Some Misconceptions About Buddhism in America
“Buddhism is a ‘pagan’ religion”
“Paganism” is usually used to refer to belief in a god or gods other than the normally accepted Christian God. However, Buddhists don’t concern themselves about God or god(s). Buddhists concern themselves with the Dharma, which is not a god or gods. It is “truth” or “reality.” Thus, when sad or tragic events occur in our lives or the lives of our loved ones – as they inevitably will – Buddhists don’t have to ask “Why did this happen?” This is because Buddhists don’t hold onto the belief that there is a god “looking out” for his or her welfare. Buddhism is really an attitude of accepting the inevitable changes or impermanence of life, and of being grateful for every moment we are alive.
“All Buddhists believe in reincarnation”
This misconception is understandable, given that Tibetan Buddhists (such as the Dalai Lama), who do believe in a form of reincarnation, are perhaps the most “visible” of the many sects of Buddhism. Also, watching recent movies like Little Buddha, Seven Years in Tibet or Kundun, might lead one to believe that Tibetan Buddhism is “representative” of Buddhism in general. However, Shin Buddhists generally treat belief in reincarnation in the same way we treat belief in a god: We don’t give it much thought. What’s important is not which Buddhists believe in reincarnation and which don’t, but that all Buddhists do strive to awaken to one central teaching: The universal truth of the impermanent and interdependent nature of all life. As our awareness of this truth awakens, so does our awareness of compassion.
“Buddhists welcome suffering”
This misconception is perhaps due to the perception that a Buddhist is only true and sincere if he or she is somehow suffering, poor, etc. This might be true, but only partially so. The truth is that Buddhists don’t in any way “look forward” to suffering; to do so would be masochistic. Instead, a Buddhist tries to look upon suffering not as something necessarily “bad,” but as an opportunity to learn and grow. In that sense, it might be said that Buddhists try to look upon suffering and difficulties as something potentially positive, as a kind of “teacher.”
“All Buddhists wear robes”
This may have come into being during the era when the “Hare Krishna” group was very visible. There was a time during the 70’s and maybe 80’s when they seemed to be everywhere: on TV, at airports, etc. Many Americans may have thought they were Buddhists. Of course, Tibetan Buddhists and others, who are living the life of a monk or priest (following in the footsteps of the Buddha himself), do in fact wear religious robes. However, while our Shin Buddhist ministers do wear official robes during the service, the members of the temple simply wear casual clothes.
“Buddhists must endure ‘grueling’ meditations”
Some Buddhist sects, such as Zen, do of course emphasize meditation. However, whether it is “grueling” or not depends on one’s point of view (and one’s flexibility). In our Shin Buddhist sect, the closest we come to meditation is that for about 10 minutes of our services, while seated in chairs, we collectively “chant” the sutras (which are the teachings of the Buddha). Of course, even if a certain meditation were “grueling,” the point is that the goal of achieving “awakening” or enlightenment, which is the same for all Buddhists, completely justifies the means.
“When Buddhists ‘gassho’ (put their hands together and bow their heads), they are ‘praying’ for good fortune”
This probably has a lot to do with the historical mixing of Buddhist and Christian traditions here in 20th century America. In fact, the belief that the Buddhist act of gassho is like a petitionary prayer is not only held by Christians, but probably by more than a few Buddhists as well! However, the truth is that the act of gassho is not a prayer at all. It is probably best described as an expression of humility, of realizing with gratitude, how much one has to be thankful for. It is not a “wish” for anything for oneself.
“Shin Buddhism in America is for Japanese or Japanese-Americans only”
This belief is understandable, since even here in California (the so-called “melting-pot of the world”), when you walk into the typical Shin Buddhist temple, you tend to see a predominantly Japanese-American membership. Also, when you participate in the typical Shin Buddhist service, you’ll typically sing a Japanese song or two and the minister himself (unfortunately, it is rarely a “she”) may be more comfortable speaking Japanese than English. In addition, many of the Shin Buddhist temples in America are in areas with relatively high concentrations of Japanese or Japanese-Americans. However, this is merely because historically, it was the Japanese immigrants who brought the Shin Buddhist teachings with them to America. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the underlying truth of Buddhism itself. The Buddha himself certainly wasn’t Japanese. Fortunately, things are slowly changing in many American temples today. There is a move, particularly by the younger generations, to make the services less “ethnic” and more universal. If you are interested in Buddhism, the ultimate test of whether it is indeed universal or not, is to read the teachings of the Buddha, Shinran Shonin, and others for yourself, as represented here in this and other websites. We hope you’ll agree that Buddhism is a wonderful and precious teaching for everyone.