MIDDLETOWN — Although Buddhism has long been practiced in the United States– there were 30,000 Buddhists in 1900 in the country — the number of people practicing it sharply rose in the past two decades. There were 200,000 Buddhist in the United States in the mid-70s. The number swelled to 1.8 million by 1995, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
But growth in Buddhism isn’t just in large cities among Asian and Indian populations, as many people might think.
Buddhism has also grown here, in Middletown, on and off the Wesleyan University campus among a mainly western, non-Asian and non-Indian population. People practicing Buddhism in these groups think that the faith will continue to grow because of society’s openness, it’s secularism and the tenants of Buddhism.
“As our country becomes more secular, more people are attracted to other religions like Buddhism because they haven’t been indoctrinated as a child,” said Glenn Lewis, a founder of the Middletown-based Buddhist Faith Fellowship, said. “They are actively looking for something that resonates with them.”
Some people first become attracted to Buddhism, because the traditional monotheistic religions and modern-view of life aren’t working for them anymore. Meditation, an integral practice of Buddhism, also can initially attract them to the religion.
Lewis started the fellowship, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to practicing Buddhism, in an apartment with a handful of people three years ago. Lewis said the fellowship has grown to 30 people and has a 300-person mailing list.
The group’s growth, according to Lewis, is due to the people in the group and the fact that Buddhism can be practiced at home. He said Buddhism isn’t a creed and can be applied to daily situations.
“Shin Buddhism is about daily practice,” Lewis said. “It’s about the teachings of Buddha, not about Buddha.”
Wesleyan University college students, who live at a Buddhist house on campus, also said Buddhism is practiced in daily life. For them, Buddhism is about viewing the world in a way that isn’t centered on oneself. Instead, they said Buddhism is about actively making a positive difference in the world.
They moved to their campus house in 2003 after studying Buddhism and doing mediation in group led by Lodro Rinzler for three years. Today, 18 students live in the house which is open to anyone who wants to use it for meditation or quiet.
Rinzler, who was raised in a Buddhist home, said there are many more people from the university who come to the house to meditate, but don’t consider themselves Buddhist. People, he and the other students said, can practice parts of Buddhism without being labeled a Buddhist.
“We see a lot of people come through to learn meditation,” Rinzler, the 21-year-old junior, said. “Then we might not hear from them for a few years.”
Some of the Wesleyan University students at the house said that although many people initially come to Buddhism because their traditional set of values aren’t working, they stay with the religion because it helps them.
“I was not satisfied with the religion that I grew up with,”Tim Hinkle, a 20-year-old sophomore, said. “Buddhism is all about engagement in the world.”
Hinkle more said he grew to like Buddhism for its practicality and discipline. He said meditation is an example of how science has validated a part of Buddhism for being beneficial to a person’s health.
Ben Feuer, a 20-year-old sophomore, said he came to Buddhism to find peace. Although a tenant of Buddhism is to engage the world with compassion and kindness, it also teaches people how to reach inner harmony. A person can reach inner harmony through meditation and being mindful of the world.
“It’s not a beginning or end,” Feuer said. “It’s more of a shift in perception.”