Future of Buddhism in North America

Charles Prebish discusses current and future trends of Buddhism in North America at a conference titled, “The Swans Came to Canada Too: Looking Backward and Looking Forward”.

Professor Prebish holds the Charles Redd Endowed Chair in Religious Studies at Utah State University, where he also serves as Director of the Religious Studies program. Back in 1993, he held the Visiting Numata Chair in Buddhist Studies at the University of Calgary, and in 1997 was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation National Humanities Fellowship for research at the University of Toronto. 

This was the keynote address at last month’s “Buddhism in Canada: Global Causes, Local Conditions” conference at the University of British Columbia on October 15, 2010.

From the conference website:
“The Swans Came to Canada Too: Looking Backward and Looking Forward.”

Following the change in immigration law by Canada and the United States in the mid-twentieth century, Buddhism exploded on the North American continent. Buddhism is now found everywhere: from the cover of TIME magazine to the Simpson’s TV show; from Leonard Cohen practicing as a Zen priest to the Dalai Lama visiting the White House. Some estimates place the number of Buddhists on the continent as high as six million.

This paper traces the development of the study of North American Buddhism as it developed as a legitimate sub-discipline in the larger discipline of Buddhist Studies, and highlights both the similarities and differences between Canadian and American forms of Buddhism.

It looks at the early pioneering works of the past half-century, examining the Buddhist communities in North America, the theories that have developed to understand their growth and development, the scholarly and popular studies that have appeared in the literature, the scholars and scholar-practitioners who have offered seminal studies, Buddhist teachers—Asian and Western—who have appeared on the scene, and the new emphases which have recently appeared which may shape Buddhism’s development in North America in our new century.

Older, and now outmoded theories such as “two Buddhisms” or “three Buddhisms,” focusing on the disconnect between Asian immigrant and American convert Buddhists, will be considered only insofar as they are no longer applicable to the rapidly changing Buddhist scene. Newer theories like “hybridity” and “regionalism” will be explored in their role as valuable tools that will frame the emerging studies that are already beginning to define North American Buddhism in the twenty-first century. In broad perspective, this paper will provide a new insight into the current shape of the North American Buddhist landscape.