As you may or may not be aware, over the past week or so, here and in other places there’s been a long and sometimes helpful, sometimes not helpful, conversation about what to call Buddhists in these parts. Western Buddhists? American Buddhists? Convert? Asian? What? And buried in the middle of Arunlikahit’s post was something I think deserves far more attention than it received Global Buddhism. But, of course, this speaks directly to an area of research I’m currently pursuing with some vigor, and the specific phrase he used Buddhists without Borders mirrors the title of a conference I’m co-organizing here in Berkeley next March.
But for now, I don’t want to dwell too much on this issue of globalization. I don’t want to get too far into a conversation about what globalization means, generally speaking or specifically in regards to Buddhism. I’m more interested in the concept of transnationalism. But I don’t want to limit this discussion to transnational agents who are, in some literal sense, crossing borders, i.e., transnational. Strictly speaking, transnational agents refers to those folks who are immigrants, migrants, pilgrims, members of a diaspora, and so on. (Thomas Tweed and Eve Mullen have done good work on this subject.)
What I want to call attention to here is the idea that we can use the theoretical implications of transnationalism and apply them to most people living in contemporary, pluralistic, postmodern, global societies. The thing about transnationalism is that it points to the lived reality of folks who inhabit multiple spaces simultaneously. Transnational individuals are both here and there. They are not caught up in a binary; they exist in some liminal space between the opposites while fully embedded in both locations.
In other words, most of us in contemporary, pluralistic societies cannot be reduced to one, narrow marker of identity. I am not just a Buddhist. I am a white, male, married, straight, Californian, thirty-something, progressive, Shin Buddhist who rejects hegemonic power structures. I inhabit all of these systems of meaning, I embody all of these markers of identity simultaneously, even when they contradict one another.
Chances are, this is true of you, too.
So here’s the problem. We’re trying to solve an equation, x Buddhism, where x equals “North America,” or “Wester,” or “modern,” or whatever-the-hell you think it should mean. Trying to solve this equation, however, raises two problems.
First, it forces Buddhists and Buddhist traditions into either/or binaries. If I say, “I’m a Western Buddhist,” I am implicitly making the claim that “I am not an Eastern Buddhist” which implies that who I am as a Buddhist, what I do as a Buddhist, has nothing in common with someone we categorize as an “Eastern Buddhist.” And this is where we start tripping all over ourselves. Either we force people into these binary categories which necessarily includes some while excluding others, and then we spend all of our time trying to explain to people what we mean by x in such a way as to not offend anyone. Or we end up trying to conjure up some new term that will include everyone and, in the process, make some new categorization that is so broad as to be meaningless.
(Moreover, the whole project of dividing up the Buddhist tradition into these categories is the very definition of discriminative thinking which we’re supposed to be avoiding at all costs as Buddhists in the first place.)
Second, we need to recognize that these categories are etic ones, that is, they are extrinsic to Buddhism. If anything, we should be trying to solve y Buddhism where y equals whatever particular tradition or lineage you come from. (I am a follower of the teachings of Shinran Shonin as passed down through the Nishi Hongwanji school of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.) y Buddhism, it seems to me, should be solved first. Solving for y gets to the heart of the central Buddhist question: what is your practice?
But, of course, solving for y doesn’t get us off the hook. As I alluded to above, none of us is or should be reduced to one simple marker of identity. Yes, I’m a Shin Buddhist. But I am also all of these other things, and all of these other things are just as relevant and just as meaningful in determining my behavior or outlook on the world. So, merely solving for y, in my view, doesn’t get us around problems of race or representation. All it does it allows us to be clear about what we’re talking about.
The problem with x Buddhism, the reason why all these words we keep throwing at it hoping one will stick, is that there is no solution. Whenever you come up with a term to solve x Buddhism, you are invariably missing something. In my case, for example, if I stick “Western” in there, how do I account for my Buddhistic behavior that is decidedly un-Western? As I said before, if I am a Western Buddhist, I am not an Eastern Buddhist. But some of my beliefs and practices have more in common with Japanese customs than they do with other white American Buddhists. So, am I a Western Buddhist? Yes, of course I am. I was born and raised within a Western cultural milieu. But I am not just a Western Buddhist. My Buddhist practice (and who I am in a more general sense) is influenced by multiple cultural streams. As a result, I inhabit multiple spheres of cultural influence simultaneously.
So, for the time being, I am going to stick with x Buddhism. I am going to leave the equation unsolved and happily find comfort in ambiguity.