In my last post on this issue, my overall point was two-fold: (1) there are real differences between Buddhism and Christianity that aren’t being discussed in the Brit Hume kerfuffle; and (2) that Brit Hume exposes a deeper religious double-standard in our country that may be the better target of our discontent. In this post, I’d like to talk about a related but separate issue, that is, how the mainstream media represented Buddhists in their response to Brit Hume’s comment.
Before I go on, however, do read that disclaimer in my last post, especially the second one.
Over the last year or so I’ve become increasingly aware of a very fractured Buddhist blogosphere. While it would seem lovely to idealize the Buddhist blogosphere as a free and open space, one where a large and diverse collection of voices share their opinions, I think it’s safe to say that online, just like in the real world, Buddhists are pretty sectarian. Zen Buddhist bloggers seem to read one another’s blogs, comment on them, cross post their ideas, include one another on their blog rolls, and so on. Shin Buddhist bloggers seem completely oblivious to these issues. Non-English-speaking Buddhist bloggers are, in turn, having completely different conversations.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Why shouldn’t Zen Buddhists be attracted by and large to the writings of other Zen Buddhists? So please know that I am not judging this behavior or suggesting that it should be any other way. I’m merely observing and am fully aware of the fact that there are always exceptions to the rule.
Having said that, in the case of Brit Hume, it did seem to me that the most virulent, the most offended Buddhist bloggers did come from one corner of the Buddhist web. I heard loud guffaws of indignation from some portion of the dozens of Buddhist blogs I regularly follow while others seemed to be living on a completely different planet. I can’t help wondering why that is.
Leaving that aside for the moment and looking to more mainstream media and the cable channels, when reporters went looking for people to respond to Mr. Hume’s comments, when they went looking for sound bites, it seems to me that they went looking in some pretty unexpected places. The three voices I heard most clearly were two scholars Stephen Prothero and Robert Thurman and the leader of a mediation group in New York, Ethan Nichtern.
Now, I have nothing against these folks. I must admit that of the three, I am most familiar with the work of Prof. Prothero, but that has little to do with anything, particularly this post. It merely seems interesting to me that when pressed for a sound bite, the mainstream media went not to the head of a religious order but to academics.
Mr. Nichtern, of course, is the head of a type of religious institution. But it nevertheless seems strange to me that we never heard from, say, Socho Ogui, the bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America. Or, for that matter, his counterpart in the Jodo Shinshu Churhes of Canada, Socho Fujikawa. Or Thanissaro Bhikkhu? Or Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche? Or Ven. Maharagama Dhammasiri?
Have no fear: I am not playing the role of the Angry Asian Buddhist today (note my inclusion of a white-American monk in the above list). I am merely making an observation.
I’m not sure how to read this, truth be told. Part of me wants to interpret these (no doubt unconscious) moves on the part of mainstream media as reflexive. That is, when confronted with something that is decidedly “other,” they are charged with making it approachable to their mainstream audience. Interviewing an Asian monk clad in saffron robes (or a non-native English speaker, for that matter) would not make Buddhism any less “other” than it already is; interviewing a white American scholar (one of whom is the father of a famous movie star), on the other hand, makes Buddhism more approachable.
But, paradoxically, Buddhism is still held at a distance. It is something best understood intellectually (Prothero and Thurman) or something of a fad for a younger generation (Nichtern). And despite our best efforts to understand it, we’ll still make a joke out of a viewer’s comment about being reincarnated as a tree. Rather than engaging with a wider diversity of Buddhist voices, rather than reaching out to non-white American Buddhists who may take issue with Mr. Hume’s comments, Buddhism is presented as a religion we must respect owing to our valuing of multiculturalism, but it’s still something “different,” something “other.”
I think that this may be one way to read Big Media in this moment. I don’t know if it’s right, but I think it’s worth putting out there.
This isn’t to say that what Ethan Nichtern or Profs. Prothero and Thurman had to say on the matter was off-base, incorrect, or not deeply appreciated, especially by me. These fine folks are not in my cross-hairs; Big Media is. Like I said at the outset, I think that the Brit Hume kerfuffle is a teaching moment. I think that we can use it as an example of how our culture deals with religious diversity, divergence, and inter-religious conflict. We can look at how the media paints certain pictures of different religions by who it holds up as those traditions’ spokespersons, how it frames the debate. In this case, Mr. Hume seems to speak for a certain brand of Christian (and is allowed to defend this position time and again on Fox News). Meanwhile, Buddhism is presented not as something wholly different from Christianity, but as an acceptable alternative, a religion as American (i.e., non-Asian) as anything else, but still a distant curiosity.
Is this good or bad for Buddhism? Or Christianity, for that matter. I don’t know. But by remaining relegated to sound bites, I fear that, ultimately, this whole affair may do nothing to deepen our understanding of either faith’s true intent or message.