Tag Archives: convert Buddhists

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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