The Unites States is home to the most diverse spectrum of religions in the world. There are representations of nearly every religion in the world. There are three basic ways religions arrive in the US: import, export, and baggage. Buddhism and Hinduism are two Asian religions that have made it across the Pacific Ocean and now exist along side many others in America. ISKCON, a form of Hinduism, and Zen, a form of Buddhism, are two such groups.
All Indian movements have always had a charismatic leader associated with them.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was no different. Born Abhay Charan De 1896-1977 was the founder and spiritual master of ISKCON, International Society of Krishna Consciousness. He was given this mission as a youth from his spiritual Visnuite leader upon his death. He was a successful businessman who had attended the University of Calcutta. Yet it was not until he was 70 years old and completely broke, that he came to the US. This was the perfect time, for it was the 1960’s and it seemed everybody was looking into new forms of spirituality.
His beliefs caught on in this time of mind expansionism. In every ISKCON temple there will be a picture of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada on an altar-like set up. This shows how much respect ISKCON devotees have for their former leader.
Every religion has a given set of guidelines or certain authorities that devotees must follow. ISKCON members have to basically give up their lives to their spiritual master. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada developed four rules that must always be followed: no eating meat, fish, or eggs; no elicit sex; no intoxicants; and no gambling. ISKCON seems to be more focused on the orthopraxy of their ways instead of basing themselves on ancient ways. Members have to proclaim Krishna as their supreme Lord in every form. Temples have altars and many statues or depictions of Krishna in which one can perform puja to Krishna. Mantras are also performed several times daily. These mantras are usually very simple like, “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama.” Like other forms of Hinduism, ISKCON holds the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita historically true, but does not follow traditional Indian ways. Devotees of Krishna believe that he lives in a paradisal world and with enough love and devotion for Krishna they can break free from the karmic cycle and enter into this paradise.
ISKCON beliefs are derived from the Chaitanya Krishnaite sect, which was started by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He is believed to have been an incarnation of Radha and Krishna. He taught that with enough love for Krishna, one could burn away from karma to achieve moksha. ISKCON and Chaitanya Krishnaitism differs from other Vishnuite groups, because they do not hold Vishnu as there God, but just one of his incarnations.
Moundsville, West Virginia is home to many ISKCON members. These people live and work on communal farms. The spiritual master leads ISKCON members through every detail of their lives. They have definitive schedules in which they follow daily. These schedules are either divided into time spent working on the farms or missionizing, and performing puja or chanting a mantra to Krishna. Although dating is not allowed members may be married, but the master always arranges them. Sex is for procreation only and also has to be granted by the master. ISKCON is always seeking to expand and gain more followers of Krishna, therefore is an export religion. It is not uncommon to see a member on the corner of a street dancing, singing “Hare Krishna,” and passing out invitations to their meetings.
Unlike ISKCON, Zen is an import religion. Zen seems to be associated with the elite of society. This is due mainly to the fact that either only educated people are exposed to it or that many people cannot afford the cost of retreats and or Zen books. In ISKCON, they basically except anyone who is willing to take on their beliefs. Zen is derived from the type of meditation which is practice.
Zen is a form of Mahayan Buddhism, which believes that in a “great vehicle” which will take everyone to the final destination of Nirvana. Everyone is or has the ability to become a Buddha in Mahayan beliefs. This makes it look very appeasing to possible devotees. Since the Buddha believed in love and compassion, he would not leave anyone behind. Therefore nirvana is achieved through and with everyone. There does seem to be a lot more freedom involved in Mahayan and Zen beliefs then in ISKCON because one does not have a huge set of rules and guidelines, but rather has to have faith in the Buddha. I do see a lot of similarities in the Zen retreats and the ISKCON communes. They both have a definite leader who makes most of the rules and the followers that have specific monastic duties in which they perform daily.
Zen members do not follow the Buddha’s eight-fold path but rather emphasize more on good works. Zen seems to have broken free from more traditional Buddhist ways. Similar to ISKCON they are concerned with the orthopraxy of their ways. They are not concerned with dogmas or a lot of rituals but focus on riddles, known as koans, which are suppose to stimulate the mind. Zen is also similar to ISKCON in the way they each have a spiritual leader that heads up almost all affairs. The Zen master usually will bring up these koans in order to bring a satori or “surprise” to the mind, which will cause enlightenment. In Zen, reaching Nirvana or achieving enlightenment is coming to the realization that one and everything is empty.
Similar to ISKCON, Zen can be very group oriented. On retreats, members have certain monastic duties that they have to perform. Zen is also very team oriented in meditation as well as in work and labor. They perform zazen, group meditation, to achieve this sense of emptiness together. This meditation is often very rigorous, and can last long hours. This shock therapy is used to stop the mind dead in its tracks to bring about this state of nirvana, which is really emptiness.
They have sutras or sacred texts in Buddism, but Zen devotees look more onto their meditations, mantras, and leaders for authority. Zen teachings are not drawn from text but rather from mind to mind. A great sense of lineage is found in Zen. Every Zen master is thought to be the actual Buddha. The Zen master chooses his successor before his death. The master is held above everyone else. He also conducts a roshi, which are personal interviews with the Zen students. By doing this he can let the student know how they are doing in there studies and thoughts.
Both ISKCON and Zen have great appeal to the masses at the ease of achieving happiness or enlightenment. They usually involve a simple mantra or meditation. Retreats and communal affairs seem to be too strict on how they handle all their affairs. I think freedom and basic rights are lost at the expense of the devotee at the retreats or communes. Even though ISKCON and Zen are derived from two very different religions, one can see many similarities between them. I think this may be linked tot he similar time, the way they reached the US, and the ease of achieving success in them.
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