Earlier this summer, I started a little research project based on this post. I asked folks to submit their own coming to Buddhism stories. While the project is still on-going, I wanted to report some initial thoughts as well as where I’m thinking of heading with it.
First and foremost, an update and hearty thank you!
I received a number of responses from my initial post from Buddhists who had either converted or had rediscovered a forgotten family tradition. Much thanks to everyone who contacted me; you’re willingness to share your experiences, I believe, will go a long way in helping us understand the nature of the American Buddhist landscape.
My initial thought in all of this was to get a sense of “Buddhist converts” in as broad and general sense as possible. While it seems pretty obvious to me that “convert” almost always conjures up, well, one particular stereotype, I wanted to be sensitive to the fact that (a) not all converts look alike or have the same sort of experience and (b) that whatever assumptions I may have about this whole thing may be wrong wrong wrong.
A recurring in the responses came as a surprise to me. A significant majority of folks reported that they are what may best be described as “solo practitioners” solitary Buddhists out there in the hinterlands of America (and Canada and Europe) who are either a long ways away from a significant Buddhist population, temple or center, or at the least aren’t near a center where they feel particularly comfortable for one reason or another.
This is fascinating. But I’m not at all sure what to make of it. On the one hand, it seems to me that it may represent a significant population within the American Buddhist landscape that may be being overlooked within the academy (let alone the popular presses). These folks have particular needs and concerns that those of us who live in large, multicultural urban centers don’t have; and their practice and sense of “community” is necessarily, radically, different. This is something I’ve been tangentially aware of off and on for some time, both through questions from listeners to the DharmaRealm podcast and from the work of such scholars as Helen Baroni who presented a paper on a related topic at last year’s AAR (and from whom I’m borrowing the phrase “solo practitioner”).
On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t represent a “significant” portion of the American Buddhist population. To be frank, my sample size is relatively small. So, if nothing else, it may just represent a significant portion of one particular demographic, i.e., my audience, people who read my blog. In other words, you. (Hi there!)
Now, this doesn’t mean that the experiences of solo practitioners or the needs of my particular audience are insignificant or unimportant. Quite the contrary. If nothing else, this has been an eye-opening experiment in figuring out who’s out there reading this which, now that I know, necessarily means that I have something of an obligation to you, my loyal readers, to address your needs. I would remiss if I claimed, simultaneously, to want to be the kind of scholar/blogger who sees no distinction between the Ivory Tower and the non-academic — and then go on and ignore what I’ve inadvertently learned about the very people who are reading my work!
Moreover, I’m probably right in assuming that most if not all of you get your Buddhism from more places than just the buddha is my dj! And if that’s true, that can only mean one thing that you’re reading other people’s blogs and that other bloggers share the same responsibility that I do in including you in our collective, virtual community. To the extent that I believe the buddhoblogosphere ought to represent the entirety of the Buddhist community, and to the extent that there are (possibly) a lot of folks out there in need of distant community, those of us who have your attention have some responsibility in including you in that conversation.
So. Those are some of my initial thoughts after receiving some responses to my coming out Buddhist project. I’m not sure, yet, where I’ll go from here or what I’ll do with this data. It seems to me that it needs to be out there in some more formal way; so I’ll have to put some thought to exactly what that “formal way” should look like. And, given that I said I have a relatively small sample size, it should go without saying that if you haven’t contacted me about this yet and would like your voice included, by all means!
As for the bigger picture, I am in the process of dreaming up a more ambitious project. So stay tuned for that.