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Buddhism-the religion of renunciation and "the middle way"-is self-confident and robust in an America increasingly looking for "enlightenment" and intrigued by the enigmatic smile of the Buddha.
Fueled by both a surge in Asian immigration in the past 30 years and celebrity endorsements from the rich and famous (singer Tina Turner, actor Richard Gere, Italian soccer star Baggio, the peripatetic Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama, and Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson), this worldwide religion of 565 million has successfully transplanted itself into the United States.
In an attempt to discover the religion's appeal to growing numbers of Americans, Terry Muck, associate professor of comparative religion at Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, interviewed Americans who had converted. "The most common response I got was that it offered them a peace and contentment through the meditative technique," says Muck, author of "Those Other Religions in Your Neighborhood." "The idea seemed to be that American culture is so hectic and busy and stressful, and the various kinds of Buddhist meditation techniques [are] an antidote they hadn't found in … the Christianity that they had grown up with."
James Stephens, a former Buddhist who launched the evangelical Sonrise Center for Buddhist Studies in Sierra Madre, California, six years ago to develop information and training to evangelize Buddhists, estimates there are 2 million in this country. Other research says there are only 558,000 active Buddhists in North America.
Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, says there are 1,500 Buddhist centers in the United States. The 102,000-square-foot, $25 million Hsi Lai ("Coming to the West") Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, is the largest Buddhist structure in the Western Hemisphere.
Such figures only begin to tell the story, however. Recent films, such as What's Love Got to Do with It? based on the life of Tina Turner, and The Little Buddha with ...