In the past couple of days, I’ve gotten myself involved in a fairly meaty debate over on the Dharma Folk blog. The subject? American Buddhism. And in particular, everyone’s favorite punching bag, Tricycle!
The crux of the issue is that Tricycle touts itself as the “voice” of Buddhism in the West. But it represents but a slice of all the voices in American Buddhism. I think that’s a fair criticism. I’ve been harsh (perhaps unnecessarily so) of Tricycle in some past posts here and comments on others’ blogs. But I think my criticisms are valid. They’ve got a history of catering to the “mainstream,” the mainstream in this case being liberal white Buddhists. And liberal white Buddhists don’t make up the majority of American Buddhists.1 Even if you listen to the Pew Report, they only make up 53% of the American Buddhist population, and we all know how that Report is wrong, wrong, wrong.2
But the point I want to make here is about criticism and why criticism is Good for Everyone. In a couple of days I’m going to Denver. No, I’m not going to Mile High. I’m going to the IBS co-sponsored conference on Women in American Buddhism. (I’ll be back before you get here, Juli!) The location and the theme of the conference are mixing in my head in weird ways. Specifically in regards to criticism.
Sen. Obama, as we’re all sick of hearing by now, is often derided as somehow not American or patriotic or other inane non-sequitors and often for the simple fact of his being critical of the United States. This is an attitude I simply do not understand. It is patently illogical.
If you believe that the country is perfect, then, of course, you wouldn’t be critical of it. But if you believe the country isn’t perfect, that we can do more to make the country better, even if we disagree on the hows and the whys, simply saying that the country could do better is a form a criticism.
As a point of fact, the only way to improve anything a country, a relationship, a religious institution, the academy is to be critical of it.
So when I’m critical of American Buddhist institutions like Tricycle or even specific sanghas that I think are off the mark, it’s not because I’m being a shrill ne’er-do-well who likes to complain simply for the sake of complaining. I’m being critical because I believe that these institutions can do better. That we, as the Buddhists who constitute those institutions, can all do better.
In fact, I’d argue, that’s the whole point of Buddhism. Or, at the very least, a foundation upon which any practice rests.
How, I ask, can you possibly improve your practice and progress along the path without being self-critical?
So I kvetch out of love. Damn it.
Now, what’s this gotta do with the Women in American Buddhism conference? Many of the conversations I’ve had online with folks as of late about criticisms of American Buddhism have centered squarely around race. Around the tired and worn out “two Buddhisms” model of American Buddhism. And I would like to bring into the mix some women’s voices.
I say this for a couple of reasons. First, I do not have at hand any statistical evidence of gender inequality within American Buddhism though I suspect it’s pretty rampant. So, I’m hoping someone out there better educated in this field can help fill in these gaps. And perhaps I’ll learn a thing or two this weekend. (In other words, I’m being open-minded.) Secondly, I think we could have a debate till Maitreya comes about whether or not there’s any racism or ethnic inequality in Buddhism but it’s really really really freakin’ hard to get around sexism and gender inequality in Buddhism when it’s right freakin’ there in the sutras and the vinaya.3 I don’t think this means we need to abandon ship. But plenty of extremely smart and talented people have commented on this issue, and I would love to hear more of their voices!
- Just so’s you know, (if you haven’t figured it out yet!) I fall into this category of a liberal white Buddhist (though I prefer to think of myself as a progressive, socialist, working-class, pissed-off Buddhist). And I really have no idea about the political make up of Buddhists of any color (was that even in the Pew Report?). But I do know that the American Buddhist population is not a straight 50-50 split between white folks and Asian folks, which is what I’m really driving at here. [ back ]
- The reason why the Pew Report is wrong is two-fold. First, they did not poll anyone in Hawai’i. Hawai’i has a huge Buddhist population, and many many many of them are Asian Americans. Secondly, they only did their survey in English and Spanish, so if you’re a Cantonese-speaking American Buddhist, oops, we didn’t count you. So the Pew Report is wrong is because it literally did not count people and now can be used by (lo-and-behold) mainstream Buddhist presses to make claims about what American Buddhists look like. Wrong wrong wrong. [ back ]
- The 35th Vow of Amida (the Bodhisattva formerly known as Dharmakara) states “Oh Blessed One, may I not come to the complete awakening if, when I have done so, it is not then the case that women in all Buddha lands throughout the ten directions who listen to my Name, have serene faith and aspire to awakening, and who hate the forms and statuses imposed upon them as women, shall not, on entering my land, be liberated therefrom.” Much ink has been spilt over what this means, but, at base, it points to the submissive status of women (and specifically female bodies) vis a vi men. The vinaya, as well, subjugates women by declaring that women’s ordinations must be sanctified by monks and that nuns are by definition inferior to monks. I’ve got little to say on this issue now. Like I said up top, I’ll let smarter people than me weigh in. [ back ]