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.