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"Go West!": Locating an epicenter of religious hybridity

Los Angeles is one of the primary centers, if not the epicenter, of Asian religions in the United States. Los Angeles is home to the largest Buddhist community outside of Asia and the city abounds with Thai, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tibetan Buddhist temples and meditation centers. Currently, Buddhists outnumber Methodists in Los Angeles County, and in neighboring Orange County populations of Asian-Americans and Asian religions have expanded exponentially.6 While communities of Indian Hindus are less prevalent in Los Angeles (despite centers in Little India and Little Bangladesh), Los Angeles has become the headquarters for the majority of Hindu guru movements and yoga gurus who have found home in the United States. In American Veda, Jewish author Philip Goldberg writes:

In five to 30 minutes from my home in Los Angeles, I can be at any of the following: the Self-Realization Fellowship’s Lake Shrine; the Sivananda Yoga-Vedanta Center; the Hare Krishna temple; Ananda L.A.; the Siddha Yoga Meditation Center; the Sri Aurobindo Center; the Universal Shaiva Fellowship (the Kashmir Shaivism of Lakshman Joo); the Transcendental Meditation Center; Radha Govinda Dham; classes at Loyola Marymount’s Yoga Philosophy Program; regular satsangs or study groups with devotees of Sathya Sai Baba, Mata Amritanandamayi, Ramana Maharshi, Neem Karoli Baba, Swami Rudrananda (Rudi), Adi Da Samraj, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Ekhart Tolle, or Krishnamurti; at least five weekly kirtan evenings; and more Yoga studios than there are Starbucks. If I’m willing to drive another ten or 20 minutes, I can be at the Vedanta Society’s temple and monastery; SRF Mother Center or its Hollywood temple; the Sai Anantam Ashram; the Art of Living Foundation (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar); the Malibu Hindu Temple; the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University; some neo-Advaita Satsangs; several Ayurvedic clinics; and still more yoga studios ... and it doesn’t include special events with visiting gurus, Yoga masters, workshop leaders, and kirtan singers. Yes, the spiritual buffet on the west side of Los Angeles is as abundant as the sunshine” (2010, 327-328).7

While Indian Americans are interspersed throughout these organizations, they are dominated by Anglos, including Christians, Catholics, agnostics, and an extraordinary number of Jews.

Since the 1960s, Los Angeles has welcomed spiritual seekers who have turned to Asian religions as the primary building blocks of their bricolage spiritualities. They have done so for three primary reasons: (1) availability of Asian religious ideas and practices due significant populations of Asian immigrants after 1965, (2) Asian religions’ focus on practices, which make them pragmatic and efficacious tools with which to construct bricolage spiritualities (Atlgas 2014), and (3) their status as outside of the trifecta of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, renders them to be perceived as exotic and foreign, and yet also as non-threatening.

Los Angeles has drawn in spiritual seekers throughout the twentieth century -from Aimee Semple McPherson (1918), to the Self-Realization Fellowship (1920), to the notorious Manson Family (1968) and Scientology (1977). Los Angeles has also become the primary site of genesis for numerous Asian-inspired new religious movements, including Father Yod’s Source Family, which became internationally famous in Woody Allen’s classic film “Annie Hall” (1977), for its “spiritual vegetarian” restaurant on Sunset in West Hollywood. Los Angeles is not defined by any one religious tradition, but rather has become the founding land for self-defined spiritualities that break the rules, hybridize traditions, and establish new paradigms for spiritual thought and practice. The identity’ of the city' relies on pluralism, diversity, freedom of thought and expression, and it is imagined internationally as the land where dreams can become realities. Historically, it has drawn those who are longing for different lives, new realities, and unexpected adventures; religious and spiritual seekers find a home here. It is a city tolerant of and even intrigued by' the unusual and the non-traditional, a city' that finds opportunity' in the next, wildest innovation.

The 1960s saw mass geographical migrations to California, particularly' among those active in the countercultural movement, in which Jews were heavily' represented. These spiritual seekers found easy' resonance with the religiously tolerant culture of California and ample resources for religious exploration in the experiential modes of Eastern religious practices. The emphasis on religious experience, articulated explicitly' by' the iconic Jimi Hendrix line, “Are You Experienced?” fostered a new emphasis on altered states, meditation, drug use, and freedom to personalize religious choices. California, “the frontier of the frontier...

the furthest edge of the spirit of the west” (Kripal 2008, 32) soon became the place where “East meets West ... and experiment meets experience” (Blum 2012, 84). The sheer multiplicity of religious activities that proliferated across the Southern California landscape insured that many Jews, like their gentile counterparts, would turn to Asian religious practices, particularly those offered by Indic gums, to supplement their existing religious proclivities.

Jewish-Buddhists and Jewish-Hindus easily find home and followers in Los Angeles, where there are large populations of spiritual seekers who have been exposed to Asian religions and are interested in practical spiritual methods, that is, meditation, yoga, chanting, and so on. Scholars have long noted that Jews have been actively involved not only in the practice of Buddhism in the United States, but more accurately stated, in the creation and dissemination of unique forms of American Buddhism. Heavily influenced by psychology and alternative medicine, Jews have been integral to creating new forms of Buddhism -particularly in developing “mindfulness” into a popular American concept. Yonatan N. Gez suggests that the affinities between Judaism and Buddhism are theologically linked through the narrative of suffering. He quotes Dovid Sears, who remarks, “Which Jew who has suffered insult and exclusion, and which Jew who has any awareness ofjewish history, could disagree with the Buddha’s ... truth of suffering as a given in life?” (Gez 2011, 60). Noah Levine, John Kabbat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Allen Ginsberg, Adam Yauch. and a large entourage of celebrities have all crossed boundaries, blended traditions, and developed new hybrid forms of religion in the spaces between Judaism and Buddhism. Rodger Kamenetz made the term “Jubu” famous in his book The Jeu> in the Lotus, and in its wake significant scholarly work has analyzed the confluences between these two faiths of suffering and the hybrid spiritualities of contemporary Jubus (see Kamenetz 2007, Sigalow 2019, Bader 2002, Shoshanna 2008, Boorstein 1998, Gottlieb 2005).

But scholars have not turned equivalent attention to the relationship between Judaism and Hinduism (or Hindu-related religious practices). In parallel form, Jews are similarly well represented in the broad field of Hindu spirituality in the United States. Like other American adopter populations they rarely attend traditional Hindu temples routinely because temple worship is more directly oriented to diasporic Indian Hindu populations. Instead, as some of the leading figures of American counterculture, Jews are significantly represented in Hindu-related guru movements, postural yoga, and kTrtan (devotional music) scenes. In Los Angeles, where these types of spiritual centers proliferate, Jews are often in powerful positions. Jews have been instrumental in furthering the advance of Hindu-derived guru movements throughout the United States. Although these movements have developed roots across the United States, the greater Los Angeles region has been the epicenter of both guru activity and the unlikely cultural confluence between Jewry and Hindu-derived religiosity since the 1960s.

 
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