Forever Young, Forever Invisible, Part I: The Forces of Conversion

Cunarimbau, source: Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of thousands of children have gone missing. They never made it out of the cradle.

Or so one might come to think if one browsed the corpus of literature on Buddhism in the United States. With a few exceptions, if one looks for discussions of Buddhist children (or families) in these texts, one will generally search in vain. In fact, even more striking are the three exceptions to this rule. Examining these exceptions helps us to uncover three narratives that together serve as an important part of the foundation of contemporary understandings of Buddhism in America.

These narratives are:

  1. Scholars have written about Buddhist family dynamics within Asian immigrant and Asian-American communities; these references are generally confined to discussions of ‘intergenerational’ strife related to younger generations within these communities seeking to ‘Americanize.’ As the story is often told, these youth either leave their Buddhism behind as something un-American, or they transform their Buddhism into something more ‘appropriate’ to Western tastes.
  2. The more pessimistic scholars make claims about the children of the so-called Buddhist “converts,” but only about their absence in order to predict a precarious future for Buddhism in America. This refrain goes something like this: “if Buddhist converts continue not to raise their children as Buddhists (or those children leave Buddhism as they become adults), Buddhism will certainly decline and/or die in America.” In other words: not only are there no Buddhist children of these converts, but if Buddhism does manage to survive, it will be because these children suddenly appear.
  3. The more optimistic scholars acknowledge that Buddhist children within the “convert” population actually do exist; we must simply wait until these children grow up to be adults to see how they will impact Buddhism. As Thomas A. Tweed puts it, “25 years” should be enough.

These narratives are not exactly grounded in fact. To recognize this, one only has to look at scholarship on Buddhism in America from different periods. The appearance of these same arguments over the course of nearly four decades should be enough to raise eyebrows. After all, tell me once to wait 25 years, fair enough; tell me dozens of times over the course of forty years to wait 25 years and I’ll begin to get suspicious—a period eternally delayed. This audacious fact is even true of multiple editions of the same textbook (for instance, Richard Hughes Seager asks for a waiting pattern in both his 1999 and 2012 editions of his book Buddhism in America)! At first, the statement “Buddhism in America will perish unless more ‘American’ children are raised Buddhist” sounds like an empirical claim that can be shown to be true or false with time. However, if those kinds of claims were being made forty years ago, and Buddhism in America still lives on (and is growing!) today, I should probably realize there is something sneaky going on when I continue to be told the same line.

The first point is just as problematic. While the various Buddhisms of Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans undoubtedly change with time, this is just as true for the particular religious and other cultural formations of other Americans. Indeed, to change is to be human. However, to imply that immigrants are more subject to the winds of change and external pressures than white converts (who are often represented as living forever in a static 1960s “golden age”) or those converts’ children (who are often represented as being perpetually children that never seem to grow up) would be extremely misleading. Further, who is to say that the later generations are any more or less able to resist or address the forces of “Americanization” than their parents and ancestors? Or that there is even a singular American norm not wrought with contradictions that we are all approaching?

Truth be told, these narratives have little to nothing to do with the reality (whatever that is) of Buddhism in America, and everything to do with the power-laden representations that dominate the “American” hegemonic understanding of Buddhism in the United States. These representations are absolutely normative. While they are presented as facts, they are designed to shape (or create if necessary) a “Buddhism” as it should be (as preferred by some), a “Buddhism” that reinforces the power of particular groups and individuals.

Nor are these norms confined to scholars. A close examination (as others have done) of the popular representations of Buddhism follows similar lines. This is unsurprising. Counter to the rhetoric of the ivory tower, i.e., that scholars are removed from the “real” world (whether this is seen as positive or negative), scholars are first and foremost embodied people in specific cultural contexts. If there even is a line between popular representations and scholarly representations of particular phenomena, it is a fine line indeed. As such, opposing these structures entails countering the parallel dimensions in both popular and scholarly cultures. In other words, we must stop thinking of Buddhism in America in every sphere of life through only one key.

Since hegemonic structures support themselves with illusions and fictions (in fact, their logic is predicated on using sleight-of-hand in addition to a closed fist to make lies appear to be true), it is not always easy to discern their inner workings. Normally, one might ask “who benefits from these structures?” In this case, a close examination of the common themes within the points above provides a unique glimpse of the foundation of this particular hegemonic structure, a dominating and dominant representation we might term “American Buddhism.”

Consider the first narrative. Asian immigrant and Asian-American Buddhists are both caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, to the extent that the younger generations within these groups “Americanize,” either by altering their Buddhism to resemble the Buddhism of American converts or by dropping their Buddhism all together, these groups are seen as losing their “exotic difference” and can thus be ignored as a distinct topic of study (beyond their process of “Americanization”). On the other hand, to the extent that these groups resist ”Americanization,” they remain broadly outside of the “American” bubble and can be ignored since they are therefore not thought to be American Buddhists (yet… since the forces of “Americanization” are always presented as inevitable).

The second and third narratives make sure that the children of Buddhist converts remain invisible, since both share a common assumption that these children do not yet exist,at least in any important sense as “adults.” (As an aside, I might add that all of these narratives rest upon the problematic and generally unsupported but surprisingly common presupposition that only the religion of adults is worth scholarly study.) So what groups are left? What people find representation under this model?

Only the convert community (tellingly racialized as “white,” and mostly localized within, although not coextensive with, the countercultural generation) remains. Within this picture, while Asia is the “mystical” source of Buddhism, the converts themselves are the sole shapers of the destiny of Buddhism in the West; the future of Buddhism in America is in their hands. While some of their authority comes from an Orientalist representation of a pristine Buddhist Asia and the mysterious Asian monks who teach the converts (who necessarily cannot become American for this mechanism to function), the power to determine the nature of Buddhism itself lies precisely with the converts. In this case, conversion does not simply symbolize a change of heart, a transference from one tradition to another; it represents a locus of power. To convert means to be at the center of the new and exciting Buddhism—Buddhism in America. Buddhism itself is being converted.

Check back later for Part II of this series.

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3 thoughts on “Forever Young, Forever Invisible, Part I: The Forces of Conversion

  1. Alan says:

    Nice Drew. Thanks.

  2. [...] Forever Young, Forever Invisible, Part I: The Forces of Conversion – “Hundreds of thousands of children have gone missing. They never made it out of the cradle. Or so one might come to think if one browsed the corpus of literature on Buddhism in the United States.” [...]

  3. [...] Forever Young, Forever Invisible Part I: The Forces of Conversion by Drew Baker [...]

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