(Definitely won’t be on any hipster Buddhist conferences anytime soon…)
Recently, I stumbled upon a conference of Buddhist “geeks”. I am Buddhist and I am a nerd too. But when I looked at the list of speakers, I was kind of disappointed. Likewise, when I see Shambhala Sun’s “Under 35 Project“, I see a recurring pattern.
Because Buddhism is not a mainstream religion in the US, it’s popular and fashionable among certain social groups who are interested in alternative religions and ideas. It’s also popular of course among Asian immigrants as well, but the two groups don’t relate that much. Immigrants of course are trying hard to integrate into mainstream society and not cause friction, so naturally they don’t want to advertise their religion too much. It’s the same feeling foreigners have living in places like Japan or Korea where they’re trying hard to blend in, and not stand out more than necessary.
But for non-immigrants who find Buddhism interesting or fashionable, they’re often proud to show how progressive they are (compared to more conservative, mainstream religious groups). So Buddhism for converts tends to look really modern, hip and cool and sometimes even looks down upon the more traditional Buddhism brought to the US by immigrant populations as “backward” or “moribund”.1
This is kind of reflected in the advertisements I linked above. I don’t want to pick on anyone, but when I see the conference and speakers, I am struck by a few things:
- Most of the speakers are non-immigrants. They’re converts.
- Most are young, good-looking and (we assume) educated.
- Very few seem to be formally ordained, or have any training as far as I can tell.
- If you look up many of these people, they’re not formally Buddhist. They’re writers and teachers who incorporate Buddhist teachings, but may not have formally converted.
- The tone of the conference, as I said, is very progressive and modern. No room for traditional things like reciting old sutras, or revering the Buddha. It’s more about science/mind stuff.
But I guess what kind of annoys me is that this kind of misrepresents Buddhism. It’s like the tip of the iceberg of a much larger, more diverse community.
Take me, for example. I’m older, I’m kind of ugly and am a more traditional Buddhist. I am a family man, not a lay teacher or entrepreneur. I spend my days playing with my daughter, or Playstation games from 15 years ago when she’s asleep, or studying foreign languages because I like communicating with other cultures. I am openly a Buddhist convert and openly took refuge in the Buddhist religion and the Five Precepts. Most of what I learned about Buddhism, I learned when visiting Japan, or from Japanese resources (e.g. my wife “the bodhisattva“).
Also, I teach my daughter more Japanese-style Buddhism, not meditation or “Buddhist psychology” stuff. She learned to say namu namu as a little girl, she learned about being nice to other people, and learned about going to the Pure Land when people die. I don’t revere New Age authors and teachers, and I tend to vote more centrist, not necessarily liberal. Also, I tend to drink drip coffee, not espresso these days. I’m on a budget. :p
Now, this doesn’t mean my version of Buddhism is somehow better. It doesn’t mean one group’s Buddhism is better than another. What it does mean, is that Buddhist magazines and conferences focused on certain progressive social groups are misrepresenting Buddhism to other Americans as a hipster social club. And not everyone in America is like that, but may still be curious about Buddhism under normal circumstances.
There are conservative Buddhists, and there are liberal Buddhists. There are Buddhists from immigrant communities, and there are Buddhists from non-immigrant communities. There are Buddhist clergy from traditional backgrounds, and there are lay teachers who appropriate themselves as experts.2 Any Buddhist organization or conference will only gain legitimacy if it includes the entire community. Until then, there are two kinds of American Buddhists: the flashy ones you see selling books and teaching meditation courses to Hollywood stars, and the rest of us.
1 Reminds me of a quote from Frank Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune:
The patterns, ahhh, the patterns. Liberal bigots are the ones who trouble me most. I distrust the extremes. Scratch a conservative and you find someone who prefers the past over any future. Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat. It’s true!
2 Seriously, if you look on the Internet, anyone can set themselves up as an expert these days. It makes me respect more traditional monks and priests who actually invest in old-fashioned training. At least they have a minimum standard of competency even if they don’t always live by it. You have no idea what you’ll get with self-appointed teachers. Some might even become cult leaders.