I'm currently traveling in SE Asia with my wife. On this trip we've visited central Vietnam and Thailand. On previous trips we visited northern Vietnam, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Laos. Each country has a strong Buddhist tradition. As we've traveled and met people, my wife has frequently announced that her husband is a Buddhist. (I'm more reticent about making that statement, but the reasons for that might be another blog entry.)
Usually the initial reaction to Gail's statement is surprise and some curiosity. In Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, the interest seemed to stop there. In Vietnam and in Hong Kong I found some assumptions being made about what it would mean if I were Buddhist. Sometimes there's an assumption that I'm vegetarian even though few of the lay people in these countries seem to be. Actually they often seem to eat a wider ranger of living creatures, and parts of living creatures, than I do. In Vietnam and Hong Kong there's also been an expectation that I will want to visit the temples, pray and perhaps offer incense.
The practices in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand have been closer to my own experience with Insight Meditation and Theravada Buddhism in the US. But in these countries monks and temples are the most obvious expression of Buddhism. Lay people seem to focus on ethical behavior, making merit through generosity and supporting the monks and temples, being protected from evil spirits and making their way in the world.
Although my understanding of the Buddhist practices and beliefs in these different cultures is pretty superficial, getting a little sense of how popular Buddhist practice has been influenced by the history and culture of each country has also given me a little perspective on "American Buddhism." Buddhism in Hong Kong and in Vietnam seems to have been strongly influenced by Confucian beliefs and practices that play such a strong part in Chinese culture, while in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, areas where Hindu civilizations once ruled, Buddhism seems to retain some of those Hindu influences and along with beliefs in spirits.
So what about American Buddhism? What will it be like? Some people like to spend a lot of time and energy thinking about this, apparently believing that we can consciously control the outcome. I tend to think that the outcome will be influenced by our conscious choices about how to practice — for instance maybe a "stripped down" Buddhism based on the suttas of Early Buddhism — but that our hidden, and not so hidden, cultural values — things like our scientific, materialist orientation, a pragmatic emphasis on what works, a non-hierarchical orientation and gender equality — will more profoundly shape American Buddhism than any conscious choices we might make.
Those influences are already occurring. Though they may not be obvious to us, perhaps they are to visitors from other Buddhist countries. It would be interesting to know.