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Buddha's Birthday, and the Birth of American Buddhism

By Edited Apr 19, 2014 1 0


Siddharta Gautama

April 8 is celebrated as the birthday of the Buddha in America, Japan, and other Asian countries. “Buddha,” which means “awakened one,” is more a title than a name. The founder of Buddhism’s real name was Siddharta Gautama. His remarkable life began in approximately 563 B.C. in northeastern India (today it is Nepal). 

Gautama’s father was Suddhodana, the elected leader of the Shakya (“capable, able”) republic (also found in present day Nepal.) Gautama’s mother was a princess with a long name who was called Queen Maya for short. She and King Suddhodhana lived in Kapilvastu, the capital of the Shakya republic. They were childless the first twenty years of their marriage.

 Then one night Queen Maya had a dream that four spirits took her away to a lake near the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The spirits bathed Maya and clothed her in celestial dress. Then a white elephant entered Maya’s womb. Elephants symbolize greatness in India. When Maya woke up she knew she had conceived a special child.

Ten months later, as Queen Maya was resting in the shade of a sal tree in the legendary gardens of Lumbini, she gave birth to the boy who would be known as Lord Buddha. Tradition has it that Maya died seven days after bringing the Buddha into the world. The baby was tended to by Maya’s sister, Maha Pajapati, who brought Gautama back to King Suddhodana.

So pleased was Suddhodana to finally have a son that he named the boy Siddharta (“the accomplished goal”), and invited all the sages and seers in his republic to foretell the boy’s life. Since it is an unwise wise man who tells a doting father his infant son is destined to be a royal loser, it is perhaps not surprising that all the seers predicted a magnificent career for young prince Siddharta as a king and Supreme Buddha. Whether they were actually clairvoyant or simply prudent, the sages were spot on about Gautama’s future.

Suddhodana kept Siddharta within the walls of his palace to protect him from human suffering. He did not protect him from marriage, however; at age sixteen Siddharta married and himself became a father. When he was twenty nine he ventured outside palace walls to discover the world in all its joys, pains, blessings, and sufferings. 

So began a single-minded quest for the end of suffering, a quest that itself ended under the famous bodhi tree where Siddharta Gautama became fully enlightened after withstanding a final, furious assault by Mara. His victory over suffering and temptation proved he was fully deserving of the title of Lord Buddha.

Under the bodhi tree

The Buddha gathered his fellow spiritual seekers to him and began to share his path to enlightenment. For the next forty-five years Gautama taught “the Middle Way” of the “Noble Eightfold Path” in northeast and eastern India. At age eighty the Buddha reached Parinirvana, what Buddhists call the final deathless state. The Buddha’s last words for his disciples were: “Strive for your own liberation with diligence."

Millions of Buddhist’s have done just that over the multitude of centuries since their leader’s life on earth. His teachings spread throughout India and Asia, where they were adjusted and adapted to different cultures and peoples. The assertion that the Chinese monk Huishen visited North America in the fifth century is probably a quaint legend, but by the nineteenth century Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism had infiltrated America.

HD Thoreau

In the 1800’s American philosopher Henry David Thoreau studied Buddhist philosophy. Thoreau’s Walden, a paean to the northern Maine wilderness he found solitude in, returns again and again to themes of mindfulness and awareness of the present moment.

Thoreau’s compatriot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, publicly collaborated with Thoreau to publish a translation of the Lotus Sutra, and privately declared in his journal: I have taught one doctrine: the infinitude of the private man.” Emerson joined another partner in crime, Walt Whitman, for lectures and public discussions at the Transcendentalists Club in Boston in 1836. Both were influenced by the non-dualism inherent in both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy.

At this time waves of Asian immigrants began to land on America’s west coast. Buddhist temples began appearing, and different strains of Buddhism spread roots in the new land. Chinese Buddhists brought their own blend of Buddhism and Taoism. Tibetan Buddhism (headed by the Dalai Lama), Japanese (Zen) Buddhism, and Theraveda Buddhism have all become firmly established in America’s vast cultural landscape.

Today American Buddhism is as large a religious group as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism (all these groups lag seriously behind Christianity and the non-religious). American Buddhism has had numerous charismatic leaders emerge, virtually all of them imported. An early leader in western Zen Buddhism, Shunryu Suzukim, declared:

“We are all born artists of life and, not knowing it, most of us fail to be so and the result is that we make a mess of our lives, asking: ‘What is the meaning of life?” The Zen man can tell them that they have all forgotten that they are born artists, creative artists of life, and that as soon as they realize that fact they will all be cured of neurosis or psychosis or whatever name they have for their trouble.”

Suzuki obviously overreaches with his diagnosis; some forms of mental illness require far more than words for treatment. Yet his vision of each human being as an artist and a work of art inspired many Americans in the 1950’s who were disenchanted with the glorification of consumerism and material possessions.

Jack Kerouac

Among those so inspired were members of the Beat movement started by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and all the other usual suspects. The Beat movement was a pointed rebuttal to 1950’s America, and it was fueled by Buddhist thoughts and ideas, a connection that Kerouac’s novel, Dharma Bums, makes explicit.

Besides Suzuki, there was the charismatic English clergyman, Alan Watts; the remarkable Tibetan savant Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche; the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and others. It is an interesting contradiction that a philosophy that preaches egolessness and “no-self” would have so many ego filled leaders, at least in America. Several Buddhist leaders ended up having feet of clay, a situation that seems to happen in every branch of organized religion.

alan watts

Presently the largest group of American Buddhists is immigrants from various Asian or Indian countries. Within this large group there are literally dozens of different types of Buddhism according to nationality, culture, or particular sect or sub sect.

Another group, smaller than the first but far more visible and influential, is sometimes called “elitist Buddhism.” Why “elite”? Well, because those Americans who have converted to Buddhism are almost exclusively white, with advanced degrees, good incomes, and the same left leaning political views. Although small in number, “elite Buddhists” are high profile folks: garnering much sympathetic media attention, selling books, giving retreats, preaching enlightenment and making a decent living at it to boot.

The American version of Buddhism is perhaps best expressed by Jonathan Kabat-Zinn, a doctor of molecular biology who has made a science of the benefits of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn got hooked on meditation, then turned his scientific mind to the centuries old practice of mindfulness. He developed a program called MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) that has spread to over 100 locations across the country.

The marketing is interesting. The words Buddhism, God, religion, and rules are not used. Instead the focus is on science and the rigorous studies proving mindfulness to increase work productivity, alertness, awareness, and quality of life. It is being pursued by the military, by educators, and corporations who want to get the most from their employees.

But you don’t need to be an affluent liberal or scientist – or Buddhist - to profit from the Buddha’s teachings. The practice of mindfulness - being fully aware in the present moment - can be done by anyone. The attractive thing to Americans about Buddhism is that you don’t have to learn a bunch of rules (or tithe). You can benefit from it just by practicing. Mindfulness is a refreshing antidote for minds suffering from sensory overload or too much multi-tasking.

You can practice mindfulness in meditation, or in your waking day to day affairs. Look at your day as a wealth of moments, and try to be present for each one. When you fail, have a good natured laugh and try it again. It is the process of becoming your own best friend, and slowly developing loving-kindness towards your own self: not in a self-indulgent, narcissistic way, but in a gentle, nurturing, healing fashion towards yourself and your miseries. Once you can be kind to yourself you can expand your kindness to others.

That’s the basic idea, anyway. I am not a Buddhist but I have definitely benefited from meditation, mindfulness practice, and Buddhist psychology. Perhaps you will too. Or not. At any rate, happy Birthday Buddha. Perhaps we’ll all meet up one day when the dharma wheel stops turning and samsara and nirvana blend into one. Until then.

dharma wheel


Donald McCown and Marc S. Micozzi, New World Mindfulness, from the Founding Fathers, Emerson and Thoreau to your personal practice, Healing Arts Press, 2012.

Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life, Simon and Schuster, New York 1980.

Kate Pickert, The Mindfulness Revolution, Time Magazine, Volume 183, Number 4, February 2, 2014.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation, Beacon Press, Boston, 1975.

Stephan Schuhmacher, Zen In Plain English, Watkins Publishing, London, 2009.

Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstacy, the Laundry, How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, Bantam Books, 2000.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice, Weatherhill Publishing, Second Printing, 2000.

Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Shambhala Publishing, 1987.

Joseph Goldstein, The Experience of Insight, A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation, Shambhala Publishing, 1987.



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