I had hight hopes. I had hoped to write a grand and sweeping assessment of 2009 (perhaps this whole decade), a look back at the terrifying highs, the dizzying lows. But to hell with it. I don’t have time. And, really, I’d rather look ahead, to 2010, to a year for which I have even higher hopes than I do for writing a reflective blog post.
In lieu of that, I give you the following paragraph, in full and without (much) commentary. It’s from Jeff Wilson’s book, Mourning the Unborn Dead. I’m quoting this paragraph because, it seems to me, incredibly appropriate in the context a good number of conversations we’ve had in this blog (and elsewhere) in 2009. If it’s appropriateness to this blog is lost on you, you must be new or weren’t really paying attention (which, in some cases, was probably pretty smart!). But I’d also like to point out that, despite this decontextualized paragraph, this book doesn’t really have anything to do with the conversations on this blog over the past year, at least not directly. The book is really about a post-pregnancy loss ritual, mizuko kuyo, and how it is being practiced in American Zen Buddhist communities (both the Japanese- but especially the non-Japanese varieties). It’s an engaging read, one I recommend (especially the footnotes), and Dr. Wilson is certainly going to be someone to keep an eye on in years to come.
So without further ado:
Stories from these communities suggest that acculturation of Buddhism (and perhaps other religions as well) in America is a never completed project, a process that continually slides back and forth along a spectrum rather than one that moves confidently forward from a beginning point called “tradition” toward a destination called “American innovation.” One reason for this is that transnational ties continually introduce foreign innovations and practices to American religious communities, even those that settled in the United States prior to the twentieth century. These stories also reveal that Americanization is often the product of ignorance rather than conscious adaptation, and that the Buddhist contribution to rituals and ideas in some Zen communities is rivaled or even bested by influences from psychotherapy, feminism, and other elements of white middle-class American culture. This points to potential weaknesses in our typologies. The “ethnic” in the category “ethnic Buddhism” seems justifiable when it refers to how certain practitioners understand themselves: as Buddhists by ethnicity, rather than by individual belief. But when it becomes a racial signifier as in “ethnic” versus “white” Buddhism it breaks down, for how can we allege that Japanese ethnic influences are greater in Japanese-American Zen than European-American ethnic influences in convert Zen? What is whiteness if not yet another ethnicity? Convert Zen is not a return to the Buddhism of Shakyamuni (or Dogen) as some scholars have suggested but yet another flavor of ethnic Buddhism, one created largely by and for Americans of white cultural background.
Dear Future Self,
I’m writing to you from the end of 2009. For Christmas this year, someone gave you Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. I haven’t finished reading it, yet, but let me say this up front: I love it. I have a feeling it’s something I’ll come back to time and again. But, last night, reading a couple of essays about childhood here in the 21st century (a.k.a, The Future), I detected the familiar stench of the bitter old man, just beneath the surface.
You may remember the bitter old man. Many years ago now I wrote about him when he popped up in an article on Wired.com. Those there dark days, to be sure. A couple of weeks ago, I thought I saw bitter old man’s snarky female cousin in an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich (more on that later). So perhaps I’m just overly sensitive. To be sure, whereas Mr. Chabon (rightfully) laments the loss of what he dubs the wilderness of childhood and the move from sterile, minimalist Lego blocs to recreations of George Lucas’ memory, there are real gems in here, too. There is the acknowledgement that not all hope is lost, that children, as they always have, will find new avenues of creativity and imagination; they will transcend the crap of mainstream media.
I’d like to make a comment about something I wrote in my last post, something (wait for it…) hyperbolic. In pointing your attention to Prof. Toshikazu Aria’s blog, Echo of the Dharma, I made an off-hand remark about his being involved in a sort of “Dharma War” with Josho Adrian Cirlea. I am probably overstating the issue.
As far as I can tell, there are (largely academic or scholastic) disagreements among what we may call “modernist” Shin Buddhist thinkers who downplay certain aspects of strict Shin doctrine and up-play the symbolic or psychological or purely spiritual aspects of the tradition. This tendency among modernist Buddhist thinkers is nothing new; David McMahan in his The Making of Buddhist Modernism discusses at length the characteristics of Buddhist modernism, among them the trend of “psychologizing” traditional Buddhist cosmology. Shin modernists will quickly downplay the supposed reality of Amida’s Pure Land and cast the experience of birth in said land as a psychological or purely spiritual experience, not a literal one. This is something that a host of Buddhist modernists have done since Anagarika Dhamrapala and D.T. Suzuki at the turn of the last century right on down to, oh, just about every prominent Buddhist who writes for an English-speaking audience today and has had their work published in the so-called mainstream Buddhist press.
So, it’s not surprising that there would be modernists in the Shin school. And it should not be surprising that where there are modernists there are traditionalists folks who are more conservative in their beliefs and are reluctant to change or reinterpret centuries-old doctrines, practices or rituals to suit the whims of contemporary practitioners who, no doubt, will be easily distracted by the next shiny thing coming out of Cupertino. Religion, for the traditionalist, is the last bastion of stability in a constantly changing world. So let’s not go changing anything.
I’d like to switch gears here for a moment, away from all that sardonic snark of earlier this afternoon. (I’m not sure if sardonic is the right word, here. Sure it was mocking, but not really grim. Oh well. Let’s let it ride.) The Bottom of Heaven, one of my favorites, routinely posts short summaries of random media or links. I like this idea. It seems to me a good way to deal with something I struggle with; namely, how do I share information with my readers without resorting to the restrictions of 140 characters which, it seems to me, often get lost or go unnoticed?
So, without further ado or explanation, I’d like to draw your attention to the following…
I just wrote, and deleted an exceptionally long and self-reflective post about, among other things, my lack of critical posts over the past few months and a central question of mine of late: why the hell am I blogging?
Then I got up, went to get some coffee, and, having returned to the computer, realized that that post was really the kind of thing I should have written for a private journal, were I the kind of person who still kept a private journal. (This may be a subconscious plug that I should start keeping a journal again like I did when I was younger.) And I’m guessing that no one wants to read that. Or, maybe more likely, that I don’t know if I want to share that much with you.
Nevertheless, there were a couple of things in that post that I think are worth putting out there. But they come with the following disclaimer. In my now deleted post, I wrote at length about how I don’t know anything. About how I’ve come to see the world not in terms of absolutes, of rights and wrongs, but instead as a series of complex and nuanced issues that have no right or wrong answer, and that at the end of the day we’re going to have to live with uncertainty, we’re going to have to live with inadequate, crappy answers that make one or two people, if not happy, at least less irritable, and leave the rest of us more or less in a bummed out state of resignation. A state of, “Well, I guess that’s just how it is. And how it is sort of sucks.”
It is now Friday, December 4, 2009. It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted anything, here at the end of a surprisingly quiet autumn for the buddha is my dj. I realize that I’ve been posting less lately. (And, my god, there’s been so much that I could have (should have?) written about!) There are real reasons for the scarcity of posts, to be sure, but rest assured the following: the primary reason I’ve been posting less is that I’ve been deeply engaged with some other projects this fall; and you can expect more from these parts in the new year.