buddha mega-church

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day about Shinnyo-en. You may or may not know anything about Shinnyo-en, but you’ve probably heard about them without noticing. After all, a couple of months ago, they purchased a Buddha statue at Christie’s for a whopping $14.3 million dollars. And just this month they opened up a pretty big temple down in the South Bay, which is why they came up in conversation. Apparently, thousands of people came to the opening of this temple, and my colleague (who’d been there) couldn’t help but see this as a “mega-church.” Mega-churches are centered around a charismatic leader, and they may have smaller study groups or activities or social events that surround the main leader and church. And, in part because of these periphery activities, hundreds of thousands of folks show up to the mega-church on Sunday (thousands on holidays of course), and donate millions of dollars to further the organization’s purposes.1

What he noticed was that American Buddhist communities, particularly older, more established ones like the BCA, are incredibly democratized.2 They’re run, essentially, by committee, by Boards of Directors, by countless interest groups who all have a “vote,” they all have a say in the decision making process and as a result, he suggested, they can’t get anything done.

In short, he suggested that the democratic structures within certain Buddhist communities could play a major role in the reason why those communities are having financial difficulties right now3, why their membership is declining, and why people aren’t always all fired up about Buddhism (that is, fired up about Buddhists schools that lack a clear charismatic leader like the Dalai Lama). To be honest and fair from the outset here, this was one of those “in-passing” conversations, so I’m not going to hold my colleague to any of these views; but I think they’re interesting and worth talking about. Especially because they have so many implications: first, on how we understand American Buddhism academically; secondly, and more importantly here, on how we practice American Buddhism; and, finally, how we might reinvigorate and even save American Buddhism.4

This all struck a nerve with me because as of late I’ve found “breaking in” to the BCA to be somewhat challenging. Attending weekly services, special events, lectures, etc., are all well and good; but really being a part of a specific BCA church is sometimes difficult. I think it’s difficult, in part, because the BCA is fragmented into dozens of smaller interest groups, usually based on the person’s age or gender. There are young Buddhist organizations, there are adult Buddhist organizations, there are young-adult organizations, women’s groups, men’s groups, even groups for “Boomer” Buddhists.5 It’s hard to know exactly where I fit in to any of those, and I think it could be especially hard for a newbie who doesn’t know anyone to begin with, doesn’t already have a friend on the inside.

However, these are the exact kinds of “periphery” groups that mega-churches have. Mega-churches typically have a larger, centrally located church (such as the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California) that may have thousands of members. But those members may live up to hundreds of miles away and only attend services at the church on special occasions. In the meantime, they maintain their membership in two ways (apart from money): first, through media, i.e., watching the charismatic leader on TV or through the radio or Internet; and second, through smaller, local special interest groups. The special interest groups meet regularly, perhaps have a designated local-leader (who may or may not be an ordained minister), and typically read the Bible or the sanctioned literature of the group and talk about it. Or they get involved in local charitable causes or social outreach programs. Or whatever. The point is that they have clearly defined and specifically religious activities related to the larger organization even if they don’t go to the main church all that often either because of lack of access or time.

So what’s different between the mega-church structure and the BCA? We’ve got hundreds of local temples and churches spread out across the country. But, unlike mega-churches, each one can act autonomously of the rest and each one can (or should) have it’s own fully ordained minister-in-residence. On the other hand, we’ve got all the interest groups. We’ve got the structure in place to handle study groups, practice sessions, social outreach, etc. Perhaps (and this is a big perhaps) part of the problem is that many of our existing interest groups have more self-interest than Buddhist-interest. But perhaps most notably what we lack is a clearly defined, charismatic leader who not only espouses a clearly defined message or statement of faith but can actually move the masses to get behind him/her.6

In other words, it seems to me that the BCA is actually pretty well-equiped to not only propagate the Buddha Dharma to its existing members in a real and lasting manner, but also spread the Buddha Dharma beyond its existing base into the future. But it seems clear that we’ll need to do some radical re-thinking of our priorities. The structure is in place. And a lot of it works pretty well, for certain segments of our population (most notably Dharma Schools which do a fairly good job of keeping kids, and by extension their parents, in the fold). The trick will be in re-shifting priorities and purpose. And, of course, adopting new media. (Podcasts anyone? I know, I know. Shameless!)

Whew. A lot went into this post. Perhaps a lot more than I had originally intended. And I think it goes without saying that more could be said. And it also goes without saying that I’m not beholden to any of this, I’m not particularly attached to any of these ideas. I’m pretty open to having my mind changed on any of these issues. Mostly, these were some thoughts that came to me after this conversation I had. It seems clear to me that the BCA is at something of a crossroads at this moment in its history, and it’s time to do something, to set the terms of the debate. So here’s to getting the ball rolling.


  1. There are some obvious problems to this model of mega-church, chief among them the misappropriation of member’s funds either through mandatory tithing or actual acquisition of member’s property or wealth. But I’m not going to get into that here. [ back ]
  2. A lot has been written on “democratized” American Buddhism, usually from the perspective of, “We had a leader who abused his authority so we created a system whereby members have greater control over the direction of the community.” While this may be true of a small handful of Buddhist communities, it goes without saying that most American Buddhist communities are fairly democratically structured regardless of moral impropriety. Which begs the question, what’s going on here? I would argue (I will argue in a forthcoming paper) that this is not the result of some desire on the part of Buddhists to be more egalitarian and “fair” and give “rights” to their community members; rather, this is a reflection of U.S. tax law. To be a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, you need a Board of Directors. You need some inherently democratic structures to maintain that status. [ back ]
  3. I love bringing up money in conversations about Buddhism. I think we often want to believe that Buddhists are beyond all these trifles, these worldly concerns about money, being all non-attached and stuff. But I think that’s hogwash. Buddhists have always been concerned about money. We have to be, especially in modern, capitalist societies where people aren’t just donating land to us and giving us food. The fact of the matter is that whenever you go to your local Buddhist zendo, temple, retreat, center, or an Arizonan yurt, those Buddhists had to buy or rent that space from someone, and that took money. [ back ]
  4. This whole post, by the way, should be read as only about the BCA, not all of American Buddhism. I don’t wanna sound too much like Clark Strand, after all! (haha) [ back ]
  5. I find it very strange that these groups are largely determined by age. I understand why they’re set up that way, historically, but I question the utility of it. If I join a “young” Buddhist group as a child, I might feel excited to then “graduate” from that group at a certain age and join an “adult” group. But I imagine that after reaching a certain age that makes me ineligible for that adult group and puts me in a group for “seniors” could be a little depressing. Especially if friends who are younger aren’t coming with me to a new group. Interest groups focused on activities (study groups, practice groups, social outreach or social justice groups, etc.) seem like a more appropriate focus. [ back ]
  6. My secular progressive readers will be concerned about the cultish implications here, not to mention the negative connotations that we have about “organized religion” or right-wing Christianity. I am not unaware of those implications, have no fear. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we all follow, blindly, whatever some charismatic leader tells us, no matter how convincingly. Nor am I arguing (as others have) that we simply adopt a Christian mentality or structure or, god forbid, ethic or morality. Right here, I am merely interested in exploring the dynamics of the BCA as an institution that has no clear charismatic leader and how that may affect its current and future success. Other forms of Buddhism do have clearly defined “spokespeople,” for better or worse, as do many other religious traditions. As one such figure, the Dalai Lama provides a center around which people can organize their religious lives; they’re free to disregard some or all of his teachings, but at the end of the day, when asked about their “Buddhism”, they can still point to him and say, “I follow the Dalai Lama,” and people automatically have an idea of what that means. Whether it’s an accurate reflection of Buddhism or not is a different matter. [ back ]

2 thoughts on “buddha mega-church

  1. I’m always suspicious of organizations centered around a charismatic leader. There’s always the worry about how an organization will manage to carry on after him/her. But then again, I can see that many of the causes that I support are actually led by very charismatic people.

    To an earlier point, I don’t think that the size of Shinnyo-en is based on the charisma of Shinjo Ito and his daughter (although indeed, it plays a super role in their practice). I think the size of the congregation really stems from the recruitment practices being so integral to their style of Buddhism.

    You totally got me thinking, Scott, many thanks! This is a great post, and I read it to the end with all the footnotes. If you can hold my attention for that long then you deserve props! I think I’ll have to ruminate more in a blog post on this and ping you back!

  2. Thanks for the comment, arunlikhati. I totally agree about the charismatic leader. Then again, I think the charismatic leader is tricky and problematic for a lot of reasons. (Then again, I just watched the Simpsons episode “The Joy of Sect” a couple of days aog, so I may be a little effected!)

    Recruitment practices? Hadn’t thought of that but it’s got my mind going. I think this is a topic that will need more thought and conversation for sure.

Comments are closed.