The Arrival of Theravada
by J. Isamu Yamamoto
Southeast Asians Bring Their School of Buddhism to America
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?
THERAVADA: ORIGINAL BUDDHISM?
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.
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., 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. 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
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