It’s an argument I have heard before. Having left the religion of their birth, often with good reason, American converts tend to be wary of anything approaching religious indoctrination, even if that means failing to offer their children the basics of a religious education. This has the advantage of giving Buddhist children great freedom of religious expression, with the disadvantage of not giving them any actual religion to express. The result is a generation of children with a Buddhist parent or two but no Buddhist culture to grow up in.
I’m going to write something deeply deeply personal. It’s something of a departure for me, I know (with all due sarcasm), but seems apt given the quote from above.
In his comment, Tom said there were far more offensive things in Mr. Strand’s WSJ piece and hoped I’d comment on them. I’m not exactly offended by Mr. Strand’s ideas. I just think he’s misguided. Personally, I think getting offended about things one reads (on the Internet or in print) is a little silly unless the author is saying things that are obviously offensive (like, oh, I don’t know, claiming that women are inherently bad at science). Of course, I’m sure Dana will tell you I don’t practice what I preach since at least once every morning I bitch about something I read in the paper. But that’s a different story.
I’m going to talk about this quote up top right now but only because I actually have a little first-hand experience with it. My mom, a member of the boomer generation, raised my brother and I explicitly without a lick of religion. From Strand’s point of view, you could say I grew up without a Buddhist culture. It was only after I came of age, so to speak, that I made the conscious decision to start practicing Buddhism. I think, given Strand’s statement up there, that he views this as a tragedy, that in order for Buddhism to survive, there must be a “Buddhist culture” in which it can flourish. On the face of it, I think he’s right.
But I think he’s misguided about the assumption that Buddhism is not flourishing or that there is no “Buddhist culture” in America. And so I think his article is mostly off base. What I was hinting at in my previous post is actually just the opposite. First, I think the numbers are clearly in my favor, that there are all sorts of actual living and breathing Buddhists crawlin’ around all over the place in these parts. So it seems that what Strand is concerned about is one particular type of Buddhism which may be in danger of failing: his type. “Convert” Buddhism. Boomer Buddhism.
I don’t know if that’s true or not. Being neither a boomer nor belonging to a traditionally defined convert community (i.e., Zen) I’m not going to comment on whether or not convert, white, or boomer Buddhism is or is not in real danger of becoming a dinosaur in America. (But I think he’s probably dead wrong. (Oh wait. I said I wasn’t going to comment on that. Drats.)) What I take exception with is Strand’s lack of specificity. If you’re going to say that “Buddhism is dying out,” well, you’re wrong. But he’s not really saying that. He’s saying one type of Buddhism may be dying out. That’s a completely different argument.
What bugs me in all this is that there is a general tendency in Buddhist discourse (particularly of the Tricycle-pop-cultlure-progressive-liberal-white-whatever variety) to speak in broad generalizations about “American Buddhism.” That is, we (and I’ll include myself here) talk about Buddhism as this very general thing that has to do with “detachment” and with “experience” and with “enlightenment.” And, no, it’s not a “religion” because “religions” are these things that those Crazy Christians practice which is bad bad bad. And we love Buddhism, so Buddhism can’t be a religion. But Reality is often far more complex. The reality is that there are plenty of Christians who are also evolutionary biologists and really do believe that the earth is getting warmer. The reality is, as Strand states, that Buddhists historically have been co-conspirators to war-time atrocities. This isn’t to say that the stereotype of Crazy Christian isn’t true: there are crazy Christians. It’s just to acknowledge that not all Christians are nuts. This isn’t to say that the stereotype of Buddhists as peace-loving isn’t true; it’s just to acknowledge that somewhere in the world right now is self-identified Buddhist who’s also an asshole.
So I wish that when Strand writes about this stuff that he’d stop saying “Buddhism,” or even “American Buddhism” is in danger of dying out and instead say what he really means: he and his boomer brothers and sisters are bummed out because they didn’t teach their children well. Which is a moot point. Because they did.
Moreover, to return to me (since this is a blog, it’s always all about me!), I wasn’t raised by a Buddhist. I wasn’t even raised by a “Buddhist sympathizer.” I was raised by a progressive-minded liberal who said, “go out there and figure it out on your own.” Which I did. But here’s the thing: I don’t remember when I first learned that there existed something out there in the world called “Buddhism.” It was a given. Another thing I was attempting to get at in that last entry was this notion that the Buddhism I experience is always in defense against these “ideas” about Buddhism that permeate pop-culture. So, to Strand, I would say that there is, in point of fact, a Buddhist culture in America. We can see it in the Star Wars movies or freakin’ David Cerradine. We can see it in Survivor: China. We can see it in the continuing coverage of Burma and the fact that the Dalai Lama is freakin’ everywhere. We can see it in Tazo Zen tea. Buddhism is out there. It’s all around us. Whether or not all of this pop-cultural fluff is an accurate representation of what Buddhism is in some “authentic” Platonic sense (which I think is bunk but I’ll not digress to that here) is not the point. The point is that you can’t get away from Buddhism now-a-days, and people like me, who weren’t raised with it, are going to convert. But what we’re converting to isn’t in any way shape or form the exact same thing as Strand’s boomer Buddhism.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know. But I don’t think it matters. Religions change. Strand’s boomer Buddhism is going to die just as mine will. If I raise my kids as Buddhists, they’re not going to get the same Buddhism as that one I have, even if they go to the same tempe I go to because religions change. Get over it.