In such conversations it is profoundly humbling for me to see that each of us has something that the other desperately needs.
Over the past month, and for many months to come, I am in the middle of Dissertation Writing Mode. My dissertation is all about American Buddhism, or, more to the point, the declining significance of the academic classificatory term “American Buddhism” in the face of rising globalization, a case I make by examining American Buddhist ritual structures and their relationships to the formation of community. But, I digress.
There are two continuing trends (or, serious problems) that keep rearing their heads in all of this. One is the idea that there are two distinct communities of American Buddhists white coverts and Asian immigrants — who seem to never talk to one another. The other is that a lot of people who are doing research and writing on the subject invariably ignore the later in favor of the former. I say this is a problem because it seems to me that just because you’re the member of a predominately Asian group of Buddhists doesn’t mean you’re not American. Right? Particularly if you’re a fourth or fifth generation Chinese or Japanese American who’s (a) never been to Asia and (b) only speaks English. But, again, I digress.
I came upon on article from Tricycle this morning that speaks to this issue. Well, actually, it speaks to this weird fascination the folks at Tricycle seem to continue to have with the Zen convert community to the almost complete exclusion of the immigrant community. The article, Dharma Family Values by Clark Strand, is all about how convert communities don’t have the usual rituals in place to deal with birth, marriage, and death, as well as a lot of cyclical holidays, that other religions do. This is a problem for raising families, the author argues, because it’s here that we’re able to bring children into the fold, to teach them how to be Buddhists, and as a matter of practicality, create new Buddhists to carry on the tradition into the future.
And I agree. But let me be clear. I agree that ritual and celebration are the primary ways that religions socialize groups and thereby guarantee future success as religions because they’re making new followers, i.e., children. (But I’m not going to weigh in on whether or not Buddhists should be socializing children because (a) I don’t have children yet and (b) this is really a conversation I need to have with my wife first, the blogosphere second.) What I disagree, vehemently, about is that Buddhism doesn’t already have these rituals and celebrations built in.
I find it incredibly ironic and downright sad that Mr. Strand spends all of his time lamenting lack of ritual within Buddhist communities (read, Zen convert communities, this is an important distinction) and goes to his Christian and Jewish friends looking for advice. Meanwhile, just down the street no doubt, at this local Shinshu or Chinese or Thai temple, there’s all sorts of “cultural trappings” that will suit the bill just fine. For just one example, at my temple, the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, we’ve got a dozen holidays we celebrate each year including Bodhi Day, Hanamatsuri, and even New Years and Halloween (with all appropriate Buddhist twists). Funerals? We’ve got those in spades. And not just funerals but monthly memorial services as well as an annual trip to the cemetery in Colma. This past summer, guess what I had? A Buddhist (themed) wedding. We’ve got “confirmation” rituals where babies are welcomed into the community and given a Buddhist name. And if that wasn’t enough, we’ve even got Sunday Dharma School where kids get to learn all about Buddhism.
What I find troubling about the article is that the author looks outside Buddhism for how to be a Buddhist. He doesn’t consider that Buddhism somehow managed to be a thriving religion across Asia for two and a half millennia before landing on North American shores. Surely it’s dealt with this issue before. And, therefore, surely it’s come up with some solutions.
In other words, Buddhism is about a whole lot more than sitting on a cushion. And it always has been.
So, of this point I will say the following: Mr. Strand, the Dharma Family Values you’re looking for are already present in your own tradition. There is no seeking outside.
However, there’s something else in this article that I think needs to be drawn to the fore. He ends the article with that one-liner I quoted up there. And although he’s talking about Buddhist and Christians and Jews, I think this sentiment is actually quite well-suited for just Buddhists and Buddhists. Or, more to the point, convert communities and Asian-American communities.
Despite all the aforementioned rituals and ceremonies, it’s also true that membership has been declining in American Shinshu for some time, that our communities are getting older just like the Christian and Jewish communities that Mr. Strand talks about. (Although, there are some people who disagree with this but that’s a subject for a different time.) We have a similar problem of getting people to stay with the communities after they come of age. And we’re deeply divided on what to about it.
It would seem, then, that the convert and Asian communities both have something the other needs. The convert communities are looking for models of Buddhist education for children, for ritual and ceremonial structure. The Asian communities are looking for ways to keep grown-ups in the communities, ways to keep Buddhism relevant in their lives after they come of age. The convert communities are doing pretty well on that front, at least as well as the Asian communities are doing on the ritual front.
See where I’m going with this?
It seems to me that the necessity of convert and Asian communities actually start talking to one another is long over-due. Mr. Strong is absolutely right about one thing, one thing all Buddhists in this country ought to be concerned about: we must change or American Buddhism will become increasingly irrelevant.
[cross-posted to the DharmaBlog at the DharmaRealm.]