Tag Archives: Buddhism in America

Hungry Ghost Economy: Karma, Effort, and Charity (#4 in series)

ConAgra, through the manufacture and distribution of Snack Pack Pudding©, causes and/or perpetuates multiple chains of negative karma.  ConAgra attempts to counteract this negative karma by a campaign entitled “Child Hunger Ends Here®.”  Noting the problem of childhood hunger that, according to its charitable partner, Feeding America, affects 17 million children daily, ConAgra is engaged in a campaign to donate a minimum of 1 million meals ($125,000) up to a maximum of 3 million meals based upon consumers entering a code from ConAgra items purchased.  For each code, ConAgra donates 12.5 cents, “the cost for Feeding America to provide one meal through its network of local foodbanks.”

This is a positive action.  ConAgra’s objective is to positively associate its brands and products with Feeding America.  ConAgra wants to be defined by its positive actions.  However, positive actions do not cancel negative actions.  Each action is part of its own causal chain.  Feeding 1 person does not undo the suffering caused by ConAgra’s activities.

As the nutritional content of Snack Pack Pudding© deteriorates, there are implications for malnourishment.  The new milk reduction formulation of Snack Pack Pudding© will not deliver the same nutrition as the previous formulation.  By reducing nutritional content of one of the most affordable and widely distributed food items, the poorest and most nutritionally deficient will be among those most impacted by the reduction in nutrition of Snack Pack Pudding©.  Yet, this fact will be obfuscated by advertising.

It should not be a case of “either/or.”  It should be a case of “both/and.”  ConAgra should be engaged in both the production of high nutrition food at the lowest cost possible and charitable giving.

It is also worth mentioning that charity, known in Buddhism as dana, values material giving as the lowest form of benefit.  Giving knowledge is the highest form of benefiting others.  Moreover, intention is a central determining factor in whether or not an action is positive, neutral, or negative.  If production of a low cost product is understood as a material gift, the utilization of common resources for the common good, then, if those resources are used to create a consumer packaged good (i.e. gift) that is deceptive and withholds or obfuscates information intentionally, as suggested by the advertising practices of ConAgra’s Snack Pack Pudding©, the item cannot provide the desired positive outcome.

I believe if companies spent even a fraction of their massive advertising and promotion dollars on creating affordable low cost and high nutrition foods, the lobbyists, “food” regulations, and adversarial scheme that pits companies against consumers would not be necessary.  It is self-perpetuating and a misallocation of our common resources against our common good.

Is it possible?  I think a society where millions go hungry when we can feed them for 12.5 cents per meal demands it!

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Hungry Ghost Economy: The Karma of Snack Pack Pudding (#3 in series)

Karma is intentional action connected to its context in space-time. In this chapter of Hungry Ghost Economy, we explore the karmic consequences of the consumer packaged goods production and consumption through the example of Snack Pack Pudding©

These are the listed ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding©.

Water, Nonfat Milk, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Cocoa (Processed with Alkali), Less than 2% of: Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added. CONTAINS: MILK

But what about the unlisted ingredients? Disease? Destruction of habitats? Slavery?

Here is the nutrition information for a 92g single-serving container:

Calories                                   120

Fat                                              25

Total Fat                                     3g          5%

Saturated Fat                          1.5g          8%

Sodium                                 130mg        5%

Potassium                            130mg        4%

Total Carb                                21g          7%

Sugars                                       14g         —

Dietary Fiber                             2g         0.8%

Protein                                        1g

Vit A                                                           0%

Vit C                                                           0%

Iron                                                            4%

Calcium                                                   30%

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet

ConAgra Foods, Inc. emphasizes “All Snack Pack products contain 30% DV calcium, with the exception of Bakery Shop Lemon Meringue Pie, Lemon Pudding, and Snack Pack Gels.” It emphasizes “CONTAINS MILK.”

Viewing the ingredients and nutrition information in isolation from advertising, would you describe Snack Pack Pudding© as”




Would you serve this to yourself or others “without the guilt?” The fact that ConAgra Foods, Inc. advertising tries to assuage feelings of guilt suggests an effort to overcome one’s innate sense that there is something wrong in consuming this manufactured product sold as food.

Is this all overly dramatic? Can’t one just eat Snack Pack Pudding© and consider it “empty calories?” No! Robert Lustig, M.D., a Researcher and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, summarizes the position of metabolic disease researchers in debunking the “empty calories” myth. These calories are not “empty;” they are toxic. For more, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-lustig-md/sugar-toxic_b_2759564.html

The ingredients tell the story.

14 of 21 grams of Total Carbohydrates come from refined granulated white sugar. That’s 3.33 teaspoons. That’s 54 of the 120 total calories in one serving of Snack Pack Pudding©. Would you eat or feed your child 3.33 teaspoons of sugar?

The majority of the remaining 7 of 21 grams of Total Carbohydrates comes from modified corn starch. Carbohydrates are saccharides. Corn starch has two major components, amylose (a straight chain polymer of glucose) and amylopectin (a branched chain polymer of glucose).

Modified corn starch refers to corn starch that has been treated with acid(s) (e.g. sulphuric acid) to alter its viscosity.

In the body, simple carbohydrates like sugar and modified corn starch are converted to glucose. Spikes in glucose levels cause the pancreas to release insulin and the liver to convert glucose to triglycerides. Excess (unused) glucose is stored as fat.

The increase in consumption of these ingredients in Snack Pack Pudding© and other foods driven by consumer packaged goods companies has been linked to heart disease (the #1 cause of death in the United States), obesity, and metabolic diseases including diabetes (the #7 cause of death in the United States).

Obesity has increased from 13 to 34 percent in the last 50 years. For more on the economic costs of obesity, click here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/30/obesity-costs-dollars-cents_n_1463763.html

Snack Pack Pudding© also contains Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Sunflower Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil).

These fats, particularly in hydrogenated forms, are linked to cardiovascular disease.

Palm oil is the most widely used food oil in the world. It is valued for long shelf life and low cost. But, the low cost comes at a price. Palm oil monoculture is destroying the environment through deforestation. In other words, eating Snack Pack Pudding© is part of a causal chain that not only negatively impacts human well-being, but destroys entire ecologies including animals, plants, and minerals.

Per WWF Australia, approximately “300 football fields worth of forest are cleared EVERY HOUR to make way for palm oil production” (emphasis added). For more details, click here: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1750468/Explainer-What-is-palm-oil-and-why-the-controversy

Per the Rainforest Action Network, slave labor has been documented on palm oil plantations. Cargill is a supplier to ConAgra Foods, Inc. (the manufacturer of Snack Pack Pudding©) and a major supplier of palm oil. Cargill refused to ensure its supply chain was/is not purchasing SLAVE-LABOR produced palm oil. For more, click here: http://ran.org/palm-oil-controversy-escalating

In reducing the milk in Snack Pack Pudding© and increasing the water, nutrition is further compromised. Milk is a source of protein. It contains 18 amino acids. 9 are essential amino acids, six are semi-essential amino acids, and three are non-essential. Amino acids are proteins referred to as the “building blocks of life.” Water does not.

Then, there are those ingredients we are advised not to worry about because they only constitute 2% or less of the total volume.  These are:

Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Color Added.

According to the Food Chemical Codex, 7th edition, Sodium-Stearoyl Lactylate (SSL), an extensively used food additive, is non-toxic. It continues by describing SSL as

a cream-colored powder or brittle solid. SSL is currently manufactured by the esterification of stearic acid with lactic acid and partially neutralized with either food-grade soda ash (sodium carbonate) or caustic soda (concentrated sodium hydroxide). Commercial grade SSL is a mixture of sodium salts of stearoyl lactylic acids and minor proportions of other sodium salts of related acids. The HLB for SSL is 10-12. SSL is slightly hygroscopic, soluble in ethanol and in hot oil or fat, and dispersible in warm water. These properties are the reason that SSL is an excellent emulsifier for fat-in-water emulsions and can also function as a humectant.[1]

In other words, this is not food. It is only legally rendered “food” through Government regulation because Consumer Packaged Goods companies and Food Scientists determined that when fed to rats, lambs, and people, there were no observed adverse effects at the indicated levels.

Non-toxic ≠ food.

Can you trust that artificial flavors are any better for you or the environment?

The ill effects of Snack Pack Pudding© extend beyond human consumption. In manufacturing Snack Pack Pudding©, frequent power outages, errors, and other deviations from manufacturing specifications result in tons of pudding not fit for human consumption. This pudding, including sugar free pudding, is either applied to farm land or fed to pigs. Pigs consuming Snack Pack Pudding© suffer the same health problems as humans and, in turn, are consumed by humans.

The manufacturing process creates waste and is part of a causal chain that contaminates and destroys the environment. The one-time use packaging destroys the environment in production and disposal.

“But it’s fortified with 30% of my DV for calcium?!”  That is a high price to pay for a calcium supplement!

Disease. Destruction. Slave-labor. This is not just a snack. This is karma.

This has been just part of the complex interdependent web connected to buying and eating consumer packaged goods. I encourage people to engage in mindfulness. Look past the advertising. Is the thing you are buying and eating food or “food?” What are the effects of your purchase and consumption? Look for the hungry ghosts and beware that you do not become one yourself.

Please spread the word and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Hungry Ghost Economy: 100,000 Signatures can help 27 million slaves

Please sign this petition at Whitehouse.gov: http://wh.gov/eMAA

we petition the obama administration to:

ban the import, distribution, and/or sale of products produced using slave labor.

There are more slaves today worldwide than in any other time in history, an estimated 27 million slaves.  Many of them are engaged in the production of raw materials and finished goods sold in the United States.  Domestic and international slave labor produce goods as part of the supply chains of companies doing business in the U.S., including U.S. companies.

This petition asks the United States Government to require all companies manufacturing, distributing, and/or selling products in the United States to verify via internal and third party supply chain audits that their goods are slavery-free.  In addition, it proposes that all raw, semi-finished, and finished goods found to contain ingredients produced by slavery be subject to seizure, along with fines and criminal prosecution.

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The Nattering Nabobs of Nibbāna

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara...

In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4 H Clubs – the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history. – Spiro T. Agnew, 1970

I’ve noticed something interesting about the Secular Buddhist movement. Many Secular Buddhist practitioners don’t seem to be comfortable with the idea of Nibbāna. Fascinating, but I find this makes me very sad. It seems in their attempt to make Buddhism more palatable to themselves some Secular Buddhist are willing to throw out the most extraordinary and life changing event that the Buddha has to offer to us – the experience of Nibbāna and for some, the complete ending of suffering and stress.

This isn’t surprising, really. Those of us that have grown up in mainstream U.S. society pride ourselves in a “realistic,” “hard-nosed,”  “down to earth” attitude. You can’t build a continent spanning railroad by reading tarot cards nor can you decide which mountain pass to cross by reading tea leaves. But this attitude has two downsides, both of which are present in a conversation I recently had with another Western Buddhist. I’ve edited our conversation to make it easier to read and to remove names. Emphasis is mine:

Them: [1] I for one can’t accept anything that is based on mystic beliefs…the Buddha said not to believe anybody, including himself, and to be a light onto yourself. If I can’t verify an experience for myself it really holds no value to me. My religion is Kindness and my faith is forgiveness…

Me: Do you think the experience of Nirvana is a mystical experience? It is an experience outside time and space. It is an experience is completely outside the normal experiences of the six senses. Is that mystical?

Them: [1] I don’t believe in Nirvana or Enlightenment as my goal in practice. I believe in chipping away delusion and developing compassion and forgiveness. [2] Maybe I go against the stream of the traditional Buddhists, but I like to see myself as an American Buddhist.

First, many mainstream Westerners hold onto a rigid view that the current orthodox views of science offers a complete picture of the world and of the human experience. I don’t think this is true. My first two academic degrees were in Mathematics and Physics and one of the best parts of my scientific training was that I learned the strengths and limitations of the scientific method. I don’t believe science explains everything. Perhaps someday science will advance to the stage where it can explain and predict the aspects of our lives that currently are considered spiritual, but it isn’t there yet.

The second issue is more subtle and, I hate to say it, something I missed. When I showed this paper to a friend of mine who has studied Orientalism, the first thing she said was that the statement “Maybe I go against the stream of the traditional Buddhists [e.g., Asian], but I like to see myself as an American Buddhist” was on the edge of being racist and at the very least showed a dismissive attitude towards Asian culture. I have to agree. At some level (probably unconscious) a belief in the superiority of mainstream Western culture helped form that statement. “Americans are too advanced to believe in the nonsense of mysticism, unlike the Asian practitioners.”  I realize it is impossible to know the intent of the speaker. I doubt this person meant harm, but from my multicultural studies here at the University of the West, and from my training in Buddhist Chaplaincy, I have learned this doesn’t matter. If we want to follow the Buddha’s ethics of non-harming we must be extremely mindful of the often unexamined biases we have about our own cultural superiority.

We also need to remember a very powerful philosophy, something mainstream Westerners call pragmatism (e.g., William James). “If it works, use it.” Westerners, of course, don’t own this concept. Before humanity discovered germs, we found that pouring alcohol into a wound reduced the number of people who died, so we kept pouring alcohol into wounds. Humanity found (using primitive statistics) that keeping sewage away from wells kept people from getting sick, so we kept sewage away from wells even though we didn’t know why this worked. If it worked, humanity used it, though often we didn’t have a scientific explanation.

The same holds true for the practice of Buddhism. If, as Dr. Grzegorz Polak says in his book, “Reexamining the Jhānas: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology”

It seems very possible that if one started reading the suttas without any previous knowledge on Buddhism, he would see the jhānas as the most important element of the Buddhist doctrine.

Then perhaps we should find someone who uses the jhānas and ask them how this practice helps them on the path. If we know people we trust who we believe have experienced Nibbāna, then maybe we should open our minds to the possibility that we can awaken, either partially or fully and do so in this very lifetime.

Because I believe so strongly that awakening is possible in this very life, when a respected teacher such as Stephen Batchelor says this, I’m deeply saddened:

I am a secular Buddhist. It has taken me years to fully “come out,” and I still feel a nagging tug of insecurity, a faint aura of betrayal in declaring myself in these terms. As a secular Buddhist my practice is concerned with responding as sincerely and urgently as possible to the suffering of life in this world, in this century (our saeculum) where we find ourselves now and future generations will find themselves later. Rather than attaining nirvana, I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the eightfold path here on earth. – Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2012, emphasis mine.

Because of firmly held cultural views about what types of human experience are acceptable (and because of the mistaken belief that striving for Nibbāna is incompatible with Engaged Buddhism and the path of the bodhisatta), Secular Buddhists such as Mr. Batchelor downplay Nibbāna. Since Batchelor is a widely respected teacher there will be those who will follow his teachings and believe they represent the total possibility of Buddhist practice. When I started practicing, one of the aspects of Western Buddhism that so excited me was the teaching that lay people as well as monks could awaken. This is not a teaching that has existed throughout the history of Buddhism. Using Theravāda Buddhism as an example, there appears to be a period in time, which lasted as long as perhaps a thousand years, when many Theravāda practitioners believed the world was so corrupt that no one, lay or monastic could awaken. For most of Buddhist history lay people were expected to work toward a better rebirth by collecting merit. It was not expected that they could or should try to awaken. It was the people of Burma, oppressed by colonialism, who realized that Theravāda Buddhism was dying in their country and something needed to change. They started teaching that people could awake, yes, even lay people. And thus begin the revival of Buddhist meditation and the revival of the belief in Nibbāna within the Theravāda tradition, a revival that arose independently in many other Buddhist traditions during that same era. It is my deepest hope that Convert Western Buddhism will not throw away the great gift given to us by those who practiced Buddhism before it came to the West, the gift of Nibbāna in this very life.

My thanks to my reviewers for their help improving this post. All opinions expressed and mistakes made in this post are my own.

On 4/19/13 I edited the post slightly to clarify a couple of points.

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Religious Rootlessness

‘Sand Drifting Trees’ by (r)DS via Flickr.com

I’ve been dreading having to write this post since it was first assigned at the start of the semester. Despite efforts to convince myself that it’s just a blog post and there are way scarier things in life, it still felt like an insurmountable task. Why?  Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that I’m a Jamaican-born Canadian of Chinese ethnicity, who was raised Catholic and is not currently practicing a religion.  What could I possibly have to say about Buddhism in the U.S?

Furthermore, my interest in studying Buddhism has been mainly to gain an intellectual understanding of the teachings and practices for how to live and to inform my work as a future mental health practitioner.  That, in a nutshell, is what drew me to the University of the West and to this class.  Truth be told, I feel like a bit of an imposter in the company of people who seem to know much more about about this topic, many with direct experience as practicing Buddhists and/or Buddhist scholars.  At times I’ve had to remind myself that I’m here to learn and should expect to feel challenged and even a little intimidated.  What I didn’t expect, was to be thrown into a deeply personal exploration of my own religious/spiritual identity.

It started with a class discussion on Buddhism coming to the West by way of migrant workers from Asia.  The topic of ancestor worship came up and it got me thinking about how little I actually knew of my ancestors.  All I can say for sure is that they were Hakka Chinese and left China to settle in Jamaica over three generations ago, where they opened and ran businesses selling everything from hardware supplies to groceries.  But I knew nothing about how they lived, their customs, religious beliefs or practices.  As I contemplated this, I became aware of a longing to know, connect with, and honor them.  The only problem was, I didn’t know how.

It became clear to me then that the religion I had grown up with was not the same religion that was practiced by my ancestors back in China.  What was that religion?  I wondered.  How was it practiced?  What were their beliefs?  Did they have rituals?

With these and other questions swimming around in my head, I called my parents on the break, hoping they’d be able to shed some light on the big dark void I saw when I thought of our family history.  They weren’t able to say for sure, but believed that my ancestors in China practiced some form of Chinese folk religion.

Then came the next question, which I’m a little ashamed to say I’d never thought to ask before, “How then, did we become Catholic?”   Well as it turns out, when my grandparents were born, in order to get a birth certificate one needed to have a “recognized” religion.  I wasn’t quite sure what to think in that moment but I was saddened by the idea that the transmission of religious traditions over so many generations came to an abrupt end because of a legal requirement.

There were more questions, addressed to my father, “Did they pass on any beliefs or rituals? Do you remember anything of their practices?”  I was desperately hoping he’d say “yes”, willing to settle for whatever fragmented, faded memories he could conjure up.

He had none.

Since that day I’ve called home to Canada at least half a dozen times with even more questions, hoping with increasing desperation to make some kind of spiritual connection to the past and feeling disappointed as I came up empty each time.

An internet search into the history of Chinese people in Jamaica provided some explanation for why many of them abandoned their traditional belief systems and “took up” a form of Christianity.  Many first generation Chinese parents came from poor families and recognized the importance of education as a primary vehicle for a better life for their children.  They also realized that they stood a better chance of success if they were highly acculturated, so they were reluctant to pass on any cultural or religious practices to the next generation.  A conversion of convenience was further necessitated by the desire for children to attend English-speaking schools, the majority of which were Christian-based.

My parents, like their parents, adopted Catholic practices and did their best to pass these onto their children.  We attended mass most Sundays and my brother and I went to Catholic schools.  Sure, there were rituals.  We were baptized and received all of the sacraments one often does when growing up as a Catholic child.  My parents didn’t play a very active part in our religious upbringing and relied heavily on the school system to educate us on and instil religious practices and beliefs.

Thinking back on it now, it seemed like there was something missing.  Perhaps it was the meaning behind the religious practices that my parents were unable to provide.  In fact, I recall when I was a teenager being asked by my mother if I believed in God and Heaven and Hell and all that.  She was looking for answers from me.  Over the years as I’d searched for a religious identity, it seemed so too did my parents.  There was a time when they took a greater interest than I did in the books on Buddhism that I brought home.  Not long ago my mother expressed a desire to learn more about meditation and we visited a Tibetan meditation center together.  My father recently engaged me in a discussion about Buddhist and Christian views on evolution.  I can’t speak for them, but I hypothesize that my inability to feel connected to the religion I was raised with is due in part to spiritual rootlessness and a lack of real meaning.

For most of my life, I’ve felt free to explore and create my own religious and/or spiritual identity.  The journey seems to have brought me full circle and sparked a longing to connect with my Chinese roots.  I don’t know if I‘ll ever be able to make that spiritual connection with my past, which seems to have been lost generations ago.  For now, I continue to remind myself that I am everything that came before me and try to connect with and honor my ancestors through everything I do.

Post by Stephanie

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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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