Over the weekend, thanks to the miracle that is the Internets, I found out that I was quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press in an article about a newly opened Buddha Bar in that fair city. Funny, I thought to myself, I don’t recall having been interviewed by anyone from the Winnipeg Free Press, or ever having traveled to Winnipeg, let alone to any Buddha Bar. But, there I am. Waxing philosophically about the evils of capitalism and everything that’s wrong with a drinking hole named after the founder of my religion.
Except, I didn’t.
The article in question isn’t really quoting me, it’s quoting from a paper I wrote for a conference in Kyoto last summer, a paper on a similar but not completely unrelated topic. After the initial, “Hey, cool, I’m being quoted in a newspaper” glow faded, however, I found that I’m actually kind of bothered by this article. Here’s why:
For starters, I’m not wholly convinced that the reporter actually talked to any Buddhist ministers, priests, monks, or even particularly sharp lay-people. The article does quote Rev. Fredrich Ulrich of the Manitoba Buddhist Temple (go Canadian Shinshu!), but did he actually talk to him? He certainly didn’t talk to me, and I don’t believe he called up Rod Meade Sperry (correct me if I’m wrong). I know that they didn’t talk to Jeremy Carrette and Richard King since the quote from them is, like mine, simply a quote from a book they wrote (I know it’s a quote; it’s sitting on my bookshelf). So did the reporter have a long sit-down with Rev. Ulrich? I’m skeptical, and if they did, it would have made far more sense to have the article focus on that interview rather than a completely unrelated paper by yours truly.
Or, for that matter, why not talk to any of the other Buddhist communities/community leaders in Winnipeg. There’s at least four more Buddhist centers in Winnipeg apart from the Manitoba Buddhist Church (according to Google maps); presumably some of them would have some opinion about a bar being opened in their hometown called “Buddha Bar” an opinion far more directly relevant to that community than whatever random nonsense some snot-nosed academic rabble-rouser from the States is blathering on about.
Secondly, while the article makes it sound very much like I’m being quoted specifically for this incident in Winnipeg, I’m not. The reporter simply found some random paper I wrote and pulled some quotes from it and came up with the assumption that I’m “worried by the growing trend” in Buddhist material culture being co-opted by capitalism. The problem with that, though, is that I’m not worried about that. And no where in my paper do I say I am worried about that. What I do say is that we should be attentive to the history of Western colonialism vis-Ã -vis Buddhism and the concomitant issue of the politics of representation. We should be attentive to who’s doing the representing, who isn’t, and for what ends.
More to the point, though, that paper was written, very self-consciously, for a very specific audience, namely the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies, a professional organization made up of scholars of Shin Buddhism along with practicing Shin Buddhists. That paper had a somewhat polemical tone because I wanted to challenge folks who are in leadership positions and/or positions of power to think about the politics of representation and whether or not it is something that they should worry about. And if they decide that it is something they should worry about, what should they do about it?
I don’t really care if someone wants to open a chain of restaurants called “Buddha Bar.”
But what really bothers me about this piece is that, in addition to quoting my paper wildly out of context, the author has completely missed the point I was trying to make. He sums up his article by making the claim that the commercialization of religion is something that’s “old hat” to Christians. But the larger argument I was making in my paper, again, had to do with the politics of representation. Because we live in a dominant Christian culture, Christians have access to the lion’s share of power and media outlets. So any “offense” to Christians is easily mitigated by the fact that they’re in no real danger of being misrepresented or of becoming obsolete.
How do I know this? Easy. Walmart tells its greeters to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and Bill O’Reilly declares that there’s a “war or Christmas” despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of all Americans self-identify as Christian (or belong to a Christ-derived tradition), despite the fact that more people believe in creationism in this country than evolution, despite the fact that someone can go on national television and make an unchallenged claim that there’s a “war on Christmas.” So even if someone wants to sell a Jesus air freshener, Christianity is still legitimated by the fact that every single one of our forty-four presidents has been Christian. Christianity is still legitimated by the fact that there are still far more correct or authentic representations of Christianity out there than there are Jesus flip-flops or Biblical breakfast cereals.
What do Buddhists got? Our biggest star (second perhaps only to Richard Gere) has an extra-martial affair and he’s immediately told to convert. And when he stands his ground, Americans are told that the Buddha was “a fat guy,” a glutton. We’re dismissed as a bunch of superstitious weirdos who believe that we’re going to be reincarnated as a tree.
So don’t tell me that the commercialization of Buddhism is the same thing as the commercialization of Christianity.
Now, look. I’m happy that someone is reading my work. And I’m happy that there are people out there interested in this topic. And I’m happy that we’re talking about it. And, full disclosure, I’m actually doing more work on this topic, something that will be published in the next year or so. So I’m happy to have this conversation. Which is really the point at the end of it all. I’m happy to have this conversation. Why a reporter would be so lazy as to pilfer a blog for comments rather than simply sending me an email is baffling.
So, to all the would-be reporters out there, it’s not hard. Just click that “contact” link up top, and myself and all the rest of us wily Buddhist bloggers will happily respond with more context-appropriate statements.