Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Buddhism traces its origins to a sixth century B.C. Indian prince who practiced meditation until he became realized as the Buddha, or "enlightened one." During the next two and a half millennia, Buddhism became a major religious tradition, thriving in Southeast Asia as Theravada ("the tradition of the elders"), East Asia as Mahayana ("the great vehicle"), and Central Asia as Vajrayana ("the diamond vehicle"). Common practices in these three "vehicles" are meditation, cultivation of wisdom and compassion, and the development of Buddhist communities.

Buddhist adherents now live mainly in larger towns and cities of the Great Plains in two general populations (although actual census figures are not available). First, there are the Asian American communities of larger cities such as Omaha, Billings, and Calgary. In these cities, recently established immigrants from Asia seek to knit together their ancestral traditions with Buddhist observance. The Vietnamese of Oklahoma City have expressed economic and social confidence with a beautiful new temple; Thai and Laotian communities have established impressive Theravada centers just beyond the Plains borders in Houston, Dallas, and elsewhere in Texas. Other Asian communities have multigenerational history in the Great Plains, and Buddhist temples serve to join religion, spirituality, and culture in a single environment. The Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) was first established around 1900 as the American mission of the Jodo Shinshu, a popular Pure Land sect from Japan. The Denver Buddhist Temple has long owned prime downtown real estate to house not only its temple, but a community center, subsidized housing for seniors, and shopping center.

The second category of adherents, widely distributed throughout the Plains, are "convert" communities, for whom Buddhism is not their ancestral tradition. These groups fall into the three major "vehicles" described above. The Theravada groups practice vipassana (insight) meditation with little ritual or cultural accouterments. Vipassana groups gather weekly or biweekly for sitting meditation (zazen) and "dharma talks" given on tape or by members or visiting teachers. Small centers based in private homes can be found from Edmonton and Calgary south to Boulder, Santa Fe, and Dallas. They communicate through networking, newsletters, and public posting.

The primary Mahayana meditation practiced is Zen, which originated in Japan and China. Tiny Zen centers dot the Great Plains from Rapid City to Missoula and from Omaha to Amarillo, sporting catchy names like "Laughing Teabowl," "Empty Sky," and "Great Mountain." Many of these centers are associated with the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk who played an important role in ending the U.S.-Vietnam War in his homeland. Others trace their lineages to the Japanese traditions of Katagiri Roshi, who established a center in Minneapolis in the 1960s, or of Maezumi Roshi from Los Angeles. The Zen centers also stress zazen, scheduled multiple times each week, as well as dharma talks and readings from Zen classics.

Vajrayana Buddhism, associated with Tibet, has centers in Edmonton, Kansas City, and Dallas, but the greatest concentration of Vajrayana practice is in Boulder, Colorado, the home of Naropa University, which in 2000 had an enrollment of 900. The Buddhist-inspired accredited university was founded by Chögyam, Trungpa, a teacher (lama) who escaped from the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. Vajrayana communities, centered on authorized teachers, are characterized by sitting meditation, ritual practice, tightly knit communities, rigorous study programs, and dharma talks.

See also ASIAN AMERICANS: Denver Buddhist Temple.

Judith Simmer-Brown Naropa University

Morreale, Don, ed. The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998.

Prebish, Charles S. Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

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