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The Arrival of Theravada
Southeast Asians Bring Their School of Buddhism to America

by J. Isamu Yamamoto


Theravada Buddhism in North America is primarily associated with Southeast Asian Americans. It is a religious tradition with roots that go far back to the early days of Buddhism 25 centuries ago. Today the religious beliefs of Southeast Asian Americans are quite varied because this group includes peoples with diverse histories and cultures. While Vietnamese Americans are more inclined to Mahayana Buddhism, the other Southeast Asian peoples practice and believe in a religion that is a strange mixture of Theravada Buddhism and animism. Christians need to understand the cultural diversity of these peoples and comprehend the Buddhist strains that distinguish them.

Nobu Yamaguichi came to the United States with her husband in the early 1920s. She was a Japanese immigrant devoted to her Buddhist faith. Twelve years after they arrived in Watsonville, California, her husband passed away, and Nobu was left with a 10-year-old son to raise.

Jimmy Yamaguichi loved both his mother and his country. So when he graduated from high school, he was torn between joining the army, which he had always wanted to do, and remaining home to take care of his mother. With his mother's encouragement, he joined the army. To help her cope with loneliness, Jimmy got her a beagle puppy, which she named Bugle because she mispronounced what kind of dog he was.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Japanese Americans were ordered to concentration camps, Nobu learned that Bugle could not go with her. For over a year Nobu and Bugle had been constant companions, and she loved him almost as much as she loved her son. Her heart ached, knowing that she would be separated from her dear friend. But of even greater concern to her was that Bugle might be destroyed if she couldn't find a new home for him.

One of her Caucasian neighbors, who was occasionally friendly to her, would always mention her Christian faith whenever they chatted. Since this woman had affirmed that Christianity is centered on compassion and forgiveness, Nobu thought she might give Bugle a new home. Although Nobu was naturally timid, her deep affection for Bugle compelled her to go to this neighbor and ask for help. Sadly the woman was so upset with the Japanese attack that she refused to even listen to Nobu's request. And so, Bugle had to be put to sleep just before Nobu was taken away to camp.

Two years later while still in camp, Nobu learned that her son had sacrificed his life along with hundreds of other Japanese Americans to save a Texas battalion somewhere in France. To this day whenever someone talks to her about the merits of Christianity, Nobu closes her ears and hardens her heart.

Today a new wave of Asian Buddhists has immigrated to North America. As Christians, can we learn from past mistakes and more effectively demonstrate our faith in Jesus Christ to these people?


Having encountered so many forms of Buddhism, I have often wondered: What was the original form of Buddhism when Gautama, the Buddha, held sway over a community of monks and nuns in India 25 centuries ago? To look back into time and observe the daily life of a follower of the Buddha is, of course, impossible. Equally impossible would be to discover that contemporary school of Buddhism whose religious philosophy and practice is the identical twin of the Sangha (Buddhist community) of Gautama's day. Even if such a Buddhist school existed, how would we know that it is like Gautama's Sangha or, more importantly, how could we come to a consensus that it is?

Theravada Buddhism might be a key in understanding what Buddhism was like during its early days, since Theravada has tried to maintain the essence of the Buddha's teachings without indulging in further revelations. The simplicity and the fundamentalism of Theravada Buddhism might be the clearest image of a scene now long past.

Historical Background

After the Buddha died, schisms continually rocked early Buddhism and subdivided the Sangha (the Buddhist community) into numerous schools and sects. The wide variety of beliefs and practices among the many schools further facilitated the spread of Buddhism, but it also blunted its ability to compete successfully with Hinduism in India.

Since the words of the Buddha were not recorded during his lifetime, the transmission of the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) depended on the memory of his disciples and their understanding of what he meant. The traditional Theravada account is that in 477 B.C.,[1] Kashyapa, the leading monk at that time, assembled a council of the disciples of the deceased Buddha in Rajagriha. During the meeting Kashyapa questioned Ananda, the Buddha's closest disciple, concerning the Buddha's discourses. Ananda's answers constitute the Sutras (sermons of the Buddha). Also during that meeting, Upali, another close disciple of the Buddha, was questioned on the practical affairs of the Sangha. His answers constitute the Vinaya (the rules and regulations within the Buddhist order).

The Buddhist schools responded to and interpreted the Sutras and the Vinaya differently. Two major philosophies eventually emerged within Buddhism -- Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. The adherents of Mahayana ("the Greater Vehicle") Buddhism later referred to those Buddhists who held strictly to the letter of the Buddhist doctrine as followers of Hinayana Buddhism, the Little or Lesser Vehicle.[2] The Hinayana branch comprised most of the earliest schools of Buddhism. One early Buddhist school that predominated and survived resented the Hinayana label because it denoted an inferior method of Buddhism. This school identified itself instead by the name Theravada Buddhism, "the doctrine of the Elders."

Similarities can be drawn between early Buddhism and early Christianity. Buddhism had to overcome the fierce hostility of its parent Hinduism, just as Christianity had to with its parent Judaism. Both Hinduism and Judaism, as the established religions, attempted to eradicate what they regarded as heretical sects. Futhermore, the ruling authorities in both parts of the world severely persecuted each faith respectively until a later emperor decreed it a state religion. The ruler who favored Buddhism was King Asoka (? -- 238 B.C.). He was the third emperor of the Maurya dynasty in India, and he has been referred to as "the Constantine of Buddhism."

Early in his reign Asoka was an ambitious conqueror who extended his power over much of the Indian peninsula. This ambition caused him to set his sights on Kalinga, a region on the east coast of India which had tenaciously opposed Mauryan rule. In 260 B.C., he attacked and defeated the forces of Kalinga. After the fighting, however, he became deeply grieved over the carnage and bloodshed of the battle.

The gentleness and compassion of Buddhism gave Asoka solace for the guilt of his crimes. After he sought penitence in Buddhism, he studied the teachings of the Buddha and later instituted Buddhism as the state religion.

About 245 B.C., Asoka assembled the third Buddhist council, which finally established a definitive canon (the Pali texts -- see below). He also commissioned Buddhist missionaries to spread the teachings of the Buddha into foreign lands, possibly as far as Syria, Egypt, and Greece. This evangelism was successful in South and Southeast Asia, particularly Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). It was Mahinda, possibly a relative of Asoka, who introduced Theravada Buddhism to Sri Lanka, where it has flourished even until this day. Much credit, however, must go to Asoka for the diffusion of Buddhism because of his missionary vision and zeal.

During the Gupta dynasty in India (A.D. 300--650), Buddhism apparently enjoyed its greatest success in that country. Nevertheless, Hinduism had far from disappeared from the scene. In fact, a Brahmin revival had occurred in India about the second century B.C. From then on, the Brahmins commenced an aggressive campaign against Buddhism. In the following centuries, Buddhism experienced periods of growth and persecution in the land of its birth.

At the end of the Gupta dynasty, the Huns (a nomadic Mongolian people) invaded India and destroyed many Buddhist monasteries. In the eighth century, the reformation of Hinduism contributed to the progressive disappearance of Buddhism from Indian life. By the ninth century, Buddhism flourished only in those places where the state awarded it special privileges.

Finally, the Muslim invasion of India ended the career of Buddhism in India after fifteen centuries. This culminated in 1193 when Muhammad Bakhtyai razed Buddhist monasteries to the ground and massacred Buddhist monks. Today the number of Buddhists in India is small (less than one percent); most of them inhabit North Bengal, where Tibetan influence has preserved Buddhism. Nevertheless, by the time Buddhism had departed from most of India, it had entered and become an essential part of many other Asian cultures.

Theravada Buddhism can best be found in Burma (now called Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and particularly Sri Lanka. Yet even in Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhism has experienced a history of ups and downs. It was highly popular during the immediate centuries following the birth of Buddhism. About the fifth century A.D., however, it began to decline and for 14 centuries it slowly withered.

The 19th century was the turning point for Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. First, the faith of the Buddhists was revived in reaction to the challenge of Christian missionaries who introduced their religion. Second, profound thinkers emerged to defend the ancient religion. Third, the translation of the Pali texts into Western languages gave it strength to spread beyond its Asian borders.

At first Theravada Buddhism struggled weakly against the evangelism of the Christian faith in Southeast Asia during the nineteenth century. Four men, however, rose up to turn back the tide. Two were Easterners and two were Westerners.

Mohotiwatte Gunananda was a Sri Lankan monk who studied both the Christian Scriptures and Western rationalist writings that were critical of Christianity. From his research, he formed arguments that he used to preach against the Christian faith. From 1866 to 1873, he publicly debated with Christian missionaries. These debates were published and distributed throughout Southeast Asia and the West.

Henry S. Olcott, an American, read these transcripts and was impressed with Gunananda's arguments. In 1875, Olcott and Madame Blavatsky organized the Theosophical Society, which has some of its roots in Olcott's understanding of Theravada Buddhism. In fact, five years later