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The “Lama” effect in the United States: How Buddhism has become the fourth largest religion in America

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Dar Cho

By Prachi Mishra

The followers of Buddhism in the United States have gone up by a whopping 170 per cent, according to an American Religious Identity Survey conducted between 1999 and 2000.

Teaching centers and various communities or Sanghs are springing up at such a tremendous rate that Buddhism has now become the fourth largest religion in America.

Officially, Buddhism arrived in the West in the year 1893, during the World Parliament of Religions, along with the early Asian immigrants. There were a total of 12 speakers representing Buddhism at the Parliament, out of which Sri Lankan Buddhist teacher, Anagarika Dharmapala, and Japanese Buddhist leader, Soyen Shaku, were the two speakers who encouraged people to take-up the art of Buddhism.

Many of Shaku’s students have done their bit to spread Buddhism in the US by publishing a great deal of Buddhist literature and establishing various Buddhist societies and meditation centers.

The progression of the Buddhists continued in the States with the migration of Asians, who arrived in search of work and a better life. The American troops who returned from Japan after the Second World War also brought a speck of Buddhism to America. Then, the return of the soldiers after the Korean War in the 1950s and the Vietnam War in the 1960s, resulted in an increased awareness of Buddhism in the US. These soldiers were deeply fascinated by the skills of their opponents, especially their training in martial arts.

Soka Gakkai, which came to the United States in the 1960s, is a Japanese missionary movement that expanded the Buddhist religion in the American society. It emphasized on the inner transformation and development of the character of an individual. It focused primarily on chanting and did not teach any other meditative rituals, unlike other sects of Buddhism.

Buddhism did not enjoy the privileged status initially during its inception in the US. When the missionaries and the travelers returned to their country and related their accounts of the encounter with Buddhism in the East to the natives, the religion did not receive a hearty acceptance. It was seen as a negative religion since it rejected the idea of God and emphasized on the total annihilation of the self. It arrived in America at a time when the country was itself going through a religious crisis, which was caused by increasing scientific skepticism. The crisis was also a result of the growing materialism caused by the industrial revolution.

At that time, Buddhism was seen in a new light, as it was considered to bridge the chasm between the scientific and rational thinking, and religion. Today, Buddhism is perceived as “a way of life, a philosophy rather than a religion.” It offers an essence of spirituality, peace and harmony in today’s chaotic world. It is not bound by any culture, or ethnicity, but is universal, overarching all religious, cultural or ethnic divides. It prioritizes the development of mind, rather than focusing on  external way of living. Most importantly unlike what Christianity did to the Orient, Buddhism does not aim at converting the religion of the masses. It, in fact, adds to the existing belief systems and practices of people and does not force anyone to give up their religion.

Other than all of these aforementioned factors, Americans are also fascinated towards Buddhism due to its practice of meditation.

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“They Don’t Make Prayerful Offerings When They Harvest,” Story Of The Native American Church

“The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

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The sun sets over the gateway of peyotera Amada Cardenas's house in Mirando City, Texas. Ironwork reflects core Native American Church values of faith, hope, love and charity. VOA

Back in the day, when the “grandmas and grandpas” of the Native American Church (NAC) needed peyote, they would make a 2,000-kilometer pilgrimage from the reservations of South Dakota to the tiny town of Mirando City, Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico. That’s where they could find Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman who at the time was the only peyote dealer in Texas.

Cardenas was not Native American, nor was she a member of the NAC. But she understood how sacred the medicine was to church members and defended its use as a religious sacrament to those who sought to ban it.

Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994.
Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994. VOA

“After Amada’s passing, the peyote distribution system lost heart and seemed to be about monetary compensation,” said Iron Rope, former chairman of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and today chairman of the NAC of South Dakota. He is concerned that the remaining three or four peyote dealers in Texas — all non-Native — don’t give “the medicine” the reverence they should.

“They don’t make prayerful offerings when they harvest,” Iron Rope said. “We’ve heard reports about intoxicated harvesters. Sometimes, the medicine that comes to us was mushy or small, and the harvesting technique was not one that would allow regrowth.”

Careless and sometimes illegal harvesting, along with increased land and resource development in Texas, has led to a decline in peyote’s quality and availability. Prices have gone up, and church members worry the cactus, now listed as a vulnerable species, could become endangered.

In 2013, NACNA began researching ways to conserve peyote and its natural habitat.

Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico.
Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico. VOA

Pan-Native religion

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a succulent that contains psychoactive alkaloids and only grows in southern Texas and a handful of states in northern Mexico.

Indigenous people have used it ceremonially and medicinally for centuries, as noted by 16th century Spanish missionaries, who condemned it as an evil. Peyote use persisted, however, and by the late 1800s, had spread to present-day Oklahoma, where tribes adapted it to suit their individual spiritual traditions.

In the face of government efforts to ban peyote, peyotists in the early 20th century sought to incorporate as a formal religion. In 1918, an intertribal group established the NAC, which has evolved to include tens of thousands of members across dozens of tribal nations. Members view the church as an important component of healing from historic trauma and reconnecting to tradition.

Peyote was banned in the United States in 1970, but the law was later amended to allow peyote to be used in “bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.”

Texas allows several peyoteros registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to harvest and sell peyote, but only to card-carrying NAC members with proven Native American ancestry.

Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007.
Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007. VOA

‘A beautiful ceremony’

Unlike other religious denominations, said Iron Rope, the NAC is not a unified theology.

“Different variations of the ceremony have come into play,” he said. “There are Christian aspects to the NAC today and traditional aspects, as well.”

Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and an NAC member, grew up with an understanding of the sacredness of peyote and the religious etiquette surrounding its use.

“It was my own grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin, who actually received peyote early on from the Winnebagos, a neighboring tribe, and passed it on to his sons, my uncles,” she said.

This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled "Cheyenne Peyote Leader." Courtesy: Library of Congress.
This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled “Cheyenne Peyote Leader.” Courtesy: Library of Congress. VOA

Peyote is much misunderstood and maligned, she said, viewed by many anthropologists through the lens of colonial prejudice.

“I don’t like their use of the word ‘hallucinations,’” she said. “You don’t use peyote to get high. You use it to pray and communicate with God — the same God everyone else talks to.”

She described all-night services of prayer, song and meditation.

“The ceremony is beautiful,” she said. “The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

Sacred gardens

In 2013, NACNA began looking at ways to conserve and sustain peyote for future generations of indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

“It was our intent to eventually have our own land and be able to have our own peyote dealer who could understand our concerns as the Native American Church,” said Iron Rope.

The sun sets over "the 605," acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church.
The sun sets over “the 605,” acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church. VOA

In 2017, NACNA and partner organizations formally launched the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). With funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research of medicinal uses of psychoactive plants, IPCI purchased 245 hectares (605 acres) of land in Thompsonville, Texas, to serve as “Sacred Peyote Gardens.”

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It is their hope that by 2021, “the 605” will house a nursery, residential and guest housing, and youth training, all supported by peyote sales.

“It’s about generations to come,” said Iron Rope. “To reconnect them to the land and to the medicine. And that’s the healing process that we’ve been missing.” (VOA)