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Buddhist Priests and Contemplatives


Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who was born into a royal family in 563 B.C. in what is now Nepal. As an adult, he gradually became unhappy with the trappings and comforts of wealth (and troubled by the human suffering he saw around him). He began to explore different philosophies to find happiness. After six years of wandering and contemplation, Gautama sat under a Bodhi tree in what is now Bodh Gaya, India, and found “the middle path” (a path of moderation). From then on, he was called the Buddha, the Awakened One. The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the principles and truths (called “Dhamma” or “Dharma”) of Buddhism in order to help others achieve a state of nirvana (or enlightenment). 

People who were inspired by Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings left home and became contemplatives. Initially, women were not allowed to be ordained as monks, but within a few years of his enlightenment, the Buddha allowed women to become ordained. The first nun was Mahapajapati Gotami, Siddhartha Gautama’s aunt and adoptive mother. As temples were built for the followers of the Buddha, the position of priest emerged to lead services. 

In the United States, Buddhist immigrants (first of Chinese descent, then Japanese descent) began arriving in the 1840s. Later, immigrants from Southeast Asia swelled the ranks of American Buddhists. The first Buddhist temples were built in San Francisco in the early 1850s. Buddhist temples sometimes adopted Christian forms of religious organization and practice (e.g., the use of “church,” “pews,” “congregation,” and “minister”) in order to assimilate. In 1898, the Buddhist Church of San Francisco was established—the first Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) Buddhist temple in the continental United States. In the early 1900s, Buddhist Churches of America, an organization of Jodo Shinshu churches, was founded. It is the oldest Buddhist association in the United States and currently has 60 member-temples (as the organization now prefers its holy places to be called). The passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 brought a new wave of Asian immigrants, many of whom were Buddhist. Also in this year, the Washington, D.C. Buddhist Vihara was founded. This educational and religious organization was the first Theravada Buddhist monastic community in the United States.

In 2010 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), there were approximately 488 million Buddhists worldwide (including more than 3.8 million in North America), according to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. In the United States only 32 percent of Buddhists were of Asian descent. A majority (53 percent) were white, and most were converts to Buddhism.