Tag Archives: night-light 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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