1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
Barbara O'Brien

Who Are "Convert" Buddhists?

By October 18, 2012

Follow me on:

Still snarking about something I read on a new website about Buddhism in the U.S. -- the author of this post writes that convert Buddhists in the U.S., with "important exceptions" that he doesn't explain, "generally follow the outline of the structure of hegemonic American Buddhism."  Here is the blogger's description of that structure:

  • 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).

This list contains few germs of truth mixed into a lot of nonsense, I say. Let's consider one point at a time.

Point one, "they are racialized as white," I discussed in more detail in the last post, on racial diversity in American Buddhism. Certainly in the U.S. there is an unfortunate chasm between Buddhism established in ethnic Asian communities and Buddhism practiced among the mostly (but not entirely) white "converts." But, as I explained in the last post, the dynamics of this racial division are complex and changing.

I'll tie this into another point later. For now, let me go on to the second point, "they are presented as individuals in a vacuum (apart from a community or family)."

That was more true 20 and more years ago than now. What I'm seeing, within U.S. Soto Zen anyway, are at least the beginnings of communities of practitioners and a growing network of dharma "families" based partly on teacher lineage. My current teacher is a dharma great-granddaughter, so to speak, of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, for example. So even though we are in New York we feel very much part of the "family" of the San Francisco Zen Center, which Suzuki Roshi founded.

The next point is hugely problematic --"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)"

Yes, there are such people. My impression is they are mostly college-educated whites who are seeking an intellectualized version of Buddhism that won't challenge their western cultural assumptions. I associate them, possibly unfairly, with Stephen Batchelor, Tricycle magazine, and Buddhist Geeks.

I'm not saying Tricycle and the Geeks are entirely without merit, mind you. I occasionally find articles in Tricycle and at Buddhist Geeks that are quite good. But I think that much of what they're into is irrelevant to those of us committed to a more traditional dharma path. Their primary appeal is to an audience that, frankly, doesn't include me. And I am deeply disturbed that this is the group presuming to guide the development of Buddhism in the West.

If there is a chasm between Asian American Buddhists and "convert" Buddhists, there is also a significant chasm growing between converts who are dedicated to establishing the undiluted dharma in the West and "converts" who seem to be trying to turn Buddhism into the next self-improvement fad. (The Seven Habits of Spiritually Successful People? The One-Minute Buddha?) Let's call the latter crowd the "commercial" Buddhists.

And this takes us back to the first point, about the "structure of hegemonic American Buddhism." Popular Buddhist publications and Buddhist conferences such as those organized by Buddhist Geeks are criticized for being too, well, white, and for ignoring the Buddhism practiced by Asian Americans. I think that's a valid criticism.

Frankly, many of this tribe want to strip Buddhism of all Asian vestiges and turn it into something that fits comfortably into modernist western culture. That's not going to work, for a whole lot of reasons that I may address some other time. I just wish people noticed that the commercial Buddhists don't speak for all of us converts.

Associated with the "popular Buddhism" phenomenon is a common stereotype of "white" western Buddhists as flaky dilettantes whose spirituality is a mere affectation. Some of this is rooted in the impressions left by the "commercial" Buddhists, and some of it is a kind of inverted racism -- those who assume western culture is superior to Asian culture must also assume that a westerner who embraces an Asian religious tradition must be a flake. Sadly, I've noticed Asian Americans buying into this stereotype as well.

And now we come to the last bulleted item, which nearly made me fall out of my chair when I read it -- "most importantly they still maintain a pure, uninterrupted lineage (mostly through the various forms of media they consume)."

Lineage? They think they can connect to lineage by reading books? Now, that's flaky, and this is the first I've heard of such a thing. Certainly from a Zen perspective, the notion that one can engage in "lineage" entirely through reading books, without face-to-face contact with a teacher, is pure affectation. I suspect other traditions in which lineage is important feel the same way.

This is not to say there is no merit in reading the books and, for example, maintaining a solo meditation practice. I encourage anyone who is doing that now to please continue. I've been there myself in times past.

But lineage itself, in Zen, is transmitted "face-to-face," working personally with a teacher, and the process requires a lot more than reading and meditating. I have to say that the "lineage" comment was the oddest thing in the whole article.

Who are convert Buddhists? All kinds of people, I suppose. Ultimately, making a big deal out of a label is foolish. But inasmuch as people do make a big deal out of the label, and do create concepts and stereotypes to attach to the label, it's important to not allow the labels to define all of us. And you can keep your hegemonic structures, thanks much.

Comments
October 18, 2012 at 2:19 pm
(1) Alex says:

really???

[link to Kadampa center removed]

October 18, 2012 at 6:54 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

really???

Really, what?

October 18, 2012 at 6:11 pm
(3) mickeypamo says:

Maybe the idea of lineage is one way to describe our interdependence. And, Barbara, we have to admit that the disciple/Teacher encounter has had to flow and change as it melted into American culture. So, face-to-face may not be possible. Technological means of transferring teachings are surely inferior to being physically present, and being washed with the proximate energy of a Master. It is amazing how quickly circumstances are happening.

October 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

Maybe the idea of lineage is one way to describe our interdependence. And, Barbara, we have to admit that the disciple/Teacher encounter has had to flow and change as it melted into American culture. So, face-to-face may not be possible.

The issue here isn’t just the student-teacher relationship, although that’s important, but the integrity of the teachings. Without some kind of lineage tradition, the teachings would have softened into mush a long time ago.

Working face to face is not always possible on a regular basis, but I recommend at the very least an annual retreat with a real teacher. And then if you want to work with that teacher through Skype and email the rest of the time, that’s fine. And, of course, a completely solo practice can be valuable, too, but that’s a practice outside of lineage.

October 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm
(5) Phra Ajahn Bill says:

Barbara, I think your a little off base here. I’m a Theravada monk, and I find that in order to keep my “American” lay people interested in learning more about Buddhism, I have to find something that fits comfortably into modernist western culture. Maybe not “comfortably” but fit just the same. When these lay people come to my temple, they get hit with a lot of “Thai” culture stuff and they don’t have a clue what’s going on. So, I have to mix it up a little. I have to present it in a way they understand. Is that wrong? I don’t think so, the Buddha had to mix it up quite often to get his teachings across.

October 18, 2012 at 7:02 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

So, I have to mix it up a little. I have to present it in a way they understand. Is that wrong? I don’t think so, the Buddha had to mix it up quite often to get his teachings across.

That’s fine, but (a) are you doing this mixing in a way that is disrespectful of Thai teachers? and (b) do senior students appreciate and respect the Asian roots of practice? In my observation, the people “marginalizing” Asian American Buddhism are not converts working within traditions, but the unaffiliated dilettantes getting most of their dharma from books.

October 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm
(7) Alan says:
October 18, 2012 at 8:38 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Alan — that’s not the blog; what you linked is a blog post about the blog. Here is the blog.

October 19, 2012 at 3:20 pm
(9) Bruce Olsen says:

Barbara, I agree that Tricycle is commercialized Buddhism. Do you know of any journals/ magazines for those of us dedicated to establishing the undiluted dharma in the West?

Thanks.

October 20, 2012 at 12:21 pm
(10) Machig says:

I have appreciated Buddhadharma

October 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

Y’know, Tricycle used to be better. When I was cleaning out closets last spring I came upon a box of issues from the 1990s that had some really good articles in them. I started to read it again in 2008 or so and found it very uninteresting.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.