a hundred and forty great years

The cover story of the current issue of the Shambhala Sun proudly declares “Celebrating Buddhism in America: 30 Great Years.” The blurb on the website, meant to entice you into buying the print version, has the hook, “For those first Americans who took up Buddhism, it was not primarily a means of dropping out.”

Uh, what?

Let’s see. Thirty years ago would have been 1969. At that point in time, Buddhism had already been pretty well established in this country, especially on the West coast. The San Francisco Zen Center had moved to its Page Street building that year; but Shunryu Suzuki Roshi had incorporated the Center in 1962 and had been teaching both Japanese- and Euro-American students since 1959.

Oh, and look, Robert Aitken’s been in the blogosphere lately. What’s his deal? He and his wife, Anne Hopkins Aitken founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha in 1959. Does that count as “Buddhism in America”? Let’s see, Hawaii became a state in August of 1959; Diamond Sangha was founded in October of that year. So, that should count. And Aitken Roshi has been interested in Buddhism since being in a Japanese prison camp during the War. But maybe he didn’t really “convert” till the late 1940s. So, maybe the title of the Shambhala piece should be “59 Great Years”?

But, then again, we probably shouldn’t discount Alan Watts. True, he was British and came to Buddhism in 1936 after meeting D.T. Suzuki in London. But by 1938 he was living in New York and studying with and receiving formal Zen training from Sokei-an Sasaki. And in 1951 he moved out to San Francisco and worked with the American Academy of Asian Studies which would eventually inspire a couple of crazy Beat poets to pursue Buddhism. And until his death in 1973, Watts had a radio show here in Berkeley on KPFA. So, let’s see…2009 minus 1938…maybe we should amend that headline to “71 Great Years”?

Hey, but wait a minute. I just remembered that Watts was also influenced by Theosophists. They were pretty big back in the day. Which means we probably should at least consider Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. He converted — officially, with a monk, and everything! — back in 1880. True, this was in Sri Lanka and he didn’t spend too much time back in the States. But he was a freakin’ Civil War Colonel (he didn’t just use the title!) and he did pal around with Anagarika Dharmapala who helped spread Buddhism in the States as a result of the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago. So, there’s a none-too-subtle connection there. But, to be fair, let’s just tag this at 1893 (from 2009) which would mean maybe they should call it “116 Great Years”?

(Hmm. I wonder if there’s something to this “great” thing. Maybe they don’t consider anything before 1969 “great.”)

Oh, wait a minute! Something just occurred to me! You know what I forgot? I forgot that not all Americans are white folks. I know, hard to believe, but it’s true. (I think there’s something happening tomorrow that involves a non-white American. Anyone else hear about that?) So, if non-white Americans are “taking up Buddhism,” then we’d do well to remember that the first Japanese came to the States in 1869 (in California; they’d arrived in Hawaii (not yet a state) in 1855). By 1893, the first Shinshu priests came to the mainland because the struggling Japanese community were concerned about their cultural survival and spiritual well-being. Ahem. They took up Buddhism.

And, of course, the Chinese had been immigrating for even longer, as early as the 1820s. But their communities were not particularly large (and overwhelmingly male) through the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. And there’s some question as to how “Buddhist” anyone was. So let’s just split the difference and say that there were certainly Buddhists of some stripe as early 1870. So, where are we? 2009 minus 1870? That’s a 139. Let’s just round it up shall we, and re-lable the latest issue of Shambhala “Celebrating Buddhism in America: 140 Great Years.”

When I first saw this issue of Shambhala on the grocery store newsstand over the weekend, my hackles went up only very slightly. I assumed that when they were talking about thirty years, they were talking about the thirty years that Shambhala has been publishing, that Shambhala Buddhism itself has been in North America. Not Buddhism as a whole. But when I saw their web blurb, the one that touched off this overly-sarcastic rant, I couldn’t help myself. This is the problem with how we talk about American Buddhisms. We use a grand and sweeping set of adjectives — Buddhism, America, Americans — to talk about very specific things. In this case, they’re really talking about thirty years of Shambhala in America; and when they talk about Americans taking up Buddhism, they’re talking about (mostly white) converts becoming interested in a post-Beat generation version of Buddhism in the early 1970s.

If people used language with more specificity, if they were saying what they actually meant, I would get up on this soap box far less frequently.

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8 thoughts on “a hundred and forty great years

  1. Well said, Scott. I’ve been doing some reading for a talk I have been asked to give on Buddhist approaches to dying in the USA. I found one article (I can’t recall where) saying that only in the last twenty years have Buddhists taken seriously the issue of preparing for death. Apparently until just over twenty years ago, Buddhists lived forever or didn’t have any fears regarding death.

  2. Those were the days, huh? I remember when we got the memo that said we weren’t going to live forever anymore. Sad day.

    But, seriously. Your talk sounds great. You should contact Jeff Wilson (if you haven’t already). I believe he’s done some work on Buddhists and death in the US. (That has a nice ring to it!) But I could be wrong. Oh, and when I was in Atlanta, Donna Mote said she was interested in doing some work on the Obon in Hawaii (I think), but I don’t know if she has. I can put you in touch if need be.

    At any rate, thanks for the comment!

  3. Damn it! Ah, I’m never going to hear the end of that one. Oh well. It only makes the 30 years more ridiculous considering how long Shambhala International’s been around.

    Thanks for being a good editor!

  4. Hey arun,

    No, I don’t know what happened to Level 8. Weird. But, in the couple years I’ve been following the blog, I know GF has taken it down, put it up, moved it, etc., several times for various technical and non-technical reasons. So it’s possible he’s in transition. (And perhaps will let us know his plan here in this thread if he stops by, hint hint.) I’m sure he’ll be back!

  5. this is kind of like Columbus “discovering” America in 1492…

    keep up the good work!!!

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