James Atlas’s piece “Buddhists’ Delight” in the Opinion section of this week’s New York Times (6/17/12) doesn’t directly deal with Zen, but relates to a lot of the themes that come up in pop culture depictions of Zen in the U.S. Atlas recounts his own experiences with Buddhist meditation, discusses the larger phenomenon of American Buddhist converts, and touches on scientific studies of mindfulness meditation as well as the modern movement of Engaged Buddhism.
I was intrigued by Atlas’s citation of Dr. Paul D. Numrich’s conjecture that there might now be as many Buddhists as Muslims in the U.S. In fact, a Pew Forum survey from 2007 suggests that there might be more Buddhists than Muslims: it gives the percentage of Buddhists in the U.S. as 0.7%, and the percentage of Muslims as 0.6%. However, Atlas also notes that many of these self-identified Buddhists are what Thomas Tweed labels “nightstand Buddhists,” i.e. people who have read books about Buddhism, but who do not participate in Buddhist communities or engage in Buddhist ritual practices. This makes it more difficult to parse statistics such as those the Pew Forum reports. Even if there are (or were) more Buddhists than Muslims in the U.S., what does this mean in terms of religious communities and public religiosity? Nightstand Buddhists might also identify as members of other religious traditions, especially (in the U.S.) Christianity and Judaism, or might not see their Buddhist identity as “religious,” but rather “spiritual” or “philosophical.”
In classrooms, online, and in popular books on Buddhism, I frequently encounter this idea that Buddhism isn’t really “religious.” Some Buddhists and non-Buddhists in America and Asia reject Buddhism’s religiosity because they don’t see it as possessing the dogma, ritualism, and superhuman powers that they associate with religions. Buddhism seems more empirical, rational, or scientific than religion does. I think this underlies some of the scientific studies on Buddhist meditation that Atlas mentions in the article. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and U.C.L.A. have studied how Buddhist meditation can change the brain’s neural pathways or work as cognitive therapy. In 2011 UCLA held the symposium “Buddhism and Neuroscience: a Discussion on Attention, Mental Flexibility and Compassion” to consider similar issues.
While cognitive science theory can be a useful explanatory tool for understanding religion, these studies run the risk of reducing Buddhism to meditation and furthering the idea that Buddhism isn’t really “religious.” Many people already see Buddhist meditation, like Hindu yoga, as a kind of therapeutic exercise rather than a religious practice. These people aren’t wrong — Buddhism, like all religions, has changed significantly throughout its history, and continues to do so — but this view ignores what most Buddhists have done throughout the religion’s history, as well as the orientalist underpinnings of American Buddhism.
In the same book where he coins the term “nightstand Buddhist” (The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912) Thomas Tweed describes the introduction of Buddhism to Europe and America. 19th-century Europeans and Americans got interested in Buddhism for different reasons: some embraced its esoteric and “occult” aspects, while others saw it as conforming to the Enlightenment values of rationality and empiricism. Both ways of looking at Buddhism have continued in the U.S., and it is the latter view of Buddhism as rational or science-compatible that persists in these cognitive science experiments. The same Victorians who embraced Buddhist rationality were horrified to discover what Buddhists were actually doing in Asia, namely worshipping the Buddha and other deities, performing rituals, and in most cases not paying much attention to the doctrinal content of Buddhist scriptures. This led to a narrative of degeneration, according to which the Buddha’s eminently reasonable teachings were corrupted by later followers to varying degrees. It was up to these European and American scholars to revive “true Buddhism.” I’ve seen American Buddhist converts express dismay at the devotional Buddhism practiced in East Asia because it doesn’t look anything like the “true Buddhism” they encountered in the U.S. My point is not that American Buddhism is “inauthentic,” but that American Buddhists often ignore the history of their religion, especially the imperialist/colonialist forces that shaped it.
“Buddhists’ Delight” outlines the various reasons for Americans’ interest in Buddhism, from the “mind-body obsession” to the pressures of modern urban life, to global concerns such as the environment, human rights, and public health. As someone who studies Buddhism from an academic perspective, I’d like to see these interests extend to the historical and cultural forces that have shaped American Buddhism.