long article with a few paragraphs that stand out to me....
Though the religion born in India has been in the US since the 19th century, the number of adherents rose by 170 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the American Religious Identity Survey. An ARIS estimate puts the total in 2004 at 1.5 million, while others have estimated twice that. "The 1.5 million is a low reasonable number," says Richard Seager, author of "Buddhism in America."
That makes Buddhism the country's fourth-largest religion, after Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Immigrants from Asia probably account for two-thirds of the total, and converts about one-third, says Dr. Seager, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y.
What is drawing people (after that fascination with Zen Buddhism in the '50s and '60s)? The Dalai Lama himself has played a role, some say, and Buddhism's nonmissionizing approach fits well with Americans' search for meaningful spiritual paths.
"People feel that Buddhist figures like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam are contributing something, not trying to convert people," says Lama Surya Das, a highly trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition. "They are not building big temples, but offering wisdom and ways of reconciliation and peacemaking, which are so much needed."
Even a larger factor, he suggests, is that Buddhism offers spiritual practices that Western religions haven't emphasized.
"People are looking for experiential practices, not just a new belief system or a new set of ethical rules which we already have, and are much the same in all religions," Surya Das says. "It's the transformative practices like meditation which people are really attracted to."
There are many schools of Buddhism, but "everyone agrees that the purpose is the individual and collective realization of Enlightenment," Surya Das continues. "That is defined as nirvanic peace, wisdom, and selfless love. It involves a practice path that depends on meditation, ethical behavior, and developing insight and active love."
Buddha means "awakened" in Sanskrit, a language of ancient India, where Siddhartha Gautama founded the faith and an Eightfold Path some 2,500 years ago. Buddhists believe that through that path one awakens to what already is - "the natural great perfection." They do not speak of God, but of the human or ego mind with a small "m," and the Buddha (awakened) Mind with a big "m."
"Healing energy takes place through an agency far greater than, yet immanent in each of us," Surya Das has written. "We are all Buddhas."
One doesn't have to subscribe to a catechism or creed, or be a vegetarian. Nor do people have to give up their religion. That's why some Americans speak of being Jewish Buddhists, for instance.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, often encourages people to stay with the faith of their cultural upbringing, to avoid the confusion that can sometimes result from a mixing of Eastern and Western perspectives.
The Dalai Lama has warned, too, of some teachers who seek leadership for financial rather than spiritual reasons. The issue of students and teachers is today one of the most controversial in transmission of teaching from East to West, says Surya Das.
Still, a healthy American Buddhism with its own characteristics is emerging. It is less doctrinal and ritualistic than in the East and more meditation oriented, less hierarchical and more democratic and egalitarian. It is more lay-oriented than monastic, and more socially and ecologically engaged.