A few miles across town there's another Buddhist temple, which people often mistake for a Chinese restaurant. Here Vietnamese Buddhists gather to worship in what's known as the "Pure Land" Buddhist tradition. Some members of this sangha, or worship community, have been in the U.S. for more than 20 years; others have arrived more recently.
The two Buddhist centers are in the same Bible Belt community, but virtually separate, largely unaware of each other. That's a situation increasingly common as Buddhism takes hold across America. The forms of practice are diverse, with numerous traditions. But many believe the biggest divide may be an ethnic one.
PROFESSOR RYO IMAMURA (Buddhist Priest and Professor, Evergreen State College): I think we co-exist peacefully, probably not interacting a whole lot.
HELEN TWORKOV (TRICYCLE magazine): There's definitely some divides, and I think we could call it a racial divide. I do not think it's a racist divide.
LAWTON: Buddhism has always traced a wide cultural path. From its beginnings -- 2,500 years ago -- in the Himalayan Mountains to its spread across Asia, Buddhism has adapted to and ultimately shaped each culture it has encountered.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN PROTHERO (Associate Professor, Religion, Boston University): There was a sort of Buddhist boom in the late-19th century, and there was a second one that began in the '50s with the Beat generation and those kinds of people.
LAWTON: In the '60s and '70s that boom became a virtual explosion of non-Asian conversions, among them a relatively large number of Jews. Many of those converts now lead their own Buddhist communities, also mostly non-Asian converts.
Hollywood and the media have perpetuated the impression that the American Buddhist community consists of mostly-white practitioners who follow charismatic Asian leaders such as Thich Nah Hahn or the Dalai Lama.
LAWTON: Ryo Imamura is an 18th-generation Buddhist priest and a third generation Asian American. His grandfather ministered to the Buddhist community in the early-20th century in Hawaii, and in the '40s and '50s, Imamura's parents began a Buddhist Study Center in Berkeley, California. The Center attracted some non-Asians. Imamura says those times have largely disappeared. He says while Asian teachers may have started Buddhist groups here, white converts now lead them.
PROFESSOR IMAMURA: Racism has to play a role because of the times. I think most Caucasian Americans have not interacted with Asians, certainly not in ways that put Asians in more authoritative roles, or roles of respect. And I don't know if you want to characterize this as racist, but I think they are much more comfortable looking up to a white, male authority figure, or maybe a female one.
For Asian Americans, the temple has more congregational importance, playing a key religious, social, and cultural role in the community.
LOPON D'ESTRÉE: In a sense, we have two different agendas or maybe cultural agendas. The Asian tradition is based on something they have grown up with and has more ritual aspects. Coming to a service on Sunday is like coming to church anywhere else. Western Buddhists tend to be more interested in learning how to meditate and Buddhist philosophy. So there is somewhat of a clash of cultures.
LAWTON: Cultural divides also exist within Asian-American communities, with little interaction across those ethnic lines either.
LAWTON: Tworkov's magazine, TRICYCLE, focuses on the needs of the diverse convert community.
MS. TWORKOV: By nature, the immigrant relationship to religion is conservative. You want to conserve your culture, your values, your heritage, your language. And that is done primarily through the church, the temple, the religious value system. We came along in the '60s and we wanted to transform everything, so everything was about, really it was like an opposite direction.
LAWTON: Experts say ethnic divides aren't unique to Buddhism.
LAWTON: But Prothero admits with Buddhism the definitions are more fluid, leading some to wonder whether all the differing strands can still be kept under one umbrella.
PROFESSOR PROTHERO: There is no central authority in Buddhism. There is no Buddhist pope, as much as some like to position the Dalai Lama as the sort of pope-designate for the American scene. There isn't anyone who can excommunicate you if you have a goofy idea of what Buddhism is all about, or if you try to define Buddhism in a way that is unorthodox.
LAWTON: Some Buddhist leaders believe all of American Buddhism would be enriched by more dialogue and interaction.
LAWTON: But others on both sides of the divide say that shouldn't be rushed or forced.
PROFESSOR IMAMURA: I think because of the realities of our society, our diverse society, and the need of we, who are called racial minorities or ethnic minorities, to maintain our identity and our pride in our communities, I think we need that racial divide in a way.
LAWTON: Many say the fact that this is even an issue at all shows the extent to which Buddhism has taken root and is maturing here in America.