Make an island of yourself,
Do not believe in anything (simply)
Do not believe in traditions because they
Do not believe in anything because it is
Do not believe in anything (simply) because
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority
But after observation and analysis
The origin of Theravada Buddhism in America can be traced to a speech made by Anagarika Dharmapala (of Sri Lanka) at the World Parliament of Religions meeting in 1893.At the Parliament, Dharmapala spoke about how Buddhism, Christianity, and scientific approaches to the world overlap, saying that the “Buddha inculcated the necessity of self-reliance and independent thought,” and “accepted the doctrine of evolution as the only true one.”
Theosophists and others in the United States were influenced by elements of Theravada Buddhism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Groups of Burmese and Sri Lankan monks visited the United States before the first Theravada Buddhist organization was formed in Washington, D.C., in 1966.
The Washington Buddhist Vihara and the Buddhist Study Center in New York, the first two Theravada Buddhist organizations in the United States, were both founded and supported jointly by Asian and American-born people. The Washington Buddhist Vihara began in Washington, D.C., in 1966 following the 1964 visit of Sri Lankan monk Most Venerable Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thera. Sent by the Asia Foundation on a tour, he happened to be in Washington on Vesak, the Buddhist holiday that commemorates the birth, death, and enlightenment of the Buddha. He celebrated in a park with a few people from the Sri Lankan Embassy and, after conversations with an officer from the embassy, decided to begin a temple in the United States.
Sri Lankan monk, Ven. Bope Vinitha, who had recently returned to Sri Lanka after two years of study at Harvard University was asked to return to the States to direct the temple in Washington. He arrived carrying a Buddha statue and relic of the Buddha.
Also in the late 1960s, Thai and American Buddhists founded the Buddhist Study Center in New York, which led many years later to the founding of Wat Vajiradhammapadip, a Thai Buddhist temple in New York.
1970s: The Beginnings
In the early 1970s, Sri Lankan and Thai lay people and monastics began to organize temples, first in California. The group of white people who would form the first vipassana meditation retreat center in the United States met, and the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) was born. In 1972, Ven. Ananda Mangala Thera, a Sri Lankan monk who had been living in Singapore, visited Los Angeles and was asked by a handful of Sri Lankan families to start a Buddhist society. In 1973 this group of Sri Lankan immigrants began an informal committee and consulted again with two visiting Sri Lankan monks. They incorporated as the Sri Lankan–America Buddha Dhamma Society in 1975 and a few years later began to collect funds to support a temple. Ven. Walpola Piyananda, who would become the head monk at this temple, arrived in the United States on July 4, 1976.
Between 1970 and 1974 Thai immigrants also began to organize temples in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. In 1970 a Thai monk Ven. Phrakhru Vajirathammasophon of Wat Vajirathamsathit in Thailand was invited to Los Angeles to teach and perform Buddhist ceremonies. The Thai community formed the Thai-American Buddhist Association that year.
The Insight Meditation Society (IMS), the first Theravada Buddhist organization founded completely by non-Asians, also started in the mid-1970s. At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, largely white native-born Americans who would start this organization were returning from their travels in Asia.
While the Thais and Sri Lankans forming temples were looking to import Theravada Buddhism as it was practiced in their home countries, Kornfield, Goldstein, Salzberg, and other early teachers were not interested in Theravada as practiced popularly in Thailand or Burma. Rather they were interested in vipassana, or insight, meditation. First popularized for lay people in Burma, this form of meditation emphasizes being aware and present with physical and mental experiences as they are happening so as to see things clearly as they are. Believing that most Asian Buddhists do not actually practice Buddhism, Kornfield explained that the early teachers “had to learn to simplify the practices we learned in an attempt to offer a clear straight forward form of Buddhist practice in the West. We left much of the Eastern culture, ritual, and ceremony also behind in Asia…we felt that for Americans it was an unnecessary barrier.
After meeting at the Naropa Institute in 1974, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein began to teach meditation retreats around the country, and with Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Schwartz they started a meditation center for teacher and self-led meditation retreats. Called the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), the center was incorporated on May 19, 1975, and aimed to “provide a secluded retreat environment for the practice of meditation in the Theravada Buddhism tradition.”
When they started IMS, the teachers made a conscious decision to keep the center grounded in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and that grounding, Joseph Goldstein argues now in retrospect, has been a source of institutional focus and strength. “It was a conscious choice to have it not become a center where even very enlightened teachers from a range of traditions would come,” Goldstein remembers. “We felt that it would really dilute the vision.”
While the first Theravada Buddhist organizations founded largely by Asians and white Americans had little contact with one another, they occasionally shared teachers and influenced each other in unexpected ways. Between 1979 and 1982, for example, famed Burmese meditation teacher Mahasi Sayadaw traveled around the United States and Europe spreading the Buddha’s teachings.
At the request of that Burmese community, Mahasi Sayadaw agreed to leave U Silananda and U Kelatha behind when he returned to Burma, and shortly thereafter (between October 1979 and February 1980), one of the early Burmese Buddhist organizations in the United States, the Theravada Buddhist Society of America, was formed.A lay association, the Theravada Buddhist Society of America then started a temple, Dhammananda Vihara. This temple joined a Burmese temple that already existed in Los Angeles and Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Vihara in Boulder Creek, California. Shortly after the founding of these temples, additional Burmese temples were started in Washington, D.C., and other cities.
Quite apart from white Theravada Buddhist practitioners, groups that eventually founded the first Laotian and Cambodian temples in the United States were also started between 1978 and 1980 in the Washington, D.C., area. Migration from Laos and Cambodia peaked in the early 1980s and these early groups slightly predated those peaks
While numerous white American-born men had become monks in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, the first Theravada Buddhist higher ordination took place on United States soil in 1979 at Wat Thai Los Angeles. Scott Joseph DuPrez, a native Californian, had received his samanera, or first level of ordination into the monkhood, in Sri Lanka in 1975, taking the name Yogavacara Rahula. In May 1979 he received higher ordination at the Thai temple in Los Angeles. Sri Lankan monks Ven. Jinaratana (preceptor), Ven. Dhammaratana (teacher), Ven. Ananda, and Ven. Piyananda, who were living in the United States, presided at the ceremony.
By the end of the 1970s, Theravada Buddhist centers had been established or initiated by Sri Lankans, Thais, Burmese, Cambodians, Laotians, and native-born Americans in the United States, and a native-born American had received higher Buddhist ordination on American soil.
1980s: Continued Growth
Immigration from Theravada Buddhist countries continued in the 1980s, particularly from Cambodia and Laos, and the number of temples in each of the five Asian groups continued to increase.
The number of Theravada meditation centers founded and attended largely by white people also increased during the 1980s, and the number of people attending existing centers rose.
Vipassana retreats had been taking place in California since the early 1970s, and they began to take a new direction in the 1980s when Jack Kornfield arrived and began to teach at Insight Meditation West, formerly the Dharma Foundation.
In addition to the growth of Asian temples and largely white meditation centers in the 1980s, the Bhavana Society, a monastery founded and attended both by Asian and by white American-born people, was started by Sri Lankan monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana and lay white American meditator Matthew Flickstein in 1983.
1990s: Growth and Mixing Demographics
The 1990s showed continued growth in Buddhist organizations founded and attended largely by Asian and by white practitioners, but also showed new growth in the number of organizations led and attended both by Asian and by white practitioners. Some of the mixing between Asians and Americans occurred in temples started by Sri Lankan, Thai, and Burmese immigrants to the United States, as opposed to those started by Lao and Cambodian refugees. This likely occurred because the monks and first-generation immigrants involved with Thai, Sri Lanka, and Burmese temples had a better command of English and were more assimilated to U.S. society than the monks and lay practitioners at Lao and Cambodian temples.
Apart from these parallel congregations, several Theravada Buddhist centers led and attended by Asian and white people began in the 1990s. The late Ajahn Suwat Suvaco, a Thai monastic, started Metta Forest Monastery (also called Wat Metta), a temple in a sixty-acre avocado grove outside San Diego, California, in 1990.
Ajahn Amaro, a British monastic, helped to start Abhayagiri Monastery in California, a monastery founded and led by white monastics and increasingly attended by both Americans and Asians.
The number of meditation groups across the country grew during the 1990s, as evident in the number of sitting groups listed in Inquiring Mind, the number of people attending retreats at IMS, and Don Morreale’s “unscientific study” of Buddhist America. At IMS, an executive director was appointed in 1990, and the center became more professionally organized and operated. The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, founded to try to “find a meaningful bridge between study and practice, between the communities of scholars and meditators, between the ancient orthodox tradition and the modern spirit of critical inquiry,” opened one mile down the road from IMS in 1989 and held its first conference in March 1990.
With the initial encouragement of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, John Bullitt started Access to Insight in the early 1990s, a Web site that houses more than seven hundred suttas and several hundred articles and books about Theravada Buddhism. This Web site complemented the Dharma Seed Archive, a collection of taped Theravada teachings given in the United States, started in the early 1980s.
 . Born in 1864 in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Don David Hewavitharne became a celibate layman and adopted the title Anagarika Dharmapala, meaning “homeless one,” “guardian of the Dharma.” Heavily influenced by Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), Theosophists who first visited India and Ceylon from America in 1878 and 1880, Dharmapala spent his life spreading Buddhism around the world.