“Any scholarly attempt to describe groups should at least consider how members describe themselves. Our descriptions must be nuanced to account for exceptions, parallels, blends, and developmental processes. They also must pay attention to the history and ongoing effects of racism in the United States. As a white scholar, I have tried to use my own privilege to draw attention those effects, in support of efforts to dismantle them. If we cannot do this, then as Jan Nattier cautioned, ‘there will always be “two Buddhisms” in America: Us and Them, however we define each other.'”
“American Buddhism began in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century with the transmission of ideology, artifacts, and people: Buddhism, Buddhist art, and Buddhists. These ideas and objects found their way to the Americas as part of transnational exchanges of translated texts or transported statuary made possible by the process of modernity and colonialism.”
A rather classical way to describe civilization and society is to use a center-periphery model. This is the “all roads lead to Paris” idea wherein Paris is understood to be the cultural, economic, and political center of the nation-state. Anything that happens in the periphery is understood to be happening in relation or reaction to the center, and it is only deemed “high culture” or “important” once it has reached and been accepted by the cultural elites in the center. Otherwise, it remains hidden and obscured in the world of “folk.”
Over the weekend (in addition to everything else) I received a “press copy” of a new, compilation CD from a company called More than Sound (that, oddly, has something to do with George Lucas): “Dhamma Gita: music of young practitioners inspired by the Dhamma.” While the fellow who sent me the copy didn’t say so explicitly, I suspect he sent it to me under the assumption that I’d do what I am currently doing blog about it. And I do have a couple of things to say about this album. One, I fear, may be more the purview of the Angry Asian Buddhist, but I think that it’s nevertheless important to say. So, if you’re of the opinion that these are just nut-job, guilty liberal tirades, feel free to skip the later half of this post. If, on the other hand, you’ve got an open mind to alternative points of views (not to mention music), by all means, read on. But the other thing I want to say about this compilation album is actually about the music which, on the whole, is quite good, Angry Asian-esque asides notwithstanding. So, without further ado, I think I’ll start with the good news.
This past weekend, the Institute of Buddhist Studies hosted a conference on Buddhism in the West called Buddhism without Borders. It was, by most accounts, wildly successful.
(I say “the Institute” hosted it, but let’s be honest myself and my good friend Natalie did most of the work organizing it. I sometimes have a hard time accepting compliments and often feel more than a little uncomfortable boasting my own accomplishments, but I think in this case I can be allowed to sing our own praises. This conference was the coolest thing I’ve ever done as a scholar.)
One of the panelists presented a paper about about Buddhism on blogs, a study that focused on issues of identity and race within the popular discourse of Buddhist practice. While her paper was not directly related to this blog, she did mention it. And by mention it I mean that in her accompanying Power Point presentation, she showed a screen shot of this blog and pointed out that it’s mine, that’s right, me, the same Scott who helped put together this conference. So, whatever illusions (or delusions) I may have harbored about no one ever reading this blog, whatever illusions (or delusions) I may have that no one in my academic community is aware of this pretty shabby looking blog, well, those illusions have been shattered. I think I’ve been effectively outed. And I wouldn’t be surprised if my readership around here didn’t just jump by a dozen or two. (Hi there!)
How narcissistic is it of me that I’ve even brought this up? It’s completely irrelevant. Like I said, the paper in question really had very little let’s be honest, nothing to do with this blog or my little blogging hobby. But then again, aren’t most blogs at least a little narcissistic? Even if we honestly believe that we’re in it for the sharing of knowledge or other high-minded altruistic reasons, we’re still interested in contributing our own opinions and perspectives to some particular conversation here are my ideas, my opinions, me me me, blah blah blah.
Just after the new year, Jerry Kolber contacted me to ask if I wanted to write a guest post over on the One City blog. I have deeply ambivalent feelings about this. I have ambivalent feelings about this because One City has been criticized by people whose opinions I deeply respect. So, part of me feels like a sell out. On the other hand, I have to respect the fact that the editors of that blog are reaching out to a ne’er-do-well such as myself which suggests that they’re willing to entertain alternative viewpoints, an idea I want to support.
I wrestled with the piece that I ended up submitting to Mr. Kolber. And I’m not 100% satisfied with it, truth be told. Part of me wanted to write a massive take-down critique of the whole thing, a snarky, sarcastic “everyone’s wrong but me” sort of post complaining about my usual irks (privilege, diversity, commercialism, the “Buddhism isn’t a religion” crap). But lately I’ve found myself feeling less irritable. Or, more to the point, I find myself tiring of complaining in those terms about issues that I’ve been complaining about for over six years in this space. If my readers really want to know why I think Buddhism is a religion, I’ve covered that territory. And I’m tired of being a critic for the sole purpose of being a critic. There are, at present, other bloggers out there who are better, wittier, and possibly hotter than me. Let them have that lime-light.
So, in the end, while I’m not 100% satisfied, with the piece, I’ve got to keep it in perspective and remember that it’s (a) only a blog piece and (b) does fulfill my primary aim, one that I doubt I’ll grow tired of any time too soon, i.e., reminding everyone that there really is diversity within the broader (American) Buddhist community, that this is a good and necessary thing, an idea that I’ll defend till I’m blue in the face.
But in the interest of space (I got the impression from Mr. Kolber that shorter was better) there was something I ultimately cut out of that piece that I really wanted to leave in. I cut it out because it was only tangentially related, not directly and obviously related, to my main point. And every attempt I made to make it more directly related seemed forced. And I loath (my own) forced writing. What I really wanted to include was the following: I love Oakland.
As the first official the buddha is my dj post of 2010 (feel free to pronounce it twenty-ten or two-thousand-ten), I give you the following digest post.
- I’m not sure which is worse, the stupid things that people say on Fox News or people actually being upset about the stupid things that people say on Fox News. I mean, yes, I agree, Brit Hume’s fifteen-second rebuke of Buddhism was both offensive and ignorant. But being surprised and offended by the stupid things that people say on Fox News makes about as much sense as expecting to loose weight while eating deep-fried butter. You know it’s not going to end well, no matter how good it tastes. My advice, fellow Buddhists (and left-leaning bloggers everywhere): ignore them. Every time you click that video, Fox News has one more reason to shill patently offensive schlock and boost their ratings.
- In self-promotion news, I’ll be attending (parts of) this year’s BCA National Council Meeting in San Jose at the end of February, specifically for the BCA’s Shinran Shonin 750th Memorial Observance. (Remind me at some point to talk more about this important event.) I’ve been asked, among other things, to do a presentation of Shin Buddhists on the Internets from around the world. If all goes well, I hope to take this information and start up a new web project, something of an online directory of Shin resources. There’s a lot out there, and it would be good to help folks sort through it all and better connect with one another. That’s the hope, at any rate, and details remain fuzzy, to be sure. But keep your eyes on this one in the weeks and months to come, and I’ll let you know how it’s coming along.
- On that note, and in carrying on my desire to present less-obvious, less Zen-centric Buddhist bloggers, today I’d like to point your attention to OneInchBuddha. Written by Wamae Muriuki, a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University (I’m told by my mother-in-law that it really is the Ohio State), OneInchBuddha hasn’t been updated in the last couple of months, but what’s there is worth reading. It’s more on the academic side, buyer beware, but oftentimes academic stuff is downright necessary. And if more folks show up, maybe we’ll see more posts from OneInchBuddha in the year to come.
- Planning continues for the Institute’s March conference on Buddhism in the West. If you haven’t already made your spring plans and want to spend the weekend in beautiful, sunny Berkeley, California, register now. Oh, and apart from the weather, the conference promises to bring together some of the best thinkers on American Buddhism around which would probably be worth it even if the IBS was located in a yurt in Alaska or something.
- Rumor has it you may be seeing my rambling shenanigans elsewhere on the Internets in a week or two. I don’t wanna tip my hand too much on that one, but I’ll pique your curiosity by telling you to look for my by-line in an unexpected place. And while I have your curiosity piqued, look for a more formal, bigger, exciting announcement of Things to Come early February. Along with the help of some friends, something new and exciting is coming to the Internets, and you, dear readers, writers, artists, and ne’er-do-wells, may be playing a role in it.
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.
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…