Many say that in order to become a true Buddhist you need a direct link to the heritage, and a place to seek practices that transform the heart. And over the past several decades, the spiritual decadence of the West has attracted many to Buddhism, which continues to greatly impact the spiritual foundation of America today.
Within its great openness, Buddhism places forward specific principles of the mind; while teaching that there is no creator God; no Jehovah, Jesus or Allah. There are moments large and small when we are filled with a desire to seek a certain truth—truths that are so distinct from the primary foundation of traditional faiths, that some American’s see Buddhism as a philosophy or way of life, rather than a religion. Buddhism focuses on the individual soul, and the idea of universal interconnectedness—something that is very appealing to progressive thinkers in the west. But there are certain characteristics of Buddhism found in the US that are often not seen in traditional Asian Buddhist countries. Among them, is how Americans stray away from the monastic lifestyle, to a more psychological approach. And while there are elements of psychology, it’s believed by many that this is one of the primary ways for American’s to understand Buddhism—as they seek to elevate their mind and remove suffering. The path of transcendence and the path of immanence are beautiful, whole, and worthy. And it is sought out by many in the west to find their way down this road to true enlightenment.
The introduction of Buddhism to the US traces back to the mid-19th century, when early scholars and spiritual pioneers first presented it to Americans; soon followed by the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast. As Buddhism became woven into the American culture, it also became very diverse and complex because of the many points of intersection and struggles it had while trying to find a place in the New World. This meant, that Buddhists had to organize new communities, and face challenges provoked by unfamiliar social and political circumstances. It is because of this, that Buddhism presents a particularly rich site for examining how religions have unfolded in the diverse American landscape. There are hundreds of lineages and denominations nestled under the general categories of Buddhism, and thus Buddhist history in America is less the story of how a single major religion entered the United States as it is thousands of separate, interconnected ones.
Very early on, American Buddhist trailblazers made a vital break from Asian tradition; opting against trying to replicate the Asian monastic system where intense practice is left to monks. Some of Western Buddhism's more influential thinkers believe that it has far more to offer than meditation, and may lose its essential core if it strives to Americanize too fully. Developments and disagreements over how to best practice Buddhism gave rise to many streams of practice, philosophy, and organization in our history. By the end of the 20th century, virtually every type of Buddhism found in Asia was fully blended into American culture, with Buddhist imagery, terms, practices, and concepts now familiar to many people in the US.
Here in Los Angeles, such blending has taken place in the city of West Covina at the Xuanzang Temple. Here you will find a man named Xinhai, a master monk who teaches others the Buddhist way. One does not have to subscribe to a completely different way of life, or give up their own religion in order to visit his temple. Knowing this helps to avoid the confusion of mixing Eastern and Western perspectives when it comes to Buddhism; which Xinhai understands.
The monk’s role is to exert himself in discipline, meditation, and wisdom, and to offer support to the community in the form of teaching or other services. At the Xuanzang temple, Xinhai embraces this and shows others how to practice such things as meditation, walking, thinking, drinking tea—and other fundamental Buddhist practices and principles.
Xinhai has also offered his planning and advice to a China-India co-production movie that details the historic life of the famous Buddhist Monk Xuanzang who brought Buddhism from India to China. The film was derived from his book “Monk Xuanzang”, and along with a few investors—the movie went into production with Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming playing the lead role of the renowned monk who brought important Buddhist scriptures to China in the 7th century. The movie was made in both India and China, with version dialogue in both Mandarin and Hindi. The movie has great significance both spiritually and historically, as we see the close cultural ties among these two great civilizations come to life. In the film, we witness how the strong faith of Xuanzang compels him to take on a dangerous path to seek and make sense of Buddhist scriptures. Xuanzang's journey along the silk roads, icy mountains, and many deserts inspired cross-cultural exchanges that had a profound impact on Asian and world history.
Throughout his life, the Buddha taught and guided many people to achieve their own awakening to the true nature of life, create inner peace, and act compassionately toward other living beings. His teachings and example form the root of what we now know as Buddhism. It is said that we are reborn again and again, in an endless and wearying cycle called samsara; each life affected by the good and bad deeds performed in previous existences, according to a system called karma. Xuanzang is a place where such teachings are focused upon, making it a perfect temple to visit and draw understanding from.
A temple is a special sanctuary—a holy place, where we can receive blessings and powerful imprints on our minds that lead to inner peace as we move forward into the future. Many are built around the world, extending a warm welcome to others, such as the Xuanzang Temple that can be found in Los Angeles—alive with the teachings of wisdom and compassion to the fulfillment of human life. It’s a place of living tradition, passed from teacher to student, for cultivating sanity and brilliance in ourselves and our world. The ancient wisdom of Buddhism is as relevant and useful today as over the centuries of its long history. These teachings contain the essence of ancient wisdom, yet are tailored to the specific challenges of modern times. And although American’s tend to associate Buddhism as a religion or perhaps a philosophy; it is better described as a journey. This journey, or way of life, entails seeing things beyond what they are—and to awaken to the things that are occurring in the present moment.
Currently, there are approximately 350 million Buddhists in the world—showing just how much the moral virtues, meditation, and wisdom of Buddhism is shaping the values and contentment of our world today.