Monthly Archives: October 2012

Continued Reading About Buddhism in the U.S.

As previously mentioned, the class which is linked to this blog has continued apace and additional reading materials have been assigned.  They are listed below in a sort of thematic order.  Most are shorter journal articles used to supplement the original book list.  You may need a library subscription (either academic or public) to access some of them, but a simple web search should find a good many.  Happy reading!

  • “Religious Oppression” by Joshi, Khyati Y. in New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian
  • An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by Suzuki, D.T.
  • “Zen” article in Time magazine (1957)
  • “Profiles: Great Simplicity” by Sargeant, Winthrop in New Yorker, 31 Aug 1957.
  • “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” by Watts, Alan in Chicago Review, 1958.
  • “Wondrous Activity” by Okamura, Mihoko in A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered
  • “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism” by Hickey, Wakoh Shannon in Journal of Global Buddhism
  • “What is Zen?” by D.T. Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Buddhism (1959)
  • “Pagan Temples in San Francisco” by Masters, Frederick J.
  • “The Shallowness of Cultural Tradition” by Fei, Xiaotang
  • “‘Democracy According to the Buddhist Viewpoint’: American Buddhism and Buddhist Americanism” by Pierce, Lori A.
  • “Life a Dream, Like a Fantasy”  by Senzaki, Nyogen
  • “From Pearl Harbor to 9/11: Lessons from the Internment of Japanese Buddhism” by Williams, Duncan
  • “‘Beyond This World of Transiency and Impermanence’: Japanese Americans, Dharma Bums, and the Making of American Buddhism during the Early Cold War Year” by Masatsugu, Michael K. in Pacific Historical Review
  • “Immigrant Religious Adaptation: Vietnamese American Buddhists at Chua Viet Nam” by Do, Hien Duc and Mimi Khuc
  • “Racial Diversity in Buddhism in the U.S.” by Dugan, Kate & Hilary Bogert
  • “El Latinismo y sus Bellos Colores; Voices of Latina and Latino Buddhists” by Zubizarreta, Rosa
  • “Coming out in the Sangha: Queer Community in American Buddhism” by Corless, Roger
  • “Carry the Dharma in Español” by Sagbien, Julia
  • “Moving toward an End to Suffering” by               Jones, Marlene
  • “Family Life and Spiritual Kinship in American Buddhist Communities” by Prebish, Charles in American Buddhism as a Way of Life
  • “Buddhism and the Child in the United States” by Gross, Rita in Children and Childhood in American Religion
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A Buddhist Family: Redefining the Myth

Photo courtesy of cat gwynn © 2011

If you are browsing for dharma books in the religion section of your favorite bookstore, chances are that most books you pick up will begin with some version of the historical Buddha’s life story.  Usually the story will tell you how prince Siddhartha led a privileged life, protected by his father from the influence of the outside world until he had his three encounters with sickness, old age, and death.  The story continues with the decision of Siddhartha to leave his family to renounce the world until he can find an answer for the problem of suffering.  We are told that for seven years he struggles valiantly until he finally achieves liberation under the Bodhi tree.  Having become the Buddha, he sets the wheel of Dharma in motion, teaching for the rest of his life, and encouraging others to abandon their worldly concerns and enter into homelessness.

There is no doubt that the Buddha was a home wrecker.  Many who joined the Sangha did as the Noble One did with his example: leave their families behind.  The path of going into homelessness caused problems between wives and husbands, between parents and children.  The Buddha’s wife brought his young son before him and told Rahula to ask him for his inheritance.  I’m sure the single mothers of many a deadbeat dad delinquent on their child support can relate to this moment.  The Buddha himself recognized how the problem created suffering in the community and many rules in the Vinaya (the guidelines for Monks and Nuns) reflect his responses to these sticky domestic situations.

In many American import lay sanghas (especially amongst those who practice “Vipassana”), this model of homelessness and renunciation still appears to be the template for practice.  Partly due to the influence of IMS teachers who returned from Southeast Asia with a monastic model that they grafted onto American culture, practitioners often take long retreats, varying from 7 days to 3 months.  These retreats are conducted in noble silence, with no contact with the outside world.  Rates of marriage and childbirth are consistently lower amongst convert Buddhists than compared to the general population.  And although I haven’t seen any statistics on this issue, my own experience with Dharma teachers is that they tend to be single, or divorced.

Clearly there is a benefit to the practices that have been laid down in the Satipatthāna Sutta, the Vinaya, and in the many varied teachings of the Buddha and other teachers since.  I have the greatest respect for those who bravely enter into the Sangha of monks and nuns, and I am grateful for the support and fruits of their practice.  I know the value of retreat from experience.

But the question for me (especially being a married father) is, do we have to be single to practice, do we still have to follow this example of the Bhikkhu Buddha and abandon our families?  Can we as householders find practice beyond merit making and worship, which are the traditional practices of Buddhism for householders in many Asian countries as well as here in the U.S.?

I’m not sure how many of you reading this are in a relationship, but I can tell you that explaining to your spouse/partner that you need to go away for 10 days by yourself when you haven’t been on a honeymoon/vacation yet, and how it’s going to cost $1200 dollars, or however much plus Dana (what is the percentage tip on Dana anyway?), and how you won’t be available for conversation, so essentially any problems that arise will be the burden of your spouse/partner – this isn’t an easy conversation.  I don’t think this model works well for the health of relationships, and I don’t want my Buddhist practice to create more suffering.

I remember having to decline an opportunity to help lead a teen retreat at Spirit Rock over the New Year holiday.  I explained to the woman who invited me that it was the one-year anniversary of proposing to my wife.  Her response seemed appropriate to me, “Of course you can’t come, after all, isn’t that what we are doing all this practice for?”

Perhaps the model that we are following is the wrong one for us married / committed / parental householder types.  Perhaps that story at the beginning of all those dharma books is the wrong one for us.  I think it’s time for the myth to be retold.  Stephen Batchelor’s recent book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, certainly has given us some reasons to take a look at the historical validity of the Buddha myth.

Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan was born into a large, loving family who had the means to support his development.  When his mother died of complications from childbirth, another of his father’s wives stepped in to help raise the boy.  As a member of the ruling warrior class, Siddhartha would have received vigorous training in weapons, hunting, and horseback riding that would have increased his stamina, strength and mental endurance.  His father, after all, did hope for him to become a great leader of men.  He would have also received a quality education.  To be a ruler requires the ability to administer, to read, and to think critically.  The qualities that allowed him to become, “the enlightened one,” physical endurance, mental clarity, and tenacity existed because of his upbringing.  Far from being a lone bull elephant, Siddhartha’s achievements were due to the support and connection to his family.  Even his entering into homelessness was due to the support of his family, or do you believe that the Noble One would have left his wife and infant son in poverty, alone and without protection?

Upon his awakening, the Buddha chose to return to the world, not to remain in the forest, not to slip into final nibbana.  In fact, he returned to his family.  The Buddha returned to the role of father, ordaining and teaching his son.  He also ordained his mother, who is the mythic/historic founder of the nuns sangha, and his wife.  Many of his clan entered into the Sangha, the men of the Sakya clan, and many of their abandoned wives who had nowhere else to turn for support did likewise.

It is doubtful that he would have found as many followers without his clan’s support network.  He wasn’t the only Śramana heterodox teacher on the scene after all.  Because of his connections and good table manners, he was able to teach to Kings, and the wealthy merchants who offered protection and large tracts of lands to the fledgling teacher.  These gifts of support were the Oprah Book Club of their day and because he was allowed the means to teach, we have today heard the Dharma of the historical Buddha.  However, had the Buddha ever truly abandoned his family, or had he been without family, I have doubts that “Buddhism” would even exist.

There is power in myth.  Storytelling teaches us on a level that is cellular, if not genetic.  So while I don’t always know how my practice as an American, married householder will continue to develop, I do know the power of a good tale.  Our mythology contains our view of the world, informs our intentions, and of course guides our actions.  If we are to find an “American” Buddhism, we may struggle when attempting to graft the mythology of another culture and time upon our own.  Perhaps it is time to embrace a different version of the story if we are to find our own way in the dharma of American family life.

Post by: Joseph Rogers.

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Buddhism in the U.S. Beyond the Color Lines

Blue Cliff Monastery by dzungvo via Flickr.com

This past summer, I had the rare opportunity to attend the Buddhist Geeks Conference: The Emerging Faces of Buddhism. I was disappointed, though not surprised that there were only four Asian faces (myself included) among the crowd of participants. Furthermore, the “emerging faces” of Buddhism only had one Buddhist monastic in the audience. This disparity in representation was highlighted in the popular blog, Angry Asian Buddhist: “Discover the Emerging Faces of Buddhism (Are Mostly White).”

I hope that the future faces of Buddhism bring much more openness and honest discussions on ways to improve the demographic representation of people of color (POC). Discussions that reflect the diversity of the United States’ rich Buddhist landscape. Buddhism as a tradition has come far by penetrating North American society and culture, becoming much more ingrained in Americans’ consciousness, and providing an open path for both convert and Asian American immigrant communities alike. To establish an enlightened foothold in the West, emerging Buddhist organizations must represent the constituencies they attempt to serve. Otherwise, they will miss the 16-18% of Latino/Latina, 12-14% of African American, 5% of Asian, and 1-2% of Native Americans in the U.S. population (2010 Census figures).

Throughout the history of the U.S., many generations of people of color have come before us on this diverse landscape and have experienced centuries of oppression, resulting in physical and psychological suffering. Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín, a queer Zen Latina priest drives this point home:

When speaking of the history of Western Buddhism in general—and its presence in the United States, in particular—it is imperative that the point of origin not be located in a white, European context. The story of how the Dharma reached the shores of the United States is embedded in the history of immigrants of color.” She goes further to say: “Teachings of liberation heard clearly in a culture driven by ignorance, fear, and anger, and hate is like the breaking of chains after centuries of subjugation. This is the gift the Buddha Shakyamuni gave us. (Baldoquin, p. 18)

I can only speak from my own personal experience as a participating person of color (an 1.5 immigrant Vietnamese American) at the Buddhist Geeks Conference; contributing to Shambhala PublicationsUnder 35 Project; living and working at Shambhala’s city and land centers. I also have had the wonderful opportunity to spend three months as a staff member at the Shambhala Mountain Center and one month at Karme Choling. I highly enjoyed my time at these centers and wished I could have stayed longer to learn, practice, and contribute further. Overall, I think that centers like Shambhala, Karme Choling, Thich Nhat Hanh’s PlumVillage, Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Spirit Rock, and other trailblazing traditions have greatly influenced American religious culture and may one day be household names.

In terms of racial diversity, I noticed that Shambhala International has done a wonderful job promoting and providing access and resources to people of color. I commend them for providing access, resources, and emotional support to people of color as well as white practitioners who have just started on the Shambhala path. Shambhala International has also conducted conferences to promote and strategize on ways for people of color to have increased representation and a voice in their organization. I have witnessed people of color actively involved in center activities such as conducting Umze, one of many activities that give them a sense of ownership and identification.

Despite these efforts, I still am concerned about the representation of people of color at Shambhala, especially when it comes to sustained presence and leadership.  During my extended stay at the center, I noticed that the participation of people of color on staff  and as leaders decreased dramatically. In a nutshell, people of color often ventured through the door and then left because they did not feel a part of the Shambhala family. While there are no easy answers as to why this is, I do find it troubling and very unfortunate.

In order to have future leaders in Shambhala as well as other Buddhist organizations, POC participants need teachers and peers they can identify with at these centers. After all, most POC American Buddhists and converts who came from monotheistic faiths walk away from their inherited traditions because they no longer identify with them at a deeper level. They do not need to be further isolated by having a teacher they can not identify with.

Furthermore, as people of color enter Shambhala’s door, it helps if they are surrounded by peers who look and feel like them and share their background and experiences. Most importantly, when people who have been marginalized for many generations — who have been historically oppressed, their civil and human rights trampled upon, and voices not heard —these individuals need a sense of solidarity, empowerment, and a sense that their own destiny is not at the hands of the majority, but their own. I wonder if these empowering experiences can ever be gained when POCs are in communities where they are constantly reminded that they are in the minority.

My question then is this:  Can these various Buddhist channels represented at dharma centers, conferences, publications, and various other outlets, promote an enlightened society when their constituency is primarily white?  Can a tradition be called “American” (or even Buddhist) if it does not have people from diverse backgrounds? Furthermore, can these Buddhist organizations help alleviate Americans’ suffering if the staff, teachers, and participants at these centers do not represent the society that it attempts to serve?

One does not need to go far to see this. Let us take a closer look at the Under 35 Project by Shambhala Publications; the number of people of color writing and contributing to this project are few.  Since the Angry Asian Buddhist posted his critique of the project (“Why is the Under 35 Project So White?”), only 14 (myself included) out of 280 articles published on the Under 35 Project site were authored by Asians or Asian Americans. That is 5% of the total contributing pool. According to a recent Pew Forum Study, those of Asian descent make of the majority of the Buddhist population in the U.S. (67-69%).  It’s hard to believe that Asian American Buddhist youth don’t have anything to say or are not making significant contributions to their religious communities.

One may argue that people of color are just not interested in contributing to the conversation, or for that matter, Buddhism in general. To answer the former part of this question, it is fair to ask who oversees the Under 35 Project, or in a larger context, runs the organization. Jack Daw, in his comments on the Under 35 Project blog, states,

Shambhala Publication has a pretty notorious reputation at promoting to affluent white hipsters. The Under 35 Project was originally overseen by Susan Piver, which may have been when most of the Asian Americans submitted and had their work promoted. Since then I believe it was moved over to Lodro Rinzler who, predictably, moves more towards the trendy IDP [Interdependence Project] crowd rather than more of an open exploration of Buddhism in America.

I would posit that the Buddha’s teachings and other spiritual ancestors over the past two millennia traveling from Asia to the western shores have and will provide great insight toward alleviating the sufferings of sentient beings. One of the world’s leading Buddhist teachers and peace activists Thich Nhat Hanh also states,

In this world there is violence, discrimination, hate and craving, but if you are equipped with Right View, the wisdom of interbeing and nondiscrimination, you don’t have to suffer. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. (Baldoquin, p. 63)

I further believe that the Dharma is universal and speaks to those who want a way out of suffering and towards an authentic happiness.  People in minority status, who have experienced years of oppression, can only do this if they are given a voice to do so. They are not asking to be tokenized, but instead, given a voice and an opportunity to walk alongside others on these many wonderful paths—paths that have a long rich history laid out through teachings and wisdom passed down for many generations through the sweat and blood of everyday persons of color.   In Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faiths, the author quotes African American scholar W.E.B Du Bois: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.”

I hope Buddhism in the United States in the 21 Century moves beyond that line.

Post by: Anthuan Vuong (aka Dancing Yellow Monkey)

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Dharma Dialogue Featured on American Buddhist Perspective

I am happy to report that our little blog has been featured on fellow Buddhist blog American Buddhist Perspective hosted by Patheos, a blog service devoted to religion.  ABP is written by Justin Whitaker, a native of Montana who is “currently working on a Ph.D. in Buddhist Ethics at Goldsmiths-University of London.”

Justin ladles both praise and criticism for our short lists of posts, all of which is worth reading and considering.  One critique however, can be quickly addressed:

One of the things I noticed that was unfortunate is the anonymity of the people creating each post. It would be nice if each person gave, if not their name, then at least some background, for example: “authored by “Tim,” a 27 year old Ohio native, world traveler, and former business student who is now a Tibetan practitioner (of 4 years) and studying chaplaincy at U West.”

Sorry to say, Justin, this template is kinda weird.  The name of the author of each post is not displayed on the main page, but if you click on the post title itself, the author’s name is displayed on the sub-page.  I am looking for a fix.  Also, some classmates were hesitant to put themselves out there right off the bat, so their anonymity is being protected.  However, future posts will feature either the name or chosen internet handle of the post author in the body of the text.  In the meantime, if you scroll to the bottom of the blog, you can see a list of authors.  If you mouse over their gravatar image, you can view their profile.  A quick click on any of them will display the blog posts they’ve authored.  A list of author bios is being added to the About This Blog page, but only on a voluntary basis.

So thanks for reading, thanks for sharing, thanks for keeping us sharp, and please come back again.

Post by: Monica Sanford.

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Forever Young, Forever Invisible, Part II: Night-Light Buddhists

“Night Light” by sighmon via Flickr.com

In my last post, I argued that scholars have addressed the topic of children and Buddhism in America through three different but mutually reinforcing narratives. I also argued that not only are these narratives all problematic, but they support a dangerous and oppressive hegemonic understanding of Buddhism in America that marginalizes all but convert Buddhists. Once the politics of these notions has been revealed, positive steps forward become necessary. How might we make the invisible visible? Or to put it a more straightforward way, what is it like to grow up Buddhist in America?

One way of summing up my previous post is the following: it all comes down to lineages. In order to maintain this power dynamic, the lineage must remain pristine; American Buddhist converts must have a direct connection to the Asian source (albeit, as is often the reality, this can be done by just claiming “I read a book”). This connection is generally built on a relationship with  the prototypical “oriental monk” figure. (In her text Virtual Orientalism, Jane Iwamura further expands upon this relationship as well as deconstructs it.)

Focusing on Buddhist children or second/third generation Buddhists on their own terms would muddy this chain of authority. This focus would show how Buddhist lineages often (and usually) follow alternate models of the passage of Buddhist traditions—namely from parents to children, rather than from monk to pupil. As the representations of these lineages multiplied, the hegemonic structure would collapse because it is predicated on maintaining the “novelty”, universality and purity of the Asian monk-convert relationship. As is so often true, children get in the way.

At this juncture, one might object, “But perhaps scholars continue to raise the same points exactly because a second generation of Buddhists continues to fail to appear.” The problem with this objection is that they do exist, and in numbers. This is unsurprising because Americans have converted to Buddhism for over a century. Of course, most of these converts had children. Just because we have failed to discuss them does not mean they do not exist (and have not existed).

Nor can one object to this reality by merely mentioning the fact (that I do not dispute) that many American convert Buddhists have had ambivalent feelings about “religion,” often connected with many of the converts’ roots in the countercultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Certainly, many of these parents tried to keep from “indoctrinating” their children in a religion as they felt their parents had done. The intentions were there. But were the results?  Perhaps these parents did not take their children to a temple or monastic center. Perhaps they succeeded in keeping their children from formally learning Buddhist doctrines, or even meeting other Buddhists. Yet these same children learned about the world from their Buddhist parents, and if that identity marker means anything (as it certainly has to these parents), then there can be no doubt that Buddhism has impacted these children’s identities in crucial ways. Even just observing a parent meditating a few times a week, when the child knows that their friends do not meditate, will undoubtedly shape how the child lives within and sees the world. Does it really make sense to say that the norms and worldviews these children learn (with adaptation, of course) from their parents somehow are less Buddhist than their source material? Are we really prepared to say that these children and many second generation adults are less Buddhist than their parents, or that Buddhism has not affected these children in ways that should be examined?

In my mind, scholars have been incredibly generous (and rightly so, given the complicated features of religious identity) with examining the nuances and differences within the convert Buddhist community, broadly construed. For instance, in his essay from Westward Dharma entitled “Who is a Buddhist?” Thomas A. Tweed popularized the phrase “Night-Stand Buddhists” to describe the people that “sympathize” with Buddhism: perhaps by meditating, decorating the house with specific kinds of art, or reading popular books on Buddhism—hence the moniker. These individuals may never formally convert and might not even describe themselves as Buddhist. Regardless, with some important exceptions, they still generally follow the outline of the structure of hegemonic American Buddhism above:

  • they are racialized as white
  • they are presented as individuals in a vacuum (apart from a community or family)
  •  they are represented as being partly in control of the destiny of American Buddhism (in fact, the reluctance to convert, I suspect, might be an attempt to prevent the relationship from being reversed, i.e. allowing “Buddhism” to dominate their fate)
  • most importantly they still maintain a pure, uninterrupted lineage (mostly through the various forms of media they consume).

If we are to challenge the dominant “convert” paradigm of Buddhism in America, I think we can learn from Tweed’s approach. In order to render the invisible visible, we should uncover the nuances, complex aspects and differences within a previously homogenized and marginalized group—in this case, “cradle Buddhists,” as some scholars have called individuals born into Buddhist families. What are all the different ways we might examine what it has been like to grow up Buddhist within different contexts?

I cannot hope to respond to that question fully here (Sumi Loundon has edited two wonderful volumes—Blue Jean Buddha and The Buddha’s Apprentices—that give other glimpses of possible responses to this question) But allow me to give one brief answer to show what I have in mind. I ask you to consider: what would it like to be a child of a “Night-Stand Buddhist?” This group of children I playfully call “Night-Light Buddhists.” While their relationship to Buddhism might not help them to read any Buddhist texts (at least at first), because of the influence of their parents, it will certainly help them to see in the world and orient themselves within that space. Their parents, knowingly and unknowingly, will inculcate a kind of Buddhist ethics, Buddhist narratives, and Buddhist awareness in these children.

However, these children will also often be aware of the ambivalence of their parents toward Buddhism and religion in general. The child might ask (although perhaps not explicitly) “why don’t you say that you are Buddhist?” and the probable follow-up question “am I Buddhist?” Of course, this ambivalence is not determinative; the child might react in different ways (i.e. come to explicitly identify with Buddhism, reject it, etc.). This ambivalence shapes the context—the home—the child lives within. Unlike their parents, these children will often confront a more brutal face of religious oppression than their parents ever have or will, thanks to their attendance in schools. Schools—through peers, teachers, parents, and the structures of education itself—are generally the most potent sites of religious oppression (via the double-headed hegemonic hydra of secularism and Christianity). This too will not remove their agency—they have and will react in different ways—but it will remain part of the air they breathe, exacerbated by the ambivalence they have interiorized. In moments of religious hegemony and oppression, they might be unsure: are they Buddhist? Are they nothing? Should they join in prayer?

But do not misunderstand me, this is not solely a tragic tale, a simple story of movement from the Buddhist cradle to the grave. These children will have unique perspectives shaped by the interaction between the Buddhism their parents raise them with and experiences outside of the “home.” In other words, they are not reducible to their parents, and yet are indebted to their parents for their Buddhism. A new and different lineage. They see the world in a new light; a light with important continuities and differences from the other American Buddhist lanterns (to carry the metaphor). The point is that our understanding of Buddhism in America is enriched when we see and recognize all of this diversity. To further understand what is “Buddhist” about “Night-Light Buddhists” would take more scholarly work. But that is precisely the point, that we should devote ourselves to that kind of work.

After all of this reflection, perhaps the phrase “Night-Light Buddhist” is a misnomer. Consider this: it is the hegemonic structure of “American Buddhism” that is under siege from every side. Even its attempts to reinforce itself culturally and through scholarship actually reveal its own precarious position in its attempts to keep otherness and the “invisible” at bay. All of us, but especially Buddhist converts, must consider—why are we afraid to think of American Buddhism apart from the Oriental monk-white convert relationship? Let me be clear: as is generally true of any hegemonic structure, this is not a simple us vs. them, “converts” vs. everyone else dynamic. My goal is not to demonize the religious lives of Buddhist converts, but rather only to relativize them. And to further complicate the relationship, let me say this: as a child of one of those converts, I write in their lineage, and I draw some of my own authority as a Buddhist from that lineage. I learned from my father (a counterculture convert Buddhist) the value of rebellion in the name of justice and truth. I cherish that relationship; my Buddhism is inseparable from that relationship. That is my “Night-Light Buddhism.” And it is in that spirit that I ask the following question—let’s even call it a koan: who is actually afraid of the dark?

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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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Addicted to Jhana, and That’s Okay (Really!)

So, when I talk about the jhanas what the heck am I talking about?  Actually, I could write a blog or two (or twenty) about ‘what is jhana’ and not even scratch the surface.  The short answer is that the jhanas are eight meditative states of increasing concentration.  They aren’t just found in Buddhism but in every major religion.  All of the jhanic states are full of pleasure and this makes them subject to a great deal of mistrust.  In Buddhism, the first four are just labeled one to four but they can be described as Rapture, Joy, Contentment, and Neither Pleasure nor Pain.  The last four are given names, “The Sphere of Infinite Space,” “The Sphere of Infinite Consciousness,” “‘The Void,” and “Neither Perception nor Non-Perception.”  All of them are filled with non-sensual pleasure.  As you go from one to eight, the pleasure becomes more subtle, more peaceful, and counter-intuitively, more appealing.  Experiencing this is actually one of the deep insights that lead to freedom, since if increasing peace is increasingly pleasurable, how pleasurable must be the ultimate peace, Nibbāna?

Given how wonderful the jhanas are, why does it seem that in nearly every discussion I have about the jhanas with Convert Buddhists the  “you can get addicted to the jhanas” meme comes up.   My main (Convert Buddhist) teacher (who practices in the Burmese lineage) constantly warns me not to become addicted to jhana.

Why?  Well, have you heard of Puritanism?  In the U.S. pleasure is only okay if it is illicit.  And the only thing better than illicit pleasure is pleasure that can get you a jail term if you are caught indulging in it.  So when the Buddha says throughout the suttas to “enjoy non-sensual pleasure…bath your body in it,” something deep in the American psyche rebels.  A spiritual path that embraces pleasure…that doesn’t make sense.  We should beat the sin out of ourselves (and everyone else, whether they like or not).  But the Buddha’s embrace of pleasure — non-sensual pleasure, and that ‘non’ in front of ‘sensual’ is so very important — is arguably one of the two key insights of the Buddha (the other being his linking of intention and karma).  But Puritanism isn’t the only reason.  Below I’ll present a short history of Burmese Buddhism and the experience of many U.S. teachers as wounded healers.  But Puritanism is the big one.

Let me explain some of the biases and understandings that inform my position. I believe that, as the Buddha originally taught the path, jhana practice was considered right-concentration, a fundamental part of the path to emancipation. This is backed up by extensive textual analysis of the Pali Canon done by Ajahn Sujato, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ayya Khema, Leigh Brasington, Bhante G. and others. I do not know if mastery of jhana is a necessary condition for awakening, or that jhana practice is even the best way. It is entirely possible, in the thousands of years since the Buddha’s death, that better methods have been discovered. But I do believe jhana practice is just as valid as the other forms of practice which have arisen and for those inclined to jhana, it greatly enhances the Eightfold path.

Is isn’t just Convert Buddhists who fear pleasure.  The Buddha practiced severe austerities in order to “punish” his body into letting go of the defilements   In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta, MN 36, the Buddha discusses the time just before his awakening.  In this sutta, he remembered entering the first jhana as a child and the great, natural pleasure that arose within him. He said the following (as translated Thanissaro Bhikkhu, emphasis by the author):

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening? ‘ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but that pleasure is not easy to achieve with a body so extremely emaciated. Suppose I were to take some solid food: some rice and porridge.’ So I took some solid food: some rice and porridge. …

So when I had taken solid food and regained strength, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities…I entered and remained in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.

Awakening and freedom only arose after the Buddha embraced non-sensual pleasure.  The Buddha said that “they were the path.”  He stopped beating the sin out of himself.

Now, what does it mean to be “addicted” to the jhanas? Jhanas are reached by letting go. Letting go the five hindrances, letting go of the sensual world. Is being attached to this type of pleasure a bad thing?  Is this even addiction, or is it a great help in achieving mental and spiritual health?

Does the Buddha himself have anything to say about this issue?  Luckily for us he did.  Here are his words from the Pasadika Sutta (DN 29.24), as translated by Maurice Walshe:

There are, Cunda, these four kinds of life devoted to pleasure which are entirely conducive to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to tranquility, to realization, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. What are they? Firstly, a monk, detached from all sense-desires, detached from unwholesome mental states, enters and remains in the first Jhana…(repeated for all four material Jhanas)

These are the four kinds of life devoted to pleasure which are entirely conducive to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to tranquility, to realization, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. So if the wanderers from the other sects should say that the followers of the Sakyan are addicted to these four forms of pleasure-seeking, they should be told: “Yes”, for they would be speaking correctly about you, they would not be slandering you with false or untrue statements.

To paraphrase the Buddha, he said “Hey, let them call us addicted. We’ll laugh all the way to Nibbāna.”

Distrust of the Jhanas is not restricted to the U.S.  Many schools of Buddhism appear to not teach jhana practice at all.  But in the Convert Buddhist world of the U.S., in addition to I Puritanism, I believe there are two additional reasons.  The first is the history of Burmese Buddhism before the tradition came to the U.S.

The Buddhism we learned from the Burmese, which informs many of the branches of Convert Buddhism (IMSSpirit Rock, my own lineage through Ruth Denison, etc.), is a recent cultural artifact. It arose in response to the colonization of Burma by western powers and the resulting influx of Christian missionaries. This influx threatened the position and very existence of Burmese Buddhism. In response Buddhist practice was “rationalized.” Ritual was removed and science was used to justify the practice. The purpose was to make Buddhism more understandable and sympathetic to the western world.

During this time, within Burmese society the relationship between the laity and and Monastic Sangha started to change. The laity was successful in challenging the convention that they should constrain themselves to “making merit.” Lay practitioners began transforming the goal of their practice from making merit to stream-entry, which in the Pali Canon is the first stage of awakening. They did this by using Vipassana (as they defined it, and definitely not jhana) mediation. Stream-entry is a powerful place to be. Even though not fully awakened, a person who has experienced a path moment is no longer subject to rebirth in a lower plane (including the animal realm) and is guaranteed to achieve full awakening within a handful of lifetimes.

In addition, during this time there was a “cult” of Alchemists in Burma. These Alchemists arose out of pre-Buddhist religions and their practice was centered around achieving physical immortality. As Buddhism became more powerful in Burma, the Alchemists began to identify themselves as Buddhists.  They justified their practices by saying they wanted to extend their lifetimes to be present when the next Buddha arose. This group used the jhanas in their attempt to to make themselves immortal. This cult also instigated a failed rebellion against the occupying western powers. I don’t know for certain, but I would not be surprised if the Alchemists gave jhana practice a bad name within the Burmese tradition. (I recommend Race and Religion in American Buddhism, by Joesph Cheah, chapters 2 and 3 for more information how Burmese Buddhism and Burmese meditation practices came to the U.S.).

The second factor in “jhana fear” is very specific to the U.S.  Many of our convert Buddhist teachers were “wounded” and have used Buddhism to help heal themselves, sometimes from addiction. These teachers are very aware of the power of addiction to sensual pleasure and the harm it causes. Many of these teachers have never experienced the jhanas.  They have heard how powerful the pleasure is, but don’t understand how this pleasure arises out of letting go, out of leaving behind aversion and greed.  Non-sensuality.

So why can’t we just let go of sensual pleasure  and go directly to Nibbāna?  Well, there are probably people who can.  Just not very damn many of them.  Most of us need something healthy to cling to while we slowly work at letting go of sensual pleasure.  Only when we have let go of sensuality (non-returner) do we have to work on letting go of the jhanas.  Embodied minds need pleasure.  And assuming we are reborn, each of us have been seeking it for lifetimes.  If you think people can become addicted to jhana, just how addicted do you think you can get the sensual world, especially if ‘you’ have been feeding this addiction for lifetimes – thousands, millions, maybe even billions of years.  Therefore the Buddha gave us a raft to cross the river to reach Nibbāna.  One of the planks of this raft is called jhana.  But in the end, when the other shore is reached, even the raft must be let go. The Buddha, across 2,500+ years of time is doing his darndest to tell us to stop beating the sin out of ourselves (and others). Perhaps it is time for us to hear his message.

May all beings be safe and free from suffering.

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