Buddhism is a major world religion that originated in India around the fifth century B.C. and spread throughout Asia before arriving in the West in the nineteenth century. There are three main traditions, or “vehicles,” of Buddhism: Theravada, or “the way of the elders,” the dominant form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Mahayana, or “the great vehicle,” dominant in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam; and Vajrayana, or “the diamond vehicle,” found mainly in Tibet. All three traditions, including a variety of their sects, lineages, and national forms, are represented in Georgia.
Buddhism arose from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, which means the “awakened one” or “enlightened one.” Siddhartha was born into a wealthy and powerful Indian family but abandoned his life of luxury to become a wandering monk and seek liberation from the suffering and dissatisfaction that pervade human existence. Having found a way to nirvana—to peace and satisfaction—the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching this way throughout northern India.
Buddhism is a practical religious tradition that focuses on liberation from suffering. Buddhism is known as the “Middle Way” between self-indulgence and self-mortification, that is, between the unrestrained satisfaction of desires and extreme forms of self-denial.
The Buddha taught that suffering is caused by craving—by attachment to self-centered desires. The way of freedom is the Eightfold Path, which includes ethical conduct, meditation, and wisdom. At the heart of Buddhist wisdom is the realization of “no-self,” or “selflessness”: experiencing the ultimate interconnection and interdependence of all things. According to the Buddha, true satisfaction cannot be found in satisfying the desires of a “self” viewed as separate from everything else; true satisfaction can be found in each moment if life is viewed from the perspective of “no-self.”
Buddhism in the United States
The United States has been home to Buddhists since the mid-1800s, when Chinese immigrants began to arrive on the West Coast. The World’s Parliament of Religions, the largest interreligious forum of the nineteenth century, met in 1893 in Chicago, Illinois, and marked the formal arrival in the West of Buddhist missionaries from several traditions. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism became popular in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. The revision of American immigration laws in 1965 opened the way for a dramatic increase in the numbers of Asian immigrants, including many Buddhists. Since the 1970s, Buddhism has become more visible in the United States as Asian immigration has continued and as more non–Asian Americans have been drawn to the religion.
In Asian immigrant communities, the Buddhist temple generally functions not only as a place for religious activities but also as a cultural and community center, helping to maintain an ethnic group’s heritage and way of life. The Buddhism practiced by American converts—people who have adopted Buddhism instead of or in addition to the religious or secular worldview of their upbringing—generally focuses on meditation.
Asian-Immigrant Buddhism in Georgia
Wat Buddha Bucha, a Thai Theravada temple in Decatur, primarily serves the Thai community, hosting festivals and offering Thai language classes, meditation instruction, and opportunities to study Buddhism. The temple also welcomes non-Thais, offers meditation classes in English, and hosts other Theravada Buddhist groups. Other immigrant Buddhist temples in the Theravada tradition include the Laotian Buddhist Community Temple in Riverdale, the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Lithonia, the Georgia Buddhist Vihara in Lithonia (Sri Lankan), the Atlanta International Meditation Center (Thai), and Wat Santidham in Augusta (Thai).
Mahayana centers primarily serving immigrant communities include the Atlanta Buddhism Association in Marietta (Chinese), the Mietoville Academy/Pure Land Buddhist Association in Lawrenceville (Taiwanese), the Hwa Duk temple in Jonesboro (Korean), the Vietnamese Buddhist Association of Georgia in Atlanta, and the Vietnamese Buddhist Association of Savannah.
Convert Buddhism in Georgia
The convert Buddhist communities in Georgia are mainly Zen Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist. Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in China and spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. The Atlanta Soto Zen Center, established in 1977, offers daily meditation, conducts a prison outreach program, and sponsors a Zen group at Emory University. The Atlanta Center for Zen and the Arts offers instruction in Aikido and other martial and fine arts, as well as meditation. Other Zen groups in Georgia include the Zen Center of Georgia, which meets in two locations in the Atlanta area; the Atlanta Zen Group; the Breathing Heart Sangha in Atlanta and Athens; and ZenSpace in Atlanta.
One of the major Tibetan Buddhist centers in Georgia is Atlanta’s Drepung Loseling Institute, the North American branch of Drepung Loseling Monastery in India. The institute offers training in meditation and Tibetan Buddhist arts and sciences and strives to preserve the endangered Tibetan culture. In 1998 the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, participated in the ceremony inaugurating the institute’s affiliation with Emory University and was Emory’s commencement speaker. In February 2007 the Dalai Lama accepted the appointment of Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory, and in October of that year he returned to Emory and delivered his inaugural lecture to an audience of around 7,000 people at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.
The Shambhala Meditation Center of Atlanta, in Decatur, offers both Tibetan Buddhist meditation training and secular meditation training, in the tradition of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the most important teachers in establishing Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. Other Tibetan Buddhist centers in Georgia include the Rameshori Buddhist Center and Drikung Kagyu, both in Atlanta, and Dorje Ling in Chamblee.
Two other Buddhist groups attracting converts in Georgia are Soka Gakkai and Nipponzan Myohoji. Soka Gakkai is based on the Japanese Nichiren school of Mahayana Buddhism and has a community center in College Park. Nipponzan Myohoji is a branch of Japanese Nichiren Buddhism; its Atlanta group is involved in peace walks and social activism.