Buddhism in America?—another look 

By Bhiksuni Heng-yin 

Buddhists cultivate an attitude of detachment, an unwavering samadhi amidst the ups and downs of samsaric existence, but, frankly, two articles in the last issue of Shambhala Review of Books and Ideas (Winter 1976 Vol.5 Nos. 1,2.) have left me bewildered, frustrated and even disgusted.

The first calls attempts to spread Buddhism in the West "derisory from an organizational point of view..." and declares Buddhism's fate to be "increasing inanition." "The second straddles the fence with the observation that Buddhism will either 1) flourish or 2) fade, i.e., "the current flurry of growth will subside," and "we may be witnessing the foundation of a permanent religious tradition within our society."

Both of these articles were penned by well-known scholars, yet both indicate a lack of awareness or an unwillingness to admit what is going on in this country. Perhaps this is another manifestation of the generation gap. Blind, as they seem to be, they nevertheless continue to make pronouncements about Buddhism as if their word were law.

But their stance is not unusual. Long ago, when Buddhism was first taking hold-in China, many were unaware of its existence. When Patriarch Bodhidharma took the transmission of the Dharma from India to China, he found that "although there were men who studied and lectured, cultivation was superficial. Scholars explained and argued, but none of them truly understood. The principles in the Sutras must be cultivated, but at that time in China, they were not cultivated because everyone feared suffering..." It took Bodhidharma, with his insistence on actual cultivation and certification, and his embodiment of the Mind Seal which is apart from words and letters to get the Dharma moving in China. But if the scholars were to have acknowledged the real Buddhism's presence in China—what would have happened to them?

1The Venerable Master Hua, The Sixth Patriarch Sutra and Commentary, Buddhist Text Translation Society, San Francisco, 1971, p.1.

That same Mind Seal has been brought to America by the Venerable Master Hua, Abbot of Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco, successor to all five Buddhist Schools and the Forty-sixth Generational Patriarch from Sakyamuni Buddha. The Master has said, "I have come to America to create living Buddhas, living Bodhisattvas, and living Patriarchs."

Remember, we are discussing the question of Buddhism in America. Is it here? Is it here and dying out? Is it here and flourishing? As I relate the activities of the Sino-American Buddhist Association, founded by the Venerable Master Hua, keep in mind that there are many such organizations now growing in America. I do not purposely exclude them from this article, but I do not have related data to present. I suggest that those of other Buddhist groups speak up on their own behalf as I am doing. Remember as you read what follows, that the activities of the Sino-American Buddhist Association, and all of Western Buddhism have been dubbed by the professor whose article I first quoted as "derisory."

Founded by the Venerable Master Hua in 1968, the Sino-American Buddhist Association, based at Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco, now has branches in Los Angeles, Seattle, and in Talmage, California. Activities at all branches include daily lectures on Mahayana Sutras, intensive meditation and recitation sessions, plus a rigorous schedule beginning daily at four in the morning and continuing until ten at night. The Buddhist Text Translation Society, under the auspices of the Sino-American Buddhist Association, consists of over fifty Buddhist sangha and lay scholars who are actively engaged in translating, publishing and distributing Mahayana Buddhist Sutras.  The Association recently acquired an entire village of over 237 acres and 44 institutional-sized buildings with immediate plans for a Buddhist University, and plans for a Buddhist educational system running from preschool through Ph.D. programs.

Most significantly, under the Master's guidance, the Orthodox Buddhist Sangha has been established in the United States consisting of American monks and nuns, all fully ordained, and in sufficient number now to transmit the precepts in the West, thus making Buddhism a self-perpetuating entity here. Monks, nuns, and the majority of lay people cultivate many of the ascetic practices recommended by the Buddha and designed to preserve the Orthodox Dharma, taking one meal a day, sleeping sitting up, and never touching money, being among them. All members maintain a minimum of five precepts, including abstaining from all intoxicants, because intoxicants are all liable to confuse the mind.

Finally, it is because the Master is a living example of all he teaches, of the principles of the Buddhadharma, that his students are able to take the inspiration from him needed to fight their daily battles with Mara, to climb the hundred foot pole and take yet another step. The Master transmits the Mind Seal of all Buddhas handed down from Patriarch to Patriarch since the time of Sakyamuni Buddha.

The above are facts of which the professors are well aware, facts which they pointedly choose to ignore. How anyone could view the activities of the Sino-American Buddhist Association and come to the conclusion that Buddhism is "quiescent" is beyond my comprehension.

The Buddha taught the way to liberation from suffering. Master Hua's message to Americans is this, "To endure suffering is to end suffering; to enjoy one's blessings is to destroy one's blessings." Master Hua's Buddhism is direct and practical. It starts with morality, works into samadhi, and brings genuine wisdom. But that genuine wisdom is obtained only through actual cultivation. It is only by putting down the pleasures of the world--wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep—that one can gain transcendental bliss. 

It is time someone took the professors’ aside for a chat. "You see, most of us are at least a generation younger. We see things differently. You look back into history, and base your gloomy predictions on facts gleaned from the past. But your insistence on looking backwards has blinded you to what is happening now, in the present. If you can't see what is happening now, how can you presume to tell us what is to come? 

"You complain that the world is too corrupt, that no one will listen to the Buddha's teachings, but you forget that the lotus comes forth from the mud. It grows up out of the mud, but is not defiled by the mud. Right, the world is a mess, but in that mess there will be those who will awaken and who will extricate themselves. The Buddhadharma is not reserved for favorable conditions alone. It neither increases nor decreases, is neither defiled nor pure.

"And before you say it's all going down the drain, perhaps you should take this into account: I speak for many like myself--former middle-class cheerleaders, turned all-American liberal democrats, turned philosophy students, turned flower children, and so forth. We once despaired. We despaired at our uptight Western philosophical heritage, despaired at our Christian tradition with its endless bickering and bloodshed, despaired seeing our parents in their quest for the "good life" which has poisoned our air, our water, and our land in greedy pursuit of the Almighty dollar, and despaired yes, even at our educational system, finding it overrun with professors who care little for the needs of their students but who are solely concerned with perpetuating elitist academies to gratify their insatiable greed for academic acclaim and preserving their divine right to rule as intellectual monarchs. It's really no secret anymore.

"And we have found, in the selfless, compassionate teachings of the Buddha, a new hope and a new reality and we are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to insure our own liberation and to preserve the teaching for those who are to follow us. 

"In straight terms, it's time you took a good look. Buddhism is just taking shape in the West. The flower is blooming. The transformation is inevitable. It is happening now. If you can't help make it grow, then, please, get out of the way' "Don't stand in the doorways, don't block up the halls, for the times, they are a changing'."


Student: Where do living beings come from? Why did the Buddha become enlightened before living beings? Why didn't living being become enlightened before the Buddha? Why do living beings have ignorance?

The Master's reply: Living beings come from ignorance. If you break through ignorance, you become a Buddha. Why did the Buddha become a Buddha? Because he was able to break through ignorance. Why are we still living beings? Because we have not been able to break through ignorance.

To explain it even more clearly: living beings emerged from True Emptiness. This is because within True Emptiness there is Wonderful Existence. "Wonderful" Existence is not existence in the usual sense of the word, however. True Emptiness is also not empty and so living beings are contained within it. Wonderful Existence is not simply existence and so if living beings wish to realize Buddhahood, they must return to True Emptiness. True Emptiness is simply our inherent Buddha nature. Becoming a Buddha has no material form or sign. It is just the certification to our original light of wisdom, certification to the doctrine of True Emptiness.

From the Venerable Master Hsuan-hua's lectures on the Avatamsaka Sutra,

December 15, 1976 

Translated by Bhiksuni Heng-yin


Guest-dust Verse by Ch'an Master Hsuan-hua

Eight-one delusions gone, the mad mind rests,

Stilling thoughts, then ask yourself, who's so busy?

Eighty-four thousand things go as they please. 

Sovereign you, who do not go, will reign in enlightenment.