Man. I hate to do this. But, if I’m being honest, I also love it. (And I suspect you do, too.) I hate to do this, but I’m just going to have to say it. Clark Strand is wrong.1
Okay. Maybe he’s not wrong, to the extent that he’s merely presenting his opinion and opinions aren’t wrong in the same way that the statement “dinosaurs and humans coexisted on the earth at the same time” is wrong. But I disagree, deeply, about his opinion.
Here’s the issue. As a result of the Honest Scrap Award, I was reminded of that opinion piece Mr. Strand wrote for the Wall Street Journal a year-and-a-half ago. (Wow. It’s been that long?) I tore it up a bit at the time (I’ve been known to do that). But since I was reminded of the piece yesterday, and being a big believer in allowing one’s opinions to grown, mature, and even change over time, I thought I’d re-read the article and see if my opinion had done just that.
The gist of Mr. Strand’s argument is that (a) the population of American Buddhists swelled with Baby Boomers thirty years ago; (b) since they were rejecting “organized religion, they didn’t bother to pass it along to their kids; (c) since they’re getting old and dying off, and since they didn’t bother to pass it along to their kids, American Buddhism is dying off; (d) we need to keep American Buddhism alive because it’s a wonderful “thought experiment” that brings together the best of the East and the West; (e) therefore, what we really need to do is infuse American Buddhism with family-oriented rituals, ceremonies, and folk tales to pass it along to Baby Boomer children; (f) and the best way to do that is to look to Jewish and Christian traditions for inspiration.
Those are the highlights. Let me know if I missed anything.
Here’s what I think is wrong (or what I disagree) with in Mr. Strand’s argument. First, it’s pretty clear he’s talking about “convert” Buddhists who meditate, which is code for “white folks” of a certain socio-cultural background.2 So my first gripe, not unsurprisingly, is that he implicitly and falsely defines “American Buddhism” as Buddhism being practiced by older, white folks. I’m not going to get into that. I’ve gotten into that enough, lord knows. But even if this was true, even if his characterization of American Buddhism was correct (or even if it’s just this one kind of American Buddhism that’s in danger of dying), there’s still something very misguided in points (e) and (f).
As to point (f), what I said last time in regards to this point still stands. If the whole rest of his argument is true, it does not logically follow that we need to use Jewish or Christian styles of religious organization, ceremony, or ritual in order to pass Buddhism on to our children or to create an “American Buddhist culture.” In fact, that’s just ludicrous. It’s ludicrous because, first and foremost, there already is a “Buddhist culture” (i.e., plenty of ritual and ceremony and, yes, folk tales) that can be spread in an American context. To make the claim that the only way to “save” Buddhism is to infuse it with non-Buddhist ritual and ceremony is to assume either that this is something that Buddhism lacks which is simply not true or that the native Buddhist ceremonies and rituals aren’t a good fit or aren’t right for an American context. It bothers me deeply that Mr. Strand seems to want to throw out the baby and the bath water.3
It seems that one of his central arguments, and one that has ruffled the most feathers in the progressive/liberal Buddhist set, is that Buddhists need to be raising Buddhist children. I don’t disagree with him on this point. Or, that is to say, I don’t think that Buddhists should not raise Buddhist children. I’m going to take something a libertarian stance here. I think whether or not any family raises their children to be Buddhist or otherwise is really none of my damn business. And it’s none of Clark Strand’s business either. And it certainly isn’t a concern for Baby Boomers.
Which suggests that his may be Very Good Advice for old ex-punk rockers like myself who are all tattooed up and thinking about not-too-trendy baby names.5 But it seems to me that Mr. Strand and others are missing what is painfully obvious to those of us born after 1970. Mr. Strand argues that there is “no Buddhist culture to grow up in” in America and that, presumably, there should be. And I couldn’t disagree more. There is a pervasive Buddhist (sub)culture in America. It’s all around us. It’s on prominent display during BCA-member temples’ bazaars. It’s giving Dharma talks in incense-smoke-filled rooms during Sunday brunch. It’s all over the Internet, infusing the media, being bastardized left and right. And it may not be “authentic,” it may be deeply unsettling to some. But it’s there. And it’s real. And it’s part of American life and culture.
And we need to deal with it.
Look. The fact of the matter is that culture is a self-perpetuating organism. Mr. Strand the Dalai Lama, the folks running the San Francisco Zen Center, the bishop of the BCA, academics, bloggers, you, me, anyone can reflect on culture and do our best to describe it. We can even add to it. But culture is going to go off and do its own thing, whether we like it or not, whether we raise Buddhist babies or not, whether we do anything at all. Culture’s gonna go on ahead and create more culture.
All that stuff I listed is a part of American Buddhist culture. And it’s happening right now. So having a conversation about whether or not Baby Boomers should raise their children as Buddhists misses the point. A lot.
From a position of Buddhist leadership, it seems to me that we’ve got two options: (1) try and engage new media, do our best to influence the direction and growth of the pre-existing Buddhist culture in America, change the rhetoric and take hold of the dialogue; or (2) bury our heads in the sand and become irrelevant and forgotten.
So my real gripe here is not that Mr. Strand is coming out of left field and misrepresenting American Buddhism by equating it with ex-hippies 55 and older sitting around staring at their navels. (I have that gripe. But you knew that already.) My real gripe is that he, and a lot of other folks out there I suspect, are missing what’s really happening, right in front of us. Ceremony, ritual, folk tales, culture, the arts, how to raise Buddhist children? It’s already happening, man! It’s already being done!
It’s time to catch up. It’s time to participate.
- What I hate to do, specifically, is to muck up a perfectly good sharing of the Honest Scrap Award love by resurrecting old debates. Oh well. Some say it’s what I do best. Why fight it! [ back ]
- While Mr. Strand never explicitly makes the distinction between “white Buddhists” and “Asian Buddhists,” I don’t think I’m reading this into his article. When he talks about the ranks American Buddhist in the US swelling, he talks about it in the context of the historical Baby Boom which pre-dates the influx of Asian Americans to this country after 1965. He refers to their practice in terms of meditation and calls these folks converts. In other places, he has written about SGI which means he must be aware of the fact that SGI is full of converts who aren’t white and who don’t meditate. So he’s not talking about them. Moreover, SGI folks aren’t exactly reluctant when it comes to passing on their Buddhist practice to others. Mr. Strand also recently spoke at the Jodo Shinshu Center. (I didn’t go because his talk was about god, a subject I’m not particularly interested in, and a blog post for an entirely different day.) So I know he must be aware of the Buddhist Churches of America who, also, don’t meditate and have lives chock full of ritual and ceremony as well as plenty of ways to pass their Buddhist practice on to their kids. Through the power of deductive reasoning, then, it’s pretty clear he’s talking about older, more liberal, white folks. [ back ]
- I’m wondering if what Mr. Strand is really arguing for is hidden in his off-hand remark about the “thought experiment” of American Buddhism is to “imagine a new model for religion altogether.” This reminds me of some interesting stuff being done on the intersection of Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism, a subject I’ve not had much interest in but one that I think I may be looking into more in the future. It seems to me that it may represent a completely new model for religious identity/practice, one that disregards traditional (Western) modes of religious practice which presume strict sectarian divisions. If this is where Mr. Strand is coming from, then much of my argument here is, admittedly, missing the point. But something tells me that this isn’t where he’s coming from, at least not explicitly (consciously?); so I stand by my ranting! [ back ]
- I realize this isn’t entirely true. For starters, where we place the boundaries on generations is inherently fuzzy business. But, more importantly, I suspect that the vast majority of folks who hold positions of leadership in Buddhist communities are members of the Boomer generation. Thus, while they may not be raising their own children, they’re in a position to (help) raise someone else’s children. So they have a vested interest in the issues that Mr. Strand raises. Nevertheless, I still vehemently disagree with Mr. Strand’s tacit assumption that there either is no American Buddhist culture or that the culture Buddhists import from Asia is somehow lacking vis-Ã -vis Judeo-Christian culture. [ back ]
- No, Mom, she’s not pregnant. [ back ]