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Buddhist professor says America becoming receptive

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Charles Prebish spoke to students about his conversion into the Buddhist religion and the difficulty he had studying the practices while in America. He said Buddhist communities can be found in most big cities but may be hard to locate. 
by Rachel A. Christensen

There are 6 million Buddhists in the U.S., and as this number grows so does America’s acceptance of the practice, said Charles Prebish, Redd Chair of Religious Studies, during his lecture “What is it Like to be a Buddhist in America” Wednesday in the Fine Arts Center.

Of the 6 million Buddhists, 80 percent are Asian American and 20 percent are considered converts. Prebish said there is still a huge ethnic divide among Buddhists in America today.

The U.S. is a melting pot of culture, and Prebish said Buddhist communities can be found in nearly any big city. Someone can usually find a Buddhist community nearby looking in a phone book. However, this wasn’t always the case. In the past, fewer communities and a lack of modern technology made it harder to locate Buddhist communities.

New technology such as Web pages, e-mail and cell phones make connecting with other local Buddhists easier. Prebish said some Web sites will list Buddhist communities “state by state, country by country” in order to make it easier to find them. Most magazines about Buddhism include lists of where to locate different communities. There are now more than 2,200 Buddhist communities in America, he said.

Though Buddhists in America have had trouble communicating in the past due to the variety of people and practice, Prebish said they can learn a lot from the Christian ecumenical movement.

Prebish said when he was first studying to become a Buddhist, he met a monk from Sri Lanka who taught him what he needed to do. First, the monk said Prebish would have to meditate four hours daily and all day Sunday.

Second, the monk told Prebish that every year he needed to spend a month of solitude in the woods. During this month, he was to meditate for 16 hours a day.

“By the second week (of the month of solitude), you find you’re trapped with the most boring person ever: yourself,” Prebish said.

Prebish said coming back to society at the end of the month is difficult because after doing things very slowly by himself everybody else seems to be hurrying about.

Prebish said the monk from Sri Lanka also taught him five vows. Prebish was told not to kill, lie, steal, take intoxicants or participate in illicit sex.

Prebish said these vows apply to body, speech and mind and that each person that practices Buddhism must decide how to follow these vows or precepts. The vows may sound difficult to adhere to, Prebish said, but they become more natural over time.

When Prebish “outed” himself as a Buddhist in the 1970s, he said he felt he would have been more accepted had he came out as gay – which he is not – instead. Being a Buddhist in America has become more acceptable since then, and Prebish attributed this mostly to the rise of celebrity Buddhists.

The oldest example of a celebrity Buddhist that Prebish said he could remember was Tina Turner, who said her beliefs gave her the strength to leave her abusive husband. Since then, others have followed. Prebish said, “When Buddhism makes mainstream, primetime TV on ‘The Simpsons’” in the form of cartoon character Lisa Simpson, who is Buddhist, it is apparent that Buddhism in America has become more widely acknowledged.

Had anyone run an Internet search in the 1990s of Buddhism in America, Prebish said his research would likely have been among the few sources in the search results. As Buddhism rises in popularity, college courses on the topic have begun to rise. Some Western Buddhists have gone on what Prebish referred to as a “pro tour of Buddhism,” going across America and teaching its principles. He said some of these Buddhists have made a career of traveling to Buddhist centers giving meditation workshops.

While awareness of Buddhism in America has grown, Prebish said America still needs to work on being accepting.

“I exist here as a community of one,” Prebish said of practicing Buddhism himself.

Prebish said over all, Buddhists in America have two main questions: “what kind of Buddhist am I and how many kinds of Buddhism are there?”

There are so many different practices and people that are a part of Buddhism in America that Prebish said it’s hard to generalize. This makes studying Buddhism in America more difficult, but he said he thinks it is great that other researchers are taking his research and moving forward with it.

– rach.ch@aggiemail.usu.edu

Sources: http://www.usu-tube.com/pages/full_story/push?article-Buddhist+professor+says+America+becoming+receptive%20&id=4363011&instance=campus



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