Oh, that Dharma, it is `emergin

…Our people are foolish, narrowminded, and petty. They cling tightly to transitory successes and delight in surface virtues. Will such a people, even if they do sit in meditation, succeed in quickly realizing the Buddha Dharma?”

“American Buddhism” is a curious creature. One of the constantly touted accomplishments of Buddhism is that it has transitioned to so many cultures, adapted authentically to suit each culture, while retaining the noble aspects of the Dharma which lead to liberation.

In most instances, pioneering monks and nuns entered new lands, learned the language and the culture, and slowly started to turn the wheel of the Dharma. Wether it is Bodhidharma journeying to China, or Mahinda traveling to Sri Lanka, these tales and treasured and worn, and ring with the resounding resonance that the Dharma is alive and vibrant in the world and expanding.

While America has these stories as well, and I do not wish to diminish them, I feel like American Buddhism, especially amongst non-Asian non-heritage Buddhists, is asked for. Converts contend with the opposing needs of wanting Buddhism just as it is, with all of its cultural trappings in order to indulge in the myth that by being from somewhere else it can solve our capitalistic post-modern ills, while at the same time wanting this mysterious distant answer to conform to a four-dollar coffee venti mocha lifestyle.

In some ways, the clearest picture of an “American Buddhism” can be seen in Japanese American Buddhist organizations like Buddhist Churches of America. Japanese Buddhism has been here for over a hundred years, and has had to change both to protect itself by protestantizing some of its outer trappings as well as changing to serve its members by being a Jodo Shinshu organization that offers meditation instruction. It has become something different though related to the Japanese Buddhism that first came to America, while retaining the liberating qualities at its heart.

The quote that opened this blog sounds like it is describing Americans, or perhaps Westerners in general: a flighty bunch short on virtue and addicted to instant gratification. But its not talking about that at all.

That is from the Shobogenzo, and it is talking about Japan about eight hundred years ago.

Here is part of Dogen’s response to the question:

“…Shakyamuni’s instructions have been spreading through the three thousand worlds for something like two thousand years. The countries within these worlds are of all kinds and are not necessarily lands of benevolence and wisdom, nor are their people necessarily always astute or intellectually brilliant! Even so, the true Dharma of the Tathtagata has always possessed a marvelous, unimaginably great, meritorious strength so that, when the time is ripe, It spreads throughout those lands.”

What is there to do? Plenty of work! We can work together, grow together, reach outward, and search inward. The American Buddhist Community needs engagement and protection. However, I do believe, and I think it is a reasonable belief, that the greatest protection that Buddhism in America has, and indeed, Buddhism in the world, is that the truth is there to be known, and we all yearn to know it.

Buddhist Americans

Ven Jian Dan giving a lecture
Ven Jian Dan giving a lecture (from Awakening Mind Zen blog)

The Pew Forum recently published a survey of American religion, and this sparked an interesting discussion in the Buddhist community. If you want to see PhDs analyze it to death and tear it apart, go visit H-Buddhism. I’m going to refrain from tossing in my opinion on the survey. I’m primarily interested in the Buddhist (blogging) community’s reaction on two points, and what this says about the community.

Many people took the survey at face value. Charles Prebish seemed keen to note some surprises. For some, this survey was proof that American Buddhism is in decline, even dying out, especially due to a lack of children. Some found particular interest in the fact that the Pew survey reported more non-Asian Buddhists than Asian Buddhists in America, and vastly more converts than heritage Buddhists.

The first reaction is one that I’ve heard a lot over the past eight years: American Buddhism is getting old. In fact, Sumi Loundon found her inspiration to compile Blue Jean Buddha based on her experience in a retreat kitchen as the lone twentysomething among a crowd of Baby Boomers. Of course, she eventually found young Buddhist voices. But the reaction on these blogs suggests that Boomer Buddhists still get together in groups where active young Buddhists are a tiny minority, if they’re even there at all.

The second reaction — more of a surprise — is nested in the notion that American Buddhism is predominantly Asian American. According to the Pew survey, it’s not. Some bloggers expressed a bit of satisfaction in this result (see here and here, but also note there is some methodological controversy.) The bloggers’ emphasis on this particular result suggests that the division between Asian and non-Asian Buddhist America is just as real as ever. For me, the force of this reaction means that many Buddhists out there still have a strong insecurity with regards to their American Buddhist identity.

These two reactions are often framed as American Buddhism’s two great challenges. How do we perpetuate our community? How do we cross the cultural divide?

I’d like to think that these questions don’t need answering. Maybe I’m overly optimistic. If John and I (your humble “dharma bloggers”) are a representative slice of Buddhist America, then we have already solved both the issues. We are active young Buddhists, of Asian and non-Asian heritage, who work together in the Buddhist community.

There are many more out there like us. But for some reason, we aren’t noticed.