earthlyn Manuel calls on Zen Buddhists to recognize both relative and absolute dimensions of reality and not to force a false transcendence of the embodied differences of gender and race under the guise of the nondual absolute. Larry Yang suggests that while the Insight community has historically focused exclusively on mindfulness in the internal individual realm of the meditator, diversity awareness is an opportunity to apply mindfulness to the external collective realm. In his new book, Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community (2017), he shows how the “gift of community” within people of color sanghas offers a corrective to this individualism.

Gen X and Millennial Perspectives

While diversity work has been ongoing for over two decades, a generational and demographic shift among practitioners has now brought it to the forefront. One significant event at the Maha Teachers Council was a meeting between two groups of Western Buddhist teachers: the self-identified “pioneers,” or first-generation American teachers, and the “NextGen” teachers, with each group presenting a set of declarations and requests to the other. One of the three statements delivered by the younger group asserted that they would transform the dharma in their own unique way, being called, in particular, “to bring the dharma more fully to the needs of our diverse world, serving the Buddhist community more equally, and answering the call of injustice and inequality everywhere in our world.”

Gen X teachers say they are more open to cross-lineage collaboration than their baby boomer counterparts and that they’re forging a more pluralistic, nonsectarian approach to Buddhism.

 In interviews with thirty-three Generation X teachers, I discovered that in addition to putting diversity and justice concerns at the top of their agenda, they saw themselves as distinct from their baby boomer counterparts in a number of ways. The interviewees suggested Gen Xers are less individualistic and have a stronger desire for peer contact and accountability. Being more open to cross-lineage collaboration, they also said they are forging a more pluralistic, nonsectarian approach to Buddhism. Another common sentiment was that Gen X teachers have an increased awareness around the historic and cultural processes that have shaped Buddhism in the U.S. and are therefore more sensitive to the ways in which Western ethnocentrism has discarded certain aspects of traditional Asian Buddhism.

The sentiments expressed in these interviews echoed those of online Buddhist communities such as Buddhist Geeks, a media project that ran from 2006 to 2016. Vince Horn and Ryan Oelke started the project to explore issues that were particularly relevant to them as young Buddhist practitioners but were rarely addressed in prevailing Western Buddhist circles. The Buddhist Geeks community saw themselves as representing a new generation of Buddhist practitioners who were creating Buddhist models distinct not only from their baby boomer predecessors but also from traditional Buddhism. Within the Buddhist Geeks network, there was considerable reflection on how Buddhist Geeks itself was a product of the generational divide. One aspect of that divide is that Gen Xers and millennials are much more comfortable and fluent with digital culture than boomers are. Much emphasis was also placed on the shift from counterculture mentality to a more modern mainstream mind-set. Regular Buddhist Geeks contributor Rohan Gunatillake, for instance, explained that he designed buddhify, a meditation app, after having conversations with millennial peers who were interested in Buddhist meditation but felt alienated from its association with “hippie or new age culture.” Vince and Emily Horn also frame their latest project,, or “training for the digital age,” as a millennial initiative.

Generational differences between the boomers and Gen Xers are also highlighted in the Pragmatic Dharma community, which forms a large crossover with the Buddhist Geeks/ network. Spearheaded by Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram, Pragmatic Dharma is a loose international virtual community that focuses on a developmental goal-oriented approach to awakening. Pragmatic Dharma presents itself as an alternative to the Buddhism taught by the “hippie” baby boomer generation, particularly the American Insight movement. They claim that within these lineages, meditation has been reduced to a therapeutic tool and the goal of enlightenment has been replaced with emotional well-being. In contrast, Pragmatic Dharma claims to offer a more “hardcore” approach that draws from various canonical Buddhist maps of awakening and is marked by a pragmatic, experiential, and transparent approach to meditation practice.

Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book (2008), presents his perspective as “the unrestrained voice of one from a generation whose radicals wore spikes and combat boots rather than beads and sandals, listened to the Sex Pistols rather than the Moody Blues, wouldn’t know a beat poet or early sixties dharma bum from a hole in the ground and thought that hippies were pretty friggin’ naive.” A similar framing is often found in the Dharma Punx community and its affiliated Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, a network started by Noah Levine. Levine’s memoir, Dharma Punx, details his journey to sobriety through Buddhist practice and his crafting of an alternative form of American Buddhism that draws its inspiration from the punk/hardcore scene rather than the hippie counterculture that shaped the first wave of American convert teachers.

The Secularization of Buddhism

Another new and significant network that has emerged from within meditation-based convert lineages is that of secular Buddhism. The Secular Buddhist Association, cofounded by Ted Meissner, originated from a podcast called The Secular Buddhist, which Meissner started in May 2009. It currently has more than five thousand subscribers on its website and more than twelve thousand members on its Facebook page, and it has produced more than 270 podcasts, which have been downloaded over 1.5 million times. There is much variation among secular Buddhists; some unifying factors, however, are that they “find no evidence for” or “consider irrelevant” metaphysical concepts such as rebirth or supernatural elements such as devas, and they have a “this-worldly” orientation and focus for their practice.

Mindfulness has spread from Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers to mainstream cultural arenas including medicine, education, and business.

Perhaps the best-known secular Buddhist is teacher and author Stephen Batchelor. Batchelor’s secular Buddhism—or Buddhism 2.0, as he also calls it—replaces the ideal of nibbana with the goal of human flourishing, within the context of the noble eightfold path, in this world. He sees this as a shift from belief-based Buddhism to one based in real-life application. Batchelor has long been a controversial figure in Western Buddhism for claiming that belief in reincarnation is not a necessary component of Buddhist practice or identity. Tibetan Buddhist Alan Wallace has accused Batchelor of promoting a “distorted vision of Buddhism,” and public exchanges between the two exemplify tensions between traditionalist and secular currents within Western Buddhism.

Nowhere are concerns around the secularization of Buddhism more evident, however, than in debates about the secular mindfulness movement. In the last decade, mindfulness has spread from Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers to mainstream cultural arenas including medicine, education, and business. As Jeff Wilson traces in Mindful America (2014), the secular mindfulness movement has its roots in modernist reforms that took place in Asia, but it has been popularized in recent decades in large part through the influence of the Insight meditation movement, the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

In 2011, Shambhala Publications published The Mindfulness Revolution. Edited by Barry Boyce, a longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, the anthology features enthusiastic reflections on mindfulness from notable Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chödrön, and Norman Fischer. Throughout, Buddhist and secular perspectives blend seamlessly, with contributors highlighting the distinction between Buddhism as a group of religious traditions and the dharma as a universal truth. Mindfulness, then, can be offered as an expression of that universal reality, which is available to anyone without need for a specific religious commitment or identity. From this perspective, secular mindfulness is a form of upaya.

Not all American Buddhists have been as enthusiastic about the secular mindfulness movement, though. In 2010, Miles Neale, codirector of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science, coined the term “McMindfulness” to express concerns over the growing commercialization of this ancient practice. Engaged Buddhists David Loy and Ronald Purser launched the term into popular currency with their 2013 Huffington Post article, “Beyond McMindfulness.” One of the main critiques of secular mindfulness is that the Pali Canon distinguishes between “right mindfulness” (samma sati) and “wrong mindfulness” (miccha sati), and that the former is always inextricably linked to the whole of the noble eightfold path, particularly ethics and liberation.

Another critique problematizes mindfulness primarily on the grounds of its complicity with socioeconomic structural injustice, denouncing the adoption of mindfulness in corporations and the military. These critiques revolve around two main rhetorical tropes: the “mindful sniper,” military personnel who have been trained to be more effective killers, and the “mindless worker,” employees who passively accept unjust economic systems. These critiques make the argument that teaching mindfulness in corporate or military contexts conflicts with other core Buddhist teachings of non-harm, right livelihood, and interdependence.

In the wake of these heated debates, some American Buddhists are forging new approaches to secular mindfulness. One response is the attempt to enrich secular mindfulness through more engagement with diversity, inclusion, and social justice perspectives. Another is a reengagement—both explicitly and implicitly—with Buddhist resources. For example, Dharma Punx teacher David Smith has called on the secular mindfulness community to engage more with the foundational teachings of Theravada Buddhism. In his book, Ethical Mindfulness (2015), he discusses coming out of the closet as a Buddhist teacher in secular mindfulness contexts, asserting that mindfulness is more powerful when taught in the context of the eightfold path. This perspective aligns well with what Vince Horn has called “second generation mindfulness,” new forms that constructively incorporate critiques of mindfulness and are marked by attention to relationality and ethics.

Three Emerging Turns

In my forthcoming book, I posit three emerging turns, or sensibilities, within meditation-based convert Buddhism: critical, contextual, and collective. The critical turn refers to a growing acknowledgement of limitations within Buddhist communities. First-generation practitioners tended to be very celebratory of “American Buddhism,” enthusing that they were creating new, more modern, and “essential” forms of Buddhism that were nonhierarchical, gender-egalitarian, and free of the cultural and religious “baggage” of their Asian predecessors. While the modernization and secularization of Buddhism certainly continues, there is now much more discussion about the problems and pitfalls of these processes, with some exposing the Western ethnocentrism that has operated behind the “essential” versus “cultural” distinction. This understanding acknowledges that meditation-based convert Buddhism is as culturally shaped as any other form of Buddhism. Some, drawing attention to what is lost when the wider religious context of Buddhism is discarded, have called for a reengagement with neglected aspects of the tradition such as ritual and community.

The contextual turn refers to the increasing awareness of how Buddhist practice is shaped and limited by the specific social and cultural contexts in which it unfolds. In the case of the mindfulness debates, critics have argued that mindfulness has become commodified and assimilated into the context of global capitalism and neoliberalism. Another heated debate is around power and privilege in American Buddhist communities. Take, for instance, Pablo Das’s response to Buddhist teachers’ reflections on the U.S. presidential election, in which he critiques their perspectives as reflective of a privileged social location that negates the trauma of marginalized communities. Das suggests that calls to meditate and to “sit with what is” are not sufficient to create safety for vulnerable populations, and he warns against misusing Buddhist teachings on impermanence, equanimity, and anger to dismiss the realities of such groups. Insight teachers Sebene Selassie and Brian Lesage have fostered a dialogue between sociocultural awareness and Buddhism, developing a course for the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies titled “Buddha’s Teaching and Issues of Cultural Spiritual Bypassing,” which explores how unconscious social conditioning manifests both individually and collectively.

The collective turn refers to the multiple challenges to individualism as a cornerstone of meditation-based convert lineages. One shift has come in the form of efforts toward building inclusive sanghas. Another is the development of relational forms of meditation practice such as external mindfulness. And a third expression is the concept of “collective awakening,” hinted at in Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion that “the next Buddha might take the form of a community,” as well as the application of Buddhist principles and practices to the collective dukkha caused by racism and capitalism.

The first generation of meditation-based convert practitioners brought the discourses of psychology, science, and liberal feminism to their encounter with already modernized forms of Asian Buddhism. With the “three turns,” previously excluded, neglected, or entirely new conversations—around critical race theory, postcolonial thought, and cultural studies—are shaping the dialogue of Buddhist modernism. These are not necessarily replacing earlier influences but sitting alongside them and engaging in often-heated debates. Moreover, due to social media and the lively Buddhist blogosphere, these dialogues are also finding a much larger audience. While it is difficult to predict the extent to which these new perspectives will shape the future of Buddhism in America, the fact that they are particularly evident in Gen X and millennial practitioners suggests that their impact will be significant.

Ann Gleig

Ann Gleig

Ann Gleig is an associate professor of religion and cultural studies at the University of Central Florida. She completed her PhD in religious studies at Rice University in 2010, focusing on Buddhism and Hinduism in modernity. Her book American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity was published by Yale University Press in 2019.