Overview of Flight of the Swans


Flight of the Swans: Dharma Comes West

Accessing the Course

Course material for Flight of the Swans will be released on Monday, February 17, and roll out each week after that for six weeks. Students will receive reminder emails before the course content is released each week.

Each week includes three or four video talks, accompanied by a discussion forum, supporting ‘deep dive’ readings, and contemplative practices. Your instructor will also host two live sessions online, offering a chance for a direct Q&A and discussion.

Course Curriculum

Week 1

This week introduces the question, who are Buddhists in North America? How do people identify as Buddhist, and how does that Buddhist identity manifest in lifestyle, practice, community, and ethics? From this we will investigate what your relationship with Buddhism is, whether you are an interested observer, a secular mindfulness practitioner, a bookstore or podcast Buddhist, or whether you are a practicing member of a Buddhist community.

Next, we examine the question of how fully Buddhism has actually been transplanted onto North American soil. Using a traditional scholarly criterion, we will ask whether Buddhism has empowered dharma heirs of traditional lineages, developed means of financial support, translated the core dharma texts, and established monastic lineages in the west. These criteria provide the foundation of discussion for the weeks to come.

This week you will

● Survey the demographic data about who Buddhists in North America really are, from the US Census to research data from the Pew Research Center.

● Contemplate what defines us, or anyone, as a Buddhist, and ask, who decides whether someone is a Buddhist.

● Look at selected cultural manifestations of ethnic Asian Buddhist communities, especially the Jodo Shin-Shu and Soka Gakkai Japanese communities.

● Examine the question of how fully Buddhism has actually been transplanted onto North American soil, and in what forms this has occurred.

● Discuss what your own connection to Buddhism might be. Do western models of religious identity apply to contemporary Buddhists?

Week 2

This week we survey how the swan of Zen came to the lake of American culture. Who were the first Zen teachers to visit North American soil, and what influence did they have? We identify the primary lineages of Zen practice in America, the Rinzai and the Soto, and the modern synthesis movement in Zen called the Sanbo Kyodan school. Who are the primary teachers representing these schools in America, and how firmly planted are these schools in the context of the four main criteria for effective transmission? 

We also identify the distinctive culture of Zen centers in America with regard to practice, community, teachings, and relationship with teacher. In a final talk, we discuss Zen’s influence on American culture especially in relationship with the arts.

This week you will

  • Learn about the first transmissions of Japanese Zen to America;
  • Identify the characteristics of Rinzai, Soto, and Sanbo Kyodan Zen in America, including the primary pioneering teachers;
  • Understand the basics of Zen meditation practice and training;
  • Appreciate Zen’s simplicity and focus on present moment experience;
  • Analyze the resilience of American Zen through the four criteria of effective transmission;
  • Contemplate Zen’s influence on the arts in America, especially Beat poetry and contemporary music.

Week 3: 

Week Three treats one of the primary American Buddhist lineages associated especially with the First Turning and connected with Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia. American Vipassana grew out of Asian roots, and is nurtured by Asian lay and monastic Buddhism, the American counterculture, and by immigrant communities of the United States. 

This week considers the history, culture, and sustainability of American Vipassana traditions, and their influence on mainstream American society.   

This week you will:

  • Learn about the history of the development of vipassana meditation in Southeast Asia.
  • Identify the transmission channels from Southeast Asia to the United States, including immigrant communities, Asian teachers, and counterculture American seekers who brought back a lay version of the practice.
  • Find out how to connect with vipassana meditation, with whom, and where.
  • Analyze how American Vipassana has developed the factors of resiliency for the future.
  • Investigate the connection between American Vipassana and the secular mindfulness movement.

Week 4:

Week Four examines western communities practicing Tibetan Buddhism, especially those practicing with native Tibetan teachers in exile. Attention will be paid to the uniqueness of Tibetan Buddhist communities, because they are challenged by the peril of survival, given that their foundational Tibetan traditions and monasteries are threatened by Chinese oppression. 

This week considers the history, culture, and sustainability of Tibetan Buddhist practice communities, and their influence on mainstream American society.   

This week you will:

  • Learn about the diverse ways Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to American culture after the Tibetan diaspora in 1959
  • Identify key Tibetan teachers and lineages who established practice communities in the west
  • Trace the primary qualities of the culture of Tibetan Buddhist convert communities, including scholasticism and translation of texts, Vajrayana ritual practice, and formless meditation
  • Identify the resilience of western Tibetan Buddhism based on the four criteria of dharma teachers, translation of texts, patronage, and monastic life.
  • Explore the challenges of bringing a guru-based form of Buddhism in western egalitarian culture.

Week 5: 

Week Five examines social engagement in Buddhist traditions and in American Buddhism. Beginning with the foundational teachings on relieving suffering and creating social harmony, we will identify distinctive qualities of socially engaged Buddhism. 

Special attention will be given to how American Buddhism is addresses sexism and racism in society through understanding how privilege works, and how to reverse abuses of power.


This week you will:

Week 6: 

Week Six continues an examination of social engagement in Buddhist traditions in a North American context. This week focuses especially on how Buddhists are uniquely addressing climate change, drawing from the teachings regarding interdependence. 

In addition, we examine how Buddhists are interacting with those of other religious traditions in interreligious dialogue, and how Buddhists are dialoging with each other. 

Finally, the course closes with an overview assessment of how North American Buddhism has developed resilience in four areas traced throughout the course—the cultivation of dharma heirs, the translation of core texts, the cultivation of patronage, and the establishment of monastic communities.


This week you will:

  • Learn how the Deep Ecology movement, fostered by Buddhists, has developed into Green Buddhism activism, based on interdependence.
  • Identify key Buddhist teachers and leaders who lead environmental activism in North America 
  • Describe ways that Buddhist communities cooperate and collaborate on American soil, learning and growing from their contact with each other
  • Trace how Buddhist leaders have formally engaged in theological and contemplative dialogue with leaders of other major religious communities
  • Explore the resiliency of North American Buddhism over time, assessing the four criteria that have served as the theoretical basis of the course.

A Few Notes About Navigating the Course

  • There will be two live sessions with Judith Simmer-Brown on February 13 and March 2. More details will be sent to your email.
  • While the course is designed to be followed sequentially, you may jump around as you like. You’ll see a check mark next to sections you’ve completed and the section will appear grayed out (but don't worry, you can go back to it at anytime).
  • The talks are provided as videos and as MP3 files for audio only. The videos offer closed captions (click on CC on the bottom right-hand corner of the video screen to enable).
  • The community discussion board is an opportunity to reflect upon what you have learned and for us to engage with each other as we move through the material. Here you can provide feedback on the enrichment activities for that week, ask questions, and reflect on your own experience as it relates to the focus for the week.
  • Each week includes a quiz that reviews some of the key points covered.
  • Also included are suggested further readings drawn from our publications, Lion’s Roar magazine, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, and lionsroar.com, as well as other sources.
  • At the end of the course, you can receive a Certificate of Accomplishment. To earn it, you’ll need to watch the videos, complete the short quiz at the end of each week, and participate in the online discussions.

More Questions?

Email us at learn.lionsroar.com