The formal introduction of Buddhism to America occurred at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, when a Japanese Zen monk named Soyen Shaku (1860-1919) came as an envoy. Ninety years later and ninety miles north of Chicago, the formal practice of Buddhism began in Milwaukee under the guidance of Japanese Soto Zen monks at the Milwaukee Zen Center in 1983.
Since then, three other meditation centers have sprung up. Milwaukee Mindfulness practices meditation in the Vietnamese tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926). Great Lake Zen Center draws upon the Korean tradition of the Kwam Um school, whereas Tender Shoot of Joy practices meditation in a style known as Buddhayana.
Theravada Buddhism was brought to Milwaukee in the 1980s by immigrant families from Southeast Asia. Pooling their resources, these families established a temple called Wat Lao at 19th and National Avenue. Their efforts in opening the temple and filling it for most ceremonies show the importance these Milwaukeeans place upon the practice of their traditional religion.
Another immigrant temple is operated by the Vietnamese community. Phuoc Hau began in the 1980s with rites performed in one family’s two-bedroom home on the South Side. By 1993, ceremonies had grown so large that the congregation bought a building on 16th and Oklahoma Avenue. In 2013, they moved to an even bigger facility on Mayfair Road near Hampton Avenue. The Vietnamese community practices a form of Mahayana Buddhism known as Pure Land.
While the immigrant temples bustle with colorful family life, the Vajrayana centers in Milwaukee are made up of individuals. Shambhala Meditation Center practices esoteric Buddhism under its primary guru, Chogyam Trungpa (1939-87). Diamond Way Buddhist Group Milwaukee follows the teachings of its guru, Lama Ole (b. 1941). Diamond Way is on the West Side, while Shambhala is located on the East Side.
Soka Gakkai (“Value Creation Society”) surfaced on the West Side in the 2001. Soka Gakkai is a modern Japanese folk religion that began to flourish after World War Two and evolved into a large, international, lay Buddhist organization. It blends devotion to the Lotus Sutra with humanistic values. Its Milwaukee practice center is located on 76th and Bluemound.
Aside from spiritual practice, Milwaukee also features the academic study of Buddhism. The Buddhist Studies Program at UW-Waukesha was authorized by the University of Wisconsin College System as a certificate-granting institution in 2014.
Prominent figures in the Milwaukee Buddhist community include Dr. Paul Norton, a founder of Milwaukee Mindfulness; Rodney and Bethany Sanchez, founders of Tender Shoot of Joy; and Tonen O’Connor, longtime leader of the Milwaukee Zen Center.
Milwaukee Buddhism is green and growing. It borrows heavily from Asian traditions. The flower of a truly American style of Buddhism has not yet blossomed, and it may take centuries. But its roots in Milwaukee have been planted.
-  Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1992), 119-129.
-  For more information, see Milwaukee Zen Center website, last accessed July 11, 2017.
-  Milwaukee Mindfulness Practice Center website, last accessed July 11, 2017.
-  Great Lake Zen Center website, last accessed July 11, 2017.
-  Liberation Park website, last accessed July 11, 2017.
-  Shambhala website, last accessed July 11, 2017.
-  Buddhist Group: Milwaukee, Diamond Way Buddhism in North America website, last accessed July 11, 2017.
-  Sgi-Usa Milwaukee Activity Center Facebook page, last accessed July 11, 2017.
-  Buddhist Studies Certificate, University of Wisconsin-Waukesha website, last accessed July 11, 2017.
For Further Reading
Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1992.
Prebish, Charles S., and Kenneth K. Tanaka, ed. The Faces of Buddhism in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.