Friday, 13 November 2009

We've Come a Long Way: 30 years of American Buddhism

Charles Prebish has a great commentary in the latest issue of BuddhaDharma, discussing his observations of American Buddhism over the past 30 years. The main theme of the commentary is that we've come a long way since the late '70s and things are generally looking very good.

He speaks about our growing connections here in the U.S., not only through greater numbers and more centers, but the internet and great books. One of the things that caught my eye was his statement that American Buddhism:
... has developed, I think, in large part because of the ecumenical cooperation between practitioners and scholars. In a culture that fosters a mostly lay membership, the scholar practitioners have come to fulfill the role of the scholar monks of Asia, generating a Buddhist literacy among current practitioners that is unrivalled anywhere.
This was a point related to my recent presentation at the American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal. There, I spoke about the convergences of the Theravadin Buddhist practice of Metta-bhavana, or "Cultivation of Loving-Kindness" and the Jesuit "Spiritual Exercises."

An excellent question was raised afterward about our ability, as scholars, to put into words what practitioners are actually experiencing. Our presider, John Keenan of Middlebury College, called this the "Elephant in the Room" in contemporary Buddhist Studies. Sure we, as scholars, can argue about the dates of texts or the influences of scholars or events on the development of Buddhism, but can we really get inside the heads of practitioners? I think so.

For one thing, many, such as myself, are scholar-practitioners. So I can speak not only about the use of reflexive pronouns in the Pali texts, but from my own experiences, from those of my teachers and now, as I teach meditation, I can speak about what my own students tell me. If that puts me in the company of greats such as Charles Prebish, Richard Gombrich, and Rupert Gethin, (as well as the bright "young thinkers" mentioned by Prebish: Shannon Wakoh Hickey and Jeff Wilson) then I'm quite happy to be there.

The scholar-practitioner issue was discussed over at Kyle's blog a while back and came up again in comments by the Zennist at the tricycle blog more recently where he wrote, "the wheels of academia move oh so slow where dogma is often prized more than innovation." My own humble experience has been quite the opposite, with academics pushing countless innovations, forcing people to rethink old dogmas again and again.

As the Buddha's own teachings were richly contextual, we need people who study the context of his teachings as well as people who study the context of today to know how and when they should be applied. We should be cautious of believing everything stated by someone just because they hold a Ph.D. (or traditional credentials, for that matter), but it's wise and a sign of healthy humility to grant respect to those who have spent the time to study or practice enough to earn those credentials. Question, but listen first.

Correction (11/13/09, 7:50pm): I had originally stated that John Bullitt was the "respondent" for the panel. It was in fact John Keenan and he was the presider.


  1. I was disappointed in how the commentary by Prebish, while definitely filled with interesting and valuable points, makes it seem like Buddhism in America began with the convert centers of the 1950's and 60's. It's really time that convert scholar/practitioners get a grip (pun intended) on the fact that Buddhism has been in America much longer than 50 years, and that there is a large Asian-American Buddhist population with diverse practices that are just as important to examine as the convert communities. In fact, if we are going to try and speak of an "American Buddhism" - a term I'm not sure I have an interest in - then it's even more important to be thorough-going in the research and discussions. Personally, I'd prefer to encourage that research and speak of the practice we see here as "American Buddhisms" - pluralities of form and expression are much more in touch with what's happening in my opinion.

  2. Nathan, you'd probably be interested in the work that Prebish mentions toward the end, that of Hickey and Wilson. I'm happy with the "American Buddhism" label as a useful designator: we're talking about America, and we're talking about Buddhism. I'm yet to find anyone so naive as to believe there is only one thing that these labels point to.

    Similarly with the label you use, "Asian-American Buddhist" someone could object and say there IS no Asian-American, there are only Korean-Americans, Japanese Americans, and so on. And someone else could object and say you have to talk about Tokyo-Japanese Americans and Kyoto-Japanese Americans, because they're definitely not the same. And why keep "America" in the singular here? After all, the term means different things to different people.

    Concerning the timeline, it was my understanding that he was speaking from his own experience, using the publication of his book 30 years ago as a touchstone, rather than attempting to give a comprehensive history of Buddhisms in Americas.

  3. Yeah, terms are always fraught with these kinds of issues. No matter what, they're always partial indicators that have to be held lightly.

    "I'm yet to find anyone so naive as to believe there is only one thing that these labels point to." I have to say I talk to a lot of people who would fall into the "convert" camp who rarely, if ever, consider Buddhist practices beyond what they have learned at their sangha, or read in books. They know little, if anything, about the history of Buddhism, nor about diversity of practices and forms that are here in the U.S. When they hear the term "American Buddhism," it by and large means what they have experienced. This was true for myself up until about five years ago, when our sangha underwent a painful transition, and teachers from a variety of traditions visited us to give dharma talks.

    I think you're right about Prebish's focus. The problem for me is some of the framing. Here are a few examples:

    "Can an early observer of the American Buddhist scene like me see this onslaught of Buddhist everything in a positive light?"

    "Those early years were trying times for scholars studying American Buddhism and for American Buddhists alike."

    How would a fifth or sixth generation Chinese-American Buddhist take this kind of statement, just to give one example? Those of us who know the history are aware of the context he is speaking of, but many others just assume that Buddhism came to U.S. in the 1950's and 60's. In fact, it's even a bit disingenuous to say that "convert" American Buddhisms began then, given that places like the First Zen Institute of America, which itself was founded in 1930, and actually started before that in a different form. Even in that light, Prebish claim of "early" doesn't hold up.

    In my opinion, Buddhist scholars need to be more careful about positionality and framing issues like this. I remember feeling the same thing when hearing Rita Gross speak about feminism and Buddhism, as if there has been one feminist viewpoint that has one set of critiques to give about the practice.

    What's interesting is that I think Prebish's last paragraph points to the kinds of exchanges and study that will actually help break down some of these issues. May it be so.

  4. Thanks for these very good points, Nathan. I agree.

    I think my fault here and probably Prebish's too is to see things too much through the academic lens, where the 60s and 70s *are* early (insofar as US academics started looking into Buddhism in great numbers), and failing to state that for practitioners this is well into the development of American Buddhism.

    Your initial comments make the professor in me want to create a pop quiz for the Buddhist groups around town to see how well they understand Buddhism beyond the bedstand. Hmmm...
    Perhaps my academic slant makes me think they must know more than they actually do...

    I do hope new work in the field does, as you say, help break down some of these issues.

  5. Buddhism is a self-practicing religion. This feature lays some restrictions on its development. I do think Buddhists should socialize with each other more often. The temples should do more about this.