Theravada Buddhism in the United States

I am interested in visiting a Theravada Buddhist temple, but they seem to be catered toward specific ethnic communities in my area. If a temple’s webpage is in the Khmer language, should I call them on the phone and ask when their Vesak celebration is held?

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This can be challenging, but also rewarding if you can figure out a way of communicating effectively. The only way to find out is to try!

I haven’t had much contact with Cambodians, but I do have experience with a local Thai monestery. Keep in mind that, if my experience is anything to go by, they may not be very good at explaining things to non-ethnic visitors, not because they don’t like outsiders, but because they simply don’t have any plan for it!

Good luck! :heart:


Thank you for the encouragement. Last year, I visited the Vietnamese Mahayana temple for Vesak. I really enjoyed the experience, but I haven’t been back again since everything, including the Dharma talk, was in Vietnamese.

Aside from sutra chanting, Japanese Buddhist sects in the United States tend to have more English in their services. Is this because the Japanese community has been around longer in the United States?

Well, one of the useful things about Theravada is that the chanting is usually in Pali, so if you have a chanting book you can read, and can figure out what is going on (not always easy!) you can participate.

Not so easy if you are new to it, of course…

This is absolutely the case for the overwhelming majority of Theravada Buddhism in America, which of course is an extremely small part of Buddhism here, which is already a very small part of a large country, so there are not a ton of options.

I remember sitting down with a Sri Lankan monk at a local vihara where I was from originally (new Jersey) and I thanked him for coming to the west to teach dhamma, his response was like a big “duh” moment for me. he said that he came because he was invited by the sri lankan community to administer to them.

They would have a weekly meditation and dhamma talk, in very broken English, sure, but that was just an aside. I went to a day long event listed on their website(which was in English), and the whole event was in Sinhala, so I sat there and meditated with them a bit, listened to the dhamma in sinhalese, and left after an hour or so.

There are probably less then a handful of Theravada places in America that are really able to cater and teach Westerners, the place where I live, Bhavana Society, being one of two that is also a retreat center, the other is Dhammsukha with Bhante V.

It was from that monk I was speaking to that I found out about Bhavana Society, and I never looked back once I came here for the first time and felt at home as a westerner. Even though it was a 5 hour drive, it was more worth it in terms of learning and practicing Dhamma then any place closer. If you live within driving distance of Washington D.C, I encourage you to come visit.


That’s quite sad to hear. However I think Just in terms pure logistics we will need to pool the world’s dhamma resources on the internet to look to the future.

With metta

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I sympathise. In my hometown it is the same. The monks here actually want to teach more in English but don’t have the confidence/skill. They can see that the younger generation are going to leave the dhamma otherwise

In Australia the Sri Lankans are the most educated of all the ethnic Buddhist groups, so most likely to speak good English. For festival days I would visit them. However, for Dhamma talks you’re better off online or with a ‘secular’ group.

If you say where in the US you are someone might be able to suggest somewhere.

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Clearly, as I said, ethnic monestaries can be challenging/disappointing. Personally, I had some motivation to persevere, as I had a Thai girlfriend (she was living in another country at the time) and I started going to the monastery to improve my Thai. As it turns out, I got distracted into studying Dhamma, so my Thai is still rather rudimentary…

Much of my detailed technical knowledge has come from reading, listening to recordings, or from visiting teachers. But what I learned from my Thai community and from various monks was the most important part of my Dhamma education. So I’d be wary of underestimating the depth of knowledge and experience of some of the monastics (and lay people) that one might encounter in ethnic monestaries. It’s just unfortunate that accessing this knowledge is so difficult.


I said nothing as to the quality of the monastics themselves, only the ability to teach westerners. Being immersed in another culture can be a very good experience, as someone who was an anthropology major in college, I have always loved culture how people live, when it comes to the dhamma however, you need to be able to understand it in your own language, the Buddha himself understood this and encouraged the monks in this fashion.

Someone from that culture, imo, has the best understanding of how to reach people , because there is less to be lost in translation, and you understand their lives better and can use similes they will understand. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Ajahn Chah sent Westerners back to the West to teach and found monasteries.

There are a rare few, like my preceptor Bhante G, who can straddle both worlds, although he has also had 50 years of experience in America and started a place open to them, so he has had a lot of experience with it.

Here at Bhavana , on our evaluations the past few years, we have consistently gotten " it’s great to have western monks teaching now as its often very hard to understand some of the other monks sometimes".

having to learn another language to learn the dhamma(like you learning Thai), means it will be inaccessible to most people. In the old days that was what people had to do, but as Mat said, thanks to the Internet, and to work from people like Bhante Sujato, the teachings are available to westerners like never before.


I see the value however of being immersed in an environment that wordlessly teaches something that words cannot quite impart. The value system placed in the triple gem, for example cannot be adequately conveyed using only text or purely online modalities. The thin faith factor for example requires someone physical as an object of veneration. Maybe people should just set up groups in their local temples rather than waiting for monks who don’t know the language to learn a new language.

With metta


I think there’s a lot in your point, but surely it’s a right balance thing. There’s probably also need for qualification with respect to person type.

I wouldn’t want to say that one should always necessarily have to feel comfortable and have a sense of knowing everything that’s going on, but I’m not entirely sure that feeling so uncomfortable as to feel isolated or alienated is exactly helpful in creating positive associations.

Then there is a trust / security issue. Stepping into a foreign world really can have its dangers and I’d suggest there is a suitable (but not excessive) amount of guardedness one might adopt when entering a new world - language probably is the best (on second thoughts, I’m not sure I’d 100% agree that it is the ‘best’, but it is nevertheless) a very good vehicle to ascertain that the folks of a particular place are practising in a good way, and have a good understanding of the teaching.

As I said, a measured balance of the various factors involved feels most right for me, and for my own part, I have to say it is online talks that have roused gladness and faith much more consistently than those in a setting (wonderfully) wrapped in a culture and… clique (for want of a better word) I have yet to fully orientate myself in. At the same time, I think your spot on, nothing can substitute an in-person connection.


Please keep in mind that I am perfectly happy with Buddhist temples serving the needs of their immigrant communities as a main priority, communities in need for that type of safe gathering place as a cultural group.

My only wish is that they would offer Dharma talks in English, in addition to their native language, as well as websites with English as well. How will their younger generation remain involved in the temple if everything is in a foreign language?

I am happy with the sutra chanting of a service done in whatever traditional language of that particular Buddhist tradition. I prefer traditional Buddhist temples over Western meditation groups.


I haven’t been out to my local monastery for three or four months. And honestly, I haven’t been missing it much. I expect I will go back soon for an uposatha day evening puja soon, but it just doesn’t seem like a very big deal to me any more.


I do not hold it against any temple if they cannot or will not offer English speaking services, if they do then it is a bonus. It is up to the people in this country to take the mantle of Dhamma upon ourselves.

As for the younger generation of their children, well, they become American, like every other immigrant population. to them, going to the temple is a boring part of their culture that their parents force on them, just like I was forced to go to church haha(I am actually also the son of an immigrant). I speak to the kids who come here often and engage with them on that level, as we share a connection(of course also knowing what video game they are playing on their tablet while being bored at the monastery also helps , being a former gamer works out sometimes :wink: ).

The parents who come here love that the young western monks can speak to their children and the children actually don’t mind hearing dhamma from us(they find the monks from their own culture to be boring). Some parents are surprised when their children actually WANT to come back the next time. Even though those kids come from a Buddhist culture, they do not share the same experiences as their parents, but of other people in the new culture, hence why it’s easier for people in that new culture to connect with them.


Sorry, I thought I made it clear that my Thai is rudimentary, certainly not up to discussing Dhamma!

However, as I said, I did have the motivation to become part of the community. And to me the community and having good long-term relationships is the important thing.

So I always encourage people to seek out Dhamma wherever they can find it. They may be pleasently surprised.

Maybe this is key- don’t have too many expectations, but enjoy and benefit from what you can. Theoretical Buddhism is problematic because we aren’t aware of our own blind-spots. When taken out of our comfort zone (not so much that it is negative though) we challenge our own assumptions and defilements. It is also a window into another culture which has adjusted to Buddhism at its core, so there is much to learn, which sometimes people from those cultures may not be themselves able to articulate. I grew up in Sri Lanka but didn’t go to temple much or Dhamma Sunday school. However later as an adult I practiced a lot at home, from the internet. Now I’m returning to the temple and learning how to interact in that environment and it is ‘filling me out’ in areas I missed in my egotistical lonely spiritual pursuits!

With metta


Yes, and of course it depends on our particular experiences, needs, and expectations. I took up Dhamma because when I turned up at the monastery the monks and lay people at seemed happy, and I wanted to be happier. It wasn’t some spritual quest where I was seeking the true path.

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I think people looking happy is an adequate indicator of getting the basics of the path correct. Even the motivation to practice and reasons develop gradually over time. Admittedly the Dana spread at the Cittavivka plays not a little part in the attraction, apart from Samatha and Vipassana. :wink:

With metta

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A lot of this is also regional. In California, there are many monasteries and temples which are specific to immigrant groups, but also a few with some Western monks and those that have teachings in English. In Northern California I would guess we have at least half a dozen with blended Sanghas and English teachings available. In the Midwest, where I am from originally there is now one Vihara of this type across maybe 4 or 5 states in the region. I am hopeful this will spread over time.

This is exactly what I would be looking for, a traditional Theravada temple that also offers Dharma talks in English.