Posted in Theravada
Since the 1960s, the Theravada tradition has slowly but surely found a home in North America. The two major turning points for its establishment here were the founding—in 1966 by the Sri Lankan Buddhist community in Washington, D. C.—of the first American Buddhist vi - hara (temple) and, ten years later, the establishment of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
Together they represent the two divergent and distinct forms that Theravada Buddhism has taken on this continent, namely, the monastic tradition of Southeast Asian immigrant groups on the one hand, and on the other, the lay-centered vipassana movement made up mostly of Americans of European descent. The former tend to be fairly conservative, replicating in America the various forms of Buddhism found in their native countries. The latter take a more liberal and experimental approach in adapting the tradition to its lay-based American setting.
The newest form of American Theravada Buddhism fits into neither of these categories. It is represented by monastic centers run and supported predominantly by Euro-Americans. An example is Abhayagiri Monastery, founded by the English monk Ajahn Amaro in 1996 in Redwood Valley, California. In addition, two other monastic centers—Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, California, and the Bhavana Society in High View, West Virgina—are making monastic practice available to Westerners while remaining firmly connected to their traditional Asian communities. It could well be that within these centers we are seeing the beginnings of an authentic American Buddhist monasticism.
Considered an ideal lifestyle for study, practice, service, and the purification of the heart, monasticism has long been a cornerstone of the Theravada tradition. However, in the twentieth century and especially in the modem West, the full range of Theravada practices has
been made available to the laity in an unprecedented manner. This being the case, monasticism is no longer seen as the sole carrier of the tradition, although it remains an anchor and a force of preservation.
While it is too early to tell what American Theravada Buddhism will come to look like, it will probably exhibit at least as much diversity as it has in its Southeast Asian homelands and will no doubt stretch the boundaries of what has traditionally defined it.