The “Other” American Buddhists

Offering Incense

(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.

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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.
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15 Responses to The “Other” American Buddhists

  1. Johnl says:

    Doug, I know what you are getting at. I suppose we are looking at a process that will result in a kind of Buddhism that more westerners can relate to. Some things seem odd to me, too–all the more reason to appreciate living in Japan (although plenty of odd things have happened here as well). By the way, I have been a fan of BG since the early days, but the podcasts have been a bit less satisfying for a while. However, I like that theme music! Both geeky and cool!

  2. doug rogers says:

    There’s one small thing in this piece that bothers me, and it’s very subtle, and you perhaps don’t notice it. And you probably don’t intend it at all. It’s the unspoken, unassuming, act of discriminating thought – and I use that in the Buddhist sense – that of being not Liberal.

    Contemporary politics is extremely binary. Somehow current framing of the word casts the politic in a light that declares liberal ideas as wrong. Not so oddly, Heinlein was or of the very early reframers of Liberalism as somehow bad, elitist, or out of touch with the mainstream.

    Part of this reframing by current conservatives sets themselves as occupying the political middle.

    I’m Canadian. We have a number of political parties up here. I lean Green, and Liberal. In the middle. We talk. We compromise. We work together toward solutions. We see compassion and caring for our fellow citizens – human beings, sentient beings, as worthwhile goals.

    Nothing wrong with being a liberal.

  3. dougrogers says:

    Aside from that, I find the western proclivity to add science to it’s Buddhism an interesting approach. Even if your approach to Buddhism is psychology, there is still room for magic.

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Johnl,

    You’re right of course: all this tension is what will ultimately shape American Buddhism for subsequent generations in the far future, so in the end I suppose it’s a healthy thing.

    In the short-term I just wish there was more representation in the dialogue.

    I’ve never listened to or even know anything about BG so I have no personal preference. I just find the conference they advertise was kind of skewed in representation.

  5. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Doug Rogers and thanks for your insightful comments. You’re right, I did say that and thinking back it was childish of me. I apologize for that. You’re right: there’s nothing with being a liberal.

    On the subject of American politics and polarization you might find this article from 1965 interesting and perhaps telling:

    http://www.harpers.org/archive/1964/11/0014706

    I wanted to post about it at some point but since you brought it up… ;-)

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Doug Rogers,

    I totally agree: there’s room for both magic and science in Buddhism. :-)

  7. Han says:

    My grandmother is a Buddhist. Most western “Buddhists” I have encountered are people who want to live in sin with their girlfriends and smoke pot while claiming to be “spiritual” by rejecting the religion of their parents. My test for whether a gwailo is at all serious about Buddhism qua Buddhism is how he feels about Pure Land (Pure Land as a subset of the oh-so-trendy Free Tibet bumper sticker posse doesn’t count). If he is OK with Pure Land, then he might be an actual Buddhist. If not, he just hates Jesus.

  8. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Han,

    Ha ha ha, I never thought of the Pure Land as an “acid test” for Buddhist converts. That’s a new one to me. Then again, folks who are into Theravada Buddhism wouldn’t believe in the Pure Land (it’s Mahayana-only), so I don’t know how well that would work.

    I definitely had the “hate Jesus” phase when I was younger, but I guess getting older mellows people out. :)

  9. Michael says:

    Thanks for posting this. I too have struggled to understand how and why Buddhism is primarily thought of as only for the scholarly or only about meditation. I am a Shin Buddhist, but believe that Buddhism should be living or dynamic. I do read a lot too, but do not consider myself a scholar. I seldom meditate, other than some walking meditation and yoga. As a lay minister, I focus on what both lay and minister means. This helps to keep beginner’s mind. The Nembutsu way is a way of life, not the latest fad. But it seems that we must be tolerant of the ways Buddhism has been transmitted to the west too. Buddhism in America will ultimately be different than Buddhism in other countries. I’m not sure what it’ll look like, but it will be uniquely American.

    In Oneness,
    Michael Shinyo

    P.S. As for politics, I don’t automatically vote Democrat because I’m Buddhist.

  10. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Michael,

    I know that feeling. I have co-workers and other people I meet who are curious about Buddhism but may be put off by some elements of the Buddhist community here.

    I have to reassure them that Buddhism has many kinds of lifestyles and its followers come from many backgrounds.

    I’m happy to see such a diversity as it exists now, I just wish this was reflected in forums, conferences and publications more.

  11. Great post, intriguing points and subsequent debate. I think for many Westerners, the intrigue of Buddhism lays in practical and conducive application as well as the absence of an authoritative judgmental deity, this does however leave people with a tendency to ‘pick and choose’ the more attractive elements of Buddhism perhaps creating an inauthentic caricature of the practice. Just a concept!

  12. Han says:

    Doug,

    How does one practice Theravada? Certainly, if the convert is in a monastery somewhere, I will concede that there might be something to his Buddhism. But how do Theravada laymen practice Buddhism? From what I can tell, it involves figuring out who is a true monk to give money to so as to increase the chances of obtaining a rebirth where one can be a monk himself. That and attending local festivals far weirder to the Western eye than anything the Chinese or Japanese do. A Westerner who claims to practice Theravada Buddhism but is not a monk is deluding himself.

    I therefore maintain that Pure Land is a good test because the Amitabha Buddha is in some sense a savior. The purpose of the Pure Land is that attaining bodhisatvahood is too difficult for most, so instead one relies upon the vow of the Amitabha Buddha to get one to the Pure Land where it is far easier to make progress. I think that Western Buddhists who are uncomfortable with this are so because this hits too close to home–it is too much like Christianity. But why should they care how similar it is to Christianity if they are Buddhists for the Buddhism? My conclusion is that they are not Buddhists, but rather just anti-Christians who still want to feel “spiritual”.

  13. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Chloethewriter and welcome to the JKLLR,

    I think you might have hit it on the head: it’s pick-and-choose or “spiritual shopper” mentality that can be problematic.

    I think it’s beneficial to dive in all the way, and embrace the whole thing first, then pick-and-choose once you’re comfortable with it. But that’s just me. :)

  14. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Han,

    I don’t have much practical experience with Theravada Buddhism, so I won’t speculate much on lay practice, but I think it’s a little more diverse than that.

    I see your point though about the common desire for favorable rebirth in both traditions, so what you say makes sense.

    It should be noted though that some Buddhists I’ve encountered grew up Jewish, not Christian, so it’s not just anti-Christians.

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