The United States is home to an estimated 1.2 million Buddhists, of which it is believed roughly 40-percent reside in Southern California. While many of these Buddhists are immigrant Buddhists, bringing their beliefs and traditions with them when they moved to the US, or transmitting traditions and beliefs to American generations of their families, a significant number of the Buddhist population consists of relatively new Buddhists; those who take the time to learn and essentially “convert” to Buddhism.
Converting to Buddhism
It should be noted that throughout the many sects or schools (or types) Buddhism, there is no official “conversion” process so to be a Buddhist one simply has to become one by learning about the belief system and applying that knowledge to their life.
For those wishing to become Buddhist but from non-Buddhist families, the process can be overwhelming without any clear guidance. The temples and schools are not as commonplace as those of larger religions, and without an official process for converting to Buddhism, not knowing where to start can lead to hesitation and anxiety, especially for those who learn best with structured processes.
For new Buddhists, including those seeking to become new Buddhists, a good place to start is usually the library, bookstores, and online where the basics of Buddhism, true for all sects, are readily available to start a foundation for learning. Links to a series of National Buddhism Examiner articles covering many of the basics can be found at the end of this article, for convenience.
Buddhist Temples and Churches in the U.S.
Internet searches for local Buddhist temples in the U.S. will reveal a surprisingly long list of temples, but many newcomers are confused by the differences between the temples’ respective Buddhist sects. Moreover, not all temples look how non-Buddhists expect them to look, which can also cause some confusion. In the United States, some Buddhist temples look like the traditional Buddhist temple one would expect to see; with Far East, Asian influences in the style and colors, and with residents dressed in robe-style garments, varying in color by sect or ethnicity such as the red and gold often seen in Tibetan monasteries or black worn by traditional Zen monks in Japan. Many Buddhist temples in the U.S., however, resemble modern houses or buildings; they may be run by monks with shaved heads and traditional robes, or they may be run by ministers that look like average people, only donning robes for ceremonies or scheduled services.
The temples often have a title, name, or some subtext that associates the temple with a given sect of Buddhism, such as Soto Mission temples (following Japanese Zen Buddhism), Jodo Mission temples (following Honwangji traditions from Nishi and Higashi Japan), Vajrayana temples (typical Tibetan and similar Buddhist teachings), and so forth. Newcomers often do not have the knowledge to differentiate between the types, but many seasoned Buddhists do not have that knowledge either. The important thing is there is no right or wrong Buddhist sect; it is often a matter of choice, preference, or ethnic tradition. For someone familiar with Japanese culture, language, and history, choosing a Japanese sect may prove more beneficial to that individual, while someone with no preference but living in an area with a significant Chinese population may find it more convenient to opt for a Chinese sect of Buddhism.
Buddhist Temples in the U.S.
Buddhanet.org and Buddhactivity.org both offer convenient search tools for temples by country, and within the US by state and city as well. These are not all temples in the traditional sense of the word; many are considered “Dharma centers” where the Teachings of the Buddha can be taught, shared, or otherwise discussed, transmitted, and preserved. Listings with websites will usually include a link to the websites, and most websites will provide contact information. Buddhanet.org listings also usually express if the center or temple offers services in a foreign non-English language only, such as the Chua Pho Mon center in Kansas that provides services in Vietnamese only.
It can be difficult to truly appreciate the difference in cultures when raised in the U.S. where membership to organizations and clubs tends to emphasize the in-group out-group distinction. With most Buddhist temples or centers, all are welcome. Some may offer weekly or regular services for reflecting on the Teachings of the Buddha, gathering for a sense of community and membership or belonging, and for holidays or annual celebrations; others will offer services on important holidays, such as Bodhi Day and for the New Year.
As with most churches and temples, the expectation is usually that people will become members, paying an annual membership fee to help sustain the center or temple and services. This is particularly true for those with ministers or clergy brought from other countries to manage the temple, such as the respective Buddhist Missions throughout Hawaii, California, and other parts of the US. There may also be a scheduled monthly temple cleanup gathering where members are expected to contribute to keeping the grounds and building or temple clean and presentable.
Offerings and Prayer
When making an offering at the temples, it is also often customary to include a small monetary offering with the incense and prayer. The incense is often set out next to a lit candle and a large bowl or other container filled with ash will be present for standing the incense once lit. Members and visitors can approach the setup, light incense, shake the incense to reduce the flame rather than blowing it out, and stand it up in the ash. For newcomers, it is best to watch what other members do first then copy their approach, to pay appropriate respects in the temple setting. For example, members may press their hands in prayer (elbows may be up higher than a natural prayer-hand posture, or hands pressed together and held higher depending on the location and circumstances); this prayer pose is usually combined with a bow for respect, then the incense is lit and shaken to reduce the flame, and many will raise the incense toward their forehead and bow slightly again before standing the incense in the ash. Once the incense is lit and placed in the ash, the hands are usually pressed again and another bow for respect, but the appropriate method can vary between organizations, temples, cultures, and preferences so don’t be afraid to watch first and copy what others are doing.
Buddhist prayers are not usually the same as Western-style religion prayers. The offerings of incense, and sometimes food, water, and money, are for ancestors, the Buddha, bodhisattva(s), and others. The offerings are out of respect and sometimes as part of a request for guidance, but the general consensus is that individuals are responsible for their own actions, happiness, and wellbeing; therefore most prayers are not in the typical for of requests for help or tangible things.
Visiting Buddhist Temples in the U.S.
Use the website tools provided in the links below to search for Buddhist centers or temples nearby. The listed locations should provide a phone number or website where the temple or other Buddhist center can be contacted for information regarding regular services, events, hours of operation, and other possibilities. If completely new to Buddhism, it can prove helpful to call first; there may be beginner classes available or the location may have someone that can provide information on a one-on-one basis to help ease the experience and reduce anxiety.
Temples with regular services, such as a weekly service or twice monthly service, often follow the service with a brunch-style social gathering. If this is the case, it is usually customary (but not mandatory) to bring something to contribute to the gathering. To avoid that awkward feeling of arriving empty handed, it can be helpful to ask in advance if the members gather for a meal or socializing after the services and see what is usually expected of visitors. As with many Asian cultures, however, most will avoid asking outright or instructing newcomers to bring food items.