The Changing Face of Eastern Religions in the United States

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The Changing Face of Eastern Religions in the United States

Constance A. JONES (California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco)

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2012 International Conference in El Jadida, Morocco. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author

In 2009, The Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR) was asked to do a census of the American Hindu community and the American Buddhist community, the first such attempts to do an assessment of the number of individuals who are affiliated with the burgeoning and now highly visible Hindu and Buddhist religious facilities that have since 1965 appeared in every state of the Union. J. Gordon Melton, director of ISAR, and I oversaw this project, with the work on the two censuses carried out by the ISAR staff. The effort was funded by a grant from the American Religion Data Archive (ARDA) based at Pennsylvania State University.

Hinduism in the United States in 2010
Preliminary Considerations: The term “Hinduism” is among the most contested in the field of religious studies. It arose as a designation of the various religious strains that were found by Westerners on the Indian subcontinent in the eighteenth century. The term has been met with a range of acceptance by the modern Hindu community but has come to be used by most Indians in the modern West to apply to that range of religions currents that originated on the Indian subcontinent, and pre-dated the three large strains whose adherents have come to be seen as constituting separate religious communities—Jainism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. The Hindu community is tied together by its use of a number of ancient holy texts (most notably the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, etc.), acknowledgement of a number of deities discussed in these texts, and the creation of temples at which rituals are performed and holy days observed.
There being no body which regularly collects data on Hindu religious groups, ISAR originally planned to gather the basic data by mail. As the original mailings met with an almost universal lack of response, that plan was scrapped and replaced with an effort to phone each group and interview a local representative. Thus, in 2009 a list of all known Hindu temples (approximately 450) in the United States was compiled and beginning in January 2010, an attempt was made to call each local temple and interview the president, a priest serving the temple, or knowledgeable member of the local board. That process continued through the fall. In the process of contacting the temples, several hundred additional temples were discovered and a picture of the overall organization of the community as of the fall of 2010 emerged. That overall organization is presented below.
It is to be noted that most temples do not maintain membership records (with many having no formal memberships), and do not keep records of the larger community of support (constituency). Temples regularly reported membership as a range (200 to 500) and often as family units (100 to 150 families), with an understanding that the average size of a family unit was four. For most temples, membership consisted of those individuals or families who regularly supported the temples by their time, attendance, and gifts, but overwhelmingly, the temple served a far larger group of worshippers and attendees who might be seen only a couple of times a year at the most important holy days. Phone calls to the local temples were supplements to on site visits made by Drs. Jones and Melton and members of the ISAR staff to verify information received over the phone and gain some firsthand understanding of the situations in which such observations were made. On site visits were made to multiple locations in southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Austin.
The Structure of the American Hindu Community. The American Hindu community can be divided into four basic groupings. First, the largest number of believers are associated with the approximately 260 traditional Hindu temples which have been established by first and second generation Hindus who have migrated to the United states since the change of the immigration laws in 1965. The initial temple was established in Flushing, Long Island, New York in the 1970s. Since that time as populations of Indian Americans have emerged in the major urban centers, a growing number of temples have been organized. Such temples are locally owned and maintained and organizationally autonomous. Each temple follows one of the major traditions (or sampradaya) of Hindu religion based on the worship of specific deities—Vaisnava, based on the worship of Vishnu (whose most popular incarnations were as Venkateswara and Krishna); Saivite, based on the worship of Shiva and his family—Ganesh, Murugan, Lakshmi; and the Goddess who is worshipped primarily as Durga, Kali, and/or Devi.
Because the initial temples in a particular location always attempt to serve the entire Indian American community, a new phenomenon emerged in the West-- the mixed tradition temple. The mixed tradition temple generally has either a form of Vishnu or Shiva at its central altar, but also include murtis (statues) of Durga and other deities in side altars, more or less prominently displayed. In smaller communities, the side altars may include a murti of the popular guru (teacher) Sai Baba of Shirdi, the main teacher of the Jain religion Mahavira, and on rare occasion a murti of Nanak (the founder of the Sikh faith) or Buddha. In larger temples, the initial temple becomes the central structure of a temple complex, which as it develops will house separate temples for the different sampradayas.
Over the years the Hindu community has come to include a variety of movements within the traditional sampradayas. These constitute sub-traditions organized around a particular teacher (and/or lineage of teachers) and one or more distinctive ideas. These movements have produced temples representing these various sub-traditions, which differ from the more traditional community-based temples primarily by their being associated with specific teachers or specific teachings. One typical example of these sub-traditions is the Swaminarayan movement. Swaminarayan Hindus are distinctive in that they feel that the prominent nineteenth-century Gujarati teacher Swaminarayan (1781-1830) was an incarnation of the deity Krishna. Based in Gujarat, the movement has followed a lineage of teachers that is traced directly to Swaminarayan himself. The Swaminarayan tradition has diverged over the years, and several distinctive lineages have emerged, each of which is now a center of a separate Swaminarayan group. Currently, eight such groups exist in the United States. The largest of these groups, the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS, has emerged as the largest Hindu group in America. It has attained some added prominence by its construction of large temple complexes in Atlanta, Houston and Chicago (with additional such temples to be completed in the near future). Approximately two thirds of the Hindu temples now found in the United States are related to the approximately 40 particular sub-traditions that have been identified.
Third, the nineteenth century in Indian history was marked a great revival of Hinduism, in part spurred by the challenge of the growth of Christianity during the Colonial era. This revival gave birth to a number of new forms of Hinduism that collectively became known as the Hindu Renaissance. Renaissance groups were known for their emphasis on Hindu philosophy and their downplaying of temple worship and devotion to particular deities. The Renaissance gave birth to a number of new religious traditions, which through the twentieth century led to multiple competing organizations (comparable to Christian denominations). Hinduism was initially introduced to the west by several representatives of the Hindu Renaissance who were born in India in the late nineteenth century (most notably Swami Vivekananda and Swami Yogananda) and perpetuated by several representative twentieth century figures—Ramana Maharshi, Swami Sivananda and Swami Muktananda). The effort begun by these five figures have led directly to no less than 40 Hindu groups now existing in the United States.
Fourth, In the middle- and late-twentieth century, a number of gurus/teachers, whose perspectives draw heavily on Renaissance themes mixed in various ways with more traditional forms of Hinduism, have appeared in the West, especially since the 1960s. These new forms of the Hindu tradition are most often built around a single Hindu teacher and his/her lineage and local centers are organizationally tied together. These groups generally keep the renaissance emphasis on Hindu philosophy, an emphasis on practice of a particular form(s) of devotion, and the central role of the guru or teacher as a conduit of spiritual wisdom. In the 1980s, a set of American-born gurus, continuing the lineage of Indian teachers, began to appear as founders of new movements. The number of American-born gurus (of non-Indian ethnicity) has continued to grow.
More than 40 new post-Renaissance movements have emerged in America in the last generation.

Demographics and Group Membership in the Hindu Community
Moving to a count of the number of Hindus in America is a multi-layered problem. Quite visible are those individuals who participate with some regularity (weekly, monthly) in one of the several hundred Hindu temples or organizations. Secondly, there is a much larger group that occasionally visit a Hindu temple/group for special events or holy day celebrations, who identify with the temple/group visited and to some extent support it financially. Finally, are those who think of themselves as Hindus (especially if they have to choose between religious communities with which to identify), but who for various reasons are not active in any way in supporting the visible Hindu community. This latter group is usually reached by polling on American religious preferences and in recent polls that number has been assessed at approximately two million. On one border, this latter group of inactive self-identified Hindus fades into the community of secular Indian Americans who at present profess no religious faith though they may hold some personal spiritual ideals. This largest group of self-identified Hindus without membership in any group become somewhat visible during Divali, a Hindu holy day that has become a widely celebrated and secularized national Indian holiday that nevertheless retains much of its religious flavor (much as Christmas has become in the larger Christian culture).
This report is, however, primarily concerned with the first two groups who manifest some active relationship to a Hindu temple or group. Of the 258 traditional Hindu temples in America, 241 have reported membership figures totaling 249,097. This represents a core number of active adherents plus the larger community envisioned as being served by the temple. In addition, we asked each temple the number of people who attended the largest event (holy day) in the last year. As a whole, that number was lower than the reported membership. If the 17 non-reporting temples are taken as a group to be somewhat equal in size to the reporting temples, with an average membership of 1033, an estimated 19,276 members can be added. Thus a total number of 268,364 adherents can be seen to attend and support the 258 traditional temples in the United States. That represents approximately 15 percent of the total number of people who self-identify as Hindus in the United States.
The various temple associations formed by the various sub-traditions of the Hindu faith present a more complicated situation. The largest temples are associated with the single largest association, the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). It reports some 25,000 affiliated families, or roughly 100,000 members in its 57 temples. Its larger temples have become popular and well-advertised tourist attractions that are visited by thousands of pilgrims and hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Apart from it, however, the association temples appear to fall into the same range of membership and constituencies reported by the traditional community-based temples.
All world Gayatri Pariwar
There are approximately 400 association-based temples and the associated smaller centers that have yet to evolve into a temple. Of the 41 temple associations, 25 have reported their membership:
Temple Associations # of temples Membership

All World Gayatri Pariwar 10 8000

Shri Surya Narayan Mandir 2 350

Congress of Arya Samajs in North America 26 1200

American Sevashram Sangha of NA (BSSNA) 7 2000

ISKCON (Int. Society of Krishna Consciousness) 47 75000

Global Organization for Divinity (G.O.D.) 11 200

VRINDA/ Vrindavan Institute

for Vaisnava Culture and Studies 2 50

Sai Baba of Shirdi Temple 21 20000

Sant Shri Asarmaji Ashram 20 5000

Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam

Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) 57 100000

Anoopam Mission 1 10000

Laxmi Narayan Dev (Spiritual organization)/

LNSO, Vadtal Temple 5 14,000

Maningar Shree Swaminarayan Gadi

Sansthan (MSSGS) 1 2000

Original Shree Swaminarayan Sampraday

(Under Shree Nar Narayan Dev Gadi) 19 7000

Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul, USA 1 5000

Swaminarayan Mandir Vasna Sanstha (SMVS) 2 2000

Yogi Divine Society/Illinois HQ/Waukegan Mandir 2 300

Yogi Divine Society/Hari Dham/Hindu

Swami Narayan Temple + Cultural Center 2 5000

Datta Yoga Centers USA 3 3000

Five Fold Path Inc./Agnihortra Worldwide 1 500

Nithyananda Vedic Temples/Life Bliss Foundation 7 3000

Sadhu Vaswami Centers 11 6500

The Sambodh Society 1 700

Veerashaiva Samaja of North America 14 2000


273 272,800
Associations (temples or groups) not reporting 231(est.) 282,000 (est.)

Together these groups account for 169 of the 400 temples and have a reported 183,000 members. (272,800)

Among those associations that have not reported their membership, there are 54 centers reported as temples and 177 centers reported as a more informal group (satsang, chapter, center etc.) If we assume that the association temples average the same as the traditional community based temple, or approximately 1000 members and that the chapters and satsangs are smaller, around 250, we account for an additional 98,000 adherents.1 The temple associations thus account for an additional 282,000 Hindu adherents.
The 40 groups of the Hindu Renaissance associations present a more complicated problem of assessment. While a few of the older groups (the Vedanta Society and the Self-Realization Fellowship) have an old and established membership and constituency, as a whole they have been reluctant to publish any membership figures. Most of the newer groups will publish lists of local affiliated centers but either refuse to count members or offer any assessment on the number of members. Many operate without any formal membership at all, though they have a core of dedicated supporters who attend regularly scheduled events. While almost all the groups have a permanent worship center attached to their headquarters, and many affiliated groups have similar facilities, the majority of groups affiliated with the Renaissance organizations meet informally in borrowed or rented facilities and have a minimal visibility in the communities in which they meet.
It has been observed that such informal groups while on occasion growing larger, will overwhelming be in the 5 to 25 range in size, averaging about a dozen. At the same time, none of the groups have the large constituencies manifest in the traditional Hindu temples whose relatively small facilities can often accommodate a worshipping community in the thousands. Based upon that observation, some estimate of the total membership/constituency of the Renaissance groups can be made.
As of 2010 it is estimated that the total number of adherents of the 40 groups can be set at approximately 20,000.
The last set of groups, the Post-renaissance Guru Groups are the hardest to deal with. Most have no membership figures to offer and many operate as non-membership organizations. Though a few are large international organizations with 100 or more affiliated groups in the United States. At the other extreme, some or relatively new and have but a single center of activity. A few are large internationally, but have only one or two centers within the United States.
The largest of the post-Renaissance groups are the associated activity centers built around the work of Mata Amritanandmayi (with 110 centers); the International Sai Organization headed by Satya Sai Baba (with 225 centers); Sahaja Yoga headed by Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi (with 125 centers); and the movement founded by the late Sri Chinmoy (which declined participation in this survey). Each is an international movement with many centers in the United States. While these movements have many centers, each center is relatively small. They may be as small as 3 to 5 people and rarely more than 25, with 10 to 15 an average size.

Those groups with but a single center, while a few may have more, generally have from 50 to 100 participants, though many more may be correspondents. Groups meeting in borrowed or rented facilities generally average about a dozen (5 to 25) participants. Based upon these assumptions, we can reach a total estimate of 35,000 participants in the Post-Renaissance groups.

Summary of Hindu Memberships
Centers Members/Participants

Traditional temples 248 272,800

Temple Associations 400 282,000

Renaissance groups 292 20,000

Post-Renaissance Groups 650 35,000


1590 609,000

Adding all the figures proposed above together, we reach an estimated 606,000 active participating Hindus2 in the United States as of the end of 2010. It is also difficult to assess from our present state of knowledge as to the percentage of Indian Americans included in the count. The first two groups of temples almost totally consist of Indian Americans, though a number of Westerners are to be found in a few groups such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The two latter groupings are predominantly made up of Western converts, but several of the movements, including the International Sai Organization, have received an influx of Indian members in the last few decades.

Buddhism in the United States in 2010
American Buddhism burgeoned following the changes of the immigration laws relative to Asia in 1965. From relatively few centers based in the Chinese- and Japanese American communities, the whole spectrum of Buddhist organized life appeared through the 1970s and 1980s and has continued to grow as organizations from Eastern, Southeastern, and Southern Asia moved to establish centers to serve their members who had become residents of the United States. Simultaneously, a host of new American-based organizations were formed to serve non-Asians who had converted to different forms of Buddhism. That process was accelerated by the high levels of support found among non-Asian Americans who sympathized with the plights of two groups: Tibetan exiles who left their country following its annexation by the Peoples Republic of China and Vietnamese immigrants who left their country after the end of the Vietnamese War.
As Buddhism emerged in strength in the United States, it was divided by language, ethnicity, and varying emphases in belief and practice. Buddhism has commonly been seen to exist in three major forms—Theravada (the dominant form in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia), Mahayana (the dominant form in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), and Vajrayana, which some consider another form of Mahayana (the dominant form in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia). Both Theravada and Mahayana have spawned meditative forms that emphasize the practice of meditation and de-emphasize theology. The Theravada form is termed Vipassana and the Mahayana form is known as Chan (China), Zen (Japan), or Son (Korea). That being said, a classification system of Buddhist groups can be created as follows:




Sri Lankan




Japanese (Nichiren, Shin, Shingon, Tendai)









Demographics and Group Membership in the Buddhist Community
Estimates of the Buddhist population of the United States have varied, with some estimates from knowledgeable observers as high as 3.5 million and most recently as high as 5 to 6 million. Polling has revealed much lower figures; for example, the 2008 report of the Pew Forum, suggests that Buddhism had the allegiance of some .7 percent of the population, roughly a little more than two million followers. This census from ISAR approaches the problem in a different way as it focuses on reported membership by specific group. All of the known Buddhist groups in America were contacted by mail with telephone follow-ups with requests for information. Where information was not forthcoming, visits were made to multiple local centers of groups to establish an average size of local centers and an estimate made based on those observations and reports.
As a whole, Buddhist groups are just beginning to make counts of membership and support, which is part of a larger transition into participation in the volunteerism of American religious life. Buddhism has clearly adapted itself to the denominational pattern of religions that tends to emerge in free societies, especially in the absence of any assignation of religious status at birth.
Theravada Buddhism. Most prominent among Theravada groups are the national networks of temples build by immigrants from South and Southeastern Asia, particularly Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. While spread around the United States, including the South, these temples are concentrated in urban/suburban areas along the West Coast and in the Washington-New York Corridor. These temples show a pattern of development over the last generation as new temples are formed by small groups of committed believers who meet in borrowed or rented facilities while land is secured and permanent temple facilities constructed. While such temples are commonly designed to serve the larger population of Asian Americans, a relatively small percentage (20 to 25 percent) constitutes the active membership.
The influence of Theravada Buddhism has been extended by the popularity of the Vipassana or Insight Meditation movement, the primary form of Theravada to which non-Asian believers adhere. Vipassana is practiced by hundreds of small sitting groups, many of which are part of one of half a dozen loosely affiliated networks, others independent and unconnected, and in a constant state of flux. As with other forms of meditation, Vipassana is taught in classes somewhat separated from its Buddhist religious roots. Those who master the technique may or may not continue the practice afterwards and may or may not integrate that practice into a more complete Buddhist life or self identify as a Buddhist.

Mahayana Buddhism. The oldest segment of American Buddhism is the Japanese American Buddhist community, which dates to the formation of temples by immigrant workers in the 1880s in what is now the state of Hawaii. Prior to World War I, groups representing the major branches of Japanese Buddhism—Jodo Shinshu, Nichiren, Shingon, Zen—were formed. Today the Honpa Hongwanji group of the Jodo Shinshu (represented by two organizations, The Buddhist Churches of America and the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii) is the largest group. Hawaii would become the only state with a Buddhist majority.
In the 1970s, the balance within the Buddhist community was upset by the radical growth of the Nichiren Shoshu through its educational arm, the Soka Gakkai. In the 1990s, the older temple-based Nichiren Shoshu organization and the Soka Gakkai separated, and the Soka Gakkai emerged as the single largest Buddhist group in the United States (and a number of other Western countries). It currently reports more than 300,000 members, most of whom are non-Asians. It is the only Buddhist group with more than a quarter of a million members and one of only two with as many as a 100,000 members.
During the decade after World War II, Zen Buddhism emerged as a popular movement in the counter culture and has continued to expand steadily over the last six decades. The community is based in more than fifty Zen organizations comprised of relatively small local Zen centers (zendos). Many Zen sitting groups meet regularly in borrowed or rented facilities. All Zen groups taken together claim over 100,000 adherents, though even the largest of Zen organizations count their adherents in the thousands.

The next largest groups of Mahayana adherents come from Vietnam. The Vietnamese Buddhist community began with a single temple with a Vietnamese priest and a group of non-Asian followers in Los Angeles, but grew rapidly after the close of war in Vietnam. The immigrant community, concentrated in Orange County, California, began to build temples in the 1980s and has emerged as the second largest segment of the Buddhist community. The network of more than 150 Vietnamese temples now has more than 100,000 adherents. A similar but smaller number of Korean temples associated with the Chogye order (the largest Korean Buddhist organization) also exists. Also, within the Vietnamese community, the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn, who became a vibrant force for non-violence, attracted a large international following. In the United States more than 300 centers (almost all small sitting groups meeting in a member’s home) have emerged based on Thich Nhat Hahn’s teaching.

Chinese Americans, most of whom have come to the United States from Taiwan and Hong Kong with smaller groups from Southeast Asia, form the largest body of Asian Americans. Similar to other Asian groups, the largest block of Chinese Americans appear to be unattached religiously or members of Christians churches. 3Yiguandao, a new religious movement that originated in China in the nineteenth century and the largest religious group in Taiwan, is also significantly under-represented within the Chinese American community. That being said, the half-dozen larger Taiwanese Buddhist groups such as the Buddhist Compassion Tzu Chi Association, Foguanshan, Dharma Drum Mountain, True Buddha School, Chuan Tai, and the Amitabha Buddhist Societies have built national followings, and represent a significant portion of the current American Buddhist community.

Vajrayana Buddhism. The Vajrayana community is represented internationally by Japanese Shingon (12 million), Tibetan (7 million), and lesser numbers of believers in Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia and China, In the United States, the first (and for many decades the only) Vajrayana temples were several Shingon temples established in Hawaii and California. Then in the early 1960s, a small group of Mongolians migrated to the United States and established a temple in Howell, New Jersey. By this time, however, massive sympathy had been created for the plight of the tens of thousands of Tibetans who had left their country and resettled in India and Nepal. Tibetan lamas began arriving in the United States for extended visits in the 1970s and slowly began to settle permanently, especially after the Dalai Lama opened an office for his Government-in-Exile in New York City.
Today, the Tibetan Buddhist community in America is significantly different from other Buddhist groups. Unlike the Vietnamese or Japanese, there is not a large community of Tibetans residing in the United States. Thus, the American Tibetan Buddhist community is built around more than sixty distinct organizations each of which is made up of non-Asian Buddhist converts and usually led by one or a few Tibetan teachers, though increasingly non-Asian teachers are gradually emerging. Each of the four larger Tibetan Schools (Gelugpa, Kagyupa, Nyingmapa, and Sakyapa) has established an American headquarters and created a network of small centers around the nation. The largest network is an independent Kagyu group established by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the first lama to settle permanently in the United States.4 That network, Shambhala International, is now headquartered in Canada.
The larger Tibetan groups have established temples and monastic centers, but the great majority of 600+ Tibetan Buddhist groups are small meditation and study groups that gather in borrowed and rented facilities. [There are also several Chinese Vajrayana temple associations, the largest being the Taiwanese-based True Buddha School, which has six American temples.]
The Tibetan groups also manifest a common organizational pattern into which many Asian American Buddhist groups fall. Most American Tibetan groups exist as the United States outpost of an international movement whose headquarters is located in Asia (or in a few cases in Europe). As such, the American branch is a minority segment of the group’s international membership. Often, there is only one American center in a much larger international association.

Summary of Buddhist memberships
The Buddhist community exists on a growing trajectory, with tens of thousands of adherents coming into the country from Asia annually, and thousands of Americans turning to Buddhism especially in its Zen, Vipassana, and Tibetan forms.
Counting the number of Buddhists is complicated by the fact that few of the 200+ Buddhist temple networks and organizations make or keep records of membership. Thus almost all reported numbers are estimates. Many of the American based movements remain quite fluid, and the number of informal sitting groups for Buddhist meditation remains unknown. Some 200 Zen and Vipassana sitting groups meet weekly in the churches of the Unitarian Universalists with many members also being counted as members of the local congregation. No count has been made of the membership of the larger Asian American temple associations, although visits to a selection of temples has yielded an average count on membership and constituency. Those numbers are somewhat distorted by the phenomenon of attendance at multiple temples by members of only one temple. Additionally, many who are not members of any temple may attend events at a number of temples during the year, making a clear report of constituencies extremely difficult. Thus, reporting by constituency can be influenced to a large extent by double counting. For these reasons, the following report of constituents is an estimate, rather than an exact count.
Group Members/Participants
Theravada 187,700

Vietnamese Mahayana 151,000

Japanese Mahayana 120,000

Soka Gakkai 286,516

Japanese Zen5 17,770

Chinese 129,850

Other Mahayana 30,000

Vajrayana 55,000


Total 971,766

Thus the number of visible practicing Buddhists (including the nominally practicing) is about 972,000, or slightly less than half who identify themselves as Buddhists in published polls and far less than some of the recent estimates made by observers of the Buddhist community. Even with thorough investigation of records accumulated over the last 40 years, we assume that a few centers and organizations have not been identified. Thus, we have used a somewhat liberal estimate of membership for many of the groups found. We trust that these preliminary findings are as accurate a count as can be made at present and that these findings provide a foundation upon which future research on the American Buddhist community can proceed.
A summary of this census demonstrates different trajectories for Hindu and Buddhist group memberships, depending upon a number of salient variables, such as immigration patterns, location of immigrants, conversion of non-Asian members, degree of adaptation of Hindu and Buddhist practices to the American milieu, form of practice (individual or group), and application of religious principles to non-religious advocacy.
Immigration. As has always been the case, the prevalence of Hindu and Buddhist groups and their demographic profiles depend largely upon the pattern of immigration into the U.S. from Asian countries. As Asian groups have brought their particular form of Hinduism or Buddhism to the U.S., temples and associations have been formed on ethnic as well as religious lines. Hindu temples remain predominantly close to technical institutions of learning and employment opportunities for technical and medical workers. Buddhist temples and associations are more widely distributed along lines of ethnic settlement, regardless of the type of Buddhism. Central to this pattern is the religious non-identification or Christian identification of most Chinese immigrants.
Conversion. Although immigration determines to a large degree the forms of Hinduism and Buddhism that prosper in the U.S., non-Asian Americans figure prominently in the memberships of both religious groupings. Conversions among non-Asian born Americans in the latter half of the 20 century were made up of largely well-educated, middle-class, professional urban dwellers who were attracted to teachers and teachings that they were exposed to in the United States.

Hindu Patterns. Hindu groups in the U.S. are for the most part similar to traditional Hindu groups in India. Aside from traditional temple associations outlined above, which are similar to temple complexes in India, a number of prominent teachers or gurus presided over a huge interest in and affiliation with Hindu associations in the U.S., begun with Vivekananda’s address to the World Parliament of Religion in 1893. Now, as more than a century has passed since that address and after the deaths of most recognizable Hindu teachers (Yogananda, Muktananda, Satya Sai Baba, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Satchidananda, Rajneesh, Chinmayananda, Chinmoy, Da Love Ananda), Hinduism is now practiced for the most part on a small scale in small ashrams with few members. The exceptions include the groups whose gurus are alive, particularly the movements of Amritananda, Chidvilasananda and Mother Meera, which are growing still. We expect that organizations will decline as current gurus die and are not replaced by charismatic leaders.
Buddhist Patterns. Buddhism, from its inception in the U.S. has maintained a denominational profile. That is, groups have differed from each other by ethnicity, language, region of settlement, and social class. Each denomination served an ethnic community and received little interest from non-Asian born Americans. After the deaths of charismatic leaders such as Susuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa, the large associations formed by them have maintained a faithful membership, but have not increased greatly.

This census has provided a significant profile of the continuity, and at the same time the diversity and change, that Hindu and Buddhist groups experience as their faiths adapt to American culture and language. Practices in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions are being divorced from their original religious roots, so that one finds in many if not most urban centers organizations devoted to yoga, meditation, and social issues such as anti-war, peace, and ecology. As these organizations proliferate, exclusive participation in any one organization is becoming increasingly rare. It is not unusual, for example, for a Protestant, Catholic or Jew to practice yoga regularly, attend Vipassana retreats occasionally, and be a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. We hope that others will find this initial census of value for historical research and an understanding of how ethnic religions adapt to new surroundings after immigration and growth of membership among non-Asians.

1 We believe this to be a generous figure, but one that can become a future beginning point for further research.

2 It is noted that one movement about which only partial material has been received, and whose complete figures might measurable effect the total is the Global Country of World Peace, better known as the TM (Transcendental Meditation) movements, but it is extremely difficult to assess at present due to its rapidly changing organization in the wake of its founders’ death.

3 The larger estimates of Buddhism in the United States are grounded in the belief that the great majority of Asian Americans from predominantly Buddhist countries are themselves Buddhists, but it appears that such belief is groundless, and that only 20 to 25 percent of the Chinese, Vietnamese and Southeast Asian American communities adhere to Buddhism even nominally.

4 Relative to membership, the largest Tibetan Buddhist group appears to be the New Kadampa Tradition which has developed a national following and now reports more than 20,000 members.

5 The Pew survey indicates a much larger number of Zen adherents, but these seem to include not just the Japanese Zen practitioners, but also the Son and the larger numbers of Chan practitioners who most often describe their practice as Zen to outsiders.

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