“American” Buddhism equals “Prostetant” Buddhism?

Recently I started reading a book recommended by friends on the Jodo Shu Buddhist Group email list called Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan by Professors Ian Reader and George Tanabe Jr. I’ve read both their books before and liked them for their empirical studies of religion in Japan, and I was eager to see them collaborate for another good book.

From the beginning, I found this book very interesting. The book focuses a lot more on Japanese religion as it is practiced by real people in Japan, and then goes back to show how this is founded in Buddhist and Shinto teachings. They work hard to avoid the division between “elite” and “folk” religion (typical of most Western researchers) in order to demonstrate that this division is only true on paper. It’s a very different approach to researching Japanese religion, and I think the book is pretty compelling, and helps to explain a lot of things I’ve seen and experienced through my wife and when visiting Japan.

One of the most striking comments I read in the first chapter was this statement, though, regarding the Western approach to learning about Buddhism (emphasis added):

From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the Western study of Buddhism in India has had what Gregory Schopen calls a Protestant bias in having to find “true religion” located in scripture. So long as Buddhist studies scholars insist that “real Buddhism is textual Buddhism,” then what is written in the texts as ideals must be understood as having taken place in actual practice —and, conversely, any idea or practice that cannot be found in scripture must be rejected as a historical impossibility. (pg. 3-4)

This passage really struck me. I read it and thought to myself “holy shit, that’s so true!”. Most Buddhist converts in the West grew up in a Protestant Christian culture. Even for converts of the Catholic or Jewish faiths, or Asian-American Buddhists, the culture they grew up in is still Protestant in character. It’s not that this is wrong, but it even when converting to another religion, it colors our approach and gives us certain biases we probably aren’t even aware of.

For example, Protestant Christian Churches are many and varied but tend to have certain common traits (according to Wikipedia):

  • “A priesthood of all believers”.
  • The Bible as the ultimate source of authority (sola scriptura in Latin).

If you look at American-style Buddhism and how it’s arisen among converts, Asian-American immigrant communities notwithstanding, you can see both patterns above emerging. Many communities are strictly lay-based with a lay teacher as opposed to a genuinely monastic one. Monasteries themselves are few in number here, while meditation “centers” are easy to find in any major city. And as Reader and Tanabe write above, our study of Buddhism has been strongly focused on books, and scriptural study. We as Western Buddhist converts are still defining religion by our Protestant upbringing.

I really laughed when I read the passage above, because I realize that I do it too!

But the one thing that really does bother me is when Buddhist converts apply their standard of what “true Buddhism” is on existing Buddhist cultures as a form of judgment. I’ve encountered this many times before where people talk or write about “cultural accretions” or cultural corruptions of the Buddhist religion in traditional countries, while being completely oblivious to their own bias. Or, conversely, they accept the rituals and practices as part of Buddhism, but apply a dual-standard where they explain it away as having an “ulterior” benefit that even the follower may be oblivious too.

What Reader and Tanabe argue is that:

  1. Japanese (and by extension all Asian) lay followers are smarter than you think, and
  2. The rituals and “this-worldly” focus on benefits, merit and such are normative, not a corruption of Buddhism.

Instead, it’s time we “Protestant” Buddhist converts carefully evaluate our standards for defining what “is” and what “isn’t” Buddhism and not allow ourselves to be so easily persuaded by our own cultural biases.

I’ve only read one chapter (plus jumping around a lot), and it’s a compelling read.

P.S. Double post today.

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

8 thoughts on ““American” Buddhism equals “Prostetant” Buddhism?

  1. This is an important post. I’ve seen some of these same trends, and most of us don’t get it. I’ve gotten into arguments with people dismissing forms of practice not based on text, or on meditation practice even – because to me, those views are attachments to forms. Practice takes many forms, and will look different in different conditions. We don’t know the whole historical story of Buddhism either. It’s only a partial record. So, I’d rather be open to possibilities than thinking that “my way” is the only way.

  2. Hi Nathan and welcome to the JLR! I agree that much of what we see in Buddhism arises out of particular conditions that we were not a part of, and may never fully understand. Better to appreciate what we have now. :-)

  3. …i am reading, village japan(Niiike),
    by beardsley, hall, ward, uchicago press,
    researched 1950, published 1959.
    at hamlet level buddhism and shinto
    facilitate ancestor worship, ceremony
    often is mixed between them, and both interact with the found peculiaritys
    of the village harvest year, and yield
    to it in a pragmatism one would wish
    from the rigid faiths of the west.
    faith is not trumpeted, not all attend,
    but there is always a representative for
    whatever reason of absence. the decorum
    seems shy, but it is respect for devotion
    and the feelings of others during worship.

  4. Hi tzopilotl and welcome to the JLR. I haven’t heard of that book before, but it sounds pretty interesting. The book by Reader and Tanabe actually did talk about how other studies have shown that the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was similarly pragmatic, but the book did not explain this other study further. Maybe things changed, maybe they didn’t, I am not sure.

  5. I give this a mega “dig doug”.
    As an added opinion I have found it a pity that scholars in Japan have made such efforts to justify their traditions on the “Protestant bias” in order to gain recognition in the West as being credible, while hiding the practised tradition. It is nice to hear that this is not universal.

  6. Ha ha ha, “Dig Doug”. You must have played that too in a time gone by. :-). Yeah, good point about Asian scholars having to hide their faith in academic circles. I never really thought about that but looking back at certain books I’ve read, it certainly seems that way now in hindsight!

  7. Gregory Schopen is a terrific scholar Doug. he’s done great work on monasticism as well. Bernard Faure…

  8. Hi Rory,

    Yeah, I feel like there’s a wealth and good information I am only beginning to understand. I just wish it was available in a wider audience. Ah well.

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