Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Dr. Lama, Faculty and students
I am delighted and humbled to be here in Nalanda, the site of one of the world's first global universities and a center of Buddhist learning for thousands of years. Being here in Nalanda reminds me that globalization is not new and that Indian religious and culture have been a positive influence on the world for as long as we can remember.
The Buddhist teachings from Nalanda have also had a major impact on the United States, which like India is a multicultural society that cherishes religious freedom. Believers from all religions, no matter how small, worship with the knowledge that the right to practice a religion of one’s choosing is protected by the U.S. Constitution. The American tradition of religious tolerance and constitutional safeguards for freedom of worship has made religious life in the United States one of most diverse and vibrant in the world. And, America's approximately three million Buddhists are a very important part of our religious diversity.
The Buddhists came to America in the early 1800s from China. As large numbers of Chinese flocked to California during the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, Buddhist communities grew and flourished. They built the first Buddhist temple in U.S. in San Francisco in 1853 and by the turn of the century Buddhist communities had built over 400 temples along the west coast of the United States. Today, the state of California remains the center of Buddhism in the U.S. and boasts one of the largest Buddhist temples in the western hemisphere - the Hsi Lai Temple.
While most early American Buddhists were from East Asia, the Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago in 1893 exposed many non-Asian Americans to Buddhism for the first time. Many of these Americans were attracted to the Buddha's teachings and large numbers of Americans adopted Buddhism as their religious. Today, three-fourths of Buddhists in the United States are native-born and many are converts from other faiths.
There are many Buddhist educational institutions like your Mahavihara in the United States. The first university to offer a degree in Buddhist studies was Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. It was founded in 1974 by Chogyam Trungpa, an exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who was a Karma Kagyu and Nyimngma lineage holder. He named the university after the eleventh-century Indian Buddhist sage Naropa, who was an abbot right here in Nalanda. In 1988, Naropa was accredited with making it the first Buddhist, or Buddhist-inspired, academic institution to receive United States regional accreditation.
The Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California, offers a Masters Degree in Buddhist Studies, and acts as the ministerial training arm of the Buddhist Churches of America. It is affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union. The school recently moved into its new headquarters within the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley.
Other special organizations in the U.S. that focus on Buddhism and Buddhists in America include Snow Lion Publications. Established in 1980 in Ithaca, New York, the publication company works for the preservation of Tibetan Buddhist culture. It prints and distributes more than 650 titles on Buddhist-related topics. In addition to publishing books, the publishing house produces a quarterly magazine, Snow Lion: The Buddhist Magazine.
Buddhism is particularly popular among American artists and intellectuals and film stars such as Richard Gere, who is Buddhist, have helped to raise the profile of Buddhism in America. Tina Turner and the jazz great Herbie Hancock chant Buddhist mantras. Others who have found inspiration in Buddhism include the famous musician and composer Philip Glass, and the actress Uma Thurman. American poet Allen Ginsberg, who visited eastern India several times, was another well-know follower of the Buddha.
As you can see, because of America's commitment to freedom of religioun, America has become an important center for Buddhism and Buddhist learning. In America, Buddhism flourishes and continues to support this important global religion. I was very proud to learn that very recently an American boy from Boston, Massachusetts, was identified as the reincarnation the Rinpoche Galwa Lorepa, the founder of one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He recently returned to India and is providing spiritual guidance to his followers from the Drukpa Sangag Choeling Monastery in Dali, near Darjeeling, in North Bengal.
So, we've come full circle. Buddhism was born here in Bihar and spiritual leaders who studied in Nalanda started the spread of Buddhism as a global religion. Buddhists eventually made their way to America and became an important part of the fabric of American culture. Now, some of those American spiritual leaders have returned to India and will once again seek knowledge here in Nalanda. Again, it is an honor and privilege to be here today as part of that cycle of life and belief.