american buddhism and all that jazz

amida (from
It’s been a busy morning over here in buddhaworld. I woke up to a slew of comments and emails. And it’s inspired me to say a few more things about this recurring little issues around here, Clark Strand’s take on the death of American Buddhism.

But instead of going after his ideas specifically, I’m going to talk about “American Buddhism” and why I’m finding myself increasingly dissatisfied with this categorical term. Suffice to say, a lot of what follows comes directly from The Dissertation, so think of it as a little preview, a teaser movie trailer. (Imagine Don LaFontaine with a voice-over here: “In a time, when Buddhism in America was near death, came a man to change all preconceptions!!!”)

…but I digress…

Also, since this is from the dissertation, you can expect it to be wordy and talking specifically about how we talk about Buddhism, and not directly about Buddhism or Buddhists. But I’ll come back to that.

So, now that the disclaimers are out of the way, there are two primary reasons why I’m not inclined to like the term “American Buddhism” as a way to describe what’s happening in the Wide World of Buddhism circa the 21st century.

First, it seems to me that the term is most often used (both in popular presses and in academic literature) to refer not to the whole range of Buddhist traditions in the United States but to specifically those sanghas that are predominately white. This is troublesome to me for a lot of reasons and not the usual “let’s be PC and talk about non-white people because we’re filled with liberal guilt bull shit.” In fact, it’s got nothing to do with that so let’s not go there.

It’s problematic to me to use the term “American” anything when talking about specifically white people not because what white people are doing is uninteresting but it necessarily means that non-white people aren’t (a) American or (b) influencing the activities of white people. In my research on the subject, I’ve found time and again that the whole of the American Buddhist tradition has been influenced by non-white Buddhists, even the whitest of the white Buddhist sanghas. And the sanghas that are predominately Asian are doing new and interesting things here, too, that they never did back in Asia, so it’s hardly fair to call them Asian Buddhists in America as some have been wont to do.

So it’s really a problem of specificity. Like I said before, if Clark Strand is saying that American Buddhism is in decline, the statistics don’t back that up because there are plenty of non-Baby-boomer-white-Buddhists who are doin’ just fine. So, his use of “American” Buddhism should be more specific. As should a lot of people’s.

Moving rapidly along! Here’s the second reason I’m growing increasingly dissatisfied with the term “American Buddhism”: how relevant is a geographically unique classification in an increasingly global world?

There’s been a ton of recent scholarship on the process of globalization and the effects this has on the development of cultures and religion. One writer I came across recently talked about “social remittances” and used this term to refer to the movement of ideas and social capital across national boundaries. Whenever an idea, a book, a teaching, a teacher, a tourist, a migrant farm worker, a whatever moves from one place and back again, s/he necessarily brings along a plethora of cultural baggage, unique perspectives, and preconceptions about both where s/he’s come from and where s/he’s going. All of that necessarily changes both starting and end point.

Well, so what scott? The so what is in how these perspectives change the religion on both end. A good case in point are white American teachers who go to Japan to get confirmed as Buddhist teachers and then come back. Part of their religious experience (a huge, extremely important part, I’ll add) is formed not in America but in a foreign country. And yet, when they’re done having the experience, they come back here and teach other white Americans about this experience. So their teaching is now informed by specifically non-American forms of Buddhism.

Another good case in point is the work of Eve Mullen in The American Occupation of Tibetan Buddhism. (It’s a short book. You should go read it. Now.) In it she recognizes that ethnic Tibetans are dealing with multiple ideas about “who they are” or what their religion “is” as it negotiates several cultural-political spheres: inside Chinese occupied Tibet, in exile communities in India and Nepal, and in the United States where there are all kinds of white sympathizers doing all sorts of philanthropic work for this group of people. Add in the fact that there is a high level of travel among these groups (not to mention a lot of trade, there’s money to be made after all), and what you get are multiple ideas of what it means to be a Tibetan Buddhists or an ethnic Tibetan living in exile which are formed not in one central cultural sphere or country but, in every sense of the word, in a global culture. And these ideas then influence and effect the way “American” Buddhists think about and practice their religion.

I could go on. Hell, I did go on for nearly 200 pages about this. But I’ll spare y’all that right now and just end this point by saying that as I look at “American Buddhism” what I see is a tradition that is not developing in isolation from other parts of the world but one that is developing in conversation with international trends. What happens to Buddhists in other parts of the world necessarily effects how American Buddhists understand Buddhism and themselves as Buddhists (cough, cough, Burma, Tibet, cough, excuse me). And the research I’ve done tells me that this has been happening for at least a hundred and twenty years — so this ain’t a new phenomenon. And if I’m right, if American Buddhism is inextricably linked to Japanese-Indian-Chinese-Tibetan-Taiwanese-Korean-Thai-Sinhalese-etc. Buddhism then can we reasonably call it “American”? Or, to put it another way, what specifically about “American Buddhism” makes it not something else? (And don’t say that it’s because white folks are meditating. I can refute that one in my sleep.)

If the answer is “I dunno,” then maybe we should start thinking about American Buddhism in other ways. Maybe we should start thinking about Buddhism in, oh, I don’t know, the way Buddhists usually talk about themselves. A-like-so:

“Hello. I’m a Buddhist.”

“Oh, cool. What kind of Buddhism do you practice?”

“I follow the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism.”

“Really? I’m a Buddhist, too, but I follow the Shingon lineage.”

“Oh yeah. I’ve heard a lot about those guys. Tell me more about what you do?”

(Notice how these two happy little Buddhists are exchanging ideas and not once did the have to talk about their age-gender-nationality-ethnicity-etc. because, after all, who gives a shit what your age-gender-nationality-ethnicity is.)

Wow. I’m feelin’ punchy this morning!

Anyway, now that I’ve said all that, I want to move on to other things, other things that will have to come in a different entry. But, to give you a teaser, those other things will be all about How Buddhism Can Change Your Life and not that in “let’s all be happy I’m okay you’re okay” way, but in a real, deep, meaningful, “oh my god you mean I’m inextricably connected to ever single thing in the entire universe?” sort of way.

Which is some pretty heavy stuff.


One thought on “american buddhism and all that jazz

  1. Good point. The whole American Buddhism thing is just a construct anyways. People just want to practice Buddhism in a that’s just intellectual and “rational” (unlike those silly asians), without appreciating why Asian Buddhism is the way it is.

    I’ve learned to appreciate Japanese Buddhism through my wife, and I wish more American Buddhists would do the same.

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