Rama – Dr. Frederick Lenz, and others, have used the term "American Buddhism" in reference to their teachings. But what is American Buddhism? Actually, American Buddhism is no different than Japanese Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism, in that it is simply Buddhism transported to a new culture.
When we study Tibetan Buddhism, we learn about gods, goddesses, and mystical rituals. This is because Tibet was a very mystical culture before Buddhism integrated with Bonism. Japanese Buddhism, on the other hand, is more Spartan. It’s rare to find mention of gods and goddesses in Zen Buddhism. This is because Japanese culture was less polytheistic than the Bonists of pre-Buddhist Tibet.
In fact, all religions adapt to the culture surrounding them. Therefore, American Buddhism should primarily be viewed as an attempt to transplant Buddhism to the West. The Dalai Lama once said: "Remember, you are a Westerner. If you want to practice Eastern philosophy such as Tibetan Buddhism you should take the essence and try to adapt it your cultural background and conditions."
If we look at westerners and ask ourselves what American Buddhism might look like, we arrive at some interesting conclusions.
1. People in the west are taught and reminded constantly through media that the more you purchase, consume, and fulfill desire, the happier and more successful you are. With this in mind, American Buddhism probably has to be very tantric, if it is to be a genuine transplant.
2. Americans are very individualistic. Rama felt this Emersonian independence was very compatible with the Buddha’s advice to go "seek your own liberation." Therefore, although tantric, American Buddhism will probably be a very independent, less monastic, and designed for individuals who want to engage self-effort to attain liberation.
3. America is one of the first nations, since the time of the Buddha, where women have had the right to own property and participate in the political process. Therefore, American Buddhism will probably be more open to women than previous forms.
When we look at Rama’s program, it fits in surprisingly well with these initial deductions about what American Buddhism might look like. Rama encouraged material success. "The obvious answer to money is to have tons of it," he taught. "Simply figure out how to make more money than you really need and go for it." The money is used to run our lives. If we have extra money, we may choose to use it to spread the dharma in this expensive, materialistic culture.
As we might suspect, Rama's program was very tantric. He did not set up traditional prohibitions against sex, liquor, handling money or eating after noontime. He sought the middle path, reminding us that, "there is no problem with the sensual world unless you have a tremendous attraction or aversion to it."
Women in Rama’s Buddhism, instead of taking a backseat role or no role at all, usually held important positions within his organization. Women were encouraged to teach and not considered inferior either spiritually or socially compared to men. This new improvement regarding female participation in Buddhism was one reason, according to Rama, why his teachings met with so much hostility. Rama felt that "Until women assume their rightful place on earth there will never be an end to wars, cruelty, and oppression. A species divided against itself will eventually fall."
American Buddhism is different from the outer forms of Japanese Buddhism, which is different from Tibetan Buddhism or Chinese Buddhism. Yet, what about the essence -- was Rama’s Buddhism, Buddhist? Absolutely. Although Rama’s outer form was tantric, he warned his western students about the assumption that material success would bring happiness. "Most successful people find out that the attainment of their goals doesn't necessarily bring them the happiness and joy they assumed," Rama once observed.
Like all Buddhists, he taught that liberation (which causes lasting happiness), is the only thing worth striving for. He said: "We could take all the pleasures that have ever been and will ever be in all the universes and add them up into one experience. If you were absorbed in Nirvana, it wouldn’t be noticed.”
Rama encouraged material success, not because it assured blissful happiness but because career success was a strategic way for Americans to live in the modern world and practice Buddhism. Rama felt that "without money, you are powerless in this world. You are totally subject to whatever happens. To be without money in the physical world is to be powerless."
Like all Buddhist Masters, Rama taught the four noble truths, ignorance and impermanence, and didn’t shy away from advanced concepts. "None of this is real," Rama reminded us. "All of this is an illusion and your acceptance of that fact is the beginning of the pathway to self-knowledge."
Rama frequently employed humor even when discussing the most complex of topics: "I can go shopping and pick up some Bounty Towels, the three-pack. I can go home and open those up and look at them and see more infinity than in the Buddha's best meditation. If I can't do that, that means I'm wrapped by the Buddha's best meditation."
Some individuals, who claim to know the Buddha dharma, have declared that Rama was not Buddhist. They say he was a cult leader. This fiction was created by the media and other hate groups for profit. In reality, Rama was against cults. He advised, "If a spiritual teacher says something that doesn't make sense to you, you should always listen to yourself and not the teacher. A little common sense would end all cults."
Imagine what the “cult watchers” would have said about Bodhidharma, when they found out one of his students cut off his arm and handed it to the great Zen Patriarch. What would the media have said about Padmasambhava having sex in graveyards or killing a man with a rock because he had bad karma? Compared to the founders of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Rama was pretty tame!
Others claim that Rama was too mystical and occult to be Buddhist. They point to components of his program, like the Carlos Castaneda books, desert trips, and Hinduism, as proof that he was just a new-age teacher and not a Buddhist. However, we read in the Surangama Sutra that the Buddha could emit light from his hands, from the top of head, glowed gold, controlled demons and could perform many other “miracles”.
Others claim that because Rama was wealthy and charged a high tuition, he could not have been Buddhist. They forget actual Buddhist tradition. One of the 84 Mahasiddhas, the Mahasiddha Kankana was a king whose kingdom and responsibilities did not distract him from realizing “the wish-fulfilling gem”. The Mahasiddha Dhilipa realized his original nature while being a wealthy merchant. We can see that wealth, by itself, did not preclude spiritual realization.
To conclude, Rama’s American Buddhism was the Buddha dharma in its purest form. The outer methods that he used to inspire Westerners are simply outgrowths of the culture he worked with. Although Rama's new form of Buddhism seems intuitive and logical to us now, it took years of hard work, love, and dedication to develop a Buddhist program that has assisted us all on the pathway to enlightenment.